Best-Laid Plans


Those dark brown eyes ringed with lady-killer eyelashes looked huge in his pale, greenish face.

“Was I brave, mama?”

Oh, little man, you know how to break your mama’s heart into tiny little pieces. And just like that, I knew we wouldn’t be going to Colorado for Thanksgiving.

“You sure were, buddy. Let’s hope you don’t need to be brave tonight.” But, unfortunately, he was up vomiting twice again through the night, after the phone call that had me hurrying back to his dojo, where he managed to vomit 4 times in the 15 minutes it took me to get there.  He made it through the rest of the night, humor intact, “I am kinda greenish, like the Hulk!” with only a bit of drama.  “You don’t know what I’m going through here, Mama,” he sighed, as he rested his flushed cheeks on my chest.

Since Saturday, I’ve been building up to the realization that we likely won’t be spending Thanksgiving with my aunt, uncle and cousins in Colorado Springs.  One of the delights of moving out this way was getting to know better my father’s youngest sister, my uncle and the cousins who had come once for a visit many, many years ago when we were kids. Now we’re all grown with kids and careers of our own, and getting to know and love them anew as adults has been such a gift.

My aunt is an amazing athlete (skills which obviously skipped me), golfing like a professional, and regaling us with stories of running the Pikes Peak marathon when she was older than I am now.  She used to traverse Pikes Peak regularly, and my favorite story to tell about her is the time she met some college kids just knackered out on the ride down from the top of the peak on the Cog Railway, defeated by the mountain.  “The trick is not to stop,” she advised them. “Ask me how old I am. I used to climb Pikes Peak once a week.”  She is a tiny little fashionista, always perfectly coiffed and dressed, and has more style in her little finger than my whole body.

My uncle has a deep, rumbling chuckle that makes me smile every time I hear it. He’s a night owl like me, and I love to hear his stories from when he was in the military, which is how he met my aunt. I think my husband looks forward to hanging out with him as much as I do, so when he woke up on Saturday feeling like he’d been hit by a bus, hacking and congested, and said that he wasn’t sure about driving up to Colorado Springs especially with a storm brewing, I knew he wasn’t joking, and that our plans for Thanksgiving were in jeopardy.

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I know that Christmas is usually everyone’s favorite holiday, but for me, it’s Thanksgiving.  My sister laughs because she knows how much I love to eat–“So, of course, it’s your favorite!” I love that the focus is on being grateful, the food and family.  Every Thanksgiving I look forward to being with everyone around a huge table groaning under the weight of a giant turkey, a ham studded with cloves and pineapples, lumpy mashed potatoes, squash with no weird marshmallow topping, kim chi, sausage stuffing, salad with interesting bits like corn and mango thrown in a la little sister, and corn bread. Every Thanksgiving, my mother would try a new dish, and if it went over well might get added to the rotation. I’d wake up every Thanksgiving, and the house would already be filled with the smell of roasting turkey and red seasoned pork loin (because we’re Asian, duh).  The bread prepared for days prior to Thanksgiving would be ready to be tossed with shitake mushrooms, sausage, shredded carrots, celery and sage to make the stuffing, my favorite Thanksgiving dish. Given my mother’s aversion to baking pies, desserts would be brought by family, and we couldn’t wait for my aunt’s famous homemade pistachio pudding pie to arrive.

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As we got older and could participate more in the decision-making, we’ve tried various forms of turkeys–in the roasting pan, in the oven, in a deep fryer, injected with mango infusions, covered in butter, in a bag, thoroughly covered in various rubs, stuffed with apples, celery, cranberries, carrots, onions and garlic. Regardless of how the turkey tasted that year, the outcome was always the same: family gathered, thanks given for another year together, and delicious leftovers for days.

