“She Had A Towel Over Her Face”

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In December of 2014, Jack walked into the kitchen and caught me while I was washing dishes. “I remember a few things about the day Grandma died.”

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The Secret to Staying Skinny ‘They’ Don’t Want You to Know

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The news has been filled for several years of reports that Americans are getting bigger.

It’s being called an epidemic, a problem our society will need to address in short order to keep from destroying any chance of America having a healthy future. But for many – like me – maintaining a healthy weight is a constant struggle. What I fight – in my opinion – is actually an addiction to food, which is also an addiction to the very thing that is also supposed to sustain my life. How does one battle that? It’s not like a person can just not eat. We all must eat to live, but somehow my body seems to be greedy. I’ve grown to tolerate – because my body can’t accept – the ties between portion size and feelings of hunger; if I eat regular size meals I’m constantly hungry.

Maybe there’s something wrong, or maybe I’m weak.

Ten years ago a doctor told me she couldn’t help with the hunger I felt. Three months ago – in the hopes that medical science had advanced since my last request – I asked a doctor again to help me, after losing 35 pounds and enduring comments from the nurse that I should lose weight. Doctor Two couldn’t help me either, stating there was “no magic pill” which would take that feeling away. Oh, and I needed to retrain myself while waiting for my stomach to shrink.

So that means medical science can create drugs like Viagra and Cialis, yet they can’t produce something to keep mankind from eating themselves to death.

I feel my body telling me to eat twice as much as I need to live. As I write this my hunger is nagging at my middle, but also down by 45 pounds from the summer of 2011; it has been the toughest struggle to get there. But I will say this: The hunger I endure – even right now – gives me compassion for the multitudes around the world who feel this inner emptiness every day / all day – and not by choice.

With doctors and the media telling us that our belt lines continue to increase, it makes me wonder how we Americans ever stayed thin in the first place.

Pictures from our historic past show well-proportioned landscapes of slender people working the magnificent jobs of an industrial America, void of any body fat and simply beaming with weight-healthy bliss. The Library of Congress archives on Flickr are teaming with these images, presented in vivid Kodachrome to further push our ancestors’ color-filled birthright of thin living on the rest of us. It’s a memorable image, ripe with sentimentality and patriotism.

“Honor our forefathers, who forged this landscape with the muscles in their backs and the remaining fingers of their bare hands.”

The can-do spirit of this majestic endeavor, creating a free land for all at the cost of a few, can be felt in Gordon Lightfoot’s Canadian Railroad Trilogy. But my question remains: How is that 1940s Man could go to work a 12-hour day on the budding infrastructure of America, while holding a paper sack holding only a simple sandwich and an small apple? I have a theory; a crude and untested one, but mine alone.

They all smoked.

Yes, the industrious worker of the 1940s was also a two-pack per day burner, enjoying with billowing freedom the toasted flavor of a filterless Lucky Strike while completely forgetting that his body needed more than nicotine. The ashtrays gracing the armrests and bathrooms of older theaters and 737s will attest to the breadth of the practice of replacing food with a good smoke. And why not? Doctors standing next to big Chryslers – while citing junk science like nicotine satisfying the N-Zone of the brain with little or no medical after effect – were telling readers from the ad pages of the 1950s to relax, and grab a light for that smooth rich tobacco flavor.

But now we’ve traded one epidemic for another.

From where I sit, food has replaced cigarettes as America’s guilty pleasure. State laws doom smoker-friendly restaurants like The Pine Cone, while giving permits to build another fast food restaurant that is rumored to use Pink Meat Paste. As I look at the calorie counts at restaurants – any restaurant to be honest – I’m amazed at how may can serve meals which contain an entire day’s allotment of energy. I use to eat like that. Three times daily. Okay, four or five. Now I only wish for it, looking sadly upon the menus while ordering something light that is sided with steamed broccoli. I’m thinking maybe the doctors couldn’t help me because the only weapon they had against hunger was a pack of Pall Malls. It’s the secret to staying skinny they can no longer let us in on, and the secret to staying skinny we can no longer use.

Think I’ll go grab another burger…I mean apple.

Originally published Feb 29, 2012

Uncle Doug

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Born in 1944 with polio, my Uncle Doug beat it only to get Muscular Dystrophy later on.

