Tuesday, September 18, 2012

What I Did On My Summer Vacation

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

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Emerson Was Right: Lessons in Friendship

5th Grade. Middle Row, left: Gina then Esther. I'm in Lower Right  


It was the first day of school in 1939 and I was the new girl. My family had moved from our house in Roslyn to an apartment in Glenside, Pennsylvania, just a five-minute walk from the elementary school. Our new home was dark and crowded, especially when all six of us were there. It was located right in the middle of the village commercial area and there was no back yard to play in.

David and I walked slowly past all the shops and parted inside the front door of the grey stone building, where he climbed the stairs to fifth grade. I felt timid and uneasy because I knew the children in my new third grade class had been together for two years. Mrs. McConnell, who was to become my all-time favorite teacher, called me to her desk and welcomed me with a hug before introducing me to the other children. Then she called Esther Harrar and Gina Garrett to come up to the desk.  She explained to them that it’s hard to be the new girl in a class where everyone else already knows each other. She wanted them to be special friends to me and help me get acquainted.

Esther and Gina were eager to do well with their assignment. In addition to showing me around the school and playing with me at recess, they invited me to their homes to play and to their birthday parties. It was Esther who introduced me to Girl Scouts—her mother was the troop leader—and it was there that I had my first taste of belonging to something. Those two girls were friendly to me until we graduated from high school in 1949. Esther and I have stayed in touch through all our moves. She now lives in California, but our friendship remains current. Mrs. McConnell was paying attention to me, but I believe she was also teaching me (and all the third-graders) a lesson in caring and in the importance of making a particular effort when it’s apparent that someone needs a friend.

I was not born with the mind or the physical assets that make a person popular in school.  Eventually I came to understand that I didn’t want to be popular; I was a nonconformist and something of a loner—and I still am. When I was ten I had the epiphany that I was the only one of me in the whole world, and that was a thrilling idea. I wanted to devote myself to being me and to understanding what that meant. I was not interested in trimming my sails for social advantage, but I wistfully wanted to be chosen by at least a few other people and once in a while to be included in the latest plan.

From time to time I tried to talk to my mother about my desire to have some friends and to be invited to their parties. She inevitably quoted Ralph Waldo Emerson, her hero, who wrote, “The only way to have a friend is to be a friend.” She urged me to try being a friend to a lonely child in our neighborhood, but I had it in my mind that being accepted by some of the popular girls might be enough to give me better status. Reluctantly, I bowed to Mother’s advice and invited Maura, the needy child, to come and play one afternoon in my wonderfully big yard. She was a dusky child, but not dark-skinned, although she had jet-black hair that hung heavy around her face. Rather she walked in darkness, head looking down with a concave posture and showing no sign of animation nor was there any light in her eyes.

She spent an afternoon with me and then promptly became my shadow and followed me everywhere at school and in the neighborhood. There were rumors of abuse in her family and evidence of poverty, and she was definitely anathema in the sixth grade. The more she tagged after me the more my meager status wilted. I remember how torn I was because I had come to care about her and sympathized with her profound sadness, but at the same time her constant presence was a burden. Eventually her family simply disappeared without even any rumors left in their wake. Perhaps they were evicted or maybe the abused mother took the children away in the middle of the night. It took nearly another year before some of the boys finally quit teasing me about that friendship.

Even so, I remember my childhood as a happy, albeit often solitary, time. Most of my free hours were spent biking, swimming, reading, and hanging out with my brother David. The shining exception was during the last two years of the War when Ann Wilson lived across the street from me while her father was stationed at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. Their house was somewhat hidden from view, and you walked to the front door through heavy landscaping. It felt enchanted to me. Inside she and her mother cared for her younger sister who was severely retarded with Down’s syndrome. At an early age, Ann had decided that when she grew up she would be a teacher working with children like her sister. We were best friends until the war ended in 1944 and her family moved back to New York. We corresponded for a while and I still have one of her letters, but we lost touch. I didn’t have another close friendship like that until college.

Mother’s insight about being a friend was clarified and fully realized for me when I was twenty-two, pregnant, and miserable in the steaming heat of an Alabama summer. Bill was posted to Fort McClellan and had traveled to Anniston in May 1954 several weeks before I did. He rented the only apartment he found that we could afford. It consisted of a bedroom, an everything-else room, and a tiny bathroom. It was dark with few windows, and just eighteen inches from the exterior wall of our bedroom there was a large coop full of chickens—noisy at dawn, smelly all day, and a twenty-four hour incubator for flies and mosquitoes.

We’d immediately started attending the lovely Grace Episcopal Church and became acquainted with the rector, Father Bill Stoney and Martha, his no-nonsense whirlwind of a wife. They stopped by one day for a pastoral call, and I could see in their eyes both shock and amazement at our incredibly scanty lifestyle. The apartment was clean, and we had hung pictures on the wall, and put up curtains, but it still proved the truth about not making a silk purse out of sow’s ear, or perhaps a castle out of a chicken coop. One Sunday afternoon near the end of July, Bill and I were lounging around in a state of considerable deshabille, sharing the cool air from our single fan, when we heard a car door close and Mrs. Stoney’s voice calling, “Bill, are you there?” Hastily, Bill grabbed a pair of khaki shorts, and I scrambled into a sundress and we hurried out to greet her as she came puffing up the hill to our apartment.

Breathlessly she told us that they were on the way out of town to go spend the month of August in their eventual retirement home, called Happy Hut, in Saluda, North Carolina. She told us they simply could not bear the thought of us in this terrible place while the rectory stood empty. She had brought us the keys and a note with some instructions and told us that their maid Pearlie would be by once a week to clean and her wages had already been paid. Ever the practical one, I asked what we would do when they got home. “You’ll stay with us until we find you a suitable apartment,” she declared.

Bill walked her to the car and as they were pulling away he called out to ask where we should sleep. As the Stoneys drove off, Father Bill drawled out the window, “You can sleep in a different bed every night!” It turned out that the rectory was a veritable mansion with many bedrooms and a beautiful garden. We lived there alone for a month and another month after they got back. They were as good as their word about finding us a suitable apartment. I don’t think they acted as they did because they wanted to make us their friends; it was a simple act of compassion. But even though we were younger than their grown children, Bill and Father Bill talked and laughed together for hours at a time while Martha became my friend, mentor, and confidante. Their example inspired the two of us to make a habit of opening our home, our dining table, and our hearts, and often those invitations resulted in making life-long friends.

In the eight years since my husband and best friend Bill died, I have been sustained by the development of nascent friendships I had made over the years. Work, traveling, and caregiving had made it difficult to spend the time it takes to get to know others well: to share joys, frustrations, laughs, or recommendations for good books and Netflix. Now that I am home most of the time, my habit of friendship is to respond when friends—close by or far away—come into my consciousness, first by holding them in my awareness with loving thoughts and later sending an e-mail or picking up the phone. If I sense during a conversation with a friend that something is amiss, I try to name the feeling: “You seem down. Are you all right?” Often I invite them for tea. If my friend’s pain seems private, I don’t pry, but if they have a need to talk, I’ve opened the door a crack. I learned to do that because others have done it for me, and I discovered what a blessing that crack in the door can be, especially during times when I have struggled with grief or illness.

At any age, I have found that different friends are best for different times. What matters is that we are there for each other. The special intimacy that rises to the level of close friends is a matter of grace. It may be recognized in an instant or it may grow slowly over years until it crystallizes into a friendship that each person recognizes as something wondrous. 

Next Post: 09/18/2012