Day 429: Story time.

shedWe’ve had a couple of days of temperate weather – just enough to whisper the coming of spring. The eighteen inch white cap of snow on the back shed roof has shrunk to six inches, fences are growing taller, and the tops of stone walls are poking through the white landscape here and there. I think this is going to be an especially enjoyable rebirth this year.

My own strength seems to be returning a bit. I can walk up a flight of stairs again without resting half way up and my appetites have returned. I rolled out of bed yesterday morning at 4:00am with a clever little short short story asking to be typed. I haven’t written any new fiction in six months. Something must be mending.

satisfied-chaseI imagine the creature in my head that weaves these tales getting increasingly agitated as the hours pass and it can’t break through to my conscious mind. Once the story makes its way out of my fingers and into my keyboard it rests, lost in afterglow.

The closest I’ve seen the feeling in real life is Sheltie Chase’s face as he snuggles on Delphine’s chest on a cold winter evening in front of a roaring fire. The reward for every yearning, every struggle lies right there in the gleam of his eye. Pork chops, herding hens, and an evening on Delphine’s lap – it just doesn’t get any better than that.

Are dogs supposed to smile that way? Does anything in my universe ever feel that profoundly good? Maybe not. But just watching it warms my soul.

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Day 433: Home again.

It’s my second night home and I’m getting ready for bed. Just thought I’d try an update.

Weak, I suppose, is the word that best describes how I feel now. I can easily see the appeal of curling up in bed for an extended convalescence. Of course giving in to my anemia and babying myself is probably the surest path to incapacity. Just have to shake it off.

snow-drivewayIt snowed today – again. That puts us at just over sixty inches of the white stuff so far this year.

Whatever point Mother Nature is trying to make – she’s made it. Delphine and I are both developing an unnatural craving for blubber.

I cleared a three foot high bank of snow and ice deposited by town plows at the end of our driveway. That’s the local minister’s house across the street in the picture. He’s done a nice job of fixing it up.

blowerManhandling the snow blower was a real adventure. I don’t know how we’d survive without our faithful old Troy-Bilt. I’ve sucked up a rubber door mat, wound a nylon rope around the intake, jammed hidden bricks and cordwood in the augers – and still it moves a heart attack’s worth of snow every storm.

The electric start is essential. Gasoline engines and I never see eye to eye. Yanking on a starter rope for any machine more than one season old is my least favorite way to get a stiff back.

After clearing the driveway, Delphine went off to care for one of her clients and I went in to my consulting gig for a half day. Just walking up the five steps to the building entrance left me winded – but I survived. The really exhausting part of my day was hunting through reconciliation reports making sure the government SBIR research projects we’re doing are DCAA accounting standards compliant. The paperwork is unbelievable.

To everyone who wrote worried that maybe Day 437 was my last – thanks. Not dead yet (but I do seem to be working on it!).

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Day 437: Bleeding out.

It’s midnight and the tarry stools have been replaced by floating squid ink as black as Ahab’s soul. It gushes from my posterior every twenty or thirty minutes – enough digested blood to require me to bend over to remain conscious. I’m bleeding out.

In the brief intervals between changing sheets, I’ve been taking inventory of what I leave behind for Delphine. The homestead is too much for one person to manage. Maybe Doug, her brother in Albuquerque, would like to take a crack at farm life. He’s a good guy – someone you can depend on, someone with a ready laugh and a good spirit. Of course he also has his own life and chopping wood may not be how he’d like to spend it.

I really don’t want to go to the hospital. But it’s getting worse. If I have to go how will I get down the stairs? Maybe I can sit on the steps and lower myself one at a time. Yes – sit on the steps.

It’s almost 5:00am. As the clock chimes the hour I soil the bed – again. This is ridiculous. I no longer have control over my body. I wake Delphine and tell her it’s time. We leave for the hospital in darkness. On the way I mention her brother and give her a couple of checks just in case.

We follow signs to the Emergency entrance. After answering the same questions three or four times, Dr. Twinker, a gastroenterologist, introduces himself. He’s a fifty-something gentleman with a welcoming smile. He asks a few questions and says he wants to take a look at my plumbing. He schedules a esophagoastoduodenoscopy for 11:00 that morning. I conclude that the space bar on his doctor school computer must not work so well.

At the appointed time I’m wheeled down to an operating room. My anesthesiologist says, “This will tingle for three seconds”, injects Propofol into my IV, I feel a little burn…

…and Dr. Twinker is talking to me. A minute or an hour or three months have been edited out of my life.

opr4Luckily, Delphine is there. He hands her a report and they chat.

