Standing at the Edge of the Universe

It’s been almost three months since I’ve written, an unintended break that’s been weighing on me.

In August, a pretty serious health crisis happened to my father (and only a few months out from a kidney transplant, it was particularly complicated), one we hadn’t seen coming at all.

“It’s like standing at the edge of the universe,” one of his surgeons said to the two of us, referring to what would happen if we didn’t proceed with the major (and risky) surgery. And that one phrase seems to encapsulate the experience of acute, serious illness so well.

Overnight, my siblings and our spouses were whisked out of our daily lives and into waiting rooms and consultation rooms. The waiting, that is the all too familiar part—we have a routine now. We bring iPads and laptops, share phone chargers and delegate “to call” lists for updates. One makes coffee runs, another is responsible for cracking the jokes, another serves as the contact person for the surgeon and the floor. I usually take the pre-op shift so I can lay eyes on him before he is wheeled back; once he’s in recovery, someone else stays on later.

Since my father provides a lot of care for my mother, we split our time between his ICU and step-down floors and doing overnights at her house, and then after she too had surgery, we traded visits between different hospitals, rehab centers and respite care facilities.

More than two months after it all started, both parents are now home together and settling in. Both are recovering well, and have a renewed sense of hope and possibility.

There is much to say about this experience: the amazing opportunities medical science and premium health care offer, the stress of illness on families, how fortunate I felt I had siblings to help dig through the trenches. But for now, all I will say is we’ve pulled back from our perch at the edge of the universe, from the tense, draining unknown.

Things are calmer now, more predictable. I’ve found a groove with my courses, our new schedule, and lots of other changes. I hope to back here more regularly, and back at my usual writing spots like WBUR’s Cognoscenti and Psychology Today.

Thanks for hanging in there through the silence.

Making Order Out of Chaos

When I read Duncan Cross’s prompt for the latest edition of the Patients For A Moments blog carnival, which asks how we recharge, I was sitting in my home office. Stacks of bills and paperwork that needed to be filed took up most of the desk space. An assortment of mail, cards, and other mementos took up residence on top of the filing cabinet, patiently waiting to be stored more permanently. Folders filled with journal articles and research piled up in leaning towers on the floor, competing with books I need to read and review, files to read through for my teaching and research projects, and various stickers and drawings from my trusty little assistant.

In short, my home office reflected the state of my life the past several months—exciting and productive but incredibly intense and long, too. (Teaching an overload (4 courses), managing the pre-launch book tour and subsequent book tour, doing in-person book events and interviews, freelancing, helping out with care before and after my father’s transplant, etc.)

Having all these very big things happen all at once equals a lot of emotion, a lot of responsibilities, and very little sleep. My husband works weekends, too, and with some juggling the two of us we kept up with the basics: laundry, weekly cleaning (dusting/vacuuming/scrubbing), cooking, etc.

But the long-term stuff? The filing, the organizing of pantry and shelves, the sorting through drawers, the de-cluttering and boxing up of old toys and games? All that stuff slipped to the wayside. We were just trying to keep up with the everyday stuff; filing paperwork was just not a priority.

This all goes back to the central question Duncan Cross asks—what do we do to recharge when we are run down? After reading it, I ignored the looming deadlines, closed down my laptop, and spent some time organizing my office. The desktop was pristine. Each scrap of paper had its rightful folder. Each stack of folders had its rightful drawer. I felt a little less burnt out and frazzled.

For a moment, I debated sitting back down and tackling the deadlines, but something in me just couldn’t. I’d done that at the expense of so much for so long.

So then came clearing out all our drawers and closets, then the intense dusting behind and underneath the furniture, and I felt even less burnt out and frazzled. Then came the whole downstairs, too. A couple hours later, I flopped down on the couch, wheezy and exhausted, but it was the first time in so long I felt settled. Even though I was incredibly sleep deprived and getting over a sinus infection, I felt so energized.

While the examples are not always so extreme and time-consuming, I realized after the fact that putting my life into order in the midst of chaos is something that always makes me feel a little better. Even something as small as writing out a To Do list has the power to both calm and recharge me when I am a hospital patient and I am physically unable to make order out of the chaos.

