Thursday, September 15, 2011

On Random Updates

I have decided to do something out-of-character tonight.

Usually when I sit in front of this screen, it is after a post has been on my mind for anywhere from a few days to a few months. It is neatly framed in my mind with all of the talking points in order. I don’t compose the actual words until I sit down to type, but the framework is there.

But tonight is different. I have felt increasingly compelled to write here, but am not starting out with a specific topic in mind. Sure, there are things I’d like to write about, but one of the unforeseen elements of being in a committed relationship now is that so many of these situations involve private conversations which are not for public consumption. There may come a time down the road when, with Winn-D’s blessing, I might share some of those things here, but that time has not yet arrived. So instead, I’ll begin with a quick recap of our vacation (yes, it’s been that long since I’ve written here!) and see where things go from there.

The trip to the Midwest went amazingly well. It turned out to be an even better idea to take Winn-D to the places of my youth this summer than I thought it would be. That’s not to say that there weren’t stressful moments, but she handled them beautifully. The first part of our trip was spent with my late wife’s family. They have embraced Winn-D, but she had only met half of the family before the trip. Add to that all of my late wife’s friends (some of whom we had not seen in a few years) and she was bombarded with tons of new faces and old stories.

That was something I had not expected. I am not naïve enough to expect that we would not talk about my late wife at times, and I actually wanted to so Winn-D would get a more complete picture of who she was, but I did not expect it to happen across multiple settings and at such an intense level. I think people meant well, but I don’t think they realized that, while this trip was about letting Winn-D see where I came from, it was also about being a couple around the people I care about most. I think when we return to the Midwest after Christmas I will be better prepared to change the subject (or address it head-on, if needed) when these situations arise.

The second leg of the trip was actually to the great state of Minnesota. I know I don’t mention specific places here often, but Minnesota has made the list of places I’d like to visit again. We stayed mostly in the Twin Cities, but even then I felt like we barely scratched the surface of all there is to do there. It was a great chance for us to get away for a few days and spend time together making new memories (especially after being immersed in old ones for a week). My daughter loved the Mall of America even more than the wedding we were there to attend (and this girl loves some weddings!), so everyone heard more about that than anything else when she talked about the trip. It was a beautiful drive from where I grew up and we were all able to add some new states to our lists.

The final stop on our Midwestern tour was my hometown, which is also near the city where I went to college. There were more stories shared here than I expected too, but to a lesser degree at least. (Now, please don’t get me wrong. I want people to feel free to share stories about my late wife, especially with my daughter. I just thought they would spend some of that time getting to know Winn-D too.) She was able to meet my brother and sister and several friends that week as well. We spent time in big cities and small towns, attempted to drive through my old college campus (which was closed for construction), ate doughnuts from my favorite bakery, and spent lots of time in my childhood home. I knew I was excited to “bring her home”, but I don’t think I knew how much I would enjoy sharing that part of my life with her. It was a perfect way to cap off our adventure.

July has two significant potential grief-triggers for me. The first is my late wife’s birthday, which occurred while we were visiting my parents. Some years that one is harder than others. She would have been 33, so the age was not necessarily of significance, but the fact that it was the fifth birthday without her could have been.

Unfortunately, I don’t remember part of that day.

The day before her birthday, I woke up not feeling well. I was pretty sure I knew what was happening, but elected not to tell anyone at first. As the day wore on, the back pain intensified, and the first puff of my inhaler didn’t help. I tried to rest hoping that I could ward off the inevitable. By evening, I was starting to have mild trouble breathing and the back pain had not abated. My family was acting silly and dancing around and I couldn’t join in, even when my daughter asked me to, which broke her heart. I didn’t want her to worry, so I just said my back hurt and left it at that. By the time we went to bed, I knew I was going to need to go to the doctor, but I was 800 miles away and thought that at the very least I could make it till morning (and who knows what a good night’s sleep might have done, right?)

I tried my inhaler again shortly after eleven and laid awake waiting for something to change. It did, just not for the better. By midnight I knew I needed to get help. The only problem with that was that the help available to me at that time of night would come in the form of a hospital – more specifically, an emergency room.

She died the first time in an emergency room.

This was the only benefit to being 800 miles away from home. Instead of going to the ER where she died, I went to the one where I had stitches in my finger once and had my broken arm set and cast, in the same hospital where I was born over 33 years ago. I thought that would soften the blow, and maybe it did a little. But by the time my mom and Winn-D and I arrived (my stepdad had stayed home with my daughter, who didn’t know I was gone until we told her the next day), my blood pressure had sky-rocketed and my breathing had become labored. I didn’t have the foresight to tell them why my blood pressure might be so high (if you missed it, read the single line above), so I quickly ended up in the triage section of the ER. Thankfully, I didn’t know that until we left the hospital, but it added to the worries of the two ladies who were with me.

