Ogallala Afternoon

You might be wondering where, or what, Ogallala is. 

Ogallala is a smallish city in Nebraska, USA.  It’s named for the Ogallala band of Lakota (Sioux) Indians, who once roamed freely in the Plains, but like all Native Americans were rounded up and planted on reservations during the Westward expansion of white Americans.  Ogallala, Nebraska, is now a corn town.

I’ve been on the road or off the grid now for weeks.  Lots of thoughts, some jotted down, some evaporated, and some that maddeningly recirculate, playing themselves over and over until they are drowned out by the urge to drag my malfunctioning brain out of its bone box and fry it on the sizzling pavement of I-80.

In particular: the thoughts that forced me to bivouac early in bucolic Ogallala, as I was pelting down the blazing Interstate, trying to get to Michigan to meet a deadline.

I am haunted by the spectre of losing my son.  I believe I have lost him.  I believe I never had him.

This adult child of mine has never been happy with much, for long, particularly if it had anything to do with me.

He was miserable as a baby, except when eating or preparing food.  He learned to cook by watching over my shoulder from his vantage point in the backpack.  Since he screamed for whatever chunk of time he was put down, hours at a time, and I mean hours and hours, of necessity for my health and his life, I put him in the backpack and wore him.  If he screamed in the backpack, I put him to bed (clean, dry, and fed, of course) and turned on the vacuum cleaner and put in ear plugs and turned up the stereo and went outside and walked around in the yard and wished I still smoked, until his father came home. 

“Clap hands, clap hands
Till Daddy comes home
Daddy has money and Mommy has none…”

But his father objected to being handed a screaming baby even before he was properly through the door.  In retrospect I don’t blame him. 

As a pediatrician, having a “difficult child” proved helpful.  It increased my Compassion Quotient.

I’m sure you’ve heard of awful cases where someone shook the baby, or threw it, or did some other act of violence because the baby wouldn’t stop crying.  Most of us recoil in horror from these news items, and frequently judge the mother harshly.  How could she?  How could she?

Thankfully, I never did violence to my perpetually screaming baby.  I took him to the doctor every week, sometimes more.  My pediatrician patiently explained that he had “colic” (rubbish! colic is what they say when they don’t know why the baby cries) and that it would go away when he grew up (it hasn’t).

I remember even at the time, walking around the back yard in the middle of the night, thinking how grateful I was that I had the emotional resources not to simply throw him into somebody else’s trash bin.  Later on, when I turned into the Director of several Pediatric Emergency Departments, I would draw upon that experience when the babies of other, less resourceful parents came in with grievous injuries or worse.  As much as I hurt for those babies, I hurt for the parent who loved their child, yet in an instant of just-too-much-over-the-top screaming, snapped, and hurt their own flesh and blood.

Apart from myself, I think no one pities a parent who has hurt, or even killed, their child, in a moment of unpremeditated rage.  In fact, I don’t even think it’s rage.  I think it’s more simply end of the rope, no more self control, just shut up!  Type of thing.

Maybe they didn’t have a back yard, vacuum cleaner, stereo, teeth to grind, nerves of steel.  Maybe they didn’t have those resources.

I was grateful for mine.

Looking back, I’m also grateful that it wasn’t just me.  Who couldn’t pacify this child, I mean.  I feel vindicated.

When I went back to work and school after five months at home, I left the backpack with the babysitter, who muttered something about knowing how to take care of spoiled babies.

When I picked him up at the end of the day, she had that backpack on!  She muttered something about weaning him off it by the end of the week.

She wore it, and him, for about two more years.  Then we moved.

As far as I can tell, that’s when our troubles first began.

This person to whom I gave birth and did not kill, resents me with a passion.  I resent my own mother, for far different reasons, yet I have compassion for her because I am a hated mother.  I will not tell her I love her, because I don’t.  I don’t confide in her, because whatever I say can and will be used against me.

I have tried to be a good listener to my son.  I know I have been, because he has always come to me with his troubles, and I have felt a bit of guilty pleasure in listening: guilty for being pleased that he came to me in his time of trouble, wishing he didn’t have the troubles that brought him to me, yet pleased that he felt comfortable in coming to me for help.

