Doing What I Should Do

And now we are here at the now.

I have had a working relationship with Anne Frye for many, many years. Seventeen or eighteen years, I guess. As with many remarkable things in my life, that year all the pieces simply fell into place for me to become what I had wanted since high school (a medical illustrator) in the field I was pursuing (midwifery). I mean, how many people can say they illustrated their own textbooks? Not many, I’m sure.

So, with only a few months to complete hundreds of drawings, I undertook the daunting task of illustrating Holistic Midwifery, Volume I. I quit my day job, working sixty, seventy hours a week to complete these drawings. And this was before scanners and computer images were readily available, so mistakes were corrected with white-out, and enlarging, and whiting out some more.  It was a steep learning curve for both Anne and me.  But we pulled it off.

Then came Volume II, and the Diagnostic Tests book, and the brutal Healing Passage, which is a suturing manual for midwives.  Let’s just say that I have drawn more labia than anyone has a right to have done. The years rolled by. Our first book together was reprinted, I got married, gave birth twice, and quit midwifery altogether during the course of those four books.

Now it is time to revise and reprint Volume I. I am happy to say that most of the drawings are still usable. I will clean them up and re-label them on the computer – a far cry from the barbaric and ancient practice of printing out the labels (uterus, bladder, etc. etc.) on a piece of paper, then cutting them out and gluing them down, then drawing a line from label to part. Unfortunately, though, there are more than a few that need to be re-drawn entirely, from scratch. And I dread it. I dread every moment of it. For one, I’m out of practice. Long gone are the days when I drew obsessively, every moment, for the sheer joy of it. Long gone are the days when I could easily see details and fine lines simply by moving my head closer. Long gone are the days when I could hold a pen in my hand for hours without my thumb and fingers becoming stiff and sore. In short: I am old, Father William.  And I just don’t see this being the easy process it once was. For two, it is going to eat more of my time than I want to give.

Tomorrow I meet with Anne – as per usual for our ‘reunion’ meetings, she is taking me to lunch downtown.  She loves nothing more than fancy restaurants that serve teeny portions of odd things that I wouldn’t even think of eating.  But that is her passion, so we will go.  Then we will sit with the book and she will tell me which drawings she thinks need re-done, and I will fight tooth and nail to convince her otherwise.  This is not our first book together, so I know that whereas this is her life and livelihood and she can and will devote every waking moment to it – it is not so for me. I have two children. I am very involved in their school lives.  I am volunteering with hospice as well. And …

There is the book.

A while back I wrote a novel. I wrote it because I was contacted by an agent who thought I should. So I did. I worked on it, off and on, for three years. Then I hired an editor and had it professionally edited. Then I sent it to the agent, and she said no. I tossed around the idea of publishing it online, but ultimately decided it wasn’t worth the effort. Because…

My husband and I decided to write a middle reader series together. We got the idea two years ago, possibly more. We have talked about it for countless hours. We have drawn maps. We have outlines, timelines, backgrounds, research. We are excited. We love our story. We love our characters. I have written almost half of the first volume. I love it so. But parenting, life, time (or lack thereof) keeps stepping in, sweeping aside my drive and ability to work on our books.

But they are always on my mind. I read middle reader fiction, I read YA fiction, I keep looking for anything that resembles what we are working on and so far (knock wood) there hasn’t been any. The genre is ripe for the picking. It has been sorely neglected. And while the theme isn’t new, I think our books will find a place. If only life would stop long enough for me to write. If there weren’t these… things:

First of all, here comes Anne with revising Volume I. This will be a major drain on my time. Major. And of course there is the basic (constant) need for housekeeping, feeding my family, caring for my children, and my volunteer work (and my bridge games and charity functions, ha ha). I’m not complaining, mind you, but I do understand how what’s-her-name ended up locking herself in the bathroom, away from her children, to write her famous novel.

Which leads me to another point, and that is my complete ignorance of literary – stuff.

