Tuesday, August 20, 2013

A new normal

The hospital people don’t see my real mom. They see a 78 year old woman who, by her thick chart full of medical terminology, is recovering from a brain aneurysm, two brain surgeries in the course of six weeks and all the complications thereof. They see a woman who can’t get out of bed by herself. Who needs help getting dressed, bathing and brushing her teeth. Who can’t walk without assistance. Who can’t drink liquids without supervision. Who isn’t quite sure where she is or what’s going on from minute to minute, hour to hour, day to day.
Yeah, this is my mom. Skydiving. I believe she was in her 60's.
They don’t see my real mom. I try to tell them while they care for her. When she grabs onto the bar that lifts her out of bed, I ask her if it feels like when she zip lined on one of her vacations. When she’s strapped in the harness to keep her from falling when she walks, I tell her it’s just when she rappelled in the mountains. When she eats the pureed food they order for her I say I bet she can’t wait to get home to her newly-remodeled kitchen and cook dad a big meal (or better yet, have him take her to the Fish House.) 

Sometimes the hospital people see glimpses of her. And so do I. Whether it’s intentional or not, mom’s a real cut-up these days. She’s always had a good sense of humor, but she’s really turned on her comedic side to the therapists and nurses, and they all love her. It’s drier now, like my dad’s – said with a straight face but a gleam in her eye, like we’re all not quite privy to her private joke. But it beats the anger, frustration and lashing out that some patients in her condition experience. 

And she can still shoot me “the look.” The look that says to me, “I’m still in here so watch yourself – I’m just not sure how to get out but when I do you’re gonna get it.” The look that used to fill me with fear, but now fills me with hope. Hope that she’ll get better. Hope that she’ll come back to us. Hope that she’ll come home.

True love.
To them, I’m sure, they see patients like my mom every day. But my family isn’t used to seeing my mom like this every day, and it’s hard.

It’s really, really, really hard.

It’s hardest for my dad – the love of her life for more than 55 years. If you ever want an example of unconditional love – for better or worse – take a lesson from him. That man is there every morning for her breakfast and for most of the day, on into the evening, with very few breaks. He helps feed her and brush her hair and makes sure her gown is tied in the back. He brings her the paper every morning, shows her what day it is on the calendar and attends her therapy sessions. He keeps a notebook in his pocket that details every single day since this all began. Every. Single. Day. He winces when they poke her for blood. He makes sure she gets cheesecake for dessert because she really likes the cheesecake. He holds her hand and kisses her hello and goodbye. Every. Single. Day. He misses her. He wants her home so badly. We all do.

My sister is in a tough position to say the least. As a nurse, she balances the medical of her profession with the emotional of a daughter. We rely on her to translate the medical lingo and dumb down what’s going on to our mortal level. We ask her questions she can’t answer but she sure as hell would love to. Her personality has always been one of a caregiver – she can’t help it – but she’s exhausted herself in the process. As she says, “Sometimes being in the medical profession sucks because you can know too much.” I will admit, sometimes I appreciate my lack of knowledge in that area – ignorance is sometimes bliss. But I am so thankful for her knowledge, her compassion and her willingness to be my mom’s medical spokesperson and advocate, all while missing her as much as I do.  

I still find myself reaching for the phone on my way to work. Usually, once or twice a week, I’d call mom from my car – she always knew it was me since I called at pretty much the same time. “It’s that girl,” she’d tell dad when I called. I started a new job in early July and my drive is a bit longer. Even though I stop off at the hospital to visit her on my way to work, I miss talking with her – catching up and passing the time. Selfishly, I miss leaning on her – calling her when things are bad with my kids, or I have a problem with work, or troubles with a relationship. She always listened and always had her two cents to put in, whether it was sympathy, an offer of assistance, or a “shut up and deal with it” wake-up call. She had become my friend as well as my mom, and I miss that.

