The holidays are over. At my feet, in front of the gas stove, Bonnaroo’s little puppy bed is filled with a black and tan silky swirl of fur like a soft serve ice cream cone. Pooled water on the glass-top patio table begins to ripple like fish rising on a lake with the first raindrops of the next storm. The green spires of daffodils are up three inches in the backyard. It’s officially, what I call, our first of only four weeks of winter.
Spring is already relentlessly and, heedless of the calendar, bullying her way here. Part of me is grateful. Part loves the quiet, short days, long nights, and inward adventures of winter. Sometimes four weeks is not enough. As much as I love the hubbub of parties, celebrations, and gatherings, I’d love to sit cozy and quiet on the other side of the solstice for just one season in my life. Covid almost blessed me with that.
Yesterday, I noticed a now-cheap-looking holiday banner of pinecones and ribbons in the CVS parking lot framed by the bony, arching branch of a bare tree in front of Starbucks. After a month of “Happy Holidays”, “Merry Christmas”, “Peace on Earth” and the unfulfillment of the latter, it felt like a sign that reads “All ye who enter, abandon all hope.” It reminded me of that story about the enemy soldiers in the trenches of World War I, stopping their conflict long enough to sing Silent Night together, before resuming killing each other. It also reminds me of Mother Teresa’s steadfastness. In the face of never-ending poverty, she replied to a reporter’s question about her impossible task: “God has not called me to be successful. He has called me to be faithful.” And so the banners and lights and trees will be up for a few more days, encouraging us into the dark night of winter.
The saddest sight in the world is the soggy puddle of a deflated Santa blown halfway across a lawn. Often you’ll find these reminders of the brevity of the holidays even before the big day they portend. For me, without a deep religious connection, the celebrations can feel as hollow and fragile as an inflated Santa in a storm. I do love the tradition of dressing up and gathering with friends and hopefully family. I love the lights, although not those down the street mixed with neon Trump signs. I like receiving gifts, though shopping for others stresses me out. I like having the sharp woodsy scent of a conifer fill my home. I like using the fancy dishes, crystal, and the glow of candlelight. I even like that stupid stuffed moose-looking reindeer hung from the staircase post at our entryway that obnoxiously rings bells, wags its head, and sings “Better watch out…” every time you walk by.
One of my favorite Christmases was after dinner at my daughter’s when she dimmed the lights, my niece lit candles, music played low, Lisa set up her table in the living room, and alternately gave massages to everyone. Another special time was also at Lisa’s when I read an article about the origins of the idea of flying reindeer, ornaments on trees, etc. Everyone, big and small, surrounded me on the couch and sat close to my feet on the floor as if they were seeking guidance from an elder. Normally, I’m just a wife, mom, aunt, and grandma. In that moment, I was surprised to see that I’d become a revered crone, if only with a magazine article I read off my phone.
Of course, advertisers very cleverly and effectively try to convince us that the feelings of these moments can be bought with the purchase of their products. If I were a salesperson, I’d do this, too, but we need to understand that these feelings of hope and connection can only be made by ourselves, with maybe a few candles, soft music, and the joining of our spirits.
The whole family laughed one time when, after opening the presents Christmas morning, the Christmas tree fell over as if to declare its work done and our celebration complete. My mother, had she been there, would have been horrified by the chaos. We also laughed when after waving goodbye to my brother’s family out the front door, we came in to find my son’s Malamute standing over the leftover prime rib on the kitchen floor. There was also the time at a midnight Christmas supper with my family and in-laws when I learned the terrible price my daughter-in-law’s mother paid to get her family out of her country to come to the US. Or the time my elderly mother, sitting at Christmas dinner, announced to us all the amazing coincidence that she had a son who looked just like my only brother sitting across the table. How do we manage this life, these moments? We hold on to each other – those we love and who love us. For me, that is the true gift of Christmas – one that needs to be cherished and nurtured the whole year through.
In two to three weeks, the almond trees will bloom, and then the Acacias and Evergreen Pears. Daffodils will be nodding their yellow trumpets in a month, and then the fruit trees will burst forth like Fourth of July fireworks. Until then, I’ll sit in my four weeks of winter and savor the darkness. Jane Kenyon wrote: “If it’s darkness we’re having, let it be extravagant!”
You try to enjoy each day while dealing with the side effects of treatment.
You search the net for cures to the disease and the side effects of the treatment.
You connect with your Facebook drug group for answers your docs don’t have… and you find them.
You somehow deal with the unknown duration of temporarily successful treatment and that eventual unscheduled train wreck that you know is coming down the tracks when the drugs stop working.
You can’t stop thinking about the one (ONE) woman in the world who has been “cured” for five years now with a new treatment.
You hope you live long enough to benefit from a cure if they discover one.
You just smile when people say, “You can beat this.”
You grow your hair while you still can.
Be vigilant? Ignore it? Embrace it? Accept it? Share it? Keep it to yourself?
You’re grateful for the opportunities you’ve been given in the past and you’re proud that, in your life, you’ve reached for the ring.
It’s time to turn inward. The phase of crazy physical activity is over. It’s time to process what has been, enjoy the now, and create memories with your kids and grandkids that they will carry with them throughout their lives.
You hope you’ve made a difference. You want to still.
You hope you won’t be forgotten. You hope what people remember won’t be your craziness.
On this planet, spring follows winter. But for us humans, we get one spring. In terminal cancer, there’s enduring the treatment and keeping the disease at bay but there’s no healing from it or looking forward to returning to your old life. Even with all my willpower, I can’t train myself to hike Burma Road on Mt. Diablo with its 2700 feet of gain over four miles. I used to do it weekly with a twenty-pound pack. There are plans and goals that will never be fulfilled or attained, grandchildren you will not see graduate high school, let alone be married. You will be a great-grandmother to children you will never meet.
There are trails that won’t see your footprints again. And those you’ve hungered to trod that never will. I always hiked and experienced where I was, as if I may never be there again. Thank God.
I find I can’t plant for spring. Only nurture what I have. And dispose of the confining detritus of too much-accumulated stuff.
Clean house less. Toss more. Drive less. Amazon more. Shower less. Nap more. Hike less. Write more. More phone calls and visits with friends. Laugh more. Fewer thoughts about money. Clearing clutter. Making way for manifesting new creations.
Buy expensive jewelry, flowers, pet the dog, travel.
Embrace the splendid mystery that somehow we can manifest the “strings” of energy making up our physical bodies that see, hear, feel, hug, cry, taste, touch, and process our experience here on this tiny speck of a planet spinning in a sea of dark, empty death.
Aren’t we lucky?
PS. Even though I have an incurable, fatal illness my doc, who does have patients dying, impatiently says, “You’re not dying.” Refusing to fall into my despair, my friend, Val, bluntly reminds me when I’m feeling down that, “You’re not dying today.” It’s true that, while none of us has an expiration date, nobody gets off this bus alive. Humans don’t do well with uncertainty. Buddhists spend most of their time trying to accept impermanence. I deal with it by being open about it.
Well, I’m over two years behind on the pandemic sourdough kick. Back in 2020 when we were in Covid lock down and everyone was getting their starter bubbling, I was recovering from massive radiation to my spine – head to tailbone, including my esophagus – to get the newly rediscovered cancer off the nerves exiting my vertebrae. But, I’m rarely on time for anything, anyway, even my own wedding, so it’s fitting that I’m late to the party with my flour and water.
I’ve baked untold numbers of yeast leavened bread loaves in my life: basic white, cinnamon-raisin-nut (my favorite), whole wheat, multi-grain, as well as loaves leavened with baking powder and baking soda: banana bread, persimmon bread, nut breads, you name it. But, at almost sixty-nine years old, I’ve never baked a loaf of sourdough bread. I bought a boule (French for ball) of sourdough bread from the artisan baking table in Lucky’s and savored every bite – plain, or toasted with a gob of butter, or toasted with an over-easy egg on top. Rick has a sensitivity to American wheat (Roundup we believe) so he could not share in it. I felt bad for him. For that reason, I usually make bread with organic wheat and thought that this could be my time to try it with sourdough, for him as well as for my own experience.
I started my starter, the leavening agent that makes sourdough bread rise and have those wonderful bubbles in it, over a week ago. The internet has all kinds of recipes and directions for making your own starter. I chose one by King Arthur, the popular flour folks. It looked too simple: mix one cup of whole wheat flour and a half cup of water, cover lightly, and set in a warm place for twenty four hours. I used organic whole wheat flour, so Rick could enjoy the eventual bread, warmed up my oven just a bit, stuck the light brown goo nestling in my quart Pyrex measuring cup on the middle rack, and went to bed.
I peeked into the oven the next morning to find the same blob not looking much different. Same that evening at the twenty-four hour mark. Was I doing this right? Where’s the yeast and sugar I’d always used with my yeast breads? Just flour and water? How can that be? Then I remembered a question I had years ago for a Napa Valley winery tour guide: “What kind of yeast do you use to ferment the grapes?” His reply: “It’s already on the grapes.”
Being a microbiologist, that sounded plausible. Microorganisms are everywhere, especially on fruit growing outside in the dirt but, unlike my backpack meals, I wasn’t cooking in the dirt. The recipe said to start out with whole wheat flour or even rye flour because “the wild yeast that gives starter life is more likely to be found in the flora-and-fauna-rich environment of a whole grain flour than all-purpose flour.” OK, I thought. So the yeast for sourdough piggybacks with the flour and all I’ve got to do is wait for the warm moist environment in my quart measuring cup to activate it and start growing – kinda like the fungus of athlete’s foot from hiking in a river-waded boot too long. OK, I got this.
Now, humans have been baking sourdough bread for 5,000 years using only the wild yeast residing in the ground grain. Baker’s yeast, Saccharomyces cerevisiae, has been commercially available since the 1870’s. This single cell organism quickly and reliably multiplies and pumps carbon dioxide into the bread dough to make nice little bubbles that, when baked, result in a light airy loaf. Emigrants, folks crossing the prairie to the west, and gold miners in California, all who didn’t have easy access to a market, relied on their sourdough culture to raise their bread. They’d make certain to occasionally feed it flour and water to keep the yeast alive until it was needed to leaven a loaf, or more likely, “bake” frypan bread.
The recipe said not to expect much in the first twenty four hours so I wasn’t completely disappointed when it appeared that nothing was happening. What it did say was to feed it more flour and water. I understood that. Living things take energy to grow. But unlike all the other loaves of bread I’ve baked in my life where I added sugar for the yeast to eat, metabolize, and make bubbles, there was none in this recipe. I explicitly remember this question from a high school Home Economics test: “What is the purpose of the sugar in a bread recipe?” Answer: “Food for the yeast.” Hmm, I thought, the starter must be metabolizing the complex carbohydrates in the flour. I was itching to know what microorganism was doing this. What kind of yeast was present in the flour? Should I add some baker’s yeast to give the starter a little start? Maybe a little sugar? I was not born with patience.
Good thing I didn’t. That’s usually where my projects go wrong: when I use past knowledge in a new situation in order to take shortcuts. After more googling I learned that Saccharomyces, the yeast leavening for regular bread, doesn’t like the acidic environment produced in sourdough starter. Saccharomyces thrives when fed glucose. Table sugar is fructose bonded with glucose. That’s why there’s always sugar added to regular bread dough. This sweet environment favors the growth of the Sacchromyces yeast over any other microorganisms hanging out in the flour.
