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Saturday, August 22, 2015

Welcome to my Pity Party

So, here’s the thing. I am 67 years old and healthy. I have no heart disease or diabetes. My liver and kidneys work just fine, thank you. I’m not plagued with headaches like so many others. Organically, I’m in good shape, unless, of course, you count that I’m 20 pounds overweight.
The problem is that my infrastructure is crumbling. I have a “slipped disc” at the top of my lumbar spine. It has caused me to have something called spinal stenosis, which, according to Mayo Clinic’s web site is “a narrowing of the open spaces within your spine, which can put pressure on your spinal cord and the nerves that travel through the spine to your arms and legs.” 
I’ve been plagued with back spasms off and on since I was in my 30s. Every now and then, I get down in the back and have to take muscle relaxers and pain killers and prednisone to reduce swelling and pressure on the nerve that causes the spasms. About three days of treatment was all that was required to get over it. It used happen once a year or so, but in the last few years things have gotten out of hand, and I’ve had many more frequent episodes. 
About three weeks ago, I started feeling lightening bolts shooting down behind my right knee. Some of them even went as far as the bottom of my foot, and that were doubtless a consequence of my spinal stenosis. I let it go for a week, thinking it was something that could be resolved by taking it easy and treating my back with respect and doing the stretching exercises I have been doing for years. I positioned a warm bed buddy at my back and an ice bag on my knee and watched old episodes of West Wing when I wasn’t showing up to write. I already had the muscle relaxers on hand, so I started taking them. It didn’t get better, so I went to see my back doctor’s PA. 
Well, he prescribed a six day course of methylprednisolone, (medrol dose pack) a steroid that blocks the substances in or bodies that cause inflammation. I took the medicine, along with the muscle relaxer and a non-opioid pain killer. (Opiods make me fuzzy and I don’t like them.) He suggested that, if this conservative approach to my discomfort didn’t work, I might consider having an epidural injection of steroids. I’m still weighing that idea in my head. 
I lay around like a slug for a few days, running hot and cold, as it were. The dose pack served mostly to kick my cardiac rhythm out of whack, and the lightening bolts continued. My back never has stopped hurting except when I am stretched out on the red leather chaise, which perfectly contours my back as to take pressure off it. The PVCs stopped almost immediately after I finished the steroids.
But about that time my other (left) knee swelled up and became painful. I’m not making this up. I didn’t fall on it or wrench it or run into a piece of furniture with it. I simply can’t point to an event that could have caused it. I spent several days on the sofa with a heated bed buddy at my back and an ice pack on my knee. The lightening bolts went away. One problem solved.
Trouble is, when I get up and do anything at all, and I mean anything, it swells and becomes painful again. And my back hurts—all the time. So yesterday, I went to see my knee doctor’s PA. He ordered some x-rays that suggested a space in the joint that shouldn't be there, that maybe I have a tendon tear. Great. I had one in that knee about eight years ago, and it was successfully treated with an arthroscopic procedure to “trim it up and clean it out.”
Are you sick of this yet? Well, I don’t blame you but stand by because there’s more. The knee doctor’s PA scheduled an MRI for next week, put a brace on my knee and told me to continue with the muscle relaxers, and since I was getting no relief from the pain—in all its various places—he suggested I take two pan tablets rather than one. 
I did as I was instructed, and about an hour after I took the medicine, I started to itch, all over. No rash, just itching. My nose looks like Bill Clinton’s, I’ve rubbed it so much. I was like a worm in hot ashes, scratching all over and looking in the mirror every now and then for signs of a rash. 
And to add insult to injury, I couldn’t sleep. There I lay, warm bed buddy to my back, trying to go to sleep. When I had no success, I got up and watched some more West Wing, then went back to bed. Still sleep wouldn’t come. I dozed briefly, and when I woke and checked the clock, only a few minutes had passed. It was like that all night. And then there was the itching.
Finally at six o’clock this morning, I abandoned trying to sleep and decided to take a Benadryl for the itch. It worked. But my knee and back were still killing me. Exactly 12 hours after I took two pain pills, I took a single one. No itching but no pain relief either. What ever became of of Tylenol #3? It’s not too strong, and at least for me, doesn't cause itching.
So here I sit on my chaise, where I can write comfortably and birdwatch, heat to my back and ice to my knee, doing #continuouspractice to tell the tale. 
That’s the conclusion of my pity party. Thank you all for showing up and listening to my tale of woe. You see, I live alone and don’t have anyone except Honey to bother with this. And she’s pretty damned tired of my whining.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

