Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The dark side of the moon run

Corny though the sentiment may be (yeah, I saw it on facebook), it’s nonetheless true that you’re never too old to try something new for the first time. A couple months back I wrote about my first ever nighttime trail run, on a camping trip in Wisconsin. It was a difficult run for a lot of reasons. New experiences sometimes hurt.

A lot has happened since then. I did not get to experience my first ever ultra marathon; instead I swapped that for my first ever overnight stay in a hospital (early days on earth notwithstanding). That was far less fun than the nighttime trail run, but I guess I must have enjoyed it still because I extended my stay a week and a half. Come for the IV drip, stay for the chocolate pudding.
Yesterday I experienced my first ever Moon Run. On full moon nights, it isn’t werewolves that prowl the forests; it’s Buffalo. That’s the name of my trail running group, and they’ve been doing Moon Runs for years, and even though I’ve been with the Buffalo for a while, I somehow never managed to get my act together to go running at 9pm through a dark trail without any lighting save the round, glowy orb in the sky. That’s the rule: no flashlights, no headlamps, no miners’ caps. You run through the dark—and I do mean dark.

The five-mile trail was one I’ve run scores of times, but nearly always in one direction. For added fun, the Buffalo do Moon Runs in the reverse direction. It just wouldn’t do to run a familiar course in the dark, so ratchet up the disorientation factor a notch and turn something you know like the back of your hand into something that feels like mad scientist types amputated your hand—your whole arm, in fact—and installed a half-alien, half-robot limb with a wacked-out mind of its own. (Hmm. There is that suspicious, gruesome scar on my arm. I’m onto you, mad scientist types.)
When we run the trail in the daytime in the usual fashion (counter clockwise), the first mile is pleasantly shaded by woods while the last mile is out in the open. Most runners hate that last mile; in the summer you get flambéed by the sun and in the winter the wind rips all the heat from your body and carries it off into the next county. Running the trail in reverse at night, the first mile was a thing of beauty. Clear skies meant the moon, huge and bright, guided us on our way. The world looks different in moonlight, soft and lovely, shadows playful rather than sinister.

Of course, you know where this is going: at some point you have to enter the woods. Oh my goodness, how many horror stories begin with some dumbass entering the woods on the night of a full moon. There didn’t even need to be any werewolves or bogeymen out there; simply reducing your sense of sight to almost nil was enough to get the adrenaline-saturated juices flowing. An added bonus: while the part of the trail in the open is relatively straight (another reason runners dislike it), the part in the woods pretzels all over the place, crisscrossing itself, doubling back, suddenly ending in a T-shaped fork such that if you aren’t careful, you’ll really end up in the woods. Then you’ll never find your way back; you’ll have to build a house there and live off the land. It could be worse, but I’d miss pizza too much.
You can’t see. You’re running on uneven, unfamiliar ground. There are all sorts of things underfoot to trip you. Frogs and cicadas are laughing at you. Who the hell ever thought this would be fun?

It is fun. Hugely fun.
There’s a cartoon about running that’s making the rounds. You’ll know what I’m talking about if I say one word: blerch. (It’s a real word now, anyway.) This cartoon is screamingly funny and spot-the-hell-on when it comes to why runners love running. In fact, it illustrates this so perfectly and winningly, I almost don’t see the point in ever writing about running again. Almost. There is an aspect of running that isn’t covered by the blerch cartoon (and that’s not a defect; after all, this was one runner’s view, not everyone’s, since not everyone has had to face killer hornets in Japan).

