On the Edge

I spoke into the darkness. “David, what if that was a heart attack?”

“It wasn’t.”

“But you said the pressure in your chest made it hard to breathe. That sounds like—”

“I had pressure, not pain,” David said. “It wasn’t a heart attack.”

All that evening, his shoulders had felt tighter than usual. As he’d transferred the few steps from wheelchair to bed, the pressure moved down into his chest and made him light-headed. He finished the transfer, sat on the edge of the bed, then said, “I’m going to pass out.” His ashen face convinced me. I swung his legs up and settled his head on the pillow. We took his blood pressure, and it came out high. But the second time, just a few minutes later, his color was back to normal and so were his numbers.

Whew. Maybe I should’ve taken my blood pressure too.

Now, lying in the darkness, I said, “I looked up symptoms of heart attack. A lot of people have pressure and no pain.”

“I feel fine. I’m not going to the ER.”

I couldn’t blame him. We’ve done the nighttime emergency room run before, and it’s always miserable. But I wasn’t happy about doing nothing.

I’ll skip over my mental gyrations throughout that sleep-deprived night. But next morning, as David’s home health CNA was about to head off for his next client, I asked (loudly) if David had said anything about what happened last night. I knew Eddie had had an episode himself some years earlier. He’d told us that he denied the possibility of heart attack, then agreed to take a blood test the next day and discovered his heart had indeed been damaged and needed treatment. I figured he’d be on my side.

Sure enough. He shot David a look as fierce as anything I could give. As I backed away to get myself ready for the day, I heard the lecture begin.

When I came out again, David was on the phone with DispatchHealth, a come-to-your-home medical group Eddie had just told him about. In a short time, a kind, competent, cheerful young woman arrived to hook David up for an EKG. Like most things medical, it didn’t all go smoothly. Her team had recently been provided with new equipment, and her monitor wouldn’t connect with the electrodes. She called a nearby co-worker who stopped by to drop off another set. That one didn’t work either.

This meant she had to call the EMTs, who filled our quiet street with fire engine, ambulance, and uniformed men and women. They were also kind, competent, and cheerful. Their EKG, which worked fine, showed no heart attack happening at the moment. But as for last night’s event, this would require going to the hospital for the blood test Eddie had described.

That made sense. Lesson learned.

Poised to bring their stretcher in and load him up, they gave David the option to say no. He took it.

When the EMTs cleared out, the woman from DH remained. She hadn’t let frustration with her equipment interfere with her commitment to us. “It’s a good idea to get that test,” she said.

“Can we just go to an Urgent Care? We have one we really like.”

She shook her head. “But you could go to an ED.”

“What’s an ED?” David asked.

Another lesson learned. Within fifteen minutes, we were in the van and rolling toward a stand-alone Emergency Department affiliated with a small hospital not far away. An ED can do more than a UC and almost everything an ER can do. Our DH person had called to let her doctor know, and her doctor had called the ED. They were expecting US. I mean, us.

We wound up being there for several hours, but this wasn’t nearly as tiring as half that amount of time at any ER I’ve dealt with. Everyone took excellent care of David, kept us informed, led me to the little cafeteria so I could bring back lunch for us both, and took blood for all sorts of tests. David has challenging veins, but the phlebotomist nailed it first try. Our congratulations were heartfelt.

The upshot: David is healthier than just about anyone I know. As for the pressure and dizziness, I’m almost certain it came from how he sometimes holds his shoulders rolled somewhat forward. That means he has to crane his neck, especially when trying to stand, which would make anyone dizzy. He had definitely been doing that the other evening.

So, why did I title this “On the Edge”?

As David and I organized ourselves to leave the room where we’d spent the last few hours, an official-looking woman came in, masked like everyone else. I figured she wanted our insurance information. “No,” she said. “I’m the manager of this ED. And all our staff out there are talking about you.”

We both got the big-eyed uh-oh look.

“You may be used to treating people like that,” she said, “but we’re not used to it.”

Major uh-oh.

