Number Four

September 12, 1993. I was the mother to three children (the oldest was one week shy of eight years old), with another baby expected any day. All girls. My husband worked the overnight shift, which caused the majority of parenting responsibilities to fall on me. A normal day saw him getting home from work about five in the morning, so he slept until about one in the afternoon. By then my day was half over and the younger kids were down for naps. Supper was always at six, and my husband headed back to work at seven-thirty. By that time each day I was exhausted. I’d put the kids to bed and go to bed myself. This day had been like all the others before it.

Asleep in my bed, something wakes me up about one-thirty in the morning. I roll over and watch my cat pacing back and forth across the foot of my bed. This is odd. Still getting the sleep out of my brain, I start to ask myself why the cat is doing that and before I can finish the thought I have the answer. I’m in labor. Except I have no pains. There are no signs of imminent birth. I’m just fine. But Millie Cat and I have a history. I know her and she knows me. If she says I’m in labor, I’m not going to stick around to argue the point.

With my husband at work, I pick up the phone and call my sister who lives five minutes away. She asks me how far apart my contractions are. I tell her I don’t have any yet, but to just trust me. (She hates cats and I wasn’t going to tell her the cat is telling me to go to the hospital.) I get out of bed and get dressed, choosing clothes carefully since I know I’ll be taking them off in a bit. About ten minutes later I’m at the front door with my bag, waiting for my sister to arrive. My first contraction hits. It’s not awful, but it has strength and endurance. Silently it’s telling me our time is limited.

My sister’s husband pulls the car up the small hill in our front yard and parks it right outside our front door. My sister’s teenage son comes in the house (he’s the sitter for my three sleeping children), wishes me luck, and I head out. My sister grabs my bag and her husband helps me into the back seat of the car. Immediately I lay down on my left side.

And we’re off. On a normal night it’s a twenty-minute drive to the hospital. My sister asks about my contractions. I tell her they’re regular and strong. She completely understands the silence between my words and knows we cannot waste any time. Laying down, I have no idea what the night is like. So I’m frustrated and unnerved when my sister tells me we’re going to make a stop at the fire hall. Her husband is a volunteer firefighter and he wants to have a radio in the car with us. I don’t understand and want to argue but a contraction slams me into silence. My sister hears my groan, and tells me it’s a super foggy night and we need the radio. I won’t argue.

The stop at the fire hall lasts only a minute or so, but I can hear the ticking of my belly bomb and anxiety sets in. Another contraction slams hard and I’m afraid we aren’t going to make it in time. With my brother-in-law back in the car, we take off again, but at a slower speed than I want. My brain is in full labor fog now and my sister explains the intensity of the fog in the air. I want to shout out to hurry, go faster, but instead I take control of my breathing as another contraction slams me. I barely catch my breath and another one comes.

I hear my brother-in-law call on the radio, informing the sheriff’s department of who he’s bringing to the hospital. It’s a small community. This isn’t my first rodeo and they all know me by name. Police on night patrol position their cars at intersections so that we have clear passage when we come through. Still laying down, I have no sense of where we are and how much longer we’re going to be. I grow impatient with worry that we won’t make it in time. My sister reads my mind, and tells me it’s really hard to tell where we are because of the dense fog. I know the route we’re driving and I tell myself I cannot allow myself any fear about the wildlife that shares the road in the night. We reach a place where there is a farm house and barn right next to the road with a strong flood light. My sister has her bearings now and she tells me where we are. I can picture it in my mind’s eye and my worry becomes real. Contractions are less than two minutes apart now and we have another eight minutes or more to get to the hospital.

I force myself to get into my zone and I focus solely on my breathing. My sister tries to talk to me but I do not answer. I cannot. As we approach the city, more landmarks expose themselves amidst the fog and my sister offers encouragement. The police radio squawks updates of our progress on our journey as different officers report our passing by. My sister tells me the hospital has a gurney in the emergency bay waiting for us. Laying on the seat I begin to see city lights and I get my bearings. We are so close. I can do this!

