Archive | May, 2011

Life As a Happiness Project

There’s a book on the bestseller lists called The Happiness Project.  I haven’t read it, and I don’t intend to.  The title alone makes me squirm a little.  Really?  Happiness as a project?  I have long been skeptical of formulas for happiness, and though I haven’t read this book (and therefore, admittedly, may be misjudging its intent, though I kind of doubt it since there seem to be personal Happiness Projects cropping up all over the blogiverse), I suspect that that’s what it is underneath it all: another formula for finding true happiness.  And therefore it’s a bestseller, because who isn’t looking for the key to happiness?

A friend of mine recently shared this article on Facebook: How the Light Gets In.  It really struck a chord with me.  Why is “happiness” and positivity so important in our culture?  More to the point, why are people so repelled by dark, or negative emotions?

What is happiness, anyway?  How is it defined and quantified?  I suppose happiness can be summed up as fulfillment and contentedness, if not outright bliss.  Bliss, I think everyone can agree, tends to be very fleeting.  Fulfillment and contentedness can have more staying power, but life is such a melting pot of experiences and circumstances that it seems nearly impossible to find and maintain fulfillment and contentedness in all areas of one’s life.  You may feel content in your marriage, for instance, but not so much at work.  You may feel fulfilled with your relationships with your family, but maybe not with other people in your life.

And the ugly truth is, awful things happen in life.  People you thought you could count on let you down, jobs get lost, money runs out, loved ones die, kids make bad choices, marriages fall apart, plans fall apart, dreams fall apart.

But apparently what we’ve come to expect of ourselves and each other is that what you do in the wake of all life’s crap is keep a smile on your face and think positive.  See the bright side.  That is what we’ve deemed strength and resilience.  Anything less is seen as weakness, failure.  People are lauded and admired for seemingly turning the shit into sunshine in life.  It’s reassuring; it makes us believe that nothing can be so bad as to completely undo us.  When someone asks, “How are you doing?” even in the midst of hard times, what they really want to hear is “I’m okay, I’m good.”  Why is this?  Probably partly because we’re all so busy with our own lives and problems that we really don’t have time to get wrapped up in someone else’s problems.  But I think at the core of our distaste for negative emotions is fear.  We don’t know what to do with someone else’s negative emotions, let alone our own.  There is a fear of losing control of ourselves, our lives, if we give ourselves over to dark feelings.  So we strive for these false symbols of happiness and resilience.

I am reminded of being lectured by a group of people I thought were my friends a couple years back about choosing happiness.  I’m still bitter about it.  This was directly following the end of Michael’s year-long cancer treatment, which put our whole family through the wringer.  And the end of his treatment, obviously, wasn’t the end of the ripple effects of his cancer.  Needless to say, I was not in the best place emotionally then, and being someone who has always worn my heart on my sleeve, my emotions were out there for everyone to see, and this certain small group I was a part of actually lectured me about choosing happiness.

In the interest of self-preservation, I disentangled myself from the group.  I still from time to time, though, revisit in my mind the conversations that took place, and I still feel hurt, and very misunderstood.  I also understand, however, that this is very typical and symptomatic of our culture’s general, collective distaste for dark, negative emotions.  We’re all after a quick fix for what ails us, we all want to feel good, and to be around people who seem to feel good and who, in turn, make us feel good.  Feeling good, even if it’s only on the surface, makes us feel safe.

As for me, I have a deep respect and appreciation for the dark emotions.  When I was making up my mind to have an unmedicated home birth after having had four medicated hospital births, I did a lot of reading about natural childbirth.  In all my reading, there was a common thread about respecting the hard work one’s body does to give birth, about surrendering to the pain and riding the waves of it, knowing that they come and go and that in the end, the pain and sweat and utter labor will result in a beautiful gift.  Although not everyone might appreciate the comparison, I think allowing ourselves to fully feel all of our emotions, including the dark ones, can be equally transformative.  This is how we learn about ourselves, about what we’re really made of, about gratitude and hope and joy.  It is empowering.  Happiness is not about suppressing or doing away with the bad emotions, it’s about allowing a place for them.

Though I have certainly not had the worst life ever lived, I have experienced a lot of really bad shit, and I firmly believe that my life is richer for all of my experiences, good and bad.  Joy and gratitude cannot be fully experienced without understanding and appreciating grief, sorrow, fear, despair, and anger.  We are all the sums of our entire lives; every event and emotion we experience shapes us.  Though I would gladly never see another hard time visit me or my family again, I know there will be more hard times ahead, and the only real key to any measure of happiness is to experience it all, fully and mindfully, with respect and reverence.