I did my best to help him to become self-sufficient, since that, in my experience, is the best gift one can give a child, second only to unconditional love.

When he got into trouble, I let him flounder a good long while before I bailed him out.  And I didn’t just let him off the hook.  I got him out of mortal danger, and after that, he had a lot of meaningful work to do. 

I feel now as though I’m explaining, justifying, trying to talk myself into believing that I wasn’t a horrible harpy mother like mine was.  I’m picking through my brain, finding reasons to believe I did OK.

But more often, I’m picking through my brain, finding every little particle of doubt, possibility of abusive behavior, coldness, emotional distance, unavailability, what?

What happened?  Or, more probably, what didn’t happen?

Through the decade of his twenties, it seemed we got along fine.  Then came last Thanksgiving.  I got gobsmacked, blindsided. 

He invited me for dinner.  No one else, just me.  I thought that was strange, suggested we invite somebody else, or go to someone else’s dinner.  No, he didn’t want to.

And he didn’t want help cooking, because he gets impatient with someone else in the kitchen.  So I sat on the couch and smoked his weed. 

He presented the meal.  It looked lovely.  He asked me to take a picture of him with his beautiful dishes all arranged on the table.  I did.

After dinner I went out and slept in my camper in his parking lot.  The next morning I came in and showered while he went to work for a while.  When he returned, he made it clear he expected me to leave: immediately.

There was the old threatening feeling I knew so well, the feeling of dark clouds, anger, intimidation, that he had used to get his way as a young adolescent.  I hadn’t seen that in twenty years. 

I didn’t want to leave just then.  I was nursing a migraine, was exhausted from the many hour drive to his place, and I didn’t want to be bullied.  I wanted to curl up on the couch and drink coffee and smoke weed and watch cartoons in my pajamas.  But it was, after all, his place.  Not mine.

He showed me the door. 

“I really need my space back, Mom,” was how he put it, and opened the door for me, so I could go through it.

We’ve spoken four times since then.  They haven’t been pleasant times.  When I ask what happened, what changed, I get a tirade about how I dragged him around when he was a kid, how I wasn’t available emotionally or physically, and I apologize.  And he is angry, and doesn’t want to hear how I feel. 

And I get all confused.  Here is my son, angry at me.  I didn’t kill him when he was an angry, inconsolable baby.  Why isn’t he grateful?  Isn’t he happy that he’s now a successful adult, with a promising career, lots of nice friends, no lack of women friends, enough money for his needs?

My own mother used to tell me I was “shit,” burn me with match heads, just to see me cry.  Then she’d laugh and tell me I should grow a thicker skin.  And she wonders why I avoid her.

I tried my best to be another kind of mother, the mother I would have chosen if I could have had my choice.

I guess it doesn’t work that way.

The Agony Of Pregnancy Loss

This is going to be another heavy hitter, Dear Readers.  Please consider whether this is good for you to read before proceeding.  It contains graphic descriptions of a miscarriage, surgery, and references to abortion.

I’ve given myself away, but then this is not fiction.

My medical school had an agreement with a VA (Veterans Administration) hospital, where third- and fourth-year medical students could rotate through and get some up-close-and-personal experience being on the front lines.  Rather than standing on a stool (if you were short like me) holding retractors in the operating room, we were taught to actually operate.

And in the medical wing, we learned by doing, and by working closely with the attending physician.  This was much better than standing at the back of a crowd of students, interns, and residents on ward rounds in the private hospital.

I had lots of harrowing adventures at the VA.  I loved it.  Everything was edgy and often dicey.  The patients were high morbidity.  The doctors were all foreign medical graduates, some of whom were the best docs I’ve ever worked with, and some of whom…well, I sure wouldn’t want them working on me.  You just never knew, from day to day, what you would end up in the middle of.

I loved surgery.  Part of that was Dr. Duy, a brilliant Vietnamese surgeon who taught me how to tie one-handed knots down in a hole (in those days, gall bladder surgery was done through an open incision, and you were literally working in a hole up to your wrist).  He taught me how to amputate a gangrenous leg–we had to do that a lot because of the diabetic veterans who were “drinking men” and didn’t take care of themselves.  (That was one of the intake questions:  “Are you a drinking man?”  It was crucial to know, because if he was, if deprived of his alcohol he might go into DT’s and die on us.  For “drinking men,” part of the admission orders were two beers or two shots of rye whiskey per day, more if indicated.)

