Monday, March 21, 2016

The Flight Home

Our wake-up call came at 2:30 a.m., Saigon time. 

Instructions were to put bags outside the door by 2:45 and board the bus for the airport at 3:00 for the 5:35 a.m. United Airlines flight to Hong Kong, to be followed by a 14.5-hour trip to Chicago, a four-hour layover, and a last leg getting us back home to Indianapolis. The 23+ hour ordeal would be the customary penalty for a vacation halfway around the world—this time an enlightening journey through Vietnam and Cambodia.

We had traveled in comfort—indeed often luxurious comfort—as promised by our Viking Cruise hosts, ticking off the ancient Khmer temples of Ta Prohm, Angkor Thom, Banteay Srei, and Angkor Wat from our bucket list. Comfort would cease, however, once we boarded the Boeing 777 in Hong Kong for the long haul to O’Hare. This equipment’s engineering claim-to-fame seemed to be packing the maximum number of passengers into the smallest possible space--a three by three by three seat configuration with just enough aisle space between for a skinny person to pass through. With David by my side on the aisle seat, I donned my compression socks and hunkered down with a cozy Maeve Binchy novel to ride it out.
Once we were airborne, the flight attendants came around offering a drink of juice or water and a bag of Asian rice snacks to get us off to a comfortable start. I accepted a glass of water, grateful to be able to quench my thirst. 

Occupying the middle seat on an airplane is its own special type of hell. There’s no crossing your legs without bumping people both right and left, and you’re guaranteed to inconvenience your neighbor any time Nature calls you to the lavatory. I thought about making a pit stop before any more serving carts blocked the aisle, but just then the ride got a bit bumpy and the captain turned on the fasten seat belt sign. So it was no go.

Timing of the flight was such that our first meal service would be lunch. Under the slightly turbulent conditions, there came a cart carrying trays with a choice of two hot entrees. I selected the cheesy penne with tomato sauce, freed a fork from its plastic wrapping, and tucked into the side of quinoa salad in its tiny rectangular dish. The drink cart was following at some distance behind, and I saw they had red wine. Perfect to wash down the pasta, I thought.

The violent turbulence began the moment I peeled the foil off my entree. Holy cow! It was lurching to the right and lurching to the left, interspersed with moments of sheer weightlessness. Looking for some explanation for the upheaval, I consulted the flight map. It showed our position east of Beijing, skirting the edge of the Japanese islands. No help there, so I refocused on my meal. I gripped the bouncing hot dish near my mouth to make sure the food went into my mouth and not my cheek. The pasta wasn’t bad, but I was looking forward to the red wine to make it even more tolerable. A drink cart was almost here, a mere two rows ahead on my left, as we continued to careen through the angry currents.

Abruptly the beverage service came to a halt. Carts were withdrawn and parked behind the bulkheads by the lavatories, and flight attendants were ordered to sit down. The violent bumping continued unabated as we did our best to finish our meals. It went on and on and on.

Pretty soon passengers who had already been served their drinks were ready for bathroom breaks. Several rose to go despite the seat belt sign and were sent back to their seats by an agitated announcement over the loudspeaker. I heard coughing from various quarters and wondered when the first of us would begin to lose our lunches.

Mind you, I was just two days out from a bout of Ho Chi Minh’s Revenge, which had me running at both ends for twelve hours and projectile vomiting right outside the ship’s dining hall door on my first attempt at a meal afterward. Counting on my stomach to remain sound on this occasion, I fumbled absently through the seat back materials in hopes of locating a barf bag, just in case. Encumbered as I was with headphones, blanket, pillow, Binchy novel, and my tray of lunch debris, I found none.

As the vigorous buffeting continued, I began to feel fuzzy headed and flushed, not to mention I still had to pee. Presently an announcement came over the loudspeaker (in the customary English, Mandarin, and Cantonese) explaining that beverage service had been halted due to turbulence but would resume as soon as the turbulence ended. By now I was less interested in red wine than in some explanation of what was going on outside. The violence had gone on now for at least a half-hour, and Uncle Ho was threatening to wreak vengeance again on my poor stomach. I pictured a nightmare scenario coming on—desperate passengers rising up en masse to take the lavatories, others puking their guts out over the debris on their tray tables, horrified flight attendants hiding in the galleys, me peeing my pants.