It's Still His Room - How Sophie Helped Me Donate Parrish's Clothes

Parrish was a clothes horse, and when he died, his closet was filled with more items than one man ever needed. I suppose I am partially to blame. His first sweater was a white cardigan with a baby blue monogram, and before he could walk, I dressed him in short overalls in soft cotton plaids with a white collared shirt or pastel turtleneck underneath. He wore white knee socks and miniature brown and white bucks. At two, he had his own style, and his blond curls topped off the look. 
As a teen, he rarely wore jeans, preferring khakis with polo shirts. Marnie used to tease him about it. He wore brown loafers, sometimes with socks, sometimes without. Later, he never got so sick he “let himself go”, and after money became a problem, he dressed himself from thrift stores and Wal Mart, and no one could guess his clothes didn't have designer labels. When he couldn’t afford regular haircuts, he kept a buzz cut rather than have scraggly hair.
    He, who literally gave the shirt off his back to a stranger more than once, would want someone to have his things. The time came to clean out his closet and donate his clothes. There are men who need clothes, who don’t have a pair of dress pants or khakis, who need a collared shirt and a pair of leather shoes and a good belt for a job interview. They need something to wear to church.
Last month, I tried to sort out his things and get them ready to go to Goodwill, and even though Sophie—the only person in the world who could help me with the sad chore—was here, I just couldn’t find a starting place. When I walked into his room, I was paralyzed with sadness and weak with grief. I clutched the full length of his body pillow and breathed deeply of his smell, then I turned around and left, shaking with sobs. Sophie, who loved and was dearly loved by Parrish, emptied his dresser and organized his things, with no help from me.
On the 15th of this month, I brought Sophie back for a two week visit. Having her near gives me strength and hope. Everyone should have a friend like her. She makes me want to be a better person, do better things, take better care of myself. She is, no doubt, an angel—my angel.     
     A few days after she arrived, boxes in tow, Sophie and I went into Parrish’s room to begin sorting and packing his things for Goodwill. After standing and staring at his bed for a moment, I put the boxes on it and began to fill them. I had to pull back from myself, almost as though I were watching from across the room. To focus on the reality was impossible. 
I stacked his white undershirts in neat columns in the first box. I realized I was holding my breath and reminded myself to exhale. Then I moved on to his tee shirts, the casual ones with logos—Salt Life, Livestrong, Patagonia. I couldn’t make myself pack his yellow SeaTow shirt and instead put it to the side to keep. Sophie helped me take his collared polo shirts off their hangers, and I carefully folded them and started a new box. I left his new sport coat on the hanger and hung it on the door knob.