See, I read wonderful YA novels, and then I see the authors have websites. Which link to their blogs! And their Twitters! And their other stuff! They go to book shows or fairs or parties or openings. They toss around acronyms (I had to look up what ARC is).  They schmooze. They loyally follow other writers’ blogs. They themselves blog. They travel. They recognize other writers by sight. Where they find the time to actually write, I don’t know. But I am willing to bet that most of them don’t have children.

I feel completely inept. Or, as Harry Mudd’s women would say, “I am not programmed to respond in this area.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harry_Mudd 

See, I am so inept that I have no idea how to make that link be what you went to if you clicked on “Harry Mudd”.  I do not know how to Twitter. I do not know who wrote the famous book, locked in her bathroom, or even what that book was about. And I probably wouldn’t recognize most authors even if they were carrying their own book in front of them. I learned how to type on a typewriter. I was nearly thirty when email was invented. I don’t know if I have it in me to be what it appears to take to become a successful writer these days.  I wish I could sit down with Jo Rowling and get her take on this. How did you manage without modern technology? How did you make it without first being part of that world? How did you make the time?

And, just to give you an example – in writing this post, I have been interrupted by children and husband needing something five times. FIVE.

All I know is that I have to try. I may be sixty before I ever see our book published. And that is just going to have to be okay.

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Catching Up

I survived survival. It was an excellent experience for me. Somewhere along the line, between sitting around a fire and cleaning a rabbit skin and making a bowl by blowing on coal, I realized that I had achieved my goal of becoming a badass, and that, really, I didn’t have anything else to prove. I didn’t need to freeze my butt off sleeping in a tent, or a dusty, poky debris shelter – I could sleep in my van and STILL be a badass. I didn’t need to always wear my belt with my knife on it, or even always carry a knife – I could get my knife and use my knife when I needed it.  And, most importantly, I didn’t need to play WOW, drink home-brewed beer or whiskey, be a Dr. Who fan, or neglect personal hygiene – I could be just who I already was, add my new skillz, and be a badass. So mote it be.

Besides, my fellow immersion student, Lisa, kept a fantastic blog – and took a lot of pictures – so if I really need to remember it in great detail, I can always go there: http://ninemonthsofsurvival.wordpress.com/

Meanwhile, on the hospice front…

Volunteering to hang out with elderly, dying people was a natural choice for me. And, thanks in part to having inherited my mother’s talent for enjoying ‘geris’, I seem to be pretty good at it. And I love it. Until these wonderful old folk die, and then they are gone, and I don’t get to hang out with them anymore.

My first hospice patient, Anne, was a cherry assignment. She was the great-aunt to one of the folks who run the hospice service; she was living with a sweet, wonderful, generous caregiver who welcomed me; she was completely lucid, sharp, and sassy, and had great stories to tell. Her death was a surprise to me in many ways. When I last saw her she wasn’t feeling well – but she was plump and rosy and always had a good appetite, so I left on vacation feeling pretty sure I’d see her again.  I got the call just as I approached the Tower of Terror ride at Disney’s California Adventure – there I was, standing in the Happiest Place on Earth ™ and weeping on my husband’s shoulder because my 98-year-old congestive heart failure hospice patient had died.  And it was two days after my birthday, too.

Anyway, I got to attend her funeral, and meet many of the people she talked about, and share the stories she’d told me. I got closure, and that was good.

Meanwhile, I had taken on two other patients, and I continued to visit them. One was a skeletal man named Johnnie, a vet who was injured in Iwo Jima during WWII. What a guy.  He stunned me with his stories – overseas fighting for two years, with no leave, no phone calls home to his wife. TWO YEARS. They wrote letters, which arrived full of black marks, courtesy of censorship. He came home just before the 4th of July. When the fireworks started, they woke his wife, who realized he was not in bed with her. She looked everywhere for him – and found him under their bed, trying to dig a foxhole.  Shellshock, they called it. He built the house he lived in with first his wife and kids, and then his wife, and then his caretaker and her toddler daughter.  I enjoyed my visits to Johnnie, even if it was taking a while to get into a groove with him, as I had done with Anne.

