While trapped at the garage

You have probably been through this yourself. While waiting on your car to be examined, then fixed, a fair number of entertaining things can happen.

‘Twas the second day of Christmas and I went out to start my car this morning, to meet a friend for lunch. Nothing doing. Battery seemed dead. Called the friend, and Michael took me to her house.

After lunch, Michael jumped off the battery and we went to a garage about 10 minutes from home. Being the day after Christmas, they were busy and short-staffed. So I called Michael to say I didn’t want to spend my afternoon in the waiting area.

A man waiting on his car took the opportunity to yammer on about his own woes: why isn’t the mail running today? And why isn’t the trash being picked up? After awhile I said this was Christmas to people like mail carriers who always get Sundays off anyway. Didn’t stop him from complaining, though. (And, by the way, he failed to see the hypocrisy when he let it be known he’s on an academic schedule so he won’t go back to work till January something. Dude, could ya give these people the pleasure of one day off?)

Thank God Michael wasn’t far away.

When I returned to the shop, I and another man were subjected to sit near the loud TV. Today Dr. Oz was helping his all-female audience with diet and fitness tips. The women wore shorts or pants and athletic bras only. You couldn’t pay me a million bucks to do that; so hat’s off to them for their bravery.

Following the more safe tips on measuring one’s waist and eating more fiber, Dr. Oz moved on to the subject of fibrous ovarian rumors. He had an audience member put on a latex glove and feel of two types. She picked up the first one and dropped it on the table. It sounded lIke a rock.

Then, what came next made me realize, yet again, why I don’t like TV much these days. He conducted a pelvic exam. On television. With people watching.

Y’all!

The south end of said exam wasn’t shown, thankfully, but the woman’s innards were projected onto a screen.

Yes, this is education. Yes, Dr. Oz is very learned and popular. I myself have learned a few things from him, as recently as today. Yet something bothers me about this … Show of exhibitionism. It’s so TMI.

Meanwhile the desk clerks at the garage were going about their work as if a pelvic exam on live TV were as normal as a sitcom.

New battery for your car, or a Gyno exam?

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Horrors! Pie pans in the tree!

When I was in high school, lo, these many years ago, my mother had the bright idea to decorate one of our trees at Christmas with tin pie pans. Mind you, this was an outdoor tree and every car on our busy street would pass this … decoration.

I was horrified. It was so Truman Capote.

Momma had a friend who lived fairly close by–on a street even more busy than ours–who also hung pie pans in her front yard. I’m sure this was the source of her inspiration.

The same year my mother decorated the tree, she and my dad and brother went out of town for a week. My grandmother stayed with me. One day I thought I could do away with my embarrassment of “country come to town” by taking down the pie pans. Of course she noticed right away when they returned home and they promptly went back up.

I was thinking of this Christmas memory lately as some friends baked fruitcakes in their home; and that reminded me of Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory.” When he was a boy, he and his aunts decorated similarly and they danced in the kitchen with a dog and Truman ran outside in a field with a relative, falling to the ground while holding a kite string. “As for me,” he says, “I could die with today in my eyes.”

For baking, he and one of the women slipped to the door of an Indian man’s home to buy whiskey. They called him Mr. Ha Ha.

I came to appreciate and even love this movie. My mother and I often watch it together. I love its simplicity. I think, especially this time of year, how nice it would be to give and receive simple gifts of food, and maybe a pair of socks. And to fly a kite in a field on Christmas Day.

It also makes me nostalgic for that pie-pan tree, once a source of teen-age embarrassment. I wish my mother had it still, so you could see the homemade light it created, the aluminum plates winking in the sun.

In Thanksgiving

The phone rang at 6 a.m. a year ago today. Waking me from a deep stupor, my mother said my dad had been taken to the hospital. He’d been having some intestinal problems that, apparently, had worsened.

I got dressed, quickly told Michael what was going on, then raced to the St. Francis ER, where I found my father in a cold sweat writhing in pain. They had been there for several hours already.

Finally, around 8 o’clock, he was prepped for surgery. We met the surgeon, Dr. Andy Rodenberry. A cool coincidence is that his late grandfather, also a surgeon, was a friend of my dad’s. Andy told us in no uncertain terms that the situation was quite dire and that he might not come out. Up till then, I knew it was serious but that hit me like a board. I simply nodded in shock and we went out to wait. The long wait.

Michael had come up by then, and our friend Michael, as well as Doug and Kaye, and Bebe and Alice. My chaplain friend Lora was on call that day, dealing with another crisis, and she stopped by to offer sympathy. I realize these names don’t mean anything to some of you, but I name them because these friends and family surrounded us with love in a very tender time.

Thankfully, several hours later, Daddy came through the surgery. The cause of his great discomfort was a mass that had developed from diverticulitis. In effect, his colon exploded. So Andy removed most of it.

He was taken to CCU, where he was placed on a ventilator. Machines–more than I could imagine and more than I could understand–kept him alive. I do know that many bags of antibiotics were given to him, to keep the infection from killing him.

I vividly remember the nurses and doctors who cared for him in those vulnerable hours and days. Among them: Dr. Carr and Eric. Daddy needed to be on the vent for eight days. At some point, mom and I switched off reading to him. She brought one of his favorite books, “Dewey,” which is about a cat who hung out in a library in Iowa.

His pastor Chuck came up a few times and one time brought James. He works as a sexton at the church and, though he’s black, he and Daddy call each other Cuz. James, like Daddy, is from West Virginia, so they think they’re related. James prayed over Daddy in CCU and let me just say, we staid Episcopalians don’t have anything on this kind of prayer. James begged God to make his Cuz well.

The night of Christmas Day, it snowed. It very seldom snows here, but I remember how pretty it shined off the lights outside his room as I read to him from the book. “Daddy, it’s snowing!” What a gift that was.

