You Are Not Alone

It was such a beautiful day – partly cloudy, unseasonably warm. Such a beautiful day that our uncle’s soul could not be contained by the body that was failing, so he took his last breath at 9:00 a.m., sharp. He was never really one to sit still for very long anyway.

My brother called me last night. I had already taken my last dose of meds and had stumbled into my pajamas, when he said, “Chels, you need to get here. He’s here at the hospital and he’s not going to make it through the night.” I clawed out of my pajamas and hurriedly put my clothes back on, and then called my sister. I knew as soon as I heard her voice that she would not be able to get out of bed because she was sick as a dog. She was heartbroken and asked me to say goodbye for her.

Texting with my brother, I advised him that my cab was on its way, and he told me that our uncle was not responding. I started shaking. I tried to remember to put random things into my purse, including my phone charger and my favorite cough drops. I put on extra deodorant (though I knew I was fighting a losing battle on that one – I sweat like crazy when the fluid builds up in my brain like it has been for the last 9 months while I’m upright).

After what seemed like an eternity, but was really only about 20 minutes, the cab arrived. He asked me where I was going. I told him the facility. He asked me how to get there, because he had just moved to the area from Phoenix. Great. The blind leading the blind. Then on the way he had to stop for gas (but he kept the meter running, saying it was at a “reduced rate”). I couldn’t believe it. I was crying and trying to explain to him that I wasn’t sure if I would make it to the hospital on time. Then he started quizzing me on how old my uncle was and if he was sick for long. I’m not new, I know where this line of questioning leads: some stranger-danger jackass is going to tell me that he lived a long life (a week and a half short of reaching 65) and that if he was sick a long time, then I shouldn’t be sad.

But I am sad. You see, my uncle and I missed out on two decades of knowing each other. When he found out I was sick, he began slowly reaching out to me. But before that, we had had no contact. Twenty years ago, his brother – my dad – died, and as people do when they endure a major life event like that, we acted our worst. First, we fought over what Dad should wear to be buried. Whenever he wasn’t working, Dad was in either pajamas or very grubby outdoor clothes, and we kids and our step-mom said we wanted Dad to be buried in his (very nice) favorite pajamas. Our uncle put his foot down and said he should be buried in a 3-piece suit, because otherwise, what would their clients think? (Dad and our uncle along with their close friend owned a successful business.) I told him that the funeral wasn’t for the clients. Eventually we settled on the favorite pajama pants and a nice shirt.

Second, our uncle took me aside and told me, “I know I wasn’t very interested in you when you were growing up. I figured you didn’t really need me because your dad was so involved in your life. Now that he’s gone, if you ever need advice, you can come to me.” I was 22 at the time and already had been living away from home for about 5.5 years, so I felt as if he really missed the boat on being part of my life. Mostly I was hurt that he admitted what he thought about me. I was raw from dealing with the sudden loss of my dad and had no support like everyone else who was there and paired up like they were going on Noah’s Ark – no boyfriend and no spouse. I did what I had perfected long ago, and that was to shut down emotionally. 19 years have passed since we buried Dad and I moved around the country.

Slowly last year my uncle’s messages started to trickle in. He even made a donation to my YouCaring page to help me with expenses during my Magical Medical Mystery Tour. When he found out I was moving back to Minnesota, he asked if we could spend some time together. So the week after all of my belongings arrived and were still taking over my living room/bedroom, we squeezed a chair in between the boxes and the wall so that he could talk to me while I laid flat on the bed. I was mid-sentence in giving him a generic update on what was happening with me when he grabbed my hand and said while fighting back tears, “I’m sorry. I’m so happy to see you.” 

Now that I’m 20 years older and have contemplated life, death and illness, it was all I needed to hear. I repeated his words back to him. He leaned over from the chair to hug me tight and we cried. It’s the crying that you do when you see life with such clarity and you know that your time is limited. It’s the crying that you do when you’re not afraid of death but you are afraid of not being able to make wrongs right before it’s time for you to shed your body. He had stage IV squamous cell carcinoma and didn’t know how long he had until he could no longer function. We managed to have a few more visits before Christmas; after Christmas, he developed pneumonia and was sentenced to bed rest and constant care by his new girlfriend.