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The Saga Continues . . .

Michael had a follow-up appointment with his surgeon this morning (his regular cancer surgeon, not the Bozo who did emergency surgery a month ago because he left Michael to go septic).  The good doctor was concerned enough about the shape Michael’s in (virtually no improvement over the last week since he was discharged from his second stay in the hospital) that he referred him to a pulmonary specialist STAT.

So Michael got in to see the pulmonary guy this afternoon, who, after checking Michael out, expressed surprise that the hospital discharged Michael last week in this condition.  He took another chest x-ray, ran some more labs, and . . .

Shall we spin the Wheel of Diagnoses again?

Asthmatic Bronchitis.  A pretty bad case of it, I hear tell.  This doctor seems to think this would explain the fatigue Michael continues to have, as well as a host of other symptoms.

I have no idea if this is a complication of his surgery/sepsis a few weeks ago, or if he just coincidentally caught the same bug I’ve had for a month (and which half the kids now have) but has been unable to fight it because of his compromised state.  I guess that will remain a mystery.

So, a whole new slew of prescriptions, including breathing treatments with a nebulizer.

I haven’t lost hope, but I have to say that it’s hard to kick up my heels at this point.  We’ve been down this road many a time in the last few weeks, thinking they’ve finally gotten to the bottom of it and have it all under control, only to watch Michael continue to be very ill.

I’ll stick with cautiously optimistic.  We shall see.

Miss Annabelle’s Mishap

So, late yesterday afternoon, as Michael was getting ready to throw some Mother’s Day steaks on the grill, Annabelle came upstairs crying and holding her left arm.  It took a good ten minutes to interpret through the wailing and sobbing that she had somehow taken a spill downstairs while watching TV with her sister and hurt her arm.  We could see no visible injury, though she first said it hurt on the outside.  After a few minutes she said it hurt on the inside, but I couldn’t see any swelling or bruising.  Still trying to figure out what happened, I took her downstairs and had her reenact the incident, and to the best of what I could figure, she was rappelling off the side/arm of the futon downstairs and somehow slipped and fell backwards and landed on her arm.

You should listen to yeh muthuh.  How many times have I told you the furniture isn’t playground equipment?

Anyhow.

I wrapped her arm in an ice pack, and a half hour later she was still crying.  She could bend her wrist this way and that, she could make a fist, but when she tried to bear weight on the arm, she cried harder.

Let me just say that, despite how it might look lately, we are not people who look for drama or run to the ER for every little thing.  I was trying as hard as I could to rationalize not going to the ER.  God, I hate that place.  We have seen the halls and walls of that place way too many times.

But Annabelle would not stop crying, so finally I called our pediatrician’s after-hours number and spoke to one of his nurse practitioners who said “You need to take her to the ER.”  Terrific.

We spent a couple of minutes weighing who should take her – i.e., what could Michael best handle, staying home with all the kids and feeding them and putting them to bed on his own, or taking Annabelle to the ER?  We finally let Annabelle decide, and she wanted Daddy to take her.

A little while later, he texted me:  buckle fractures to both her ulna and radius.  Wow!  I seriously thought it was a sprain, at worst.  (But what do I know, right?)

You can’t really see the injury here, but I think this is a super cool picture, the way you can see the folds of skin on her hand and her bones underneath!

A  buckle fracture apparently results from a bone being compressed on itself, and it, well, buckles.  If you were a technician or doctor, you would apparently be able to see tiny little fractures in this photo.  As a lay person, you can see how one of the bones bulges slightly and the other is slightly bent.  That’s where the fractures are.

So she got a temporary plaster splint that she will have on for a few days until the swelling goes down, and later this week she’ll get a bona fide cast (which she’s already promised I can be the first to sign!) that she’ll have to wear for a few weeks.

Michael said she was very brave, that everyone in the ER fawned over her (really, who can resist that impish little face?), and that she whistled in the backseat the whole way home.  That’s our girl!

I kept her home from school today since she was up late last night with her little jaunt to the ER, plus they gave her pain meds that knocked her out.  All day today she was as sweet as pie and positively docile.  The little tornado that constantly tears through the house seems to be on temporary hiatus.

Also?  The fingers she sucks are on her left hand!  And with the cast, she can’t get her hand to her mouth!  This may finally be the thing that breaks her (no pun intended) of the finger-sucking habit – and maybe the hair twirling/pulling to boot . . . ?  A mom can hope, right?