By that time, seven days into his ordeal, he’d begun to stir a bit and by the next day he was off the vent. That was another major milestone. Then he went to a regular room for about a week and to a regional hospital across the river for about two weeks.

I have a photo of him standing beside his truck, leaning on a walker, when he came home. That was last January. I wish you could see the smile.

He lost about 35 pounds. Hell of a way to diet.

My mother, meanwhile, had to learn the finer points of changing a colostomy bag. They went to support groups. He endured many accidents. No matter how securely they fixed the tape, it didn’t always work. Then, this past August, nine months after his first surgery, Dr. Rodenberry went in and reconnected everything. It, too, was successful.

I saw Andy and his family out at a restaurant sometime last year and I yelled across the line: There’s the guy who saved my dad’s life! He was embarrassed but without him we might not be here.

Our Christmas dinner will be more joyous this year. Daddy will be at the table, offering his corny jokes and being his old self again, minus his lower intestine.

I hope it snows.

Here We Go Round in Circles

The classic Billy Preston song came to mind as I read a piece recently called “Grief Without Stages” by Thomas Long.

Long asserts, and I agree, that grief comes as it will–and not in the neat and tidy stages set forth by the great thinker Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. Grief without stages reminds me not only of this song but also of times when you’re in the warm ocean and a burst of cool cascades around you. It seems to me there’s not much linear about it.

To be fair, Kubler-Ross offered a solid guide, a way of mapping intense feelings that seem to have no rhyme or reason. Her five stages: shock, denial, anger, bargaining and acceptance. She became a media darling after the publication of her book, “On Death and Dying.”

Long, a Christian, writes from that perspective. ” … The larger notion that grief moves through some kind of process toward resolution probably owes more a debt to American optimism than to Christian hope.”

A few years ago, in a protracted and somewhat ugly struggle with a friend, culminating with the end of the friendship, I hit upon this realization: There are some relationships that simply can’t be fixed or saved. (At the same time I place a high value on relationships and reconciliation, it’s often my own grasping need to keep every friendship I’ve ever had.)

Which brought me to at least three of the stages–all at once! Here we go round, indeed.

Killing me softly

“Every day I see something that more or less kills me with delight,” says the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Mary Oliver. Oh if that were true of me, and all of us. Oliver seeks “to instruct myself over and over in joy and acclamation.” What is bringing you joy?

For me, it’s a store entrance packed with sweet-smelling flowers. A smiling clerk facing a long line of customers. The sound of rustling leaves from a frantic squirrel. A smile from a dear friend at lunch yesterday.

Too many things, it seems to me, compete for this joy. Bulldozers. Irate customers. Congress.

Meanwhile my faith tradition is midway through Advent, the forerunner to Christmas. It’s a challenge, to say the least, to discipline myself in Advent amid a culture that starts pushing Christmas in November, if not before. Advent would have me stop and be alert in expectancy. A holy task, to be sure.

There seems a certain vulnerability in waiting, which I both fight and welcome.  I don’t know what the future holds. I am both afraid and ready for the adventure. But then again none of us knows the future, despite the claims of the prognosticators.

May I be killed in delight, in the meantime.

The Room

If you’re like us, you have The Room. The Room is where all The Junk ends up. In our case, it contains some important papers but mostly useless crap we’ve collected through the years. At the outset of this little sabbatical, I had the goal to tackle The Room. Yesterday turned out to be the day.

Armed with about five large garbage bags, I went in. Think Carrie Fisher in the Blues Brothers, standing at the end of the underground sewer armed with a bazooka.

Among other items, The Room contains two litter pans and a bicycle. So it’s not easy to maneuver around. Not to mentIon it can be odiferous. Some of the found items: photos from two decades back and more; a wrench; a pack of screws; and a motorcycle ornament–because you never know when you’ll need one of those.

Part of my motivation in tackling The Room was to find a computer disk that would hopefully fix our laptop. (who says Macs don’t get viruses?) I found a Mac disk, indeed, but am still unsure if it’s the right one.

Come tomorrow, our trash pickup day, our trash pickers will have a field day. On the inside of the house, however, it feels good to purge.

Of the open road

“You road I enter upon and look around! I believe you are not all that is here; I believe that much unseen is also here.”
–Walt Whitman, Song of an Open Road

A few weeks ago, I chanced upon a story about one Jennifer Pharr Davis of North Carolina, who hiked the entire Appalachian Trail in 46 days. She broke the previous record of 47 days. (If completing it in one season, most people allow between four and six months.) She, like the earlier record-holder, had support. Neither did it in the usual way: backpacking during the day and camping at night. In Davis’ case, her husband Brew met her several times daily with food and other provisions. At night they either camped or stayed in places in town.

Other friends and family came along for support as well.

An amazing feat. At her pace, she averaged more than 45 miles a day, much of it into the night and early-morning hours. The trail measures more than 2,100 miles, stretching from Georgia to Maine. (Davis walked it north to south.)

Other than a spirit of competition, what is it that makes someone not only consider such a trek, but what is in the person’s core that allows her to push through such challenge and pain?

It’s mostly mental, they say. You can have the best material goods at hand and still drop out. And in my mind, I think it’s more than that. The drive to complete such a daunting task has to come from deep within, from the places unseen that ol’ Walt wrote about.

Davis was familiar enough with the A.T., having hiked it twice, in 2005 and 2008. (Her book, “Becoming Odyssa,” details her first hike which was more traditional than this year’s supported hike. She was 21 then, and just fresh out of college.)

Either method, of six weeks or six months, takes perseverance. Yet to storm through it basically in six weeks’ time offers a lesson in uber-mettle, coming from a place In the deep.