I have never had to stay in the hospital for myself. Sure, there were a few hospital stays with my late wife, but I could still come and go (from the room at least) with relative ease. Sitting in that bed, I gained a whole new respect for anyone who has ever been hospitalized. After I received a breathing treatment and could talk at a normal volume again, all I wanted was to get out of there. Knowing my body as I do, I knew that the breathing treatment would be enough to make me well again. But when you are in the hospital, even if it’s a triage bed in the ER, you are completely at their mercy (and they don’t show you any as far as your time is concerned!) To be fair though, they took great care of me and I am grateful for that.

Now, I know that some of you might be asthma sufferers yourself or might be concerned that I allowed the “attack” to progress for as long as I did. For some reason I don’t get a sudden attack. My symptoms are gradual, which gives me plenty of time to make a decision. Unfortunately, I still can’t get help until the symptoms reach a certain level (if I had gone to a med center earlier in the day, they would have likely sent me home without a treatment given my symptoms at that time). I was more than a little concerned that I had my first attack in over a year shortly after I started medication, but things have remained fine for me health-wise since that night.

The events of that night and the subsequent morning of sleep overshadowed the date on the calendar, and I managed to make it through okay. But the very next week, after we returned to the Southeast, was what would have been our tenth anniversary. I expected that one to be a tremendous kick-in-the-pants, complete with an outpouring of tears and anger about what could have been.

But in a lot of ways, it was just like any other summer day.

It would be easy to assume that this is because I’m in a relationship now and am therefore “happy” again (how many more times do I have to hear that?!?), but I really think it’s more a testament to where I am in the grief cycle. I don’t mean to sound callous because I will always care about my late wife in ways I cannot describe, but I don’t pine for her like I did the first few years after she died (which I suppose is good news for Winn-D). I can’t remember the last time I spent time crying in that painful, grief-stricken manner, but then, I couldn’t remember that before I met Winn-D either. Again, I’m not naïve enough to think that this might not ever happen again. But I am certainly glad that this day that should have turned out to be a major grief-trigger ended up being completely bearable.

There are plenty of other things rattling around in my head tonight, but this has become lengthy, so I will close with some good news. I received an e-mail the other day that this blog has been placed on a list of the 50 Best Memoir Blogs. This came at a time when I was feeling bad about not being able to post on here more often and is my first official honor as a blog author. That’s certainly not why I do this, but it does feel good to have my work here recognized in some way.

Guess that goes to show you never know who might be reading…

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

On Dating Trials and Surprises

I have always worked best under a deadline.

I’ve been framing portions of this post in my head for two months, but now that I’m leaving on vacation in a couple days, I’m making time to sit down and actually share these things here.

First, an introduction of sorts.

It has been requested that I “introduce” my girlfriend here. Unless this is the first time you’ve read my site, you’ll know that I do not use any real names and typically limit physical descriptions of people as well as names of specific locations, with rare exception. I have decided that I need to give my girlfriend a name for this site, as she is someone I hope to be writing about in future posts as well. The name I have chosen is a play on words that only I can see. So for the purposes of this site, I have chosen to call her Winn-D.

Now, I realize that some of your imaginations jumped immediately to a former chain of grocery stores (if you live in an area where they existed) or a beloved storybook puppy by the same name. That is precisely the reason I have chosen to shorten her moniker to Winn-D, as opposed to calling her Winn-Dixie, as was my original intention. She is neither a grocery store chain or a four-legged creature, so hopefully after this no one else will be inclined to think of her as either of those things.

As far as other information goes, she is also a school-based employee, though we do not work in the same school building (which would go against my strict policy about dating co-workers). The good news about that is that we have been able to spend an increasing amount of time together this summer. The bad news is that when school starts again we will have a harder time being able to do so as we live and work in different towns.

She is probably the tallest woman I have ever dated (not that there have been many, mind you) and has brown eyes. I never had a type before I met my late wife, but the few women I did date before (and including) her all had two things in common: they were on the short side and all had blue eyes. The first woman I dated after my wife passed away was not as short and had brown eyes. Winn-D is even taller than she was. She possesses a great many of the wonderful qualities that attracted me to my wife, but does not remind me of her in the least bit. (And so far there are no red flags like there were with the last woman I dated). Oh, and did I mention she has an accent that is thick as mo-lasses?

