Sunday, October 27, 2013

Two Books and the Aftereffects of a Heart Attack

I've been reading some seriously good books lately.

(I'm tired of talking about Mike's heart attack, frankly. I hope you don't mind. I'm in the process of hovering without appearing to hover. So far, he doesn't seem to mind too much, so I must be hovering wisely. I hope so. I've been doing a certain amount of therapeutic cooking and cleaning. I'm finding that I like my new vacuum, a Shark, better than I ever imagined. The house is cleaner. Attachments for lampshades, blinds, and cobwebs are easy to use. The cat and the dog don't seem to mind the usual whine, yet that whine is just loud enough for me to stop listening, even for just a half an hour or so, for the sounds that Mike makes to prove he's still alive in the other room. It's exhausting, listening for those sounds twenty-four hours a day, simply exhausting. Thank God for my new vacuum.)

So, about my books.

I just finished listening to 'The Elegance of the Hedgehog,' by Muriel Barbery. I like when people mull over philosophical and sociological ideas within fiction. Her two main characters, a middle-aged woman and a twelve year old girl, are both deep thinkers. They come together in a very sweet and surprising way in the story. I can't tell you how it ends. I can't. I'm actually listening to it for a second time. It's that good.

The other book is 'Manhood for Amateurs,' by Michael Chabon. He's funny. He's thoughtful. His essays are linked together in some chatty way, but it's not your usual memoir that moves by using the classic arc. In this book, I learned how Chabon feels about his wife and kids without hearing too many private details about them. I'd never worry about his privacy based on what he's written. He's thinking and he writes interesting vignettes, yet it's not a comprehensive autobiographical sketch. I like that. I don't know why I like that, but I do.

I remember when I met Anne Lamott. I love reading Anne Lamott. 'Bird by Bird' and 'Operating Instructions' are two of my favorite books. Yet when she sat in front of me, pen poised to sign my book, and looked me in the face, I looked away, embarrassed that I knew so many of the sordid details of her life. I did not know these facts because she was a good friend. She was not even a friend at all, yet she had, in a metaphorical sense, stripped naked and run through my house screaming. Nothing was forbidden fodder for her books. Nothing.

So, it was a relief to find an author whose memoir was seriously thoughtful yet lacked that nakedness that Anne Lamott so easily brought to her stories. Maybe I need to read Chabon's book again too. It has been a distraction from watching Mike breathe in the middle of the night. Thank God for my Nook with its Glolight too.

Thank you for listening, jb

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Bouncing Off the Walls

How do you hold a good man back while at the same time holding him up?

Mike wants to do something. He folded clothes today, did a load of laundry, made notes about the camping trip this weekend.

His heart is damaged, but his mind is not. He's tired of thinking about it. Old friends, friends who haven't called in seven years, are calling him.

"They're only calling because they think I might be dying," he said. It's true. His friends are coming out of the woodwork. It's a good thing. I know it is, but we're both stunned by it, overwhelmed by it even.

I've been doing cooking therapy.

Gotta go!
Mike's headed to the Boy Scout meeting, just for a little while.


Thank you for listening, jb

Monday, October 21, 2013


Did you know that you can reduce your levels of stress by using these easy breathing and awareness techniques?

I've spent the last week simply remembering to breathe. Now, due to circumstances beyond my control, or partly within them, I'm going to become an expert at helping to reduce stress levels for people I love.

So, are you stressed?

Right now, close your eyes.

Wait, read this first and then close your eyes.

Think about how your breath feels in your nose, in your mouth. Then feel it in your chest. If you think about it, you can actually feel the air move into your deeper airways. Then, stretch your stomach as you breathe. I know. It works against your intuition to push out your stomach instead of sucking it in, but push it out each time you breathe in. Then, you can push it back in when you breath out, all the way out. Try to slow your breathing. Count to eight with each breath, then slow your counting.

In just fifteen breaths, you can reduce your levels of stress, expand your lung capacity, and feel calmer.

Hey, it helped keep me from rear-ending a bus as I was on my way to the emergency room. It might work for you too.

And don't forget to get a good laugh in when you can. It does the same thing.

Uh oh. I'm a little light-headed after all this breathing.

Thank you for listening, jb

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Pressing the Help Button

I had to stop to get gas today. Such mundane things still need to be done. I was pressing buttons on the kiosk to enter my zip code when I noticed a button that said 'help.'

I knew it was for disabled people, but I stood there and stared at that button. The way you have the impulse to leap from great heights, I had the urge to press repeatedly on that button. Help, help, help, help. 