The Zones of OSF. We're in 'em, all right.
Life has changed for my family as we know it. We use terms like “subarachnoid hemorrhage," “dysphagia,” “vascular spasms” and “central line” like it’s our normal lingo. I’m sure we’ve collectively walked the quarter mile or so trek from the OSF North Parking Lot to the elevators by the gift shop and back more than 1000 times – my dad many more than that. We’ve traded home-cooked meals for the hospital cafeteria and fast food. For the first time in my life, I did my mom’s laundry. Weird.

Most significantly, though, we talk. We talk and we talk and we talk. We’ve spent more time with my dad over the past few months than probably during our entire lives. We’ve gotten to know him better, and love him even more for the man he is. I know he hates needing us, but as his children, we love him needing us. We love having him in our lives. He says he’s thankful for us; he has no idea. Anything we do for him is a drop in the bucket compared to what he and mom have done for us. 

We don’t know what’s in store ahead, but we’re trying, after nearly two months, to adjust to a new normal and the prospect of  a long road full of some difficult choices. What do I want? I want mom to come home. I want her to be able to go for a walk in the park with my dad. I want her to be able sit on her screened in porch and read a library book with my dog Domino at her feet. I want her to cheer on the Bears for another season (even though I’m a Packers fan,) and cook a pot of chili for my dad on a cold winter’s Sunday. I want her at my son’s first JFL football game and my other son’s graduation next year. I want to dial her number and hear her say “It’s that girl” again.

I want my mom back.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Are you ready for some football?

Well, I thought I was. I've always encouraged my kids to try sports. Hell, I had my oldest in a "Mommy and Me" swimming class when he was six months old. In fact, during his sixteen years on this planet, he's participated in baseball, basketball, soccer, tennis, kuk sool won and speed skating.

My youngest is very athletic - one of the fastest kids I've ever known. In fact, he can still beat his brother four years his senior in a foot race. But he's never been much for the team sports, preferring to stay perfectly active on his own.Which has been fine with me.

Then came football.

He expressed mild interest just over a year ago, and at the time I jumped on it. Having never showed any desire to participate in a team sport, I was encouraged that since we had just moved to a new area it might help him make new friends. There was a camp starting in August, and I told him that would be a good way for him to try it out and decide if it was something he wanted to pursue. Alas, camp time came around and he got cold feet, and made himself content to be an armchair quarterback for our beloved Green Bay Packers for the season.

Over the course of the next year, he met some friends and they started playing some pickup games. "Hey, Mom, wanna go throw the football?" started to be a common question. Of course, I'll never say no if my kid wants to go outside and do something with me. And actually, it was good for me, as I learned and perfected my spiral at maybe a 60% accuracy rate. Not bad for this old chick. His arm got stronger, he got better at throwing, more agile at catching. I was impressed.

Before camp time even rolled around the next year he was committed - plus his best friend had been playing for several years. My mom expressed her extreme concern at his choice of sport, which compelled me to fire off of one of those "I'm Ms. Kennard and I'm a paranoid freakazoid" emails to a JFL coach. I suspect I wasn't the first helicopter parent to "just check in" with a laundry list of safety questions, because he answered me in convincing detail and assured without sugarcoating the reality that everyone involved in the organization was all about training, coaching, encouraging and keeping the kids safe. Well, that's all they can do, right?

So I signed him up. For camp. Not for the season. I wasn't sure if this coddled kid could cut it for three days of butt kicking so I left him a way out. You survive the camp and we'll sign you up.

I so underestimate my son. He worked his ass off and loved it. He was challenged. He was driven. He was pushed. And he achieved. So I signed him up for the real deal.

J effing L.


So, I'm trying to be all chill, right? I stand there with my hands on my hips and observe their practices like I'm a talent scout or something. It takes every ounce of discipline to not go running out on the field every time another kid merely bumps him and yell, "DON'T HURT MY BAYBEEEE!!!" And yes, I've resisted multiple urges to encase him in bubble wrap.

Midway through one of the first practices, he ran over to the fence and motioned me over. I shook my head. I saw how these coaches worked - they didn't want some mama's boy or some pansy parent messing with their groove. "I'm dizzy!" my son whispered to me. "Tell your coach!" I hissed, using every ounce of resistance I had not to yell, "COACH! Bring me a cold compress and a stretcher - STAT!"  The coach spied him over by me and screamed, "KENNARD!" which made us both jump, and he took off running. I eagle-eyed him for the rest of the practice, waiting to rush out and catch him if he even looked close to fainting.