Last night a group of people hovered around his hospital room, all red-eyed and occasionally sadly smiling over the sharing of memories. I thanked his girlfriend for taking such good care of him; she went home to rest. Eventually the visitors dwindled down until it was my brother and I, our cousin and his best friend, our uncle’s ex-wife and our uncle’s best friend/long-time business partner. My nighttime meds were kicking in and making me extremely sleepy and I desperately needed to lay down to take the pressure off of my brain, so someone very kindly set up a cot for me in the family waiting room. My brother opted to sleep in the chairs. Everyone else stayed in the room with our uncle. I figured that we would hear sometime in the night that our uncle had passed.

I woke up and stumbled to the community bathroom and tried to make myself presentable. My eye makeup was smeared to raccoon status. My deodorant indeed was a huge disappointment. I stopped pretending to care and instead made my way to our uncle’s room. Surprisingly, only the best friend was there watching over our uncle – my uncle’s son, his best friend and the ex-wife had gone home to change clothes and make sure the dog was taken care of. My brother was still asleep in the family room and so the best friend/business partner went to get coffee while I stayed at my uncle’s bedside.

I used my time with him to sing. Sometimes it was impossible to get the notes out because the knot in my throat strangled me with grief. He wasn’t conscious and was fighting to take in air while he slowly drowned in his lungs. It was painful to watch because our once super-fit uncle had fluid pooling in his abdomen and lungs, prompting him to keep his mouth gaping open while he worked just as hard to push the air out as he did to get the oxygen in. Singing was all I knew to do because I felt helpless – I was coming into this process late and didn’t know what his wishes were as far as pain control went.

When my brother and my uncle’s friend entered the room, they both were concerned about the amount of work it was taking for my uncle to try to get air into his lungs. He seemed to be clenching his fists a bit and his shoulders were also working themselves forward and back in an effort to try to take in oxygen. The three of us decided that we wanted him to be comfortable, so I found the nurse and asked her if we could get assistance with pain medication. We talked about the effect that upping his meds would have on him, which was mainly depressed breathing. I was concerned that our uncle’s son wouldn’t make it back to the hospital in time. My sister and her husband were also trying to get there to say goodbye. But we went ahead and had the orders changed so our uncle could receive his meds more frequently to aid him in dying in comfort. We didn’t know when that would happen, because he survived another night when he should have been gone, really.

The nurse gave him painkillers in his IV and some drops under his tongue; he seemed to settle down and labored less to take in air. I stepped out of the room for about three minutes to make a phone call. When I returned, his color had changed completely. Our uncle was taking in small, shallow breaths, and his skin had taken on an unnatural tone of yellow with underlying grey. My brother held one hand while I held the other, and our uncle’s friend stayed at his feet. We all told him we loved him, we all wanted him to feel no pain, and it was okay.

I watched the pulse at his neck as it slowly ebbed like a far-off ripple on a lake. Finally, I put my fingers to his carotid and confirmed there was no pulse. The friend went to the nurse’s station to call the nurse and resident into the room. Our uncle had left, to join his mom and dad, his brother and sister, and probably my sister, as well as countless other souls who were no longer caged by their bodies. No more pain, only flying free.

My dad (L) and my uncle (R), playing around with their mom’s pantyhose. 

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Buying Cruelty Free: Physician’s Formula

Source: Buying Cruelty Free: Physician’s Formula

Well, my psychic powers have been in full force for the last week. Prime example: I wrote my “Bee’s Knees” piece before I read this one, which also talks about making conscientious purchases, including makeup products. I hope we continue the momentum.

The Bee’s Knees

I’m watching “Morgan Spurlock: Inside Man” on Netflix, and as always, he puts together thoughtful pieces about the things we should be concerned about as humans and consumers. I mean, I really enjoyed the episode from Season 3, “Morgan the Matchmaker” because, duh, dating; but there are others that really speak to my sense of responsibility to the earth and to other humans.

