Monday, December 31, 2012

Return to the ICU

It has been an awfully long time since I last sat down and pounded on these keys. I don't know why I stopped writing. I just know that it stopped feeling good. As 2012 draws to a close and 2013 is rung in, I am sitting here with very mixed feelings. Not because of the passage of time, but because of the upwelling of emotions that came up today.

This morning Nancy and I went to visit a friend of ours in the ICU at the hospital. Jeff suffered a massive cerebral hemorrhage ten days ago. Jeff was given very poor chances for survival, much less recovery. I was standing by his bedside ten days ago. I was there six hours after he was admitted to the ICU after putting a shunt into his skull to help drain the spinal fluid building up. I stood there, helpless as his wife's pleading eyes begged for sign that he might make it. I sat with her that day and today. Both times, it was awful and painful. Today was different.

Today Jeff recognized Nancy and I. He squeezed my hand with both his left and right hands. He moved his legs without being asked. He was able to focus his eyes, and roll them in answer to questions I asked. He expressed annoyance, frustration, joy, compassion, fear.... all in the short span we were in his room. Knowing that he is still "in there" is a huge relief. We didn't know that when I was there ten days ago.

I have followed his progress daily through communications via facebook with his wife and family. I am always reluctant to offer my views from my experience in the ICU. No one really wants to hear what it was like in the coma. And with good reason.

I was in the room next door to Jeff.

I still have a hard time walking past room 11 in the ICU.
The cacophony of bells, alarms and beeping machines don't help. That ICU Syndrome goes away, eventually, but hearing those sounds, and breathing in that antiseptic air, takes me right back.

The difference is that this time, I am standing beside the bed. I am holding Jeff's hand. I am there for his loving wife. I am not the one being pulled in and out of consciousness.

I asked my friend Lee, what my purpose was in being at Jeff's bedside. I felt like I was powerless to do anything. If anything, I felt in the way and useless. Lee's comment was that I was there to bear witness. I didn't really understand what he meant by that expression. The more he explained, I came to realize that someone had to be there to make it real. In part because this sort of scenario is impossible. Jeff is a young man. He can't have a stroke! He has a family. He doesn't have any other comorbidities.

The more I thought about the idea of being a witness to this experience, I came to think of another aspect... that of being there to stand watch. Similar, but different. Doctors and nurses are there to keep the body alive. Family members are there to try to understand their grief and confusion. I stood watch over Jeff... letting him know I was there for him. Whatever he needed, I would be there. Not that I could fix anything, or magically change things. But my intent, was to be there. To be present in that moment. Not to bring my past to bear, but to offer Jeff a person he could reach out to, knowing that I have been on his side of the bed. No judgement, no criticism. Just understanding. To help him accept that he had survived, and that with time, he could recover, and regain his life.

As I left his bedside I let him know how impressed I was with his progress. I told him how much he would enjoy getting his Passy-Muir either tomorrow or the next day. How he would be able to talk to the nurses and ask questions... and he would be able to tell folks to stop annoying him. He rolled his eyes and smiled. I shared that after that happened, the next step was semi-solid foods... and that butterscotch pudding never tasted better than after you've passed the "swallow test" and have downed the blue dyed applesauce. I explained that from here on out, things would move fast. He was healing now. Each day would have new things, progress. I told him that the fear would pass soon. That soon he would be able to move on his own and that the physical recovery would begin in earnest. And then I held his hand tightly and told him that we would be back soon. He returned the squeeze and it was obvious that he understood.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Questions and Then Later, a Return to Our Previous Story

Some part of me genuinely wonders if writing these stories down has any merit beyond simply recording what happened to me? I mean, who the hell cares? At the end of the day, the stories make almost zero sense. Why would anyone read them? Just asking. I find myself compelled to write about my experiences in the coma, specifically because of how intense they were, and how much they continue to exert pressure and influence on my daily life. Imagine if you went to sleep and woke up with more than thirty years of memories, crammed into an already full head. What would you what to know? How would you juggle your new memories with your old? Who gets that precious real estate in your mind? Do you throw out the foreign memories or accept them as freeloaders? Or do you invite them in and sit with them a while?