Did I mention they haven't even started practicing with pads?

Yeah, we did that last night. Son was instructed to go home and make sure all the pads fit in their proper places in his game pants. I opened the bag full of pads and my eyes glazed over. "This looks like a shoulder pad," I said. "MOM. These go on my LEGS." "Oh," I said convincingly. "Right." I fiddled with those damn pants and pads for about 20 minutes, then sent him over to my next door neighbor's (because he's a guy and guys know that shit.) He affirmed that they were properly placed, and I felt like a dog who had just learned a new trick. I KNOW WHERE THE PADS GO; THEREFORE I AM NOW BADASS.

Riiiiiight. I watch him hit with that helmet and I cringe. I hear the coach tell him to fall on the ball and I wince. I see him run until he can barely breathe and I die inside. And he has yet to actually tackle or be tackled.

I'm screwed. I want to be that cool mom who yells really encouraging stuff to her kid instead of watching the game through a shutter of fingers held up to my face. I've already looked up on Wikipedia the position he's playing, as well as found every defensive end on every NFL team so we can follow them during the season. I make sure the screws in his helmet are tightened after each practice. We've gone through three different mouth guards trying to find one that's "comfortable." Two different chin straps. Compression shorts. Oh, yeah, and that cup thingy. You want to see something funny - watch me trying to figure out a jock strap. Absolutely comical.

Tomorrow is weigh in. Yes, my skinny-ass son has to lose a pound to "make weight" in order to play in the league he needs to play in. I'm cool with it - I understand the rules. But I swear to God I feel like the eating disorder advocate by withholding junk food from my child for the past few days. Coach wants him there early tomorrow to run him. Just to be sure. I'm letting him order an entire pizza tomorrow night. Just to be sure.

So far I am impressed with this program and how it's run. I appreciate the fact that my son is getting some discipline. That he's learning to push himself and find out what he's made of at the hands of some very attentive, encouraging and driven coaches. And I look at my son with a new sense of admiration. I'm already proud of him. For trying. For excelling. For not giving up.

For that, I'll keep my mouth shut. For that, I'll let him do his thing and those who know what they're doing do theirs. For that, I'll be that sideline mom that encourages instead of hovers - and prays a lot for his safety and my sanity.

And I will always be the one to say yes to "Hey Mom! Wanna go throw the football?"

Go get 'em, Kid.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The Cross

My dad is, among many wonderful things, a woodworker. He’s created some pretty amazing pieces in his time. Specifically for my boys and me, a large wooden toy box that can later convert to a coffee table, a replica of an ice chest with custom brass latches, an oak mantle clock, and a Noah’s Ark, complete with intricately-carved animals. “Two of each,” he explained, “except the rabbits – because they multiply.”

And that’s just stuff for me. The entire list is endless – duck decoys, banks made from old post office boxes that he gives to grandkids for 8th grade graduation – complete with an embedded penny from their birth year, a china hutch for my sister, a grandfather clock for my brother, a scaled replica of a house for Habitat for Humanity (that was about 300 labor hours.) And I’m sure I’m forgetting many, many others. 

Each project has its own story, its own amazing features, and its own labor of love by a man known for his perfection, patience, skill and talent. But perhaps the most touching – the most powerful wooden treasure he’s created – is a small, wooden cross. 

We’re not quite sure of the inspiration. We think it was Mom, who is of course the source of many of his brainstorms (aka “I want you to make this for me.”) Story has it she either saw a small cross or wanted a small cross that would fit in her hand. So he got to work, finding just the right wood for just the right-sized cross, sanding it down and staining it with a rustic hue – just for her.

At some point, one of their friends became ill, and Mom thought she might benefit from having the comfort of one of Dad’s crosses. In turn, she found a poem to go along with the token, and typed it up on a small card to accompany it. 

