The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Scare January 10, 2014

“What happened to your fingers?” one of the eighth grade girls asked me today as we stood chatting and waiting for the teacher to arrive. It was more than the uncensored nature of youth that allowed her to ask me without first editing her thoughts (or her surprised tone) – I’d spent some time with this class accompanying them at several performances, so by now they felt pretty familiar with me. While her question initially stopped me in my tracks (I kept my cool in spite of it), I appreciated the candor of her question, because it confirmed for me that it wasn’t all in my head… I’d known it was bad, or at least not good, for a while now. In fact I’d even heard slight gasps from my adult students in class last year when showing them the hands that had just demonstrated something intricate on the piano. There had been a slight pause in the room as people began to reconcile the music they’d just heard with the hands they now saw before them…

The nodes on the distal joints of my fingers can’t be ignored anymore – certainly not be me, nor by folks I meet for the first time. They are large, they are painful, they get stuck in between the black notes – and they are not getting any smaller. Just this past week I had a painful day of great sensitivity on the fourth finger of my left hand, and the next day there it was: a fresh, new node. A newly deposited growth of bone, I suppose, from what I’ve seen and researched online. Just about a year ago I’d gone to an orthopedic doc, before it had gotten terribly bad, and I was more than disappointed to hear him tell me there was basically nothing I could do about it. There were some drugs I might take, but they had a lot of potential side effects which probably weren’t worth it, he advised. I’d been prepared to hear something like this, but it was quite disappointing even still. I mean, come on. Everybody and his brother has arthritis and has for as long as we can remember – and I still have so few options? Seriously??

As a young adult I can remember looking at my mother’s hands and thinking that the distortion in her fingers was almost unbelievable. As if she certainly must have done something to have earned them. Knuckles don’t just blow up like that unprovoked, do they? Well, no matter who or what was responsible, a fate like this was certainly this poor woman’s cross to bear, but thank goodness, I’d think confidently to myself, that’s not my future. I’d even had such smug thoughts knowing damn well that while I do get my musical talent from my father, I look not a thing like him. No. Rather, I look like my mom. So here I am, at the start of my fifties and my own beloved hands are blowing up like those of an old peasant granny. For heaven’s sake. This is so not me! Come on guys! I beg my hands. I love you guys! I appreciate you guys! Why are you doing this? Why? I plead with them, even kissing them like a mother would her child. But onward they go, their shapes morphing almost as I watch; the minute, intermittent stabbing sensations and dull, hot pain confirming for me that things are, in this very minute, continuing to get worse. I’ve cut out wine. I’ve cut out acidic foods. Dairy. Salt. I read, I Google, try something else. I drink water. I try to think positively. But my fingers respond to nothing. My disease is progressing without my consent, and I am sad. Scared, too.

It’s a dull, ever-present sort of scared, it’s one I can live with. But there are other insidious types of fear that I find have been making headway into my life of late, and I don’t like it. I might be able to live with them too, but I sure as hell don’t want to. I may strike people as a strong woman – and some days I might agree – but I can feel that it’s becoming a bigger challenge these days to keep it together. Panic has resurfaced over the past year, chronic concerns over money feel even more real as my own aged years loom closer (and I have not a penny saved), and then of course there is always the concern for my son. His vision, his ability to participate as fully as he can in the world, and of late, I worry about his having contracted Lyme disease. We’ve begun his treatment, and docs assure me that in a young and vigorous kid like him, he’ll have no worries later on. It helps, but angry emails from his father telling me that I “need to take this seriously” as if somehow I do not, and telling me I might have been more vigilant when I in fact had been worried but hadn’t had him checked yet, this all makes it much worse. I don’t know how my ex still has such power to hurt and frighten me…. I summon my focus and I stand up to him. Right after, I beg my son in my heart to forgive me for not knowing, for not doing something sooner…

