Friday, September 27, 2013

16 October 1998, Colorado

An intense day. A long, long day. We worked on or learned about: masks, listening, talking to parents, using translators, exercises, medical lectures, meals, grasping it all. There was no time to think of the stock market or the Christian Coalition, mortgage payments, or dentist schedules. The only thought of home and Connecticut is Trev. I am missing him and hoping he is okay.

I train to be a parent educator on an Operation Smile mission to any one of a number of third world countries. It is a new, tentative, and experimental position within their surgical teams. My head is spinning with fresh information. My thoughts whirl. I worry about my confidence. Is there enough self-assurance within me to stand on my own, to function productively as part of a team under difficult conditions? The doctor who spoke to us this evening was a reality check. Hope isn't always the outcome of cleft lip and palate surgery in primitive environs – hope for a normal life. Sometimes the best they can expect is a small improvement in function. Sometimes not even that.

Still, in off times, I grapple with the “reason” question, specifically the religious explanation. My answers to “why” involve chance, Fate-with-a-capital-F, mistakes, and the random nature of, well, Nature. I would never engage in a speculative conversation with a frightened parent over their god’s involvement in their child’s congenital condition. Listen, yes. Comfort, reassure, and listen, always. Hypothesize on faith and punishment, never. There is a contingent present in our gathering holding fast to their religious dictum. I envy the comfort they derive from it.

Heather, our soft-spoken artist, was so good today, taking a tied-up bunch of weeds and grasses, asking us to close our eyes as she rattled them over us. To me she offered a moment of grace - of composure and peace to clear our minds before we set to work on our mask-making project. There are rumbles afoot concerning her lack of traditional spirituality. I silently cheer for her.

Out the window here it is pure beauty. Across a rolling field of dried grass a hillside rises, covered with upright pines. Beyond this is a larger hill, then a wedge of monolithic rock jamming up out of the ground, the colored layers of it thick like a cake and topped with a roof of stalwart pines. In the distance is what I think of when I think of the West, a vast mountain range sugared with snow. Right now all is cloaked in darkness. As I write this I see only a foot or two out into this dark night, not a wink of light close or far, only the looming pine tree growing close to the cabin window. Our indoor light is reflected in the puff balls of snow building on all of its horizontal surfaces.

I am a quiet mover in this bunch of people. I’m not an interrupter or an answerer. I burst out with a comment or question only a few times. I function on a lesser scale than in my home domain. At the table there, in the kitchen, in the smaller exercises we engage in with groups of two or three, I am better, more confident of my words. I spoke to the entire group this morning about my personal icon or symbol – the representative token of ourselves and our lives we were asked to bring. There was a waver in my voice but I think I got my meaning across. I brought along a cast of Trevor’s pudgy fingers, taken by his surgical team’s orthodontist. He wanted to show four-year-old Trev how he was going to make a mold of his mouth so they could wire his jaws together during a surgery. The day was my birthday and, after carefully examining it, Trev offered it to me as an impromptu gift. Now, years later, it is my treasure.

Would I be strong on a mission? Would I be helpful, a useful team member? Would I contribute? I don’t know the answer. I doubt myself. Is my voice loud enough? Can I think on my feet? Do I have stamina and the ability to bend according to whatever situation arises? I am a fighter. I know this and feel this but can I revisit the horrors? Can I help parents facing those scary times with their children?


I must get myself to bed, to sleep in a roomful of snoring women. I need to tiptoe in and climb up to the top bunk. I am waiting to be exhausted and guaranteed sleep. People are drifting off. The noise level subsides in this central meeting room. The fire in the massive fieldstone fireplace dwindles. Shadows flicker across the deer and antelope antlers decorating the walls of the lodge. I need a shower. I need sleep.  

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

25 September 1987, before dawn

It’s a large square room. The floors are industrial tile, polished, sealed, and impenetrable. The ceilings are garden-variety acoustic white. Long rows of florescent tubes illuminate everything down to the stark sterile corners. Walls, camouflaged with instruments from eye-level downward, are a washed-out pink. No windows here. There is an illusion of being down, of being under, of a substantial weight overhead.

A single, free-standing wall cuts the room in half. Like the walls making up the perimeter, it is divided into stations or ports. Each instrumented and tubed and supplied for any possible occurrence. Here are tools to shock and suck, sedate and restrain. Each station is efficiently designed for quick access from all sides.

Along one wall there are two sets of double doors, the kind that see you coming and open accordingly. One set, the one I entered by, leads to the elevators. The other leads down a corridor of doors and other hallways, a warren of operating theaters. The same wall accommodates a glass-enclosed cubicle for records and nurses and computers.

This is a twenty-four hour place. The sun never sets. Nothing reveals the passage of time except the large school clock over the exit door with its smoothly rotating second hand. The smell is disinfectant and medicinal and bleached cotton and body fluids. The air is chilled and motionless, a breath held. There are layers of sound here, separated with mild concentration: a low background hum of furnace or air conditioner, the faint metallic buzz of lights, the bleats and pings of monitors, the whoosh and inhale of ventilators, the soft friction of sheet against sheet, the visceral moans and sobs of the semiconscious patrons of this place.

Trevor is here. I was summoned from my vigil at the elevator banks to be with him. I waited there, examining the blue and green undersea mural of sea turtles and white-bellied sharks, until a quiet-voiced nurse stepped through the swing-out doors, assessed me, offered a hospital gown cover-up, and told me to follow her.


I wonder at the work of bandaging his head this way, rolls and rolls of gauze into a helmet. His eyes, his nose, his four-year-old mouth swollen, weeping blood. His life and its functions spiked green lines against the black background of the monitor. I perch here on a low stool; touch an open patch of skin above his right wrist. I stay out of the way. I don’t want him to wake up here. I don’t want him to see this place. I wish for him to sleep all this away. 

Baby Steps

I've fretted over names and fonts and it is time for me to step out. 

As many of you know, I've been working for years now on a memoir, a reminiscence, a distillation of  portions of my life. The story found there I feel is worth telling. 

The first explanation: "Words from the Stair." My husband describes this as a German convention. I think it may be universal. A quick Google-ing turns it up as French, L'esprit d'escalier.  These are thoughts, compositions, phrases that bubble up as afterthoughts. What you should have said if your wits were about you, insightful and to-the-point comments, and clever rejoinders. In this case we review a revision of long-past journal entries, eyewitness accountings.

The second: please take a test run. I present here excerpts from my story. I will travel back and forth through time. It might be confusing. Stay with me. My purpose is to vet pieces of the whole, and the whole is still amorphous, still waiting and wanting to congeal into the certain narrative I am determined to create. I ask your patience and beg your feedback. Do you understand? Do you feel it? Importantly: Do you want to hear more?