Last night, I spent an hour on the phone, talking to Nick's doctor to find out if hallucinations are an acceptable side effect of prednisone and dehydration. It turns out that they are.

"Mom, I'm having hallucinations," Nick had told me.

"What are you seeing?" I had asked carefully. I don't know if he heard the alarms screaming in my head.

"I saw Seth walking toward me when he was just lying there. Earlier, I saw a red dot just floating around."

"Are you hearing anything?" 

"No. And there was a white light too."

Not the white light. Anything but the white light. So, I spent a long thirty-five minutes last night, waiting for the on-call doctor to return my call. I tried to stay focused on breathing. I imagined taking Nick to the ER, having both my guys in the same hospital, but Nick's usual hospital is different than where Mike was. Could I manage having them in different hospitals? Nick came into the kitchen once, but I tried to sound very calm, hugged him, and sent him back to bed to try to sleep. In sleep, hallucinations are just ordinary dreams, right? Then, I texted a good friend. I knew she was overwhelmed with her own problems, but I figured she'd forgive me for freaking out on her watch. She's a veterinarian. I know, I took advantage, but I figured she'd forgive me asking questions of the one friend who might know an answer. I kept trying to breathe. 

It took me a couple of hours to calm down after I got done texting with her and talking with the doctor on the phone. He was a kind doctor. He told me he'd be there all weekend if I needed him. My pharmacist hugged me today too and reminded me to breathe.

Mike. Nick. Breathing. Heartbeats. Oxygen, oxygen, oxygen. It's all about getting oxygen at our house.

I know I shouldn't be writing right now. It's 3:34 in the morning and I've spent the last hour and a half listening to Mike breathe. He can't be resting easily if I'm shining my ambient phone light on his arm to make sure it's a little pink. Last night, a nurse was assigned to watch his heart beat, to watch his breath. Cardiac care. I want one of those here, like an extravagant baby monitor, so I can go sleep on the couch, so I can cry in the parking lot at the grocery store without worrying I'll miss a big hiccup.

I can tell you that I'm not normal right now. 

Nothing in our house is normal. I remember that feeling from when I was a kid and my dad got cancer. Another surgery and no one at home became the new normal for me back then. I was twelve, about Nick's age. We pretended to celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas but did not really manage to look authentic. Nick had some of that freaky time alone while Mike was in the hospital. I told him that I was sorry that he had to grow up so fast while he was sick himself and having trouble breathing.

And having hallucinations.

Here's the other thing - I can't keep up with all the well-wishing and offers for help. I feel bad not calling people back sooner, not replying to all the Facebook notes. I can't think of things for helpful people to do. Can I really ask someone to wash the skylights over my bed so I can lie there looking at the stars at night while Mike breathes in and out next to me? I'm afraid to even open my mouth, people are so eager to help. They love Mike. Oh, I get that and I feel blessed by all this care. It comforts me to know people are praying for us.

They're praying for us. It must be really bad if they're praying for us and trying to bring us food. 

I never did press that 'help' button at the gas station. I don't know how long I stared at it. Time does strange things in an extended crisis. But even though I didn't press that button, help is all around me.

All I need to do is let it in.

Thank you for listening, jb

Friday, October 18, 2013

Keep Calm and Carry On

How can I blog heartache and despair?

I think, at first, that I shouldn't.

My husband had chest pains yesterday. My son is having trouble with his breathing and is even having hallucinations from prednisone. I've been driving back and forth between them, never feeling right about either one being alone for too long. Mike is in the hospital. Nick is home from school, to sick to come with me. An angioplasty showed that Mike had a mild heart attack, that he had some damage. His heart is big and warm and today I watched it beat on an ultrasound machine. I felt as though I were watching a baby in the womb. That was Mike's heart. It was beating a solid rhythm. It's valves fluttered in syncopation. It was beautiful and I couldn't look away.

If it was so beautiful, why isn't it perfect? Why does it have to be damaged?

I am so damn tired. Tonight, I called the doctor because Nick is having hallucinations. The on-call operator's voice got louder and faster when I told said the word. Hallucinations. Her breathing changed. I could hear it over the phone.

Gees, lady. If I am going to keep this together, you must keep it together too.

Right now, my job is like that of the British while they were being bombed during WWII. Keep calm and carry on.

While I waited for the doctor to call me back, I paced in my pajamas in my kitchen. I tried to keep breathing deep slow breaths. It's minor, just small things he's seeing in his peripheral vision. I won't have to take him to the ER, will I? Will I?