Sourdough, on the other hand utilizes the enzyme amylase, Lactobacilli bacteria, and Candida yeast, all found naturally in the bread flour. The amylase breaks down the starch in the flour to glucose and maltose. Lactobacilli require maltose. Candida cannot metabolize maltose and leaves it all for the Lactobacilli to consume and multiply. While growing, the Lactobacilli secrete lactic and acetic acids making for an acidic environment (and subsequent sour taste) which the Candida thrives in and whatever Saccharomyces yeast is in there, they hate it. It’s all a very symbiotic happy soup with the different components inadvertently making a happy environment for the other. Humans lead a bit more complex relationship with each other and the plants and animals in our own soup. Maybe someday we’ll be as smart as yeast and see how we can benefit each other.
So, I followed the directions for Day 2. I stirred the goo, took out all but a half cup, flushed what I removed down the garbage disposal, added a cup of organic all-purpose flour, and a half cup of water to the reserved half cup. Then I stirred it up. I guess I’d already captured the right bugs from the whole wheat flour and now it just needs raw carbohydrate for fuel. I mixed it up, covered it, and put it back in its warm little incubator for another twenty-four hours.
Bubbles!!! Yeah. I felt like Tom Hanks when he made fire in Castaway. I must be doing something right. If Dr. Frankenstein was there we’d have high-fived. I’d created life in a measuring cup. I guess something like that happens unwanted all the time in the guts of my garbage disposal but, no matter, fermentation was happening and I had orchestrated it.
Day Three I repeated the feeding and watering and tossing of the extra, anticipating more bubbles and evidence of microbial growth. Nada. WTF!? Hadn’t it been working yesterday? What was wrong? Was it too hot, too cold, too wet, too dry? Did I kill it? Had I failed? I felt like I’d lost a member of the household. Then I remembered my daughter-in-law telling me not to mix it with a metal spoon when she’d gifted me some of her own starter about a year ago (which is probably still hiding in the bowels of the fridge). So I proceeded to continue feeding the sluggish starter with flour and water and mixing it with a bundle of wooden chopsticks I’d found in a drawer, my wooden spoon being too big for the Pyrex measuring cup. Not being completely sure what the problem was and being the scientist that I am, I decided to make another new batch of starter along with trying to revive the first one. This time I stirred it up with the wooden chopsticks. Then I thought, maybe it flagged because of minerals in the tap water or even from the herbicides they use to fight water hyacinths in the San Joaquin Delta, our water source. So I made up another batch with the deionized bottled water we get from the local shop, Water Wise, and mixed that with the chopsticks. Now I had three batches. Surely one of them would work.
Day 4 dawned with bubbles in all three batches. I giggled. For some reason I was giddy with joy. It felt like hope. It felt like a resurrection. It felt something like O’Henry’s story The Last Leaf where a girl with pneumonia resigns that she will die when the last leaf falls off the vine outside her window. As long as one leaf remained or the goo of my starter kept bubbling, there was hope for life. In O’Henry’s story, a neighbor paints a leaf on the fence so that even if the last leaf falls, she will not lose hope. I’d like to think that Rick will blow bubbles in my starter when I’m too weak to feed it. For now, I fed, watered, and discarded the excess in each of them like usual.
Day 5: Bubbling and brewing, they all smelled like beer. Feeling like a new mother, I began the regimen of twice-daily feeding.
Day 6 they all looked more active with more numerous and tinier bubbles just like King Arthur said. Morning and evening I fed, watered, and tossed.
Day 7 I fed, watered, and discarded the unused again. This was the closest thing I’d had to a pet since Abby crossed the rainbow bridge last Oct. I felt needed. I felt attached. I felt pathetic.
Day 8 I decided it was time to bake. Little did I know I wouldn’t have edible bread for sixty hours.
When I glanced at the bread recipe on Day 7, I saw something about “2-4 hours”. I figured that would be the rise time. Wrong. That was ONE of the rise times. Nevertheless, I persevered.
First of all I stirred down the foaming starter and measured a cup into a big bowl. Then I dumped in 3 cups of flour, 1½ cups water, and 2½ teaspoons salt. I vigorously beat it for a full minute just like the recipe called for. I did this for the first batch of the starter before I realized I wasn’t supposed to put the salt in yet. Doh! So I made another batch and left out the salt. Then I read: “Cover and rest at room temp for 4 hours. Refrigerate overnight or for about 12 hours.” “Holy shit!” I thought. “That’s gonna take me into tomorrow!” But, having invested a week already, I figured another day wouldn’t kill me. So, after its four hour rest, I stuffed it in the fridge and went to bed. I’d revisit this project in the morning.
I know that when you refrigerate something the microorganisms slow down in their growth. That’s exactly WHY we refrigerate food. But the recipe said that these two white blobs the size of premies “will have expanded in size and become more relaxed after their overnight rest.” The next morning the premies weren’t crying but I didn’t see any expansion either. Had I killed them again? Not knowing, I soldiered on.
I added 2 cups of flour to each batch and salt to the one I hadn’t. I mixed it and kneaded it in my mixer until it looked like a “smooth dough.” Covered, it was now to rise another five hours or longer! Not only that, it recommended deflating the hopefully rising blob and stretching and folding the dough every hour! “This is some labor intensive bread,” I thought. “How did the gold miners have time to pan for gold?”
Then I discovered why pizza makers throw their dough in the air. The more time, like in seconds, that it has contact with your hands, the more it sticks to them. Looking like my husband on drugs with a caulk gun, I dove into the kitchen sink and extricated the alien life form from my hands and arms. This I did for each of eight hours because it didn’t look like it was rising. I still had to form it, let it rest for ten minutes and then rise for the 2-4 hours that I initially thought the whole process was going to take. It was 8 pm.
I decided to only bake one of the two batches. Maybe I could learn from the first if it didn’t turn out. Good thing I did.
It was 11pm when I put the round blob on a cookie sheet in the 425° oven. At the recommended 25 minutes, it did not look brown at all. I’d been traumatized ever since I tried to impress my future mother-in-law with a raw-in-the-middle nut bread. So I put it in for 10 minutes longer. Then 5 more for good measure. At midnight I had something you could use for shuffleboard. Or curling. Is this how Julia Child started?
Tired and disgusted, I left the other batch out on the counter and went to bed.
In the morning, refreshed and undaunted, I turned out the second bowl of soft dough and formed it into a round shape on the cookie sheet and let it rise most of the day in the warm oven. I baked it when I ran out of patience. Finally, an edible loaf of very sour bread graced my cutting board – warm and soft on the inside with a crisp crust that dissolved in my mouth when chewed.
After reading a bit more about special Dutch ovens for boule sourdough, I got the bright idea to use my cast iron Dutch oven that I got for making cobbler in a campsite. Loaf number three was raised on parchment and gently lowered into the pre-heated 425 degree pot, sprinkled with water for steaming, and covered with the 425 degree lid. I had to focus. A mishap could brand me for life.
Now this was getting even closer to what I bought at Lucky’s, my personal gold standard. There will be more researching and more experimenting and maybe one of those fancy boule pots I found on Amazon, but I’m proud of my spirited ingenuity, perseverance, and never giving up, one thing I WAS born with.
“Shut the fuck up and go sit across the street!” That’s what I should have told his blabbering, drunk buddies who were only distracting me and making things worse: “He’s fine. He’s been a lot worse than this. We’ve got it. We’re calling 911. Look at me. I got banged up earlier today! Here, buddy, have some water. You’re fine.”
He was not fine. As I helped him across the highway, a two-lane road in the mountains near Huntington Lake east of Fresno, I noticed the sweat beads on his forehead, his gray face, and the arm I held to guide him was cold in my hand. There were abrasions on his legs and arms but most unnerving was his right hand dangling like a hinged trap door from a deformed wrist. Bones protruded from a bloody opening in the skin. He kept trying to hold up the dangling hand with his left hand as if it might click back together. Placing my index finger on the radial pulse point at his left wrist, I found his heart rate too fast to count. I’d never seen anyone this close to death from shock except maybe the gunshot victim with a hole in his chest I once saw in the ER. His two motorcycling buddies definitely did not “have this” and calling 911 was impossible on this twisty mountain road out of cell range. The tall talkative buddy had ripped pants and a shirt with bloody abrasions showing through but, after checking them, his only impairment was probably from the beers he admitted to and the pot I smelled. And you don’t give water to a shock victim! Shock withdraws the blood to your core and to organs essential for life. The body does not sense the stomach as an essential organ. He could vomit. No, he was not fine. And he needed more help than just my friend, Val, and I could provide.
I had just spent a lovely, long, relaxing, weekend with my long-time friend, Val. On Thursday that week, I drove to her home on the east side of Fresno. While sipping wine with Val and her husband, Barry, before dinner my phone rings. It’s my daughter’s partner: “Lisa’s been in a motorcycle accident and is in the ER. She’s ok, just banged up.” Good God. She’s only had the motorcycle a week and not with her mother’s approval. Kripes.
I had arrived to 105 degree afternoon heat passing, in disbelief, the natives out on the golf course. The AC was a blessing and unlike here in Martinez, where it cools off as the sun sets, my hosts graciously kept it on all night.
On Friday morning, we loaded up Val’s sweet Chesapeake dog, Maggie, our hammocks, and camping gear. Two kayaks were strapped on top of her 4Runner. On the way to her cabin above Huntington Lake, she stopped at a very small corner grocery store, way out among the dry grassy fields of the Sunnyside District, and got two beautiful Harris Ranch fillets and a package of cookies. I’d packed some fancy cheeses from Trader Joes, some rustic crackers, and a couple bottles of red. We were set.
The drive was empty of traffic and serene through the passing golden hills and ancient dusty-green oaks dotting the parched summer landscape on either side of the rolling ribbon of asphalt. It was beautiful, that is, just until we were a few miles from her cabin. Soon, there were burnt patches and singed trees that gave way to a stark floor of white ash peppered with charred, black spires. These were the remains from last summer’s Creek Fire, at one time the largest single fire in the state not part of a larger complex. For weeks, I would daily check Inciweb to see if the boundaries of the fire had consumed their sweet little hide-away. At one point I was certain it had. My screen showed the fire boundary surrounding their street by a wide margin. Then I zoomed in closer to see a green bubble around their tract of forty seven homes. I called Val to see what she knew. A fireman lived within the bubble and they were using the few streets of the tract as a staging area for earth movers and firefighting equipment. So far, their place had been saved and, as the flames incinerated the forest around them, their cabin stood.
Driving through it, the devastation felt final, the ground sterile, the charred spires a symbol of all the losses in my life endured since my cancer diagnosis and, quickly on its heels, Covid. Usually, after a fire, with the nutrients returned to the earth, the wildflowers bloom brightest. Perhaps this area would have to wait for a winter without drought to spring back. We’ve all been waiting way too long for life to spring back as it was before Covid and, as for me and the cancer, it will never spring back to what it was but we’ll both endure. I’d always felt comfort in this quote by John Muir: “Earth has no sorrow that Earth cannot heal.” Perhaps the forest would just take a bit more time.
Rolling into the driveway of their little A-frame cabin, a sigh exited my chest and I felt my shoulders drop. It was surrounded in all directions by about fifty feet of lush untouched forest. It belied the devastation just beyond the bubble. We partially unloaded the car and proceeded to plop down in the deck chairs with a glass of wine and my cheese and crackers. I smiled. “You’re so lucky they saved your place.” “I buried my face in Barry’s chest and sobbed when I saw it for the first time after the fire.” Shortly, we threw together the rest of the evening meal into an ice chest and drove up to White Bark Vista Point, where a dirt road off of Kaiser Pass Road deposits you at 9,600 feet.