Above the mask, her eyes brimmed with quick tears. “You have been so kind to everyone here. They’re all talking about you. The pandemic just about did us in. Some of our staff got Covid, others wore out and left nursing altogether. I know Covid has put our patients under a lot of pressure too, and they treat my staff so badly. I try to protect them, but…”

The tears ran down behind her mask. “This has gone on so long, and it’s so hard on my people. I just wanted to thank you.”

She turned and hurried out.

Toward the end, a young nurse had come into our room. I looked at her. “Your manager really cares about you all.”

“She’s the best.” Above the mask, her eyes were intense. “If it weren’t for her, I wouldn’t still be here. It’s been hell.”

David and I did nothing out of the ordinary. We treated those people the way our parents taught us to treat anybody. For basic civility to so amaze this hard-working little group of people … I don’t know what to say about that.

No, David’s health was far from being on the edge.

But the medical community is. Be kind to them.

We’re Stronger than We Look

May 17, 2022 is a big day for David and me. “We’re Stronger than We Look,” the book I wrote for caregivers, will be released by NavPress.

Yahoo!

When David and I first came home from Craig Hospital in 2009, I would love to have been given a book like this. Not a how-to, although of course it includes things I’ve learned over these 13 years, but real stories to create connection and encouragement. Longtime caregivers also need that. We can feel so inadequate and isolated.

One woman who leads a group of fellow caregivers heard about the book online and tracked me down to ask if it would be good for a discussion group like hers. It definitely would. That’s why I’ve dusted off this blog and will start paying attention again. If you have any questions or comments, this is a good way to reach me.

Take note that while my underlying Christian worldview pops up here and there, this book should be fine for anybody.

“We’re Stronger than We Look” is on Amazon, NavPress.com, and ChristianBooks.

Help Needed

If you’re a caregiver or have been one, I’d love to hear from you. I’m writing a book about caregiving, but I don’t want it to all be from my experience.

What would you want a caregiver to know? Do you have a story that’s funny, touching, or somewhere between? If you just want to give me the basic points, I can write it up and let you okay the result. No matter what, I’ll probably do some rewriting. I can use your name or keep you anonymous, whichever you prefer.

If you’re interested, send me an email at jillcbrown54.jb@gmail.com.

Not-so-Soft Paws

We turned in our Rent-a-Cat last month. She left without a backward meow.

This is what happened, and I think it’s a rather wonderful story.

As you know if you read my last blog post, our 20-year-old cat, Polly, died last September. I missed her intensely. I couldn’t focus on everyday tasks, just wandered around a house that seemed way too empty. It may be a cliché, but for such a small cat, she left an enormous hole.

A week after Polly died, as we had our morning coffee, I told David, “I need to ask God what He’s going to do to fill the emptiness. I can’t stand this.”

That afternoon when I went to pick up David from work, our teammate Katie was reading a newsletter on her computer. “Hey, Jill,” she said. “Maybe you could take this cat.” She showed me the letter, written by a couple about to leave on an eight-month mission trip. They’d had a place lined up for their cat, but it had fallen through at the last moment.

“No way,” I said. “I’m not ready.”

But when we got home, I kept thinking about what I’d told David that morning. The timing was just too perfect. Figuring I could at least check into the situation, I called Katie and got the couple’s phone number.

I talked to the wife. She sounded delighted and incredulous in equal amounts. When I suggested that I would be happy to back off if someone else wanted to step in, she said, “That’s not going to happen. Believe me, people aren’t standing in line to keep this cat. She’s high maintenance.”

Uh-oh. “How so?” I asked.

To start with, the cat couldn’t tolerate being around other animals. Only because we’d just lost Polly would this be workable. As for the rest, here’s what the instructions they drew up for me said:

Dear David and Jill,

Thank you soooo much for caring for Buoy while we are away.

Buoy is a talker, and you will probably get to understand her sounds and what they mean. We like that about her.

Meds

Dasuquin – green capsule once a day. We give it in the morning. Helps with calming.