Despite the obvious physical struggle he endured, Doug was a stellar case study in using what he had to accomplish more than people thought he could.  He did as much as possible on his own, stopping at the point of his physical abilities. In an era when “people of his kind” spent their lives in special homes, he was creative, a writer, an artist, and college student at the University of Minnesota. Even the act of starting a simple Bible study in his apartment led his caregiver to Christ; that man went on to become a dynamic pastor in the Midwest.

Doug died in 1970 when his 26-year old body could no longer handle the disease.

During his life he surprised us, inspired us, and showed us all that giving up on yourself – and what you can do – is just a load of crap. I miss him and that spirit every single day.

Two Months of The Unknown

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Nobody wants to tell the doctor, “I found a lump.”

During the last week of September 2012 I noticed something under my skin; it was shaped like a tiny ball, below and to the left of my belly button. The mass was no bigger than a pea, a small thing that felt like a muscle knot. This sort of thing happened before, and since I’m prone to tightness in some of my muscles I didn’t give it much thought. But the obsessive part of me never forgot that it was there. The ball itself never hurt, but it always made itself known. By the following Saturday it had grown larger, and seemed to be planting itself deeper in the tissue. At that point I became concerned.

Of course, being a Saturday, there wasn’t a damned thing I could do until Monday – when the clinic opened.

An afternoon social event that same day – for me anyhow – was overshadowed by what I considered to be a threat to my everyday life. I maintained the smiles and conversations, even getting some great pictures of the stunning Mrs. Clark. But all the while I couldn’t stop thinking about the lump. Every medical scenario went through my head – every good one, every not-so-good one, and every fatal one. The longer the obsessing went on, the more desperate my mind became. I found myself thinking about end-of-life plans, how I could help my family before leaving this world, and how I wanted to be remembered. Red wine did a fine job of helping me relax on the subject, although in the end the problem never completely went away.

By the next day I was a complete and non-responsive wreck.

My brain began obsessing at levels I knew were unreasonable. I couldn’t stop. Overactive kids – tied to the amount of noise they can make – didn’t help matters much. After church that day, one of the youth teachers approached me; “David was disruptive during Sunday School,” she stated plainly, “and interrupted us several times. I asked him to stop but he continued anyway.”

“If he keeps doing this next week I will be sending him to you during the church service.”

As she talked I could see her mouth moving. Through that I heard only enough to know there was a problem, an issue which – at that time – I was emotionally ill-equipped to resolve. I said nothing to her, choosing rather to allow my inner dialogue to hold the conversation silently on my behalf – thereby freeing up the brain to continue obsessing about the lump. “Madam,” I said to myself, “you have absolutely no idea how low a priority your issue is with me today.”

By that afternoon I was nauseous and had no appetite.

My back started to hurt. Near dinner time I could think of nothing but the ball stuck under my skin. To that point I hadn’t shared the situation with anyone, including Sherry; I didn’t want her to worry, unless there was something to worry about. And since I had no clue what it was, there was no reason that she suffer over it like me. It was a struggle I felt was important to endure by myself a while longer – hard as it might be.

Sleep that night was merely a time when I wasn’t thinking about the lump.

After The Clark Boys were school-bound the next day, and after Sherry was on her way to work, the first thing I did was grab the kitchen phone and call the doctor’s office. It was the first time I had verbalized to anyone what I experienced over the previous week. The strain of those days finally broke my spirit; as I talked with the call center nurse employed by the insurance provider, my voice broke down and began to shake over the phone. “You boys,” she said, probably trying to lighten the mood and calm me down.

“Given the nature of this issue,” she also stated, “I want your doctor to see you within the next four hours.”

As I pulled into the clinic parking lot an hour later, my phone buzzed with a text message from Sherry. “Do you want to meet for lunch?” This has become our common Monday activity right now, as I am currently working Tuesday through Saturday. “I think so,” I wrote back. “Let me check back with you in an hour.” I was still holding out on telling her what was going on. As I walked through the door of the clinic, I had gone through a week of thinking about the unknown.

The doctor’s assistant was a poor match for my mood.

She acted wooden, unfeeling, and bureaucratic – something I didn’t need given the circumstances. Her eyes made no contact with mine. Her questions were scripted, and dispensed with the rapid technical accuracy of a player piano. There was no smile to be found. Her demeanor was more appropriate for someone who walked into the clinic with a hangnail, rather than someone struggling with an invasive lump under their skin. It’s quite possible that she had a case of The Mondays – there…I said it – so I was relieved when she finally completed the blood pressure test (slightly high) and left the room.