Tonight Elihu asked me to please stay and read to him. He said he was feeling ‘needy’. I hadn’t given him a lot of one-on-one time lately as I’d had too much life to deal with. Music to learn, house to clean, food to fix and such. Tonight, we agreed on a trade. If he’d let me just organize the mess in the kitchen – get it squared away just a bit – then I’d come in and read to him. I did, and shortly after I began to read we both started to drop off. I turned off the light and soon fell deeply asleep. The next thing I know Elihu is feeling for me in the dark and muttering something. He, like me, is a sleep-talker. He can even hold some conversations in this state, so at first I wasn’t concerned. But this was different. He reached out to me with outstretched arms, which I took for a hug, but he shook his head. “Machine” he said, pointing to his nebulizer. Can you imagine the shot of adrenaline that flashed through my body? I immediately got a packet of medicine, poured it in and gave him the mouthpiece. He looked drunk. After a few puffs he laid back down. I yelled his name and shook him – “Are you ok?” He waited for a moment, then nodded no. “This is different” he said through closed eyes.  “Do you need to go to the emergency room?” I asked. He nodded yes. “Yes, emergency room” he said, again his head drooping to the side. Holy fucking shit. White hot fear coursed through me and my heart began immediately to beat as if I’d run a race…. I thought back to a panic attack I’d experienced earlier that day. It was a close second, for sure, but man, these stakes were mind-bendingly high… I ran through the house, pulling on clothes, locating his rescue inhaler, my boots, keys, a blanket to wrap him in…. I came back and tried to tug a sweatshirt over his head, but he fell limply to the side. Holy shit, holy shit, keep moving… I was thankful that the ER was just about five miles away, and we could be there in less than ten minutes. Lucky…. “Elihu!” I yelled at him. “What?” he finally responded. Then a look overtook him, and he sat up, eyes fully open, as I tugged the sweatshirt down around his neck. “What are you doing, Mommy?” he asked. “We’re going to the hospital – to the emergency room! You said you needed to! Can you breathe now? Are you ok??” He shook his head and fell back down on the pillow. “No, I wasn’t waiting to go to the emergency room. I just wanted a more comfortable pillow.” He lifted his head up and I inserted the down pillow underneath him. He plopped back down onto it. “Honey, are you ok? He nodded. My heart was still pumping loudly, and I wasn’t convinced. But I realized that he was still deeply asleep, and that while he may have needed help with his breathing, it wasn’t as dire as his sleep-talking self had said. Oh my God, I kept thinking over and over again, the prospect of a life without my beloved son flashing uncontrollably, nauseatingly, through my mind. My God, I think, and I my face sinks into my hands. Holy shit.

For the most part, I’d say I’m a glass half-full gal. Might not always have been, but I am now. Only I’m not sure if I could remain so if I were to lose my son. For that matter, how will I feel about that glass when I can no longer play the piano? Many times I have thanked the universe for all that I’ve been blessed with. Even the unexpected divorce and all the unforseen events that followed. It’s all been one unpredictable adventure from which I’ve learned so much more than I ever would have otherwise. If I hadn’t once been scared shitless, I wouldn’t be here now. I remind myself that fear has its place. But truly, I don’t think I need any more. I’m good. I don’t want to have to find out if I do or do not have it in me to live through a tragedy. Please, universe, don’t try me. I’m good with things the way they are. And I aim to make things better, too. I aim to get my son tinted contacts this year. I aim to teach him how to ride a bike, to make dinner on his own. We still have so much more to do, I have so much more to teach him. Let’s just get through this night, please, I beg anyone who might be listening. My right index finger hurts, my head hurts. I am emotionally weak just thinking of yesterday’s new run-in with panic. I am scared. But I remind myself: I might be scared, but I am strong too. Posturing though it might be in this moment, as the adrenaline begins finally to subside, I challenge my fear. I tell it we’re done for the night. Running in to check on my son every few minutes as I write this middle-of-the-night post and finding him in a comfortable sleep, breathing nice, even and deep breaths, I begin to take back what power I can. I tell fear to leave us alone.

Soon I think I’ll get to bed myself. One more check on Elihu, one more set of good, deep breaths and I’ll lie down.Man, I sure could use a rest after all of this… And I’m pretty sure being brave may well require a good night’s sleep.

