I was talking to a nurse friend today….really just using her as a sounding board for some of the mysteries surrounding Vernon’s medical journey. Its been so easy lately for to look back and wonder where things went wrong. What if he’d been placed on another coma-medication instead of the one that damaged his kidneys? What if the first nursing home he’d gone to hadn’t been so lazy in their approach to physical therapy? What if we’d had better insurance? What if he hadn’t been put on so much crazy-making Ativan? What if? What if? But then…what if he hadn’t been wearing a helmet? What if he hadn’t survived the night of the crash? I don’t have anything at all to offer those kinds of questions. It feels like a helpful exercise to dig back through some of this history, but what am I looking for really? Something to blame? Even if I found something, what are the chances I’ll be in this exact situation again…and what good would that secret knowledge do me? Even if I want to help another person, what are the chances this person will be in exactly the same situation with a brain injured in exactly the same place? Sometimes they are worse injuries, sometimes they are less, but that will clear before my inconsequential advice is asked of.
My nurse friend, who has seen quite a lot in her ICU job, suggested to me that one of the main reasons that Vernon didn’t get better, beyond all of the different variables of his journey, was because he was older. He was only 47 when he was injured, but she thought it was likely that had he been twenty years younger, his kidneys might not have been attacked in the same way. His body was older. I had never thought about that, since I’ve heard of younger people with brain stem injuries who didn’t make it past a week. “That’s the brain stem,” she told me. “That’s different. In my experience, from what I’ve seen, the body swings back a lot easier under 30.”
Now this isn’t to say that another man injured in the same way at the same age or older can’t recover. But it had never struck me till today to consider his age in my list of “what ifs.” I’d been looking for faults in the system, little hidden pathways that might have changed the outcome. But to think of his age as a major variable in the puzzle never occurred to me. In the care homes we’d been in, he’d been a spring chicken. Everyone was shocked to see him living among the elderly and commented on his youth. But perhaps they were commenting on the unfairness of his being there, of seeing his young children and wife around him, when most of the visiting families were in their 60s-70s and the patients were their parents. I’d come to think of him as “too young”…but perhaps for his particular set of traumas, he was actually ‘too old.”
Again, I can’t know the answers. But this shock of an idea does make me feel like perhaps I don’t need to look for more medical answers. I could, just as a trivial pursuit, if not useful knowledge. But this new idea blows the importance of the others away for the time being. He was too old to survive that kind of injury. Perhaps he did survive longer than expected. It was just that at the time, my expectations were so high.
In looking for a quote to add to this post, I came across this one. It stood out to me only because the meme is in Vernon’s free Amatic font. And by now you know how I feel about his font messages. I read them no matter what. 🙂
But this is not meant to give anyone else answers…or more questions, for that matter. People live healthy, vibrant lives into their 100s sometimes. And babies die too. Age really does have nothing to do with how you live your life. But the thing is, when you lose a loved one, you don’t necessarily have answers. No matter how we obsess over them. As Vernon used to say: “Most often the questions are more important than the answers.” Not having answers is a way of life…maybe THE way of life. But it’s still ok to wonder.
Hi everyone! My apologies for the mixup in blog posts this morning. I had been going through some old ones that I’d earlier marked as “private” or perhaps they were just meant to be ‘drafts’, and I accidentally published them again for all to see. Unfortunately, some of them are from darker days when I was feeling a lot of anger. So if you got them, and you are confused about the dates or even my state of mind (or even if the link took you to a “missing’ page) I’m sorry about that. The truth is, its been confusing for me to go through some of these old posts too. So many things I would have forgotten about otherwise, had I not recorded my feelings and thoughts at the time. Thank you, dear readers, for bearing with me as I continue to hash through the strange landscape of memory and loss as I gather my bearings of hope in the future.