Reflections on Motherhood

I often look at my kids and still feel a little shocked that they each came from me, these sweet, stubborn, quirky offspring, complete little people in their own right.  I love them fiercely, and they drive me crazy.  They each make my life richer than I ever imagined, and even though I sometimes secretly confess to myself that I might be a better mother to fewer kids, I can’t imagine my life, or our family, without every single one of them.  The day-to-day grind wears me down sometimes, and yet, I often feel a desperation to hang onto now, because it really does go by in a flash.  I can remember each of their infanthoods so clearly that it feels like something tangible I can almost – but not quite – grab hold of with my hands.  They’re growing up by leaps and bounds, and sometimes it breaks my heart.

I’m not sure where this urge to reproduce, to mother, came from for me.  My own mother certainly never made parenting look like an appealing endeavor.  I think for the longest time, I just wanted this wellspring of love inside me to be tapped.  I wanted to be allowed to love somebody without reservation, and yes, selfishly, to be loved back in the same manner – something I never experienced until I became a mother.  And so, after a long, painful road, Kevin was born, and for the first time I began to experience a love that often leaves a physical ache in the center of me.

I wake up every day wanting to be a better mother to my kids than I was the day before, and every day I fail to be the mother I want to be, the mother I think my kids deserve: patient, calm, selfless, and wise.  It’s a fool’s game to keep setting standards I know I can’t live up to.  I know I’m not the worst mother out there, but far from the best either.  And yet, no matter how much I feel I fail, no matter how unqualified I often feel, my kids keep on loving this mom they got stuck with.

***

This morning there was a pile of cards – most of them homemade – on the table for me, as well as gifts.  Most notable:

This from Joey –

Wow.  I was speechless by this.  My sweet boy.

These from Michael –

This photo doesn’t do it justice.  It’s a photo of the kids taken about a year and a half ago (one we used for our 2009 holiday card), printed on an 8″ X 10″  sheet of tin – yes, tin!  It’s very cool, I love it!

This is a photo of me and Finn taken when Finn was a mere infant.  Michael had it printed on a 16″ X 24″ canvas!  Just to give perspective of the size of it:

Not the most flattering picture of me, and yes, it’s a little weird to have a poster-size closeup of my face hanging on the living room wall, but this photo is very dear to me, embodying all the love I discovered for this baby I never expected to have.

Anyway, it was a nice Mother’s Day.

Capped off by another trip to the ER, the details of which I will save for tomorrow.

I’d Like My Husband Back, Please.

Everyone wants to know how Michael is doing, and the only answer I have is a resounding “I don’t know.”

I watch him like a hawk, looking for any sign of improvement or decline.  Promising signs include the fact that his color has remained good since he came home from the hospital a few days ago (it’s no longer the pale, ashen look he had before they topped him off with three units of blood), and he no longer seems to be running any kind of fever, even the low-grade variety.  Discouraging signs include the fact that he’s still got a nasty, rattly cough, and he’s still draggy and tired.  It’s true that he hasn’t missed a single one of the kids’ Little League games, and he can even be spotted out on the field during games, but if you watch a little longer, you might also see him lying down on the bench in the dugout between innings.

I’m not sure what we should be expecting in terms of recovery here.  I’ve stopped looking for a noticeable turnaround and figure at this point that it’s going to be very slow and gradual.  Any improvement does seem so incremental at this point that I’m not even sure what’s real and what’s imagined.  It’s frustrating and disheartening, and it’s difficult to see a light at the end of the tunnel right now.  It feels on some level that we’ve been taken back to chemo days.

Everyone is stressed out and emotionally impacted.  Daisy seems to have been hit the hardest, swinging back and forth between snotty and bratty, and tearful and clingy.  She’s afraid that something bad is going to happen to her or to Daddy when her back is turned.  She and Annabelle went on a field trip for school today, and their teacher (also a friend) texted me, telling me that Daisy was afraid something bad was going to happen to her Daddy while she was away on her field trip, and could Michael call her cell and talk to Daisy and reassure her?  Bickering, tattling, sassiness, and whining have reached a fever pitch with almost all the kids (though, surprisingly, Annabelle, the one we have perhaps wrongly labeled our “problem child,” seems to be holding it together better than anyone else, and her behavior has been notably positive).  Petty crimes have cropped up; Daisy has been caught lying both at school and at home a number of times, and Joey was caught stealing (a baseball card that he regretted trading with his brother) and forging a signature on his homework (the same brother’s signature; he was made to face the music and confess to his teacher that he forged the signature).  It’s difficult to distinguish between what’s just age-related and what’s stress-related, and how to proceed with discipline in either case.