Just then, all was suddenly quiet. A few more bumps came, but an ever more certain calm ensued. My digestive system experienced palpable relief. The flight attendants regrouped. Beverage service resumed. I gratefully accepted a soothing diet Coke—no red wine for me today, thank you. My chance for a bathroom break came and I took it, extricating myself from the middle seat by means of a complex set of handoffs of two sets of finished lunch trays between me and Dave, both getting out and climbing back in. A little carton of vanilla ice cream and wooden paddle ended the meal with a sweet touch. I felt lucky to have survived lunch with my dignity intact.

Calm restored, the hours ground on as we passed over the Aleutian Islands, Fairbanks, Alaska, and Minnesota, making a beeline for Chicago. There was time for a long nap with my head against the seatback in front of me, time for an in-flight movie, and time for me to finish my novel.

It was smooth sailing from then on, and a welcome chance to savor the pull of home. 

Saturday, January 16, 2016

The Companions

I have many regrets about how my mother spent her last few years, but her companions are not among them.

Ever since her second stroke, Mom was wheelchair-bound and needed help dressing, toileting, and transfering from chair to bed—in short, complete custodial care. It was a scattershot stroke, so many parts of her brain were affected. She had trouble speaking coherently. We weren’t always sure she knew who we were. Her hearing aid batteries would die, her glasses would go missing. Clearly she could not advocate for herself, and we were anxious about her quality of life.

What to do? My sister Rosemary lived nearby but had a full-time job and could only visit on weekends. The rest of us siblings were scattered in Indiana, Missouri, Colorado, and California.
To the rescue came Team Betty, a group of hired companions who took turns looking in on Mom at least three days a week. The first was Jan, an Oberlin graduate like Mom, and an ardent dog rescue advocate and professional dog walker. She was suggested by Rosemary’s sightless husband Andrew, who had employed Jan once to drive him to a conference and had enjoyed her company. Jan recommended some of her fellow dog lovers to be companions, and gradually the team was assembled.

And what a team it was! There was Nita, the Zumba instructor with a heart of gold. Barb C of the sparkling wit who was also caring for her own aged mother. Barb S, retired nurse and accomplished artist. Marcey, the intuitive swim instructor and reiki practitioner. Ebulient Kerry with the warm southern accent who often brought along her small dog Monty. And feisty Vera, the former health administrator who loved to take on challenges.

The team worked out among themselves who would visit regularly on which day, and they put magnets with their photos on a calendar in Mom’s room so she would know whom to expect each day. Soon we had coverage every weekday for two hour sessions.

Team Betty gave Mom the royal treatment. They took her to Cafe Louise on the third floor for a cappucino, to the library on the seventh floor to return books and select new ones. They sat with her at meals and engaged her tablemates in conversation. They read together, and spun stories about the various tropical fish in the large tank by the dining room. They took Mom to art class and bingo, and for strolls outside in the neighborhood when the weather was nice. They threw her birthday parties. They took her to Friday happy hour and helped the staff serve tiny plastic stemmed glasses of wine and punch.

Despite the modest sums they were being paid, and the distances some of them had to drive to get there, the companions just seemed to love doing for my mom. They took their reward in the form of her sweet smiles, cute shoulder shrugs when they were kidding her, her occasional lucid and sometimes suprising comments, and their parting hugs and kisses.

The best part for us siblings were the companions’ nightly email reports. We knew exactly what Mom’s day had been like, what they had done together, and how she had reacted, as though we had been there in person. Plus they were our eyes and ears on the care Mom was given. They spotted when she was vague and sleepy and might have another urinary tract infection. They checked that her hearing aids were in place and had live batteries. They noticed when she had a chipped tooth and accompanied her to the on-site dentist. They shared their daily reports with each other so all could stay current with any developments. They were also Mom’s advocates. They sat in on care conferences that I could attend only by phone, often lessening the bullshit factor. Vera fought like a bulldog to get Mom a wheelchair that really fit her, not just whatever clunky hand-me-down was available from Physical Therapy.