I have been thinking a lot about this time last summer. This week, we hit the 11 month mark since Vernon died, so we are coming up to the time of year when things started escalating rapidly. There was all that business with the swollen wrist, then arm, then surgery, then the fresh hope of changing doctors and dialysis centers…all spiraling quickly into sepsis, and then palliative care and hospice. There was hardly time, I realize now, to process the rapid changes at all. But as much as I miss his being present with us on this planet (I admit I even miss the loving work of squeezing out as much of his personality as we could recognize while we were with him) and at times, I resent him for unintentionally leaving us father-less and mate-less, I also have to recognize that life is easier now: we don’t have to look at him in such awful pain, we don’t have to feel so helpless toward his recovery, we don’t have to ride the rollercoaster of hope and discomfort. Its a strange thing to admit, but I think the relief is becoming somewhat stronger this summer as I remember those terrible end days. My therapist says this is a good thing, a healthy thing. He didn’t have to tell me this for me to know that is true. With it comes a sensation of dropping gently back to earth.
Here are some excerpts from a post written this time last year that I just re-read called Being Present.
Its been a wild ride with Vernon the past couple of weeks. Dialysis at the new center is going well, though there have been times we need to cut his time short because of his outbursts and impatience. I believe he is off his painkillers now, for the most part, and has been sleeping better at night, according to Joe. His his arm, though still somewhat swollen and deformed, seems to be settling down a little more.
His behavior and awareness still can change by the day. Last week, for the first time, he insisted I look for/order a ticket to England for a day’s visit (he thought we were presently in Japan.) He insisted he could go all by himself. Yesterday, he wanted to fly to America FROM England—this is a more typical argument from him.
In my own life, I’ve been struggling with discontent. Although some people say I “deserve” to have those feelings once in awhile, I don’t like them. They can be other people’s behaviors and attitudes that frustrate me, as well as the injustice of certain situations. I won’t go into detail about all of that, but I’ll admit my guilt in harboring resentment. I’m at a point where I realize I have to deal with some of this and find new approaches to ‘letting go’ for the sake of my own sanity and peace, now and in the future.
I mention this here because I brought a book to read aloud to Vernon this week that I thought also might help me work through some of my issues. Vernon seems to follow abstract thought better than a storyline sometimes, so I figured it was worth a shot. The words seemed to relax him…and I could feel it working on my own mind as well.
Yesterday, I brought the book again, but since he was happy to just listen to music on my headphones, I read it to myself, writing thoughts down in a notebook for later. It was one of the more peaceful days we’ve had, both of us doing our own thing, but together. From time to time, I would look up from my notes and just practice being present with him.
I was able to look past his broken body, his misaligned eyes, his disability, our history, my expectations, our losses and see HIM. All the rest of him, all the MOST of him. I was thinking about how we are so much MORE than our opinions and our plans, our hopes and our fears, our functions and dysfunctions, the way we look, the way we sound. It was remarkable to recognize this wonderful spirit of man sharing the same space as me, while watching his lifeblood literally flowing on the outside of his body through the dialysis tubes. THAT is more who he is than a brain damaged invalid with kidney failure. Talk about an inner life! It’s all on the surface with this guy, if I’m willing to look a little further.
I wrote in my notebook about the moment: “I see you beyond your eyes. I see you beyond your body and face. And I am grateful to be with you here today.”
I smiled at my husband. He looked up at me, smiling dreamily back. He took off his headphones, taking stock of the information in front of him. He said: “I see your ability to read things and write things and collect information. I now see who you are: someone who wants to learn by finding knowledge on your own. Not everyone can do that. You are able to do something that very few people can do. I wonder if I’ve noticed that before. It makes me love you more.”
Now, while I won’t agree that not many people can do this, it was touching for him to express this appreciation back to me, especially since I had just taken the time to really see him. This is the gift of being present with someone. What you give can be mirrored back to you. Two souls connecting despite your differences and disappointments.
It was a powerful experience, enough to help me today in the middle of an election cycle that has everyone feeling they are right and therefore others are so wrong. It’s the dialogue of dissent and it’s very hard to avoid, especially if you feel passionate about certain issues. But I am going to try to practice looking beyond all the things that identify us to each other. I know this is possible. And that love and joy and peace can be found there. We are more the same than we are told. We are each souls. We are children of God. We have more in common than we take time to see…but when we do, it’s very good.
I’m still dealing with my forgiveness issues and my resentments and my pride and my letting go. But I would say yesterday’s experience was worth writing down and remembering. A note to self. People are always bigger and more alive than I understand. May I continue to see that.