I think we’re all just plumb wore out.

I want our life back.  Michael and I have a romantic trip for two to San Francisco on the books in a month – the first time in five years we will have been away just the two of us – and I don’t even know if it’s going to happen now.  We have a family vacation planned in two months’ time, and I don’t know if that’s going to happen, either.  We seem to be in a holding pattern.  I want a future to look forward to, to count on.  I want my family healthy and happy.

Michael will see his doctor next week and hopefully we’ll get a better idea then of where everything stands.  Until then, we wait.  Patience.  Optimism.  Easier said than done.

The Death of Osama bin Laden

In a curious twist of coincidence, on the morning of September 11, 2001, as the Twin Towers were falling, I was on my way to the hospital to have surgery.  Nearly ten years later, when the news came in that Osama bin Laden had been killed, I was on my way to the hospital with my gravely ill husband.

As we drove to the ER last Sunday night, a friend texted me, asking if I had heard the news.  No, what news?  Osama bin Laden was killed, she replied.  Michael and I turned on the radio in the truck, where the news was confirmed.

Over the next day or so, lots of footage could be seen of a jubilant America – whooping and hollering, cheering, literally dancing in the streets.  Celebrating.  I was, and am, disturbed by this.

By all accounts, Osama bin Laden was an evil man who masterminded the 9/11 terrorist attacks and was responsible, directly and indirectly, for thousands of other deaths around the world, of both non-Muslims and Muslims alike.  Borne out of the events on 9/11 is a terrible war that has waged now for nearly a decade, with massive loss of life of military and civilians.

It is hard to argue with the fact that bin Laden needed to be taken down.  It was a necessary evil.  But it seems to me that the situation calls for somber respect and reflection of all that has been lost – not celebratory dancing in the streets.

Home

Hmm . . . didn’t I just recently write a post about Michael coming home from the hospital?

I was very surprised when he texted me this morning and told me that his doctor said he might be able to go home today.  I was even more surprised when he texted me a little while later and said that he was already signing all the papers, etc. and could leave whenever he wanted to.  So I went and picked him up at around noon.

Honestly, he was barely there long enough for me to eke some really good drama out of the situation for the ol’ blog, don’t you think?

Okay, seriously now.  So they went in yesterday afternoon and drained the abscesses, guided by CAT scan, by inserting needles/catheters into his body between his ribs.  A painful procedure to say the least, and he’s very sore today.  They pumped him full of industrial-strength antibiotics via IV, they pumped him full of blood, and they’ve sent him home with a course of two different oral antibiotics.  He’s obviously not back 100%, but his color seems better, he’s tired but not exhausted, and he seems to be getting his appetite back a little bit, too.  All we can do at this point is wait and see what happens.

As for me, I’m wiped out.  My whole body aches from exhaustion, even though I slept a good nine hours last night.  When we got home from the hospital, I couldn’t help myself – I curled up on the bed, pulled a blanket over me, and went to sleep for a while.  I think the stress and everything just has a way of knocking a person on her ass.  Also, I came down with the flu a few weeks ago when Michael was in the hospital, and I’ve never gotten completely over it, so that’s a drain, too.

But enough about me.

Here’s hoping for bluer skies.

Speedbump? Hurdle? Pothole? I don’t Know Anymore.

I wrote a long, ranty post yesterday about how hard everything has been.  Not just the last few weeks, but the last couple-three years, what with Michael battling cancer, then the emotional fallout from that, then the setbacks along the way, up to and including his most recent hospitalization, emergency surgery and brush with the Grim Reaper, how difficult a time he’s had trying to rebound from that surgery and sepsis, and the toll it all takes on poor little me.  It was a release to write it all out, but I didn’t like the whining, complaining tone of it, so I decided to sleep on it before deciding to share it.  Sometimes I do that (believe it or not) – I pour my heart and guts out and don’t share it.

Before I could sleep on it, though, things took another turn.  A recap:

As I said, Michael has had the toughest time bouncing back from his latest hospitalization.  I have waited and waited over the last two weeks since he came home for him to turn a corner, so to speak.  With his previous surgeries/hospitalizations, there would always come a point when he would just seem more like himself again, his energy and strength would noticeably improve, and it would be clear that he was on the mend.  That hasn’t happened this time.  He’s been weak and so incredibly fatigued, sleeping the night and half the day away, with the most minor exertion wearing him out and requiring him to lie down.  He’s had a low-grade fever that has come and gone for two weeks, very little appetite (and has continued to lose weight), and difficulty breathing deeply.  And I admit it, I’ve grown frustrated and a little impatient.  It is difficult to be the one to have to hold it all together, to try to meet everyone’s needs (and to feel like I’m failing), to feel like there is absolutely no room for me to be unwell (even if I have the flu or a raging UTI) or to crack a little bit.  So on top of it all, moods have not been the most pleasant and skirmishes have erupted here and there.

