Time, whose side are you on?

I don’t cry much, but when I do, it’s usually because a truck full of Cub Scouts just drove by in a 4th of July parade. It gets me every time.

I didn’t cry when Dad died. The tears appeared months later heading down the street to my doctor’s appointment at St. Thomas Hospital. I thought of the conversations Dad and I had on the way to visits with his primary care physician, and a hole bored through the middle of me. There’s no way to fill that kind of hole. It’s best to just let it scab over and scar.

Mom dreaded this appointment with the cardiologist. At her last visit six months ago, he’d told her to cut out salt entirely and lose some weight. Mama can’t stand for anybody to be unhappy with her. He was just doing his job when he told her to mend her behavior. She hadn’t seen him in a year, and she had suffered congestive heart failure while vacationing in California. He legitimately wanted to curb any fluid retention. She thought he would surely give her a talking-to this time since she hadn’t lost a pound, nor had she completely cut salt from her diet.

On the way to I-65, I tried to make light of Mom’s worry about her encounter about to happen. I told her, “Don’t let him rattle you, Ma. Just say, ‘uh-huh’ and ‘I’ll do better next time.'”

“Or,” I added, laughing, “when he says you didn’t lose any weight, you tell him, ‘Well, you didn’t, either!'” We’d noticed that last time he’d picked up about twenty pounds. He’s always been a natty dresser, and he still looked good in his yellow plaid jacket and blue pants, but we were sure he’d had to purchase some new ones.

St. Thomas is not known for the easiest parking arrangements. There was no space in the semi-convenient open-lot parking downstairs, where we would normally take an elevator up three floors and walk down a long hallway. We had to park in a multi-level garage across the street, walk down a long skybridge connecting the garage and hospital, then directly into the other end of the Heart Institute. In my mind, the distances are fairly equal. There is a small difference, though. That skybridge is ever-so-slightly uphill.

I offered Mom one of the hospital wheelchairs waiting just outside the skybridge doors.

“No, that was way too much trouble the last time we did that. I can do better with just my walker.”

“Okay,” I said. “We can rest along the way if you need to.”

She needed to rest several times. Fortunately, the hospital designers saw the need for padded benches built into the windows every twenty feet or so. The seats are chair-height, so I tried to get her to sit in her rolling walker. She wanted to sit on the bench. Getting up and off the bench to grip the walker’s handlebars was difficult and required assistance.

When we finally reached the entrance to the Heart Institute, the nurse screening for Covid-19 waved us into the large waiting room.

“Go ahead and get her seated up in the front,” she said. “Then you come back and I’ll check your temperature.”

Mom sat on her walker in a section of chairs near the registration desk. I had pre-registered the night before but was still expecting more paperwork, or tablet work, once we got there. To my surprise, there was nothing more to do.

I sat down beside Mom. She was spent and breathing too heavily to talk. She looked pitiful.

When the nurse called Mom’s name from the doorway to the exam rooms, I quickly stood and met her at the doorway to say, “She can hardly make it. This might take a minute.”

I turned back toward Mom. Deborah called out, “Did y’all just walk across the skybridge? Oh, God love her. Keep her right there. I’ll bring a wheelchair.”

“I’ve never seen her so exhausted.”

And right at that moment, I saw my usually lively little mama grey-faced, eyes drooping, and so short of breath that her mouth was halfway open. Maybe what shook me was some form of pre-grief. The Universe suddenly reminded me that I won’t have her with me always.

I know that in my head, but this knowing, this moment of sorrow, was a gnawing in that hole in my middle, maybe opened just enough to make me break. I could not let my mother see me crying.

Mom was relieved to scoot onto the wheelchair seat. The nurse quickly wheeled her to a room, helped her into a chair, and rolled the wheelchair into the hallway. The room is small. I stood just outside the door.

“If you don’t mind, I’ll take her back to the garage in this chair. I can come back and get her walker.”

She answered, “Honey, you just relax in here with her, and we’ll take care of the rest.”

The doctor arrived in about fifteen minutes. He seemed so happy! He began by cheering Mom’s blood pressure, her stable weight, and her obvious (to him) sparkle in her eyes. He directed a question to me.

“Don’t you think she’s doing well?”

I nodded. “But wait, what’s that on your mask?”