In Wisconsin, I did the nighttime trail run alone. It was, as I said, not a great run for me; my head was in another place and my body was, well, pretty much all over the place, including sprawled on the ground several times. At the Moon Run, I ran with some buddies and a dog named Toby, whose canine instincts urged him to try to lead us to safety even though he, like me, had no idea where we were going. He would dart ahead and then slow a bit, looking up at me with what I suppose he hoped was a confident, reassuring glance, before falling back and letting the veteran Moon Runner take over. I knew just how Toby felt. Running, as the blerch cartoon writer and many other runners know, is an experience glutted with emotion. At its best it can make you feel strong in a way you never thought possible. You can do this. You can do something you never thought possible, and you can do it all by yourself. It’s a surprise that will hit runners in the strangest moments, and when it does hit you truly feel invincible. I am strong. I can get through this. I don’t need anybody’s help.
But there’s another surprise in running, and that is how much you benefit from the help of others. Most of the time you do not ask for this help; it is simply given freely, without fuss. A runner sees you, hails you, runs alongside you for a while, keeps running with you, all the while saying nothing about the fact that you were clearly struggling and almost ready to stop when they showed up. This has happened to me many times over the years, by many different people. Sometimes it’s a friend, sometimes a person I barely know, and sometimes—well, as they say, it’s complicated. Each time the result is the same: we run, and we feel good. It’s not complicated at all.

That last mile? Amazing. Greatest mile ever. Thanks, guys (you too, Toby).
I can’t claim that my life has been particularly hard. Yeah, there’s been stuff. Everybody’s got stuff. A lot of my stuff I’ve had to deal with alone, and when I emerged from it, I felt the hardness of those experiences ended up hardening something in me. I look at the world and think, I don’t need your help. I can do this by myself. Here’s the thing, though: if you do decide to help me anyway, if you do run by my side, I will be happy and grateful, and the run will most likely be even better for both of us.


Tuesday, July 9, 2013

The fully operational death star meets the killer clots from outer space

The day after I got out of the hospital, I went out to the trails where my running buddies go on Thursday evenings. They would run, I would walk, and while of course I wished I could go with them, I was satisfied just to be upright and mobile and not wearing a baggy green gown or pushing along an IV stand. Before the 6pm start, I chatted with some of the runners who had not heard the (truly) gory details of my ailments, starting by showing off my freaky, gruesome scar. If my audience was still with me at that point and not hunched over puking or screaming and fleeing, I’d tell my story.

One runner in particular shook his head over and over again as I told him about the extensive clotting in my leg. “Wow. It’s kind of amazing you’re even here right now.”
I laughed. “Yeah, I know. Crazy to think about, since you can die from clots and all that.”

He gave me a hard stare. “It’s a lot worse than that. If they go untreated, it’s not just that you can die: You will die.”
I had a sudden weird image of the climactic scenes of Return of the Jedi when the pasty-faced Emperor gets ready to hand-zap Luke Skywalker into oblivion before Dad intervenes. “And now, young Skywalker, you will die.” Shazam. There are many ways a person can react to realizing that their time on earth might easily have just been up, but this wasn’t one I’d ever figured on, as I tried not to picture my running pal in a black hood with jaundice-yellow eyes peering malevolently beneath it.

When my father had his quadruple bypass a few years back, he was in the hospital two days. My mother’s stroke incarcerated her for only a couple more than that. I was in the clink for ten. I had a perfectly healthy heart and brain, but if your left leg is bigger than your right leg, you can forget about getting out early for good behavior.
I bitch and moan plenty about having been in—the clink, the slammer, the hoosegow—for so long, but now that I’m out and about, perhaps it has finally sunk in that you don’t keep a person in the hospital for a week and a half if it isn’t serious. Those five nights being wired up in the ICU really were for a good reason: a clot that gets into the heart or lungs can kill you faster than the Emperor’s hand-zapping, and according to the surgeon, I had enough clot in my leg to kill a good-sized squadron of Stormtroopers.

A few people have asked me if I was scared. I had to think about that—shouldn’t I have been scared? Regardless, I wasn’t. This isn’t because I’m so very brave; I think you have to be scared to be brave, otherwise you’re just being ignorant. There’s the method, first of all. Death by blood clot just doesn’t have the scare factor of cancer or plane crash. Of course, that’s definitely ignorance talking, the way it talks when people emphatically say they’d rather die of a heart attack than cancer because the former would be “quick and painless.” Uh huh, right. Ask someone who’s survived one just how quick and painless it was, and then get ready to run.
The truth is I was more…uncomfortable than scared. I hadn’t gotten any sleep, hadn’t bathed; the tube in my neck kept oozing fluid and there wasn’t anything they could do about it, and there was simply no way I could position myself in that hospital bed that would satisfy my body for more than about a minute. As all good torturers know, tiny aggravations can be just as effective as genuine pain in reducing a person’s ability to function, and at some point you just want the whole damn business over with one way or another.