Our car squeals to a stop in the emergency room bay and both doors to the back seat are thrown open. Good fortune in that very moment puts me between contractions, so I pour myself out of the car and climb aboard the waiting gurney, with no time to spare as another contraction slams into me. A nurse at my head and another at my feet start running, pushing the gurney at break-neck speed through the hospital corridors, and I hang on as best I can as we maneuver around corners, all while working through an intense contraction. The gurney comes to a stop outside the birthing room, and again good fortune gives my belly a pause.

I jump off the gurney and peel off my clothes, uncaring about any witnesses. I climb aboard the birthing bed completely aware that another contraction is coming and I’m not disappointed. A nurse I’ve never met stands at the foot of the bed, patiently waiting for the contraction to end. When it does she tells me that she needs to check me before I can push. Not a chance, I tell her. The contractions have just changed and now nature is taking over and there is no holding back. She begins to argue with me just as a pushing contraction takes hold. I focus on my breathing, trying desperately not to push, and I hear my doctor come in the room. He tells the nurse that there’s no need to check me. If I say I’m ready to push, I’m ready. Relief floods my mind and body. One push and the baby is born. The record shows she came into the world five minutes after our car pulled into the emergency entrance bay, forty minutes after Millie Cat woke me, on Monday, September 13, 1993, at 2:10 in the morning.

My fourth daughter. Healthy. Beautiful. Precious. Still is, twenty-four years later.

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Reading Between the Behaviors

As part of my job, I am required to complete extensive training each year on a variety of topics but usually on the laws and regulations that govern the industry in which I work. This month’s training was on the topic of culture and identity, a slightly different topic from the norm but important nevertheless since my employer takes ethics very seriously and instills a culture of inclusion for all of its employees.

Two questions were asked to begin the training: What identity do you have? How many cultures do you belong to? Simple answers are the first things that come to mind but the real answers are much more complex. For example, in terms of identity I think of myself as a wife, mother, grandmother. Those are my first thoughts. But I also can identify as sister, youngest sibling, aunt, working woman, baby boomer, survivor, writer. Actually, there are many more labels that can be applied depending on the context I find myself in when needing to self-identify.

The culture thing was a little trickier for me. When asked how many cultures I am a part of, I naively answered one. As it turns out, I am a part of several since I am a white, college graduate, middle-aged, employed, married, hearing-impaired, female, American. Each one of those characteristics places me into a unique group. And each one of those groups to which I belong has its own rules and values that drive my behaviors. If a culture values hard work, behaviors will look like focusing on goals, being organized and determined, striving for success. If a culture values family, behaviors will look like respecting elders, honoring parents, offering support and encouragement to siblings.

As “one nation”, the United States is a diverse blend of communities and cultures, all sharing experiences and common influences. Our lives are governed by the same laws, systems, and processes, and yet we behave in ways that we learned from our cultural identities, based on who we identify as and how important certain values are to us.

Think of the community in which you live. How many cultures are reflected in that community? How different are the values and behaviors among all of the cultures that exist? Do you consider your community successful? Do cultures co-exist easily or is there a constant tension?

What happens when a culture is mired in despair and hopelessness, if common values are focused around the mere act to survive? How does a community blend that set of values with the values of its other cultures that don’t have to worry about survival and instead focus on achievements and success? Can members of “successful” cultures even comprehend the lives of those in other cultures just trying to live to see another day?

Cultural differences influence how we are treated simply in how others identify us or in how we self-identify. As a white person I never thought I would be subjected to profiling in America. It never used to matter that I was a woman. I was told I could grow up to be anything I wanted and I taught my daughters the same thing. But things changed during last year’s presidential campaigns and election. The Women’s March and other protests caused some men to start treating me differently, labeling me emotional, hysterical even, simply because I am a female and despite the fact that I didn’t participate in any of those events. As a citizen of the United States, I never thought I would live in a country ruled by a dictator. I still don’t, but the fear is real now when before I couldn’t imagine it. Right before my very eyes I’ve witnessed the man in the office of President of the United States knowingly lie and mislead people, blatantly and strategically breaking ethical and moral bounds if not legal ones. If a culture begins to allow lies and deceits and ambiguity, what rules and values do those behaviors create?

