Sunday, December 20, 2009

And then they're gone

I think a lot about death. I think it may be because I don’t believe in an afterlife. Lacking that belief does seem to make the whole DEAD thing seem a lot more immediate.

When my beloved Frank died, I missed the funeral. I missed it because I didn’t take the paper at the time, and no one called me to tell me he had died. On a whim, I went online and pulled up the free obits for a glance, and there was Frank. It was the day of his funeral, and it was already over. Yes, I cried a whole big bunch over that one.

A few months later, someone came to my door. My mother answered, and, not recognizing the 6 foot tall, cowboy hat-wearing, exceedingly intoxicated man on the porch, lied about where I lived. She was scared. He seemed scary to her. I can understand why. She told me when I got home that some scary drunken person had asked for me, stammered something about Frank, and then wandered off. I knew immediately.

I took a deep breath, girded myself, and went next door, my brave and wonderful husband in tow. See, I knew it was Shawn. Shawn, Frank’s grandson and my one-time best childhood friend. And I knew he would be impossibly inebriated. Why? Because Shawn had been impossibly inebriated for most of his days since his early teens. Shawn’s childhood didn’t give him much of a chance at being anything but that.

Shawn and I hadn’t really spoken to each other in over twenty years. But he knew me instantly, and I knew him. He grabbed onto me like a man drowning and hugged me, sobbing. He was so wasted, had that scary, thrumming mixture of booze and meth going on. He just wanted to touch, to talk, to rail against the unfairness of Frank’s death. He paced, punched the air, staggered, sometimes doubled over with the pain of his loss and his terrible addictions. He bawled openly while telling me that he had been too inebriated to make Frank’s funeral, and how terrible he felt about that. Even sadder? I found out later that he HAD made it to Frank’s funeral, but had been so intoxicated that he didn’t remember being there. Isn’t that awful?

A neighbor came over after an hour or so, lied and said that Shawn’s Aunt (Frank’s daughter) had demanded we leave immediately or she was going to call the police. Yeah, I know you lied. I asked Frank’s daughter later on down the road, told her what you'd said and done in her name. You heartless creep. I started to argue with this neighbor, asked him for Frank’s daughter’s number so I could call her, explain things, but Shawn cut me off. He mumbled that it was all perfectly okay, and started to get into his car. I argued that he was too messed up to drive, while yon neighbor pushed for him to do it, arguing that it wasn’t very far (30 blocks), and it would be fine. I offered to drive Shawn, but he refused. He took out his keys, placed them in my hand, hugged me again, then ran off into the night. Heartless neighbor was joined by the father of the registered sex offender who lives across the street (with his sex offender son); they both began pushing me HARD to get the car out of Frank’s driveway before Shawn came back. Had it not been Shawn, had Shawn not been Frank’s grandson, I’d have told them to do their own damned dirty work.

Yes, both these men think they’re good guys. But that wasn't compassion going on, it wasn't goodness--it was a big, fat case of NIMBY . . . like the father of a sex offender has any right to whine about what goes on in ANYONE else's back yard.

I drove Shawn’s car (used to be Frank’s) back to the house where Shawn and I had played so many years before. The car still smelled of Frank--of hay, leather, mud, and clean, happy dog.  The house had been his mother’s when she had been married to the mean bastard Shawn called a step-dad through most of his childhood. His mother had married “up” and left the place to Shawn while she kept herself in much nicer digs. I parked the car in the driveway, locked the doors (it’s not a great neighborhood), and hung the keys on the inside handle of the screen door. My husband had followed in our car, and he drove me home.

I never saw Shawn again. He came by my house a couple more times (once at 10 pm, once at midnight, both times completely intoxicated), but I was on vacation when he came, and, to be brutally honest, I was glad. I have a husband, our son was seven years old then, and I just didn’t have a place in my world for a wildly unstable drug addicted alcoholic who shows up at all hours of the day and night needing to be rescued. I couldn’t be someone to answer his cries for help, I couldn’t be the person who would drop everything, family and home included, to be his savior. And the guilt has gnawed at me all this time. Because I wanted to be the person who could “save” Shawn. I wanted to be that hero, that wonderful, selfless saint. But I wasn’t, and I’m not. I am selfish, I put my husband, my child, and myself before the Shawns.