I will admit there was a moment when I made myself think about it. And I will further admit that the conclusion I came to was not particularly original: if I have to go, so be it; I’ve had a good life. Even coming from my own mind this sounds like a huge rationalization, though at least I didn’t tack on “I have no regrets” because that would have been a belly-flop into the river of denial. I’ve got plenty of regrets, thank you very much, but I’ve also gone places, done things, met people, and ate a lot of tasty food.  I’ve also spent a lot of time going nowhere, doing nothing, being alone and not having so much as a snack—simply being, quietly but fully, alive.
It’s hard to know what to make of all this. Do I accept the fact of my own mortality without fear, or am I still in denial about it? There were times in my life when I wanted to die, one time in particular when I tried to make it happen. This, for whatever reason, wasn’t one of those times. Maybe it’s the control freak in me: nuh-uh, clots, you don’t determine when I go; I get to decide that. It would be nice to say it’s because I feel like I have so much more to live for now, but honestly my life isn’t all that different than it was two years ago. A couple things are different now, though: I have to wear a compression stocking on my leg and I have a gnarly knife-fight scar on my arm. Old-lady chic meets biker-bar badassitude. Throw in a light saber, and I’m ready, more or less, as much as I suppose I will ever be, to face the rest of my life.



Monday, July 8, 2013

Walking that mile

The first walk I took after five days of immobility in ICU was to the bathroom, so I could pee like an adult. That successfully accomplished, I took my IV unit back to my bed, sat down and nearly blacked out. Baby steps, revisited.

On Sunday, after I moved to the regular ward, I took a walk around the floor. I had on two hospital gowns so I wouldn’t flash anybody my backside, I went minimalist with footwear in my special anti-skid socks, and I pushed along my mobile IV unit. Let’s just say I’m not vain enough to care what I looked like but not enough of an exhibitionist to have taken a photo to post. Actually I rather enjoyed the thought of how silly I looked because, you know what? who the fuck cares—I’m walking again.
When I got off the IV drip (yay) because the surgeon needed to slice into my arm (not so yay), I could walk the halls freely. This was equal parts liberating and exasperating. I didn’t think anything could be as boring as the treadmill, but it turns out hospital corridors are far, far worse. Everything is hospital-colored, everything smells and sounds like hospital, and all paths lead to another part of the hospital before you have to turn around and go back to your part of the hospital. When I came to a dead-end corridor with a “NO EXIT” sign, I wished I had a Sharpie pen so I could scribble “Sartre was here” on the wall. Or maybe just “No shit.”

On Wednesday, I’d reached the end of my rope. I had heard nothing all day about the possibility that I could go home, and I was facing yet another night of bad sleep and blood draws. When I took my walk around the halls, this time I didn’t smile at people, didn’t make eye contact, couldn’t manage to mask how utterly miserable I felt right then. I probably looked like that “Yellow Wallpaper” woman, going ‘round and ‘round in mad, awful circles.
I’m out now, and I’m walking the places where I used to run. Being mobile again is still a thrill, but I can’t pretend there is only simple pleasure in my activity. A fellow hard-core runner recently told me she finds walking far harder and more exhausting than running; it doesn’t really make sense, yet I understand what she means. Running feels purposeful, even when its purpose is itself and no more. Walking threatens to feel aimless at times, and it gives me too much time to think about the aimlessness of my life, about my complete inability to figure out where the hell I’m supposed to go from here. I remember how tired I felt before all this happened. Being tired during a run can be disheartening; being tired while walking threatens to be defeating.