“Only one person in a million becomes enlightened without a teacher’s help.” Bodhidharma
Facebook has this “Memories” function where posts made on this day in previous years are brought up to the surface. This reminder came up yesterday: it’s a blog I posted two years ago on Parent’s Night (aka Back to School Night). I remembered the early grief of that night, blindsiding both Maki and I. When I read it, I don’t even recognize the grief through the words I try to explain (though I do remember how hard it was seeing the tears of a babysitting Maki at home, when I returned that night. It was a low point on my memory chart for sure.) What struck me most during tonight’s perusal, was that I had mentioned Mrs. Rosien, Maki’s middle school art teacher. This is what I wrote:
And then I visited the 4th Period classroom: Mrs. Rosien’s Advanced Art. She began to talk about how she she loved this elective class because the students actually wanted to be there. They were all students she had known for 2-3 years. I realized that Maki had been taking one of her classes every year since he arrived at this school. That she was actually one of the consistent people in his life. She probably didn’t even know it. And on top of that, she is one of those teachers who walks in pure encouragement and love. Out of the blue, I was touched to the core. I started leaking from the eyes…in a room with 15-20 other adults. Oh dear.
Mrs. Rosien was there for Maki all the rest of the year too. Mrs. Rosien was the only one in a room full of teachers concerned with his 8th grade report card (when all I could do is cry and shrug—horrible memory) who stood up to say: “He is one of the brightest and most talented students I’ve ever had. He is extremely intelligent. I will be happy to check his school loop for homework every day after class so that Allison doesn’t have to.” Though Maki is starting his second year of High School now, Mrs. Rosien was at BOTH Vernon’s memorials in support of Maki. I won’t forget her goodness. These are the rare kinds of teachers we remember through our lives.
Two weeks ago, it was time for Parent’s Night again. His teachers seemed great all around and very supportive about Maki, especially as they knew of his dad’s recent passing. I didn’t fall apart at all. One week ago, it was Parent’s Night at Justine’s school. I was having a harder week, at least a harder afternoon, and when I walked into the First Grade classroom and saw all those parents sitting at their children’s mini-desks, I realized I couldn’t bear staying. I didn’t even stick around to make my child a special bookmark. I did tell the teacher though, whose eyes filled up with tears of her own as she mirrored my expression. That was enough for me to love her for life.
Today, however, I began my first jaunt of being a room-mom. I KNOW! I’m pretty excited/nervous about it. I missed this opportunity the last two years of Justine’s schooling, always out on the road, unable to commit to one morning a week. It’s a big deal for me, starting a new responsibility, even if it is just reading in a circle with the kids or copying papers. It feels like a job. I even have to get fingerprinted!
Today, I got to laminate bookmarks and self-portraits-by-crayon. (I made sure to make up for last week and color one on the spot for Justine.) It was a strange thing to stand in the office, running oddly shaped bits of paper through the laminating machine, thinking: “This is my life now, playing with scissors, preserving first grader’s artwork. Preserving memories. Supporting the cultivators” Though it seemed so banal, it felt like PURPOSE. It felt good.
(This is the kid I want to meet.)
I hear the official first day of fall is next week. It’s about time I get into the back-to-school spirit with the kids. They, as usual, are way ahead of me.
“Only those who wander find new paths” —Norwegian Proverb
I’ve been back from Norway for almost a week, and I am happy to say jet lag has not been a problem. It is, however, taking me awhile to get back to my pre-trip busy self…which is probably a good thing. I’m the kind of person that has to go to the other side of the world for at least ten days in order to get my head to calm down, apparently. The further, the better…and in this case, a place with a different language, landscape, and light. 24 hours light! I may as well have gone to another planet. And guess what? From the first night in Oslo to last Friday’s nap, I found myself dreaming again. Nothing worth mentioning or even writing down. But I was struck by the fact that upon waking, I actually remembered having dreams at all. I took that as a good sign that after three years, my brain was slowing down again, that there was space being made on my busy brain desk. So that’s my self-prescribed remedy for stress: frequent trips to Europe! Anyone want to support my mental health ventures? Anyone? (Just kidding!)