One of the many things that has surprised me about dating Winn-D has been the response my daughter has had to her. She was initially prepared not to like Winn-D, which is precisely the response I expected the first time I dated someone after her mother died (and did not get). As I gently talked to her about it, she mentioned that she didn’t feel like she really knew her. Now, to her credit we had made it a point to get to know each other via texts, e-mails, and late-night phone conversations before we decided to go out, but my daughter had not been privy to any of that information. So she didn’t really feel like she knew her at all, and she definitely didn’t see the possibility of a relationship on the horizon. I made the comment to her that I knew her and I knew Winn-D and I was sure they were going to like each other. And when they did, I was going to make sure to remind her of that fact from time-to-time (which I do!) We had been dating over a month before the three of us spent any time together. I believe it’s important for me to see where a relationship might be headed before I drag my daughter into it. Our initial plan was to have dinner and see how things went, but the evening ended with my daughter inviting her back to our house to watch “kid tv” and curling up in her lap to do so. Now if Winn-D and I are together when I go to pick up my daughter, she always runs straight for Winn-D and only gives me a hug after-the-fact.

One of the other things that has surprised me is how often Winn-D is presumed to be my daughter’s mother. Now, I know that to a casual observer we likely seem to be a little family when we’re out to eat or shopping or on an outing. I understand that. What I didn’t expect is that her role would be “understood” and mine would be questioned. We even had one man at a festival refer to us as “your mom and, I assume, dad”. If it had only happened once, I would chalk it up as one person’s response, but it’s happened several times over the past few months!

But then, when I really think about it, for all intents and purposes, my daughter does act toward her as a child would normally act toward her mom. And for her part, Winn-D is, quite naturally, doing the same thing. It’s a beautiful thing and it warms my heart. I try not to allow myself to be plagued by the “what-ifs” (the foremost of which being “what if it doesn’t work out and my daughter is heart-broken?), but they creep in from time-to-time. Right now, I don’t have any reason to think that it won’t, but I also didn’t have any reason to think I’d be widowed at age 29, so you can see where a bit of worry might be justified.

We have already, unfortunately, had to weather a few trials (/relationship builders?) in our five-plus months together. Some of them I cannot go into here, of course, but the most recent one has been my health. I don’t know that I can say it has taken a turn for the worse, but something is not right. I had not been noticing any additional breathing difficulty (though I was on antibiotics for my teeth during our high-pollen season this spring), but when I went for my appointment with the pulmonologist last month, he discovered that my lung capacity has decreased significantly since my appointment in January. He wouldn’t give me an explanation for this as he said the list of possibilities was too long to go into without further testing. But I’m smart enough to know that this is not normal for an otherwise healthy, thirty-three year old man who has never even put a tobacco product near his mouth. (On a side note, if you smoke or use other tobacco products, please consider quitting.) So he sent me for a CT scan, which took ten minutes and cost me hundreds of dollars out-of-pocket as apparently my insurance doesn’t pay for diagnostic tests. (Money is a bit of a sore subject with me lately as my body and about half of my appliances have quit or tried to this year!) He also put me on medication, which I had been hoping to avoid. I wish I could say that it wasn’t working and could go off of it, but I think its helping. If that’s true, then I will likely have to use it indefinitely.

I go in for the results of the CT scan tomorrow afternoon. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous. It’s been 13 months since I had the initial episode that started all of lung issues and I feel like I’ve bounced back and forth between extremes. I’m worried that I’ll go in and he’ll say I have some terrible disease (like the one I thought he had originally diagnosed) and that asthma was either not the right diagnosis or is not the only lung issue I have. But I think I’m even more nervous that I’ll go in and he’ll say we need to do more tests as the results of the CT scan were inconclusive. In some ways not knowing what’s wrong is harder than knowing (or at least thinking) it’s something really bad. Any prayers would be greatly appreciated.

As I mentioned before, we are headed on vacation in a couple of days. And by we, I mean there will be three of us making the trip this time (four if you count the dog). Winn-D has met my mom, and some good friends from “home”, and my late wife’s parents, and all of those encounters went exceptionally well. But she hasn’t seen where I come from. I’ve only been building a life in the South for nine years. I lived the first twenty-four in a small town in the Midwest. I considered waiting till Christmas to ask her to come with us, but we will have been dating almost a year at that point and knowing my roots seemed too important to wait. We will be staying with my late wife’s parents, just as we do when my daughter and I travel there alone. I have tried to be sensitive to their comfort level with meeting Winn-D (as well as hers), but everyone seems more than willing to move forward with this. There are also a few friends that I inherited through my late wife, and Winn-D will be meeting them as well on this trip. They have also completely welcomed the opportunity to meet and get to know her. We’ll head to the Upper Midwest for a wedding halfway through the trip, then stay the rest of the time with my family. If she isn’t completely overwhelmed and chooses to fly home halfway through the trip, then she will have met all of the key players in my life (with the exception of my one brother who lives in New England). I’m not sure I realized until recently what a monumental thing I am asking of her, but she is more than up for the challenge, and that’s how convinced I am that this relationship is going somewhere.

I certainly hope so anyway.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

On the Shock-Value of Death

I didn’t think I could still be shocked by death.