He answered, “I was just about to tell your mom that we have a new addition to the Blair family tree.” (His grandmother was a Blair in Texas, and he has always insisted we’re all related.)

He pulled his pictures up on his iPhone, turning it this way and that to make sure both Mom and I got a good look at this little six-month old in snazzy yellow plaid overalls, blue jacket. and a matching bowtie on his white shirt.

“Oh, what a cutie!”

“Isn’t he a handsome young man?”

He answered, “Oh, that little fellow has us all wrapped up in him. Oh, my.” He closed his eyes and moved his head from side to side. “His name is Walter.”

“Walter!” Mom said. “My husband’s Grandfather Blair was named Walter.”

After the baby talk, the doctor said, “You’re doing well. I think, and let’s see if you agree, that we should see you again next year. Of course, you can always call if you need us.”

“I guess I’m doing well for my age,” she said.

“You’re doing well for any age,” he answered.

Mom and I got the giggles when he left the room, bemused by the way Walter captivated this cardiologist-surgeon, and relieved that no one seemed unhappy today.

“He was just too enthralled with that new grandbaby to fuss at me,” she said.

The nurse appeared. “Diana, I’m going to take her to your car. You just bring the walker.”

I lifted the walker into the back of the van, backed out, and stopped at the elevator doors.

Mom thanked the nurse and closed the van door.

“Next time,” she tol me, “I’ll take that wheelchair at the beginning.”

We pulled out of the garage. “Ahhhhhh, sunshine!” I said.

“And thank God for Walter,” Mom answered.

***

Good, Bad, Ugly, Good

Friday the 13th, late afternoon, after surgery on Wednesday.

“You’re ready to go to rehab! They’re waiting for you for you over at Southside Rehab! All you have to do is call your ride.” The arrangements were made. I called Neil. The nurse suggested it might be good to get some pain meds in my system for the ride ahead.

I don’t remember much about the trip there, except that I kept backseat driving.

I went inside in a wheelchair. Was it mine? Or theirs? Who wheeled me? I don’t know, but I was taken immediately to my room.

“Where are my things?” I asked. “I really need to go to the bathroom.”

“Look, we have a dinner tray here for you.” I lifted the lid and replaced it immediately. I remember carrots. I was nauseated.

A young woman in wrinkled grey scrubs and a greasy long ponytail introduced herself as the admitting nurse and said she would have a few questions for me in a few minutes.

“I’ll be right back,” she said.

“Can I have my nightgown?”

“Your stuff is all out front. We have to go through it all. We’re going to wash everything.”

“What? Go through it? But my laptop is there and, and, my Kindle and, and…”

It was hard to tell who was talking because there were five or six people gathered in the room. In the halls, other workers giggled and talked too loud.

“You don’t need anything right now.”

“I need to go to the bathroom. I need my phone. I haven’t seen anyone yet.”

“Seen anyone?” the admitting nurse asked. Ah, she was back. “You’ve seen all kinds of people.”

“I need to see a nurse.”

“You’ve seen ME,” she said. “I’m a nurse. I told you I’d be right back.”

“I want my laptop and stuff. And, listen, there is a little silver box inside a clear plastic makeup bag that has teabags in it. I need that right now. My wedding ring is in there.”

Grey Admitting Nurse put her hand on her hip. “Did you not read the part that says not to bring valuables?”

“It doesn’t matter what I read at this point. I want you to go right now and get me that silver box.”

She sighed, flew out of the room, and came back with the plastic makeup bag, and my laptop. All there, thank goodness. I put two rings on my hands. The toe rings and earrings left in the box could be replaced, but not my wedding ring. No way.

“Did you bring my clothes?”

“No,” someone said. “You don’t need them right now. We need to get you admitted.”

***

Everyone had left. I was alone in the room. I was cold. Was I wet? The spinal block I’d had for surgery had rendered me temporarily unable to control my bladder, well, more than usual.

I was the old woman I’d heard hollering many a time while visiting a nursing facility.

“Somebody please help me.”

***

No one came. The incontinence pad I was wearing didn’t hold. I might have been dripping.

I can’t stay here. I felt my chest for my phone. It was there, tucked in my bra.

I texted Neil. Do you think you could come get me and take me home?

How serious are you? he replied.

I’m serious. We’d have to round up my stuff but I can’t stay here.

