WHO WE ONCE WERE

Nothing is as it appears to be.
What is this aging? What am I to make
of these pale, brutal numbers? For a moment I’m fourteen.
from She, a poem by Jim Harrison

I recently acquired photos of my grandmother that are very dear to me. I posted one picture of her on Facebook to share with family members who live out-of-state. Her great-grandchildren were astonished by the photo. I was too.

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Suddenly, here in my hands, seven years after her death at 100, was my grandmother, resurrected as a charming, fresh-faced teen, full of life.  The juxtaposition was startling. The pictures of her in my memory are of a white-haired elderly women, full of energy, opinions, and hard-scrabble wisdom. (I wrote a poem about her later years here.) Now I’m holding her youthful visage in my hands. It is stunning to see her look straight into the camera with just a hint of a smile. It is an era of her life I never knew, nor will I ever know.

It is certainly true that our past lives — the full telling of it anyway — recedes into an irretrievable past as each day passes. Snapshots reveal an image of who we were in a single moment of time. Soon after a photo is taken we are no longer that person. We grow out of ourselves like a tree adding layers each year. Fundamentally, the photos of ourselves are strangers to us now. As you look at any photo of yourself, the person you once were has retreated both into the maw of time and into the mysterious depths of yourself. These selves are nearly all but forgotten, save these photos.

I show my children pictures and tell them stories of my past. I am selective. I tell them what I think will help them in their life. I tell them my mistakes, my adventures and travels. I tell the things I am proud and not proud to have participated in. Yet, each time I tell them a piece of my story, I am painfully conscious of the fact that I am constructing my own narrative.  I know that even if they get the high points of that story, most of that story will be lost with me when I lie down for the last time.

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So to with my grandmother. As my version of her life passes before me I can’t help but think I know only the high points of her whole life and but a smidgen of her early life. This portrait tells me that my grandmother was a beautiful young women. This is something she did not, nor would not in humility, tell us. Thus, I know nothing of how her beauty impacted her personality, how it influenced how men and women and relatives treated her, how it influenced her work life, or how it played out in courtship and her eventual choice of a husband. Neither can this portrait speak to me of how she saw the trajectory of her own life or if she ever felt cheated by circumstances or enlivened by her response to it. Looking at this photo, there is much that is hidden.

Holding this photo I begin to think that this young beauty is oblivious, as most of us are at that age, to the coming ravages of time. The Great Depression an event that would indelibly put its harsh stamp on her is but a few years down the road. So too is an alcoholic husband, a miscarriage, a divorce,  the death of four siblings, the death of a two husbands, and a long widowhood in a deteriorating neighborhood and home. I know that from the Great Depression on, poverty will be her constant companion. I do not know, nor will I ever know, the story of the precise moment when she would wake up to the realization that the lack of money would be with her forever.  She never told me that story.

I don’t want to suggest that her life was wholly preoccupied with the difficulty of money. Surely it was a constant and pressing concern but it never seemed to dampen her spirit. She overcame her meager circumstances with thrift. Her frugality was legendary. She stored and canned fruits and vegetables, clipped coupons, and always knew the stores with the best deals. She seemed to have a pot of soup always simmering on the stove. Her cupboards and pantry were nearly always full. She always had on hand enough food to last several months and would always give visitors food to take home.

Overall she lived a healthy and joyful life. She took pleasure in simple things: baking fresh bread, singing, birds, flowers, gardening. When I was a young boy she took me for weekly walks in various parks. She directed my attention to the beauty of the birds, the flowers, and the whisper of the lapping lake shore. In all the years I knew her, I remember her infectious laughter that often left me with side aches. She was generous with the little she had: lending food, her car, and crocheting an infinite number of hats, mittens and afghans for her children and grandchildren. She was a compassionate women: collecting and providing food and clothing to neighbors. She was an independent thinker. In her mid-thirties, before it was popular, she became a vegetarian and never touched a piece of meat again. She claimed it was the reason she lived so long. This was also the season of her life that she “found the Lord.” At the end of visits she would hug and kiss me, and tell me, “I love you and the Lord loves you too.” One of my most vivid memories of her is kneeling at her bed, hands folded before her bowed head, whispering. She prayed five times a day. I only wish I had a photo of her so kneeling. These are the memories I have of the person I remember; the person I knew best.

Over the years my grandma (whom I called Mum) told me many family stories for which I am grateful. Yet she never told me or anyone else I know the story of this fetching photo. Why she posed in that way? Who took the photo? Was it impromptu or planned? I can only guess how she felt at the moment this photo was taken or how she felt about it 30, 50, 70 years later. This saddens me. Had I seen the photo during her lifetime I would have asked her to tell me its story. I would have devoured the details of that story. Who knows, it might have put in perspective some family history or even explained some current family dynamics. Then again, maybe the telling of it would not shed light on anything but one day in her life when she was happy and young and full of promise. Either way, it would have been a good story to hear.

Do you take every opportunity to listen to stories from your elders?

Present self-knowledge is one thing but can we ever say we know who we were?

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Becoming A Metalhead

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Since my brain surgery, life has changed.