I am embarrassed to admit I am married to someone who defends Trump’s every word. I try to justify it by saying my husband doesn’t get it, he doesn’t understand women, he’s from the “old school”. But what do my words and my behavior say to the culture of women to which I belong? When my husband defends Trump by saying it’s within the President’s authority to pardon anyone he wants, what does that say about the values and rules we have in our home?

I am an American. I am a woman. Nothing will change those identities. But I have fear today that I didn’t have a year ago, that I never imagined I would feel, ever. How do I stay a member of my cultural groups when their values and behaviors are changing in catastrophic ways that I disagree with? These sweeping changes carry the potential to destroy the America I love and crack the foundation of my marriage and my home. How does one maneuver through a minefield like the one that has sprouted up around us?

Inner Voice

Call it intuition, or conscience, or knowing, or being in touch with the Universe. The fact is, many people hear an inner voice. Of those who do, some consider it a gift while others call it a curse. For some people the voice is loud and can’t be turned off. Others struggle to hear it because it is so quiet.

I’ve been aware of my inner voice for as long as I can remember. At times it’s been loud but mostly it’s been quiet and subtle. I have to strain sometimes to hear it and even then I don’t always interpret the message accurately. When I was younger the voice scared me. No one in my life ever talked about having an inner voice and I was afraid to say anything about mine out of fear that it would confirm my worst fear—that I was crazy. Over time I learned to trust my inner voice, understanding it was trying to guide me. I also discovered that I cannot will it to speak. On my darkest days I would call upon it to tell me what to do but the voice would be silent. It only spoke when it wanted to speak. I guess that’s the curse of my inner voice.

At times I’ve found it quite a struggle to interpret my inner voice’s message. Some messages made no sense at all so I would ask for more details only to be met with silence. Some messages were very clear but completely illogical and not anything I would ever consider acting upon. Once in a while I’d hit the jackpot and get a clearly communicated message that gave me the guidance I needed so that I could take action and find myself in a better place. Those moments are affirmation that I need to continue to listen and trust. And there have been enough of them to prove my inner voice is not just a coincidence and not a whimsy message being tugged through my brain like an ad being pulled through the air by a small plane. And so there’s the rub. My inner voice has been proven. It’s not one hundred percent accurate—or perhaps it’s more correct to say my interpretations are not always accurate—but it’s been correct enough times that it cannot be discarded nor ignored. So I’ve learned to hear and interpret the message to the best of my ability and take appropriate action.

For the last several weeks my inner voice has repeatedly told me I need to clean house, as in declutter and get rid of all the extra stuff sitting around. We have a big house and there’s a lot of extra stuff. It embarrasses me tremendously to admit it, but there are about one hundred boxes in our basement that haven’t been touched since the day we moved in ten years ago. Many of them are files from my husband’s career, correspondence and other papers, some of which have value. The only one who can really determine the valuable papers from those that need to go in the trash is my husband, and unfortunately he’s not too thrilled with my Decluttering Project. Other boxes contain a lot of knick-knacks and household goods that were extras and duplicates from having blended two households. These are easy for me to go through, but it still takes time. And I know some of these items are things my daughters will want. So I’m being careful to go through everything with them in mind. It’s a big project and it’s going to take a while. But I’ve started it, and I’ll keep working at it. The message was loud and clear: Just do it!

Needless to say there is a humungous mess in my basement that can’t be hidden from my family and some of them have been asking me questions. One of my daughters understands the concept of an inner voice and I believe she hears one as well. So it was easy to explain to her that I’m doing it because my inner voice told me to. She doesn’t question that. But my other daughters and my husband don’t believe in inner voices and they have become alarmed and want to know the Why. And that’s a problem because I don’t know why, other than I am feeling a very strong “demand” that I do this now and to get it done quickly. I have speculated about the Why and a couple of possible answers scare me (and my husband as well) so I’m going to ignore them. Instead I’ve done my best to placate my family by explaining this is long overdue and I’m tired of tripping over boxes. While that reasoning isn’t necessarily a lie, I know I don’t believe it so why should they. And they don’t. So I’ve taken another approach, and that’s answering a question with an even more important question.