A week ago, both of Michael’s doctors told him that it was the effects of sepsis that were making his recovery such a struggle (plus he had developed anemia).  Which, of course, has been infuriating because it seems so crystal clear that the sepsis could have been prevented had they not allowed him to just languish in a hospital bed for twenty-four hours with no visit from an actual physician while they just pumped him full of pain meds.  But okay, this is what we have to deal with – it can’t be undone.

Yesterday afternoon Michael made himself a cup of coffee (his second of the day) just to try to get through the afternoon.  Upon finishing it, he promptly fell asleep on the patio swing for two and a half hours.  I woke him up around dinner time, and . . . I don’t know.  Some gear shifted in my head or something.  He was again complaining of pain in his ribs and back when he tried to breathe deeply, he was coughing a weak but rattly cough and I just though, enough.  He’s not getting better, and he might even be getting worse.  What if he’s got pneumonia?

So I talked him into going to Urgent Care because I knew they could do a quick chest x-ray on the spot.  So he drove himself to Urgent Care and it was closed.  Of course!  He came home and we hunkered down, prepared to ride out yet another night like this.  Through all of this, I was texting updates to my friend, who used to be a nurse, and she mentioned the word “embolism,” and I went into instant panic.  “ER, Michael.”  “No,” he said.  Who can blame the poor man?  He’s been to the ER so many times in the last two years that we’ve both lost count.  They recognize him on sight there!  “We’re going,” I insisted.  A friend/neighbor came to stay with the kids, and off we went.

Based upon his symptoms, the two things the intake nurse mentioned were pneumonia and embolism, neither uncommon post-surgery.  They got him into a bed in a cubicle, took a bunch of blood and a chest x-ray, and we waited for hours.  Finally around 12:30 a.m. the doctor came in and said that Michael’s white blood cell count was elevated, indicating some kind of infection, and the chest x-ray was inconclusive.  They were now going to do a CT scan of his chest and abdomen, and it was going to be several more hours of waiting.  I decided at this point to go home.  My friend has her own kids to look after and get to school in the morning, and I didn’t want my kids, the four youngest of whom were already in bed when Michael and I left for the hospital, to wake up and find both of us gone.

I got home around 1:00, climbed into bed some time around 2:00, and slept fitfully until a little after 4:00 a.m. when Michael called me to tell me that the CT scan had revealed multiple abscesses in his abdomen as well as “a touch” of pneumonia.  Fucking fuck fuck.

So he was admitted, again.  He’s on heavy-duty IV antibiotics, and they are going to attempt to drain the abscesses with a needle.  If this is not successful, more surgery is a possibility.  Also, he is, as I type this, receiving a transfusion of three units of blood because of the severity of his anemia.

I did not go back to sleep after that 4:00 a.m. phone call.  I laid in bed contemplating all of this, my whole body buzzing and trembling with stress and adrenaline.  I couldn’t decide what to do about school today, and the prospect of telling the kids that Dad is in the hospital again put knots in my stomach.

When the girls started trailing sleepily out of their room, I decided on the fly to try to keep everything as normal as possible and send them to school as usual.  How I was going to get them there in my exhausted state, I wasn’t sure.  For a few fleeting moments I thought maybe with the morning hustle and bustle, they wouldn’t notice that Daddy was missing and I could stall an explanation for later in the day.  And all through breakfast, the girls didn’t say a word about Daddy, and neither did I.  Then it was time to get the boys up, and right away they both asked where Dad was, being that the two of them were still awake the night before when we headed to the ER.  So, with dread in my heart, I gathered all the kids in the boys’ room and told them, as matter-of-factly but optimistically as I could, that Daddy is in the hospital.  I honestly thought I was going to throw up.  The horrified, bewildered look on all their faces, as they all said in unison, “AGAIN?!?” just about killed me.

So this is where everything stands for now.  Finn and I went to the hospital and hung out with Daddy for a little while this morning.  We are all tired . . . so very tired.  Voices are cracking and tears are spilling.  Hard times.