My little guy’s stomach bug was the topper to the decision not to leave today as planned.  He is better today, keeping food down, but the big guy is still contagious, and I would not bring sickness to my aunt’s house.  To top it all off, a huge winter storm is making its way toward Colorado, making it impossible to make it there and back in time for my sick firefighter to make it in to work on Black Friday. This isn’t my first Thanksgiving away from home and the rest of the family, but it doesn’t make it any easier. To distract myself from missing everyone, I follow my mother’s example and challenge myself to make a new dish. The first Thanksgiving it was a roast duck. Tomorrow I’ll be trying my hand at a pecan pie cobbler, and I’ll be preparing the bread, turkey legs and pork loin, inviting all the friends who are part of my family here, and doing the best we can to make it Thanksgiving wherever we are, though my heart is in Colorado Springs and a small town outside of Detroit.

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The first Thanksgiving meal cooked on my own after we moved–not quite the groaning table of my childhood, but tasty or so I was told. 🙂

 

 

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Waiting for Patience


My office door is always closed and locked, remnants of a day when an angry man stood over me and yelled words filled with hurt, anger, and frustration, flinging his arms out as if to grab me and shake the understanding into me.

“Why are my dreams so vivid?” they ask me.

“Why does it still feel like I’m there, fighting all over again, when it happened so many years ago?”

“Why am I still here?”

The brain never forgets, unless the insult is so severe that the parenchyma itself is damaged then dies off, or if we don’t feed it the oxygen it needs. Hypoxia we call it, but those memories don’t just need oxygen.  They need light in all its forms.  The soft rays of sunlight that come in the early dawn of a dreamless night.  The probing surgical intensity that exposes every forgotten detail of curved hair on bloodied arms. The incandescent glow of the faces of loved ones holding back the shadows.

Some injuries to life and limb are obvious. Every day when I walk into this hospital, I see veterans in wheelchairs, leaning on canes or walkers, arms and legs in braces or scarred, but the hurt that comes from post-traumatic stress disorder is not so apparent.  We are confronted with stories on the internet of people leaving nasty notes on the windshields of people using handicapped parking spots whom they judge to be unworthy of the designation and of what they consider a privilege.  Though I’m sure there are those who abuse these “privileges”, for every one of them, there are countless others who would gladly give back the parking placard for pain-free days and nights.  And for those for whom the wounds are invisible, there is no parking placard.

PTSD is real. The patients who seem to have the best grip on this have good support networks–spouses willing to tough it out, family open to seeing it, or friends willing to listen.  When my husband calls me in the middle of the day, it’s frequently to talk about a tough case or to hash out the best way to have handled a patient or incident. Because I don’t know anything about being a paramedic or firefighter, most of the time, I’m just listening or offering a “That’s terrible.” I know it is a way of debriefing for him, just like what he does when he first gets home, and what I do when I’ve had a bad case. He has people he can talk to at his firehouse, but I’m glad he chooses to talk to me, too.  This week was his first shift on call as a SWAT medic.  Luckily, he did not get called in, but every time his phone rang or he received a text, I could see him tense up.  I understand his reasons for wanting to do this work.  How could I not? But I also know that my job as his wife is to look for the signs that he needs help.  We have an increased awareness now about PTSD with social media and trending tweets, and the focus on our military has helped to bring the issue to the forefront, but still too many first responders and veterans are dying off the battlefield, and after the trauma, from suicide and the effects of substance abuse.  It can be difficult for these men and women who are held up as heroes to admit they are struggling.

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All of us need to recognize the concept of sonder, which in my mind should rhyme with wonder.  It means the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own. If you have been lucky enough to escape sorrow, tragedy, hurt, and pain in the years that make up your time on this earth, count yourself among the lucky few.  We all have been through the fire at some point.  The trick is looking past our own wounds to see the scars that everyone carries after the flames have passed, and recognizing those who are struggling to carry on.