Whatever you want.

?

I’m on the way.

I thought about calling Dave. I don’t know if I did. I remember arriving at home. I think Neil wheeled me into the bedroom. I know he sat all my bags in the floor. Dave stood by.

Before Neil left the room, I said, “Neil, you’ll have to assemble that potty chair that’s on the porch. It’s in the box. I’ll need it by the bed. I am so nauseated.”

Dave helped me undress. I did not know where my nightshirts were, or my underwear, or my pads, or anything. I knew they were in the bags but not which bag. Dave would never find them.

“At the end of my closet, there is a long pink thing, like a dress, or nightshirt. Give me that, and find me some panties. There are some pads in my bathroom.”

Dave could not find panties because I’d packed pretty much all of them. I did not know which bag they were in. I wanted to lie down.

“Just give me an old pair of your briefs and I’ll wear those tonight.”

I lay down in bed and Neil brought in the bedside commode and left.

Dave came to lie down in bed with me. I coughed, coughed until I might have broken a rib. I was nauseated. I might have thrashed.

Somewhere around 2:00 AM, I got up to transfer to the bedside toilet. It was in the lowest position. I crouched and held to the side arms. My new knees objected when my backside fell too far toward the floor.

I was wet again. The floor was wet. The bed was wet. Somewhere I got panties and a pad.

About 2:00 o’clock (I think), I told Dave, “Something’s wrong. I need to go to the hospital.”

He tried to discuss, but I couldn’t answer coherently.

“Hand me my phone,” I said. I dialed 911. I’m not sure what I told the woman on the other end of the line, but she stayed with me until some EMT’s walked in and asked me if I could get on the gurney.

I didn’t know, and I don’t know how I got on the gurney. I was cold, with no shoes and wet pants–again. The cold of the night stung and numbed. I had no blanket. Outside, the EMT’s moved me to the cot that lifts into the transport ambulance, strapped me in, and hit the lift button. A short grey-haired woman with a gravelly voice positioned herself beside me and buckled herself in.

“I’m so cold,” I said.

“Yeah, I think we’re finally getting winter,” she answered.

Wind whistled. There was no heat in the ambulance. My feet were numb.

***

I got a blanket at the hospital. When the nurse asked me why I was there, I said, “I just want to go back to the hospital.”

She prepped my arm for a needle stick and inserted the routine IV.

“Where is my phone?” I asked. “I had it. Where is it?”

Dr. Carpenter, a hospitalist, appeared. He didn’t look like the Dr. Carpenter I’d known before.

He asked me why I left the rehab facility. I think I told him something about all my personal belongings in a heap on the floor. Whatever. I wasn’t able to say much more.

“Could somebody get me another blanket?” I asked.

Dr. Carpenter said, “Let’s get her another blanket.”

He patted my leg and left the room.

Somebody said they were going to get a CT scan of my stomach.

“I don’t need that,” I said. “I just need to go upstairs and go to bed.”

***

The night shift was still on duty when I got upstairs to a room just down the hall from where I’d been after surgery. I was safe. Finally.

“I’m Heather,” she said. (Not her real name.) “I’m your nurse. We’re going to take care of you.”

“Can I have some water?”

“Of course you can.”

Drinking water never felt so good. It wasn’t the taste. It was the feel.

“Are you hungry? Want some crackers? We have peanut butter and crackers, applesauce, fruit cups…”

I knew from experience I could get a sandwich. “Sandwich?” I asked.

“You may be in luck. Let me see if I can rustle up a turkey sandwich.”

Heather smeared a whole packet of mayonnaise on each slice of bread. I ate the best turkey sandwich of my life.

Heather stayed with me for what seemed like quite a while. When I woke, she was gone. I was still wearing the long pink knit sleepshirt from home but I was dry. I felt treaded socks against the footboard. I smelled coffee.

I pressed the call button. “Can I have some coffee?”

Heather appeared with coffee, creamer, and sweetener.

“I didn’t know what you wanted in it, so I brought it all,” she said. “When the day shift gets here, we’ll get you all cleaned up, okay?”

I thanked her and drank that cup of kindness in Holy Communion with all the world’s hurting and those who take care of them: caretakers, professional and not, those who walk every hall, enter doors, and sit bedside. I drank it black. Normally, I want cream.