When I bend over I feel woozy. I have a noticeable scar from the top of my head to my ear. Sleeping on my right side is impossible.  I always have a slight to mild headache. Healing is slow when it comes to bone and brain.

In the mail today came a notice of another change. The contents of the letter told me what is inside my head.

Before today and prior to surgery, the mail predictably informed me of what is inside the heads of others. Its contents contained information people desired to place inside my head, not tell me precisely what was already inside of mine.

Today I received a thank you note for a gift, junk mail from an insurance agency, and the latest Poet’s & Writer’s Magazine. All these items contain ideas that other people wish to place in my head. I’m comfortable with that.

The fourth item that arrived today was different. His office sent a medical identification card. It testifies that I have a specific brand of neurosurgical implant in my brain. The note accompanying the card said it is important that I carry this card with me at all times, just as people who are allergic to penicillin or hemophiliacs do.  This card certifies that I am a metal head, which I knew, and that the metal in my head has a safe use limitation, which I did not know.

The reason given for carrying the card is that the alloys in my head can set off airport security systems. This makes the idea of travel even more fun. From now on I won’t just take off my shoes and belt, and emptying my pockets. Now I need to divulge something inside my body that I can’t change, something that is a part of me, something that keeps me alive.

Now life in the security age gets more invasive. There is a chance of walking through the body scanner, setting off an alarm and being searched for something that can’t be seen. Is full-body groping and cavity searches in my future? It is a possibility.

The card states that the titanium clips and screws holding my head together are safe to 3.0 TESLA. What the hell does that mean? Does that mean ratings above 3.0 TESLA will heat up the metal in my head and fry my brain? Or will it corrode the device holding my artery together?

Traveling with metal in my head is different from traveling without metal. Along with my passport, driver’s license I will now need to present my medical identification card. The question is, do I disclose to the TSA that the scanner may activate when I walk through it, thus arousing suspicion?

“Oh, by the way, I don’t have a bomb or anything but the metal in my head may set off your scanner’s alarm.”

Or do I wait and take a chance that their machines are calibrated correctly (below 3.0 TESLA) and I won’t set off an alarm? What if it’s not calibrated correctly, the alarm goes off and my pockets are empty? Does that mean I get cavity searched?

Not only is airport security a concern but new hospital technology is too. Most Magnetic Resonance Imaging machines function at 1.5 TESLA. Newer machines use 3.0 and some zap patients at 7.0.

Either way, traveling just got more complicated. I’m flying again in two weeks. My doctor in Seattle wants to look inside my brain again and see how my metallic implants are getting along with my brain.

Have you underwent a medical treatment that produced unforeseen results? 

WRITING IN NEW WAYS WHEN YOU CANT WRITE THE OLD WAY

When you cannot write, the next best thing is to write about why you cannot write.

I am unable to spend extended time reading or in front of my monitor because my eyes are wacky (see previous post). This post is weeks old because I have to write in fits and starts, depending on how clear my eyes are and how long they last in front of an illuminated screen.

Two months after seeing my first doctor about my eyes, I have not yet closed in on a diagnosis or a prognosis for my eyes. I will see a corneal ophthalmologist (1,500 miles distant) in Seattle on Wednesday. Perhaps I’ll know more about my eyes then. For now, there are other pressing medical issues.

My latest medical evaluation (two weeks ago in Seattle ) was at once reassuring and unnerving. There was good news and bad news. The good news was the endocrinologist said my pituitary gland was fine. The neurologist levied the bad news. “You have a 5-6 millimeter aneurysm that has a bulge, a “sister sac.” This extra bulge is cause for alarm. ” In direct and exact language Dr. Kim  concluded, “You need brain surgery.”

Sheila and I listened for thirty minutes as the doctor laid out in detail what was involved. He outlined the risks. He gave us the odds if we do nothing — likely stroke (deadly or debilitating) in my lifetime. He gave us the odds and risks of surgery. He told us recovery would take six weeks. He told us how he would make an incision from my right ear over the top of my head, pull back the scalp to reveal the skull, then make a round access hole in my skull bone with a diamond-tipped craniotome (a  glorified keyhole saw).

All during his explanation I felt an emotional surge building inside my head, throat and chest. Though the room was comfortable, my arm pits began to sweat. Drops of water trickled down the sides of my torso.The interior of my body felt like an enormous Midwestern plain with tornado clouds building. The sky was a sickening greenish-dark and the air felt heavy, almost electric. The low-level buzz of the fluorescent lights were suddenly menacing, like that of an experimental laboratory . 

Like a skilled car salesman, my surgeon went from high technical language to personal relevance. “Cranial surgery is not like other surgery in that the head is largely immobile. You will be able to walk around comfortably after a day in ICU, not like the surgeries you’ve had previously where walking is uncomfortable for weeks. “You will find that chewing will cause discomfort for a while, so you will be on a liquid diet for the time. We have to disturb the jaw muscle where we have to operate.” I found this odd, since the incision was above my ear and over the top of my head. Later, I placed my fingers on my temple and chewed and recalled that old ditty, “The jaw bone’s connected to the skull bone…”

He tried to reassure us by saying I was “a good surgical candidate.” It sounded like I was on someone’s short list for a high office. He said it was fortunate that the “site” was between sections of the brain and not deep in the brain. “We’ll move each section of the brain aside to access the aneurysm.” He will use a titanium clamp to pinch the aneurysm off “to cut off the blood supply.” At the end of his presentation he simply said, “I’ve done thousands of these. It’s what I do. I do nothing else. I can heal you.” 

