Sunday, August 21, 2016

A Twist in the Gut and the Plot

It wasn't the nutritional yeast.  I know that now.

And San Francisco will most likely wait for us.

Three weeks ago on a Sunday morning I fried up a happy bacon and eggs breakfast like a good Trim Healthy Mama. Then I ramped up the THM engine and added a few slices of avocado and pulled out my jar of nutritional yeast to sprinkle over the whole works.

Instead of sprinkling gently, the nutritional yeast fell out in a big glop, probably two tablespoons of it.  Oh well.  Sunday morning, lots to do, and if a little is good, more must be better.  I ate it up.

An hour later Paul had left for his pre-service ministers' meeting, my hair was fluffed and up, and my stomach suddenly hurt.  Wow.  I scampered around putting pens in my purse and lunch in the oven.

Oh my word. This HURT.

Finally I told the kids to go on and I'd come later.  I went to bed and spent the next six hours in great and terrible pain.

When it subsided enough to think, I thought back over everything I'd eaten in the last day.  Was it the Mexican food from the night before? The eggs?

I looked up nutritional yeast.  Some people react to it with painful bloating and cramps.

All right then.  That explained that.  I felt very silly, and the next day I dumped the rest of the nutritional yeast in the trash.

*     *     *

Paul suggested we go to San Francisco for our anniversary.

Despite being a great planner, he isn't really the whisk-away-on-a-romantic-trip sort of person.  So when he suggested taking off to San Fran, I said YES.

Even though there was a LOT going on, like Vacation Bible School at church, and my sister and my dad coming, and harvest, and chickens and flower beds to take care of, and my sister leaving and Dad staying, and people streaming through my life, and our church's first ladies' retreat to plan for at the end of August.

I drew up a chart with all the living things that would suffer or die if uncared for for four days, and who was in charge of what.

First we talked about flying to San Francisco, and then we decided to drive, taking off after lunch on Sunday.

That Sunday morning I once again had two eggs.  I put kielbasa soup in the Instant Pot, prepped the buns, shepherded Dad out the door, went to church.

After church I started with another stomach ache that got worse as the minutes went by.  I didn't at all connect it with the episode two weeks before.  Some crazy indigestion.  We ate lunch, put our bags in the car, and left.  We tossed in an ice cream bucket at the last minute, just in case.

*     *     *

This is the thing about sickness and health issues: do you share the news of them? And how much? To whom? And when?

The question has a number of sides.  The TMI factor, for one.  Stomach aches and barf buckets. Indigestion.  Ewww.  How can this be anyone's business but mine?

But: how can anyone support, rally, care, help if they don't know?

Also: sharing brings advice.  Some of it you desperately need and want.  But when you're surprised by illness, dealing with the flood of well-meaning un-asked-for advice can be so overwhelming that you decide to keep your news to yourself.

Also: explaining is hard work.  People want to know particulars, because they care about you.  Or because they're curious, some of them.  And if they give advice and you don't take it, you seem ungrateful and snippy unless you explain and explain what you're going to do instead, and why and how theirs would be great advice except for this.

Clarifying ideas and experiences into words and sentences is hard work when you don't feel well.  So not saying anything can just be easier and more manageable.

But it can make you feel alone.

*     *     *
We headed south on Interstate 5.  An hour later I was in really really awful pain.  I started throwing up.  Thank goodness for the bucket.

Paul stopped at a rest area to dump the bucket.

And at a gas station.

And at a few other places.

I was in serious, serious pain.

We can't go on, we decided.

*     *     *
Illness and emergencies are an opportunity for people to say, afterwards, "You should have just...."

Medical situations bring out stuff you didn't know was there, and I'm not talking about the bile in the depths of your stomach that comes up via your wretched heaving on the gravel parking lot in Sutherlin, where you've pulled off to make a few decisions.

Paul, for instance, is brisk and decisive in 99% of life, but he is completely baffled and desperately uncomfortable and inadequate in medical situations.

Whereas my missed-my-true-calling self shows itself whenever a gash or ache or upset stomach comes across my way.  I'm immediately pulling on the sterile gloves and laying out my instruments and pulling pills and oils from the drawer.

Unless I'm the one who's sick or hurt.

Then some haunting ghost from the distant past takes over and I feel I have no option but to tough it out.