***

Shirley and Tessa washed and dried me and anointed me with unscented lotion. Shirley’s been at St. Thomas for fifty-two years. “

Heather said, “Shirley runs things around here.”

“Here. Do you want to brush your teeth?” Tessa asked.

I was hard on the bristles of the plastic brush. Some of them came off in my mouth.

“Here, spit in this emesis cup,” she said. “We’re gonna throw that old toothbrush away anyhow.”

“I don’t have any panties,” I said. “I’m going to need a disposable brief or something.”

“Alright, honey, we’ll get all that.”

The rest of Saturday passed in a blur of dozing, rejecting food trays, and watching helpers enter and leave the room. I slept in two-hour segments, awakened by Yolanda for vitals and the day nurse for medications.

“I really don’t need pain meds,” I said. “I need to pee.”

***

Sunday morning, I ate pancakes. Dr. Hoffman, “my” hospitalist, stopped by.

“Diana, what happened to you was a _______.” [Now I can’t remember the word. It means overdose– but not.]

“That’s why I was crazy?”

“I wouldn’t say you were crazy, but the medicine was just too strong for you. We overmedicated you. I’ve changed you to something lighter and I think you’ll get by fine on that. We’re going to watch you. PT will come in to work you out.”

“Did what I think happened at Southside not happen?”

“I feel certain it did, but it’s possible things were magnified or enhanced to you, and you were certainly confused.”

“I couldn’t stay there.”

“I know, I know,” he said. “Well, we’re going to let you stay with us another couple of days, and then you can decide what you want to do. Dr. Shell’s nurse practitioner is back now–she’s been on vacation–and she and Dr. Shell will get you all fixed up. You might want to go to another rehab or you may just want to go home. I’m not sure what your home situation is, or…”

“I’m going to Richland House if I can. I need somebody to take care of me.”

“Okay, then we’ll probably get you out of here tomorrow afternoon. I’ll look in on you later on.”

***

Dr. William Shell, one of TOA’s finest, certainly the sweetest, walked in the room with his nurse practitioner Lori on Monday morning. Lori had already stopped by to tell me that Dr. Shell was coming.

“So you didn’t fare too well over at Southside,” he said. “I’m so sorry about that. I was afraid of that when I realized where you were going. If Lori hadn’t been gone last week, we’d never have let you go there.”

I was now the facility’s defender. “It’s okay. It’s not all their fault.”

“No, well, there are other better places. Lori will get you all fixed up with that.”

“How about Richland Place?” I asked.

“That would be one of my three suggestions,” he said. “Let’s get you out of here this afternoon.”

He started toward the door and then turned around. “Unless you’d rather stay with us one more day, get some more PT done, and then go home.”

“Oh, my, I’d rather go home.”

“That’s what I prefer,” Dr. Shell said, “even if we didn’t have this epidemic upon us. But those people are so stretched, and you could do as much for yourself at home as they’d do for you.”

“One of my main concerns is Covid, too,” I said. “Southside assured me of a quarantined ward and room. I wasn’t going to even get out of the room over there.”

“Yeah, home is always best if you can do it. Okay, then, Lori will get you all fixed up for outpatient care. I think you’ll do just fine at home.”

“Will I have home health?” I asked. I was thinking about bathing mainly.

“You won’t need it. They tell me you have a couple stairs at home. Did you have any trouble with stairs in PT?”

“No.”

“Then you’ll be fine. Don’t forget to make your appointment for followup in three weeks.”

***

I left the hospital the second (and last) time on Tuesday about noon.

“Neil, we have to get tacos. I need tacos. Tacos for everyone!”

At home, Neil unloaded my bags and set a casual table.

“Isn’t this a great idea?” I asked.

Mom, Dave, and Neil all agreed!

*****

ROAR: wRiting On the Ravine

I started this blog in 2009 with the intent to document what I knew was a major change in our lives—mine and Dave’s, Mom and Dad’s. I knew we had committed to a job that could be described as “challenging”. Most of what I’ve posted here is directly related to multi-generational relationships, caretaking, or the natural lives of the creatures that live and visit here.

I’ve not said too much about my writing life. It’s time to work that into the story.