This is what I struggle with.

Each day, almost every day, there is some point, where a smell or a sound will trigger a brief memory. Same as we all have, all the time. The only difference is that my memory didn't happen to my body during a conscious waking moment. It happened during my coma. Maybe that invalidates the memory by some people's yardstick. I don't think it would take much to punch holes in most people's true measure of the validity of memory. The assumption that this was a dream also fails to fit neatly into that category too. We forget dreams, incredibly fast. Even vivid dreams that change our lives, bend and fold and quickly are reabsorbed into our normal life. It has been three years now, and these memories are still bright and vivid and as real as yesterday. I close my eyes, and I am back there.

I welcome responses, questions, whatever.


Friday, September 14, 2012

Dust That Burns

When I moved into my new house, I knew that it needed some work. It was painfully apparent that it would need a new paintjob. From the street the house had good bones, but the paint more closely resembled an albino sunburn. The white paint was peeling in sheets and there was obvious water damage everywhere the paint had failed. My guess was that it would need some basic refinishing inside too. I never expected the house would renovate us.

Nancy and I moved in during the first weeks of fall when students return to college. The last few days of summer made a sudden appearance driving the thermometer higher than any of us expected. After spending the day in the moving truck, the last thing I expected was to walk into our new home and find it too hot to sleep. It was like a furnace inside. The windows had been painted shut, god only knows when... and with the storm windows still in place, the house was a stagnant crypt. The scent of mothballs and dust hung in the air, waiting for a breeze to stir. How they managed to keep a house free of mice with no cats living here was a complete mystery to me.

We had bought the house, sight unseen. We paid next to nothing for it, reasoning that as an older home, it would need some major renovation. Most well cared-for New England homes were usually at least 150 years old. This one was considerably older. Over two hundred years old and had the old-wood-smell to prove it. The doorways were much narrower and shorter than I was used to. The doors were solid plank wood, made with real mortise and tenons. There wasn't a single matching doorknob in the entire home.

Most of the house had been emptied before our arrival, though we had been told to expect to find some belongings left behind by the previous tenants. We were told by the realtor that someone would be by sometime in the next week to pickup the trunks and would arrange for shipping. It was hardly adequate preparation for what we found when we walked upstairs.

The bedrooms at the top of the stairs formed a nearly perfect-T, with one room on either side of the stairs, a bathroom directly ahead, and if you walked past either room the hall led to the only large upstairs window, complete with a window seat, framed on both sides by bookcases. The shelves were empty and the cushions were threadbare and nearly opaque grey with dust. There was an old pencil that had been left on the window seat. When I picked it up, the dust powdered off like fine confectioner's sugar. I set it back in place, afraid that someone might notice we had been here.

Mind you, we bought this house. We weren't invading someone's home.... but it didn't feel like our house.

The upstairs room's doors were all closed. Given the stifling heat, our goal was to get some air moving through the house, crack some windows and try to clear a place to lay down for the night. The big moving in could wait till the following morning. We started with the bathroom. Nancy reached for the small ivory porcelain door knob and turned. The knob spun freely, never engaging the pawl... instead the door swung inward with not a single creak.

The bathroom was unremarkable except for its complete lack of period furnishing. It was obviously a retrofit that had been added in the early 1950's. The tile floor was a dusky harsh green, somewhere between an acid green and chartreuse... but with enough wear to feel more than ready for replacement. The toilet, and tiles along the lower section of the wall matched the putrid green color scheme. As if to confuse matters, the tile on the upper-half of the wall was a pale pink. This covered everything except the mirrored medicine cabinet that hung over the sink. The sink basin was painfully pink. My only hope was that whoever had decorated this bathroom had died, painfully, before they ruined another home. This was awful.

