Friday, January 31, 2014

Notes #18

In a house full of three girls, things are bound to happen.  And let me just say that things are happening, people. Things that I'm not allowed to put on FB or blog, not allowed to text or whisper to any other living soul. Because when you have growing-up-girls, the things-that-happen are the stuff of the innermost feelings and insecurities and making-her-way-in-the-world. This week, I've been honored to be not just a witness, but a curator of their growing-up-environment and the person who hears the secret offered in quiet, shares the advice, and is privileged to know the code words and the hand signals meant for my ears and eyes only.  And sometimes, I'm just an observer. And I see things like this, that happen without me even knowing quite how, and they make me smile.

Sickness. Plague hit our home first with the husband and then with Tiny.  See the counter top behind Tiny's head? Those are all the things we gave her to stop her asthmatic coughing. Her plague cost us about $100 in medications that didn't work or get used, for various reasons, and then I found some prednisone from earlier this year that knocked that cough down a few notches. The "cold air" and the "steam" recommendations from nurses-on-call were really not cutting it.  I'm telling ya, moms really do know a few things.  I wasn't quite sure, however, if Oldest had outgrown some of those pesky nut allergies. Do you know she ate a [highly processed, likely protein-destroyed sliver of] a walnut last month and not a thing happened??  Last time she did that, she landed in the emergency room.  So I took her into her new allergist (a doctor who's seen me since I was Oldest's age) and they scratched her up a bit with food proteins and toothpicky-things.  Number 3 is "Almond," meaning she's not allergic to that anymore, but the walnut reaction flared up with a wicked itch and swelling. Go figure.  In case you're wondering what the negative reaction to almonds means, well, it really won't change her life.  Doctors categorically recommend you avoid all tree nuts if you are allergic to any--simply because of factory contamination and cross-reactivity that could possibly occur. 

Right now Middle is waiting for me to come watch Toddlers & Tiaras with her. She's home sick (fever, headache, yada yada) and she's discovered that shows on TLC just aren't that fun to watch without someone with whom to make snide comments with about said shows. So, off I go to snuggle and feel great about the fact that I have not subjected any of my daughters to spray tans, eyebrow waxing, false eyelashes, fake hair, high heels, or smiling lessons. Oh! There is much to be thankful for.

And...this one's just for fun....Happy Friday, everyone!

Friday, January 24, 2014

When Your Grandfather is 92 Years Old

He took me to McDonald's at six in the morning when I was small.  Early was his calling card. He got up at 5 or 5:30 to tinker on his HAM radio, morse-coding with people all over the world, and then, when the rest of the house was sleeping, he would slip me out of it and drive me to pancakes and sausage. He wore Hawaiian shirts and trousers. Always. Except on his ten-year-increment wedding anniversaries (and he's had 7 of those!). Then, he wore suits. And his hair always looks fancy because it is long in front and swept back and to the side in a white pompadour, fluffy and floppy on more recent days after he naps or after, say, he had the stroke.

That was Tuesday. My father called to say that Gramps wasn't waking up from his nap. It's all we knew for the longest time. Then information came in dribs and drabs: he was at the hospital. He was sitting up. He was "perky." But the next morning, he was "in and out;" he couldn't speak properly, couldn't move an arm, couldn't swallow, couldn't walk, didn't know who was who. We truly thought death was imminent. So did the nurse. So did the hospital chaplain.

So I packed a bag and drove to Little Company of Mary Hospital in Chicago and met him at the elevator on my way up to his room. He was shrunken in a hospital bed, rolling down to an EKG with a nurse. "Hi Grandpa. It's Heather--from Iowa."  His eyes half opened and he groaned acknowledgement, and I could hear underneath it the always-cordial, the ever-keeping-track-of-who's-who-and-what's-what man who wasn't keeping very good track at the moment.

My grandmother, his wife of 72 years, arrived for an afternoon visit and waited for Gramps to return from the test. She was in good spirits, likely due to her mild dementia; the air was light. All my girl cousins in the hospital room distracted her with stories of toddler potty training, great-grandchildren and dancing. Grandma danced with Maureen next to Gramps' empty hospital bed. Then, winded she sat down. A moment later she eyed me opportunistically. "Do you dance?" she quizzed. And then she was giving me instruction, teaching me steps while I followed to the music on a cousin's phone.


