Mortality & Morbidity

It had been a week of an excruciating headache that finally ran me from primary care physician to outpatient CT scan of my head to the emergency room, all in a matter of 2 1/2 hours. Diagnosis: subdural hematoma. Cause: indeterminate.

The neurosurgeon in the ER knew my husband. They had worked together twenty-five years ago. Comforting.

Contrary to other neurosurgeons I had met over the years of being married to a physician, he seemed to be “more normal,” exhibiting a good bedside manner. Thankfully. (Each medical specialty seems to attract particular personality types. I’ll leave it at that.)

He asked about trauma, the most likely explanation for the bleed on my brain. I had no memory of any.

He asked what I do, likely as much a test of my word recall as his particular interest in me. That’s always a hard question to answer, even without brain trauma. But, after rattling off a series of activities and accomplishments, I stopped and said, “Honestly, first and foremost, I’m a mother and a caregiver. That’s my most important job.”

He heard “author,” a fact that barely describes my history but, nonetheless, was a snapshot in a scrapbook of my life events. He anticipated I would be potentially hospitalized for days, and down for longer. “You should write,” he said. “Have someone bring your laptop.”

My headache so excruciating, I couldn’t imagine writing, much less articulating anything coherent. But he insisted I could look back on it as “that period of early brain recovery” that might be “interesting to go back and read.”

“Have you read the book My Stroke of Insight?” I had not read the book but had watched her TED Talk more than once. I had shared it with my husband, thinking it might provide some insight into brain recovery following the recent stroke of our oldest daughter just 9 months ago. My husband chimed in about “how fascinating.” And it was!

And then the neurosurgeon said, “I looked up her lesion. Yours is potentially much worse. You should write.”

Much worse, you say? Much worse??

Pause. Bedside manner just jumped the tracks.

A long sustained pause in my painful brain began as my husband and he talked medicine, and they discussed my future.

All I could think: mortality, morbidity.

My God, I hope I continue to have the opportunity to write. That’s all. To create. To breathe. That’s all. Pain free. To think. That’s all. To think.

That’s all.

And then I was admitted to the intensive care unit. And I prayed that my doctor would be treating the whole person.

I am so much more than a brain.

I didn’t ask for my laptop. I wanted the screaming of my brain to be silenced. Calmed. I wasn’t ready to give it a voice. And I had to hang on to the hope that I had time. Time. Time. Time.

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Stroke

She was swaddled in a tightly woven cocoon, spun with threads that pulsed from spasm to rigidity.

Hanging on by the thinnest filament, she was enveloped in darkness while the hum of life was dulled by a heavy cloak of paralysis.

Unable to move at will, her body existed in a state of suspended animation, tethered by an overwhelming tug.

A prisoner in repose, she dreamed of what once was and fantasized of what was not to be.

Blinding rage ebbed and flowed as her mind played tricks on her, and her soul searched for an escape.

After months and months, when it finally felt safe, she pushed through and slowly spread her wings into the pain.

She watched as if a detached observer of her own body as one wing emerged badly damaged.

Tears began to flow, landing among the deep, vibrant hues. They glistened on the overlapping pieces that defined her.

Others drifted and fluttered above her, unable to look past her confused movements, transfixed by her disability.

She was extraordinary, so delicate and yet so resilient, so rare, and so misunderstood.

Confused and scared, her cocoon was repaired and readied as she quickly retreated, spinning a wrap to muffle her screams.

She rested as she prayed that the next time she emerged others could accept her.

More importantly, she prayed that she could once again accept herself.

Kimberly S. Voss

(It has been 9 months today since my oldest daughter’s most recent stroke. All these years, through all her challenges, she has always been the consummate teacher. I am trying to be a good student.)

Hombre de Pollo

It’s a name my middle daughter came up with for the Whole Foods guy, the one who packaged up her organic chicken when she was on a six-week cleanse. She bought a lot of fresh chicken, saw the guy often, gabbed back and forth, and hence the funny name.

Fast forward a few years and I have my own “hombre de pollo.” My guy has a long, braided ponytail and a dry wit. We always seem to jump right into the back and forth banter, a pun or two thrown in for good measure. He tends to joke about getting my order wrong. I play along, suggesting what I’ll do with the potential overabundance of chicken.

After many encounters, we recognize one another. I always enjoy seeing him. “Hombre de pollo.” Yes, indeed.

I shopped late last night after a long, hard day. I was limping again, reinjuring a relatively new groin pull from lifting Ashley. I waited until it was slow at the counter to hobble back to the meat department so I could finish up quickly and get home.