Even though I believed him and even have confidence in his ability, I sat there with the storm still brewing inside. I was so addled that when I rose from my chair I felt a little dizzy. Walking down the hall I wasn’t thinking too clearly and started walking in the wrong direction, passing rooms with other surgery candidates. They all, looked like I felt, their eyes filled with bewildered anticipation.  

Though we expected some such news, we left the office of two minds. On the surface we left with the confidence that doctor wanted us to leave with. Underneath the surface both Sheila and I were a bit dazed and doing our best to keep a good face as we were driven to our restaurant in the hotel’s courtesy car. We ate at  an upscale but not outrageously expensive restaurant. It seems that most of the clientele were young upwardly mobile types just beginning their professional lives and not in the least concerned about health issues. We sat enjoying the panorama — the slick, short-cropped, vogue hair styles on both men and women, and the body accentuating fashions 20- and 30-somethings wear while on the prowl for suitable mates or even casual hook-ups.

Our waiter was a young black man recently moved from Florida and originally from the east coast. Near the end of our dinner, we had asked him how his night was going and he was taken aback. “Why do you ask?” As my tip meter was beginning to trend downward, I said, “We’re from out-of-town and we’re curious about people in Seattle.” After a few more icebreaker moments, he warmed to the idea of talking to two older white folks. Maybe he initially thought we were  food critics checking the affability of the wait staff. Maybe he thought we were a bit too personal. Whatever he thought initially, he became animated and we learned a lot about this handsome young man who was spreading his wings by traveling and working in a variety of venues. He liked the Seattle “vibe.” We did too, especially when you needed to forget for a moment that life had once again thrown you a curve ball or maybe a sinker.

A few hours later we flew home. We arrived late, our two teens were already in bed. We talked long into the night with our host guests. They had a wonderful time keeping up with all the antics of our small tribe, including our regal to rambunctious Pekingese.

*****

Update: I have written a few poems this month by composing them in my head and later sitting down  to transcribe them on paper.  They are different kind of poems but this seems to work. If anything I will come through this with a better memory and a new way of composition.

*****

When you can’t write like you used to write because of medical or time constraints, do you write anyway? Have you discovered new subject material or new ways to write as a result of writing in new ways?

ILLNESS: the ultimate writer’s block

Sometimes it is impossible to write. There are many reasons for this.

Sometimes the words just won’t come because the outside world intrudes. Say a kid that decides to parade up and down your street with a boom box on his shoulder, sharing his love for Eminem. Sometimes the words remain locked inside while you wrestle with the argument you had with your spouse that morning. Then there is the classic writer’s block when a seemingly insurmountable problem in the composition appears to vex you. Some days you are unnerved to be pleasantly distracted by the bird song and sun coming across your window sill.

All these variations of writer’s block have their solution. Mine may or may not.

The last few months I have not been able to put much down on paper. My blogs postings have stopped altogether. I’ve written drafts of only a couple of poems. Essays remain half written. The reason is I’m a sick puppy.

For months I could not fathom why I was so tired, unable to focus or concentrate. I was experiencing my usual blurry visual irritant — owing to Fuchs’ Corneal Dystroph, a rare genetic disorder. Along with this, something even more insidious was at work. I could see the screen of my computer but the experience of gazing made me uncomfortable. It was as if there were an invisible force field not letting my see with my eyes.

So now, most days reading and writing are tedious chores. A half hour at my computer or with a book would leave me exhausted. There are days I can do nothing but sleep. I just came off a 36 hour sleep marathon. Some days I sit in a chair and wonder what I will do if I lose my sight. Today was a good day, so I’m posting here notes accumulated over several days.

After seeing two doctors in my home town I know little other than I am ill and need to travel out-of-state (1,500) to see two specialist for evaluation and treatment. I will see two neurosurgeon and an endocrinologist at the University of Washington. What I do know is that I have an aneurysm the size of a dime in my right middle cranial artery and a suspicious looking pituitary gland. The pituitary gland may account for my deteriorating vision, occasional nausea and fatigue. The aneurysm is simply a ticking time bomb.

As much as I love to travel and as much as I’d like to leave the snow (yes, snow is still on the ground here, May 2), I’m not looking forward to this trip. I do not like sanitized hospital environments (though I’d much prefer them to less sanitized ones).  Still, I want this physical writer’s block to go away. This might not be possible. What might be possible may not be preferable. It may be something radically different. Most of the options are not comforting: limited vision, blindness, disability, paralysis, chronic pain.

I’m hoping and praying for health, yet know what I want may not be what will result. What I want is the vigor necessary to explore the world and love and care and share with my family. Beyond that, I want to write what needs to be written.