Tuesday, August 26, 2008

More Than a Shell

[A few years back, I wrote a series of essays about life in our 1780's house. I plan to post them in the upcoming weeks.]

Approaching the front door, the black wrought iron railing still bears an “M” for “Meyers,” although Mr. Meyers passed away a good five years ago. The brass knocker, too, confounds visitors as it continues to read, and perhaps always will, “Meyers.” It is not nostalgia on our part, or an unwillingness to release the past. This house took us in twelve years ago; Dave, Tucker, Casey and I are its family now. But unless some future bustling efficiency or yearning for accurate documentation spurs us, the Meyers will stay on in railing and knocker.

The garden bordering the railing is unequivocably ours. We dug up thriving pachysandra that had overtaken the small front yard, inspired by an Impressionist oil of an English garden. It was a wonderful distraction for me in the early months of summer, calming my mental tumult of shoulds and imagined fears in the pursuit of weeds and dead heads. Now in October, the sedum has turned almost rust, its heady sweet honeyscent a whisper lure to pollen-heavy bumblebees. Purple asters lie prone, downed by their own weight, but still vibrantly blooming. The cosmos, too, crawl the earth, seeking the sun with upturned pink blossoms atop feathery green stalks.

This wild tangle no longer calls for my care, but like gleeful children finally free of supervision, has grown inventive in its autumnal glory. Goldenrod as fragrant and lovely as any chosen flower has boldly unfurled her yellow laced fingers, a comforting caress for the bristly brown heads of passed echinacea and bee balm. The gomphrena is ablaze in clover-like buttons of garish magenta. Faithful impatiens, shaded by catmint overgrown now that my ministrations have dwindled, stretch and smile in plentiful splendor.

The house itself offers a simple face of white clapboard; a massive center chimney of painted brick is the most distinguishing feature. Black lanterns of iron, once mounted on a carriage postern, flank the front door. With barely an effort, I can picture the expansive canopy of the towering ash tree that shaded the house when we moved here, although it came down almost two years ago. From the corner of my eye, I catch a glimpse of my dancing malamute, our dog, Kody, pleased that I’m home. In reality, she too is gone, but this house holds its tenants. We all come to stay.

Colonel Isaiah Jennings built the house in 1782 upon his return from service during the Revolutionary War. I like to think he knows we are here and approves of us. We found this place as many buyers do, by flipping to the pages beyond our price range in the realtors’ book and then finding it impossible to return to our side of the tracks. How could we walk away from the yawning fireplace that could fit our family of four with ease, the warped wide plank floors and massive beams hewn by some long ago hand?

When we began the purchase process, my mother would call almost daily with anxious questions. “I’ve been up all night worrying. Have you considered crime in the area, other new kids in the children’s classes, the rabbit warren effect of the rooms?” I don’t think it was really the house that caused her concern; it was more the life change for me. After living on various school campuses since I was fifteen, I’d be living in the woods a good quarter-mile from the nearest neighbor. “This may not be worth it,” she cautioned, “A house isn’t your life; it’s the shell for your life.” But, our house has a spirit; it is more than a shell. And despite my mother’s reservations, it was only with her help that we’ve come to live here.

As we stood in the front hall that first day in 1990, the empty rooms - newly painted white as an open canvas - held the promise of the rest of our life unfolding. I pictured Mr. Meyers’ farewell pause on the threshold after his forty-five years here; perhaps he smiled sadly at a fleeting image of his wife, by then deceased, resting by the fireplace, or the scampering dance of his small daughter, now grown. Surely all of the laughter and sorrow of each family steeps into plaster and supporting beams like tea suffuses a watery brew.

After the Meyers’ belongings were swathed in moving rugs, folded into boxes and trundled out on the shoulders of sturdy young men, the house was left empty for over a year, awaiting the next link in the chain. At least, that’s how I see it. I am keenly aware of the changing of the guard. It is our time now, but we are temporary stewards, and that is the privilege of living in an old house. We've become part of its heritage, entrusted during our tenancy with honoring its past and keeping it safe for those who follow.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

More Than You Want to Know...

Rebellion is not in my blood. If anything, I’m pathetically obedient. I was raised to be a good girl, and I still do what I’m told. The mere thought of getting in trouble makes me nervous. Recently I noticed a sign posted on a neighbor’s lawn advertising his law practice. Our town is very strict about limiting signage. My stomach twisted as I thought, “Won’t he get in trouble for that?” Like I said, pathetic. But when it came to scheduling a colonoscopy, I demonstrated a cocky defiance.

Since I turned fifty, my doctor has urged me to schedule the procedure. She’s been polite, but firm. “I’m not going to harass you, but you should really get this done.”

Yeah. Whatever.