Because deep down is a belief that I will not be believed that it hurts.  And that only wimps ask for help.

That was one of a number of unpleasant things I found out about myself through all this.

*     *     *
So we got a motel in Sutherlin.  I have vague memories of one of us mentioning going to the ER in Roseburg, but somehow I couldn't stand the thought of being poked and asked and moved and x-rayed.

I also don't like making big decisions in an emergency.

So Paul helped me inside and I curled up in that lovely bed and was lost in a delirium of pain for a long time, and then I fell asleep.

Paul called our nurse friend Esta, who said it sounds like gallstones.  Then he went to Safeway and got me some apple juice and roses.

The next morning Paul called our doctor and made an appointment.  We canceled the anniversary trip and began a journey of a different kind.

*     *     *
I've read about and known people who go through chemotherapy or multiple surgeries, and it seems they are familiar with this mysterious System.  They know about scans here and ICU's there, about how to tell which is a good doctor, about insurance, and how to be assertive and demand what you need.

Me? I know about visits to a family doctor for asthma, bronchitis, and kids' broken arms and ear infections.  And giving birth, but that's different.

I've never really had to navigate the System.

*     *     *
Our doctor took me seriously.

"How often have you given birth?" he said.  "How did this compare?'

I said, "Two of my births were easier than this, and I didn't have easy births."

He believed me.

Then he sent us off into the System.  An ultrasound first, in an unfamiliar area of Salem.

I expected discomfort, gowning up, an icy sploosh of gel on my stomach.

Instead: a casually friendly technician who said no, you're fine, just have a seat here. And she had warmed the gel!

Little things make a huge difference in the System.

*     *     *
Two days later, we went to meet with the surgeon.

The word "serious" came up and bobbed around like a helium balloon left over from a party that blows with the air currents in the house.

Not just gallstones, but "serious" gallstones.  And a hint of pancreatitis, which can be very serious.  And an inflamed gallbladder.  Again, serious.

Most people, it seems, have small gallbladder issues for months and years before they become big issues.  This sudden and extreme is unusual.

Surgery is the solution, everyone in the medical system said.

I thought, "Steven is graduating on Saturday.  I HAVE TO BE THERE."  And then I schemed how I could make this work.  Hold off a few days, then graduation Saturday, surgery Monday.

The surgeon said, "You can't have laparascopic surgery with an inflamed gallbladder.  You'll need to wait six weeks and eat a very low-fat diet in the meanwhile."

Six WEEKS?!  Of eating almost no fats, which is just awful awful, and meanwhile the gallbladder could attack again at will, any time it pleases.

I wanted to burst into tears and cry for a long time.

And then the surgeon said he's going on vacation, so it might be more like nine weeks.

*     *     *
Sickness strips away control and capability.

Healthy, it's easy to delude ourselves into a sense of control over our lives.  Daily schedules, routines, duties.  Lists and plans. Do this, delegate that, make things happen.

Think of the almost absurd audacity of scheduling something two months out.  Yes, I can bring a salad to that party, organize that event, speak at that retreat, even fly to your state.

With control of place and time comes control of emotions.  Feeling in charge, giving orders, keeping life like it ought to be, or at least trying.

And then, just that quick, the control is gone.  Sickness brings a mental fog brought on first by the shock of things changed all of a sudden and then by the inevitable brain shutdown from just Not Feeling Well.

So I get up in the morning and try to prioritize what's absolutely the most important, because that's about all I can get done.

And then I do really spacey things like forget to turn stove burners off.

I'm easily overwhelmed at the best of times, but when I'm sick, everything looks monstrously overwhelming--such as the half dozen orders for Dad's new book that are sitting here on the desk.  Such an enormous, impossible task, figuring them out.

Forgive me, you people who ordered a book and haven't received it.

Emotional control also disappears with sickness.  Last night I recalled an odd memory from sixth grade, when I had been out of school for about four days with a bad flu. On the first day back in school we made stained-glass windows out of black construction paper and tissue.  Something went wrong with mine, and I started crying.  Mrs. Olson said, kindly, "Are you sure you're over your sickness?" and I thought it odd.  What did that have to do with crying over a frustrating art project? She said, firmly, "I don't think you're well yet."

Now I'm sure she was right.