Why does any household need eight extra sets of sheets, three wine decanter sets, five different sets of wine glasses (along with an assortment of matching sets of twos and threes), two punch bowl sets, eighteen flower vases, three dozen mismatched coffee mugs, thirteen kitchen aprons, and two room-sized rugs unrolled for ten years?

It’s the last item that gets them distracted and they forget about the Why. “You’ve been hiding not one but two room-sized rugs? What do they look like? How big are they? Can I have one?”

Good Heart Goes Bad

April 23. It seems a lifetime ago. I’ll always remember it because it was the day after the wedding of my third daughter (which is a story in and of itself and I’m still trying to put words to paper about it). It was a gorgeous morning. My husband and I got up early, a rarity for him, and we treated ourselves to breakfast at a popular restaurant. Hubby said he didn’t feel well. Not sick really, just not well. I attributed it to the few hours’ sleep he had gotten. We went home and he took a long nap, then woke up with a cough. It started out as a typical chest cold but within just a few days he was as white as a walking ghost, with so little energy he could barely make it to the bathroom and back to bed. He wasn’t dead so it took some serious arguments before he agreed to go see a doctor.

He came home with an inhaler and some cough medicine. Another week passed and he was even worse. He was coughing so hard he would pass out. Again we argued and my words that “this isn’t normal” finally got him to go back to the doctor. Chest X-rays were all clear, but he came home with antibiotics. And in a few days he had improved. Hurray!

But it wasn’t lasting. As soon as he finished up with the meds he slipped back into a raging respiratory illness. He had to sleep sitting up because of his cough. I had to force liquids on him because he had no appetite. He was sleeping (in a chair) all but just a few hours each day and still he wasn’t improving. He went back to the doctor. Even though it had only been two weeks, the doctor ordered more chest X-rays. Still everything was “clear”. So where was all the phlegm coming from? He was given a different medicine to help with the cough.

As viruses are so wont to do, now it was my turn to be sick. Instead of a chest cold, I got a head cold. And it knocked me flat on my back. I ran a high fever and could barely heat up chicken broth for the two of us. I dragged myself to the doctor and got antibiotics for a sinus infection. I couldn’t function for five or six days. We had food delivered or we ate prepackaged junk. Finally I felt strong enough (or desperate enough) to get to the store for “sick” provisions like Gatorade, Jell-O, chicken noodle soup, canned fruit, ice cream. All that sugar gave me some energy and I came back alive. Not so hubby.

All in all I was sick for about five weeks. I was completely non-functional for about seven days during that time. The rest of the days I worked—mostly from home because I couldn’t stand the dirty looks my coworkers gave me the one day I went into the office and coughed all day.

On the first Sunday in June—six weeks after Hubby came down with his cold—he woke up and told me he was short of breath. It was a new and scary development so I insisted we go to the ER. Because he could still walk and talk, he refused to go. We argued all day. At 3:30 in the afternoon, he finally agreed to go. The ER nurse asked what brought us in. We explained about the respiratory infection and shortness of breath. The nurse took just one minute to check his vitals and said, “You might have come in for your respiratory infection, but I don’t care about that right now. You’re in a-fib and we’re admitting you.” My husband and I looked at each other. WTH?

He spent two nights in the hospital. They ran up a humongous bill of tests and more tests. He came home with ten different medicines to take and a day calendar to remind us of the time each needed to be taken. The good news from the tests is Hubby has a good heart. There is no blockage, no leakage, no bad valves. It’s all good. It just has an “electricity” problem. The top part of his heart thinks he’s running a marathon and the bottom part of his heart thinks he’s sitting in a chair watching TV. The two parts aren’t communicating properly. Seems like a pretty simple problem to solve. Not quite.

It’s now more than eleven weeks since my husband first got sick and he’s still in a-fib. We’ve learned a lot about this condition and we’ve met several fantastic nurses and a few good docs. (They all look so young!!) Today Hubby had a cardioversion procedure, in which they shocked his heart to try to get it to go back into a normal rhythm. It didn’t work. They tried three times—their maximum attempts.