Clindamycin liquid – given with syringe once in the morning and evening. This is for her sinus congestion and sneezing.

Alprazolam – white pill that needs to be cut in half is an anxiety med that she uses occasionally when stressed. We find one half daily rather than twice daily as recommended is enough. If used twice daily, she gets loopy. May need it for a while during her transition between homes. If her urine is red it means her bladder is irritated, and this med calms her body down.

Soft Paws – Clip nails back about half the white nail. Put one or two drops of glue in the plastic Soft Paw cover. Hold her paw and isolate the nail from her fur. Slide on the cover and give it a push back. She will hiss at you. Hold her on her back with arm under her front legs. She stays put well this way. They recommend about 10 minutes for dry time. It is recommended to keep glue in frig for longer glue life, but remove it and let warm up before using. Glue does not flow well when cold.

Recommend combing once or twice a week, if you can. She does not care for this and will growl the whole time.

If you pick her up and she hisses or growls, don’t worry, that’s just her communication and she will not escalate it.

Taking on this high-maintenance cat required a certain amount of courage. But, of course, that’s true for most of God’s answers. And it worked great. Buoy (whom we also called Boo, Boo-Boo, Rent-a-Cat, and The Galloping Mop) filled our house with her presence and kept me busy with all those little acts of service. She never became deeply attached to either of us, but she adored David’s wheelchair and snuggled against one wheel whenever it stayed still for long. Amazing that he ran over her tail only once.

I got to be fairly adept at giving the meds, but as for the Soft Paws . . . I watched the company’s instructional video, and all I can say is they must have drugged their cat. Between my ineptitude and Buoy’s struggles, we both ended up with superglue everywhere it shouldn’t be. I’m not sure which of us suffered more.

Last month, the couple returned from their trip. They were happy to get Buoy back, and we were okay with handing her over. She belongs with them. The eight months had given us time to heal from losing Polly, and the temporary nature of our good deed meant there had been no suggestion of trying to replace the irreplaceable.

Now the house is empty again, but it has a different feeling this time. David and I have begun talking about what comes next, but we’re in no hurry. Winter might be a better time to take on a furry indoor creature, one who will curl up in the basket by the fireplace.

A cat? More likely a kitten. Kittens are irresistible.

Whatever, it won’t be wearing Soft Paws.

Polly

Our cat, Polly, died last September. She’d been with us for twenty years, and I still can’t write this without keeping a box of tissues at hand. Losing her was hard enough on its own, but her death also brought out something I’d never clearly recognized before: loss is like a magnet. Each new grief draws to itself pieces of older griefs.

No wonder losing a pet is so much heavier than we expect. Hard to drag around with us. Any loss we haven’t fully grieved adds its weight . . . and when can a person ever say they’ve fully grieved something? Even if we thought we did, we’ve changed since then. We need to go deeper.

Deeper is good. Deeper is hard.

David and I gave Polly a great life. But I keep getting stuck on the painful time, those last dark weeks. That last day. Her small, vulnerable form curled into the brown afghan on the loveseat, her place of refuge. My hands lifting her off, putting her into the carrier to go to the vet. David’s fingers stroking the soft, rumpled fur of her head. Her fragility on my lap as the spark of life went out.

“She’s so tired,” the vet had told us. “She’s ready to go.”

Polly desktop picture

She was ready. That helps lighten the grief just a little, and I know it will keep getting lighter. But for now, it’s still weighted with everything I’ve ever lost.

Because we weren’t ready. We never are.

Not-So-Routine Errands

I haven’t quite reached the laugh-about-it stage. Soon, but not yet.

If you’ve ever had to prepare for a doctor appointment by doing one of those 24-hour urine collections, you know how gigantic the orange collection jug is. It seems laughable that you could ever fill it. But David did, to the brim. That is, he did his part, which was to produce. My role was to collect throughout the day and night and one final time the next morning. Monday morning.

“I’m happy that’s done,” I told David, tucking the jug into a bag of ice. “After I take you in to work, I’ll drop it off at the clinic.”