After a 14-hour stint at the hospital the day of my father’s transplant, my husband made sure the house was clean and organized before I got home, because he knew it would make me feel better to have things orderly when I was in such an emotional state.

My office is now a sunny, neat place to get work done, instead of a omnipresent reminder of how frenzied the past few months have been, and putting more order back into the household makes me feel like I have more control over my life in general.

How do you recharge? What do you do when life and stress and illness start to spiral?

The Night Before Transplant…

Some observations of fact:

Since 1988, there have been 116, 712 living donor kidney transplants.

Of that number, 4, 064 have taken place in Massachusetts, where we live.

Five hundred twenty-three living donor transplants have taken place at Beth Israel, where my father’s transplant will take place.


A living donor kidney starts to produce urine in the recipient’s body before the surgery is over. (For some reason, this blows my mind.)

(Source: my father’s surgeon.)

Some observations of the heart:

No matter how many times you tell yourself all people who have this surgery are in poor health and are therefore high-risk, no matter how highly recommended the surgeons are, no matter how amazing the opportunities medicine allows for are, it is all still really scary.

Watching someone you love slip away before your eyes takes a piece of your soul. Watching that person have hope and begin to make plans for the future slowly restores it.

I can say without a hint of hyperbole or exaggeration that my father is indomitable, and has always been my hero.

Lucky for all of us, we now have another hero, whose compassion and sacrifice are giving us a second chance.

Please keep my father, his donor, our families, and both sets of medical teams in your thoughts and prayers tomorrow.

Living the Dream (Or, It Takes a Village)

Every now and then, like when it’s well past midnight and I’m setting my alarm for 4:45 so I can get some work done, or when we’re trading notes on how many loads of laundry and changes of clothes Norovirus necessitated, my husband and I will mutter “Living the dream,” and smile (smirk?) at each other.

Of course we always say it in jest, and because sometimes a little levity can make another pre-dawn computer session or raging case of toddler vomit a bit more manageable.

The thing is, though, we really are. Living the dream, that is—our particular notion of what a dream should look like, anyway, and all the lack of sleep and crazy juggling and contagious viruses and daily minutiae pale in the face of that.

I don’t like winter. The days are too dark, everyone is sicker more often, and this winter there are just too many variables to manage—teaching, side projects, book launch, merit review, household maintenance, chest PT, and of course, the really heavy stuff, like watching my father’s kidney failure progress and working on the logistics of a transplant and medically complex post-op care plans. I am tired, and I just want it to be spring.

The irony that spring represents hope and renewal is not lost on me. (But really, I’d be happy with weather warm enough for a trip to the playground, or possibly a nap.)

Anyway, as we claw our way through this snowbound February (and yes, it really is starting to stay lighter later on), I’ve taken to re-framing how I think about nineteen-hour days and the often overwhelming nature of the here and now.

Living the dream. We have a happy, healthy, joyful little girl. When she is at school, she is in a wonderful place where she is loved and where she is thriving. I get to spend so much time with her every day, a lot more time than I would in other professions, and I try not to take that for granted, ever. We go to the library and playspaces and gymnastics class, we do playgroups and playdates. We read books on the couch and hide treasures in her tent and I try to say yes to finger paints more often than not—“Just throw me in the tub right after, okay, Mama?” All the other stress and sadness and obligations of life fade away.

Part of this is because higher education is a bit more flexible schedule-wise, part of this is because I am willing to work late nights and early mornings, and a huge part of it is because I work for a wonderful institution with accommodating superiors and administrators. They support me and allow me to do what I enjoy with students I enjoy. There is room for professional growth, and innovation and initiative is rewarded with responsibility and recognition.

I have an agent and a publishing team who have been equally accommodating, and whose guidance has really helped my writing career. And lately (stay tuned) some incredible writing opportunities have come my way, things I wouldn’t have thought possible if I had sought them out myself, and all I can do is be grateful and give them my all.