For instance, also from Season 3, Morgan explores trash in Episode 6, “United States of Trash.” I try not to create loads of trash. I recycle tons of stuff. But as careful as I try to be, I still generate the equivalent of a Walgreen’s plastic shopping bag of trash every week. I learned something new. Specifically, you can take those glass jars with the metal closures and rubber ring around the lid for a tighter seal to the grocery store with you and have the meat department deposit the meat IN THERE instead of packaging it, even if it’s “just” the paper. Guess what? There’s also less of a chance of cross contamination if it’s in the sealed glass jar rather than in the paper (which you might insist on wrapping in another plastic bag). Also, if you wash your glass jars in food safe dish soap, you aren’t going to pick up chemicals (like you do in containers that are half or all plastic). What amazed me the most was that the family of 4 saved 40% off of their monthly grocery bill by bringing their own containers.
I can no longer drive and stash my reusable bags in my car, but I still make it a point to bring them with me when I do my own shopping. Any time we can leave a little less plastic in the world is best, but even I know I must get better about my own consumption.

Season 3, Episode 7 is “Honey Bee-Ware.” I remember when the big study was put out about how scientists were really excited about figuring out why hives were dying out in great numbers, and they firmly believed it was the result of these little mites that were invading the bodies of the bees and then effectively decapitating them. Something about zombie bees, blah blah blah.

Really, the concern should have been focused on pesticides and herbicides. Morgan interviewed a Harvard researcher who had indisputable proof that the deaths were related to the use of (trace) amounts of neonicotinoids. The popular product “Roundup” has glyphosate, also known to cause just as many problems after being researched. When the European Union found out about the results, they immediately banned those chemicals.

The problem with the U.S. is that we allow ourselves to be guinea pigs for everything – food, cosmetics, cleaning products. We assume that our responsibility and our concern falls only within the U.S. borders, and we’ll take care of “it” later after a number of decades have passed and we suddenly have a large percentage of the population sporting eyeballs from their ears or some weirdness like that. But our trash is in the world’s oceans. We eat poisoned food, use 110 chemicals a day in cosmetics ranging from toothpaste to eyeliner to soap, and we leave smears of chemicals around our kitchens and bathrooms that we would never dream of putting in our mouths, but that’s where they end up anyway.

I mean, think about it: Would you put that Chlorox wet wipe in your mouth and suck on it like a pacifier? I’m guessing not, but somehow you have convinced yourself that it’s safe putting it on every surface you can find. Nothing is really clean unless it’s been passed over by harsh chemicals, right?

<sigh> This brings up the whole discussion about superbugs, but I’m going to think about that one a little longer before I cover it.

My new diet to combat my Lyme bacterial infestation has to be all organic (no chemicals, hormones, artificial anything), and I can’t have any dairy, gluten, soy or sugar. The “Honey, Bee-Ware” episode reminded me that there is a non-profit group in the U.S. that is trying to counteract the stupidity of the FDA and EPA and make us smarter consumers. Now that I think of it, I like the idea of not dipping my apples in a bowl of Roundup before chowing down on them. I try to buy organic when I can. I have already changed all of my cleaning products to be environmentally-friendly, and 90% of my cosmetics have been changed as well (I just have one eyeliner that I have a hard time giving up just because it’s the only one for me that doesn’t smudge, which is important to me because it makes up for the eyelashes I’m missing).

I made these changes about eight years ago after I wrote a paper and gave a presentation on the Environmental Working Group‘s database “Skin Deep” (http://www.ewg.org/skindeep/). I still have a hard time convincing people that they can find great stuff for their teeth and skin and hair that isn’t going to give them cancer or screw up their hormones, but I keep trying.