Knowing the contents of the boxes would be unceremoniously tossed into a bin at the Goodwill drop-off, I nevertheless folded them deliberately and packed them as though P were leaving for a long trip. I pushed the fact he’d been for dead six months to the very back of my mind and did what I had to do.
Sophie helped me organize everything, and her peaceful presence is the reason I was able to continue. I folded P’s white linen shirt and placed it on top of the SeaTow shirt. I folded all but one of this ties and tucked them into a box. I folded the madras one and positioned it at the collar of his white shirt as though I were laying out an outfit.
Out of nowhere, the job almost complete, I froze. I gazed around the room at his golf trophies and his Alcoholics Anonymous book and the photo of me on his bedside table as though I had never seen them. I picked up the picture of him with my brother John and my nephew Wil, taken just a few months before John’s death in 2000. I kissed it and put it back. I riffled through 10% Happier, the book I gave him for Christmas.
“I have to stop,” I whispered to Sophie.
“Go on out then,” she replied. “You have done real good, so rest yourself and we’ll finish later.”
I plopped down on the red leather chaise in the sun room and silent tears morphed into choking sobs. Honey jumped up to comfort me and I sat there for a while and finished crying.
Three days passed before I could go back into Parrish’s room. I packed his trousers and belts and shoes, put some odd items into the boxes as well—two of his watches, his handkerchiefs and cycling gloves. I put his helmet on a shelf in the closet. I took the vase of dead roses and put them in the trash. Polly brought them to me the day after he died. For the first time since his passing, I noticed two boxes on his dresser. He must have found them in the hall closet, because they were mine. I saved every letter and card he sent me over the years, and many of them were in those boxes. There was the big white envelope with his baby things—his immunization record and baptismal papers, the baby bracelet they put on him in the nursery when he was born, his report cards and more. How long had those things been in there? Was he reliving the past by reading them? Was he trying to recapture the complete happiness of his childhood? He was searching for something, but I’ll never know what.
I didn’t start crying while we loaded all the boxes into the back of my SUV. I was dry-eyed as I told Honey we would be back soon and took my wallet and keys and walked out the door. It was only after I turned over the engine that tears started rolling down my face. I backed slowly out of the drive, sniffed and brushed them away. I sniveled as we traveled the short distance to the drop-off station. And when we got there, I couldn’t get out. I could not make myself hand over the boxes to the nice lady who dumped them into the canvas bin, so Sophie did it for me. 
The heat index was over 100ยบ. I told you she’s an angel.
Yesterday, I drove her back to Macon, and the house is aching for her presence. The very walls seem sad. I know I can’t keep her forever; after all, she has a family of her own, and they need her loving kindness, too. She’ll be back, though, and I have that to be thankful for.