My other patient was also skeletal – and ornery as … well, ornery. She was curled up, fragile, and pissed off. N had had a very tough life. Cruel stepfather. Sadistic step brother. Cruel husbands. Horrid children. Now she was in this adult care home with well-meaning people who loved her, despite how very hard she was to love.  No story, no memory, no matter how pleasant, came without a sharp, painful twist. To visit N was to face my own mortality – to sit with such anger and regret and loss and not flinch. It was hard, really, really hard.  But I fed her, and I told her stories, and I listened to hers, and I made her laugh. We laughed a lot, actually. In the end I grew to love her as much as I loved Anne.

Johnnie and N died within a week of each other. I didn’t get to say goodbye to either – and because they both had horrid children – there was no funeral, no service, no memorial. No closure.  That part has been difficult.  I will not forget either of them.

My remaining patient is D. She was a hospice patient, but she is stable and was changed to ‘home care’ status – but I still go visit her. Of the four patients I’ve had, I find D the most challenging, because she is so incredibly dull. There is no feistiness, no appetite, no anger, no sorrow, no regret. She has nothing interesting inside, and nothing on the outside interests her. I read to her, I bring books for us to look at, I try and try to start conversations with her, but she just won’t engage. That is my challenge with D. She sits and waits for her life to be over.  Just. Sits.

But I still visit her. I hope to take on a few new patients. I hope to take a few more survival classes. And in between, there is all the other stuff. Which is for my next post.

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Re-learning

Heading into my third day of hospice training today.  So far, so good.  I am impressed with the organization – everyone who has come in to talk to us about what they do has shown committment and passion for the work, which is heartening.  This is a place where everyone is doing what they believe in, and enjoying it – strange to say about a job that is all about death, but there it is.  They know that what they are doing makes a difference, and that is why they love it.

Our ‘class’ – meaning this particular group of volunteers who is training right now – is a very interesting mix.  A few are there because they have a vague wish to do something good; make a difference in one person’s life. One is a psychology student who is uncomfortable with death and wants to meet it head-on (bravo!). One (our token male) is a ‘recovering’ paramedic who has seen death and wants to do more long-term patient care.  One is a cancer survivor, whose sister died of cancer and had hospice care, and is now taking college classes and seems to be basically having a ‘do-over’ of her life.  And me, the retired midwife. Huzzah!

The class dynamic has been good so far, and it seems most of us have the macabre sense of humor that is necessary for the job.  I haven’t been in a classroom setting for years, so it is interesting for me to just watch how it all plays out: there are a few who are silent, and never really contribute anything unless called upon to speak. There are those who speak easily when appropriate (I hope I am one of them). And then there is one who is filling the role of that one – you know the one – the one who ALWAYS has a personal story to tell for EVERY point the instructor makes.  The one who cannot just say “I totally agree”, but has to share for many moments before concluding “So, I agree.”  The one who put us way behind on the first day, because the instructor (who is fabulous) values sharing and processing and honestly doesn’t seem to mind when the talk goes off the rails.  He wants it to be a dialogue – wants us to talk openly about our feelings on death and dying.  And besides, with the topic being so heavy, you don’t want to say to someone “yeah, yeah, we get it: you understand it better than most because of xyz, now can we please move on?”.  So, they talked, and talked… That person wasn’t there for the second training, and it was honestly a smoother day. We covered all we needed to cover, everyone got a chance to share a bit, and it was good. We shall see what today brings.

I realized, in watching this unfold, that I used to be that person.  I always had to share – always had to show how wise and knowledgable I was.  Had to make sure everyone realized that I was ON IT.  Oh, how I loathe that person that I was.  I swear, I look back on my life and I have far more memories that make me cringe that I do memories that make me smile, and that’s sad.  It’s not that I live a life of regret – far from it.  I just wish that I had learned how to shut up a lot sooner.