I was thrilled to see EWG add a cleaning database about four years ago: http://www.ewg.org/guides/cleaners

Lastly, EWG has a handful of databases dealing with food issues. Think of it as an adventure to be the best you can be, like you’re in the food army or something. http://www.ewg.org/foodscores
http://www.ewg.org/foodnews/
http://www.ewg.org/research/ewg-s-dirty-dozen-guide-food-additives

Caught Between a Rock and a Short Bus

The problem with losing every hair on your body, or very nearly (because my big toes are always the last to shed), is that you have to find a way to define your facial features but still blend in with the rest of civilization. My eyebrow tattoos were last touched up almost two years ago and were fading and turning a pinkish hue of tan, prompting me to color over them with a combination of pencil and powder. This is not a durable solution, though. I still have really oily skin like a teenager and usually within an hour, if I go to push my wig bangs out of my eyes, I end up schmearing my eyebrows in the process, so I look like a crazed devil.

It took me a while to find a permanent makeup artist in the St. Paul/Minneapolis area – first because there don’t seem to be many at all, which I blame on everyone being a tree hugger and shouting from the rooftops how “natural” they are; second, because I don’t want to get just anyone to ink my face. I finally found someone who seemed to use the methods that I was familiar with to give me the most natural-looking brows possible, who also has a decade of experience under her belt.

The ride out there via Metro Mobility (http://www.metrotransit.org/metro-mobility if you’re curious) was pretty uneventful despite the dispatch center’s computers being down – everyone just made do. My driver was on time and there was only one other lady on the bus. The ride back, however, was a little more interesting.

The woman who was our driver for the trip back was very, very nice and good-natured. Unfortunately, I realized that she was used to a certain clientele because she was talking to me as if I was deaf instead of mostly blind. She was shouting, actually, and using small words. I was only the second rider on and she had to pick up four more people before she could start dropping us off. For most of the ride I was the only female on the bus. My trip lasted almost two hours.

By the time it was my turn to get dropped off, I was mostly blind. The last passenger we picked up was an elderly lady who seemed pleasant enough when she boarded, but when the driver went to escort her to her seat and strap her in, the woman refused to sit down. I could immediately feel the tension ripple through all of us. We had been on for quite a while, someone in the group wasn’t really big on bathing and we were in that odd space of being too hot or too cold on a winter day trapped in our layers of clothes and dependent upon the driver to run the bus’s heater. We were all individually and collectively ready to pounce on the woman if she didn’t cooperate. Luckily we didn’t have to, the driver distracted her by saying she was carrying a lovely bag; the woman was still confused by the seat belt the driver was hooking up for her (“What in the world are you doing??”). So when the driver was required to escort me to my front door, she just kinda did an “Okayareyougood?Ineedtogoincaseshedecidestoescape.”

I discovered that while I was out getting my eyebrows put back on my face that the financial coordinator from Johns Hopkins had called to tell me that medical assistance didn’t have any record of my request to be seen at JH. Since I had had four separate conversations with the company in charge of my Medicaid and they had actually called the PCP who was supposed to submit the request, I knew that was not correct. I spent another hour on the phone trying to find out who had ignored the notes and faxes on my file that I had sent in myself; I had to leave another message for the financial coordinator to ask her to try again. I really don’t want to piss her off because she is the first person I’ll deal with at Johns Hopkins, so what she does or doesn’t do is going to greatly influence my time there.

The eyebrows, the special request for medical assistance, the stuff that fills my days now instead of a job and trying to plan my next social event, is not anything that normal people can relate to. How can I explain it? I can’t even summarize it all in a sentence or two.

I also had messages waiting for me from two men – one from OKCupid, and one from Match. They are actually both ten years younger than me and seem to be very physically active. I’ve traded messages with them before so I have a somewhat superficial handle on their personalities. I instantly developed anxiety when I saw their messages. One made it very clear to me that he is a fair weather friend; I told him that I thought he would be a fun person to know, but he would become bored with me because I can’t go out and do things like he does. He responded by saying that I should contact him when I’m “better.” Well, there were only about two weeks between his last message and today’s, so this just proves to me that he thinks I’ve got the equivalent of a cold. The other one suggested meeting up in our last exchange. I told him that it had to be in my neighborhood and within walking distance for me, and then he didn’t respond for a little over a week. Today he indicated I should call/text so we can meet up. Does that mean he’s okay with my circumstances, or that he’s hoping that it’s not as bad as I am saying? I’m trying not to let my self-doubt rule, but now I’m fighting the urge to crawl under my blankets and overdose on emo music.