I cry too easily at the best of times, but this last week I feel the emotional fragility that comes with sudden loss, physical pain, and big life changes.

It's just hard any way you look at it, to go overnight from sharp, active, busy, healthy, strong and sure of things to dull, slow, sick, weak, and uncertain.

I hate it.  But you know who just GETS it, who knows what to say, how to say it, when to make me laugh and when to commiserate, what advice to give and how to give it?

The people who have been through something like this themselves.

God isn't going to waste this.

*     *     *

So now I'm waiting.

Eating plain potatoes and longing for butter and sour cream. Analyzing every twinge in my side for signs of another attack.  Trying to re-schedule my talks in the next two months because I have no idea if I can be there or not.

I try to think through the what-if's and have a plan, since I still don't like to make big decisions in an emergency.

It's kind of like getting ready for labor, except it's not fun, and there won't be a baby at the end.

But I made it to Steven's graduation on Saturday!  Seventeen strong amazing uniformed young people on the platform, Steven the most handsome and amazing of the bunch, of course, and then he got his diploma and we were just thrilled.

I sat in the auditorium and thought happy thoughts about how far he's come.  I also thought, "Oh dear.  What if I have another gallbladder attack, here and now?"

But!  What better place and time to have an attack? Steven and all his friends would have swarmed around to help and transport me to the hospital.

But now that he's graduated, and I was there, I don't care so much what happens and when.

*     *     *
As per James 5:14--"Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord."--Paul and I met with the other church leaders and I was anointed with actual oil and prayed over.

So many times I've been the one praying for healing for someone else.

When you're the one anointed and prayed for, you feel touched and healed by Jesus in your spirit, no matter what the outcome is physically.

*     *     *
"I had no idea about any of this," said my friend Sharon this morning.

"You didn't say a thing on social media," said Amy when we Skyped last night, implying that this was out of character.

"I just didn't have the energy for all the explaining, all the conversation, all the questions," I said.

I will be honest: what I feared most was the barrage of remedies and products.  I've contacted a niece and a couple of friends about non-medical treatments.  My family doctor gave me a few parameters with natural remedies.

If you feel the need to share a suggestion, please let me just listen without explaining whether or not I'll use it, and why.

What I need and appreciate most is words of support.

*     *     *
A low-fat diet is mandatory.

So is humor.

A few days ago I faced the reality of what weeks and weeks of a low-fat diet looks like: punishment.  All my beloved peanut butters and alfredo sauces and bleu cheese dressings and whipped cream, forbidden.

[Just wondering if this might be a clue why I got gallstones in the first place...]

I said, darkly cynical, "Hey, I should call this a fast so I can at least get some spiritual credit for it!"

Ben said, "Mom, I can't believe you'd have the gall to say that."

As long as we keep laughing, we're going to be ok.

I don't think I'll try nutritional yeast again, regardless.

And Paul says we will definitely make it to San Francisco, someday.
Jenny made a paper chain for me to mark off the days until surgery.

Emily made me a pretty, low-fat salad.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Sunday's Column--Sisters

Bonds of sisterhood remain strong despite long separation

By Dorcas Smucker
For The Register-Guard
AUG. 14, 2016

The best thing, after 33 years, was that we were still us.

My sister Rebecca and I were born a year and three weeks apart. During those three weeks, she always gloated about her vastly superior age, chanting in our Amish-German dialect, for example, “I am 8 and you are only 6,” which sounds far less infuriating in English.

She was tidy; I was messy. She was responsible about housework. I tried to sneak out of doing dishes. She got along with people. I was all frustration and temper, even, on one memorable occasion in the fifth grade, taking the Lord’s name in vain at lunch break on the playground when Billy Allen, with his unbearable smirk, made fun of me for swinging and missing when I was “at bat” in kickball.

I remember exactly what I hollered back at him — not only the first and last time I ever cussed, but also “Why don’t you shut your fat face?” a useful phrase I had just learned from my brother Fred.

Rebecca always was maddeningly good when we were little, and she did things right, while I blew with the winds of impulse and fury and grand creative ideas. “But overall,” Rebecca says now, “I recall us being more like twins. I think I mostly saw you as an equal.”