This morning, just like almost every morning, I went into P’s room and sat down on the bed. Sophie arranged his books on top of his chest and tucked his school annuals into his gray trunk before she left. I gazed at the paintings above his bed, portraits of our dogs, Boxers Baby and Belle, and the watercolors of quail and wild turkeys. The picture of his daddy waving from the deck of the pilot boat still sits in it’s place on the bedside chest. His childhood trophies are still on the painted yellow table where the cable box rests. I pulled his body pillow off the closet shelf and held it to me, breathed deeply of it. His scent is still there, but it’s fading.

© 2015 cj Schlottman



Tuesday, July 14, 2015

A Spirit Animal? Me?

     I spent last week on Tybee Island, Georgia, attending Rosemary Daniell’s annual Zona Rosa writing retreat for women. Since I met Rosemary in 1997, and became a part of her ongoing workshop for women writers that meets once a month at her house in Savannah, I have attended several Tybee retreats. I've always come away renewed in my writing spirit, and this year was no different.
     For a week, eight writers shared the nine bedroom “Happy House” Rosemary has rented for a number of years now. There were two other writers who joined us later in the week, and there were those who attended the sessions just in the daytime. Ages ranged between 33 and 70-something. Rosemary invited special guests, published authors who came to share their work and listen to ours.
     The wonder of the retreat is always in its students. Excellent writers all and ranging in experience from “just beginning” to published, we come together to share our experiences in writing and feed from the energy of our collective consciousness. The environment is conducive to creativity, with mornings devoted to writing and afternoons spent in session, reading from our works and receiving feedback and encouragement from Rosemary and the group.
     On Sunday, the day devoted to settling in and exploring, my precious granddaughter, Addie, came and spent a couple of hours with me. While others were out and about, we stayed at Happy House and were, well, happy. 
     I’ve had a memoir trapped inside me for several years, begging to be written. I wrote the first draft of the prologue before going to Tybee, and Rosemary read it to the group for me for me. Feedback was positive, and I felt empowered to start Chapter One. And, two days later, I did just that while sitting on the deck off my room. I don’t know what I expected to feel when I began the project in ernest, shedding all my excuses and rationalizations about not having done so sooner, so I was surprised at the sensation of freedom and that came over me. I felt ready. And I got excited. I haven’t been excited about much since Parrish died, and the feeling is heady and sweet. 
     That was the first time I saw the spider.
     Some of my readers may remember when, in August of 2011, I accidentally set myself on fire trying to incinerate a spider with a fireplace lighter. We know how that turned out, and it wasn’t the spider who suffered. On that muggy morning on Tybee, I looked up to see a huge spider web spun between a fan palm and the wooden fence. Right in the middle of the silky strands that glimmered in the sunlight was a creature that looked a great deal like my nemesis, all eight legs stretched to their limit. As the days passed, I watched as the web got bigger and more intricate. 
     Never having given much thought to what spiders might symbolize or that I might have a spiritual connection to them (or any other non-human being in the world), after a brief exchange with my fellow writers who knew of such things, I decided to do some research. 
     I offer this, copied and pasted unabashedly from Wikipedia:  “Totemism is a belief in which each human is thought to have a spiritual connection or a kinship with another physical being, such as an animal or plant, often called a "spirit-being" or "totem." The totem is thought to interact with a given kin group or an individual and to serve as their emblem or symbol.”
     Taking something from each of the several articles I read about the symbolism of spiders, I put together as simple a synopsis as I could. So, here goes: 
     In many cultures, the spider is a symbol of creativity, a spinner of delicate and intricate webs—engineering marvels of nature. It is often seen as the powerful female spirit, the giver of life. If the spider is your spirit animal, it may try to bring your attention to your own individuality and ingenuity. You may have an affinity for acts of creation and the ability to build your own fine patterns that are delicate yet strong. 
     Did I tell you I love to knit, that I knit lace?
     The appearance of a spider may serve as a reminder that you and you alone are responsible for what you build around you. It may also appear to remind you not to abandon your creative gifts and goals. 
     Did I tell you about my recent dream in which two spiders, the size of the back of my hand, were attached to my right hand, one atop the other? There was a sensation of suction but no pain, and I gently pried up their hairy legs and they walked away?
     The following day, another, smaller spider had begun spinning her web on the chair next to where I sat writing in my journal.
     Two spiders, and I made no move to harm either of them.
     When we checked out of the house on Saturday morning, July 11, I went with two of my long-time writing compatriots to The Breakfast Club for a final meal together. When I got in my car to leave, there was a spider, about the size of a thumbtack, sitting on the steering wheel. I gently nudged it toward the window with my parking receipt and saw it safely out the window before I turned over the engine and drove home. When I stepped into my bathroom to wash my hands and face, yes, there was a small spider sitting on the rim of the sink, just looking at me.
     Since I got home, I've been writing my ass off.