How do I explain having to use the short bus? And dammit, now I have to wait another week to even try to go on a fly-by date with the second guy because my tattoos need time to heal. Right now they look like two greasy, dark, flat caterpillars have been smashed on my forehead because I have to keep them moist with ointment. If I keep throwing these obstacles at him, am I driving away a good date?

Tonight’s music selection reminds me of Heath Ledger every time I hear it (a la 10 “Things I Hate About You”). It makes me sad because I remember thinking that when I saw him in it, I was convinced he was very quickly going to become a star and would be easily recognized – and he did.

 

The Professor

Yesterday I received medical records from St. Joseph’s Hospital in Phoenix for all of the 10 surgeries I had there, plus numerous visits in between to the ER. The packet included one entire ream of paper with printed chart notes, EKG readings, surgical notes, allergies, and even my signature on some documents. What they didn’t print out on paper they included on a disc for me. Now that I have to set up a whole new team of doctors to help me through this Magical Medical Mystery Tour, I figured it was best to keep track of things and distribute them myself instead of relying on others to gather the info. It’s a plus that I have a laser copier/fax/scanner/printer here at home so I make sure everyone gets what they need.

Some things were a little tough to read. For instance, nearly every time I told the neurosurgeon or the ER staff that my shunt wasn’t working like it should have been, they would tell me that everything looked fine in my scans and that it must be “something else.” After I would beg and plead with the neurosurgeon to do another surgery so I could function again, he would again tell me that everything was fine and he couldn’t say exactly why I had symptoms, but he replaced everything. One of the times was in February of 2013; Dr. N. was out of the country teaching in Japan, and I went into full failure – face drooping, blurred vision, fatigue, vertigo, and I was walking funny, like a cat with anesthesia from a vet wearing off. One nurse told me to go to the hospital four miles away from my house to see if they could treat me for headache. That hospital ended up doing a nuclear shunt study, which they had NEVER done before – I had to tell the radiologist where to inject the nuclear material in my shunt under live x-ray – and they kept me for six days. At the end of the six days they told me the study was “fine” but opted to transport me to St. Joseph’s because Dr. N. was back in the country. I was at St. Joe’s for another six days, during which time Dr. N. did another surgery on me. Now that I’m seeing what was in the report, Dr. N. actually agreed that the shunt flow was sluggish. It wasn’t my imagination and everything was not “fine.” Suckage. I wish they would trust me more when it comes to knowing what’s going on with my body.

I remember vividly the first day I went to St. Joseph’s when I was still trying to get a diagnosis. At that point I had been to at least a dozen doctors over the course of 10 months. I waited to go to the ER until the day after my birthday – I wanted to have a really good dinner out with friends, because I knew I was probably going to have to go through a little hell. At the time, I was dating this guy I will refer to as The Professor, and he accompanied me to the hospital.

We met through OKCupid. It seemed like he and I had a lot in common. He was educated and was planning his first trip to Europe. His picture was just a face shot, and I could only make out that he was smiling and that he had dark hair. We met in January after exchanging some friendly notes; in person, I was a little startled because he had on blue jeans with a bright white belt and bright white shoes, and the pants were sitting high up on his very rotund belly. The Professor’s hair was also dyed dark brown, which was unfortunate – because the very large bald patch in the back shined through like a pink baboon’s ass. I still wanted to get to know him because I’m much more attracted to brains and a certain amount of worldly experience, and so we fell into dating exclusively.