From its promontory, White Bark Point overlooks the Sierra from Lake Edison in the west to Mt. Abbot twenty miles away on the eastern crest. I followed with my eyes where Val and I had hiked the Sierra High Route in 2014 for 200 miles mostly off-trail. Imagining my tiny figure out there among such immensity simultaneously elicited the strange combination of a full chest of pride followed by a deep exhale of humility. Against a darkening sky and with the sun setting behind us toward the west, the peaks glistened with that same silver sparkle that’s drawn me to them for half a century. We hung our hammocks and found a flat slab of granite the size of two dining tables to stage dinner on. Val made a salad in our plastic bowls and I sizzled the filets in a frying pan over the tiny backpacking stove. Val’s good whiskey was passed back and forth and sipped gratefully. The warmth of the golden hour, magnified by the warmth of our decades-long friendship, could probably be sensed by heat seeking infrared technology as easily as we’d later see campfires dotted on the landscape before us.
Val brought these fancy camping chairs appropriately called Stargazers. We leaned back, as the chairs are made to do, and put our feet up on the “kitchen table”. As we waited for the show to begin, the haze of moisture in the sky came and went a few times to finally reveal an ink-black moonless bowl over our whole domain. Val had phoned a few weeks before. Without even saying hi, she blurted out, “Wanna go camp up on Kaiser Ridge to watch the peak of the Perseid?” Without thinking, I replied an immediate yes. Such are the offers of My Tribe.
The Perseid meteor shower is the result of debris ejected off the Swift-Tuttle Comet as it travels its 133-year elliptical orbit around the sun. If the debris enters our atmosphere, it burns up creating a shooting star, a different kind of fire. An annual event, the peak usually occurs sometime around the second week of August. It gets its name from the Perseid Constellation, from where its meteors seem to emanate in the northeastern sky.
With Val’s husband, we had shared THE BEST METEOR SHOWER OF OUR LIVES back in August 1991 while leaning up against a snow bank off-trail at 11,000 feet on the longest cross-country hike I’d ever undertaken without my mentor, Rolland Carlson. (Fearing I’d get lost, I’d brought pounds of maps.) We were snug in our sleeping bags, our pads insulating us from the packed, cold snow, passing a flask, and ooh-ing and aah-ing like it was the fourth of July. I intimately came to know what John Denver sang about in Rocky Mountain High: ‘I’ve seen it raining fire in the sky…” Just like this night.
In 1991 the shower became visible early, like 8:30 in the evening. We were just cleaning up from dinner, which means we were swishing and tossing our cups and bowls leaving them “mountain clean,” when fiery bombs started streaking across the whole width of the heavens. Tonight the show was scheduled to peak around 1 am. I hoped I could stay awake.
This time the show proved to be just as spectacular. As we kept our gaze skyward, the temperature dropped and we wrapped our sleeping bags around us. Oblivious, Maggie laid on her pad and snuggled at Val’s feet. I turned to Val. “This is the good life,” I finally looked at my watch. Midnight!!! Val had been up since 4 or 5 tending to her mom’s horses. It was way past my bedtime but we would not have missed the gods playfully tossing fireballs at each other for anything.
We crawled into our hammocks, strung as we like, using a common tree so that we’re rocked by each other’s movements all night long. We were perched at the very edge of a steep cliff to the valley below, the 13,000-foot peaks beyond. The Universe held us warm and cozy under that celestial playing field.
Friday morning we awoke to High Sierra sunshine and high altitude stumbles. The oxygen in the air at 9,600 feet is 70% of that at sea level. Rocks on the uneven ground seemed to jump into my path and a headache threatened. While walking around the previous night, I would have to stop from dizziness after three steps if there was the slightest incline. The drug I’m on, Xeloda, does not decrease my red blood cells but they are enlarged (macrocytic) and, from my own bioassay, I can tell you that they don’t function like usual. Walking up my front steps at home can leave me short of breath. I hadn’t been this high in altitude since I’d started the drug last Oct. I knew that drinking water to increase blood volume can help altitude sickness in general and I’d been doing that since the day before, so it could have been worse.
Instead of packing up quickly and heading back to the cabin, I said, “I’m in no hurry,” and we dallied over hot cocoa and oatmeal with fruity yogurt. Instead of setting behind our backs, our star was now a hot spotlight dead ahead coaxing our domain, spread out below, back to life. I imagined John Muir Trail hikers already five miles into their day’s hike after a big breakfast at Vermillion Valley Resort on Lake Edison, bears curling up in the shade to avoid the day’s heat, and the flowers rotating to turn their faces toward the Sun.
After our descent to the cabin, we enjoyed a giant-sized hamburger and cold beer at the Lakeshore Resort Restaurant on Huntington Lake before unloading the kayaks and paddling on the cool, wavy water. Back in the parking lot with one kayak loaded up on the roof, a man in a truck drove slowly past us. Out his window he offered his teenage sons for assistance. Val declined but I, getting more used to accepting help, said “Sure, come on over.” They lifted the thing like a feather and Yes, Ma’amed us when we thanked them. What a great lesson on gallantry this father seized for his sons.
The day came to completion with a mountain thunderstorm enjoyed on the covered back deck sipping Chardonnay and savoring the heady perfume of wet pines from the first rain of the season. The contentment of that moment will carry me until I’m back in the mountains again.
I have a handful of good friends that are like mini-me’s. We love the same simple natural phenomena, we talk, we listen, and we can sit, or hike, in a companionable silence. Val is one of them.
Sunday morning brought us to the last day of our respite. We lazed over a huge breakfast of barbequed sausages, slabs of French toast with real maple syrup, big black cups of coffee, and slices of fragrant cantaloupe.
After breakfast Val insisted we hike to a seep spring meadow surrounded by charred snags and ash at the edge of the green bubble. “I think the spring saved this from the fire,” I remarked. Even in late season there were green, thigh-high grasses and we named the flowers: Black Eyed Susans, Yampah, Yarrow, Monkey Flowers. Before leaving, we stood back silently taking in this patch of life in the middle of so such destruction. “Hope,” I said. “This means hope to me.” In the midst of my own slash and burn cancer treatment program, I needed to see this. Val probably knew that.
We quickly packed up and moved out, waving to Val’s neighbors working on a new front deck. Unfinished with no railing, there was already a barbeque and a rocking chair gracing its platform. The plan was to drive back to Val’s house in Fresno where I would pick up my car and drive home.
But, the Universe had other plans. Less than a quarter mile from her driveway, we arrive at the T-intersection where Val’s street meets the 2-lane highway. We stop at the stop sign and are struck by an odd scene. There are three black motorcycles parked off the road on our left. Three guys stand there, two in motorcycle garb and one in a dark blue polo shirt with an EMT logo over the left chest. Out the open driver-side window Val calls out, “Is everything all right?” With a phone pressed against his ear, the tall one called out, “We got it,” literally waving us on. The guy in the EMT shirt stood there, proud as a three year old who’d just learned to hop, and says, “And I’m an EMT!” Not immediately seeing anything wrong, I’m dumbfounded as to why they are calling 911 or why, if there is a need to call 911, the EMT is just standing there. Then I noticed the third motorcyclist alone across the road stumbling around in the highway. “That doesn’t look right.” I jump out the car door and, to Val’s multiple screams of, “Careful!” and the guys, confident calls of, “We got this,” I run across the highway. He is standing, bent over cradling his right hand with his left. When he moves his left hand away, the right hand uncontrollably dangles at the wrist like a dead fish held by its tail. He looks confused as to why it won’t stay horizontal. That’s when I see the white bone sticking out of his deformed wrist. Still cradling his limp hand, I take him by his good arm and lead him back across the highway to where the guys and motorcycles are. His arm feels strikingly cold in this eighty-five degree heat. His face is gray and beads of sweat glisten on his forehead. “I’m Karen. I know first aid. Can I help you?” A nod of the head. “What’s your name?”
I had no idea what happened, didn’t understand his buddies’ confidence, and what the bloody hell was this EMT doing standing there proudly doing nothing!?
To, “It’s ok. We got it. I’m calling 911,” Val yells back, “No, you’re not! You have no reception up here.”
“Well, I’m going to try, anyway.”
I sit Francisco down on a mound of dirt on the side of the road. I feel as bad as I did when a fellow SAR team member had a heart attack on Mt. Diablo and I set him down in the dirt. I turned to Val, “Go back to the cabin. Call 911 on the land-line and bring a chair.”
In the meantime, we get his helmet and jacket off to reveal a hard shell vest called a spine protector. Considering his injuries, his buddies are pretty rough pulling the helmet and jacket off, as if to prove they are right that he is fine. “Gentle. Gentle.” I admonish. I’m checking for major bleeding, getting the gist of the accident, and doing a SAMPLE patient history (Signs & Symptoms, Allergies, Medications, Past medical history, Last oral intake, and Events leading up to present injury.) That’s when I learn about the beers consumed at lunch, the details of the accident, and why the EMT, however useless, is there: There were three cars ahead of the three motorcyclists. As the first car came to the intersection, he jumped on his brakes. Maybe looking at the street sign. I don’t know. In response, the second and third cars did the same. Francisco was riding behind the third car and couldn’t brake in time. He swerved to the left and rolled his bike. The first two cars sped on and the third car with the EMT in it stopped.
OK. Now I’m getting an idea of the situation: the mode of injury, the forces involved, getting schooled on dumb-ass twenty-four year old male beer drinking, and their names, all of which I’ve forgotten except for Francisco, who his friends call Frankie.
Soon Val shows up with a chair, a blanket, and a First Aid Kit. We sit Frankie in the chair by the edge of the forest on the side of the road. Suddenly the EMT places a zippered First Aid Kit on the ground in front of us and continues to stand there, as if providing a First Aid Kit was the only thing he’d learned at EMT school. All the while, in my mind, I’m deferring to him since he has higher credentials than my expired Wilderness First Responder Certificate but he does NOTHING! Finally, I realize that I am the only one, besides Val, a Wilderness First Aider, that is going to help Frankie. So, I kick into gear. I open the First Aid Kits to see what’s in there. I see an orange SAM Splint, a lightweight rigid splint built from a thin, light core of aluminum alloy which is then sandwiched between two thin layers of closed-cell foam. Perfect. Nobody has sterile 4 X 4 gauze so I run to Val’s car knowing I have some in my net bag that goes everywhere with me. Wrappers start flying everywhere as I rip the supplies open and toss them without thought. My focus is on Frankie. Attempting to be helpful, the EMT drapes a triangle bandage over the whole mess. I can’t see what I’m doing and move it away. Val brought some Vet Wrap (four-inch wide chartreuse green Coban). I place a gauze roller bandage under Frankie’s curved palm on the SAM Splint, place the deformed wrist in the most normal looking position I can manage, and wrap the whole mess from fingers to elbow with the Vet Wrap. A properly wrapped triangle bandage stabilizes the whole injury. ”Ah. That’s feels better.” Next, I clean and bandage a big abrasion on his knee.
All this time, while I’m sitting in the dirt tending to Frankie and reeling from my own revulsion over the appearance of his dead fish wrist, the severity of his shock, and my sense of responsibility for the human in my care, his drunk buddies are in our faces reassuring Frankie, but mostly themselves, that he’s alright, “You’ve been through worse, buddy. Hell, remember the time… And look at me. I did this this morning!” as he shows the wound through a rip in his pants. I’m focused on Frankie who is now slumped over leaning on Val. I realize that Frankie doesn’t need to hear that he’s ok. He damn well knows he is not ok.