It was a rookie mistake and I realize it now. Over the past four-plus years, I have learned of the deaths of countless others and not one came as a shock. But today I was more shocked by a death than I have been in over four years.

The odd thing is that the person who died was not someone I was particularly close to. It’s just that she was one of those people you always expected to be around and quite often took for granted (and sometimes didn’t exactly take seriously). She had an abrupt nature, but she had a passion for teaching children about Jesus. She raised two children to adulthood and subbed in the local school system. Like I said, just one of those people you always expected to be around.

I learned of her death via e-mail from the group server at church. It came through on my phone while I was finishing up with some students, so I didn’t read it until I got ready to leave for my next location (I work in multiple buildings). I’m used to getting e-mails from the church server announcing anything from births to deaths to who has nursery duty on Sunday. So as I sat in my van and read the e-mail it took a second before I really grasped whose name I had just read. I was certain it was a typo. I mean, there had never been an indication that anything was physically wrong. I might have believed it had it said her husband’s name, who is less than the picture of health, but HER? Don’t get me wrong, she wasn’t the picture of health either, but she also didn’t appear to be unhealthy.

Appearances can be deceiving.

I do not have the full story on exactly what happened, but as best I can ascertain, she was fine one moment and asking her husband to take her to the hospital the next. They were en route when she took her last breath. Just like that.

As someone who has been touched so deeply by another’s death, you would think that none of this would shock me, but as I mentioned before, she was a fixture in our lives. She was rarely one to miss church on Sunday or Wednesday. She often had a special treat for the kids, both the ones in her class and the ones from various other classes. She sent Christmas cards to all of the kids, including my own daughter. If she was going to miss a Wednesday night, she often made sure her class was covered a month in advance (unlike me, who is lucky to remember to get coverage a week in advance!) It was important to her that kids know Scripture, so she spent a lot of time encouraging them to memorize it both in and outside of the church building. She also often made sure that children had Bibles and Bible story books to take home, sometimes even if they already had one. She was just one of those unassuming women that people took for granted.

Until she was gone.

After I read the e-mail, I responded to the pastor to let him know that my co-teacher and I would plan on combining our Wednesday night class with hers until they found another teacher (they had sent an e-mail out recently saying we needed more volunteers for the children’s program, so I knew we were already short). I then e-mailed my co-teacher to let her know and included the statement that I would be surprised if the associate pastor didn’t want to talk to the kids tonight himself, but that I was planning to be prepared to address it with them just in case. Later in the day I got an e-mail to that effect, and I breathed a little sigh of relief. I knew that I could talk to the kids about death (who better than me, right?) and I was glad that I was willing to do so, but I really didn’t want to. Each time I wrote or received an e-mail I continued to be in disbelief that I was actually writing this particular woman’s name.

I waited till we arrived home to tell my daughter. She was too young to have ever been in her class, but I knew that she would be affected by her death, nonetheless. She took the news about how I expected her to. She was shocked, then sad, then melancholy, and eventually she was okay again. She had lots of questions throughout the evening and I explained them to her in much the same way I always do. I also explained what I thought would transpire at church that night (and was mostly right, as it turns out).

What I didn’t expect was for her husband to be there tonight. After my wife died, I avoided anything social that wasn’t funeral related – church, work, invitations of any sort – for a few weeks. The last thing I wanted was to face people who had been thrust into this intimate situation, but would not have normally been privy to any information about my private life. But everyone is different. And I think that as much as I needed to be away from social events, he needs to be enveloped by them right now.

He was still downstairs when I went up to the kids’ room. Our associate pastor did an excellent job of explaining why people die and what people need to do to ensure that they will go to Heaven. He also made certain to mention that it was okay to cry, as he himself a tall, bearded, former Marine, wept over the death of this woman. The kids were given a time to ask questions and share memories, and some of the other teachers and parents shared memories as well. It was a lovely tribute as well as an important time to explain the complexities of death and Heaven to a roomful of children who primarily had not been touched personally by death.

The discussion ended before church let out downstairs, so it was up to my co-teacher and I to take the kids to another room to talk to them some more. I have found that kids will often share things with a teacher before they will a pastor or principal or other person of “importance”. So I began by reminding them that they could always ask us questions, then if they had any or down the road if needed, and that they could certainly talk to their parents about it as well.

During the day, my co-teacher had suggested that we have the children memorize a verse of Scripture, as that was something that this woman had been apt to do with many children in the church. During the day I had thought of some, and one in particular had stood out during the associate pastor’s talk. But when I suggested this to my co-teacher, she mentioned that she had asked the husband what one of his wife’s favorite verses was. It made sense. It made it personal. And I am glad she had the foresight to ask him this very important question. So she gave me the verse and I read the first line to the children.