The doctor himself was far more understanding and warm.

“Have we met before?” he asked while giving me a sideways stare. “You look familiar.” I had not seen this doctor before, so I told him I didn’t think so.

“Ah. You must have one of those faces then.”

He checked over my file, and asked a lot of questions about the lump, my health, any symptoms, and family history. He also gave me a fist bump when he found out I had lost 50 pounds over the last year and a half. I did the customary head turns and coughs for him during the exam. He checked the bump and the area around with great scrutiny. His diagnosis at that point wasn’t certain, but it was comforting. “I don’t know what it is,” he said, “but I’m not worried about it.” When I expressed my concern about cancer, his reply was simple and to the point:

“I hear you. Tumors don’t grow there.”

He suspected that a lymph node had gotten upset or swollen under my skin. “I see you have Folliculitis,” he mentioned, pointing to the red acne-like blemishes I’ve dealt with in waves for many years – an ailment which I always referred to as “Leg Things” because of their location. He surmised that the Folliculitis got out of control and that the lymph nodes had to work overtime to battle them. His prescription: Antibiotics.

I was out of the clinic and able to meet Sherry for Mexican Food that day.

It was then that I finally told her what I’d been dealing with for the past week, now that I was comfortable that whatever was going on wouldn’t be my ticket off this rock. Her first reaction: Wide eyes and “Oh!” Of course she was sympathetic and asked a lot of questions. The next day I began taking the antibiotic, confident that the lump would start going away soon.

A week later it was not only the same size, but I was nauseous – presumably from the medication.

My stomach felt so ill 10 days later that I had to leave work, for fear that I would get sick on a coworker. The first thing I did when I got to my truck was call the clinic to schedule with the first available doctor. Within a couple hours I was talking with another medical assistant, this one far more compassionate than the first one I had seen the previous week. When the doctor entered the room, it was very clear that she had read my file very closely; she knew I had lost weight, that I suffer from an upper respiratory issue every Fall, and that my blood pressure was always a little high. I turned my head and coughed upon request. She checked the lump carefully, and checked everything around it. “Do you feel that?” No, I said. “I’m squeezing it really hard.” It felt like she was simply holding onto a door knob attached to my skin; it didn’t hurt at all.

“I suspect this is a group of lymph nodes that have gathered to fight the Folliculitis,” she commented, “but it is definitely unusual. I want you to have an ultrasound done.”

I couldn’t help it anymore. “The first doctor told me that tumors don’t grow there.”

“Yes,” she replied. “That’s true.” She looked more intently at my face.

I burst out crying.

“You okay bud?” she asked, holding up a tissue box. “Seems that this has been weighing on you for a long time.”

It had been weighing heavily. All I could do for her was nod my head and smile; words couldn’t form as the emotion washed over my face. She looked me straight in the eye. “I am confident that this is nothing dangerous. Tumors don’t grow in this spot, and the likelihood of cancer is extremely low. The ultrasound will tell us more.”

I called Sherry after my visit, and she planned to go with me the next day.

While lying on the ultrasound table 24 hours later, I was smeared with ultra-goo and then pressed on with a wand which ran over my skin – back and forth…back and forth. It was amazing to see what transpired on a screen next to the tech, with the top layer of my skin showing toward the top of the monitor. In the middle of the screen, the wand passed over a mass that was hard to see – as it had the same wood-like “grain” as the space around it. The only way to determine that it was something unique was that the grain looked different, slightly bulged or curved. The tech went over it with the wand many times, and from many angles. She asked me to bear down (sp?), and when I did we could see on the monitor that a vein got each time. The tech indicated this was normal, and a good thing.

“I’m going to have our doctor look at this,” she said before leaving the room.

When they both returned, the doctor looked at the screen, checked the lump physically, and then looked at the screen again. “Well I can’t say exactly what it is,” she said. “But I can tell you it’s not a tumor.”

More good news, even if nobody knew what it was.

The doctor clarified her findings. “If it were something malignant,” she commented, “the mass would show up dark. This one appears to be the same kind of tissue that surrounds it, possibly inflammation or an infection.” I was then scheduled to see a doctor the following Monday, for more inspection and review.

At that point I had gone through four weeks of thinking about the unknown.

“The skin above it looks kind of red,” the doctor said the following Monday. “Does it hurt?”

