|Vacation Vista: Detail from My Garden|
In my Pennsylvania childhood, school always started on the Wednesday after Labor Day. Generally speaking, I liked school and was happy to slip back into the routine. But first I had to get over the hurdle of the obligatory essay assigned on that opening day about “What I Did on My Summer Vacation.” In both elementary and junior high school we had to read them aloud each year. My summers never measured up to those of the kids who went to camp, visited grandma in the country, or spent a month at the Jersey shore. In the wake of the Depression my father was only paid nine months a year for his job as a school principal. He worked all summer at other jobs to keep food on the table, first as a camp counselor and later as a member of the interior paint crew for the school system, painting classrooms. Most years my family got to spend a little time at the shore using houses belonging to friends, but that was often in September; my mother had no compunction about taking us out of school for a few days.
What was special about my childhood vacations was the freedom. Once our chores were done, we go could go anywhere and do what we wanted as long as we headed home when the firehouse whistle blew at five o’clock, signaling the end of the workday. They were pleasant times, but not very exciting to read about in front of my classmates. I’ve been thinking about those happy, healthy, carefree days, chuckling as I remembered the annual ritual of recounting them in labored paragraphs. This week the cool mornings and first color change in the leaves are preparing us for the beginning of fall on September 22. So in case you are wondering what I did on my summer vacation this year, I offer you my essay.
The summer of 2012 got off to a splendid start when my family gathered in early July to celebrate my eightieth year. It was summer camp compressed into a long weekend, complete with Fourth of July fireworks at Penland, fishing, swimming, hiking at Mt. Mitchell, a talent show, good food, and campfires with toasted marshmallows. I was the grandma in the country that my great-grandchildren came to visit. For the next two quiet, hot weeks after the family dispersed, I basked in the light and love generated by the celebration. I enjoyed my cool house and serene garden as I wrote, read, knit, and did the things that keep me healthy: fixing nutritious food, napping, and exercising.
Then one fateful Sunday, I woke up from a nap, swung my legs over the side of the bed to stand up, and was shocked when my right leg—not the one with the revised knee—wouldn’t take my weight and seemed to sear my whole body with burning pain. I spent the afternoon and early evening trying home remedies, eating cereal and other quick foods, and apologizing to Nigel for not taking him on a walk. When Robin and Tammy came up to watch Masterpiece Mystery with me that night, I told them what happened. Tammy gasped as she looked at me and said, “Your whole leg is swollen!” It has taken seven weeks to pin down the multiple causes of the pain and to tease apart the leg problem from my other ongoing medical issues (heart, lungs, shortness of breath, anemia).
During my summer vacation, I have been a major consumer of healthcare—funded by Medicare and my AARP supplement—including first an evening trip to the hospital for a diagnostic blood test, followed during several weeks by a CAT scan of my chest, a nuclear study of the blood and air flow in my lungs, an ultrasound of my legs, and an MRI of my right knee. It took so long because it involved several different physicians who were on their summer vacations just when I needed an appointment.
Meanwhile I developed some dental problems that worsened during the time my dentist was traveling down a river in the far reaches of a remote Canadian wilderness. A few days after the MRI put the final piece in the painful leg puzzle, I had the last of three dental appointments, in which the dentist filled the holes that had made chewing difficult for weeks. I also had a very informative evaluation by the physical therapist in Burnsville. I have started some strenuous and uncomfortable physical therapy designed to strengthen the muscles that move the knee. My new physician (a physiatrist) is optimistic that my problem can be resolved non-invasively.
Although I am delighted that I don’t need surgery, it was hard for me to accept that all those tests and procedures aimed at solving the mysteries of my problems were warranted. I have been assured that, given the symptoms I presented, all were appropriate. However, except for the MRI, the results were either negative or confirmed a diagnosis already in my chart. I believe that the concurrent heart and lung issues, together with the weakness that caused so much concern, were doubtless related to the stress of pain, decreased mobility, and uncertainty.
As I prepare to cross the threshold into autumn, my hemoglobin is finally where it should be, my medications have been adjusted so my heart and lungs are back to their new normal, and I am getting into the rhythm of different exercises joining the ongoing routines of walking, stretching, and maintaining my status quo strength. My personal philosophy of health care derives from the literal meaning of the term, which is the maintenance and improvement of physical and mental health. I believe I need to work in partnership with the practitioners I have chosen. However, I remain responsible for my health as long as I am physically and cognitively able to manage it.
The sense that I can do it or I can figure it out was always second nature to me. I didn’t question it; it was something I knew to be true. As my strength and energy began to wane in the past two decades, I had some hard times when I agreed to do more than I could accomplish and had to disengage. I learned the lesson and started weighing things more carefully before I said yes, and I finally learned to say no. But now when I need to do many things to care for my health, I no longer have the easy sense that I can do it. I often feel I have let myself down when I know what I need to do, but do not have the energy. This dilemma is not yet resolved for me, either physically or emotionally. It is part of my ongoing meditation on how to live expansively, when everything in your life is contracting.
|Vacation Vista: Mountainous Machines|
Bill and I used to discuss what it means to have a vacation when you are retired. We concluded that it continued to be important to change the pace, step away from obligations, and explore new vistas. My summer vacation this year did slow the pace, but it increased my obligation to my health, and the only new vistas I saw were the giant medical machines that searched for clues to explain the mysteries. This week I’m off on a real vacation and a chance to visit with Bill’s family. When I explained about my long-planned road trip, the physical therapist smiled and said, “That’s okay, we’ll send your homework with you.” Apparently my summer break is over, and school has started again.
Next Post: 10/02/2012
Next Post: 10/02/2012