I’m trained to say only, “We’re doing all we can. I’m here and I won’t leave you.” When you’re hurt and need help and someone tells you that you are ok, it’s an act of emotional abandonment and can lead the patient to take the mental leap that if his caretakers think he’s ok, there’s no help coming. I wanted to shush his buddies. I wanted to say how severe Frankie’s injuries were so they understood the severity of the situation and would stop acting like it wasn’t. But I didn’t want to say it in front of Frankie to make his shock worse. I had a client in Yosemite who burst a few hemorrhoid stitches. (He neglected to tell us beforehand that he’d just had surgery.) While not life-threatening, the sight of blood in his stool turned him gray. As he recovered I said,” Yeah, you’re still a little green around the gills,” which again dropped his blood pressure and put his skin signs back into the gray zone. So I knew that the emotional component can be significant and Frankie didn’t need any more complications. “I’m here and I will not leave you,” I reassured him over and over to which the guys kept responding with, “You got this. You’re fine.”
While waiting for definitive care, I’m learning that the guys are all twenty-four, live in podunk towns in the Central Valley below, and that Frankie, himself, is an EMT. I start thinking ahead: “Ok, we’ve got three bikes here, how are we getting them home?”
“My dad has a truck. He’ll pick them up. I’ll drive to Huntington Lake and make a call on the resort’s wifi.”
“Who’s going to tell Frankie’s mom about this?”
“I will,” says the less drunk one. “Who’s going to take Frankie home from the hospital?”
At this point, Val is standing behind Frankie with her hands on his shoulders and says, “One shoulder feels different than the other.” Oh, crap, I think.
Years ago I reduced my husband’s dislocated shoulder while he lay in a bush off-trail on a steep slope ten miles in on the penultimate day of a backpack trip just west of the Minarets. Before satellite communicators and with no other real choice, it was only after his screams filled Dike Creek Canyon and I plied him with two Vicodin that I applied traction and successfully popped it back in. I’m still traumatized.
I moved over to Frankie’s right side and gently pulled his upper arm out to apply traction to his shoulder joint. “Oh, that feels better.” Double crap. His relief with traction indicates it IS a dislocated shoulder. Reducing a dislocated shoulder is a medical procedure and out of a first responder’s scope of practice. I ignored that with my husband in the hopes that he wouldn’t sue me if things went wrong and he had permanent nerve damage. With Frankie and medical help hopefully on the way, I didn’t chance it. But I did stand there holding his arm in traction to reduce his pain until he was back-boarded by paramedics.
After about an hour of waiting by the side of the road and waving on a few stopped cars conveying that we actually did have this under control, a fire truck pulls up. I knew I needed to relay to the fireman all the information I had about Frankie. “I need everyone quiet!” I yell over the guys’ continued babbling. A fireman approaches us and I tell him about the compound fracture, dislocated shoulder, and shock. “Do you think he could use some oxygen?” “YES!!!” Val and I both yell.
In about another fifteen minutes fire trucks and ambulances started arriving from everywhere. I counted eleven. Traffic was stopped in both directions. Soon a helicopter was circling to land on the highway a hundred feet from the intersection. “Val, what on earth did you say on the phone?!”
“I told my neighbor working on the deck about the accident and he called it in. He’s with SWAT.”
A paramedic team strolls over to check out Frankie. I again relay all the information. Unable to see Frankie’s wrist through the Vet Wrap, I get the feeling they thought I was being dramatic and exaggerating about the compound fracture. “Did anyone take any pictures?’ Ha, I thought. Lesson learned. Looking at my splint, “Well, we don’t need to do anything here,” he approves. I reiterated about the dislocated shoulder. “Presumed dislocated shoulder,” he replied. Whatever, I think. “Just keep traction on it.”
While the paramedic was checking out Frankie, the blue-shirt EMT was standing there talking with one of the paramedics. I thought, You are NOT going to take credit for Frankie’s care are you? No, he was explaining that he had Aspergers Syndrome and only deals with epileptics. More craziness. Why epileptics? I’m thinking. Why anybody?
Soon they are back-boarding Frankie and attempting to wrap the straps over his injured wrist. “NO!” I scream, “that’s a compound fracture!” I look over to my right and a highway patrolman is putting the tall blabbermouth into the back seat of his squad car: DUI and suspended license I learn later.
“My wallet and my backpack. Where are they?”
“I put your wallet in your backpack and handed it to the shaved-head pilot who loaded it on the copter. I put my name and contact information in the outside pocket. I’m going to stay right here with you until they load you in the copter.”
They slide Frankie in and with a whirl of rotor wash, the copter levitates and swooshes off over the forest tree tops. Suddenly, my face is wet with tears and I’m sobbing into Val’s arms. And then she into mine. One of the firemen ask, “Did you know him? You kept saying, ‘I’m going to stay with you.’”
“No. I was just deeply invested in his care and I know emotional support can make a huge difference in managing an incident and the outcome. That’s what I was taught. This,” pointing to my tears, “is adrenaline crash.”
Soon a big navy blue pick-up pulls up and a grizzled old guy, with wild gray hair wearing a T-shirt extolling the virtues of weed, steps out. He’s the dad that will transport the motorcycles back to town. The CHP now questions him as to whether he’s in possession of any. “You’re on National Forest Land, you know.”
Officials take notes. “Do you know his last name? His address? Phone number?”
“Only that he’s twenty-four.” And then I got offered a position on Fresno Search and Rescue.
So, I promised I’d write about my out-patient experience at John Muir Behavioral Health (the out-patient program for folks at their wit’s end).
Having only been incarcerated 48 hours, I was released from my seventy-two hour hold in the looney bin at noon on Thanksgiving Day (paroled for good behavior, I guess). Pre-insanity, I had planned a nice afternoon Thanksgiving repast properly Covid distanced with our neighbors on the back deck. Rick had the turkey already roasting. I was grateful for my freedom and the decreased despair provided by the quickly prescribed anti-depressant, which was the whole reason I went willingly. But, I still felt fragile. In the passenger seat of the car, I felt like I’d just gotten off of a backpack trip: cars and people were moving too fast, colors were too bright, noises were too loud. In forty-eight hours I’d lost my desensitization to the jarring pace of the modern world. I’d been floating on a cloud wrapped in eiderdown for forty-eight hours and I came to like it. I came to make it a baseline, a default. I came to call it home. Now, stepping through my front door, I looked around: shelves full of stuff I could live without, a mess of magazines on the coffee table, Abby the Dog jumping on me. In the kitchen, veggies were chopped for stuffing, potatoes peeled for mashed potatoes, and my office – I couldn’t even open the door to that chaos. Dinner was to be at two, so I did what I’d always done – I jumped into gear, but very mindful of the serenity I was leaving behind.
As it turned out, our neighbor was having her own emergency in the ER. Having also been released at noon, she, too, jumped into gear and assembled her part of the dinner. At four o’clock the four of us plopped into our respective chairs on the back deck like ball players siding into home base and took a deep breath and a moment of thanks. “Yep, it’s a 2020 Thanksgiving,” said Brian.
On Friday I waited, expecting a call to set up my entry into the out-patient program. Too late, I noticed I missed the call. They were closed for the weekend and I found myself teary and anxious. I’d have to sign up on Monday when I thought I’d be starting on Monday. I found myself hungering for a program that I didn’t even know anything about. Later, I discovered that it wasn’t necessarily the program I hungered for, but the human connection I’d found at the in-patient program. The isolation of Covid made everything worse.
On Saturday we had our young friends, Banning and Regina, over for a socially distanced lunch on the back deck. At the mention of my 5150, Banning lowered his head and looked over his glasses at me. Unlike Banning’s experience as a fifteen year old, unlawfully locked up for eleven months in the largest insurance fraud case in the United States, my stay was nurturing and helpful. I missed the spare contained environment where all I could see of the outside world were the green crowns of trees through the top windows, the lower windows, frosted, emitting a soft glow. All the surfaces were smooth, no door knobs, nothing to hang yourself by, where all our needs were met and we could just focus on us.
I yearned to arrive at some steady state that I could live with or at least know what to expect. Or maybe I needed to learn to ride the waves, to accept that the waves ARE my new steady state. With nothing to do that weekend and the misery still going on with my feet and eyes, I wrote to God in my journal:
God, Godforce, Great Mystery: What am I to do? I’m lost without my feet and eyes. And I’m tired and teary.
My pen answered: This is a time for that.
Me: OK. I guess I have no choice but to accept it.
MY pen: Yes.
Me: Why? What good is this?
My pen: It just is.
Me: My ego likes reasons and answers and timelines and schedules and certainty.
My pen: This is not that place.
Me: So, I’m in this alternate plane while the rest of the world spins productively?
My Pen: Yes.
Me: I feel a rift between me and my friends that can hike and do and see. I feel separate and more than a little bit less than.
My pen: It’s OK. It’s just your ego. Your ego thinks it’s running the show. It is not.
Me: The world tells me otherwise. The world honors doing and accomplishing.
My pen: Let that go. It’s an illusion.
Me: It feels like a convincing illusion.
My pen: It is just an illusion.
Me: So how do I navigate this realm?
My pen: Write.
Me: OK. You said so. I am left with little choice, anyway. Do you mind if I share this conversation?
My pen: No. I don’t mind. More people need to know this. This is your job.
So, getting orders from The Great Somewhere, here I am.
On Tuesday I got up, showered, and got dressed, all within an hour. This was a first during Covid. I shimmied into a top I hadn’t worn in the nine months of Covid and wrapped a pretty scarf around my neck. It was cold outside so I grabbed my coral colored down jacket, as opposed to the black backpacking puffy. I had somewhere to go – somewhere to BE, at 8:30. It felt great.
At the door of the big box-shaped building next to the green lawns of a golf course, I got a new mask, gelled up, and had my temp scanned. Upstairs there were papers to fill out, cards to show, and signatures to make. Then I was off downstairs to the big meeting room where things were already in motion. The sign on the door read, “Cafeteria.” Opening the door, I quickly scanned the room. It was full of chairs all six feet apart lined up like little soldiers on parade. Later, I would count forty of them. They were all filled except for one chair, front and center. Years ago I would have wilted at the conspicuousness of interrupting a big room full of people and then having to sit in front of everyone. More than wilted. The room would have spun like a Maytag washing machine on spin cycle and, seeing a blur, I would only want to disappear. On this day I welcomed the human energy in the room and was excited to join them, even if at one time they all wanted to off themselves.
Written on a white board in cerulean felt pen was the schedule for the day. Basically, forty-five minutes to one-and-a-quarter-hour sessions with therapists, a chaplain, and an art therapist. In these sessions I learned about Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, Cognitive Distortions, Metacognition, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, neuroscience of addiction, coping vs fixing – a lot of fancy words asking you to look at your life differently. At 11:15 all forty of us would break off into smaller groups in separate rooms and meet with a therapist to talk about what was going on with each of us on a more personal level. There was also time for a fifteen minute one-on-one session with an assigned therapist.
Having had a ton of therapy, I was already aware of a lot of these suggestions and devices to massage my brain in the direction I wanted it to go. But the hands raised and answers given in response to group brainstorming were validating, helpful, and made it feel like we were all soldiers in an army fighting a common battle, even though we could not be more diverse.