And that’s when I finally got choked up. I think I had still been in such shock that she had died, that I hadn’t really gotten to the point that I could grasp it emotionally. Sure, I teared up a little at my daughter’s reaction and certainly felt a few slide down my cheek during the associate pastor’s talk, but those were all reactionary tears. This was the catch-in-my-voice, this-is-really-happening kind of choked up. My co-teacher was across the room getting supplies with her backed turned, so she didn’t immediately see what had happened. I’m certain the kids were all staring at me, but I couldn’t look at them as I tried to regain my composure. After a few attempts, I knew it was going to take a moment or two. Thankfully, my co-teacher had come over by that point and offered to take over as I handed her the Bible. She did an amazing job of reading and explaining what was still caught in my throat. It took a minute or two to get my voice back, but I did and was able to join in the discussion after that.

After class she and I talked a bit more about things. Even though I had gotten choked up and she had to take over for a few minutes, I believe I could have gotten through the talk if it had been left up to us. I also felt good at knowing I would have included most of the points in the associate pastor’s talk, especially since I have no formal training in the Scriptures, other than what I have learned through church and my own personal reading. I could have done it if I had to. But I’m really glad I didn’t have to.

I am not typically one to quote Scripture – here, on my Facebook account, or even in person. I believe in the authority of the Scriptures, I just don’t often quote them unless someone wants to hear them. But I feel it would be remiss if I didn’t share with you the Scripture that our children are learning in memory of this woman, whose death will be mourned in our church a bit longer than most. It comes from the Old Testament book of Jeremiah, chapter 33, verse 3 (King James Version as that was her favorite also). It says “Call unto me, and I will answer thee, and show thee great and mighty things, which thou knowest not.”

I wrote most of this last night, but then the computer froze up and I wasn’t able to post it. The passage of another day has allowed the shock to lessen a bit.

But even as I hit “publish post”, there is a big part of me that still can’t believe I’m writing this about her.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

On Being a Disqualified Widower

So I’ve finished my taxes for another year. (Stay tuned or scroll down if you’re looking for non-tax-related info.) You’d think that after four years of filing on my own, I’d get used to this. I mean, it’s really the same old pattern. I plug in the information, the computer spits out a number signifying the amount I can expect to receive in a check (okay, so it’s really a direct deposit) and that number is significantly lower each year as inflation rates, gas prices, and the general cost of living seems to be increasing. Not a pretty pattern, but a predictable one at least, right?

Wrong. This year the federal government had a dirty trick up its sleeve.

That’s right. I have now been widowed long enough that I can no longer file as a “Qualifying Widower”. Now, to be fair, I knew this day was coming. But I had forgotten and seeing this reality on the screen before me was unsettling to say the least. Not to mention that my old friend TurboTax tried to tell me I should file as “Single” when it was clearly a better choice to file as “Head of Household”. I’d like to know what gives the federal government the right to decide how long I can be considered a “qualifying widower”. Does being widowed longer than three tax years mean I am somehow a less-qualified widower? If so, that would make me an “unqualified widower”. But I would contend that if anything, I am a more qualified widower. At this point I have endured and learned to handle more than most people who are forty years my senior.

So instead, I’ve decided that the government regards me as a “Disqualified Widower”. I can be a widower as long as I want (or at least until I choose to remarry), but I’m going to have to do it on my own terms, and will warrant no special tax title from the IRS. I’m not unqualified, I’ve just been disqualified as far as the government is concerned. I know it’s all semantics really, but aside from the linguistic aspects, that loss of title cost me about a third of last year’s refund!

Now on to the non-tax-related things I alluded to above:

I spent a couple of days last week sick. I think I’ve mentioned this here before, but it is really scary for a child when his/her single parent gets sick. My daughter has gotten better with the headaches and sinus infections I tend to get (love Spring, hate pollen!), but I took a day and a half off of work last week, which is unheard of for me. I have often said that if I wake up and don’t care if I see my school that day I am really sick (did I mention I took a day and a half off last week?) This time it was food poisoning followed by a headache of almost-migraine proportions. Not fun, but I bounced back quickly. My daughter had a difficult time adjusting to the idea that I wasn’t going to work the first day, but was noticeably more accepting the second day. There was a special event at her school that night, so I came home and rested between and made it a point to be as “up” as I could during the event, which helped, I think. Hmm, I think that sounds like something a “qualified widower” might do, Mr. Government Official…

We managed to make it through another February. For those of you on my FB page (if not, see sidebar) and who are long-time readers, you know that February is the longest month on the calendar for me. It was not an easy month, as I don’t expect it will ever be, but here we are now, more than twenty days on the other side of it. My daughter has become quite the good little writer at the tender age of (now) seven and I am amazed at the times she will write about her feelings and I will find the pages only after she has gone to bed. Thankfully she is also still very willing to voice them, but I fear as she grows older she may turn toward her writing more (which I know is normal, but it eliminates a need for talking to Daddy about it and I will miss that. And yes, now I know how you feel Mom…)