My husband is almost two years into starting his own business, and while the hours are long for all of us, the benefits outweigh the (many) stresses. Seeing him get great press or expand his production facilities to meet increased demand is nice, of course. But knowing he is doing something he believes in, and something that while grueling, allows him the flexibility to come to her doctor appointments, drop her off at school, and be present in so many aspects of her daily life, is even better.

Along the way, we’ve been blessed personally and professionally with mentors and cheerleaders, those whose encouragement, advice, and enthusiasm have helped us to take risks and fight for the life we want.

Way back in the day, I wrote this post on how it takes a village when it comes to having chronic illness and raising children. And it absolutely does—when she’s sick or I’m sick or we’re both sick, we need helping hands. But unsurprisingly, my pre-child understanding of that village was a bit narrow.

The village stretches far beyond those who can help out when we’re sick, or watch our daughter so I can go to the hospital. It also includes the cheerleaders and the mentors, the bosses and the schedulers and the administrative staff, the professional colleagues who go out of their way, the doctors, nurse practitioners, and nurses who manage our conditions, my physical therapists, the daycare staff, and so many more. It’s the family and friends who are a constant, and those who understand when life gets complicated and we fall off the radar.

If I’ve learned anything in the months since we started looking for a living donor for my father and we’ve witnessed the amazing outpouring of support and sacrifice, it’s that the web of people who care is intricately linked and stretched out beyond our immediate circle, and beyond the circle beyond that circle, even.

I won’t deny this is a hard season we’re in, in every sense of the term. As is always the way, it seems like there are so many exciting things going on right when so many tough things are. I know things will get easier soon, when the book is launched and I’m feeling better and the work winds down a bit. I also know that things could get much harder before they begin to get easier. I can’t wait for spring, but the enormity of what could happen between now and then is hard to translate.

For now, I am keenly aware of all the scaffolding that exists that supports us and enables us to live this dream, in all its imperfections.

On 2013 (Or, Side by Side)

It was helpful to re-read my New Year’s post and its emphasis on being more present as I thought about how to approach this first post of 2013. Being present, being mindful, really, involves focusing on the actions and emotions of the moment.

Grief. Joy. Sadness. Happiness. Side by side.

A couple of years ago, once we were through initial trauma of my mother’s brain injury and could focus a bit more on issues of rehabilitation, the losses stretched out in ripples, and the fear and sadness also mixed with gratitude and anger. After so many years of struggle we were finally expecting a baby, and here I was, in my third trimester, on bed rest and fighting to keep that baby safe. I wanted my mother. I wanted my daughter to know her grandmother. I wanted her birth to be free from all this heartache and upheaval, not just for me or for her, but for all of us. I was angry that we wouldn’t be able to just have the joy.

But I didn’t realize then the heart and mind’s capacity for preservation and compartmentalization. I didn’t know that I could weep for mother’s situation and yet hold my daughter in my arms and feel pure, all-encompassing joy. That even when it felt like things were crashing down around us—mother in rehab, father in the hospital, maternity leave that ended early, sickness for baby, sickness for me, plus all the normal newborn, breastfeeding, sleep deprivation woes—I could feel so utterly content, that even as my hold on all the other moving parts of my life slipped through my fingers, I never felt more solid, stable, or sure.

Over the past two years, I’ve often thought about this dichotomy: How I’ve never been happier than I am when I am with my daughter, how this always-cheerful, adaptable, chatty, precocious little girl has changed us, changed everything. How I gain so much every day I get to be her mother, even as more and more slips away. How I’ve re-calibrated to an ever-shifting sense of normal, where I watch people I love suffer, where we all shed more tears than we used to. Guilt lingered—did the many tears I’ve shed somehow take away from my gratitude for her? Did the joy and the love somehow mean I didn’t appreciate the gravity of all the stresses around us? Could I feel both so completely and simultaneously and have each one be true, be real?

Yes. If there is anything I have absorbed from the past few years, it’s that.