Rosemary and I grew to love these women, and not just because they obviously loved our mother. We loved them because each was strong in her own way, and tender-hearted, and interesting. They came to the memorial “happy hour” we staged at the retirement community—it seemed a fitting tribute to our mom, who so loved sociability—and afterward came to Rosemary’s home for dinner and reminiscing. We set out some of Mom’s chotchkies on the grand piano and invited them each to take one as a memento. And later we republished Mom’s memoir in a special edition dedicated to Team Betty.

I still have their magnetized photos on my refrigerator, their sweet faces reminding me that we did our best to give Mom a good quality of life and, in the process, reaped a bounty of love. 

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Best Party Ever

December 27, 2015, the day after my birthday

My dear sister filling the house with brilliant silk flowers

Singing my praises in verses of her own composition

Best friends meeting and mingling with my family

Croaking out old standards together, karaoke style

Sampling exotic vegan appetizers with savory sauces

Marble cake and Duo’s famous lemon bars

Grandkids reprising their performance at Purdue’s Christmas show

Surrounded by loved ones to grow old with

My boys by my side, a husband who loves me

Best. Party. Ever!

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The Big 7-0

Creeping in on little cat’s feet, the seventieth anniversary of my birth arrived the other day, largely unexpected.

Who ever expects to find herself old? Not me, certainly. I take for granted that I’ll live forever. But this birthday marks a milestone to be reckoned with, signaling the inevitable decline to come, the changes that will have to be made, the losses I’ll have to adjust to. Will I still be me?

Reaching back through the span of decades, I look for reassuring connections to my younger selves. Yes, there I am, the chubby-cheeked toddler clutching Raffie, her plush toy giraffe. I recognize the little girl who drew pictures of flowers and landscapes. Who believed in fairies. The grade schooler who wanted to be a ballerina and later an opera singer. The young woman who played piano and loved singing and performing. Who journeyed far to go to college, had adventures and made mistakes. Who married her sweetheart, gave birth to sweet babies. Who enjoyed and endured everything that came after.

They’re all there, my memories of me, comforting me that I’m still who I am and have always been. They will be my companions in old age. I’m counting on them to sustain me for as long as memory serves. 

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Uh-oh! Hearing Aids

It’s time, says the audiologist. 

She shows me the chart. The exes and ohs representing my hearing on the right and left meander downward off the normal range. The high pitches are going first.

My poor ears. They’ve served me well through the years despite occasional blockage by earwax, and despite the raging forest of cicadas in my head that is tinnitus. But I’ve noticed lately that I have to cup my hand to my ears to hear soft-spoken voices at meetings. The optimal TV volume is creeping up. And forget trying to interpret foreign accents; it’s subtitles for me. (I keep wondering about the damage done early on by the loud music at the kids’ roller rink and that nighclub where we danced in front of giant speakers.)

I should give hearing aids a try, reiterates the audiologist, to prevent further loss of word recognition. She wants me to wear them all day, even though I spend most of the time alone at the computer or in the garden.

From the ENT physician I get a conflicting message. Why bother with hearing aids if you’re not normally in situations where good hearing is essential? I like his view of this better.

David has kindly brought brochures from Costco, where I can get hearing aids cheaper. I’m steeling myself to go there and learn more.

Friday, December 18, 2015


Another year gone. And what a whirlwind it was: Springtime in Olympia, Ephesis, Pompeii. Having my ovaries removed. Fishing and jazz in Colorado. Lunch atop the new World Trade Center. Havana by night in a ’57 Chevy.

Those were the highlights making 2015 a year to remember. But most of the time went to the same old same old: Me sitting in front of my computer doing routine things for my nonprofits. Dreaming up landscapes for my clients, ordering plants, placing them for the installers. Weeding and planting with my Master Gardener friends at our pro bono projects. Misplacing my smart phone and finding it again. Watching endless hours of television with Dave, Rocky nestled between us on the couch. Attending the grandkids’ soccer and basketball games. Cooking dinners. Doing dishes. Reading in bed. Zumba!

Life is sweet, every minute of it, and oh so fleeting.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

A Bump in the Road

March 18. I complained to my primary care physician at a recent annual checkup that, despite dieting and increased exercise, I was actually gaining weight. I thought I was either retaining water or housing a tumor. She sent me for tests.