I read later that the report says ulcerations at cardia with minimal hem, larger amounts of melenic blood covering the gastric mucosa, third degree esophagael varices. I decide I’ll need a trip to WebMD to decipher the document. But it seems that Twinker has actually found something.

opr1And this time there are pictures. It looks as if I have some kind of a B-grade sci-fi movie worm monster in me. Delphine tells me it’s just my throat.

My blood count when I entered the ER was 11. Normal is 13. No big deal. Last time I had a bleeding problem I was down to half that.

Between hourly vitals taking, a bed a third the size of the one I’m used to with a mattress that surely is marked Portland Cement, and a jumble of pads and sheets and mats that wind around my body, I haven’t gotten twenty minutes of sleep all night. Yesterday I was given no meds for my diabetes and a sugar level of 201 has my legs jumping in spasms.

Today is nearly half over and I still haven’t been given any blood sugar meds. I’m exhausted. I’m ready to confess to anything.

The shift doctor meets with me and wants to do another blood count before I’m discharged. My latest blood count shows I’m down to 9.4, not the earlier reported 11. (9.4? Another 15% drop?) I’m down over three pints of blood. The doctor says the test can’t happen until noon. And then the results have to come back from the lab. And then they have to be reviewed. And then the paperwork starts.

If the new test confirms the 9.4 they’re going to want to keep me. Even if it doesn’t, it means six more hours in the hospital, six more taking of vitals, six more hours of torture.

forearmI want to go home. I plead, cajole, beg, and finally resort to showing off the huge purple patches on my arms that get squeezed every time someone puts a blood pressure cuff on me. I point out the wounds are from a dozen attempts by a junior tech trying to find a vein. The doctor relents and cancels the test.

An hour later a nurse comes by to remind me that I have a blood test scheduled for noon. I tell her it’s been cancelled. She wanders off to confirm my story. There are so many chefs in this kitchen nobody knows for sure what meal they’re cooking.

A Discharge Planning Coordinator shows up to interview me for my pending exit. Do you have someone to drive you home? Will someone take care of you when you get there? Are you safe? Am I safe??? It takes me a few seconds to understand what she’s asking. She wants to know if I’m being abused at home. I think of Dustin Hoffman in Marathon Man. I say, “Yes. I’m very safe.” I glance at Delphine and whisper to the Coordinator, “I have to say that or she’ll beat the hell out of me.” I show her my arm.

I’m giggling and the Coordinator turns pale. Delphine says, “He’s joking.” Now I’m laughing and the Coordinator says, “Another form to fill out.” Government.

Home again. I’ve only been away two days but the dogs and cats stare and sniff me suspiciously. There’s something familiar but apparently my fingers smell evil. It’s going to be awhile before I’m let back in the pack. Dove won’t even be in the same room with me.

My bed. My glorious bed. A mattress has never felt so good. Cool, smooth sheets, pillows with just the right firmness, my down comforter – heaven. Now I’m safe.

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Day 438: Jack Black

When I first started this diary a writer friend pointed out that the focus was mortality. I was offering readers a glimpse of how I confronted my own upcoming death.

Along the way I’ve detoured by poking fun at some institutions that seem to me to have more arrogance than answers. I’ve also recalled a handful of people that, for better or worse, helped me get where I am. But mostly I’ve ignored the thing that inspired this little project in the first place: my finish line.

That changed last night.

Yesterday, after working on the kitchen floor, we went out for a bowl of soup. I finished the meal with an apple. Somehow tiny apple bits gathered halfway down my esophagus. I wanted to swallow or burp or something but it was blocked. My entire esophagus lit up with pain. Tiny burps and swallows and tearing eyes followed for the next half hour.

For most people this would have been a completely forgettable event. But it turns out I have esophageal varices – maybe. Five years ago (see St. Policy) $140,000 worth of tests said I might. Or might not – no one actually knew what the tests meant.

In any case, when the bleeding starts I get black, tarry stools. I haven’t seen them in five years. Last night they returned.

Mortality. Perhaps the finish line is in sight. What to do?

I despise the American medical machine – sucking profit out of misery. Charge for keeping me healthy – not for suffering illness. In any case, I’ve decided to stay home and do my best to be gentle to the offended body parts that are now bleeding into my digestive system.

There’s power in that decision my words don’t capture. Perhaps I might borrow from Ahab:  from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee. Hospitals. Moneymen. 