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June is National PTSD Awareness month, and June 27 has been designated National PTSD Awareness Day.  In the days before we knew better, they called it by a variety of names: shellshock, nervousness, hysteria. Those who have served in our military, first-responders, and survivors of any catastrophe from rape to hurricanes are at risk for developing this. It affects men, women and children.  Know the risks, learn the signs and triggers, and most of all, please try to develop the patience with humanity that comes from sonder. Today as we honor those veterans who gave everything on the beaches of Normandy, let us not forget those who came home with invisible burdens that had not yet been given names, or forget those who risk their lives every day.

http://www.frsn.org/Resources/web-links

http://www.nctsn.org/resources/public-awareness/national-ptsd-awareness-day

Groundhog Day


I’m laying in bed wishing my life were a movie, and unfortunately Groundhog Day is the one that keeps coming to mind. Today was a day when I could not get it right. I could not be kind or patient or even grateful for all the blessings I have. I walked out of the house this morning without even kissing my family goodbye, distracted by all the things I needed to accomplish before the day began, and tired, instead of rejuvenated by the weekend. This Monday felt like the end of a long week, instead of the beginning, after six days with the husband gone elk hunting, and then headed back today on shift at the firehouse, and I could not see my way to Tuesday. If only we could hit the rewind button, or live the day again, but do it better. This is what comes of being a perfectionist, wishing to do things over and over again until I get it right, instead of letting today go, so tomorrow can begin.

Haven't we all wished once we could be Bill Murray, and live our day over again right this time?

Haven’t we all wished once we could be Bill Murray, and live our day over again right this time?

Perfectionists don’t look like you think they might. They are not all perfectly-pressed pristine paragons of pulchritude (wordies of the world unite!). The first time I read that most perfectionists are procrastinators, I felt someone had opened up my half-empty diary and read the scribblings within. This fear of imperfection stops up creativity and progress. This folly is what has my blog littered with drafts “that just need a little more tweaking,” languishing in the junk drawer of my mind. I don’t blame Pinterest or all the other parenting blogs with their professional-looking pictures of crafts I could never master or perfectly clean homes that don’t have piles of clean laundry that still need folding. I was born this way, and have unfortunately passed this trait on to my kids, with Daughter #1 wailing at age 3: “But I can’t make it perfect”, while trying to tie her shoes. I can’t be Bill Murray today, so in an effort to let go of this ideal of perfectionism, I am sharing this sad, largely unedited tale of how I picked my self-pitying self up and kicked myself (metaphorically, of course) in the dupa as the Polish say. (You can’t grow up where I did in Michigan and not pick up a few useful Polish words, another useful one being paczki).

Sometimes, we live the Pinterest life, or at least give the appearance of doing so. Last night we dined on bone china eating grass-fed husband-hunted grilled elk steaks with a side of organic brown quinoa, and garden fresh-picked kale stir-fried with onions and nitrite-free bacon. Here is a picture of that lovely meal.

Pinterest-worthy, don't you think?

Pinterest-worthy, don’t you think?

Most times we don’t though. Today, I picked up dinner from Wendy’s (by request from my little guy–not sure if that makes it better or worse) on the way home so we could get started on the hours of homework I knew lay ahead of us. My kids ate their Kid Value Meals (“with toy from Dreamworks!”) while I prayed that the fumes in my tank would get us through the line at the gas station, hoping the gas light would not start blinking like the robot in Swiss Family Robinson. I’m sure the bacon on the Junior bacon cheeseburger was not nitrite-free. There is no picture of that meal.

When we got home, Dragon Mama reared her ugly head, and the battle of the homework began. My middle daughter has no great love of math, and a summer in which we did not review multiplication tables is bearing all of its tearful fruits now. As I sat there, wishing the husband was home so I could tag out for a few minutes like those old WWF wrestling matches, I wondered if perhaps I am the cause of her dislike of math. Not a great motherhood moment. I walked away to sit on our patio swing, in the hopes that it would give me some perspective. This would be the moment I discovered the dog had found something delightful in the compost to string all over the yard. I have to admit, there was nothing Zen-like about this outdoors experience, and the swing would likely be more calming if it weren’t powered by angry feet, rocking wildly off its foundation.

This is me on a bad day.  Note the mouth made for spewing fire.

This is me on a bad day. Note the mouth made for spewing fire.