We’d also filled out our ballots for city councilman and two propositions, which took a lot less time than filling the orange jug. David rolled himself into the van, and I put everything else in. After dropping him off at work, I headed straight for the clinic. I was ready to be completely done with that task.

But on the way, I realized I would pass right by the ballot drop-off site. In fact, there it was. Impulsively, I hit the brakes and took a sharp right.

Blam!

The orange jug hurled itself over the barricade I’d created and crash landed on the van’s floor. The lid flew off.

Sploosh!

A tsunami of urine and ice surged toward me. Of the 3,000 milliliters in the jug, at least 2,800 were now rolling across the van’s floor, on which sat our ballots, the shopping list, and my phone.

I didn’t say much. The only word I spoke for the next few seconds was “No!” I probably said it fifty times, though, and I didn’t really say it. I howled it. I’d glance down at the floor. “No! No! No!” Then I’d look up and steer. Finally, I pulled over to the curb so I could safely take in the full extent of the disaster. Bad in every sense. Literally.

That changed the day’s schedule. On to the clinic to hand over the pathetic remnants, explain what happened, and get a new orange jug—trying all the while to stay out of the stink range of other people. Then home to scrub the van for the next hour or so. The bottoms of my shoes got a good scrubbing, too, and spent the rest of the day baking in the sunshine. I considered giving our ballots the sun treatment as well, but the black ink we’d used had bled through the envelope. They went in the trash.

As for my phone, I took it apart and dabbed at the wet spots, then gave it a cautious wipe-down with vinegar. It seems to be okay. I just try not to think about it.

So, life goes on. Two days later, the new jug rode back to the clinic locked in a plastic tub, traveling five miles below the speed limit and with a minimum of turns. Some lessons don’t need to be learned twice. The van still stinks. There’s no other word for it. Not as intensely, though, which gives hope for the future. And for now, the high-powered lemon deodorizer swinging from the rear view mirror stuns the sinuses into acceptance, at least on the short trips I’ve had so far. Driving to Denver next week will be the real test.

Want to come along?

Okay, now I’m laughing.

Take and Give

The breakfast nook where I usually write gives a clear view of the house across the street. This works out well. My neighbor is recently widowed, and I like to keep an eye on her place.

The other day, two teenage girls stopped on the sidewalk outside her fence. I watched as they lingered near the big tree on the easement. They were talking, maybe arguing. I went back to my work. When I glanced up again, one girl was reaching through my neighbor’s fence.

I came to full alert. What was she doing?

The girl plucked a flower and walked out of sight behind the tree. A few moments later, she reappeared and marched purposefully toward the fence. She took another flower.

I scooted my chair back, intending to go outside and put an end to this. But she was headed for the tree again, while the other girl looked on. I hesitated. What was she doing? She went back to the fence, where she plucked another flower. Then back to the tree.

After several more trips, they left. I let a few minutes pass, then went outside and crossed the street.

This is what I saw on the ground behind the tree.

Bird funeral

Only then did I remember the small dead sparrow I’d seen on the sidewalk a few days earlier. How sad, I’d thought, and kept going. This girl saw it, too. But she did something beautiful.

Can you see it?

Threads

The threads of life – you never know where they’ll join up!

When warning lights showed on the dash of our converted van, we weren’t happy. Would you be? Check engine, oil pressure, air bag . . . time to take our baby in to be checked. So this morning I drove David to work early and headed for my appointment at the dealership.

The bad news, which I already knew, was that others were ahead of us. This meant the van would probably be there all day. The good news: they had a courtesy shuttle and were happy to drive me home. The driver and I talked all the way. Larry was familiar with our neighborhood, and in the context of describing our house, I mentioned David’s accident.

“A bicycle accident? When was that?” he asked.

“August 11, 2009.”

Larry’s face had gone from cheerful to dead serious. “Was it on one of the bike trails?”

I nodded.