"Are your eyes tired? You look tired," My 5-foot grandmother leans over his bed after he returns from his test. Gramps' eyes roll back toward the corner of the room.

"He can't hear you," a cousin explains.

"What?!" says Grandpa snarkily. We laugh and Gramps puckers his lips, kissing the air, reaching for something with his mouth.

"What are you doing, Grandpa," Beth asks.

"Drinking my coffee," he explains, still puckering, now bringing his fingers up to his mouth as if tipping an invisible cup.

"What's he doing?" Grandma asks.

"He thinks he's drinking coffee," explains Beth.  "There's no coffee, Grandpa. It's all gone now."  He still puckers and resists Beth's attempts at stilling his hands in his lap. "That's enough now, Grandpa. It's all gone!"

"I'm sssluring my S's." he announces to Grandma.

For everything he understood there was so much he didn't: why he couldn't get out of bed, why he couldn't have water. For hours, he argued, he strained against loving hands and firm voices until a nurse belted him into the bed. He just wanted to go home, he said. A TV repairman for Sears before he retired almost 30 years ago, his favorite place to tinker was the basement where all manner of electrical and mechanical odds and ends waited. He just wanted to go down to the basement, he said. He yanked off the external catheter, which ultimately didn't help his cause. He exchanged harsh words with Grandma. "If you want to come home, you need to stay in that bed!" she warned.  "Now look here!" his own voice rose and fired off something that reduced her to tears.

"I've never cried so hard in my life," she told me repeatedly after we'd ushered her into the hallway outside his room. She cried, and my father and I took her home; she cried in bed that night and then came and sat in a rocker in the living room across from the couch where I was sleeping until she fell asleep herself. And the next morning she cried when he wasn't there to make her coffee and pour her cornflakes and make fun of the horoscopes in the Chicago Sun Times. I sat in his spot at the dining room table and resisted the urge to read from the paper. Instead, I encouraged her to eat so she'd have energy for the hospital later in the day.

Grandpa was sleeping in his hospital bed when I arrived with my father. We sat in silence in his room, both of us praying, the sun gleaming into his fourth story windows, the television on the wall glittering with silent images. When he woke, his eyes were wild for a moment until they seemed to focus, "What happened?" he asked.  And, "How is Grandma?" We explained the stroke, the bed, the lack of water ("I just need to drink a ton" he said, and he'd be fine). And then my grandfather scrunched his eyes tight and cried at the fact that he'd just laid down to take a nap on Tuesday afternoon and had a stroke. "It's amazing how you can almost just slip away like that," he slurred in broken voice.

He seemed to understand now, and he wasn't fighting. And he knew who I was--a granddaughter who'd spent so little time with him that my most prominent memories from childhood were McDonald's outings when I was 9, a granddaughter who lived hours away and came once or twice a year, if that, but held him and his wife fiercely dear. He knew who I was and it seemed he knew that the occasion of my visit wasn't random. When he said to me,"It's so great that so many of you came and hung around," his voice quavered and broke again in a way I've never heard on Gramps, so foreign still that it was a shock to hear him cry and to imagine what thoughts ran through his sometimes-lucid mind--facing death, surrounded by family but very much alone, as alone as one can be when embarking on a journey. It was his to take and we couldn't take it from him. It's what happens when your grandfather lives to the age of 92. Instead of railing against the car accident or the cancer that struck in the prime of life, we're left with the inevitable conclusion that our bodies expire, no matter what, simply because they are old.

"I've got to head back to Iowa, Grandpa. I love you." He tilted his head and I kissed his forehead, not knowing if I'd rest my hand on his face like that again, not knowing if death would wait a while and/or if memory would preserve his knowledge of me a little while longer. So, I kissed him like it was the last time.

Monday, January 06, 2014

My Enemy, the Birch.

In tenth grade, my English Honors project team and I videotaped a stuffed-animal rendition of Tennyson’s Idylls of the King. We lined up animals along the fence in my backyard, behind which was a row of bushy poplar trees, their long trunks standing at attention as young King Arthur--a stuffed bear? a giraffe? (I no longer remember)--pulled his sword out of the proverbial stone. Our backyard then was lush--all those poplars, a tall bushy evergreen that today towers three times my height at least, a lilac, a flowering dogwood, and a white birch tree on the northern side of the front yard. 