My spirits thusly fortified by the brisk swing, I felt up to the homework battle, in which the phrases “No, it would not be easier to add it 36 times, just MULTIPLY!” and “Yes, it is still wrong! Add it again.” were uttered. This is why I would be horrible at home-schooling my children, and why I believe teachers should be paid exponentially more than they are. At the end, we negotiated how to dole out the last 6 problems of Sunshine Math for the rest of the week given a full schedule of baseball, soccer, dance, scouting, and, of course, work. That was when my middle daughter said, “I really hope Daddy will be home for at least some of those days.” “Me, too,” I thought to myself.

In the middle of this, my husband called back to apologize for our earlier conversation in which I had retorted, “I don’t understand why we’re yelling when we agree with each other.” I had the good sense to also apologize, though not very graciously, and then he shared the news which made every single grumpy moment seem ridiculously banal. Our friend has cancer, and the outcome is uncertain.

On a day when I managed to yell at my kids just trying to add and multiply, my husband while trying to agree with him, and the dog for doing what dogs do, this news made me drop my head in shame. I looked at my self-pitying soul, and resolved to live better. We get no second chances, this not being a movie set and all, and so, we said our bedtime prayers, I apologized for being a dragon Mama, and we had a cuddle session which put them past their bedtimes, in the hopes it will all balance out in the end.

Tonight I’m thankful for second chances and forgiveness. I’m grateful for Wendy’s Junior bacon cheeseburgers and elk steaks. And I’m thankful for all the teachers who spend hours a day teaching our children with patience and skill. I’m praying for all the other dragon mamas (and papas) out there who have to parent alone all the time. I’m praying tonight for our friend, and for all of us out there who are struggling to live each day with grace, whether it is our last day or our first, again.

Be Not Afraid


This past Sunday, like too many Sundays, we walk into Mass late, yet again.  We scoot into the section where we always sit, because us humans, we are creatures of habit, near dear friends with their five children, one a baby boy just learning to talk.  I try to focus on the readings, but in the back of my head is running the list of things that must be done before the alarm clock rings Monday morning. I scan the doors, waiting for my husband coming straight off his shift to join us.  I am praying today for patience and for guidance.  You see a few weeks ago, my husband told me he was thinking about joining the SWAT team.  Yes, that SWAT team, the one you see on TV facing off the bad people, running towards trouble.

When I met my husband he was studying to be a pilot, and when he told me he was thinking about joining the military, I point-blank told him I would stop seeing him.  Not because I don’t respect and honor our military, especially now that in my work I directly serve veterans, but I knew myself.  I knew that the fear that I felt already everyday would be overwhelming.  I could not bear the thought of lying in bed at night worrying about him.   I said it calmly, as a statement, not a threat, then logically persuaded him to continue with his schooling, because I am not a reactor.   My oldest is the same.  We never tear into presents, always taking the time to admire the wrapping and read the card, then carefully going to the seams and pulling off the tape.  Before starting anything, I have to look at all the angles, deduce all the potential ramifications of what could happen if something went wrong.  Though I am a joyful person, I live my life by knowing what the worst-case scenario could be. I have been motivated by fear and the avoidance of danger all of my life.  When my parents left me in charge of a grandmother who could not really speak English and 3 younger siblings, my goal was always to keep them safe.  I took real-life stories from the newspaper and Reader’s Digest as lessons on how to avoid tragedies, incorporating them into my arsenal of weapons to keep fear at bay.

And so, when he very off-handedly mentioned while we driving to the store that he was interested in training for a spot on the SWAT team, I didn’t react.  I didn’t yell or cry.  He reminded me of an incident in which a police officer had recently been shot, and how her life was saved just because a paramedic firefighter like himself had been nearby.  You see, although firefighters and paramedics are standing by in scenes of emergencies like with what happened at Sandyhook Elementary, first they have to wait until the scene is secure, deemed safe by our brave police officers who although they have some medical training, are not medics.  He would be wearing SWAT gear, of course, covered in armor.  “If I were there,” he said, and my heart skipped a beat imagining this, “We could get to people sooner, and be there immediately if a police officer is hurt.  It would make a real difference.” I know this.  I know how minutes, even seconds count when your life’s blood is pouring out on the ground.  It is part of our training as physician assistants, sayings like “Time is muscle” as in the heart muscle, or “time is brain” as with stroke patients, are just part of our vernacular.  I understand this, and he knows it.