I have learned so much from just two training sessions.  The history of hospice care – which makes so much sense – and how it started with one women, taking a look at how people died.  Remarkable.  Finding out that Medicare actually covers the cost of hospice care – and that one year of palliative and hospice end-of-life care costs the same as one E.R. visit! And yet, looking at these upcoming elections, who knows what will happen to Medicare.  The right to die with dignity in your own home will become yet another privilege for the chosen (wealthy) few.  But, let’s not delve into politics, shall we?

On the second training day we talked about the grief process – the ebb and flow of it; the things people who are grieving may experience.  It was clear to all of us. It made sense, we’ve been through it, we understood it.  Still, I was taken aback to hear that for the majority of people, it doesn’t make sense.  They will not recognize the stages, they will not suspect grief when they are irritable, forgetful, distracted, ill, or exhausted.  Interesting stuff. I have understood grief since I placed Tyler for adoption.  Will I be able to help others recognize it? I think so.

Most of all I feel appreciated. I have never volunteered for anything where it was made clear from the get-go how valuable and appreciated I am.  This place genuinely makes me feel that I am not just a volunteer – I am a member of a team.  It’s a nice feeling.

And off I go to day three. :-)

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Quick and un-painful death…

The other day Josie, my eight year old, had her pal Sam over for a playdate. I overheard them talking as they played with Playmobil – Josie gathering the animals, as usual, and Sam gathering knights and weaponry, as usual.  They were getting their game set up – ‘let’s pretend ___’ and somehow they started talking about the end of the world. Josie is quite firm that the end of the world will be when our sun explodes and becomes a red giant, and Earth will meet its demise.  She is quite confident, though, that it won’t happen for many thousands of years yet, so she won’t be alive, and won’t have to live through it. She and Sam agreed that it is good they will be dead before that happens. Sam said, “I hope when I die that I die a quick and un-painful death.” Josie agreed.  They are very practical children.  I could not help but remember my dad.

A month before my daddy died, I flew home to Illinois to visit my mom, who had been through a very rough time.  As I usually did when in Illinois, I went out with my dad to his local pub, Bert’s Tap, to shoot pool and smoke cigarettes and hang out with the man who I had mostly adored and sometimes feared growing up.

By this time, though, I was an adult, and we always had a great time. He worked the swing shift at my middle school as a custodian, and the gang at Bert’s were all fellow swing shift workers. It was always like a scene from “Cheers” – everyone knew and liked my dad.  This last visit was a bit different in that daddy and I had a pretty heavy talk about his brother, Richard.  Richard was his younger brother (family of ten kids, dad was number three of the boys), and had died a few months prior.  It was a long, lingering death – beginning with a heart attack and surgery; in and out of the hospital and, finally, being in the hospital with his family being called to his bedside to say goodbye several times before he actually passed. My dad had gone to visit him a few times near the end.  I asked daddy, how was that, for you?  He was silent a moment, and then said that it was awful. That Richard was not the same man – he had wasted away and was weak.  Then my dad said, “I never want to do that to your mom and you girls – when I die I want to do it quick and get it over with.”

When he dropped me off at the airport to head back to Portland, he kissed me goodbye and stood with tears in his eyes as I boarded the plane (this was 1992, and you could accompany people to the gate!). My dad was never shy about crying – I had seen him weep several times in my life. But I smiled bravely at him and waved, and he smiled and waved, too, tears shining.  That was the last time I saw him alive.

I called him on father’s day – the perfunctory call, idle chit-chat, wished him a good day. “Catch ya later,” he said as we signed off, as he always did.

A few weeks later my daddy, a smoker since he was a teen, despite having had a lung collapse just before I was born, was walking home from picking up tickets to the fish fry at the upcoming Friendship Festival.  He had just crossed the major, four-lane road a block from our house when he stopped, put his hand on his chest with a puzzled look, and rolled gently onto the sidewalk. He was dead within seconds.

He had a little phleb, a little bit of scar tissue, in his lung, that had broken free. It stopped his heart. And that was that. He was 52.