“Not really,” I replied. “It seems to be getting smaller, but I can’t say for sure.” My brain had been working overtime for three weeks already when it came to the lump, so I was at a point where I didn’t know what in this situation was real or what was imagination. We talked about how it got noticed, what had been done, and how long the lump had been around. I also mentioned the nausea that I had been experiencing concurrently. “Historically speaking,” he said, “those two things would not be related. I want a Urologist to look at this lump, because it is around one of the major veins that goes towards your groin. It is possibly a cyst or growth of some kind. A Urologist would know better.” I was then scheduled for another appointment the following Monday.

By then I had five weeks of thinking about the unknown.

During the week in between doctor visits, I noticed that the lump reduced in size – and moved farther down my torso. Forever a mystery. The nausea was still prevalent; in an effort to pinpoint the cause, I cut my coffee intake considerably – an extremely hard thing to do. It didn’t seem to help. In fact, now the nausea was more on my mind than the lump. The stress and uncertainly of it all reintroduced a love for snack food that I had buried successfully over the last year. It was a long week of wonder before the next appointment.

“Turn your head and cough for me,” the Urologist said. It was something I had gotten used to hearing since first noticing the lump – uttered by both male and female doctors. And – as it had been in the past – all was normal “down there.” The Urologist asked several questions, much like the last doctor had. Once again he confirmed that its origins were unknown, but added something else to the diary.

“I think it’s possibly skin inflammation,” he said, “or an abscess of some kind. If it’s the latter, it will present itself and begin to drain (Ewww – Ed.). Either way, you should leave it alone. Don’t touch it, mess with it, nothing at all. It will probably go away in a week.”

I was then scheduled for a follow-up appointment with the previous doctor, 7-days away – which put me at six weeks of thinking about the unknown.

During the next week the lump did begin to disappear. By the time I met with the doctor it was literally a fraction of the size it had been even a week before. The skin above it was no longer red. It had moved farther down, while getting smaller and smaller. He was pleased. I was pleased. While I was still battling the nausea, that too had reduced in relation to the size of the lump. Even if they weren’t related, they acted like they were. Who knows? It could have been stress in direct correlation to to the lump’s size. If it were, that would show the power of the mind.

After eight weeks of thinking about the unknown, the lump was mostly gone; it became a knot even smaller than when I first noticed, and then eventually disappeared. A year later the experience is easily forgotten. The nausea lingered on for  a while, but not at the levels experienced during the ordeal; it seemed to decrease each week. I never did find out in any certain terms what the lump was. But what I did discover is that the lump made me consider some very important things:

Advocate decency – I was reminded how important it is to be compassionate for those who are suffering. The wooden medical assistant during my first doctor visit hit that one home.

Give in to pure emotion – Over the last two months – for many reasons – the tears have fallen. I never know when those tears will manifest themselves, but I usually feel better afterwards. Thinking about a lump made crying okay.

Know the value of intimacy and openness – While it was hard – but in some ways necessary – to keep Sherry in the dark at first, I appreciated her support, companionship, and love throughout this time. I don’t know where I would be without her by my side.

Maintain faith in God, and trust those guided by His hand – I don’t know why the lump appeared, and apparently neither does any doctor who made me turn my head and cough. But I do know that its two-month residency made me consider what was important in life, especially when confronted by the unlikely notion of finality. And no matter what the outcome, I was reminded to have faith in what happens, and to trust the work done by the people who were helping me.

Bottom Line: I can do without the stress of the last two months. While it’s hard to find the good in being scared for nearly sixty days, it’s possible to find something positive in the experience. Whatever life you have left shouldn’t be squandered, whether it be sixty days or sixty years. There is so much to see and experience in our world, amazing things that will turn your head and present themselves in a whole new way if given a second look. Good can come from bad.

A little unknown lump taught me that.

The Shoes In The Living Room

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My house is filled with reminders of a heart which beats no more.

As we careen through a week – and counting – after my Mother-in-law Janice passed away, Sherry and I have seen our lives get mostly back to normal. Yes, we still have moments of emotion. We have both been going into work, taking The Clark Boys on outings, and going to the things we attended prior to Jan’s illness. Hospice care is done. The machines of life have been picked up, and the remaining medicine has been dispatched for safe disposal. The Death Certificate arrived today on a big brown truck. No longer do we hear the sounds of Care. In a sense we have regained much of our lives and increasing amounts of composure.