The differences in our beliefs and backgrounds became apparent over time, as they usually do with anyone you date longer than one night. First, he grew up in the middle of small town Indiana – and was exactly like the people I so desperately wanted to get away from in the little town of 300 I lived in in Minnesota for five years. He was strictly a meat-and-potatoes, salt-and-pepper guy – he refused to eat any vegetables or try anything that had flavor. He hadn’t ever even seen a bagel until he was 24!!! To him, those were exotic. He worked at the law library on the main campus of Arizona State University (ASU) and held a bachelor’s degree, but was re-enrolled for his Master’s. However, ASU let him teach one class: Critical Thinking (hence the use of his nickname “The Professor”). We would laugh over some of the things his freshman and sophomore students would come up with in who exactly they hated in the world but couldn’t explain why. But what really bothered me is that he was in his mid-40’s and his mommy was giving him cash every time he got an “A” grade on a paper, and then he’d get a bigger amount if he got an “A” for an entire class. He bragged about how easy school was for him and how smart he was. I would ask him why his mom was paying him for good grades when he had just said how easy it was for him to get high grades. He did not like that question.

The Professor was also a big fan of comics. I helped him to make a transcript of some of his interviews as he was a contributor for an online publication for comics fans. The Professor would brag about how he was a much better interviewer than anyone else, but after putting together some transcripts for him, clearly he struggled with having an actual conversation and he was asking all of the artists the same exact questions. He was just talking to hear himself talk. I am not a fan of comics myself (despite many artists trying to get me hooked), so having to sit through that stuff was a little tedious.

When The Professor talked about his trip to Europe, I really had to bite my tongue. He was likely going to be scared by some of the cuisine (though in England he would fit right in because everything is boiled), but even more importantly, it was going to be a BICYCLE tour. I knew his weight was going to hold him back; when we were simply driving in the car or watching a movie, I could hear him constantly gasping for air and groaning with the effort. The Professor was a mouth breather and sounded like a monster from a horror film. He also had terrible allergies but refused to take allergy meds because he didn’t want to be a “pill pusher.” I found an OTC brand that dissolves in the mouth and he was in heaven. Even the brands that do not have dissolving tablets manufacture incredibly small tablets, so it’s nothing to swallow them. And since when is taking allergy medicine being a “pill pusher”?

Lastly, The Professor refused to wear antiperspirant or deodorant because he said he didn’t like how it felt. He was about 350 lbs. and like everyone else in a super hot city like Phoenix, he sweated profusely. One time when we sat outside of a restaurant after a meal and enjoyed the sunset, he put his arm around me, and his sweaty pit rubbed that sour smell all over all over my shoulders and wig. I hate having to wash my wig more often than is recommended because the fibers and cap wear out faster.

We had connected at a time when my symptoms were somewhat dormant; I could still see while sitting upright and still drive. However, when I became sicker and sicker and still had to deal with our differences, I debated sending him on his way. It was just exhausting. I am not good at projecting a poker face.

The Professor was with me after I spent a week in St. Joseph’s when the group of doctors filed into my room and told me they decided to operate on me. I cried like a baby after they left the room, and The Professor held my hand and tried to comfort me. But the next week when I was home again waiting to be cleared for surgery, I decided it was time. We sat down on my couch and I held his hand and told him that I didn’t think we were compatible. He told me he expected me to break things off because I would sometimes look at him like he was an idiot. I honestly can’t remember most of the exchange, but I do know that I ended it with telling him that I thought he ought to re-think his stance on deodorant. The Professor then said he didn’t use it because he was allergic to it, and I told him that just because he was allergic to one brand didn’t mean he would be to all brands – I broke out in hives from Secret products, so I went and found one that didn’t do that to me. I also called out the fact that he told me previously that he didn’t like it, not that he was allergic to it, and that’s a big difference.

Last year, when I was having a particularly rough night with pain and medication, I sent an email to The Professor saying that I was sorry about the way that I ended things with him and that I wished him happiness. I didn’t hear back from him, but after doing some searching on Facebook, I confirmed he’s up to about 400 lbs. and is engaged. Good for him.