© 2015 cj Schlottman

Monday, May 11, 2015

Mother's Day - A Different Way

Last month, when my first birthday after Parrish’s death came around, I was unprepared, and the day was half over before I realized why I was so unaccountably anxious and tearful. That I should be turning 67, and Parrish would never have another birthday, I suppose, was wrapped in the denial for which I am so famous. A friend was here to help me set up Apple TV, and I could’t find the remote control. I rarely use it because I have one of those from the cable company that does everything except go to the kitchen for snacks. I am also famously forgetful, but it is unlike me not to know where essential things are, especially electronic stuff. Bob, my helpful friend, managed to set up Apple TV without the remote, and after it was up and running—I had to have it because I am addicted to Netflix, and watching it on my laptop was killing my eyes—he stayed around for a drink. I remember repeating myself to him several times and feeling frustrated and a little confused. It was less than five minutes after he left that I went directly to the drawer in the table upon which the TV sits and retrieved the stupid remote. Imagine that. 
That was when my denial unraveled and I sat down hard on my spot on the blue loveseat in the den and covered my face with my hands and wept as I did on the night Parrish died. Hell, I’m crying right now, just writing about it. I walked around the house and into his room, clutching a fistful of tissues. I sat on the edge of his bed, then fell over on his pillow to finish crying. It took a while. In fact, I had spells of weeping for the rest of the evening and into the night.  
So, you can imagine I was not looking forward to Mother’s Day. Parrish, even when he was hundreds of miles away and completely out of my reach, always made a thing about Mother’s Day. There was always a card and often a phone call. Last year, he brought me an African violet—which has grown so much I had to repot it last week—and brought me breakfast in bed. 
So, about two weeks ago, I started trying to prepare myself for yesterday. My mother passed away over 15 years ago, so I couldn't do anything with or for her. The thought of being both motherless and childless brought on a deluge of tears. I thought about leaving town for the weekend, checking into a good hotel with room service and a spa, but when I started checking rates, I decided I should save my money to pay to have the dead pine tree in my back yard taken down. I considered making plans with friends but realized that most of them would already be involved with their own mothers or children.
On Saturday night, I got a call from Gregory, my yard person, also known as Crab Man because he can often be found crabbing from the Village Pier. He wanted to come over yesterday morning at 8:00 to blow off the roof and do the yard. Since I’m not an early riser, we negotiated a more civilized time, 10:00. 
I scheduled my Mother’s Day, sort of. I planned to sleep until about 9:00 and let the day unfold before me. I promised myself a trip to the gym. I filled the bird feeder and ate breakfast on the deck, then read the news and did the crossword puzzle. The weather was perfect, warm but not hot, clear and cloudless.
Crab Man arrived on time, with his puppy, Two Spot, a six-weeks old bulldog, riding in the basket of his bike. You can’t tell from the photo I took, but his name comes from the two round black spots on his back, near his tail. Every other hair on his plump little body is white. I was instantly in love. Honey, who in general despises all other dogs who come near me, gave him a sniff and a once-over before turning up her nose curling into her spot next to me on the love seat. 
When Crab Man started blowing off the roof, Two Spot began to howl, that piercingly sharp sound of despair that only a puppy can make. So, I brought him inside with us. Honey gave him a cursory sniff and resettled herself. Two Spot curled his fat little body at my feet and went to sleep. And thus it was that I puppy-sat for several hours. I was his surrogate mother for a while, waking him every now and then to go outside and “Do number one,” as Crab Man says. Then we’d come back inside, Two Spot would drink a little water and go back to sleep. 
Meanwhile, I was watching “Grace and Frankie” on Netflix and laughing my ass off. My afternoon was punctuated with calls and messages from some of my most important people: Addie, Fonda, Marnie, Kristy and Gretchen, Nancy, and my darling Sophie. And I was “mothering” a living being, a little blessing to help me through the day. 
When Two Spot was once more situated in the basket of Crab Man’s bike, they peddled off, and I dressed and went to the gym.  
When I got back home, I cleaned up, and Honey and I drove down to the Village. Finding a parking space was almost impossible. Mallory street, which circles around to the pier and back, looked like a scene from American Graffiti—all manner of vehicles looping slowly, bumper to bumper. I finally found a space near the bike shop, two blocks from the pier. Dogs aren’t allowed on the pier, and Honey hates wind anyway, so she stayed in the car while I walked down to watch Lawrence’s ship pass on its way back out to sea.
Thinking how fitting a tribute it would be to Parrish, I went to BlueWater and climbed the stairs to sit where we so often did, overlooking the pier and Saint Simons Sound. I had some wine and a sandwich, and about the time I finished, I saw the pilot boat approaching  the pier, so I paid my check and went down to walk back out and see Lawrence for a minute. I ran into him just as I left the restaurant, and he walked me to my car. I wasn’t sure I wanted to see him yesterday, but I’m glad I did. He was a comfort to me, another blessing.
When I got home, I watched some more “Grace and Frankie,” laughed some more and finally fell into bed after midnight. I didn’t get up today until nearly noon. Ain’t I something?