I remember so clearly the day this fall we found out my father’s lone remaining kidney was indeed failing. I called my husband but couldn’t get all the words out to tell him, there simply wasn’t enough air. Heart-ache, I repeated the word in my head as I battled my way down busy Huntington Ave, the traffic lights blurry through hot tears. This is what it feels like when your heart aches.

I picked my daughter up from school later that same day and listened to her chatter away about her day and who and what she played with. We went to the library, where we played with trains and picked out books. She held my hand in the parking lot, and helped me empty the dishwasher. In the moment, in the middle of our normal activity, I found the air I needed. I laughed. Again and again the pieces threaded back together.

Watching my father deteriorate these past few months has been a series of chest-clenched moments, where I know what I see but don’t want to see it, where I can’t talk about it so most times, I don’t. I’ve been conscious of creating time where my parents can be with my daughter. No matter how terrible he feels, when he is with his grandchildren, when they run to him with their arms outstretched, when my daughter climbs onto his lap and says, “I love you so much,” nothing else exists for him but that moment.

Waiting for his transplant and watching him get worse and worse while at the same time, having so much hope and optimism that he will have a good outcome…again, we have grief and joy, sadness and hope, all mixed up.

I won’t say that the heart-bursting gratitude we have for our daughter, for this life we’re living with her, is sweeter or more appreciated because of all the difficult stuff that exists right along with it, because I can’t imagine feeling any less than this, regardless of what else might be going on. No one ever gets just the joy, that’s not how life works. But if we’re lucky, even with the sadness, we still get joy. We can feel both so completely and simultaneously and have each one be true, be real. Side by side, each a measure of love.

So that’s my hope for 2013. I don’t know how much of the tough stuff the year will bring, but I want to be mindful and fully present in the joy wherever we can find it, to not let it slip by without squeezing every ounce out of it.

Solace in the Good

I fully intended to post this right on or near Thanksgiving…

And somehow, the mound of grading and the professional development projects and prep work to host Thanksgiving besieged me. I spent the day of Thanksgiving itself enjoying time with family and dear friends, and being present in the moment seemed like the best way to express thankfulness for all the good that surrounds me.

But this is what I wanted to say then, and this is what I think about so often lately. The response to our search for a living donor kidney match for my father has been tremendous. Knowing there are so many people out there willing to be tested and consider making this huge sacrifice has made for an emotional few weeks. “Overwhelmed” is a word that gets overused, I think, and often has negative connotations, but truly, I am overwhelmed with gratitude, and with the goodness that is out there.

I am grateful every day that I get to wake up in a world where there is an earnest little toddler who wraps her arms around me and says “I love you,” and I am fortunate enough to get to be her mother. But I am grateful this is the world she wakes up to as well—one where one person’s struggle is taken up by others, where those we care about are cared about by others.

We’ve a long road yet, but we’re moving in the right direction.

Someday soon I hope to have more information to update, but for now, we take solace in the good.

Take a Deep Breath

The world is a decidedly less funny now. Yesterday, an incredibly wise, insightful, humorous, and courageous man succumbed to his lifelong struggle with cystic fibrosis. If you’ve read Life Disrupted, then you remember how sage Brian’s thoughts on life, love, and chronic illness were.

It was a privilege to know Brian and to share a part of his story. The past couple of years were particularly tough for him in terms of disease progression, and he made the decision to join the lung transplant list recently in light of that. In fact, he was called in for a possible lung match when things took a turn with an overwhelming infection. I cannot imagine the emotional roller coaster and devastation of that scenario, especially for the many, many people who loved Brian and supported him every step of the way and were hopeful for new lungs.

Today is a gorgeous sunny day, with low humidity and plenty of blue sky. It is the perfect day for all of us, especially those of us with respiratory problems, to take a deep breath. To inhale and exhale, and appreciate the simple gift that motion is.

It should never be as hard as it is for some.

I can’t think of a better time or a better reason to remind you about the life-saving gift that is organ donation, not just for people with cystic fibrosis or PCD, but for patients of all ages and diagnoses who are waiting—waiting for a cure, or waiting for a chance to extend their lives…simply waiting.