And even though we spent five hours a day together, it was hard to really get to know anyone. There was the gambler, the fighter, the anorexic, the wife who, angry at her husband, slashed her own arm, addicts of all sorts, and the eighteen year old with his hair in his face and a sewing machine leg. Due to Covid we were instructed to stay six feet apart. Break-apart sessions in the big room, were loud and noisy with our six-foot distanced shareings. I mentioned to my therapist in a one-on-one session that I had a blog that was pretty honest and raw. She responded that “we don’t want that here. It might trigger someone.” I was astounded. How does one heal without learning new ways to respond to triggers? How can we comfort that scared child within if we’re unaware of their distress? How do we connect without showing our wounds, our vulnerability?
Being depressed, no one was excited to talk. We introduced ourselves daily (new people came, others graduated) with an answer to a question posed by one of the therapists, like “what’s your favorite pizza topping,” and your name. Two weeks into the program the art therapist suggested we make some kind of a sound followed with our name. She modeled it by making a funny squeaking noise to which no one laughed. Then, in unison, everyone was to mimic the sound. Wrong approach. A room full of forty depressed, suicidal people mostly responded with “eh” as their sound. I decided to liven it up and, when my turn came, I held up both my arms, swayed them left to right overhead, and sang over the crowd, “Aaaaaaaa Ooooo,” like Freddie Mercury at a Queen concert. Yep. I had my own stadium following along. The therapist looked at me with wide eyed wonder. I grinned back like Jack Nicholson.
After a week of this, from 8:30 until 1:30, with no lunch but fifteen minute breaks between sessions where the smokers were the only ones who chatted together in the cold, windy parking lot, I sensed that this program was simply providing techniques to keep you out of crisis – to keep you alive. I was not seeing a lot of progress in my fellow inmates. I mentioned to my therapist that there was no deep work being done. She said, “No, this isn’t that. Everyone is supposed to have their own private therapist, as well.” This program was all designed to manage thoughts and behavior, not the why that makes you respond to life the way you do. After a week of listening in our small group to an obviously very smart and accomplished middle-aged woman struggle, overwhelmed, and paralyzed by stacks of ever accumulating papers on her kitchen counter and hearing the therapist suggest for the umpteenth time that she file just five pieces a day, I’d had it. I raised my hand. “I don’t know, but I think this has nothing to do with the papers.” I was afraid I had upset the apple cart, overstepped my bounds, and maybe even violated a HIPPA statute. Sitting six feet to my left, she swiveled her bowed head, looked directly into my eyes, and said, “I think you’re right.” Hallelujah! We were making progress.
I learned that in addition to the help I found by being in the presence of others, their contributions, and the daily classes, I gained meaning, purpose, and a lightness of being by bringing my true wild and natural self to the party. I disregarded the therapists warning to not trigger anyone. I spoke of my past, my childhood, how I had conquered old destructive thoughts and behaviors. The therapist in our small group leaned forward and implored, “How did you get this way?”
“I took a leap. I prepared myself to die, because that‘s how doing the new behaviors felt, and I found that I didn’t. In fact, I felt better.” People started coming up to me during the breaks saying how everything I said helped them. Women would talk about their over-bearing mothers, their verbally abusive husbands. Men would talk about child abuse from their abusive drug addicted or alcoholic parents. I had the same unsolicited response; “Drop kick them.” Pretty soon all I had to do was kick my foot out and they knew my answer. One gal crumpled up a letter she’d written to her narcissistic ex and literally drop kicked it across the room.
On my last day, after ignoring, “You’ll have time to do that in your small group,” I addressed the whole class with a heartfelt thank you for being part of my journey and a good bye. I read a letter to my small group:
The situation that brought me here was in response to a medical condition magnified in my mind by the powerlessness, hopelessness, and despair I felt as a child.
While each of our journeys is unique and special, I think they all require immense courage. You’ve shown your courage just by being here. This work requires feeling feelings you think you might die from. I encourage each of you to gather more courage, either from an armful of stars gathered from a clear night sky or form it from the mud of the riverbank. However you do it, open that door to that dark room. Bring the light of your heart. Shine it on the remnant memories of your past. Clean it out, even if you need a pick and a shovel, or even a blow torch. Shine your light into the dark corners and find in each corner, a child of a different age who’s been cowering behind the trauma. Kneel down. Open your arms and gather each of them to your heart and promise that you will be their advocate… always. They will inspire your strength. They won’t believe you at first until you show them with your actions. Gradually, with their building trust, the cloak of depression you’ve felt safe in will lift and they will show you the lightness of joy and ways to find connection and fulfillment. With your heart for a compass and your soul for a pair of wings, hold their hands and follow their dancing footsteps down a new sparkling path paved with diamonds. It’s time. You were born for this.
The biggest lesson learned: We need each other. We need to be open to hearing each other’s stories and courageous enough to tell our own. More people need to know this.
PS. Yesterday’s PET Scan showed “no clear evidence of cancer.” It may still be lurking and it may very well return but for now, this is good news. I don’t know what this means as far as drug regimens which are still kicking my ass but right now I’m happy to share the good news.
In the 1800’s, from the floor of Yosemite Valley on a windy day, John Muir witnessed a rare natural phenomenon happening to 2,435-foot Yosemite Falls:
“while I watched the Upper Fall from the shelter of a big pine tree, it was suddenly arrested in its descent at a point about half-way down, and was neither blown upward nor driven aside, but simply held stationary in mid-air… while I counted one hundred and ninety. All this time the ordinary amount of water was coming over the cliff and accumulating in the air…, the whole standing still, resting on the invisible arm of the North Wind.” – John Muir.
A dark-haired woman in light blue scrubs led me by the arm into the mental hospital. I’d just heard the clank of the metal gate locking shut. We passed through a courtyard garden. Resigned and sad, I looked down at the part in her hair. We came to a room where I passed the Covid check-in questions, got my temperature scanned, and received a new mask. I was used to being strong. Just being in this place confirmed my fragility – like a delicate vase, possibly broken beyond repair.
Into the elevator we went up to the second floor to an office-like room where she asked me all kinds of questions like part nurse, part therapist. When asked how I thought of killing myself, I easily repeated the car-off-a-cliff scenario that I’d told my oncologist. For extra measure, I added, “Maybe I’d just go sleep in the snow and die.” I’d snow camped before with proper gear and know that without proper gear, snow camping can be incompatible with life. “My eyes are blurry and sting. I can hardly even see.” Removing my shoes to show my feet, “My feet are red and burn. I’m a photographer and hiker and I can hardly see and I can hardly walk.” While I sat there in the small office relating my life story, between sobbing and finishing one of the Big Macs my husband had dropped off along with clean underwear, another woman in scrubs came in and gently pulled my long scarf off my neck. “I’m not going to hang myself with my scarf,” I growled between bites. “Shoe laces, too, please.” Kripes, I thought. I’ve entered the cuckoo’s nest.
My net bag full of my backpacking essentials was taken. I was told that I couldn’t keep my cancer pills, that they’d dispense them from their pharmacy. “NO!!! You can’t get them just anywhere. They’re only available at four specialty pharmacies in the country and they’re keeping me alive!” After checking them out, they agreed to dispense them as directed.
Escorted passed the nurse’s station and down the short hallway to my room, I noticed the large beautiful canvas photographs of redwood trees against the pale blue walls. I would learn that they were canvas to prevent broken glass from smashed pictures. And there were no door knobs, just indentations in the door to open them. “She doesn’t want to be with Chantal. She’s pretty talkative right now,” I overheard one of the staff say. “That would drive me crazy,” I replied. On retrospect, that was an interesting comment from someone committed to the looney bin. I already am, I thought. Later I learned that Chantal, a large, sweet, early twenties, black girl, was there to have her bipolar medication adjusted under supervision.
My room was spare, clean, and calm: thin beige cotton blankets on a simple bed, a nightstand, a chair, high windows, and the same bare, pale blue walls. I put my paper bag of clean underwear and foot cream on the chair. Finally, a bag lady, I thought. I was ushered into the day room, another clean, spare, light blue space with windows I could only peer out of on my tip toes. It had the feel of a cafeteria – linoleum, small tables and chairs, and a big screen TV in one corner with about six others gathered around engrossed in a cooking show. They were masked and wearing sweats or night clothes. It was only 6:30 pm. They talked and laughed amongst themselves. No one said hi. I was last to get dinner from the portable steam table – meatloaf, mashed potatoes, some soft overcooked veggies. I took my tray to a table and attempted to pull out a chair. I had to set my tray down on the table in order to move it with all my might. Hmm, I thought. They can’t be thrown.
Having eaten the Big Mac and fries, I wasn’t really hungry. It was clear from their talk and laughter that the other inmates had been there awhile and were familiar with each other. Sitting in the middle of the room, I felt invisible. I’d been told there was a group meeting at seven in the day room. I was looking forward to meeting my new tribe and seeing what this program had to offer.
As a small child I would suddenly drop to the floor and sob in the days following my brother’s beatings by my father. My mother’s response to the beatings was to shut the windows “so the neighbors don’t hear.” My mother’s only response to my upset was a threat, “If you don’t straighten up we’re going to have to take you to a head shrinker.” I was about three years old. A head shrinker! I thought. They’re going to shrink my head?!. I stopped crying. I realized then and there that my reaction was a problem. There would be no change in the family dynamics, no comfort. This was my normal and I’d have to deal with it. Now, in the looney bin, I welcomed whatever help they had to give.
At seven a male therapist entered the room and also got engrossed in the cooking show. “We can stop it,” someone said. “No. It looks like you’re really into it. I’ll just check in with everyone individually.” Because of the blaring TV, I couldn’t overhear the personal conversations with the therapist. I didn’t know how they could even hear each other. He came to me last, introduced himself and my trapped three-year-old said I was fine. I could see the meeting agenda on the paper flip board on an easel and waited in the blaring room for it to begin. After a while, I asked the man if we were going to have a program. He said he was just checking in with everyone. Irritated, I left and returned to lay on my bed in my room and continue sobbing.
A small trim woman in street clothes came in, introduced herself as one of the therapists, and sat on the floor, her back against the wall, her legs outstretched, and asked how I was doing. “I can’t stop crying.” I didn’t know how being warehoused in this isolated pale blue bubble was going to help me. They’d promised me a visit with a psychiatrist the following day to get my coveted antidepressant. That was all I really cared about.
Again, I told my story. I started to hear from myself how remarkable my life had been. I was a college graduate in bacteriology. I’d worked for years as a licensed Clinical Laboratory Scientist. I was a published author. I created, ran, and guided for my backpacking company, Sierra Spirit, that REI had contracted with to run their Yosemite Program. I’d hiked the John Muir Trail, the Sierra High Route, a lot of the High Sierra from the Emigrant Wilderness in the north to the Golden Trout Wilderness in the south, Paria Canyon in the southwest, 200 miles of Spain’s Camino de Santiago, the Wind River Range in Wyoming, plus a bit in Norway. I’d overcome an eating disorder and other destructive coping mechanisms developed from growing up in a dysfunctional family. I was still married to my college sweetheart, had good relationships with my two adult children, and had a treasure trove of friends. I was beginning to sound like a rock star. The therapist was fascinated. But, here I was in The Looney Bin. I complained that I was looking forward to the group meeting that never happened. She said, “Yeah. I saw that. That wasn’t right. I’ll talk to him.” She asked if I wanted a sedative to sleep. I usually sleep well but, this being a different place and all, I thought, what the heck.