What was odd (odder than the colors at least), was that everything was clean. Spotless really. As though the cleaning crew had been through a day or so earlier, and yet there was none of the chemical smells one would associate with a sparkling clean bathroom. There was even a roll of toilet paper sitting on the side of the tub. I am not sure what I expected, but I had to check inside the medicine cabinet. Maybe I was assuming there would be something more left behind by the previous tenants. Maybe I thought there would be old medicines and toiletries. Perhaps an old razor. It was empty. The glass shelves were dry, a touch dusty, and the enamel on the inside of the medicine cabinet was showing bits of rust in places. The chrome around the frame had definitely seen its share of unvented, lingering showers.

I figured that the other doors into the upstairs bedrooms would likely be like our introduction to the bathroom. I found instead, that the doors wouldn't budge. No amount of muscle would convince the worn cut glass knobs to turn. I walked back to the large window intent on opening the window as much as I could. The old sash windows had been painted closed, years ago most likely. We were prepared for some move-in cleanup, but this was frustrating.

I hustled down the stairs and rummaged through our travelling boxes in hopes of finding a box cutter or a pocket knife. I found our tape measure and a bunch of kitchen supplies; forks, spoons, ladles and such. Lacking an appropriate tool to cut through the paint, I made do with a butter knife. Once the window sash had been cut free of its overzealous paintjob, I raised the window. There were no screens in the window. As I knelt on the cushions of the window seat, I realized that there had to be a prop to hold this window open somewhere. Sure enough, on the lower shelf of the righthand bookcase, there was a wooden prop. I jammed that into the open window and immediately felt a rush of hot, dry, still air move up the stairs and out through the window. Certain that the prop would hold, I abruptly sat down on the cushioned bench, exhausted from the heat. The choking cloud of dust enveloped me for a few moments.

I heard Nancy giggle and realized that she was still near the bathroom and was watching this whole event unfold. Apparently seeing my form disappear into this opaque cloud of dust, and then reappear again, except this time I was dusty grey in form, seemingly struck a humorous chord in her. Crossing the hall towards me, Nancy let me know that it was obvious that the heat was getting to me. Afraid to touch me because of my sudden all-enveloping dust coating, she held me at arm's length and suggested I head into town to see about picking up an air conditioner for the bedroom window. At least then we would be able to sleep through the night.

As I shuffled down the stairs and out of the house, I looked back over my shoulder and felt a shadow move past me. The stairway darkened like a cloud passing in front of the sun, and then returned to its normal brightness. I closed the door behind me and ambled out to our bright yellow rental truck. We may have been new to town, but I was pretty sure we had passed a Lowe's hardware store on the way into town. A quick look in my side mirror, a glance upstairs across the open yard, and I pulled away from the curb.

To be continued....

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Coma Dream #1 (repost from Dec 8, 2009)

Yeah, I know. Not everyone wants to know what it was like while I was in the coma.... so if you don't, now's the perfect time to hit your browser's back button.

Today as I was felled by this nasty head cold, something hit me from out of the blue. Not sure what triggered it. Within seconds though, I was reliving an odd aspect of one of my coma dreams.

As I was prepping for the first "swallow" test, they feed you applesauce mixed with a seriously blue food dye. Apparently the dye shows up as a leak if you are unable to swallow properly. Considering I had been ventilated for over a month and still had a trach-tube in... swallowing was rough.

The setting: I am sitting in my recliner, waiting for the speech pathologist to administer the test. Meanwhile: All around me I can hear voices, but something is amiss. The voices slowly become more sharp and distinct. I am definitely not hearing English. Not sure yet what though.

A nurse aid comes into the room and says something I can't quite make out. Then proceeds to tell me that I should expect some changes in hospital staffing. Then goes back to speaking Slavic.

Bewildered, I look around the room, obviously unable to get up or really move around. As I survey the equipment, all of the instructions are either in Spanish or in Russian. What on earth? So I asked the nuse aid: her response was that it was simply cheaper to provide care this way.

With the first couple gulps of the swallow test down, I knew I had to urinate. A lot. I was sure that it was all going to come out blue and leak everywhere. Mind you, I was actually sporting a catheter at the time, and was semi-conscious. Not enough though. Weird stuff happens on all the drugs they had me on.