I am punctual, reliable and well-behaved, but when, at each of my past five annual physicals Dr. Wolfson has said, “You need to have a colonoscopy. I’ll prepare the paperwork,” I’ve shrugged and given her a smirk that said, “Prepare away, but I’m not gonna do it.”

My husband Dave, the model child, dutifully had “his first” right on time when he turned fifty. He was very Zen and beatific about it. “I like the fasting. I feel cleansed,” he said.

Oh please.

But Dave has a reason for his timely evaluation: his uncle and grandfather died of colon cancer. So, I’m aware of the danger, but I don’t think it will happen to me. I told Dr. Wolfson, “Let me run this by you. I don’t eat meat. I have no family history of this disease. I have no symptoms and I’m very regular. What are the odds that I’ll have a problem?”

She was quiet for a moment, considering. “Less, perhaps, than for some, but this is a random cancer. It can happen to anyone. Make the appointment.”

You’re not my mother; you can’t make me. (Of course I didn’t say that, but I was thinking it.)

The truth is, I wasn’t concerned about the procedure. Even the whole yucky process of drinking a gallon of vile liquid didn’t worry me. It was the fasting. The fasting that brought a Buddha-like smile of serenity to Dave’s face filled me with dismay. I get cranky if I don’t eat every three hours; how could I make it through twenty-four?

In February, I noticed an odd vibration in my lower regions where it definitely did not belong. I did not tell Dave. Why make him worry? I made an appointment with a gastroenterologist, then canceled it when the sensation went away. Whew! I guess it was nothing. The feeling returned in May and I thought, “Oh for God’s sake, fine! I’ll make the appointment.”

I told Dave, without divulging my motivation, that I was ready to take the plunge, so to speak, and have a colonoscopy. As he turned fifty-five this year, he, too, was up for another round, so we decided to do it together.

As a preliminary, we met with Dr. Belker, an attractive, graying man of athletic build and optimistic outlook. His jaunty gestures, raised eyebrows, and broad smile radiated his enthusiasm for his field; he was a doctor who not only treated cancer, but prevented it. We knew we had the right man for the job.

And he had the right staff. Before we sat down with Dr. Belker, a nurse completed our forms and instructed us with a mix of authority, humor and kindness. She tolerated our manic giggles and “pain-in-the-butt” jokes. As she rose from the desk saying, “And now you’ll meet the doctor face-to-face,” she laughed out loud when Dave responded, “the last time he’ll have that pleasure.” I bet she’d heard the remark plenty of times, but when the subject at hand is colons and rectums, bathroom humor is a must.

At this juncture, I want to mention that I’d noticed something odd. I worry about everything. I awaken most days, except when I’m on vacation, with a knot of anxiety in my stomach. Why? Why? Why? I wish I knew. I scan the options: any health concerns? A project at work? New disasters on the world front? Even a routine dentist appointment sparks butterflies in my stomach, but once this colonoscopy was on my calendar, I felt nary a flutter. Interesting.

Two days before C-Day, Colonoscopy Day, I purchased 2 liters of Fresca to mix with the Fleet Phospha Soda that would purge our systems. I also picked up the recommended package of Gas-X to ease any discomfort and stocked up on Jell-O (lemon and lime), Italian Ice, and vegetable broth to stave off hunger pangs.

Dave and I started the day before the procedure with a hearty bowl of Jell-O. Yum! Refreshing AND satisfying! Well, refreshing at least.

At 3:00 PM, we poured frosty helpings of Fresca and added 1½ ounces of Fleet laxative to each. We touched glasses with an appropriate toast: “Bottoms Up!”

Hmmm. Salty with a nice touch of grapefruit. This would not become a favorite cocktail, mind you, but it wasn’t bad.

Then we waited…but not for long.

I confess I was a bit less enthusiastic about the second dose at 11:00 PM. I was tired, hungry, a little sore, and I knew what to expect. Again, it wasn’t bad – neither the drink nor the, um, process - but I just wanted a handful of chocolate chips and cashews and then, my bed. Ah well. Soon enough…

* * *

It is C-Day. We rise, cleansed and lighter… five pounds lighter in fact. A happy by-product that sadly, I will reverse by late afternoon following a joyful gorging on chocolate and blueberry Poptarts.

Our beloved and saintly friend Joan arrives promptly at 7:45 to take us to the endoscopy center as we are not allowed to drive ourselves home due to the anesthesia. I feel, if anything, a giddy sense of anticipation as we set out. Not even a hint of anxious flutters. Intriguing.

The receptionist welcomes us to Suite 2 at the center with, “Are you the lovely couple here for a wonderful procedure?”

“We are,” we crow, an exuberant chorus.