I woke when it was still dark as seen through the high windows in my room. The shower in my room wouldn’t warm up so I gave up. I was uncertain how to operate it. No knobs to hang yourself from.. None of the other patients were up. Breakfast wasn’t until eight. Tears were again gathering in my eyes. They were changing shift at the nurses’ stationI asked for a piece of paper to write on. Might as well journal and document this experience, I thought. There was a plastic jar of pens on the counter. They were like clear Bic pens only they were flexible. Nope, couldn’t stab anyone with one of these. I asked for a cup of tea (you had to ask for everything) and sat at a small white built-in shelf of a desk and drew a picture and sobbed.
Breakfast at eight was from the portable steam table again – scrambled eggs, bacon, French Toast with syrup, fruit, etc. Our group meeting was at nine. I was called in and out of the group numerous times to meet with a social worker, nurse, therapist, psychiatrist practitioner, bunch of people. I told my story to anyone who would listen. I found it helped. AND I got my antidepressant.
We had art therapy in the afternoon. People had started to talk to me by now and share their stories. While coloring with Crayons, I asked Mike, a thin, boyish thirty-one year old construction worker, “Why did you drink three, fifths of vodka a day?” His answer, “Work. I worked three jobs and then came home and drank.” I left it at that. No, I thought, that’s not why. People work long hours and don’t do that. Hell, I had at that age. I didn’t pursue it further and no one else did either. He also recounted how they had to give him a blood replacement of a couple units to dilute out the alcohol in his blood stream in order to save his life. Later I learned of his horrific childhood and I understood why.
There were other stories, as well. It was another gal’s second time drying out after a painful divorce. She wore a long flannel night gown all day and held her hair up in a wrap. She spoke of times when she attended gala events in full make-up with her wealthy husband. One older gentleman, probably my age, showed up in the afternoon. I sat across from him during art. I asked his story. He replied that his beautiful thirty-five year old son had died in a surfing accident and he couldn’t stop drinking even when his wife gave him an ultimatum. I reached across the table and took his hand. I asked another gal what brought her here. She just replied, “Life,” and got up and walked away.
I told how I ended up there. Incredulous, they all queried, “So you didn’t plan to come here? And the police weren’t involved?” “No!” I explained, “I went to a doctor’s appointment and she wouldn’t let me go home.”
During the classes/meetings therapists gave presentations on not drinking, managing stress, controlling what you can. There was no deep therapy. No healing of the primal wound of abandonment and abuse, pain and loss. Upon my intake, I told of my blog and how it is real and raw. “Well, you won’t want to bring that up here. We don’t want to trigger anyone.” No wonder people relapse, I thought. No cleaning out the carbuncle of catastrophe so that one can make positive life choices. Addressing our triggers is how we grow, I thought. If we live without challenges, we stagnate in our dysfunction. I spoke of ACA, Adult Children of Alcoholics. The therapist knew nothing of it. I later learned that this was merely a drying out place, a detox station, where folks would later move on to thirty-day in-patient treatment programs. Hopefully, they would deal with their deep issues there.
Sometime before lunch I stopped crying. Interacting with my fellow inmates and the staff, even though all masked, was the best medicine in this near-year of Covid isolation.
Wednesday evening I was at the pharmacy window (just like in the movies) getting my evening dose of Xeloda, the cancer drug. I felt renewed, talkative, like life was worth living again. I shared my blog site with the pharmacy tech and then the nurse’s station staff wanted to see, too. They were all pulling up my blog site on their screens. “If anything, read, I am Made From,” I instructed.
I am Made From
I am from swimming, competitive swimming Alone but on a team. Chlorine in my veins. From swimming because my mother couldn’t. Breaking ice on the deck in winter for an hour before school And for two hours after, after homework, Because I was also an A student Because my parents weren’t.
I am from the salt of the ocean Where I swam free With waves up my nose And crunchy salty hair when it dried And sand everywhere else.
I am from a single white sunbeam That pierced the hard cold glass of the big front picture window in the living room Where I lay enveloped in warm radiant love Lying on the waxed hard wood floor Behind the big old overstuffed chair.
I am from Leave it to Beaver, Father Knows Best, Mousketeers, Moose and Squirrel, the Twilight Zone. The Flintstones, John Wayne, the Addams Family, All in the Family. Laugh-In. The Ed Sullivan Show, the Beatles, the Stones, Bob Dylan, A Land Called Hanalei, The smell of napalm in the morning, and “One giant leap for mankind.”
I am from sudden loud voices. Freezing like a rabbit. From sudden movements and belts not used for pants and “I’m ashamed of you.”
I am from the mud of the riverbank Where I created myself anew from what was left And grew tall and strong like the Sierra Nevada still growing, Held in the bony arms of my adopted parents, Mother Maclure and Father Lyell, mountains in the Yosemite High Country And became acquainted with my relatives up and down the 400 mile range.
I am from the tiny flame that first ignites the tinder, The roar of the wind as it penetrates the forest only to caress me And surprise me with its gentleness as I sway in my hammock. I am from lightening and hail and the wildflowers they oversee.
I need to remind myself that I am from the blood red on the sides of Golden Trout As they swim up the crisp clear stream and Flounder in the sharp gravel beside gentle grassy banks Laying their eggs And moving on through the land As if they knew how to live their life so perfectly.
See my pictures. See me! I’ve made a remarkable life. I felt like a child at show and tell. Nothing was handed to me. I apprehended my life out of the aether and formed it from the mud of the riverbank, slapping it and shaping it around Spirit. It’s glowed gently and steadily in the darkness, even lighting the way for others. But lately, I’ve made a pass over the waterfall and darkness is all around. My inner glow is not enough. Now I need to be held up by others as I endure this journey, like the North Wind held Yosemite Falls in mid-air for over three minutes. I need to call friends. I need to visit. I need Covid OVER.
The next morning was Thanksgiving. I was ready to go home. Being on a seventy-two hour hold, there was some question as to whether they’d release me. Tears welled as I started feeling trapped again. I was to host a casual Thanksgiving dinner with our neighbors on the back deck that afternoon. Having called Rick on one of the unit’s phones, I knew that the turkey was already roasting.
I was released at noon but not before one of the nurses asked me if I’d like to volunteer at an eating disorder clinic. “I would love to,” I replied. “It would bring meaning to my life.”
The experience was a reset. My falling waters had been supported and held by all the caregivers in this place, like the North Wind held Yosemite Falls, and were gently placed back in the manageable river below.
Next, I would attend three weeks of outpatient classes and group therapy. Next blog.
In my last blog I alluded to my visit to a psyche ward just before Thanksgiving. I’ve been meaning to write about it but even with cancer, life is busy. So here I am.
I always know when my doc is approaching. I hear the rapid no nonsense click, click, click of her heels. Holding my chart against her forehead, she burst through the door mouthing a humungous “FUUUUCK!” I learned in previous appointments that her sons have asked her to clean up her language. I love my doc. She’s tall, slim, bright, beautiful, and passionate. As for me, she can yell FUCK about my cancer progression anytime.
On the smoky Sunday morning of September 20, I logged into the John Muir Health Portal and read the results of my September 16th PET scan. It had been smoky since 12,000 lightning strikes lit 650 wildfires a month before on August 16th and ended up burning four percent of the state of California. Some 11 am mornings looked like 5 pm on the Winter Solstice. Sometimes the sky was so orange, I felt like I was on another planet. I’d been aching more since around that time and fearful of my own internal natural disaster. On the PET scan report I saw the word “progression” and my cancer marker was elevated, too. Damn. I knew that meant that the IBrance drug had stopped working and the tumors were growing like wildfire again.
She immediately rolled into gear. “Well, we got six months out of the IBrance.” My head sank. So, we’re now counting my longevity in six month increments instead of decades, I thought. But she quickly moved on with a new plan, “We’re going to put you on Xeloda. But, unlike IBrance, it’s a chemo.” IBrance is a targeted drug – only kills cells with a CDK 4-6 receptor on its membrane. Don’t ask. You’d need a recent degree in biochemistry to understand. Just know that it only targets certain cells, not every cell, like chemo.
Chemo drugs work to inhibit DNA replication. Cancer cells have run-away replication but they’re also fragile. In the presence of Xeloda, every time they try to divide, they die. But a lot of other cells replicate, too. Think fingernails, GI track lining, skin. The package insert reads that those dispensing it should only touch the pills double-gloved. Four of these would go into my mouth twice a day. “I’ll lose my hair?” No.” Well, at least that.
You can’t just buy these cancer drugs at CVS. They come from one of four specialty pharmacies in the country. Because these drugs are so lifesaving, you’d think they’d be right on it and ship them ASAP. No. You gotta be a squeaky wheel. On the phone, “What is keeping my medication from being shipped (from Ohio!)?” Well, it’s marked urgent here on someone’s desk,” – marked urgent only due to me nagging them on a previous call. “Whose desk is it on? Where are they? Can you bring this to their attention and ship it out? My life depends on these.” I’ve learned to advocate for myself.
The pills arrived in my mailbox October first and a new set of side effects began: GI disturbances, aches, tiredness, burning eyes and blurry vision. While losing my fingerprints, I was trying mightily to maintain possession of my core identity. On October ninth, the soles of my feet burned when they hit the floor upon arising from bed. My doc had warned me of possible “hand and foot syndrome” where the soles of your feet and the palms of your hands can burn with redness, peel, crack, and bleed. I thought it odd that a drug could target such specific body parts. It turns out that the pressure of standing and walking on your feet and gripping things with your hands produces a lot of pressure on weakened capillaries and the chemo poison leaks out into the tissues causing injury and inflammation. Also, on chemo, you don’t heal well. Small boo-boos from gardening can take three weeks to close over. I’m a hiker. I guess that was a good thing because I had developed hard, thick, hiker calluses to slough off during the peeling rather than soft, pink, city skin. But, meanwhile, walking at all grew to feel like stepping on hot razor blades.
The other most bothersome side effect was burning eyes and blurry vision, to the point I could barely see. Apparently, a lot of chemo drugs create dry eyes and this can create a film over the eyes so that the world looks like it is being viewed through wax paper.
My Xeloda Facebook group has been invaluable for camaraderie and support and for solutions to problems that my doc merely shrugs at. With them, I’ve discovered 40% Urea Cream to moisturize my hands and feet and freezer gel socks to ease the burning and inflammation.
I remember being in an in-person support group meeting twenty years ago. Mostly I expressed my annoyance at this cosmic “mistake,” complaining that I had things to do and places to go and that this “bump in the road” was a pain in the ass. “I want what she’s having,” one responded. Then suddenly a scarf-swaddled head poked in through the door asking if this was the stage four support group. The room went instantly silent, heads dropped, hearts stopped, and eyes widened. This unsuspecting lady was the embodiment of what we all feared the most. The hospital group moderator motioned her down the hall and we all breathed a deep sigh of relief, except for the lingering fear that we might someday be her.
My home became littered with all the different brands of eye drops that the Facebook group suggested. And it sounded like at least one of them solved everyone’s problem, except for mine. So, toward the end of my two weeks on (one week off) Xeloda regimen, I was probably legally blind, only minimally able to walk, aching all over, believing this would be my life until the drug finally failed, and I’d die. Between that and the prospect of not seeing my kids for Thanksgiving due to Covid, I’d been crying for days. I was falling over the waterfall again.