© 2015 cj Schlottman

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Stepping Back in Order to Step Forward

     About a year ago, a few months after I moved home to Saint Simons Island, still staggering under the weight of the loss to my dear husband, Clint, I scheduled an appointment with my psychiatrist in Macon, where we lived for most of our marriage. I never loved Macon; I never even liked it very much. I had wonderful friends there and still do, but since we had a home here on The Island for all but four years of our married life, I claimed dual citizenship and never felt as though Macon were truly my home. It happened that I loved Clint more than I disliked Macon, so life was good there as long as I had him. In the years after his death, I began to feel like an exile, homeless in my own house. Riddled with an unrelenting and complicated grief, it would be four years before I came to the realization that I needed to move back home, back to the place where I attended elementary school and graduated from high school. My roots are here, and as you know if you read my last post, and I am again grounded and content.
     As the day of my appointment approached last November, I got so anxious that I cancelled the trip. I simply could not make myself go, so I began having phone visits with my doctor, and I relied on phone calls and social media to keep up with my friends and family.
     Several weeks ago, after what turned out to be a difficult summer and early fall with my son’s brain disorder and alcohol addiction, I scheduled a phone appointment with my doctor for November 13. 
     I was in the final stages of settling into my house, and one of the chores I had been putting off was going through the boxes of things that were in Clint’s desk when he died. As I sifted through the boxes and began replacing things in the desk, I had what I can only describe an epiphany, a moment of clarity and realization that most of the items should not be here with me. I painstakingly sifted through old photos and slides of Clint’s children, photos of him as a boy, his medical school class pictures, and newspaper clippings touting his youthful football prowess and his surgical role in the first kidney transplant in Southeast Asia. There were letters from his daughters when they were young, greeting cards he saved over the years, and all manner of memorabilia that predated our marriage. I came to the knowledge that these things to which I had been clinging so tightly are not mine - and they are not Clint. They predate the incredible time during which we fell in love and began a life together.
     Keeping only those things that are a part of my life with Clint, I began to repack the boxes with all those items that I wanted to give to his children, grandchildren and yes, his great-grandchildren. I broke down and wept, big chocking sobs that shook me to my very center, each tear representing the dissolution of an unrealistic and unhealthy tie to a past that isn’t even my own. There was freedom and healing in those tears. Will I ever be completely healed? I think not, but I am confident in the knowledge that my wounds no longer continually ooze emptiness and sorrow and loss. They are real but they are no longer white hot reminders of everything I lost on June 8, 2009. I am learning to accept them as part of me without Clint in my life, reminders of the devotion we shared, the love that bound us together.
     After tearfully rereading the dozens of cards and notes we shared over the years and the poems I wrote and dedicated to him, I tucked them into the desk drawer along with his love letters to me. I polished his brass statue of a laughing Buddha and placed it on an end table in the living room. His hole-in-one trophy is on a shelf in the den. Photos, some organized in albums, some not, of us traveling together to see Europe and watch whales in the Sea of Cortez and explore Alaska’s Southeast Passage as well albums of other trips - with and without family - are safely stashed away in the desk drawers. 
     Several days later, it occurred to me that I should actually go to Macon, to see my psychiatrist and deliver the family treasures to their rightful owners. But it was with some sense of dread that I changed my appointment to a face-to-face. In the days leading up to the trip, I became anxious, but I didn’t cancel. I had to revisit my past in order to move completely into the present.
     So, on Wednesday afternoon, I drove to Macon. I was there for two nights, and while I was in town, I saw my dearest and oldest friends, Nancy and Frances, and my stepdaughters, Gretchen and Kristy. I had time with Marnie and with Sophie, the Angel who has been looking after me for over 40 years. I saw my doctor. After literally being unable to make the trip a year ago, the time was right and my anxiety faded. I gave Kristy the boxes of memories with a sense of purpose and completion and even joy, and I arrived home having delivered myself of an emotional load I didn’t even know I was carrying.
     The parts of me that have been so locked down for five and a half years are emerging. I’m willing to venture outside  the safety of my widowhood, and I’m eager to continue my quest for a life well lived as a individual, not as half of a couple. I harbor no belief that my wounds will ever completely close, but then again, they probably shouldn’t. They are a big part of who I am today and who I will be in the future. They are part of my story.
     For today, Parrish is sober and stable, and we are looking forward to our first Thanksgiving in this house. Marnie will be joining us for our family tradition - a seafood feast of oysters and jambalaya with sweet potatoes and green bean casserole. We don’t really like turkey.

Copyright 2014
cj Schlottman