I dreaded operating with Dr. Chung, a Korean doc who didn’t speak much English and was a clumsy brute compared to Dr. Duy. He did a lot of abdominal surgeries looking for metastatic cancer.  In those days the way you did that was by opening somebody up from top to bottom, and taking biopsies from all the major organs, to send to Pathology.  Then you would stand around in the freezing OR, hugging yourself and jumping up and down until the frozen section came back.  After that you either did or did not take out more stuff, and finally you closed the abdomen and took an x-ray to make sure you hadn’t left anything in there.

My job was to close the abdomen.  There weren’t surgical staples back then, or any of a million conveniences we have now–just a bunch of different sizes of suture material, either dissolving or non-dissolving.

Dr. Chung would walk away, stripping off his gloves, and I knew that I was going to close.  It was no easy task for a small person, especially if the patient was large, pulling the wound together and tying the knots, with nobody to put their finger on it to keep it from slipping.  Yes, it was that simple.

Dr. Chung used to tell me to hurry up and just to make sure I did, he would tell the anesthesiologist to wake the patient up while I was still working!

The reason I’ve gone into all this is: One day I walked into the operating suite and smelled the distinctive odor of halothane gas.  That is what we used in those days as the anesthetic.  I’m sure some or even most of you have smelled that smell.  There is nothing like it.  It triggers my PTSD just thinking about it.

I walked into the OR and asked the scrub nurse, who was scurrying around setting up for the next case, what the deal was with the gas.

“Oh, the anesthesia machine is leaking,” she said in mid-scurry.  “We have a requisition in.”

Uh-oh.  That meant it might get fixed today, or next week, or next month…

So we operated with the doors open.  I tell you, we were all half-anesthetized.  I hope those patients did all right, because I don’t remember a thing.  I spent two weeks half-gassed to death, and then my rotation ended and I could breathe again.

But not the baby I was carrying.  I was married, and this was my first planned pregnancy.  I was 16 weeks along, and I loved the little flutter in my tummy with all my heart.

Then one day, at the end of my surgery rotation, the fluttering stopped.  The bleeding began.

I called my OB doc.  He put me on strict bed rest.  I was torn between being panicked at the prospect of losing my baby, and being panicked because my own OB rotation was supposed to start in a few days.  But the bleeding got heavier, and finally waves of pain had me curled into the fetal position, panting.  Then something warm and wet came out in a gush of blood.

I sat up and looked.  It was a little alien, wrapped in its delicate capsule.  All of it was there.  I could see the tiny limbs, and the beginnings of a face….I wrapped it up in plastic wrap and took it to my OB.  I don’t know what they did with it.

I can’t begin to describe the grief.  I think losing this pregnancy unleashed all the grieving I hadn’t been able to do for the abortion I had suffered 13 years before.  I was overcome, and could do nothing but sob for two weeks.  Then I picked myself up, put on my whites and went to my OB-GYN rotation.

I knocked gingerly on the attending’s office door.  She was the daughter of an OB with whom I had done a rotation as a 3rd year student, and we mutually hated each other.  The daughter was worse than her father.

“Yes, come in,” she said to my knock.  I entered.  She did not offer me a chair.  In fact, she did not even look up from her charting.

“I heard what happened.  It won’t affect your grade,” was all she said.  Then, awkwardly waiting for some other utterance, I perceived that there wasn’t going to be any, so I left her office.

I was met by a nurse in scrubs, who said “Come with me.”  I followed her into a room where a woman was lying on a table, her feet up in stirrups, a stainless steel bucket on the floor between her legs, and what looked like a large suction hose…..

“Go ahead, sit down,” commanded a senior student.  “You’re going to do this one.”  I looked from the apparatus at the bottom of the table to the ashen face of the Hispanic woman at the top…

“Is this what I think it is?” I whispered.  The senior student nodded.  I threw up in the bucket and ran out.  I ran all the way home and collapsed on the bed, hysterical.  My husband came home and found me that way.  It was the only time I ever saw him in a fury.  I know that he went to the dean, because on another occasion when I was stuck holding retractors for the OB father and daughter combo (I had to repeat OB after that episode), they skewered me about my husband going to the dean.