Shawn died just ten days shy of Christmas this year. The obituary said he died of head injuries sustained in a fall. That he died in the loving arms of his mother and sister. The obituary didn't say what all of us who loved Shawn knew. It didn't have to.

Could I have saved Shawn? I don’t think so. I mean, we all want to think we’re somehow magical, that we can reach people who’ve been far beyond the reach of others. But realistically? No, I don’t think I could have made a difference. Many others tried, including a number of professionals. No one could save Shawn, and Shawn couldn’t save himself. He was unarmed and ill-prepared for this life. And so he ended.

I don’t believe in an afterlife. But if I did, I’d put Shawn, clear eyed and peaceful, riding horses along a stream up over Monte with his Grandpa Frank. Maybe riding SiSi and Zen. Cindy trotting alongside, fetching sticks and chasing squirrels. Saddle bags loaded with Vienna sausages, Snack-Pack puddings, and a few cans of Fanta Red Cream Soda. A blanket, a beaver dam, and a forever full of laughter and love.

I’m so sorry, Shawn. I’m sorry I couldn’t help you. I’m sorry you couldn’t help yourself. If there is something else, something beyond this, I hope you’re finally happy.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Because we've all got to have a talent . . .

I slaughter song lyrics. Other people do constructive things, artistic things, perhaps even create their own beautiful music. Me? I do the Weird Al thing and mangle the works of others for my own entertainment. It’s not because I don’t like their songs. It’s not because I think I’m somehow improving upon their work or lack respect for them as artists. It’s not because I’m trying to pass off anyone’s work as my own.

Nope, I do it because it’s ingrained in me. Much like compulsive spoonerizing, I MUST mangle song lyrics. It quite literally hurts when I don’t. If I cannot change them, then I must make them utterly nonsensical. “Twenty-one Guns” becomes “Benny-bum Dungs.” “Spaceman” becomes “Facespam.” I can’t help it. Really. No doubt there’s a name for that out in the psychobabbl-y world. There’s a name for everything, isn’t there?

No, I don't think the name is "schizophrenia." Yes, I heard that.

I remember driving down the road (or passengering, actually), Scritch behind the wheel of her sorry little poop-brown Toyota Celica. It was a Celica, right? The year was 1986, and our boyfriends were stashed in the back seat . . . that’s telling, I know. I guess I just really didn’t want to be stuck in the back seat of a 1978 (?) Celica with some slacker git when I could be up front with my best friend, who was far better company. A song came on the radio, and she and I began to belt it out at the tops of our smoky lungs.

You remember the song—sing along! It went something like this:

And though I treated you like a child
I’m going to miss you for the rest of my life
All I need is a miracle
All I HAVE is YOU!

No, we actually didn’t notice the silence from the back seat. It was too quiet a silence to capture our collective attention, I guess.

Next song up? Another favorite of the day, and once again we opened our throats and let loose. Let’s see if you remember this beaut:

Oh, I—I just died in your arms tonight!
It must have been something you ATE!

The silence from behind became so deafening that we heard it over the flapping of the torn sidewall. Even Scritch, locked in a life-and-death struggle against a steering wheel determined to wrest control and send us careening into a river, noticed. We tried to explain that we’d made up those lyrics long, LONG before we’d met them. What? Oh, God, he's not CRYING, is he?

I think it comes from my Father, who taught me to say grace like so:

Rub-a-dub-dub, thank God for the grub
Yay, Christ!


Two! Four! Six! Eight!
Who do we appreciate?
Goooooo GOD!

My Father, who set me up for utter humiliation at YMCA Camp by teaching me the following lyrics to “Amazing Grace”:

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound
A bulldog ran my Grandma down . . .