I look at my watch.  He is late, and unlike days where I am working, he can’t call me while I’m in church.  My girlfriend’s husband gets up to take his youngest daughter to the restroom, and the baby boy begins to call “Da da”  repeatedly.  Everyone glances over, and smiles, even me.  Father Charles begins his homily and I feel like he is speaking directly to me.  “Be not afraid,” he says.  He speaks of climbing our mountain, the same mountain I referred to a few days ago in my blog post High Desert.  His words fill me, pushing back the fear.   For some people, church is the desert, or a quiet place where they can meditate.  I am not one of those people.  I miss church if I am not there at least on Sundays.  I feel like something is missing if I am unable to attend.  Days like this when the Gospel and the community to which I belong lift me out of the mires of fear and ordinary life are part of why I am here.  I need this connection, this reminder to get out of my head, to stop carrying around this burden by myself.  None of us is alone, not truly.

Here is the difference between now and when we first met.  I am the one who suggested he investigate becoming a firefighter.  It sounds counter-intuitive, doesn’t it? That I would suggest he spend the rest of his life going into dangerous situations, when I prevented him from doing it so many years ago just doesn’t fit.  But knowing him, I knew that this man I jokingly referred to as the Boy Scout, would love this work.  That his steady hands in an emergency, knowledge of all things mechanical and construction-related, and his aptitude for medicine would serve him well.  This is what you do when you love someone.  You don’t hold them back from what they are meant to do.  No matter what it does to you.

Communion arrives, and he is still not here.  I stop scanning the doors, knowing he will not come this late.  When I see him later, I will smile and tell him about how well the baby is talking now, and about our friends who asked about him. I will be able to tell him and mean it this time, that I will support him no matter what he decides to do.

He was still speaking when suddenly a bright cloud covered them with shadow, and suddenly from the cloud there came a voice which said, ‘This is my Son, my Beloved; he enjoys my favour. Listen to him.’ When they heard this, the disciples fell on their faces, overcome with fear. But Jesus came up and touched them, saying, ‘Stand up, do not be afraid.’  And when they raised their eyes they saw no one but Jesus.” Matthew 17: 5-8

Today I am thankful for our police officers, all the firefighters, our military and for all of those who make our world safer by running towards danger.

Ashes & Smoke


On this Ash Wednesday, my thoughts turn naturally to fire and smoke.  Did you know that the ashes smudged on our foreheads come from the burning of Easter palms? I don’t pretend to be familiar with all that goes into the preparation of these ashes, but I picture an enormous conflagration burning white-hot, shriveling green and yellow palms into the black ashes with which we are marked, billowing white smoke surrounding those tending the flames.

Smoke can tell you a lot about a fire.  It seems intuitive, but something I never thought about until I became a firefighter’s wife.  In my life, and probably yours too, my only contact with smoke was innocuous and annoying at most, like when the wind blows campfire soot and embers toward you, or perhaps a signal that it’s time to get rid of the $10 toaster you bought on sale.

Now, smoke is always bad, in this land where the Rio Grande no longer lives up to its name, and a cigarette butt thrown from a truck window can set flames greedily licking up the wooden stairs to a freeway bridge.  Like settlers in the Old West, my husband and his crew scan the horizon, reading smoke signals.

White smoke on the horizon tells them that a knock-down is occurring. Steam and residual smoke from a fire are mixing,  and the fire is on its way to being contained.  Not surprisingly, black smoke is a harbinger of a poorly contained-fire, likely burning toxic materials, one that is not yet under control.  Either way, firefighters see smoke and a curious mix of trepidation and excitement charges through them.  This is what they train every day to do.

Wikipedia-Fire

In the same way, Ash Wednesday heralds the beginning of a fire for me.  It is a time of change, burning away the old, and each Lent I am filled with a similar mix of trepidation and excitement.  When I was a child, it was a time of deprivation: what could I give up, so I could mimic those 40 days in the desert?  I did not understand then what I know now.  The challenge is not just emulation, but true change.  Can we burn away that which makes us toxic?  Will the fire that lies within us be enough to leave nothing but the ashes of renewal?