She grins while arranging a sheaf of forms requiring our signatures, her long fingernails festive with yellow and pink stripes brilliant against her dark skin. “You know, you’re the second couple in here this morning. I think it’s very romantic.”

“Maybe someone should capitalize on this trend,” quips Dave. “They could run couples’ colonoscopy cruises.”

The receptionist loves this and shakes her head, laughing as she points to the door. Joan hugs us, saying, “I’m so proud of you for doing this.”

Maybe that’s it. Maybe that’s why I’m not nervous. I put this off for a long time and I’m glad - glad! - to be taking care of it. I, too, am proud of myself.

We pass through the door into a nurses’ station surrounded by curtained cubicles. Dave and I are directed to adjoining stations and told to remove our clothes, put on the hospital gown provided (open to the back), and make ourselves comfortable.

I’ve come prepared. I brought a canvas bag that holds my book, writing materials, socks and a sweatshirt. I hate being cold, but it is positively cozy in my little room. I put on the fetching white johnny-gown, flecked with a pattern of blue dots and diamonds, a nice complement to my new plastic I.D. bracelet. My feet are toasty in a pair of gray peds. I settle in with my book, content.

A nurse is prepping Dave. I hear them chatting away next door. Dave is gifted in his ability to communicate. He can connect with anyone, almost immediately. His brother, Steve, always kids Dave about all of his friends – the cashiers at the grocery store, the garbage man, the plumber, the Fed-Ex guy. The nurse says to Dave, “I know just what you mean. I wonder about that myself.” It sounds like they’ve by-passed prep-questions, taken care of courtesies and leapt to meaningful discussion. How does he do that?

Nurse Mary Lou sweeps aside my curtain of aqua, blue, and cream decorated with starfish (starfish?) and introduces herself. She confirms my name and procedure, asks me to identify my signature, and runs through a list of health questions. I try to think of something to say that will make us instant friends, but can’t come up with a thing. I am not Dave. I am momentarily unsettled when I realize she’s preparing an intra-venous drip. Rats. I hadn’t known this would involve needles. I’d envisioned one of those masks where you breathe deep and sleep, but after the initial stick, I barely feel it. I comment on the bubbles visible in the tube – I’ve seen a few medical shows, after all. Mary Lou assures me they are harmless, but indulges me in clearing the line. For now, the I.V. is carrying fluids to keep me hydrated.

Mary Lou leaves me with my book and my drip. Through the wall, I hear the murmur of sports announcers and referees’ whistles as Dave watches the Olympics in Beijing. Someone is sneezing repeatedly in another cubicle. I hear blips and beeps and the rush of air. Hospital sounds.

Again, my curtain is pushed aside. Jose introduces himself and asks if I’m ready. I am.

He wheels me into a dimly lighted room. Dr. Belker, draped in light blue scrubs, sits studying a monitor among an array of equipment. He greets me as Jose inserts a tube in my nostrils and tells me it’s oxygen. The form I’d signed earlier appears beneath my nose and again, I’m asked to identify my signature while yet another person, or maybe it’s Jose, arranges the tube snaking from my arm. “Turn on your left side please,” he says.

A blonde woman wearing black-rimmed glasses and a white lab coat bends over the catheter in my arm. “I’m Karen Tyler and I’ll be your anesthesiologist.” She repeats the list of questions about allergies and health issues. There’ll be no mistakes here with all of this double-checking.

“I’ve started the anesthesia and soon you’ll fall into a refreshing sleep.” Dr Tyler smiles reassuringly and pats my arm.

“Sounds great since I’ve had a real problem with that ever since menopause and I could use…”

And then I’m opening my eyes and there is my yellow Block Island sweatshirt on top of my canvas bag and the lights are bright and I’m in a different room. I blink and look around. Is it over?

“You’re back,” says a nurse that I’d not met before.

“I have to go to the bathroom,” I say. She points the way to the restroom and I pad groggily across the floor, clutching my johnny closed behind me.

“Your husband is done too,” she says and directs my gaze to Dave, still asleep, in a cubicle near mine. She adds, “When you return to your stretcher, someone will be in shortly to bring you a snack.”

I go to the bathroom, flush, unlock the door and shuffle over to kiss Dave on the cheek. He doesn't even stir. I return to my bed.

Dr. Belker breezes by and says, “You’re awake! Everything was fine. You are clear and so is your husband.” And then he’s gone.

“Which side of the brain does anesthesia affect?” It is Dave waking up. Without missing a beat he’s asking a good question. He doesn’t realize he’s in recovery, the procedure over, and Dr. Tyler is back in that dimly-lit room, on to another patient.

We’re through and we’re fine.

A nurse brings me a heated blanket, warm as if it just came from the dryer. I snuggle in happily to wait for my fruit, juice and crackers.