Guns and Pots

I’ve been having a bit of a rough time with a urinary tract infection that just won’t go away.  But hey, at the doctor today the scale said I’m three pounds lighter!  Look what being sick can do for you!  Not funny.

After I got back from a bracing visit to my harried-looking but actually very sympathetic GP, I scurried off to the sheriff’s department to get the final phase of my handgun concealed carry permit done: fingerprinting, filling in yet another questionnaire…

Before we go further with this, I need to address that group of you who is sitting there with their jaws on their knees going “wha…you mean you…she…”

Yes.  I own handguns.  Two of them.  One of them, a Ruger target-shooting competition pistol, I have had for years.  I love to shoot targets.  It’s fun.

I just bought the other one last week.  I have had my eye on this pistol for a long time.  It’s a Smith and Wesson .38, model name LadySmith.  I know, I know, it must be the devil that causes me to get all hot and bothered over a gun.

But how can I possibly describe the smooth burl of her grip, so perfect in my hand, as if made expressly for me; the smooth way she rolls out for loading and unloading; the coy bluing of her short barrel; and the prospect of making some really big holes in the paper targets, instead of the little tiny holes my Ruger .22 caliber makes, so I have to go up and squint at the target to see where the holes are, after shooting off a clip?

Well.  There I was, with a form in front of me that asks me have I been convicted of this, am I a fugitive from that, am I mentally ill?

Hm.  I thought about that one for a while, and then checked “No.”

That is because I have been stable on medicines for over five years, and if you ask me, I believe that I am not mentally ill.  I take medicines that ensure my mental health, and they are a part of why my mental health is excellent today.

Other factors is that I meditate.  A lot.  And it grounds me, and with the help of the medicines I can find a still point.  Things bother me, of course, but things bother everybody.

Next thing you know, I get body-slammed.

“Just write the name of your doctor right here.”

“My doctor?  Why?”

“Oh, it’s a formality.  We have to check whether you are mentally ill.”

“Oh, okay,” I chirp cheerfully, writing the name of the doc I just saw and hoping he will be cool and keep it between the ditches.

Damn.  If it isn’t the “honesty tax” (“Oh, you have DSM diagnoses?  Sorry, no laundry today”), it might be the DIS-honesty tax, which I can see would be a lot lot worse, having to do with lawyers and unspeakable things and places.

After that, I realized I had a choice of either flipping out and becoming totally paranoid and having a bad day and maybe many bad days and then a vicious cycle and I get sick again; or, I could take the other road and have lunch.

I hadn’t eaten anything besides tortilla chips and cheese for three days, because I have felt too lousy to have an appetite let alone cook.

So I made a pot of ramen noodles with all kinds of good-for-you stuff in it.

Listen: I’ve been living in this camper for going on two months now, and layers of civilization have peeled off me like a snake shedding its skin.  In other words, I have become a Neanderthal woman.

I’m sitting in the passenger’s side captain’s chair eating ramen noodles out of the pot (why dirty a bowl?) when a knock comes at my half-open side door.

“JEEZEZ!!!”  I thought for sure they were right there, brandishing the warrant, handcuffs go on, click, and off to the new county lockup.

“I’m sorry to scare you,” said my mom, brandishing a tin of cookies with a card taped to it.  “I wanted to wish you a good journey.”  She hands me the tin.  “They’re gluten free, every last one of them!”  She had on her beatific high beams.  Not to be trusted, but you have to roll with it.

“Oh thank you!  That’s very thoughtful!”  (Holy shit, am I relieved, for the moment anyway.

I see her glance inside the RV.  Piles of laundry cover most of it.  It’s been so humid here, everything has gotten musty and I must wash it before it gets genuinely moldy.  I try to explain that to her.  She looks puzzled.  She’s lived here for over 40 years, and she’s used to everything being damp and smelling musty.

She knows not to touch me.  I feel a pang of wistfulness, having a mother who feels like acid or hot lead to the touch.

I notice that she has been spiffing herself up a lot these days.  Better haircut, makeup, a spring in her step.  Widowhood has done her good.  Everybody’s different, I always say.

So she waved kind of sadly, and left.  I guess she might have been wistful too…

And then I looked down and noticed my half-eaten lunch, still in the pot I cooked it in, looking and smelling inviting.  I ate it all up.  It was only after a few hours that it sunk into my head:

Dear God, my mother would rather be drawn and quartered than to eat out of the pot.  It must have really distressed her, stuck her as odd, pointed out to her that she knew I was odd but not THIS odd…..

Then I thanked the Lord that this home on wheels gives me the freedom to be exactly who I am.

My Magic Wand

When I was in active Pediatrics practice, anxious parents used to ask me all the time, “When will this get better?  Will it get worse?  Can you make it go away?”  This, usually in reference to some unpleasant chronic condition like asthma or psoriasis.  My answer to them was always the same:

My Magic Wand is in the shop with my Crystal Ball.”

This usually provoked a crestfallen look.  But I do not lie, I do not dissemble.  I tell the truth even when it is not what anyone wants to hear:

“Your child has leukemia.”