This blog is part of that renewal process for me. The drive for perfection stalls me before I speak, before I write, before I start any new project, as a protection against failure. I am giving up my fear of failure for Lent, and thus I will be posting every day, fighting the urge for perfection in every line, and I’m sure my hands will be shaking before I hit the publish button. And so, on this first day of Lent, I begin this journey and invite you to be a part of building this fire with me.2012-11-24 16.48.31What do you want to set ablaze?

The Call


As a firefighter’s wife, you learn to accept certain things as part of the job.  When he was a volunteer for two different fire departments, sliding out from under warm covers in brutal Michigan winters to get to the scene of another person with difficulty breathing or another structure fire, I learned how to go right back to sleep before he had even finished putting on his boots.  When he came home with bandaged hands and told me he could not wear his wedding ring anymore because 100 pullups made his hands bleed while in the Fire Academy, I learned how to apply antibacterial ointment without adding the salt of my tears.  When he got held over because he was force-hired when another paramedic was ill, I learned how to rearrange schedules for pick-up for dance class, Cub Scouts, Girl Scouts, and soccer without even a change in heart rate.

As a physician assistant, I thought perhaps I had an advantage over other firefighter’s wives.  I’ve been trained on how to react in emergencies, explained to wide-eyed patients that the chest pain they felt was not indigestion, sutured gunshot wounds, bloodied numerous pairs of gloves in procedures and surgery, and so thought I was prepared for the life as the wife of a firefighter.  And then, in one moment, this illusion which I clung to was swept away.

It was a simple photo. Taken by his partner in a candid moment after a house fire, then posted to Facebook.  When he first became a firefighter, he would call me on his way home, just to let me know he was still alive, and this habit continued at his new department, after he got off from his shift.  Frequently, his calls come while I am with a patient, so the conversation consists of only a few reassuring words, but it is enough to let me know the world is as it should be.  He is safe for another day.

Like most couples, at the end of the day, we share work stories. Since he is a paramedic/firefighter, we discuss Patient X, treatments, and transports, and our children are used to dinner table stories of crashes and fires, though most stories have to be edited for little ears.  He will say only “It was a bad one,” and I know it will be a conversation for later after bedtime stories, nighttime prayers, and goodnight kisses.  I have heard so many variations of cases, and somehow this has lulled me into thinking of them as routine, part of the job, just another fire.

On this day, I am between patients, checking Facebook, this picture of him, so unlike most I’ve seen pops up on my screen.  My son has inherited his daddy’s smile, all cheeks and teeth, full of life and laughter, infectious and enthusiastic for all the blessings we are surrounded by, and pictures of my men are lit by these smiles.  But not this picture.

In this picture, he is tired.  The house smolders behind him.  The air is thick with the haze of smoke. The ground in this desert city in which we now live is wet with the efforts of hours, and criss-crossed by hoses.  The uniform which I’ve seen hanging in his locker, is smudged with soot.  The helmet with his name emblazoned across the front is held in one hand, and I can see that he is trying to muster up the energy for that brilliant smile, but he can’t quite manage it.

I have visited each of his fire stations, trying to nod knowledgeably as he points out gleaming rows of knobs and levers on the fire trucks, listened to explanations of all the safety equipment and training, shook hands with his station mates, but, of course, I’ve never been on scene.

Never seen the fires raging, smoke billowing, men and women moving in concert to save lives and homes.  Never seen this man, who gave up a lucrative position to go back to school for his 3rd career finally doing what he loves, look like this.  This man whom I met as a boy, who asked to hold my hand 3 babies ago, who loves being a firefighter because he can help people, looks out at the camera, and I finally see him, in his element, and my heart contracts in fear.

I am a firefighter’s wife.  I thought I knew what that meant until this photo.  And later, when I get that call, that tells me he is home, and safe. . .I know it is only for today.  And I pray, with renewed urgency for strength to a merciful God and His blessed mother, that I and all the other partners of firefighters, continue to receive that call.Image