Sure enough, my guy was there.

Preparing for an upbeat encounter briefly lifted my spirits. I was still recovering from having to advocate for Ashley at physical therapy earlier in the day. It’s been decades of it, but even more acutely these last 9 months. I occasionally have to be “that person” and, to be honest, I hate it. I’m tired of the fight. Bone tired.

“Hombre de pollo” and I always start our usual convo with me characteristically asking him about his day. But today was refreshing because, well, he was honest. “It was just okay.” “Not so good today?” “No,” he said. “To be real, not so great.” I chimed in, “Honestly, mine either.” “Weird,” he said, “but it’s as if nobody is really prepared to hear the truth.”

I felt this moment of refreshing vulnerability. I don’t get to experience that much and just blurted out, “My oldest daughter had a stroke 9 months ago. She was already managing disabilities, but it’s been devastating.” “Oh, man…” “Yeah, how would you have known? We both put smiles on our faces, and no one ever really knows the truth.”

He then shared with me about a woman he dated. “She had a two-year-old daughter. The little girl was fighting acute lymphoblastic anemia. I was there for the whole thing. Man, it was tough.” Hoping that she made it, I asked, “How is she now?” “She’s 7 and full of energy. You’d never know. But, you know, she’s got to be followed for the rest of her life.”

He handed me my chicken and said, “Somebody needs you. You step up.”

And he’s right.

Please, give and receive being real with the people around you today. We cover up our pain with a smile and a “doing fine.” More of us are hurting than any of us realize, and one of us just might benefit from some authenticity. I know I did.

Eureka! (Springs, that is)

In an effort to unwind after a series of rough months, I planned a two-day getaway with my youngest daughter for some writing and relaxing. After a bit of research, and limiting our travel to a two-hour drive, we ended up at a quaint bed and breakfast in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. (Okay. So much for the 2-hour drive. I miscalculated. It was 3.)

The relaxing part was going well for the both of us, but my daughter was having much more success than I in the writing arena. I felt bogged down with recent life events while her fingers were flying on her keyboard.

It reminded me of the guy I sat next to in a college biochemistry exam. I felt less than prepared while he was furiously writing the answers.

Wait a minute. I married that guy! Now I was sitting next to the ginger female version, slash English and literature grad school student, generating a fun blog post. All the while, I was searching for literary meaning in the crazy minutiae of my life.

Yep, before I knew it, she’d hit “Publish Now” and her piece was already posted.  Then, within minutes, “Oh! I just got another follower!” “Ohhhhh, two people just liked my post!”

When I read what I had written out loud to her, it sounded all angsty and depressing.

Her suggestion? “Mom, write something pithy!”

“Pithy? Pithy, you say??” Um, my life does not scream “PITHY!”

“You know! Something lighthearted!”

But in all seriousness (or, in all lighheartedness), my life isn’t without humor. Even this mother/daughter trip has had its share of giggles. Miscalculating the travel time got a few laughs. And then there was the first stop for gas and a snack (since I miscalculated the travel time). Standing at the checkout, a female voice behind me said, “Ma’am, are you sure you wouldn’t like some gum?” I turned around to see a toothless woman restocking the Dentyne and Doublemint with a big friendly smile.

“Oh, no, thank you!”

Hmmmm. I thought I saw the irony? But, to be sure, I ran it by my quick-witted daughter when I returned to the car. She concurred.

The first night at the bed and breakfast, we had our share of chuckles reading Facebook newsfeed comments about a poor guy hospitalized in Tucson who apparently had no recollection of who he was. One person suggested he had concocted the story as a way to get out of paying for his hospitalization. (That would be clever of him!) Another suggested he was Richard Gere’s younger brother. (If true, lucky guy!) And yet another suggested getting into his wallet to check his driver’s license? (Heck, why hadn’t the authorities thought of that?)

And then there was literally a psychic who suggested English was not his first language, and that he had a wife and kids “back home.” (Okay, Ms. Psychic, if you could be a bit more specific on the “back home” part, we might have a legit lead on figuring out who the heck this poor guy is!)

And so maybe I didn’t come up with some meaty blog post on this trip. But that’s okay. My “getaway takeaway” is that life ain’t so bad after all. I still have my teeth. I remember my name. And I will eventually find my way home with a daughter who writes like a champ, and finds her mother at least mildly clever and amusing.

Yep, life ain’t so bad.