I have often thought that one of the reasons God allowed my daughter to be born in the month of February (five weeks early, but healthy) was to give me something to look forward to during that month. This year was no exception. All of my daughter’s grandparents were able to make the journey for her birthday this year (they are still of the age that work obligations might keep them from coming, rather than health issues). She knew they were coming, unlike years’ past when it has been a surprise, but I don’t think this diminished her joy any. She had a wonderful party and a great weekend with her grandparents. And I think that’s all any parent can hope for, single, widowed, or otherwise.

In keeping with my promise in an earlier post, I wanted to mention that I have started dating someone. I have thus far held to the pattern I used in my last relationship regarding how quickly to progress, how soon to involve my daughter, and things of that nature. The one big difference between this time and last is that my daughter knew the first woman I dated and was able to see the connection we were developing and she was not a part of that this time around (due to where/how we met, not because I tried to do anything differently in that regard). In fact, when I told her we were going out, she finally admitted that the reason she was less-than-thrilled was that she didn’t feel like she knew her (she had only met her once at that point) and wasn’t sure she would like her. I reassured her, but also told her that I would remind her of this in a couple months when she did meet her and DID like her, which I have found myself doing over the past couple weeks. It’s already evident that they like each other. She is a school-based employee as well, though not at my school, and is, as my friends put it, “more age-appropriate” than the last woman I dated. I won’t get all mushy at this point, but I will say that this relationship has definite potential.

Now, for those of you who remember back a couple months to my last post, you might be wondering why I would even entertain the possibility of dating someone when I thought I was dying. It is a valid question. The only reason I opened the door to getting to know her better at all was that I wanted to live as if I wasn’t dying (at least not yet). It was a risky move for this non-risk-taking widower, but it proved to be a good one. I did not ask her out until after I got the news from my doctor that I had a completely manageable condition, but I did spend quite a bit of time getting to know her through e-mails and phone calls. I weighed my options and decided that if I was as sick as I thought I was, she would lose a friend with a mutual romantic interest. But if I wasn’t, then by not getting to know her, we might both be losing the possibility of something long-lasting. I can’t say that it will definitely go that direction. But so far, I’m confident I made the right call.

On Thursday, I am scheduled to have my periodontal work/surgery done (the 31st). It’s not something I’m looking even remotely forward to, but when I still have my own teeth in thirty years I’ll be grateful I did. I’m having all of the work done in one day (12 teeth total – yikes!) so it’ll be all soft foods and pain killers for me for a few days. I’d appreciate any and all prayers as that time draws near – both for me as I endure the procedure and whatever pain it entails and for my daughter as she has to see me endure that pain for a few days. (On the bright side, Grandma is here to play with her and keep me medicated).

Thanks for bearing with all of my “updates” and for your continued reading, no matter how few and far between my posts become.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

On Staring Death in the Face

The information in this post, which was originally titled “On People and Places that Evoke Grief”, covers events that have occurred over the past 6-8 months and follows up a separate post. I have chosen to post my initial writing on this topic below, with an update following. Some of this information may be familiar as I posted about my daughter’s teacher in a separate previous post. Please know that this is not information that I find easy to share (and may not be easy to read), but for the sake of staying true to my journey, I feel that I am able to do so now. Just bear with me and keep reading for that update.

I hate the fact that after nearly four years, grief can still blindside me, but it does.

My daughter started first grade in August. Naturally, I did not expect this to be a source of grief for me, but it was for more reasons than I could have imagined. I have mentioned here before that my wife was a teacher by trade. She spent most of her short teaching career in third grade, but was moved to first a couple years before she died. And for some reason, my daughter being in first grade has bothered me. She doesn’t attend the school where my wife taught. Her teacher doesn’t look anything like my wife did. But still there’s just something that evokes grief in me.

Maybe the fact that her teacher is young and pregnant with her first child doesn’t help. My wife was still teaching third grade when she had our daughter, but it was at a similar time during the school year. Plus there’s the whole “excited about the first child/happy to be expecting” sense that surrounds the teacher. Don’t get me wrong, I’m very happy for her, it just makes me grieve for that happy time in my own life when I think about it. If she was having a girl, it might just push me over the edge, but she’ll be the proud mother of a little boy this winter, so I think I’ll be okay.

That was enough on its own, but there have been some other, even more significant events, that have taken place over the past few months. When I wrote
this post last summer, I felt like it was something that needed to be written, I just wasn’t sure why at the time. Now I know. I mentioned then that I did not believe the breathing issue I had in June was bronchitis as the med center doctor had diagnosed.