On the Monday before Thanksgiving, a nurse called from the specialty pharmacy in Ohio where I’d been getting the Xeloda. Unaccustomed to getting a nurse’s call from a pharmacy, I was intrigued. She asked about side effects. I rattled them off. She had no solutions. “Do you want to speak with a pharmacist?” “No. Been there done that.” The pharmacist had told me in a previous call that cancer treatment was a balance: A balance between killing the cancer and killing me. Kinda like the counterbalance in my backyard of feeding the birds without feeding the rats, I thought. Then, she asked about my mood and I fell apart. “I can’t stop crying.” “Are you thinking of hurting yourself?” I knew I was dangling on the lip of the waterfall, if not already flailing among the thundering mists. “Well, I’ve thought of driving my car off a cliff. I’m not going to do it but it would solve a lot of my problems.” I knew what I was saying, I knew she’d have to act on it. I knew I wanted an anti-depressant and my Xeloda dose lowered, as my doc had previously suggested to my protests, “I don’t want to croak!” Later, I’d checked with my Facebook group and seen that a lot of gals had their doses lowered to make the side effects tolerable and it was still effective against the cancer. I had a doctor’s appointment for a bone growth shot the next day. I thought I’d address these things then. The nurse asked, “Is it ok if I tell your doctor how you feel?’ Resigned, I replied, “Yes.”
The next day was the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. My appointment was for 10:30. I arrived on time at the cancer center parking lot, sat in the driver’s seat, and sobbed: sobbed for the pain and frustration of the side effects I had to trade for longevity, sobbed for missing Thanksgiving with family, sobbed for my shortened life, and my new unchosen life. Now, late for my appointment, my phone rang. It was my doc’s office. I figured they were wondering where I was. “Hello?” “Karen, we had a call from a nurse, and we’re concerned.” “I’m in the parking lot here for my Xgeva shot and I can’t stop crying.” “Well, come on in.”
With my nose running behind my Covid mask and tears wetting my face, I dragged myself through the thick double glass doors. Twenty years ago I hated this place. I hated that we had to have a whole center devoted to cancer. “What were we doing to ourselves and the planet that we needed a place like this?” But, I loved the people inside and still do. Nurse Nancy, who always set me in the infusion room with the big Half Dome picture, is still there twenty years later.
Bypassing the waiting area, they ushered my sorry ass into an exam room. I sat in the plastic chair, put my head against the wall and wailed. Through the sobs, I took my shoes and socks off to show the peeling, cherry-red soles of my feet. I thought, This is going to be my life until I die. Keeping my eyes closed eased the burning a bit. The click, click, click of my doctor’s heels signaled her arrival. Plopping on the rolling stool and leaning in, “Karen, what’s wrong!?” she implored. “I can’t see and I can’t walk. I’m a photographer, sewer, hiker, and writer and I can’t see and I can’t walk!” More wails. “I just want to reduce my dose and get an antidepressant.” “The nurse said you were thinking of hurting yourself.” Actually, my idea was to stop the hurt. “Have you thought how you’d do it?” Without skipping a beat, “I was thinking of driving my car off a cliff.” She bolted up straight, eyes wide. “I’m not going to do it but it crossed my mind.”
By now, leaning in again, masked but ungloved, she was softly stroking my exposed ankle and lower leg crossed over the other knee. We’d known each other eleven years, where I’d come bouncing in for my biannual check up with news and pictures of my latest adventures. I was a success story. I wanted her to go home feeling good that at least one of her patients was leading a robust post-cancer life. I was proud of having endured my one year of treatment twenty years ago – what I’d undergone to survive and even thrive. I’d shown my ponytail to bald cancer patients at the hospital where I worked as a Clinical Lab Scientist to show that there was hair and hope after treatment. “With all the new discoveries, if you’re going to get cancer, this is a good time to get it.”
What an idiot I was. I wasn’t feeling it at all that Tuesday. Through the sobs and believing I knew the solution, I kept saying, “I just need a dose reduction and an antidepressant.” Her reply, “We’re not even going there until you get stable.” I thought my requests were the path to stability. Irritated and defeated at being denied, I bowed my head and studied my options. I couldn’t find any. More sobs. Then I heard, “The fastest way to get you an antidepressant is to go to the ER.” I weighed that versus waiting for weeks over the holidays for a shrink appointment. “Besides, I can’t let you go home with suicidal ideation.” ”I’m not going to do it. I was just thinking about it.” “Normal people don’t have those thoughts.” It was clear that I was not going to win this battle and if I could get an antidepressant sooner by going to the ER, well then, ok. The young buff, black, sweet and gentle-as-can-be RN, who usually gives me my shots and takes my blood pressure, escorted me to the ER on the opposite side of the hospital. Covid and all, I took his arm. My face still wet, we laughed along the way, “I’m really not crazy. I’m just having a rough time.” “I know, Miss Karen.”
Onto a gurney I flopped and began sobbing again. Then I noticed they placed a uniformed guard at my door. Uh oh. I’m captive. I was raised in captivity and maybe that’s why I’m most comfortable without a roof, or even a tent, or trail. With nothing to do and knowing that unless you have a heart condition, Emergency Rooms treat you like anything but an emergency, I pulled up my RN friend, Mindy’s, contact info on my phone and poked the mobile number. “You’re not going to believe this…” “Karen, they’re going to put you on a seventy-two-hour hold.” “NO!!” “Yes, they can do that and probably will.” Oh, no. Rick thinks I just went for my shot. I was angry at him because I was unable to talk about the depth of my despair with him. No, it doesn’t make sense but there you have it. So I asked Mindy to call him and let him know where I was and that I was fine.
They changed guards a few times. One older woman guard told me to trust in Jesus. Two male guards spoke together just outside my room talking about some “fucked up” situation somewhere. The doc came and went and came in again five hours after my admission, all the time I’m waiting for an antidepressant. She said, “I spoke with your doc and I’m placing you on a 72 hour hold and sending you by ambulance to John Muir Behavioral Health. It’s a nice place.” Motioning to the guard, “Would they tackle me if I bolted?” “We’d probably call the police.”
Well, fuck. I just came for a shot and now I need a change of clothes and toiletries. I hadn’t eaten since a meager breakfast. I texted Rick and my pre-loaded net bag for backpacking showed up complete with a headlamp, lighter, and a bunch of other stuff I’d never see as an in-patient in a mental hospital, along with two Big Macs, fries, a soda, and my cancer meds.
Now dark, the ambulance finally arrived for the half-mile ($4,000) drive to the psyche hospital. Two kids, a girl and a guy who looked to be high school age, wheeled me out to the ambulance and got me onto their gurney where, with straps and a metal click, they LOCKED ME IN. The restriction set in and I was momentarily terrified. I’m used to rambling through mountains off-trail wherever I want to go, not restrained and locked to a gurney. My guide and good friend, Banning, had been wrongly committed to a mental institution for eleven months at age fifteen for insurance fraud. The horror of his stories ran wild through my mind.
Again, resigned to my fate, curious about the possibility of an interesting experience (who else gets locked up in a psyche ward?), and still holding onto the promise of an antidepressant, I relaxed and told the kids that I really wasn’t crazy. I pulled up a picture on my phone of me from summer before last where I’m backpacking up Lucy’s Foot Pass in Kings Canyon. “Do you know anything about the John Muir Trail?” “Sure! What do you want to know? Here’s a picture of my sister and me on Glen Pass.” He spoke of his magical visit to Evolution Basin and of his dream to hike the whole 220 mile trail. From my immobilized position in the back of an ambulance, I said, “Do it.” I gave him my email and by then it was time to unload me behind bars. I heard the clank of the metal gate. My waters were about to change.
It turned out to be a good thing. I needed a time out. Stay tuned for next blog post.
It was a few years ago that I acquired a renewed fascination with waterfalls. Sure, they are beautiful and powerful and gravid with the promise of spring and hope, born of the pure white snows on the sides of mountains high above. But, this was different. It was as if they had a message, a story, a warning, an insight to tell. I’d stare at them that spring: Bridalveil, Yosemite Falls, Vernal, and Nevada. What were they trying to tell me? I was amazed that contented roiling creeks and rivers swollen to the top of their banks with smooth waves over boulders with just a hint of froth, could find themselves unsuspectedly flung over a cliff, blown to bits of mist with no recognition of their previous selves and, only by some miracle, be recollected into the creek below to ramble on as before, only more aerated. The 318 foot vertical column of mist between the lip of Vernal Falls and the pool below where it gathers itself together, has no resemblance to the river above from whence it came. The mist, taunting like a benevolent ghost with an eerie message, rose and swirled and swayed with the breeze and baptized us on the granite path below with its own body. Standing drenched in the misty downpour, I’d stare up at the column of white and wonder: What are you trying to tell me?
Then I heard it. I was guiding a group of New Jersey high school kids with their teacher, my fellow guide, Diego and another guide Banning. We’d met in Yosemite Valley a few days before, bussed up to Glacier Point, and started our trek along Illilouette Creek to camp upstream. We needed to cross the creek the next morning. It was early June and the creek was running high. I never ever wanted to lose a client, especially a kid, in a stream crossing and have suffered numb feet and legs as I escorted many a client on an icy stream wade. We managed to get everyone safely across on some big downed logs bridging the two sides of the creek and headed to Little Yosemite Valley. The kids were enthralled with nature and their teacher posed thought-provoking philosophical questions to be answered and explored around the flickering light of the evening campfire. I found myself in wonder, wishing I’d had a teacher like this. The kids were sharp and insightful, way beyond my maturity at their age.
The next day we packed up and strode to the entrance of Little Yosemite Valley where the Merced River tumbles through a chute under a wooden bridge and spews itself over the ledge. We dropped our packs and went to the fenced in viewing area where we could look down and watch the mist fall 594 feet to the creek below. Again I asked, what are you trying to tell me?
At the lip of Vernal Falls, sitting in the sun, we have lunch. I note the height of the creek in relation to the metal fence discouraging people from straying unprotected into the swift current. The water has crept beyond the fence. The water is intruding into the demarked safe zone. I’ve been known to sit on a rock upstream from the fall and soak my feet there.
In the fall when the river is low, I’ve seen people hop the fence and walk the slick granite lip barefoot, stepping over the channels of water flowing over the edge. Knowing the risk, I turn my head or take pictures to document the possible catastrophe. Every now and then people will wade upstream from the falls and get swept over to their death. The last time I know of this happening, a woman and two young men, all in their twenties, were posing on a boulder in the creek for a picture. One slipped in. The other two tried to save her and all three were swept over the fall. To the horror of powerless onlookers, the last two were seen going over the lip holding onto each other. Such a tragedy to be swallowed whole by such terrible beauty.
After lunch we are happily rejuvenated and with great pride and satisfaction of nearing the completion of a successful foray into the Yosemite backcountry, we saunter down the steps and trough the drenching mist, delighted with vivid rainbows at our feet. Past the mist we gather, all smiles. I look back up at the waterfall and I clearly hear her message. Why couldn’t I hear it before? I look at these bright and sometimes awkward teens, some abandoned by their wealthy parents to a well-appointed private boarding school. I know the incidence of teen suicide. I know I have to convey the message. With the roar of the fall in the background, I yell to my drenched students, “Look at this waterfall. It rambles along as a contented, unsuspecting river above. It laughs and burbles. It’s going somewhere safe within its banks. And suddenly, it is flung over a cliff, broken to bits, turned upside down and every which way. It doesn’t even recognize itself. By some absolute miracle it is gathered back together to continues its journey. So when you have difficult times in your lives, and you will, remember the lesson of the waterfall and how even when torn apart on a molecular level, it somehow returns peacefully to its original form, a river on its journey home to the sea.” By now some kids have flung their wet bodies onto me in deep hugs and some are crying. Somehow, I’ve unwittingly become the messenger of the waterfall and spoken with words her message where it needed to be heard.