All these years later, I just can’t, in my wildest nightmares, imagine expecting a woman who had just lost a wanted pregnancy, to go on abortion detail.  I know there are many things more cruel than that in this world, but for me, at that moment, I would rather have suffered a horrible death than to perform an abortion.

All the while I was thinking of that woman.  I found out her history, why she was there to get an abortion: she was a Mexican migrant worker, she already had six children, and her husband had threatened to punch her in the stomach if she didn’t abort, because six children was enough for him.  Birth control pills were beyond her reach financially, and her husband refused to use condoms.  So it was she who bore the consequences.

I firmly believe in a woman’s right to control over her own body.  If that includes abortion, who am I to judge?  When Rebecca, who was childless at the time, said “Give me children or I will die!”  Isaac replied, “Am I instead of G-d, that I can give life?  Go and pray!”  I too feel that way:  Am I instead of G-d, who gives life and brings death?  I am just a mortal human, trying to feel my way as best I can.

As it says in Ethics of the Fathers (a Jewish text), “Judge not, lest you also be judged.”

Back on the Chain Gang

Ah, the blissful bubble of  NaNoWriMo is over.  Well, officially it’s over at midnight on November 30th, so I’ve got a day and then some to revel in typing my fingers off.  But let’s face it, I’ve got my 50,000 words and my Winner Certificate, so I guess I’m a Lame Duck WriMo.  And now, although I’m still banging away at it, I’ve come to a really difficult spot in my “novel.”  I’m hoping that putting it to bed for the night will help: let it incubate for a while, or perhaps compost, ferment, whatever gets it going again.

 

I decided to tackle some of the effects of entropy that have turned my living space into even more of a trash heap than it was before.  So I tackled something that just has to be done.  In case you don’t remember, I moved into my dad’s pottery studio.  He’s too sick to use it anymore, and I need a place to live.  It’s been quite an adventure, full of all kinds of challenges and roadblocks.  I’ll have to write a post devoted to the project and where it stands to date, complete with pictures of my electric toilet.  That’s right folks: I have an electric toilet, because this building is perched on the edge of a cliff and there’s no place for a septic tank.

 

Anyway.  Tonight I spent an hour putting my dad’s pottery tools away: you know, all those wonderful little tools he used to use to make his mind-blowing ceramic art.  A lot of them are found objects: a toothbrush handle, a cheese cutter, a rubber spatula.  I separated them according to function and size, and put them all in plastic bags and then into one of those Rubbermaid boxes I can’t live without.  I cried a lot.  I wanted to scream, but it would scare my little dog.  Times like this, I wish she had a temporary “off” switch so that I could just go ahead and scream without having to worry about somebody else’s feelings.

 

Tomorrow I have a busy day.  I won’t get to the next thing on my list, which is wiping the mold off of all my books and putting them in the bookcases, after wiping the mold off the bookcases first.  Yes, you read right:  mold.  The bane of the asthmatic: and I am an asthmatic.

 

You see, it is so humid here, on the cliff above the river, that while I was away for ten weeks resting in the bosom of Jerusalem, the humidity was at work making mold over all of my belongings.  Everything.  Furniture, clothes, even (and I am deeply offended at this) my banjo strap, that I made out of leather in 1974.  Arrrrgh!  One step forward, two steps back.

 

But on the other hand, I’m sitting here wheezing, listening to Queen on Pandora, my little doggie asleep tucked under my right elbow.  I spent the day with my old dad, who was lucid enough today to have a deep discussion about ceramic glaze chemistry.  We both love chemistry.  It’s just that most of the time, his brain refuses to cooperate, so we can’t discuss much and he goes to sleep.  But today was one of those increasingly rare days when relative clarity allowed us to have a rare and precious conversation about some pretty technical stuff.

 

I’d better go take a nebulizer treatment and take my handful of pills so I can get up in the morning and drive to Asheville to see the disability lawyer and my psychologist, now that I’m a certified Nutter.