Hubby is not a happy camper at all. I’m relieved and thrilled he’s still alive. What a pair the two of us make! We have no idea what the next step is, other than he has an appointment with his cardiologist at the end of the month. So we’ll continue living in limbo for a couple more weeks.

My husband told me years ago when we were dating that he came from a bloodline with good hearts and people living long lives. I told him that was a good thing because I was going to need him to watch over me when Alzheimer’s hits because that’s what is hiding in my genes. Over the years we’ve had good times and bad, happy days and frustrating days when I was so miffed with him I couldn’t say anything nice. There’s nothing like a good health scare to bring it all into focus. My husband does have a good heart and I want him to stay with me for many, many more years. I think we’ll be acknowledging treasures more often in each of our limbo days.

Mind Blows

The hits just kept coming during a span of three weeks last November. First I got word that my oldest sister was being treated for beginning stages of Alzheimer’s. She is twelve years older than me. Then I got a call from my oldest brother, that he had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s. He is nine years older than me. Another brother happened to mention in passing that he had recently had a physical and there are some issues with his liver. And another sister, ten years older than me, was diagnosed with early signs of Alzheimer’s. There are eight of us siblings and half were dealt major health blows at nearly the same time. It was just days after our country’s tumultuous presidential election. Right before the onset of the holiday season. Smack dab in the middle of our family’s annual unspoken mourning period, when each of us quietly acknowledges the anniversaries of our parents’ deaths and what would have been their nth birthdays. It was all too much for me.

For years my husband has tried to persuade me that Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s run in my father’s bloodline, not my mother’s. And my DNA comes from both of my parents, so I only have a fifty percent chance of getting one of those devastating diagnoses. Try as he did, I never bought into his logic. Thrusting four of my siblings into chaos with their physical health was a cruel reminder of dominant genes. I’m not going to escape the inevitable.

It’s natural to want to pull family close during tough times but when all this stuff went down, I was still reeling from hurt and anger after being slighted by another one of my brothers last August when his son got married and nearly all of my nieces and nephews showed up for the wedding and reception. However, none of my children had been invited. My siblings and their grown children asked where my daughters were. I didn’t lie. “They weren’t invited.” Oh, there had to have been a mistake. I must not have read the invitation correctly. Unfortunately, I had read the invitation exactly as it was addressed and when I had heard many of my nieces and nephews were going to be at the wedding I contacted my brother’s wife. She told me none of my children were invited. There was no slight, no mistake. My children were not invited. How was I supposed to respond to that? My daughters knew all about the wedding, had heard many in the family talking about it, knew there were bridal showers happening. They thought I wasn’t passing on the details. I finally had to tell them, they weren’t invited. Oh. Okay then. Except it wasn’t okay. And once the wedding day arrived and Facebook pages in our extended family lit up with fabulous photos showing all the fun, my daughters were furiously hurt. They had every right to be.

So when news traveled in November about all the different health issues, I tried to put on a good face and thought about gathering with my siblings for our Christmas celebration. Half-heartedly I asked each of my daughters if they were planning to go. Not one. As the day approached, I knew I couldn’t go either. One of my siblings understood why I was hurt. A few tried to tell me it was all a big mistake and I should just let it go. I couldn’t. And by that time I was too far down the rabbit hole, angry and hurt, mourning my parents, mourning the loss of family, of the deep and emotional family bonds that fell apart after my parents had died despite how much effort we had all put toward staying connected physically.

A week after my siblings gathered to celebrate Christmas, my brother (with the liver problems) called me. He and his wife were on the call together and they put down a quilt of guilt, telling me they loved me and I should have been at the family gathering. They couldn’t understand the hurt and anger I felt and they were convinced my children not being invited to the wedding had just been an overblown mistake. They told me I needed to put my feelings aside and be there for the next family get together. Ha! The next family gathering was another wedding, one of my daughters. And she had picked a venue that was limited to only 100 guests. She invited all of my siblings but not one of her cousins. Her mindset was, since she couldn’t invite all of her cousins then she wouldn’t invite any.