As a child, I rolled in the tall green grass, picked lilac blossoms to use as beds for the miniature animal figurines I played with, and hopped the back fence when the poplars were still skinny enough for me to jump through the spaces between them. But the birch tree was the least of my outdoor acquaintances. I remember asking my mother its name because of its oddly colored trunk. Birch trunks are white, I noted, pleased that I could classify a leafy green thing by name, and then I moved back into a world where I was oblivious to nature’s--and the birch tree’s--particulars.

When I was a pre-teen and gripped with daily asthma attacks, the allergy doctor scratched me with allergens common to the region. Ten years later, another allergist did the same. With a strange sort of ironic pleasure, I repeated over the years that I was allergic to every known allergen in the state of Iowa except the moth, the cockroach, and the caddis fly. (The wheals, raised pale welts on my skin that resulted from testing, indicated extreme antipathy for trees, weeds, dust mites, pollens, molds and household pets. The doctor measured the length of each wheal and its accompanying flare (surrounding red area) with a ruler marked in millimeters. 

The years of allergy symptoms were many and varied. Sometimes, I wasn't able to breathe through the summer without a battery of inhalers, rounds of prednisone and daily antihistamines. I stepped out of the air-conditioned homes I lived in and was assaulted with unseen pollens, mold spores, and the essence of grasses drifting in on the breeze, all wreaking havoc inside my lungs and sinuses. It was unsettling to not know the particular identity of my attacker at any given moment. To not see it head on, or know its rationale, it's motive, in this case, for flooding my veins with histamines. 


Last winter I ate a pear, and it made my mouth burn, my sinuses flare. I sneezed repeatedly. Random hives appeared on my neck and abdomen. I felt as if I had swallowed a cat (I am allergic to cats). In the spring of this year, I ate an apple and it did the same. Disbelieving that this long-friendly fruit was making war on my insides, I ate another one. It made me sick again. Then peaches were added to this short, but growing, list of produce that did not like me. After months of eating the occasional apple and experiencing the same extreme reactions, I mentioned it to my allergy doctor, who pulled out a colorfully illustrated chart of known allergens and foods likely to give allergic patients cross-reactions. It turns out that apples, pears, peaches and assorted other produce all have a long history of producing reactions in people allergic to birch tree pollen, which I'd been highly allergic to for as long as I'd been allergic to anything. 

When my daughter was first diagnosed with food allergies, we were told about cross-reactivity in foods. I am not a scientist, so you won't get the technical explanation here, but basically, some foods' molecular structures are so similar to others that the body can mistake one for the other. For instance, we heard a story about a peanut-allergic kid who almost died eating lentils.

One theory about food allergies is that exposure precedes the allergy. One eats peanuts one time, for instance, without a reaction. The second time it’s all a slick madness of inflammation, phlegm, and dilated bronchioles, sometimes anaphylaxis. Like I said, it’s a theory, but it made me think hard about birches, remind myself that I’d noticed one once, next to my childhood home. And I wondered how I’d crossed it, how and why the species had pegged me as its target (was my ambivalence offensive?), or why--rather--my body made birch trees the enemy without my consent. Was the birch tree pollen a symbol to my subconscious and immune system of all that didn’t go right on that plot of land and in the house that stood beside it?

But now, that’s irrational. And, then, so is illness much of the time. The rogue cancer cells, the Parkinson's, the ways our bodies betray our spirits and we end up having conversations with our bodies (like I do), saying it's taken things too far: people are not allergic to apples (for instance) because they are allergic to birch trees! They are not allergic to apples--most mundane, most innocuous of foods, staple of my last three decades: Baked with cinnamon in winter. With peanut butter or sharp cheddar cheese in a brown-bag lunch. In pies at Christmastime. Dipped in whipped cream in the heat of summer. Shredded and stirred into pancake batter. Dried into slices. Pureed and dehydrated into fruit leathers for my children.

To question the apple is to question the birch tree, which is also to question ourselves, our responses. And sometimes, those questions flutter into particles drifting on air like tree pollen looking for a place to land.