Yeah, I think I can blame Dad (though credit is due Scritch, who both indulged and conspired). I remember turning “I am Woman” into “I am Obese.” “It’s a Heartache” into “It’s a Hard-on.” “Uptown Girl” into “Uptown Squirrel.” And “Rock Me, Amadeus?” Well, that became either “Eat Me, I’m a Danish,” or “____ me, I’m a Dentist.”

You know:

I’m a Danish, I’m a Danish!
Eat me, I’m a Danish!

My crowning glory? Sorry, I can’t say here. This is a PG rated blog.

I wish I could say that I put effort into this. I wish I could I could say it takes a ton of work. But I don’t, and it doesn’t. This stuff rolls off my tongue with zero forethought. The song comes on, I open my mouth, and WHAMMO! New lyrics. Just like that. I couldn’t stop it if I tried.

My husband has become a fair hand at this, and we’ve dragged our son into this twisted compulsion. He loves it when we do it, and he’s trying his hand at a few himself. I’m not sure if I’m proud of him or horrified at myself for perpetuating this particular family tradition. We’ll see where it takes him. It’ll probably wind up in his book.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Be Still My Heart

Yes, I’ve been letting the blog slide. I’ve been cranking out a couple thousand words a day since December 2nd, and writing for recreation has taken a back seat.

I’ve jotted down a gaggle of ideas for my blog, but right now the only thing going through my head is my miserable heart. More specifically, this damnable irregular heart beat that has me so freaked it’s hard to think of anything else.

The whole arrhythmia thing started back in 2001 or so. I was exercising a lot, and had lost around 70 pounds (don’t worry, I gained it all back and ten of its friends). I smoked a LOT back then, and ingested rather astounding quantities of caffeine. When the “palpitations” started, I was a bit floored. See, I was born with a congenital heart problem, so to have my heart suddenly go nuts on me was a scary proposition. Being me, I tried to ignore it, but after four days (yes, DAYS) of increasing discomfort, panic, and pain, I wound up in the emergency room. The INSTANT I hit that ER, the problem resolved itself. No kidding. I threw exactly ONE PVC in the four hours I was hooked up.

Do I have to tell you how embarrassed I was, what with all those ER docs and nurses raising their brows and blinking in my direction? One doctor muttered something about taking magnesium supplements, and that was that.

I had zero problems for over six months, and then came another bout of PVCs. Those are “Premature Ventricular Contractions” for anyone wanting to know. It means a little part of my heart is jumping the gun and contracting before it should, which leaves it playing a little game of catch up. It’s an incredibly unnerving sensation. My new bout found me staying home, steadfastly refusing to go to the ER again. I cut back on the smokes, ditched the caffeine (a ditching that became permanent), and after two days, things mellowed out again. For about six months.

The next swarm? Astounding! I lasted five days before I was finally so terrified that I went to the ER again. And again, the instant I walked in, the PVCs STOPPED. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry—on the one hand, GOOD! I’m glad they stopped! On the other? Well, once again I look like a contender for Miss Hypochondria. Isn’t my insurance company going to start raising a stink? After all, these hospital visits ain’t cheap.

My third ER visit came yet one more year later. I’d been suffering through the PVCs every few months, but once again, they hit a fever pitch that couldn’t be ignored. And once again, they jumped ship as I walked into the ER. Try, for just a moment, to imagine how incredibly humiliating and frustrating this was.

After two more years of three or four times a year patches, I had another beaut (about six months after quitting smoking, in fact). But instead of going to the ER, I went to the local clinic. They hooked me up to a portable EKG, and the tech said, “Wow, that can’t be fun!”

What? Someone can SEE this? Hallelujah!

The clinic physician came in, watched the EKG readout for a few minutes, whistled, and told me that we’d talk after they unhooked me. He handed me a folder with my EKG readout, and told me he’d made an appointment with a cardiologist for the next afternoon. That, of course, panicked me worse than anything else—I must be terminal if I scored a NEXT DAY appointment with a cardiologist!