 

Surprise January 3, 2014

This week has felt surreal, and on top of the sorrow my family’s currently working through, other little mishaps have been taking place. My toilet has broken (plastic parts and hard water do not mix), my drains have plugged up, my windows have been stuck, the doors to the coop must be coaxed to close and lastly, we had to kill Lefty Lucy after the flock tore into her mercilessly one night and left her near dead. The poor hen had recovered fairly well in the kitchen over the past week. so I returned her to her roost one night to find her covered in blood and far worse only the next morning. When I realized how the flock had treated her as a compromised bird (she retained a limp after an injury last week) I knew what had to be done. She did not face a life of any quality, so it was time to put her down. When I told my mom that I was simply keeping her comfortable until she was able to die, she remarked ‘kinda like your dad’. Yeah, I guess. So our friend neighbor Zac came over with his axe, and obliged us by chopping off her head on a nearby stump. Elihu tossed her out to the edge of the woods, and by the next morning she was gone.

Plus there’s this strange new twitch in the middle finger of my right hand. I’ve been feeling some tension – for no reason I can even figure – in my right shoulder lately, and I surmise that it’s related. Some nerve thing. Just a few months ago I’d experienced some ongoing and very annoying electrical tingling feelings in my left hand, and also a few in my left foot – but that was an easy self-diagnosis. Years ago I broke my neck – C6 and C7 (which later fused, giving me a C13!) as well as my left shoulder. I just figured time and gravity had come to roost and were now compressing on my nerves. I’d figured that being structural, the only fix would be yoga and a general improvement of my overall fitness. I went to an acupuncturist with few hopes, but after four visits the annoying electrical feeling was completely gone. Completely. And so, while it’s yet another unforeseen expense of life, I must find a way to carve something out of my budget to have a few more sessions. I have never in my life had any bad experience – or major injury – to my right side, so I can’t imagine what in hell is ultimately responsible for it. But a moment’s reflection and I needn’t look much further for reasons, because I realize that it is true: I am getting old. Well, at least older. And now a physical body of evidence is beginning to show itself. Crap. I still can’t believe I’m here. That I now know what it is to have a parent die. That I now know what it is to have aches and pains for no good reason. Crap.

Santa was good to Elihu this year, bringing him an Ergo electric bass and amp (hours logged on it already) and a couple of battling robotic spiders, but more surprisingly, Santa was good to me too, and brought me a Wii fit board (love the used game place – next-to-nothing prices for year-old products) and a Wii fit game. He musta known my health needed a little rescuing. Hopefully, in spite of a heavier work load and mom duties ongoing, I’ll be able to spend a little time with my cyber coach. I have plans to join Weight Watchers with mom, too. While it might be frustrating that I’m here again, this year I mean to do more than the Band-Aid approach to weight loss (and fitness). I’ve done the Atkins thing a few times now, and while it always works, it never feels right. I can’t help but feel it’s counter-intuitive to see an apple as an enemy. I will, however, take with me the conservative approach to eating carbohydrates. That is the beneficial ‘take-away’ from those experiences. I’m not a carb craver, so that’s not so hard for me. What I do find exceptionally challenging is simply eating less. Ich. More honestly speaking, what I find challenging is the challenge.

Now yet another challenge… I just received an email that had my body flushed with cold. I thought that I’d just been through all the extremes I could handle in losing my father this past week, but this was horrible in a new way. I hated this feeling, and what’s more, I hated that there was no good outcome from it that I could see. No relief, no ultimate fix, no happy ending. Elihu’s beloved teacher at the Waldorf School was leaving after the end of fifth grade. How many times had we thanked God to have found her? How many times had we exclaimed that she was the best thing ever to have happened to Elihu? How many times had Elihu himself told us how much he loved her, how he loved her way of teaching, of being? So many times we’ve thought how lucky we were, how amazingly lucky… This news has me wanting to cry, but I feel cried out. I feel the dull throbbing in my right shoulder and begin to feel like things are all pressing in on me. I’m almost scared, but more than that, I feel defeated. My son has been a joyful child due much in part to his teacher. How will my son remain joyful now? I know that whomever replaces her will be a gift too, I know that. I don’t think there’s such a thing as a Waldorf teacher that’s not pretty spectacular. But still. I sit with this new information for a bit. How will I tell my son? I know he’ll cry. His heart will break at this news, I just know it. I look outside at the mounds of new, white snow. It’s a gray, snow-covered morning. Beautiful, serene, unaware that all this human drama continues on…