There are times when it’s better not to be right.

After I posted that it occurred to me that, because of the way the symptoms presented themselves, it was more likely adult-onset asthma. I researched every lung disease I could think of and the only symptoms that even remotely matched were in-fact, those of adult-onset asthma. So I headed to my follow-up appointment in August fully prepared to talk to my regular doctor about this possibility. I didn’t even have to mention it. He was concerned that I was still having minor symptoms and sent me to the hospital for spirometry, which is the first step in diagnosing asthma.

That’s right. I said hospital. As in, my first visit to the place where my wife took her last breath.

And as it turns out, the first open appointment just happened to be on the first day of school. So I dropped my daughter off at school and headed across town to the hospital. I was able to enter the main doors, which reminded me more of when we were there having our daughter than the day my wife died. My chest didn’t immediately seize up and my breathing rate didn’t increase. I felt pretty normal physically, but my mind was reeling. I managed to keep it under control and completed the test when it was time. It showed that my lung capacity was diminished, but improved significantly with albuterol, which was what I expected. I went off to work and braced myself for an asthma diagnosis from my regular doctor.

When they called with the results, the news was not as I expected. There was no diagnosis of asthma. No establishment of an asthma action plan. There was only a referral to a pulmonologist for further assessment.

I froze when the nurse gave me the name of the pulmonologist.

I live in a small city, but there is more than one pulmonologist. I know of at least two by name and am aware that there are a few others around. My doctor unknowingly scheduled me with the pulmonologist who tried to revive my wife the day she died. I thanked the nurse and promptly sat down. My immediate thought was to call back and explain my reason for not being able to see him. But the longer I thought about it, the more I developed this need to see him. I remembered him as being very kind when he spoke to me about some tests they ran on her earlier in the day. I also remember the look on his face when he and the internist came out of the ICU wing to tell me they did not believe they could revive her. I have no hard feelings toward the man. He did everything he could to keep her from dying.

Unfortunately, everything wasn’t enough that day.

I couldn’t get an appointment for about six weeks, so I had a lot of time to worry/fret/agonize about the appointment. By the time it arrived, I was almost as excited as I was nervous. I take my health pretty seriously and have most of my adult life. Being a sole parent makes me even more conscious of it, especially given my wife’s health-related battles. I know that asthma is not a great thing to have, but it is manageable and I was ready to have an official diagnosis so that a treatment plan could be developed and I’d be able to feel and function better than I had been.

I was equally nervous because I was going to see this doctor for the first time in almost four years. It was over an hour before he finally came into the room and in that time my mind raced with different scenarios. The one I liked the best was the one where he entered the room and recognized my name or face and validated my loss in some small way. I knew it was a long shot, but that’s the one I had settled on when he finally opened the door. His face was a blank slate. If there was any recognition at all, he did not show it.

I realized then as I do now, how absurd it is to think that a doctor who has encountered countless patients in the intervening years might actually remember the husband of one that didn’t make it. But I still needed to find out. He conducted the appointment as I’m certain he does with all of his new patients. So I allowed myself to return to excitement about the possibility of getting an actual answer at this appointment.

When the exam was over, the news was not what I expected. There was no diagnosis of asthma. No establishment of an asthma action plan. There was only a referral for a follow-up chest x-ray and more tests.

I scheduled all of the tests and returned to see him three weeks later. I still had some level of excitement about receiving some answers, but they were covered by the fact that I was more nervous than ever and pretty sure the diagnosis was going to be something other than asthma. I worked the computer keys and stretched the limits of my internet search engine, but I still couldn’t find anything with symptoms that even remotely matched mine, other than asthma.

When I returned for the follow-up appointment I was given an answer, but it only lead to more questions.

This is the point where I may upset some of you, but for now I have decided not to state what my diagnosis is. My main reason for this is that there is such a wide-range of information on it that I want to talk to my doctor about my specific prognosis before I give it a name on this site. I will say that I found it incredibly overwhelming to read one reputable site that talked about the slight possibility of spontaneous remission (their word, but he is positive it is not cancer) and another equally reputable site that talked in terms of life expectancy.

In single digit years.

I am trying really hard not to dwell on that type of my condition. I don’t believe that’s what I have, though it is likely to get progressively worse over time regardless of the type I have. But I can tell the possibility is nagging at me even when I don’t entertain the thoughts. I’m not depressed, but I am also having to be really careful not to be. The possibility of slipping into depressive habits is inviting, but I have to resist them for my own sake and the sake of my child.

Right now we are in a “wait and see” period. This in itself makes me hopeful that I do not have an advanced form of this disease. I am not currently on any medication for it, and when I do have symptoms, the onset is gradual and the pain is minimal until I rest. I am still able to function just as I was before, only I have to be careful about how much I exert myself at a given time so as not to become worn out. I have a follow-up appointment in two months where we will reassess the situation and the doctor will determine if medication and/or additional tests are necessary.