The only thing that kept me from complete and utter despair was knowing that he had died exactly as he had wanted to.  I clung to that knowledge like a lifeboat – sharing it with my stunned family.  For me, I was torn between being glad for him, and wishing I’d had a chance to say goodbye.  Then I think back to our conversation, our parting at the airport, the tears in his eyes, and I wonder if he knew.  I am glad, ultimately, that he did not linger – that my memories of him are not of a wasted shadow of the man I knew.  In my mind and in my dreams he is himself – joking, smoking, shooting pool with me. And always will be.

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Survival

Well, there’s been some mess up about the meet and greet – the one that takes place on Wednesday is actually for the teen apprenticeship.  So I have a call in to find out what I need to do.

Meanwhile they have posted a list of the skills – and I have to admit I’m feeling a little intimidated.

Survival Basics

Completing the Survival Basics means completing 25 different primitive skills based experiences.

☐ demonstration of Trackers knife safety and competency skills
☐ ability to navigate by compass cross country .5 miles
☐ working knowledge of topographical maps
☐ by the sun and a watch pinpoint and walk a straight line South for 500 feet through brush
☐ 6-feet of cordage harvested from natural fibers capable of suspending 5 lbs
☐ sleeping two-nights in an all natural debris shelter with no sleeping bag (not in summer)
☐ one liter of water harvested from dew or solar still
☐ one spring followed all the way to source
☐ one page journal and three water borne illnesses and prevention (not sure what this means!)
☐ boiling 1-liter of water with rocks
☐ lighting one fire with one match in 5-minutes in severely wet conditions
☐ bow-drill coals from each of these materials
-two softwoods (one domestic, one wild harvested)
-two hardwoods (both wild harvested)
☐ one hand-drill coal
☐ arrowheads made from each of these materials
-glass bottle bottom, flakes across all surfaces
-bone or obsidian, only stone tools are used
☐ completion of three quickie survival bows made from different woods (make them pretty)
☐ making a wood eating bowl by coal burning
☐ skinning one small animal (domestic okay)
☐ tanning the hide of one small animal (bark tan)
☐ hitting an 8-inch target 25-feet away with a rabbitstick ten times in a row
☐ hitting an 8-inch target 50-feet away with a bow and arrow set three times in a row
☐ making one simple basket that can hold 1 pound of grass or grain seeds

I feel like, giving training, I will be able to do all of these things, but of course the worst one is the damn debris shelter. I know what a debris shelter is, and I know that sleeping in one without a sleeping bag is going to be hell.  A debris shelter is built of just that – forest debris. Two feet of leaves on the bottom – you need that much insulation for cold nights. A long branch with one end resting on the ground and the other end propped up with two branches forming a triangular opening.  Smaller sticks laid along the whole thing, tightly together and just meeting at the apex – then over that another couple feet of debris.  You have to scootch into it feet first.  Ugh ugh ugh.  Jamey, our formidable instructor for the Zombie survival class, told us that the nights he has spent in a debris shelter were his roughest nights ever.

In same class I was unable to start a fire with a bow drill.  I got smoke, but could never get an ember. My arm would give out. That will be another huge challenge for me, but more of a physical one than a psychological one.  Perhaps because it will be truly a matter of survival, and not in a comfy classroom, I will succeed.  I just don’t know.

However, I will not let that stop me from trying.

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Two goals, one heart

When I told my husband I want to do hospice work, he seemed only mildly surprised. I’m restless, feeling like I want to do something meaningful in my life; laundry and dishes and sweeping just isn’t cutting it.  For many reasons, I do not want to go back to midwifery – there are already a million wonderful midwives in Portland.  The paperwork, the responsibility – not for me, not anymore.

Hospice seems like a natural choice.  I grew up with a mother who worked in a nursing home, occasionally bringing home her ‘geris’ for a visit. She talked often about the ones who died – how she would wash their hair, visit them, talk with them, hold their hands.  It seemed to me like a kind of midwifery – helping someone with what might be a scary transition.  I have no issue with bodily fluids; I have no fear of being with others who are frightened or in pain.  I can sit and hold the space for someone who is dying just as I can for someone giving birth.