When I got my 2015 tax return, I knew it would get spent on bills and gas, etc. if I didn’t put it aside for something special. I wrote to Synnove, Maki’s mum, suggesting that we might all meet in Norway the next year, instead of sending Maki to New Zealand for his annual summer visit. Norway, after all, is the country he is most nostalgic about. Maki’s mother is from Norway so he spent much of his early life in that country, and he can still speak the language. I visited Oslo once with Vernon and Justine shortly before we moved from England to America, but I never got to experience Maki’s version of the country.
When I met Maki at four years old, before I even married his dad, I expected he would grow up Norway, and we would be forever slightly to the west of it. He traveled back and forth on airplanes between countries, between parents. Humans are amazing, aren’t they? The ways we cope with change are infinite! I suppose in some ways it was this ability to move through the world at an early age that prepared him for what life brought along later. But even when he was young, I imagined that one day, we would visit him in Norway, that he would show us his world, that the families would come together in one place and he would see that his life wasn’t so disconnected after all, that his families, though stationed in different places, were supportive of him unconditionally. It was just a little dream I had, but I never forgot it. Well, things turned out differently than they started. We never meant for it to become so complicated, but here we are. And that dream came to pass in it’s own way. Going with Maki to Norway was very special to me. Seeing him with his younger brother and sister and his mother (whom I’ve become friends with since Vernon’s accident) was wonderful. Spending time with his grandmother and aunts and cousins was wonderful. Vernon couldn’t be there, obviously, but I think he would have been happy about the whole thing. I certainly was.
It was, after all, a place that Vernon had spent many years, when he was with Maki’s mum. We spoke of him a little, I’d hear about the places he went fishing and saw some of his artwork around the house. It was a reminder that he’d been there, matching the stories I’d heard him tell. But this trip was really about Maki, seeing him in that other element, that he hadn’t visited in four years. Hearing him fall so quickly into his old native tongue. Eating the fish and homemade bread and lefse his grandmother is famous for in our house. So many poignant things that I can’t process in this particular entry…but here are a couple of highlights.
Climbing a mountain with Maki (it took 3 hours and we lost the trail for much of the way, but this was when he said: “See…this is what I mean when I talk about Norway.” And I said: “Yes, I do. That’s the reason I’m here.” Video shows more than a single photo can, but still…it was more spectacular than it looks here.
The hospitality of the family was so nice. I felt very accepted by them all, which was lovely. We do have an unusual modern family dynamic with all the internationality and history. But the nice thing about modern families is that we get to make up the rules ourselves. It’s not always easy for everyone, but we are figuring it out as we go.
I did learn to knit. I caught a fish. I played with the children. I didn’t learn Norwegian. I let the beauty of the countryside and the endless light heal my heart through my eyes. But seeing Maki there was especially great. Here he is fishing…a natural, just like his dad. I’m sure this time has been healing for him too. He’ll return here at the end of summer for his Junior year of High School (but no one wants to think about school just yet!)
I’m not sure if I believe in the idea of soul-mates—I find the concept limiting. To me, it implies that everyone who loses their true love would never have the chance of finding another. Losing a love, through death, divorce, or otherwise, is already tragic enough. I don’t know if I have never called Vernon my soul mate, but he was my life mate. From the start, I think we were connected on an unusual level. And over time, that continued to play out. It was often complicated, but somehow, our love pulled through. Ten months since his death, it’s still complicated.
Even finding him was a miracle. I remember realizing that’s what being in love is: a miracle. It’s like that for everyone who finds that connection, because you suddenly understand how rare it is. Someone that is as fascinated by you as you are by them? That’s pretty special. At least it was for me. I was 34 years old, had never been married. He was 39, and was going through a divorce.
We liked to say that we met each other when we weren’t looking. We met online, but not on a dating site. It was all very friendly and chatty. I liked his mysterious photo and the fact that he was from England. He liked the artwork I was presenting and we found ourselves with tons in common. (I think it was important for me that he liked my artwork so much…that’s probably how he got in the gate.) Our conversations got longer…they moved from email and instant messenger to the telephone. We had to think about the 8 hour time difference, so usually I would stay up late to catch him in the early morning of the next day or we’d connect in my early morning, his afternoon.