Yesterday we removed the ornaments from the tree. It had begun to dry so terribly that many were now falling off. One ornament, the one that we’d gotten just after I learned I was pregnant (the ornament was made in Italy, and so was Elihu) had fallen to the floor, but interestingly had not broken. I heard it fall, and was rather amazed to see the delicate glass globe in the middle of the floor, intact. I had been given a second chance, now it was time to remove them before they all fell and broke. Good thing I had no time to anticipate the taking down of the tree, what with all this nostalgia and sentiment flying around these days it woulda been hard on my heart. Even so, it was a poignant afternoon yesterday as ancient and sad Christmas music played and years of memories, in the form of ornaments, were each recounted and packed away. I kept torturing myself by thinking that I’d put the tree up while dad was here, and now I was taking it down after he had died. He was here, now he’s not. This gorgeous tree was here and beautiful one day, simply gone the next. After about an hour of recorders, lutes and lots of D minor Elihu called from his room and asked if we couldn’t have something ‘less sad’. That kid always keeps me level, I swear. Time and place for everything. Yeah, I suppose you’re right kid, enough of the sad.

But now this. I was ready for the empty living room, I knew dad was going. And even the bird, I knew we’d have to do her in. But Elihu’s teacher? I had no preparation for this. I gotta keep it together, I’ve got to expect that surprise, wonderful, yet-unseen outcome. Life is full of surprises for which we can never fully prepare. I hear that Elihu’s up now. When to tell him? Fist we’ll have breakfast, tend to the chickens and fill the table feeder outside our window. Even there we have our little surprises – just a few days ago we were visited by a Yellow Bellied Sapsucker for the very first time in our five years here. So there are some good surprises to be had too. I know that. I’m ready for just about anything to happen next, I guess.

So go ahead, life, bring it on. Surprise me.

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Post Script: Careful what you ask for… Moments after I wrote this post, when I went out to the coop I found Lefty’s ‘twin’ sister, Righty, lying dead (identical and petite white leghorns, each had a comb that hung over on a different side, hcnce the names Righty Tighty and Lefty Loosey). Looked like she’d died recently. A victim, like her sister, of hen-pecking. She was featherless on one wing and covered in blood. When I picked her up by her legs and turned to check the boxes for eggs, goose Max started violently pecking at her. Many times I’d seen him take a bite at a bird’s back end, but it was never more than a territorial nip. This was strange and different behavior. I scolded him soundly then walked out with the dead hen. I walked her out to the edge of the woods where we’d left her sister. I kissed her cheek and told her how sorry I was. Then I left her. What a nice surprise that’ll be for a hungry fox.

When I got inside I found Elihu talking on his new IPad (left by Santa in Illinois) to his father and sister in England. Soon after he was playing his bass for her. And just now when I peeked in again, I saw Elihu explaining to her how he wove his silly bands into jewelry. Wow. Here in our little country home was an open window into another home halfway across the globe – and in real time, too. Call me old-fashioned, buy I still marvel at technology. My mind is still blown to think that my first cell phone was the size of a brick and got too hot to touch within minutes, and here my kid is chatting away without a second thought to the visual image of his dad and sister, thousands of miles away. (A bit mind-blowing too is the fact that my son has a sister his own age. Even though I’m at peace with it, and understand she’s an important part of Elihu’s family, I still can’t quite integrate that into my thinking.) Yup, surprises are everywhere.

A final Post Script: Surprise! My comments feature on this particular post has become disabled somehow, and in spite of my best efforts to reverse this, I cannot figure it out. Never happened before…