Randy agreed. I went to an agency in my neighborhood, talked with the volunteer coordinator, and am awaiting training which will hopefully begin in a week or two.

Meanwhile I have started re-reading the rather dry “On Death and Dying” – which I read when I was grieving the baby I placed for adoption at the tender age of seventeen.  It is all rather matter of fact in a British sort of way, so far it doesn’t seem to dig into the meat and raw emotion of dying the way that “Diary of Jane Somers” did. Granted, Doris Lessing is fiction, but still. Kubler-Ross is a bit clinical in her approach, as I’m sure she had to be to make herself heard on the topic.

Still, I set it aside and am reading a wonderful book called “Final Gifts”, written by two hospice nurses who observed a nearly universal phenomenon among those dying, something they call “Near Death Awareness”.  A dying person will often see/feel the presence of someone else – usually someone dead from their past, but often just an unnameable presence that seems spiritual in nature.  The dying also will, according to this book, speak in metaphors about the journey of dying (and are often called ‘confused’ or ‘hallucinating’) to let those living know what they need to feel ready to go. The book is written in a style that I can appreciate; conversational, emotional yet frank.  I find it fascinating and comforting.

I told Randy about this book, and he recalled the recent talk in scientific circles about how the right and left hemispheres of the brain seem to have different personalities, and that we suppress one side of the other until there is some sort of occurrence: an accident or illness (dying perhaps?) that causes a radical shift. The other personality will then come out. (At least this is my interpretation of what he told me)  He wondered if maybe this shift is what causes this Near Death Awareness.  Interesting to think about: that the ‘spirits’ we see are the product of a mind that has undergone a change in management – that it allows us to see and understand things we did not know before.

I am sure there are those who would have much to say on the subject: that we can awaken and access this part of ourselves anytime we choose – that spirits are always around us – that life is always metaphor.  I can well believe it.  But I am a simple creature, really, and lofty philosophical discussions about these things make my head hurt and make me feel stupid. These are things I know in my soul, things I feel but cannot explain. And I feel I can put this knowing to good use.

When I told my husband that I wanted to do an immersion program with Trackers – requiring a commitment of one weekend a month for nine months, learning wilderness survival – he was less enthusiastic.  He seemed dismayed, in fact.  At first I thought it was about the cost – it is expensive – but no more that if I had chosen to take a college class. “Are you sure you want to do it?” he asked, with a bit of pleading in his voice.  Yes, I am sure. My life, as wonderful as it is, has become tedious and boring to me. I have always had a desire to keep learning, keep growing, keep DOING.  I have not “done” anything that I consider worthwhile (volunteering at my kids’ school aside) in a very long time.  I want this. I might even be convinced I need this.

But why his hesitancy? I was feeling stupid and selfish for asking for this for myself, and we were having a serious talk about it when he revealed where his reluctance comes from: his other two wives were also restless, looking for meaning and direction. Once they found something they started to pursue, they left him. At least that is how he sees it.  Of course I comforted him.  This will give me something to talk about, something interesting. His other two wives left him for someONE, not someTHING.  And this is certainly not the first ‘other thing’ I have wanted to do in our twelve years of marriage.

No, I am not going to leave him. I want to feel inspired – I need to feel inspired. And whereas the books we are working on do that, I seem to lack the discipline to work on them as I should.  I need to feel inspired so that I can bring something worthwhile to our family.  As I told him, everyone else in this family gets to pursue what they really want to do – I want that, also.  And so, I am.

There is a meet and greet next Wednesday, to learn more about the immersion program. He and I took a Zombie Apocalypse class from Trackers, so he’s no stranger to the idea. I think the only thing that I am less than thrilled about is that I am sure the hardcore folk at Trackers are going to make us build and sleep in our own shelter.  We built a debris shelter in class and I can tell you it is the last thing I want to sleep in – but I will. And in thinking on that, I came to the conclusion that this blog will be called “Debris Shelter” – if I can figure out how to change the title.

After all, I’m not very tech savvy – and I can’t say that I’m all that inspred to learn. That’s Randy’s department.

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