When I came back from my utterly miserable walk around the corridors that Wednesday, back to the room I thought I’d be staying in yet another night, a phlebotomist came to see me. I’d recognized him from one of the previous blood draws, and he me. “Hey! How ya doing?” he said with a grin. I liked him; he’d told me some good jokes the last time he came for his vial, but at the moment I couldn’t muster even fake good cheer. I want to go home. He feigned hurt—“How can you say that, don’t you love us no more?” I looked at him. I want to go home.
He stopped what he was doing and peered over at me. I hate it here. I can’t sleep, can’t eat. Nobody will tell me what’s going to happen to me next. I’m just so…damned…tired…

I looked up at him, and shook my head. Sorry. Sorry for that. Everyone here’s been great, and I know I’m lucky, there are so many people here a whole lot worse off than I am, and I’m sorry for complaining to you like this…
He held up his hand. “Hey. You know that expression about how you got to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes?” I nodded dumbly. “Well, right now you are walking a mile in your own shoes.”

I smiled, liking what he said even though at the moment I wasn’t quite sure what it meant. The rest of the blood draw continued as normal, and he left the room with a quiet nod of encouragement.
Sometime this week I’ll run my first mile since all this happened. Meanwhile I am still walking that mile in my own shoes, trying to understand myself as I go.



Friday, July 5, 2013

If a body meet a body coming through post-op

“We bustin’ out of the clink today, Trace?”
“Sure hope so, hon.”

After five nights in ICU they moved me to a regular room. This was a blow; in ICU I’d had a huge room all to myself and a staff taxed with far fewer patients, thus able to cater to my every need (even if most of those needs had to do with bedpans). In steerage ward, I was put in a much smaller double with only a curtain between the two beds. My roommate was a 57-year-old woman from Farmer City, diabetic, obese, in for dialysis. I can’t remember the last time I had to share living space with a complete stranger, so I disliked her as a concept before even meeting her. When she proved herself to be the kind of person who turns on the TV immediately upon entering a room, turns it to the stupidest possible show and leaves it on forever, even while sleeping, even after leaving the room for a lengthy dialysis session, I disliked her in practice as well. They couldn’t have picked someone more different from me if they tried.
“Tracie.” The doctor, stern and scolding. “You’re not going to give up your 3-Pepsi-a-day habit, are you.”

“No way. Gotta have somethin’ to live for.” The reply, both raspy and slurred at once.
Figures, I muttered. I hadn’t seen her yet but I didn’t have to; there might as well have been a big neon “white trash” sign flashing on the other side of the curtain as far as I was concerned.

Her husband was even worse, a grubby behemoth, or so I envisioned, with all the sensitivity of a sidewalk, and probably close to that in IQ. Anything his wife asked him to help her with was answered with, “I can’t do that hon. Get Jerry in here.” Once, in a mincing voice, adding “Jerry the nurse,” the implications clear.
 “He’s a good guy.” That was Tracie, gravelly voice gone cool.

Jerry was a good guy, getting saintlier every time—and there were many times—my roommie pushed the call button for him. She needed pain meds. She needed more pain meds. She needed her phone charged. She needed pain meds that weren’t on her prescription list but she insisted had been prescribed. She needed lunch. She needed a snack. She needed the TV turned on, because apparently the nurse had turned it off while she was out. (It was me.)
Of course, these are all things nurses do, and if a nurse didn’t help her, nobody else would, certainly not her husband. At one point she needed to get on her commode. Behemoth tried to get it for her, but the it was stuck back behind some equipment.

“Stop yellin’. I can’t get it.”

“I have to pee real bad!”
“Well, you’re in my way and I can’t get past you.”

Silence and then the awful sound of trickling liquid. More silence. The nurse call button pressed. The husband stalking out of the room, Jerry rushing in.
“Jerry. I pee’d on the floor.” Her voice mournful, aching for forgiveness.

“It’s OK, Tracie. Don’t worry about it. I can take care of it. Don’t worry. It’s not your fault.”
“It is my fault. And his fault.”

“Well…I don’t think he understands how sick you are.”
“You’re defending him.”

Jerry deftly steered the conversation elsewhere. Being a nurse requires all sorts of skills.
Later, just the two of us in the room, long hours of silence. As with war, the worst thing about being in the hospital is often the times when nothing happens. The wait is torture. It makes you do all sorts of crazy things. Like talk to strangers with whom you have nothing in common.