I tried to keep breathing as texted my friend, a vet, and words flew back and forth between us while she looked it up for me. My hands shook. It usually goes away, she said. It's not common, she said, but the ER probably couldn't do anything about it anyway. A therapeutic cup of tea might help, she said. A boring documentary on TV. Sleep. I kept breathing, deep slow breaths.

Breathing sort of worked as I had to drive to the ER to meet Mike without crashing yesterday. It helped a lot to have a good friend in the car, a friend who helped distract me with chatter so I didn't think too much. Breathing sort of worked when I witnessed another collision on I-90 this morning, just through my passenger side window, as we all drove 60 miles an hour down the interstate. It sort of worked when Nick told me over the phone that his breathing wasn't so good and I was forty-five minutes away, sitting with Mike on his Stryker bed. Deep, slow breaths and contact with my friends in between. Keep calm and carry on.

The doctor finally called. He was calm. He said if it didn't come with a headache or personality changes or worsening symptoms, that I should keep Nick on the prednisone, that it was good that tomorrow was a smaller dose. Breathing has improved? Yes, breathing has improved. Nick should drink more fluids, get lots of rest, and I should call back if I need anything, anything at all. This doctor said he would be on call all weekend in case I needed him. My friends have said I could call or text any time in case I need them.

So, Nick will be okay. He needs peppermint tea and sleep. And I will be okay, just knowing I can call any time I need to call. There is someone waiting on the other end of the line.

Thank you for listening, jb

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

6:54 am on the Bus

I'm on the bus again, going to jury duty for the first time. I was surprised at the line of people waiting for this bus, surprised we all fit onto it. I wished that smelly guy had taken a shower this morning. 

People watching with music in my ears is amazing. It's so full, people have to stand. Some people read. Some wear earbuds. Some just sit and stare into the inner space in front of them. We share a destination, but not a common focus. I wish I could see book titles. Outside the window is a dark abstract of lights. We could be driving straight down into hell and I'd never know the difference. 

The guy across from me wears a dark blue suit, a line green shirt and a power tie.  He's young and has just gotten his hair cut. I want to wish him luck with his interview at Amazon. He has that applied look of self-confidence that freshouts try to adopt. I wonder if he believes it. Maybe by the time he's fifty-three, like I am, he'll have fewer answers. Maybe he'll have more a sense of the chaotic glory of it all. 

I'm listening to Jason Mraz on my iPhone. I love that with the new IOS system, I can wake up to my music. I'm going to keep it running as long as I can today before my battery sags. 

 It isn't even 7:00 am. This time, as I boarded the bus, I intentionally chose to sit in the crack, the part at the front of the trailer, surrounded by pleated plastic. I like how I'm between two places, in the part that moves, looking in  either direction at an angle, even folding up a bit as we go around corners. I wonder if I will also be in awe of the space between life and death when it comes along. 

Thank you for listening, JB

Saturday, October 12, 2013

When to Use a Flare

Some days, I'm just happy to get home to the sound of cows mooing on Minecraft. I'm good now. I have a tea latte and a new book. I'll let you know how it is.

A couple hours ago, I wasn't so comfortable.

Traffic was crawling across the I-90 bridge toward Seattle. I was worried that I was running out of time to get my errands done before Nick's friend dropped by for the afternoon. I needed to pick up patches from the Scout shop, to get gas, and to stop for groceries. We were seriously low on people fuel. Speed on the road was starting to pick up and I was almost to my exit.

The car in front of me suddenly popped up, went on two wheels, dropped back down, and dragged its carcass, spitting sparks along the asphalt, before coming to a stop on the shoulder just inside the tunnel. I needed to hit the brakes, but it wasn't a hard stop. Shards of hard plastic, bolts, and a section of bumper bounced to a stop around me.

I drove past the maimed car, wondering if shrapnel would puncture my tires. The front driver's side corner of the broken car was smashed flat. I hadn't seen what made it flat. How had I missed that? I pulled over ahead of the car. Another car sat askew beyond me in the center lane.

Should I get out of my car on an interstate? Could I get hit by oncoming traffic? Damn straight, I could. I'd seen videos.

Actually, things had slowed to a crawl. I looked back to check traffic and gingerly got out of my car. Grit and cold wind hit my face. I walked back to the flattened car. A woman sat, stunned, in the driver's seat, her air bag still deflating.

"Are you okay?" I asked. She didn't answer me, but opened her door. Smoke was coming out from under the dashboard.

"Can you stand up? I asked. She held her hands up to me and nodded her head. She grabbed my arms, making me stagger, as she stood up. I wondered if I were making a huge mistake. She could have a neck or back injury. Should she stay put?