Horizontal man

I made my way downstairs this morning about 11:00. I cut two more floor tiles and took a potty break – black as Ahab’s soul. Upon finishing I stood and nearly passed out. Delphine stared. “Your face – it’s white.”

I fought my way back upstairs holding on to every table and chair along the way, reached my bed, and collapsed. I needed to let blood return from my legs to my brain. That was three hours ago. I’m typing this post on my little netbook computer with my head on my pillow.

Writers are supposed to look for tension in their stories – good versus evil, innocence versus malfeasance. Right now the tension in this story flows from ambiguity. If I lie here another hour or six will I be up helping Delphine move the oven back in place or making my way to oblivion? An internal bleed is peaceful – painless, sleepy, calm.

Is it time to say good bye to my sons? Do I tell the memories of girls from my youth who said no thank you they may only have minutes to change their minds? Friends and lovers, lovers and friends. And what about my dearest sweet Delphine?

Ambiguity. I feel a nap coming on. More later. Perhaps.

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Day 439: Project time.

It’s early Saturday morning, Delphine is still asleep, and the house is quiet. Dove, our fluffy little indoor cat, provided her usual morning escort from my bedroom to the bathroom and back. I don’t exactly know why she takes this ritual so seriously, but I get the impression that she thinks that squat white porcelain chair is there so I can better reach behind her ears. Whenever I head to the facilities Dove is there like a flagman on a tarmac guiding a plane to a gate. And then the purring starts. She rubs her scent on my legs, offers me her back to pet, and leads me back to my room, flagman style, hopping up on my feather comforter for a luxurious snooze.

It’s project time today. We’ll finish laying vinyl tiles in the kitchen. The ceramic tiles we’re covering have gotten badly cracked over the years. We’re filling in the old grout seams with leveler compound and putting on a coat of adhesive primer. I cut tiles and Delphine eases them into place. Teamwork.

We bought the property from a bank almost five years ago in a foreclosure sale for thirty cents on the dollar. We fell in love with it walking the back woods even before we saw the inside of the house. The bumbling bank had evicted the previous owners and let the property sit empty for two years. Pipes had burst, roof leaks destroyed ceilings and floors, cracked plaster walls let frigid outside air blow in. Another year under the bank’s stewardship and the building would have needed bulldozing. It was exactly what we were looking for.

The first priority was getting a working toilet. The old one was reduced to a pile of porcelain shards in a closet-sized room. I framed out a pantry next to the kitchen, patched holes that let you look out the wall into the backyard, replaced plumbing, ran electric lines, and installed lighting. We had a toilet and sink.

house-livingWatching Delphine and I hoist four by eight foot sheets of drywall over our heads would have made a good sitcom. Red-faced, the two of us would try to hold the sheet  in place on our tippy-toes while I feverishly shot sheet rock screws here and there with an electric screw gun hoping to hit a beam.

We decided to get a little help and found a younger guy (a sixty-five year old French-Canadian fellow who liked to sing while he worked and had been hanging drywall since he was fourteen). With the bad economy he hadn’t found work in months. I had him put up a couple of sheets in the living room and hired him on the spot. He could carry two sheets of drywall at a time and hung more in a day than Delphine and I did in a week. He asked $5 a sheet – the whole house for a lot less than a single trip to the orthopedist.

house-loftThere had been a fire in the barn loft. The floor was iffy, you had to climb a rickety ladder and roll on your back at the top to get up to it, and while the structure was still sound, it just looked depressing. The barn originally housed horses and the loft was used to store hay. I had equipment from my thousand square foot aquarium factory that needed a home and I had different plans for the space.

I built a proper stairway and found a neighborhood kid to help me put down a plywood sub-floor and cover the charred walls. We were fixing up the old gal with common sense, elbow grease, and a ridiculously tiny materials budget.

house-bathThe original bathroom was a mess. There was almost no water pressure, the sink leaked into the wall, and the cast-iron bathtub was unusable.

The new toilet in the pantry was a huge convenience, but we needed a real bathroom. It took me months to figure out how to fit one into the second floor with enough room to still access the attic over the kitchen. Delphine and I took down several walls of horsehair plaster and lathing, I framed new walls, and (CraigsList to the rescue) found a couple of guys to help me install a shower, bathtub, vanity, toilet, and ceramic tile walls and floor.

Not only did doing most of the work ourselves save money, it created a sense of accomplishment that the fanciest contractor-built kitchens and bathrooms couldn’t begin to match. Every cut, every joint, every piece of molding and pipe was infused with a memory that made our homestead uniquely ours.

And now it’s time to go cut some linoleum and make a few more memories.

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