Next day found me still heart-skippy and miserable, sitting in the cardiologist’s office being rigged up to a Holter monitor. Yes, it is HOLTER, not halter. Named after Dr. Norman J. Holter. No, I’m not making that up. I was given a little notebook and a pencil, and told to push the button on the monitor every time I felt a THWACK in my chest, then write down what I was doing and what time it was. I had to wear this thing for 48 hours. I was then to return to the office, let them remove it, and they’d let me know where we would go from there.

That’s 48 hours without bathing. Nasty.

I did everything I normally do (except bathe). I even rode my incumbent stationary bike for 45 minutes each day. The only problem I had was the whole “push the button/make the note” thing—see, I was having palpitations so frequently that I’d have five more while I was writing about the first one.

The day I dropped off my Holter monitor, they did an echocardiogram. That’s an ultrasound, minus all the cooing and blushing. The echo looked great, they said. What a pretty heart!

Two days later, they called back—all the information had been sent back to the clinic, and I was to call them and make an appointment for a follow-up. Hmmm. What does that mean? I don’t need help, or they can’t help?

Made my appointment and staggered in. The doctor said that, according to the Holter results, I was tossing out around 3500 PVCs a day. A few PACs (those are Premature Atrial Contractions) thrown in to keep things interesting. Almost none while sleeping, which I thought (and still think) was supremely unfair. I was horrorstruck, but the doctor smiled and said, “3,500 isn’t really anything to be concerned about—we don’t really start to worry until you top 10,000, and we’ve got some folks who pop with 35,000 a day.”

What does that MEAN?

Well, in a nutshell it means “idiopathic arrhythmia.” No underlying pathology, everything looks lovely, so sorry, sucks to be me. When I asked what could be done about it, the doctor shrugged and said, “Well, that depends. The aggressiveness of treatment really depends upon your ability to put up with it.”


Turns out that some PVCs respond pretty well to Beta Blockers. Some don’t. Some respond fairly okay to Calcium Channel Blockers. Some don’t. Some can be eradicated via ablation. Some can’t. And some freak out when faced with Beta Blockers or Calcium Channel Blockers and create the emergence of a second, competing arrhythmia, a condition called a "proarrhythmia." This is more common in women. It’s more likely to occur in someone like me with PVCs and PACs. It can be fatal, and it's not something I’m eager to flirt with.

And it turns out that my irregular heartbeat isn’t likely to kill me any time soon. Go online and search the hundreds of cardio forums. Millions of people live with this, millions deal with it on a daily basis. As time has passed and the frequency of spates has gradually increased, I’ve become one of those millions of daily sufferers. If I get a two week break, I count myself lucky these days.

So I opted to let it do its thing. And it does, pretty frequently and sometimes, like tonight, pretty scarily. I’ve had the old ticker looked at since, including shambling through 20 hours of continuous in-hospital monitoring, a “Cardiolite” stress test, and two 64 slice CT scans (Is that you, Cancer? Hi! How are you? Yep, yep, see you in a few years!). My heart looks perfect.

Utterly flawless.

So why am I’m sitting here with pains in my chest and shoulder blade? Why am I suffering PVCs so intense it feels like I’ve got no normal beats going on at all? My heart feels as though it’s squirming in my chest, and I can feel myself ramping up to a full blown panic attack. What's that you say? Get to the hospital? I don’t think so—felt like this four nights ago, felt like it a week ago, felt like it three weeks ago, too. When that BIG ONE comes, I’ll totally miss all the warning signs, because I experience them half the time, anyway.

Wow, look at me whine! I know, I need to learn to relax. I need to meditate, take up yoga, and learn to let go what I can't fix. I'm a "stresser," and stress makes this worse. So does focusing on it. But you try having your heart dancing a tango in your chest and then take a shot at relaxing. Go ahead, try to ignore it. It’s a lot easier said than done.