It was probably the worst time to meet him in the sense that he was going through a divorce—he later admitted he was in a daze for a couple of years after the breakup. He had a child through that relationship, which added complications. That, and the small problem of his living 5,500 miles away. The distance didn’t actually bother me. I’d grown up traveling internationally, and the fact that he was English was attractive: he was different, he saw the world differently, he had a charming accent and sense of style.
But Vernon, though he’d lived in a few different European countries, had never once been to America. I think he was less hopeful about the relationship than I was—and for good reason: there was the distance, the divorce, the daze. After a month or so of talking, he suddenly disappeared for awhile. Sadly for me, I’d already gotten attached.
That short time had seemed so special. I remember one of the first times that we talked over the phone (it must have been the middle of the night for him)—he’d taken the phone outside, looked up at the bright English summer sky and talked about how it felt to him that we were actually very close to one another, maybe visiting face to face on some different dimension, meeting up in the middle, looking down on the ocean and the continents below. I was very sad to think that had meant nothing, that it was so fleeting.
A couple weeks later, he popped online again to tell me that he’d met someone. She certainly had me beat for proximity. I was jealous and disappointed, though I had to admit he’d never promised me a thing, and at least he’d had the respect to come back and tell me. At that time, I was painting murals and doing decorative finishes in residential homes. One day, while high up on a tall leaning ladder, the ladder slid back, taking me down with it.Somehow I only managed to hurt my knee, drawing a massive bump that lasted for a few days. Despite being shaken up, I knew I’d gotten lucky with a minor injury. I thought about Vernon and my recently broken heart and applied my newfound gratitude: “Soft hearts are protected hearts….they won’t get as damaged when they fall. But hard hearts are brittle, and when they fall, they may smash to a million pieces.” I decided I wouldn’t punish myself for having loved a little too rashly.
A month or so later, he popped up online again to tell me the girlfriend was gone. I kept my heart at a distance even though I still liked him. I told myself it was clearly just going to be a removed friendship now, if that. He called me one morning: “So I talked to my mother about you. She thinks I should meet you. If I don’t, she thinks I’ll regret it.”
“What? Really? When?”
“Well you should do it soon.”
He laughed, “OK.”
The next week, I was en route to Italy with my girlfriend, a trip we’d been planning for months. She’d ordered the tickets so I hadn’t realized we would be stopping through Heathrow. I called him from the airport: “I’m in London!” There was no time to meet then, but he promised to come out on my journey home. All through Tuscany, I was dreamy about him, popping into internet cafes and telephone booths. This was really happening! But our outgoing flight was delayed for three hours. My 3 hour date with Vernon at the airport was rapidly shrinking. When the plane finally landed, the staff tried to divert us over to our connecting flight, which would be leaving within the hour. I was so disappointed, but my girlfriend grabbed me by the arm, saying: “No way, you’ve been talking about this guy the whole trip. Lets go see if he’s here”…and proceeded to pull me toward the exit.
There was only one person waiting at the gate: Vernon, of course. For once I was at a loss for words, and my friend did most of the talking while we walked across the airport. We had less than fifteen minutes. “I’ll hold the plane!” she announced, waving back through the airport scanner. Vernon and I looked awkwardly at each other. I asked him if he wanted to visit me at Christmas, now that we had officially met. He said yes and we kissed goodbye at the gate. We both knew how strangely romantic this meeting was. Not far into the twelve-hour flight home, I decided long distance relationships were too expensive in time, money, and emotions…if we were to make it work, we’d have to start by figuring out how to eventually be in the same place.
So that’s the story of how we met. We did first meet online, but we always preferred to say we first met at the airport. Both are true. Either way, it was our kind of miracle. Twelve hours later, I arrived home to a text that he had been wandering around the airport for another hour, dazed and confused…and happy.
Selfie (before selfie was a word) as a reverse photo from mini digital camera (before smart phones!) in Venice, Italy on our honeymoon, September 2006)