Until I look down and I see a pair of shoes.

Jan’s blue slip-on shoes sit behind her favorite chair, put there during her last visit to the living room over two weeks ago. I noticed them a few days back. I don’t want to move them, even though I know I should. In a way, those shoes say she is still here, reading her mystery novels and checking her blood sugar. They point to a time when she could walk. They would have been on her feet while ordering fish & chips at Red Robin (with cocktail sauce instead of tartar). Those shoes would have seen Jan water a thousand plants in the yard – ones that I have managed to kill through an acute inability to care for anything green. Those shoes are her now. One of the last things she asked me to do for her was to put shoes on her feet.

They aren’t the only reminders we have.

In the kitchen sits the small hand-sized cutting board she used for onions. Her crafting supplies take up every spare nook in the laundry room. Upstairs the mundane things of life – an overworked DVR, more shoes, 1980s business suits, toothpaste, a special mouthwash, and towels in a design only Jan would buy – keep her memory alive in the house. We can’t keep it all; looking around our cluttered house we get that point clearly. Sherry and her Mom lived here from 1970 on, which means there is plenty of stuff that can move on (ours and hers). It will be a chore figuring out what items should be kept to remember Jan, what items will be shared with family, and what can be donated to help someone else live better.

43 years of reminders – tucked, here, there and everywhere.

One of the hardest things I did this week was to compile photos of Jan for her memorial service slideshow. More reminders of her life, in full view, and marking the years of good and bad. I didn’t use all the ones I found. Some carried the kinds of sad memories that simply need to go on a back shelf, like the last picture I took three hours before she passed. The rest make me cry, and I have done so each time I have viewed the file in preparation for the service; even today, watching it large on the sanctuary wall, brought the tears.

Sometimes it’s hard being a visual learner.

Reminders aren’t a bad thing. Being sentimental is tough, but worth it. If looking at shoes makes me sad, I’m pretty sure this indicates I have a soul. It’s safe to say, even though Jan and I had a difficult relationship, that I have some good reminders mixed in with the not so good. In a way those shoes in the living room are the kinds of things that will help me remember the good times, instead of her gruff commentary or constant cough. I need more of that. Twenty-two years in the same house with a mother-in-law was not easy, but the right thing to do. I need every positive bit I can find. Eventually those slip-on shoes will go to Goodwill.

And I will become the guardian of the spirit they represented.

In The Quiet

The house is oddly silent.

For a last couple months our noisy friend in the living room has pumped oxygen through a tube, up the stairs, and through a cannula to help my mother-in-law breath. After she died our noisy friend was given a vacation. He had worked well – tirelessly, without complaint – and provided the most basic requirement for a women who needed comfort in her final days. A quiet now hangs in the air with our noisy friend shut down; his hum/hiss no longer fills every corner of the home.

It’s symbolic of Jan’s passing – plain and simple.

His departure is not the only reason our house is quiet this morning. Jan had a constant cough the entire time I knew her. We lived in the same house for 22 years, and her rattle had become a part of the ambiance in every way our noisy friend in the living room had in the last two months. A person would walk in the door and expect to hear the cough. However unpleasant to the ear, it meant she was there.

That too is gone.

But this means she is now comfortable, never needing to clear her throat or struggle to say anything. Ever. No longer will she be frightened. or frustrated by a body which doesn’t doe what she wants it to do. She is at peace, and the memories of her life – like her cough – have now transitioned to part of family lore.

The cough went l silent, but not her legend.

Sherry and I have been inspired, comforted, and literally bowled over by the outpouring of emotion, love and kindness from our friends and family during Jan’s last days. Words do help in circumstances like these. It was an sad and amazing journey – one I tried to share with you in my own way. Nobody would choose to repeat it. Nevertheless I am now prepared to take it on again. Of course, NOTHING prepares a person for the emotion of losing a loved one.

All you can do is hang on and let the tears roll.

Even now as I sit in the quiet of the downstairs, the GOOD parts of my relationship with Jan run through my head. I want to keep those alive, and tuck away the difficult encounters we had over the years. She wasn’t easy. Her head was complicated. She had a sharp tongue. I pushed all of this aside in the final weeks because there was no reason to let it interfere with giving her what she needed. Her comfort in the end was worth enduring every hard word, every passive comment, and the years of rattling coughs.

The silence of our house is now filled with her soul.