“I heard about that,” he said. “I was working for the sheriff’s department then, and I was there when the call came in. They said it didn’t look good.”

“It wasn’t good. No one thought he’d make it, but he’s doing great.”

Larry wanted to know more, so I told him that David can walk a little, works full time, holds no bitterness over his limitations but keeps pressing forward.

“Well, dang.” He grinned. “This is so good. You know, I worked in the sheriff’s department for more than 20 years. From all that time, there are maybe 3 or 4 incidents that really stick in my memory. This is one of them. For some reason, that day is so clear to me.”

I had to blink back tears. Almost 7 years ago, a stranger had been touched by the event that changed us forever. And now, unplanned and unexpected, I’d met him. There’s power in seeing the threads of separate lives come together. From a casual business contact, this drive home had deepened into a true connection. I could hardly wait to call David and tell him.

Larry pulled into the driveway. “Will I be picking you up to get back to the dealership?”

I nodded. “Today, hopefully. I’ll look forward to seeing you again.”

“Sounds good.” He grinned and shook his head. “Dang!”

Amen to that.

 

Ragbag of Regret

“Unconsciously, like most blind people, I had never accepted the fact of being blind. There was always a small voice insisting, I’ve got to see. I can’t go on living like this. But that voice always has to be strangled, suppressed, because if you heed its message, you will never be anything more than a ragbag of regret, unable to take your part in the world.”

When I looked up from reading those sentences aloud, David was staring at me. “That’s exactly how I feel,” he said.

He swept his arm awkwardly through the air, indicating his legs and wheelchair. “Sometimes I think, I can’t go on living like this.” His eyes were serious, but they shone. Hearing someone express an exact truth you could never put into words for yourself brings both relief and power.

This was doubly powerful, a two-part truth from someone who understands: This is how I feel, and this is what I have to do about it.

David and I always have a read-aloud book going together. We move from beekeeping to Christian fantasy and everything in between. We can’t even begin to guess how much this has enriched us. Right now, we’re almost finished with Emma and I, Sheila Hocken’s true story about her blindness and her guide dog, Emma. This Englishwoman, who will never meet or even hear of David, lifted and strengthened him with words she wrote 40 years ago.

“A ragbag of regret,” David said. “That’s such a good way to put it.”

And I love the way she didn’t just say, “take part in the world,” but “take your part in the world.” It’s there for you to take.

David does that. And now, because of what we read together last night, he’s stronger to keep doing that.

 

 

 

 

Legacy

I glanced out the window. The man was still there, staring at our house from across the road. The woman had wandered a short distance away, looking at the neighbors’ lilac bushes. But he just leaned against the car, his gaze intent.

Something in his expression sent me outside and down the front steps. As I crossed the street toward him, he gave a start and straightened. Not a guilty reaction. More like embarrassment at being caught.

“Can I help you?” I asked.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I was just looking at your house. My grandfather built it for his family, in 1926.” He smiled shyly. “I haven’t been back here since I was a boy.”

Grandpas House 1963 2Brooks Parents in Later Years

So, of course, I invited him and his wife to come in and see the house. He pointed out changes, reminiscing about memories like going with his grandfather to fetch coal from the basement. They didn’t stay long. As they left, he paused on the front porch.

“My mother remembers the Great Depression,” he said. “My grandfather was a brick and stone mason, so he mostly stayed in work. If they didn’t have money, people he did jobs for paid him in food. Every Sunday after church, the men would set up long tables on this porch. The women would cook and load the tables with food, and anyone could come and eat.”

He gestured. “She remembers the house and yard full of people walking around with plates, talking to each other and eating. For some of them, it was the only decent meal they’d get all week.”

In the silence that followed, his shyness returned. “Well, thanks. I won’t take any more of your time. It was good to see the house again.” But his smile held a hint of sadness. “It’s changed a lot.”

When I picked up David from work, I told him that story. He loved it as much as I did. “That’s quite a legacy,” he said.

A legacy of generosity and true hospitality. May this be one thing about the house that will never change.