“Your child has meningitis (because you staunchly refused to give him the vaccination against that--but I would never say that.  They will either figure it out or not, but I will not increase the suffering of an already stricken parent.)”

“Although we did everything in our power, we were not able to save your child.”  That was the worst, the one I dreaded the most.  Where there is life, there is hope, is a true statement.  There are conditions which are dangerous, which are usually fatal, but where there is life, there is hope.

But the outcome, in the end, is not in my hands and I cannot foresee the future: my magic wand is in the shop with my crystal ball.

And now that I am the patient, I juggle these things.  Some things about my diseases can be predicted, and some can’t.  I think sometimes the most distressing part of having a disease is the uncertainty of how it will turn out.

Take Ebola, for instance.  The media has whipped the fear-and-paranoia quotient to the moon.  People are starting to fear each other on the streets.  There is talk of people wearing masks in public places, even though it has been proven that in order to pass the virus via the respiratory route, like a sneeze or a cough, someone would have to be so sick that they would be on life support anyway, not likely to be in the subway station or the mall.

Will the virus take hold in other nations, or will it peter out the way Bird Flu did, the way the previous Ebola outbreak did?

Sorry folks, my magic wand is in the shop with my crystal ball.

I am fortunate to live in two countries where one is relatively free to chose one’s own doctors, for many things, anyway, if one’s health plan permits.  If I don’t like my doctor, I simply fire them and get another one.

Very fortunately, my shrink in America, whom I have been in a cordial therapeutic relationship with on and off since 2001, is a funny, pragmatic man, who is just as likely to say “I don’t know” as he is to say “Hello, how are you?”  –which he says in a jovial yet businesslike manner, because he REALLY wants to know how you are.

Thirty minutes later I leave his office both confident and perplexed, which is the way he means for me to feel.  I am not sure our plan of treatment will work.  Neither is he.  His magic wand is in the shop with his crystal ball.

He must be in cahoots with my therapist, whose office is just the other side of his wall.  I give her a hard time, saying, “I could do your job right now.  Right now!  All I would have to do is rotate the following exclamations:  “Really?  No!  You HAVE to be kidding. [silence]”  She did not quite find that funny, but I did and that’s what’s important, especially if your DSM diagnosis was changed, without your permission, from Asperger Syndrome to Autistic Spectrum Disorder NOS.

But in reality she is a really good therapist, because she does indeed give me both space and support, and cognitive feedback, which I truly appreciate.

She DOES have a magic wand in her office, but it’s one of those fake ones, you know what I mean, with some kind of thick fluid and glitter than flutters down through it when you upend it.  But crystal ball, no, she leaves that part up to me.

My family doc in Israel is a one-of-a-kind gem.  He listens to me; he is open-minded yet erudite, and he most certainly owns neither magic wand nor crystal ball, and if he did he would have to lock them away from his kids.

Now.  I want you to know that luck played very little part in my finding my Medical Knights and Ladies.  I fired many a therapist, and several psychiatrists, before I happened upon the ones I have.

The position of Primary Care Physician in America is still open.

My psychiatrist in Israel, bless his heart, had a severe psychotic episode and had to be hospitalized, and I don’t think he’s practicing anymore.  I hope not.

Far be it from me to be anti a mentally ill psychiatrist; my shrink here has Major Depressive Disorder, and he knows how it hurts.

But my Israeli shrink started showing signs of paranoid psychosis while I was in his office, which was in a basement room with no windows and you had to be buzzed both in AND out.  Oh dear.  Nothing short of Magic Wand was going to help him, poor man.  He was kind enough to renew my prescriptions for three months, giving me time to find out there wasn’t anyone else on my health plan who speaks English.

All of this is to say:  We just don’t know.  We don’t know what will happen to us in the next moment, let alone days, weeks, months, or years.

I was in a traffic jam going up a steep hill on a two-lane road once.  When traffic finally got moving it became clear that a huge tree, its roots sodden with the torrential Monsoon rains, had fallen atop a Jeep, crushing both it and its occupant.  She died instantly.

After watching my father wither slowly away over years, months, weeks, days, and moments, it was hammered home to me: I don’t have a crystal ball, and I certainly don’t have a magic wand.  But I want that lady’s tree-falling-on-vehicle sudden death.  I don’t want to fade slowly into more and more and more pain, up till the very last breath.  If only I could have that crystal ball, to see my death, and that magic wand to change it, if it isn’t one I can live with.

So That I Not Forget

A dear friend of mine who holds down a spot for me in Jerusalem gave me this advice today: write down your memories of your last years, months, days and hours with your dad, because these memories fade quickly, and you don’t want to lose them.

I moved from Jerusalem to my parents’ property in 2011, in order to ride herd on the situation with my dad.  He had had several bad falls already by then, and flying back and forth from Israel every time he got a concussion was eating up my savings and causing me way too much stress.  So I packed up and moved here.