Yesterday I had a thorough ultrasound look at my pancreas, liver, spleen, bile duct, gall bladder, uterus and ovaries. It took about an hour with technician Becky and a lot of slimy goo and probing and “deep breath and hold.” We shared our respective histories with breast cancer—me thirty years out, she five years out.

A call from my doctor’s office came not two hours later. I have a slightly enlarged right ovary. It could be an ovarian cyst. I’ve been referred to a gynecologist.
We’ll see where this leads.
h h h

March 25. I saw gynecologist Dr. Kasper yesterday, the luck of the draw from my doctor’s referral throught the network. Her first name is Kelly and she looks like a Princeton grad—slim and fit, long blond hair. She seems nice.

She said with my history of breast cancer, she recommends removing both my ovaries. They look grainy and calcified. I wondered if that was because chemo fried them when I was 40, but she said no.

The procedure is simple, she says—three small cuts in my abdomen and the insertion of a laproscope to excise the questionable body parts. I was concerned about disruption to my landscaping business. She said I could lift 40 pound bags of manure the next day if I wanted to, but that I might be a little sore.

The surgery sounds like a good idea, and minimally invasive, but if I can postpone it until after garderning season I'd like to. We agreed to order CA125 blood test to see if that provides a clue on how urgent the surgery might be.

The results are supposed to be available today. I’m waiting for the call.

David and I just remembered we have a reason to celebrate. It’s our 48th wedding anniversary.

h h h

March 27. The blood test results are in, and they’re good. 13 in the normal range of 0 to 35. Yay! Dr. Kasper says with such a low reading we could just monitor with an occasional ultrasound. But by now I’m eager to get rid of the offending grainy almond-sized apparatuses. They served me well in their time, but I don’t want them ever again to cause me worry. Sign me up for the surgery. Bye bye ovaries!
h h h

May 28. Pre-op testing and a hundred and one questions about my health history. Weight, vital signs, a baseline EKG. And some instructions.

My surgery is a week hence, at 2:30 in the afternoon. I’m not to eat or drink anything after midnight the night before, except I can take my routine pills with a sip of water. Also, I’m to shower with four ounces of chlorhexidine antibacterial solution before bed. I’m to wear clean pajamas and make up the bed with clean bedclothes, then shower again in the morning with the same solution. They want me squeaky clean for my procedure.

h h h

June 3. David and I share a bottle of champagne with our steak dinner and watch a soothing episode of Rosemary & Thyme on Netflix. We change the sheets. I lather up in the shower with the red liquid antiseptic and slip into my clean pajamas for a good night’s sleep. I read the final chapter of Maisy Dobbs. All is ready.
h h h

June 4. It’s surgery day! I try to sleep as late as possible (to keep my stomach from grumbling) and spend the morning in my jammies at my computer, tying up loose ends. At 11:30 a.m. I take the second shower with the delightful red liquid, and try not to think about the possibility of a staph infection, which is no doubt the reason for such precautions, and we’re out the door at noon.

We arrive at the Outpatient Sugery reception desk precisely at 12:30 and hunker down to wait for the nurse to call us back. Yikes, I forgot to order mulch for a landscaping project next Monday. I dial up SoilMakers and ask for 20 yards to be delivered at a specified address in West Lafayette. Their truck holds nine yards max, so we settle on 18 yards. Now what kind of mulch did I want? Oops here comes the nurse to fetch me. Okay AA hardwood mulch. What time do I want the delivery? This as the nurse directs me to step on the scale. I explain to the SoilMaker lady that I’m just going into surgery and promise to call her back. Yikes, I also forgot to tell the wholesale nursery when to deliver the 2-inch caliper trees for a project next Thursday. No time now. Gotta clear my mind for the job at hand.

David and I are ushered into our pre-op waiting chamber and are joined presently by my friend Margaret who just wanted to be there with me today. Nurse Heather gives me a plastic bag to put my clothes in and no fewer than three packets of antiseptic wipes that she wants me to scrub my body with before donning the charming cotton gown they’ve provided for me. I’m counting on all this cleanliness to ward off the dreaded staph germs.

I give up my rings, my earrings, and my eyeglasses. A smiling technician installs an IV line in my left wrist. She’s from the Beijing area and has lived in the States for nine years.