At the end of that backpack season REI did not renew their contract with my guiding company and, devastated that my soul’s work was pulled out from under me, I knew that the message was meant for me, as well. I gathered my own broken bits back into its river and embraced long-distance backpacking, something I could never do while running a company with sixteen guides who ran twenty-eight trips a summer. Hiking locally with good friends in the winter and exploring new areas off-trail deep in the Sierra during the summer became my new rambling river safe within its banks.
Then my cancer diagnosis last January threw me over the cliff again and tore my sense of normalcy to bits. With the journey’s rapids, cascades, and wide smooth stretches, I’ve been doing nothing but trying to find a safe eddy I can count on – even if it’s being able to anticipate the good days and bad days so as not to be flung over the cliff daily.
The Tuesday before Thanksgiving, I was tossed over a cliff again by my own mind. I ended up 5150’d and spent two nights in a mental hospital. The quiet and wonderful care I received set me gently back in a calm spot in my river and with more help, I am floating softly downstream to my source. More about that in the next post.
It’ll be twenty one years ago this Thursday that I heard the words: “It’s what we feared the most.” Sitting on the exam table, the air was knocked out of me like someone slammed me in the back. That day I’d had a lumpectomy on my new surgeon’s lunch hour. He squeezed me in. “The margins are not clear so we’ll have to do more but tomorrow I’m leaving for India for six weeks. You’ll need a surgeon, a reconstructive surgeon, a radiologist and an oncologist.” “But I’m a backpacker!” as if that gave me some kind of immunity. “And next year you’ll be backpacking as a breast cancer survivor.” Ok, I thought. I can do this. But, there I was, diagnosed with breast cancer and left to figure it all out on my own. Though the pathology report called it a slow-grower, I was anxious to get this alien life form out of me, especially before it spread. I chose a mastectomy over a lumpectomy to greater ensure that I was done with this disease and started looking for a surgeon who was not headed for India.
I’d first felt the lump two and a half years earlier and had it scanned and ultrasounded and they deduced that it was a fluid filled cyst. I watched it for two and a half years until I leaned on it in my hammock on a backpack trip to get grounded three days after my daughter came out as gay, and it hurt. The skin was dimpled where the lump was. My nurse practitioner gasped when she saw it. She’d never hugged me good-by before. An in-office biopsy was quickly scheduled for after hours at a surgeon’s office. Having all afternoon to fret, I prepped with two slices of pizza and two glasses of Cabernet. The biopsy resulted in a bad vaso-vagel reaction with lots of red pizza in the trash can but no biopsy sample. A lumpectomy scheduled for a week later would get a sample for a diagnosis.
I learned that there was a new technique called a Sentinel Node Biopsy which would prevent me from having lymphedema at altitude, a common problem when they remove all the lymph nodes in your armpit during the mastectomy. I called around to get a doc that would perform a Sentinel Node Biopsy along with a mastectomy. It was a common procedure in the LA area but I found only one doc with experience in the SF Bay Area. I would call a hospital to see if it was a procedure in their repertoire and, from John Muir in Walnut Creek, the sweet speaking lady on the other end of the line said, “Yes, we do it, then we remove all of them.” I said, “Well, what’s the point of that?” “Don’t you want to be part of the group that the docs practice on so women in the future can have it done?” I reflexively yelled, “NO!” and slammed down the phone.
I interviewed four plastic surgeons in their very snazzy offices. You can tell by their office how lucrative their practice is. One reached into a cabinet behind his mahogany desk and tossed a quivering blob of gel onto the desk top. “That’s what we use,” he said of implants. I starred at it, touched it, and lifted it up in the palm of my hand. That’s about ¾ of a pound,” I said. “Yep.” “My hammock weighs about that much!” I was a AA and they all wanted me to go up in size. (Insurance is obligated to even up both sides.) While discussing it with a nurse, she unexpectedly moved in close, unbuttoned her blouse and showed me hers, clearly a perk of her employment, “You could have THESE,” she said. I recoiled only wanting to stay alive.
They all had photo books of their patients pre and post-surgery. They were all very proud of their work. They promoted fancy tram-flaps, and procedures where they wrap your back muscle around and fashion a boob out of it. “But I use my muscles,” I said. That didn’t seem to matter to them as long as it looked good in their portfolio. Me? I just wanted to stay alive and use my body if it was still here. In my vulnerable state I chose the plastic surgeon who said the magic words, “I’ll take care of you.”
The surgery was Dec. 9, my father’s birthday, but I had distanced myself from my family for about 8 years. Nervous but anxious to get the alien life form out of me and on to chemo and radiation and the rest of my life, I arrived having already had a drunken going away party for my breast with girlfriends at a local bar the night before. The next thing I remember was a hot iron on my chest, like the kind steam comes out of when you iron shirts. I could see the oncology surgeon and the plastic surgeon with their blue gowns and head nets on. My eyes were open but I could not move. The pain was searing. Then a mask moved over my face and I disappeared again. From then on I always tell the anesthesiologist not to take a nap on the job.
After a month of Jackson-Pratt Drains hanging out of my side, they were yanked, my skin having grown into them, and an attempt was made to fill the tissue expander for my new boob. But it had been installed upside down and instead of the needle hitting the port, it went through my skin and hit a metal plate… five times. Now in chemo, where they drip drugs into you that make you not heal, my oncologist gave me permission to have a new tissue expander correctly installed but made me promise that I would not get it infected.
Oh, Karen… I later told Rick to chain me down and let me howl the next time I want to get into the hot tub at the YMCA with an open wound: Another surgery to remove the tissue expander and clean out the sewer in there. Coulda died.
So then, six months of two types of poison dripped in to kill whatever was left and five weeks of radiation later, I was back backpacking, literally. I didn’t belong on the eight-day trip off-trail around Mts. Banner and Ritter with my bald head and armpit peeling like the skin off of pudding due to the radiation burns, but I needed to be there, in my wilderness home with my tribe. Besides, I had to be there to reduce my husband’s dislocated shoulder when he slipped on a steep slope, instinctively grabbed his poles, and jerked his arm out of the socket.
A few more dislocated shoulders, surgical repair, a lost gal bladder, and a hip replacement for me and we’ve been happily backpacking ever since. I’d go in for my check-ups every six months, mostly to share my latest adventures with my doc. I’d stroll in all tan and strong and healthy past the bald, gray-skinned people all hunched over barely alive. What was I doing there?
I got twenty great years. That was forty great check-ups. I’m even on my third oncologist, having outlived the careers of two of them.
“It’s a gut punch,” my doc said today, “these late recurrences. You go through all that and after a while you just forget about it.” Exactly, I thought.
Sun slicing through the windows and splashing onto the bathroom tile and sifting through the ficus leaves to dapple the wall. Silence. Rick is at the cabin doing some winterizing. Abby is sleeping by my side.
Me? I have a newly rising CA 15-3 cancer marker and growing pains behind my lower ribs, especially on the right side. My glucose was 133 before my PET scan last Wed. Mine’s usually 90. My pancreas? Crap. I know too much medical shit. And yes, I can feel the tumor in my throat when I swallow. I REALLY don’t want to get that radiated again: pure HELL. I’m awaiting my PET scan results. I’m afraid I’m slowly dying. Dramatic? I can’t tell. I could be hit by a bus tomorrow.
Abby is over 12 years old. She’s having difficulty getting her rear end up on the couch or on the bed or into the car. I only walk her our one-mile walk in the neighborhood now – no eight-mile hikes in Briones like last year. Heck I’ve only maxed out at seven myself this year, not counting the eight mile Burma Burn I did with friends on Diablo in early January before I knew. I watch Abby slow down and wonder which of us will witness the loss of the other. I don’t want either. Her nose is at my thigh and her big furry paw on my knee as she sleeps with my left hand on her head. How I love this dog.
I’m wondering at the importance of activities I’m doing in my daily life. Not knowing when any of us will pass, I’ve always questioned how I spend my time. I’m cleaning out, sorting, and repositioning stuff in my sewing room/office. It feels like I’m getting ready to start a project, or leave it all in good order – good order that probably no one else cares about. It feels important and useless at the same time, like in the movie Love Story when she’s dying and can’t remember the music she used to know. He doesn’t care. She does. Does anything really matter? Except if it helps others, feels rewarding, or is fun? I planted new plants yesterday for Fall/Winter/Spring wondering if I’ll be here to enjoy them or if they’ll only be a temporary reminder that I was here.
I’ve always really loved being alive – witnessing the changing light and soaking in the darkness, the stillness, the little things, the twit of birds and bugs, the glint of light on hard surfaces, the smell of pork chops frying and banana bread baking, Josh Groban singing, the way my body feels making its way across the land legs and lungs pumping, black dog noses, salty ocean water, sun on my skin, laughter. And now Covid limits my movements and meetings. Will I live long enough to see the days post-Covid? When we can eat and drink at a restaurant with friends, hike with friends, travel at will, float in the Costa Sur lagoon, feel the hot Puerto Vallarta sun on my skin, hug my grandchildren, hug my friends?
Abby runs in her sleep. I awoke with a dream: I was doing something and got distracted by the cry of a baby – a tiny baby, so small it fit in the closed compartment of “Sunday” in a weekly pill container. I lifted the lid and remembered that I had a baby. How long has it been in there? What’s it doing in there? Can I be so irresponsible that I’ve forgotten that I have a baby? It’s impossibly small – a half inch in diameter. I see never-opened eyes and tiny blue veins. It fits like a small walnut in the palm of my hand looking like a just-hatched bird. Do I take it to the hospital and thereby incriminate myself with neglect? Will it survive? How did I let this happen? Suddenly its mouth opens and it starts rooting for a breast. It grows into the size of a newborn and I tuck it under my shirt to feed. Do I even have any milk? How did I let this happen and screw this up? This that is so important? I awake feeling terrible guilt.
I was reeling a bit from an acquaintance’s response to my cancer diagnosis: As long as my treatment wasn’t too bad and I was alive, I should be ok with it. He could not accept that my life style change was a huge loss for me: “Well, we’re all going to slow down, eventually.” “I’m not ready,” I said. Rick piped up, “She doesn’t have to like it.” “And I don’t,” I said. He looked away and shook his body as if to say that what I liked and didn’t like wasn’t important if I was still breathing. I know that basically, he can’t handle the whole idea. I’m living the idea. It’s sad, humbling, grievous beyond words. I can’t believe I’m in this position. People on Facebook ask questions about backpacking the John Muir Trail and I know all the answers. I just can’t DO them. And how can I live these precious days to my best advantage while being so sad? I think I’m getting beyond shock and anger and moving into acceptance and sadness. After many phone calls, I had to accept on Friday that I wasn’t getting my PET scan results before the weekend. I have no patience, never have – perhaps born of early neglect? Sometimes I feel like a hungry baby clawing the cold metal rails for a teat, to be held, to be seen, to have my wide eyes looked into by someone who wants to see who’s behind them.
Footnote: After the May PET scan results showed 75% decrease in the cancer and I backpacked four short trips this summer, I got the results of the PET scan done last Wednesday. It shows “progression,” a fancy way of saying that it’s growing again, even with the treatment. Insert expletive here. But a new drug is in my future. The journey continues.