Dad was still pretty lucid then, but showing signs of dementia, and his physical body was falling apart piece by piece because of the same degenerative joint disease and degenerative disc disease that he passed on to me (thanks, Dad).  It was getting so that he couldn’t do much for himself anymore, between the cognitive decline and the physical disability.

We have always had what I can only call a platonic love relationship; certainly a father-and-daughter love relationship, but something more–a collegiality, a mutual admiration, and a non-sexual transcendent enduring love free of any vestige of pettiness or jealousy.

In the years since I have been here, our relationship was forged even stronger thanks to my mother’s need to have time on her own, a healthy thing that provided my dad and I with ten or so uninterrupted hours every week to review the events of our lives and our life together, to share our meaningful and downright fun times, and our regrets at not having spent more time together.

We also had the blessed chance to talk about how we felt about each other, the feelings and the hurts and the wishes.

As he moved toward his death, we moved deeper into the dark side of his relationship with my mother, who has always had a short temper, no patience, and no particular respect for much of anything.  He had always kept her under control by means of fear–whenever she (or, rarely, I) got out of control he would seem to triple in size, and bear-like, roar his displeasure.  My mother was terrified of these “Hulk” episodes, and the fear of provoking one kept her screaming fits in check, most of the time.

But as he became incapable of terrorizing her, she pulled out all the stops and reveled in her newfound power over him.  I won’t go into detail, since this is an essay about him and not her, but I mention it only to say that he often poured out his anger and feelings of helplessness during our ten hours a week.

During his various stints in the nursing home in his last months, I sat with him many hours a day.  Often, we just held hands, since his brain was further damaged by head injuries sustained in various falls.  And until he lost the faculty of speech, in the last weeks, we processed things that we cherished, things we wished we had done while we had the chance, and things we had done or experienced that we wished hadn’t happened.

We held hands and kissed our dry pecks said “I love you” a million times.  I am so glad we did that.  It’s bitter-sweet now, and perhaps will always be, but at least I have the comfort of knowing that we did not hold back out of artificial formality.

Two nights before he died I was restless, could not sleep until four in the morning, when I fell into a dark slumber from which I awoke with a feeling of urgency.  I dressed quickly and drove to the nursing home.  He was lying in the “quiet room” where they put people who are about to die.

The previous day, he hadn’t known me.  Even though I knew this would likely happen at some point, it hit me like a cannon ball in the gut.  I lost it.  Hot tears choked me, I fell off my feet into a wardrobe which came close to falling on me, and I didn’t care.  I slid to the floor sobbing.  My mother wanted me to get control of myself.  I ignored her.  After some time I sobbed myself out, and asked her to go get me a latte, which gave me some time to just look at my father, who was now asleep, and remind myself that it wouldn’t be long.

It wasn’t.

The following evening I packed up my “24 hour kit” with my jammies, toothbrush, meds, and what-all, drove to the nursing home, and took over the other bed in his room.  He had his eyes open, and they seemed to be clear and not hazed over like they had been the last few days.

“Hi Dad,” I said tenuously.  I didn’t know what I would do if he didn’t recognize me this time.

“Hi Laur,” he said weakly.  I breathed out.

“I love you, Dad,” I wept.

“I love you, too, Laur.  I really, really, really love you.”  He had hold of both my hands, and I stood there, physically hurting from the odd position but with heart full of love.  I stood there till his hands relaxed and his eyelids drooped, exhausted.  I extricated my hands and, taking only minimal meds so that I could wake at any sound, lay down on the spare hospital bed to rest.

His breathing became more difficult, and he began to cough.  The coughing was followed by the gurgle of fluid.  I called the hospice nurse, and she ordered a cocktail of morphine, atropine (to dry up secretions), and Ativan.  This helped a lot.  It was ordered for every two hours as needed, and we needed it.

I must have fallen asleep, because at 4 am I was awakened by a high-pitched, primal, animal scream.  I rushed to his bed and found him unconscious, breathing deeply for four or five breaths, followed by 25 seconds of no breathing at all.  Cheyne-Stokes respiration: the breathing pattern that precedes death.  I called the hospice nurse again.

She arrived fifteen minutes later.  Yes, she said: death was imminent.  It could be minutes, hours, even days–but it would be here soon.  I cried, but she did not offer a hug.

Half an hour later, his breathing pattern changed to a regular rhythm, but very rapid.  The nurse took his pulse oximetry: 78.  Normal is in the high 90’s.  We knew it wouldn’t be long.  I called my mother, and she appeared in record time.  She must have flown over the mountain roads.

The moment before he left, his face contorted as if making a huge effort.  It seemed to me as if he had to consciously make that leap into the unknown.  And two shuddering breaths later, he breathed his last.

“His spirit is already gone,” mused my mother, doubtless trying to placate me–knowing how strongly I feel about keeping the Jewish burial practices, and not desecrating the body by burning it–“no more suffering, my love, no more suffering,” addressed to the lifeless shell on the nursing home bed.

Yes, he did suffer, mightily.  And as always, he was my teacher, my guru, in teaching me how to suffer.  He taught me how to live, how to suffer, how to die.

Tzeitcha be’shalom, Dad.  Have a safe journey.