Small talk at first. “You think you’ll be out for 4th of July?”
“Sure hope so. Can’t stand this place.” That was her, responding to me, though the dialogue could easily have been reversed. So at least we had that in common.

“Do you have plans for the holiday?”
“We were s’posed to have neighbors over, then this happened. I thought my husband was gonna tell ‘em all not to come, but guess what: he didn’t. He says to me, don’t worry hon, I got it all taken care of, I got the grill and I got propane. You won’t have to do a thing.”

I made a noise in my throat, a sarcastic sort of grunt. “Oh man. Are you kidding me?”
“No! Can you believe it? I won’t have to do a thing he says. I’m like, uh, honey, ain’t you forgetting something?”

“Like what are you going to put on the grill to cook with the propane?”
“Yeah! Right! But he don’t think about that. He thinks, hey, I got propane! I’m set!”

I laughed at this, but I could also picture Tracie being stuck taking care of the million and one things her husband neglected to do when she should have been resting. I’m sure she was picturing this as well. She laughed with me anyway.
I told her about the time The Ex and I threw a New Year’s Day brunch party early in our relationship. It was mostly his friends coming, and it was the first time I’d be meeting a lot of them, and I was anxious. I fussed and futzed; I cooked, cleaned, and counted the minutes left, comparing that number to the number of things I had yet to do. In the middle of my frantic activity, The Ex suddenly appeared in the kitchen, in his underwear, holding up a pair of khakis. “Hey, do these need to be ironed?”

Tracie snorted. “Do these need to be ironed. Sure, darlin’, you just give ‘em to me, I’ll iron ‘em right now.”
“Yeah, put them on, and then I’ll iron them for you!”

We shrieked with laughter. There was more silence after this as we retreated back into our own spaces, but it was far less uncomfortable.
Later Tracie told me how she didn’t remember being admitted to the hospital. She was on life support for two days following major renal failure. She could easily have died.

“Did that, I don’t know, give you a new outlook on things?”
“Yeah. It did. I haven’t done anything with my life. I wanna do something before it’s too late.”

She told me how she wanted to start by volunteering at the senior center, interacting with elderly people. It seemed like an odd thing to start a bucket list—no skydiving, no African safari—but I told her how a friend of mine did that and found it very enjoyable; she had a weekly Yahtzee game with a woman in her 90s who played up the helpless old lady bit even while she was trouncing my friend in points. Tracie liked that; I heard her chuckling through the curtain.
A trio of doctors came to my side of the room. I needed another operation, I needed more recovery time, I needed to get off the drugs and then back on the drugs. I might be here through the holiday, through the rest of the week.  

They left. I sat on my hospital bed, looking at the bruises on my arms and legs, the holes in my body, the scars.
“Damn. I think I need to go break my arm or my leg or somethin’.”

I stared at the curtain. “Huh?”
“You get three hunky docs coming to see you. All the kidney doctors are ugly.”

I snorted, but it was a laugh-snort, I’ll admit. “Yeah, they were kinda hot, huh.”
“Yeah. Very.” After a pause: “Propane!”

More shrieking laughter.
Eventually an administrator came to have Tracie sign some final discharge papers, which said, among other things, that if the patient felt that had been released too soon, there were steps they could take.

“Why would anyone want to stay here longer?” Tracie growled.
But of course there are people who do just that. They have no one in their regular lives to interact with, no one to give them the kind of help and care they get in the wards. Perhaps, too, they don’t know how to help themselves, how to make things better. It’s not easy, but it can be done. It seems there are many ways to make things better.

A wheelchair came for Tracie, along with Grubby Behemoth and their daughter, neither of whom did much to get her out smoothly. “I can’t bring the car ‘round, Mom. They said no parking. You got to go down first and wait for me at the curb.”
“Let’s get you on the wheelchair, hon, so we can put all your stuff on it and we don’t have to carry none of it.”

“Hey,” I called through the curtain. “Good luck, Tracie.”
“Thanks, hon. Good luck to you too.”

They finally left. I sat in silence, waiting.