The Weaver

My Life is but a weaving
between my Lord and me;
I cannot choose the colors
He worketh steadily.

Oft times He weaveth sorrow
And I, in foolish pride,
Forget He sees the upper,
And I the under side.

Not til the loom is silent
And the shuttles cease to fly,
Shall God unroll the canvas
And explain the reason why.

The dark threads are as needful
In the Weaver's skillful hand, 
As the threads of gold and silver
in the pattern He has planned.

He knows, He loves, He cares,
Nothing this truth can dim.
He gives His very best to those
Who leave the choice with Him.

Over time, the small wooden cross and poem became a symbol of comfort for select friends in need, and Dad carved an assortment of woods and styles. At one point, I requested a cross for myself during a difficult time in my life. Mom brought out the box and said, “You have to pick the one that feels the most comfortable in your hand.” I chose a dark wood with a beautiful grain – “the expensive wood,” my dad said. I carry it in my purse, and have been known to sleep with it in my hand, only to find it buried somewhere in the sheets the next morning.  

In the past few years, I’ve requested maybe three or four crosses for friends. I gave my friend Norma a cross during one of her first rounds of chemotherapy, and while at her house following her visitation noticed it sitting in a dish on her countertop. 

Before Mom got sick, Dad would turn down the bed at night and place the cross on her pillow. Every night. She has held tight to it going into every surgery she’s had over the past two years, and has had it in hand in recovery. I sometimes wonder if the surgeons realize its importance and allow it to remain in her possession in the operating room.

When she was getting ready to go in for her first surgery in March of 2011, I made a comment about her cross. “You know,” she said with tears in her eyes, “I don’t ask God to take away my burden. I just ask Him to help me carry my cross.” 

“Help me carry my cross.” That phrase resounded with me and still does. What an astounding request to God – not to take away the bad, but to help her deal with it. Just like that. And I remember that during the hard times. As much as I want to tell Him to “take it all away,” I simply ask Him to help me carry my cross. 

A rare moment with the cross in her right hand.
Mom held fast to that cross after her last brain surgery. Always in her left hand. One day I held it in my own hands and noticed how smooth and worn in places it was, right where her fingers curved around its corners. I placed it in her right hand and even in her post surgery-induced fog, she transferred it slowly to her left hand. 

A couple of weeks ago, while still in the ICU, we couldn’t locate her cross.  A few times she had dropped it in her sleep and it had fallen in the crevices of the hospital bed, but this time it wasn’t there. They had changed the bed sheets, and we could only surmise that it had gone out with the laundry. My dad called someone within the hospital to find out where the linens were taken, only to be told they were sent to an outside service. He tracked down the company and left messages, but no one ever called back. I’m sure they find many an items in their piles of laundry, and I was hoping they had some kind of depository for them. But I have a feeling that a small, worn wooden cross would perhaps not be viewed as having any value and promptly discarded. 

Upon realizing she had lost the cross, I offered her mine which I carried in my purse. It was a bit thicker and darker than hers, and not as worn. She looked at it and said slowly, “I want the cross Dad made.” Of courses, he HAD made my cross, but it was not HER cross.

At home, Dad and I combed through the box of crosses trying to find one similar in size, shape and wood grain. When we settled on one we both agreed was “close”, he took it in to her and placed it in her hand. She looked at it and held it for a bit before setting it on the tray next to her bed. 

For the most part, that’s where it remains. Occasionally if we tuck it in her hand she’ll hold it for awhile, but it’s as if she senses it’s not “her cross”, the one she’s clasped for comfort, prayed with and worn down to fit the curvature of her hand. She knows that cross has carried her through more tough times than most people can imagine, and the new one just doesn’t have that history. 

I know my mom doesn’t need a cross to validate her faith, but it seemed such a comfort for her. I know it is for me. Maybe she’ll take to the new cross, maybe she won’t. Someday I’m sure, I’ll wear mine down like she did hers, but I have a long time to go before I’ve carried near as many crosses as Mom has. I’d give anything to find her old one, if for nothing else but to bring her – and my dad - some comfort and peace.