The smoke wafted up around her as she pulled herself out of her car.

"We need to move away from your car," I said. "It's smoking."

We walked a few steps, then she burst into tears. I hugged her as she cried, but didn't squeeze her too tightly in case I was hugging a woman with a spinal cord injury. I drew her away from her car and leaned her against a concrete barrier.

"Did you call 911?" I asked her.

"I want to call my husband," she said. Her hands were shaking too much for her to use her phone. I knew it wasn't essential to our safety, but it was what she wanted to do. I took out my phone and asked for her number. I typed in the number she gave me and when voicemail answered, I left the beginning of a message.

"Hi. I'm with your wife. She's okay, but she was in an accident. I think she needs to get checked out at the hospital, but I think she's mostly okay."

Then I handed the phone to her.

"Honey, I'm okay," she said and burst into tears again. I patted her shoulder as she talked, turning, as the driver of the other car walked back to join us. He was talking, not yelling. Thankfully, everyone was in the mode of checking if people were okay rather than hurling blame. The man was Asian and in the tunnel's wind, I couldn't understand him. I walked away from the woman who was still talking and crying on my phone.

"Did you call 911?" I asked him.

"Yes," he said, but when he went on talking, I couldn't understand what he was saying. I nodded and smiled. I even patted his shoulder. A woman and a child joined him. The little girl, maybe five or six years old, was shivering, her eyes wide.

"You should move your car off to the side if you can," I told the man. He nodded his head, but I realize he didn't understand a thing I was saying either. He walked away, crossed traffic, and got back into his car. But then he came back and the car was still in place, in the middle lane. He had a tiny pink flowered raincoat in his hands.

I went to my car to get my flares out. The little black box held three intact flares. I read the instructions to try to figure out how to light one. I handed one to the Asian man. He took it and handed the rain coat to the woman. He had no more luck than I did. Traffic was speeding up around us. I wanted it slowed. In between fumbling with the stupid flares, banging, scraping, and rereading the instructions, I held out my flat palm to signal the drivers, hoping they'd slow down. They didn't.

What good are flares if I don't know how to use them?

The man handed me the useless flare and helped his wife put the raincoat on the little girl. He pulled up the hood. I could imagine how that felt, still cold in this wind. Her dad picked her up, trying to shield her.

I walked back to my car and got a wool blanket out of the back. I wrapped the little girl in it and he smiled at me, tucking in the corner around her shoulder. She folded her head against his chest.

"Is she okay?" I asked.

"She's scared," he said. Finally, I understood.

The woman walked back to me and gave me my phone. Her hands were ice cold and still shaking.

"Do you feel okay?" I asked her.

"My chest hurts. The airbag hit me here," she said as she tapped her sternum. She looked wobbly. I went back to my car and got Teddy's fleece blanket out of the back. It was furry, embarrassingly so, but I shook it out as best as I could and wrapped it around the woman. I wondered if I should I have her lie down, but I knew she wouldn't stay there. She paced a little and burst into tears again. I hugged her and patted her shoulder.

"It's going to be okay. Did you call 911? I asked.

The Asian man waved toward the traffic behind us. Red lights flashed in the distance, near Mercer Island.

"They're coming," he said.  I could understand that. We made a strange tableau as we stood in the wind, looking for the lights to arrive.

It was a DOT tow truck.

"I'm going to go call 911," I said. "I'm not sure if anyone called."

I walked past the broken, smoldering car out of the tunnel where it wasn't as noisy. For half the conversation, I could talk into the phone, but heard only a little of what the dispatch woman said. She couldn't figure out where we were. Finally, I heard her say clearly, "If you sit in your car, I might be able to hear you."

I walked to my car, got in, and tried to explain that we were on I-90 going toward Seattle just before the Rainier Avenue exit.

"Northbound or southbound?"

"We're on I-90," I said.

"Which tunnel?" she said.

"I don't know. We're heading toward Seattle between Mercer Island and Rainier Avenue," I repeated. I finally got down to the woman's symptoms.

"She says her chest hurts. Her airbag deployed."

"How old is she?"

"I don't know, maybe forty," I said, wondering what that had to do with airbags.

"Make sure you keep her still," she said. I wanted to tell her that the woman was wandering around the accident site while I talked on the phone, but I didn't. I was still stunned by the question about going northbound on I-90.

Finally, a fire truck and an ambulance arrived. I could let these people take over. An EMT took the injured woman into the aid car. I ended up describing what I could of the accident that I didn't really see to a police officer. How is it that these guys are always good looking? Then, I got into my car, crunched debris as I drove across the closed lane, and drove off when the officer halted traffic in a lane for my exit.