By junior high, we had learned to be blessedly for, instead of against, each other. We both say the only way we survived being the only Amish girls in a public high school in Minnesota was by our sturdy support of one another.

All through high school, we shielded each other as the bitter winter wind whipped our dresses while waiting for the bus, left notes in each other’s lockers and discussed the day’s indignities, test scores and gossip over the supper dishes.

Living far apart for the first time was unsettling, especially when she was in college and I moved to Oregon to teach at a Mennonite school. Was I someone, apart from her? And if so, who?

By my second year in Oregon, our lives, so tightly similar in high school, were diverging. She was in her third year of college, busy with nursing and Campus Crusade for Christ. While her faith was as strong as ever, she felt called to leave our church and its culture to embrace a wider ministry and world.

Meanwhile, I was dating a Mennonite man and sensing a future in our faith tradition.

That year, we arranged for Rebecca to fly out for spring break, and for four days we stayed at a motel in Florence and reconnected as sisters and best friends.

We found, in those blissful days at the coast, that for every difference between us, we still had a hundred similarities. We explored the shops in Old Town Florence, walked on the beach, talked for hours, laughed a lot and made predictions about the future. She guessed I would marry Paul Smucker, which I did. I said she would marry someone named Malcolm Forbes, which she didn’t.

At night, we sat on the bed, ate celery and peanut butter, and watched “Gone With the Wind,” fiercely stabbing the celery into the peanut butter jar whenever the plot turned scary.

When Scarlett shot the insane soldier who came to the house, we leaped off the bed and made sure the doors were locked.

The next morning, we discovered we had left the keys inserted in the outside of the door that opened to the motel parking lot.

The two of us in 1983.  I'm on the left, Rebecca's on the right.
We had no way of knowing back then that she would spend most of her married life in the Middle East with her engineer husband, and I would spend much of mine in an old farmhouse in a restful rural setting in Oregon. We would each find our way apart from each other, and yet our lives would evolve with almost startling similarities.

Both of us married men who are exhaustingly driven and less emotionally attuned than we are. We both had families, lived with asthma and dealt with the genetic tendency toward depression in ourselves and our children. We both find ourselves constantly involved in helping others.

Back in the United States for her son’s wedding this summer, Rebecca had a chance to visit me, and I decided to surprise her by re-creating our visit to Florence 33 years ago. I found the motel online with its name changed but still sitting there by the Dairy Queen, and reserved a room. Her joy, when we pulled in and parked, made it worthwhile.

Not only did we catch up with each other for two days, but we also reconnected with those two young women from 1983 who were making high-risk life decisions and wondering how they would all turn out.

2016. Again, I'm on the left and Rebecca's on the right.
We didn’t have time for movies, but we still double-checked the locks for old times’ sake. We also ate healthful snacks, took pictures on the beach and gravitated toward secondhand stores.

She is still deliberate and tidy. I am still scattered and forgetful. I deal in the moment; she thinks long-term. But once again we connected on a thousand similarities, laughed at the same things, and empathized deeply with each other’s times of powerlessness and pain.

We ordered the same items off the menu, coughed with asthma and puffed our inhalers and, all unplanned, wore near-identical purple shirts the next morning. We didn’t eat at Dairy Queen this time, since sugary food triggers our asthma.

Riding in the car together, we recalled how I yelled at Billy Allen in the fifth grade and laughed so hard that tears ran down our cheeks.

“I wonder what those two young women would think of us now,” Rebecca said.

I think they would be proud of what we’ve survived and surprised at how much we are still them, still us.

We would tell them, if we could, that the big decisions of marriage and work and location mattered a lot, and we are both relieved that in spite of our naivete, we got those choices right.

But the little decisions of kindness, love and sacrifice are the ones that bring us daily joy, and we could have continued to choose them no matter where we lived or whom we married.

I think those young ladies would be happy to see that, while we are a lot wiser and more experienced, our personalities are still essentially as they always were, and even our weaknesses helped shape us into who we are today.

Surely they would also be glad to see that our relationship survived and that we continued to contact, support, listen, forgive and encourage despite years and miles and the differences that never went away.

Small, positive choices can accumulate into a really good life. To have a sister rooting for you through it all is a rare gift, and I am astonishingly blessed.

Dorcas Smucker is a homemaker and mother of six. She can be reached at dorcas­