I hope to assemble a collection of the On the Ravine writings for a memoir—someday—but right now I’m writing a novel. I’ve been writing a novel for over six years, so it would not be a surprise that I’m much closer to finishing said work than I was six years ago, or even four years ago when we claimed this spot On the Ravine.

During the time that I have been working on the novel, I’ve been in four different writing groups. About two years ago, I found “The One”, “The Fit”. There are five of us, one leading, mentoring, and teaching the other four of us. We each started with a novel, mine the furthest along since, after all, I had written the thing three times already. We are five talented, smart, experienced, and wonderfully supportive women—and we know it. I also know that I am incredibly lucky to have found this group. I’d rather miss a party than to absent myself from our Monday night reading and critique sessions.

So why now? Why talk about the writing?

For one thing, I feel the need to explain the decreasing frequency of my postings. I have plenty to write about without bringing up my wannabe-isms, and I do make notes and journal entries about hospitals, gardens, and wild animals. You won’t believe this, but in the middle of that last sentence, I jumped to my window to make sure that I was really looking at a hawk under one of the bird feeders. It was, indeed, a Cooper’s Hawk—and he wasn’t there for the safflower seeds.

I started a piece on what happens when all the ravine residents get sick at the same time, a recent experience. I wrote a few paragraphs on the title “Comings and Goings” about a dear old friend’s passing the same week in January that grandson Jaxton was born. I made an account of a pharmacy clinic visit with Dad. I jotted a few lines to remind myself of several funny scenes from an overnight visit from Jameson and Carly. I may yet publish the hilarious story of the strawberry cake I made for Vicky’s birthday. Given some dedicated time, either one of those pieces could be posted.

I find that the story I am telling in long form just takes over. It leaves any personal accounts in unfinished condition while all spare energy is directed toward what happens to my make-believers, the characters; these are true friends of mine for some seven years. I go to sleep with them on my mind and I wake wondering what they’re up to. They invade my favorite TV shows and I think about them even when I am not writing but staring out the window which, any writer will tell you, is also writing.

There are other renderings about ravine life that will wait for months, or years, to be published. I avoid complaining about the weightiness of responsibility. I don’t mention the fear of the time when my parents will leave me, something else that is closer than it was four years ago. I do write about some of the more difficult issues, even the painful ones, but you don’t see those stories—yet. The words are only spoken, quietly, when I share these experiences with Dave or my closest friends, until it is more appropriate to include a broader range of readers.

There is another, not frivolous at all, reason to say “I’m writing”. This responsibility to my parents, my other family, and my husband, combined with the commitment to writing, creates a need for more hours than I can count on. I hold frequent sessions with myself devoted to developing a better routine, wasting less time, doing a better job of this and that. In the competing pulls and pushes, every whatever-sized thing is much larger than I ever imagined and something gets left out or dismissed.

It is difficult, and sometimes downright useless, to try to explain why I can’t often meet for lunch, and maybe not even for coffee. I’ve lost friends by my inability to explain, and by their inexperience and lack of understanding. There is no blame in my heart; I see what I might look like from the other side.

My husband keeps on trying, helping, doing, being, and there are those persons of soul-kinship who understand, and if they happen to not understand, they accept. It would be grammatically incorrect to say “They BE” but that’s what they do. They just be—with me, for me, around me. “They just be” seems so much stronger than “they just are”.

I won’t be talking about details of the novel or specific writing concerns, but I cannot help describing the feelings I got this weekend at the Celebration of Southern Literature in Chattanooga. There I was, not just close enough to touch, but sometimes actually touching writers like Dorothy Allison (Bastard Out of Carolina), Lee Smith (what didn’t she write), Arthur Golden (Memoirs of a Geisha), Jill McCorkle (Going Away Shoes), Maurice Manning (Bucolics), Randall Kenan (The Fire This Time), Allan Gurganus (Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All), Bobbie Ann Mason (Elvis Presley)… They talked about their work, they read from their stories and poems and plays. That list I just wrote—they’re just the ones that popped into my head as I sat here. There were so many more.

I toggled between two opposing responses: “I am a storyteller” and “Who am I to think I could possibly write?” Tony Earley was at the conference, too. (Jim the Boy, Somehow Form a Family, The Blue Star) At another event several years ago, Tony told us that he doubts his ability every time he sits down to write. I’m so glad he said that, and even happier that I remember it.

I like to summon him up from time to time, this Tony Earley.