My brother and his wife who had intentionally not invited my daughters to their son’s wedding last August have never said a word about what happened even though I know the topic has spent some time on the family grapevine. And when they attended my daughter’s wedding in April, they were very cordial and joking about their daughter’s wedding happening in July, how stressful it is to plan two weddings within a year’s time. I wanted to ask if my daughters would be invited to their daughter’s wedding but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. I wanted to believe it had been a mistake, that it wasn’t an intentional slight. Surely they wouldn’t do it again.

They did.

Last night my husband and I attended my niece’s wedding. Many of my other nieces and nephews were there. And today, family Facebook pages are filled with fun photos. Again. My husband and I left right after the dinner was done. Not one of my siblings argued with me to try to get me to stay longer. They knew. Aside from an initial “hello” and “congratulations” spoken to my brother, the father of the bride, we had no other exchange of words. Those may have been the last words we’ll say to each other for a very long time.

Hurt and anger in the mind are as devastating as blows to the body. Everything hurts. People say time heals all wounds but the history with this particular brother is long and complicated. He’s logical, cold, calculating. I’m emotional, compassionate, creative. This may have been the final blow.

Down the Rabbit Hole

June solstice? Already?! I nearly missed it. Seems I slipped into a hole a few months ago and one thing after another drove me deeper into the darkness. I wish I could say I had fun or that I lost weight or I won…anything. Nope. But I did learn a few things.

I confirmed that I’m not ready to die; I still have unfinished business and I still have some fight left in me. I learned that people cannot get rest in the hospital, laying in a bed or sitting in a chair watching your spouse lay in the bed. I validated the fact that after all these years I still love my husband and want to stay married even though he aggravates me more than once each day.

The biggest surprise came in understanding and accepting the fact that once in a while I need to put myself first instead of last. Okay, maybe more often than once in a while. It’s going to take me some time to create new habits. Awareness and acceptance are the first step.

On this longest day of the year, I see the light, and I’ve made my way up from the depths to the rabbit hole opening. I’m even putting my head out. Wave if you see me.

The Bully

There wasn’t any specific reason why I took a mental trip to the past, and yet there were a thousand reasons why. Usually I avoid thinking about any of the abuse I suffered, but sometimes thoughts just creep through like a spider moving in and out of a crack in the floorboards.

My ex-husband was a master at it. His bruises went deep to the soul but they left no marks on the surface. He worked the graveyard shift and I used to silently count down the hours until he would leave for work. I treasured my nights without him at home and I dreaded his nights off. After a while I used to dread any hour he was home when I or the kids were awake. I never knew when he was going to blow so I would run scenarios through my head. If he blows today, this person is off work and we can go there. Plan B. Plan C. Sometimes all the way to Plan F. The girls and I got so attuned to his body language that we knew he was going to blow before he did, and we could give ourselves a little lead time to get to a place of safety.

Once you learn to read that body language, you can’t turn it off unless you close your eyes. So without even thinking about it, you find yourself reading it in others who exhibit it. Perfect strangers even. Once I was grocery shopping and encountered a man who was oozing anger so silently that he was odiferous. Instantly I became ill and had to run outside to vomit in a garbage can. I so desperately wanted to go back and talk to his wife, to find out how I could help her break free. But I didn’t. I understood all too well that if she was in his presence, she could not be approached.

Several months ago I encountered another bully, an influential person who liked his ego to be stroked often. It bothered me to have a bully rise to the top and be in the brightest spotlight of all, caught on video nearly every day and appearing in my living room on the evening news. I watched in horror as he mocked a disabled reporter. Even more horrifying was watching others defend the bully, trying to tell me he wasn’t making a mockery of the disabled person. I watched the bully knowingly lie, escalate falsehoods and advance conspiracies, manipulate a mob, and incite violence. He called others names to their faces. He publicly falsely accused others of breaking the law. He was disrespectful to his wife in public, caught twisting her arm to cause pain. And she, like the woman in the grocery store, silently spoke just as loudly with her body language. Even my grown children could hear their body language. Sadly, many people could not hear it or would not.

And now it appears some people, some very smart and conniving people, played with that bully, manipulated that bully, to the point that now the bully is desperate and paranoid. On one hand, it’s a welcome sight to watch a bully get a taste of his own medicine. But on the other hand, there is no escaping the fear of what is to come when he blows.