Like I said, wait and see.

I have debated about if/when I should post this information. It doesn’t seem fair to say there’s something wrong and not give all of the details, but it is also very hard for me to talk about it at all right now. In fact, as I am writing this, I have not told anyone, including my parents. But by the time you read this I will have told them. I was in the mood to write about it tonight and am hopeful that it might be the catalyst for helping me actually verbalize these things to them. We have some family friends who have/had lung issues, and none of them have been good, so my mom especially is a little gun-shy about them. I will tell them when I finish working up the nerve.

And I will tell you all more when I am able to share more as well.”

UPDATE: I had my follow-up appointment with the pulmonologist yesterday. I have felt better in general for the past few months, but had tried not to allow myself to get my hopes up. The disease I was diagnosed with was not one that I was likely to recover from, and even though when I wrote my initial post I was trying hard not to think about the possible repercussions of my disease, I lost that battle more often than not over the two months between that original writing and this update.

It’s a scary thing to stare death in the face. Most of us know this, but from the vantage point of our spouse’s death and not in terms of our own mortality. That was one of the many reasons I could not post this when I wrote it and why I only told my parents this information earlier today. I have felt like I needed to carry this alone for now. One of the friends I mentioned above is also on the losing end of her battle with lung disease and I just couldn’t tell my parents that they might be facing that with me before now.

It’s hard to think about the possibility of not raising my daughter to adulthood. The first emotion I encountered was anger at the sheer unfairness of it all. She has already lost her mother and now there’s a chance she might lose me too? So my goal became to fight this thing as hard as I could with the hopes that I could at least see her off to college. I thought about the possibility of what my life would become as my disease progressed. Would I be able to stay in the South, or would there come a point where I would have to move to someplace where I had a better support system? How long could I continue to work? What would I do about health insurance when I couldn’t work anymore? I wasn’t worried about what would happen to me after I died, just what would happen to us beforehand and my daughter afterward. And the emotions I’ve written about here barely scratch the surface of what I have felt the past three months.

So I tried not to be too hopeful as I headed to the pulmonologist’s office yesterday. After all, I had been optimistic the first time and that hadn’t exactly panned out. I went in for my pulmonary function test (PFT) which is similar to spirometry, but more thorough and less expensive. During the first portion the tech said that things hadn’t gotten worse and that was good news, but she remained silent about my performance on the rest of the test. So I went back to the waiting room for a long while (I always take a book with me, since I know I’ll have to wait) before being called back to a room. When the doctor came in, we reviewed my information and it again was not what I expected.

This time there was an official diagnosis of asthma. There was the establishment of an asthma action plan. And most importantly, there was a change from my initial diagnosis and a lifting of my impending death sentence.

It might seem cliché to say that I left his office breathing easier, but I did. In fact, I think I was in shock about the whole situation, which is why I didn’t call to tell my parents about it until today. I can’t quite describe the feeling of thinking you’re going to be given a time frame on life expectancy during an appointment and leaving knowing that you have a completely manageable condition and can expect to live a full, normal life (and consequently, that you were right all along in terms of what was really going on in your body.)

Now, before I get a bunch of negative comments or e-mails about the doctor unnecessarily putting me through this, I want to state that I have no ill feelings toward him and plan to continue seeing him as my pulmonologist (though I’ve been cleared till June!) I don’t believe anything is ever wasted and that there must be some reason I needed to experience all of this, even if I am unsure of that reason at the present time. My doctor made the initial diagnosis based on my symptoms and the results of my x-rays and PFT. And it all fit with that diagnosis. Apparently what I actually had were symptoms of asthma which had been exacerbated by an undiagnosed “walking” pneumonia. (To further complicate things, my asthma symptoms do not follow the normal pattern of development). Once the pneumonia cleared, he was able to see that it was asthma versus the initial diagnosis (hence the reason for the “wait and see” period I’ve endured the last three months).

When I wrote the initial post, I said that I wasn’t ready to give my original diagnosis a name on this site. Now that it has been changed (and I believe, rightly so), I have decided to name it. I would encourage you not to do any research on the condition though (this means you Mom and G!) as most of the major medical sites paint a dismal outlook regarding prognosis and recovery (with the exception of the slight possibility of “spontaneous remission” I mentioned above). My original diagnosis was something called interstitial lung disease. My current diagnosis is adult-onset asthma (of unknown origin).

This post has become longer than I anticipated and I really should have made it two. But I didn’t like the idea of finally telling you all of this and then making you wait for the update, now that I have one. I am happy to say that right now, my overall health is pretty good.

But my overall outlook is even better.