Then commences a veritable parade of doctors, nurses, and technicians politely introducing themselves and each asking me questions. First question is always what procedure I’m here for, and they’re satisfied when I say “having my ovaries out” because that agrees with the oophorectomy specified on their paperwork. The remaining questions are largely the same: When did you last eat or drink? 11:30 last night. Do you have any stents or implants (no), skin issues (just a little poison ivy on my wrist), allergies (penicillin, it makes my face break out in a rash), diabetes (no), heart problems (no), can I walk up two lights of stairs without shortness of breath (well, sort of).

Dr. Kasper comes in to review the procedure with me and explain the risks (death, among others). I barely recognize her in her surgical garb, her blond ponytail covered by a blue mesh cap. I ask her if while she’s in my abdomen she could do a little liposuction. No can do, she says (well, she could, but that would cost extra). I tell her I’d like to look at my ovaries, especially the one with the cyst. No can do either, but she does agree to take photos for me. Good, I say, so I can share them on Facebook.

This prompts a story from Dr. Kasper about her son being badly injured while playing lacrosse. She carries a suture kit in her car, so she proceeded to stitch up the gash in his leg right there on the field with the team clustered about. How cool was that!! Her son of course shared pictures of the repairs on Instagram. We had a good laugh over what an impressive mom she was.

Between visits from hospital staff, I’m hugely entertained by my friend Margaret who tells of her recent travels to visit family in North Carolina and the circuitous route she used to avoid the scary mountain roads in West Virginia on her return trip. Margaret was my jazz and tap dance teacher for years, and we’ve become fast friends. She offers a foot massage, which I willingly accept. Her own feet have taken a beating from all the years of dance, and she knows how to make feet feel good. We talk on, and the subject of food keeps coming up, one of our standard topics of conversation—my stomach is grumbling hugely by now, and Margaret keeps apologizing for bringing up the subject. David, meanwhile, is silent, absorbed in learning how to use his new iPhone. Good that we had entertainment, because our wait ends up being three hours long.

At long last, they come to take me into surgery. Someone pulls up the rails of my hospital bed and wheels me down the long hall into the operating theater. There I meet another cast of characters who have been preparing the room for me. The room looks squeaky clean, and I marvel at the huge lamps hanging from the ceiling to illuminate the sugical action. There’s no time to linger over details, however. I crawl over onto the narrow sugical bed and a seat belt snaps over my hips to keep me from rolling off. A nice man bends over me so I’m seeing him upside down and introduces himself, “Hi, I’m Dr. Reddy.” How appropriate, I think, because I’m READY too, to get this over with!
Dr. Reddy injects a little something into my IV line to make me relax. I’m not nervous, really. This is an adventure. And next comes the little something that will put me out. I can feel it beginning to work, like a magical glow in my brain….

…and I realize I’ve come awake. Must be in the recovery room. Behind curtained partitions I can hear the person to my left groaning, and the guy on my right asking over and over to see his wife and son. I don’t feel any pain or discomfort, wrapped in warm blankets and nodding in and out of consciousness.

It’s over. My ovaries are out. They served me well, helping to produce two beautiful sons more than forty years ago. These once fecund egg-bearers are on their way to Pathology. Dr. Kasper will call in a couple of day with the results.
h h h

June 9. These few days since my procedure have been a trip! My abdomen is achy as you’d expect, and I have glorious bruises to the right and left, but other aches and pains have come out of nowhere—my shoulders, the deltoids, are killing me! The nurse says it may be because they had to inject air into my abdomen to be able to see what they were doing, and that trapped air migrated to the top of my body, causing the shoulder pain. Whatever the cause, that pain was worse than the pain in my surgical site.

I amused myself the other day by watching the procedure done on YouTube (not mine, somebody else’s). First they fried the tissue with a heat clamp—you could see it bubbling! Then they severed the tissue with clippers. Fascinating! Today I’m feeling more like myself again, with little pain and finally a regular bowel movement. I just have to be careful not to lift anything over 10 pounds. Life is returning to normal.

And oh yeah, the pathology report came back negative for cancer cells. Which means this was not a life-changer, but just a bump in the road. I can’t complain about that!