My hands felt shaky on the wheel. I took the Rainier exit, knowing I had no time left before Nick's friends arrived to make any stops. It was just as well. I turned back onto I-90 going the opposite direction as two ambulances raced past me. When I exited the tunnel, there were two fire trucks and two ambulances at the scene, two more ambulances weaving through backed up traffic on the accident side, and the two ambulances traveling wildly down my side of the interstate with no hope of getting to the scene.

So, basically, I got into my car this morning to get almost to Seattle so I could help these people after their accident, then had just enough time to turn around and come home. Did you ever get the feeling that you're intended to do something entirely different than you had planned?

On the way home, I left a message for Mike, called Nick at home, and then called Nick's friend's dad. I told all of them what had happened and that I was going to be home, but not quite prepared for our event. Snacks would have to be scrounged. It was a relief to be able to tell Nick the details. He got really interested when I tried to describe the flares and told me the woman was probably in shock and that I should have gotten her to lie down on the blanket and given her my jacket. I don't think he knows how hard it is to lie down when you're pumped up with adrenaline, especially around strangers and by the side of the road. Still, hearing his voice calmed me down.

When I got off I-90, I felt some relief and there was more, much more, when I drove into my driveway and stopped the car safely.

I'm going to have to get Mike to show me how to use a stupid flare.

Thank you for listening, jb

P.S. My Dove candy fortune just told me: 'You are exactly where you are supposed to be.' Funny message, huh?

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Riding the Bus

I'm sitting in the crack on the bus, going to Seattle. You know what I mean, that place between the butt of the main part of the bus and the nose of the tag-along section. I didn't notice when I sat down. It's extra bumpy and I'm a little bit sick, though the loud music on my iPod seems to be helping, or making the trip a little more surreal. I'm not sure which.

If we're in an accident, I'll be trapped in twisted accordion plastic and my backpack will fall through to the asphalt. 

I'm practicing using the bus because next week, when it's 6:30 am and I need to be there at 7:45 am, I want to know what I'm doing. I am not quite a city person. When I lived near New York City, I got into the habit of driving in instead of using the subway or the train. I was addicted to my car. The aggressive driving didn't bother me, but parking was a bitch. So this is my indoctrination to riding a city bus. 

Most people wouldn't have this luxury, the time to get on the bus in a day when they have all day to figure out what they did wrong. Most people would struggle with it at 6:20 am on the day of jury duty. 

People on this bus look bored. I think it's fun. I haven't ridden the bus much. Before I had my driver's license, I used to walk a half mile to the highway and catch a bus to town there. Then I could walk all over before I went home. That was a simple small-town bus. This is city life. 

I smiled at the small Asian woman across from me in the crack. She's using a cane and I wondered how she managed. She looked away quickly and grabbed ahold of her backpack more tightly. 

This is a study in people not making eye contact. The lake is fogged in and we're in the netherworld. The guy across from me is alive, talking into his earbuds and making fleeting eye contact. I wonder if I look crazy. I'm in my usual uniform, blue jeans, tshirt, fleece vest, hoodie, bright red rain coat that can be seen from space, and my hiking boots. I carry my backpack. Most of these people wear jeans, sneakers, Goretex, and backpacks. I guess I look okay. 

We're in Seattle. That was quick! Before she got off at the International District, the small Asian woman looked up and gave me a quick smile. 

Now, I just have to get off at the right stop. Should be easy, but .....

My mappy thing on my iPhone doesn't work down here in the tunnels. Crap! And the eye contact thing stops me from asking a friendly question.   At least the recorded messages say things like "Seattle Public Library, Seattle Art Museum ."

When I got to street level, I knew not to stand there looking disoriented. A lady with a grocery cart started walking toward me and I moved more quickly and made a U-turn. It was the right direction. For a minute, I put my back against the foyer window of a MacDonalds while my iPhone told me where I was and calculated the destination to the courthouse, walking. Life is so much easier having the mappy thing on my iPhone. 

No problem. Five minutes later, I was at the security checkpoint at the courthouse where the nice but bemused security guy told me I couldn't bring liquids into the building. I wonder if they'll let me have my three ounces on Tuesday? 

So now, I'm at my true destination - Starbucks. 

I might wander around and look for a bookstore, but that might be futile and old fashioned. 

I'll let you know if I have trouble getting home. 

Thank you for listening, jb

Monday, October 7, 2013

Shut Down

Don't mind me.

I've decided to have a shutdown too. How's that working?

Thank you for listening, jb