I probed further. She replied that now that the hospital was incorperating with multinational corporations, they had to maximize profitability and the easiest way to do that was to start with folks who would work for less. She explained that she and her family lived near the hospital. For some of my care, she would be bringing me to her home. Apparently her mother was an RN and was moonlighting as well.

Moonlighting or bootlegging depending on how you look at it. What they would do is when a patient could be moved out of the ICU they would take them home instead of the post-operative care unit. There, family members would administer to the patient's needs. In addition, they would collect unused medical supplies that would otherwise be thrown away at the end of the shift. They repackaged them and sold them on the black market to folks who couldn't afford proper medical care.

So as I lived with this family, my mother and I got to know them pretty well. Apparently the husband of the family had injured his back severely in a firefighting accident. All of the kids were nearly finished with school and two of them were planning to work for the hospital. They all worked as "outreach" for the community. They provided care, medical supplies and serious help to folks who would never otherwise be able to afford a hospital stay.

The dream ends with me laying on the dinner table having their youngest sons who were still in high school, drawing blood for a workup. They kept telling me we needed to hurry because it was almost dinner time and they needed to set the table. But I shouldn't rush, because that would skew the results. Their care was impeccable. They were skilled and compassionate. It sort of made me wonder what it would be like to live in a world like this. I am sure this is common place in other parts of the world.

Thoughts on Dying (repost from April 2010)

Let me begin with the obvious: I am alive. But I think of death often. Not with any morbid fascination, but more the casualness one would exhibit looking through a family photo album.

Perhaps we should call this the first glance through an album of memories.

But are they your memories if they didn't happen during your lifetime? What do you call things that happen while your body sleeps and your mind doesn't?


Let me say again: I am alive. I know this because the smells are different. The light is better too.

For a long time I lingered in a twilight haze of ashy shadow and grease. It was always 3am. For years at a time, it was always 3am.

Each day began with me sitting at a table. Outdoors, but without the weather that comes from being outside. The table was made of downward curving metal, perforated with large half-inch holes over the entire surface. The tabletop was covered in a thin rubber coating that once must have been mustard colored but now, like everything else around me, was dingy, grey and fading. Not quite black but never again anything remotely as lively as yellow.

The table was the end of the line for the production of the fast-food joint I was at. No one stood at a counter to take you order... well, not really. There was always someone standing there... but they just looked at you and then looked down as though that would tell you all you needed to know about ordering your meal. A meal. Even now I am not sure I can call it that. Imagine the ubiquity of water fountains and now imagine that in the same way, all food supply units were essentially a bastardized version of Burger King.

After looking down to order, something would be garbled back behind a wall, sounds of movement would begin, quiet, hushed then loud clunking and slow feet shuffling. Far across the open space of the dining plaza, a garbage can would start to beep. Incessantly, but quietly so as to not annoy you if you weren't really sure yet that you wanted the food coming your way.

Then with a whir it would present, through the open slot. Your food. On a tray, grey-brown with wet paper separating the food from the sticky plastic tray. Almost warm but by no means hot. Smells of old onions, scorched coffee and egg shells are the first smack to the face.

Leaving the tray and food intact, I am sure there has to be something better around to eat. I also desperately need to find a bathroom. It has been days since I could pee. I would trade a perfect chocolate milkshake for a chance to pee in a clean bathroom. But there is no bathroom. When I ask at the counter where the meal originated, I get the same bleary eyed response... that downward cast glance as though one could order a trip to the bathroom through this device.

I look down at my clothes. A cover-all that once must have been blue-grey with thin white stripes, but now, like everything else, it was greyed with time, grease and dust. I can't find the sun in the sky. The buildings around me rise ceaselessly into the sky, each one a copy of the one beside it. There is an occasional breeze which at first feels like it might have the warm touch of spring but by the time I can sort out the smell I am overwhelmed with the sickly sweet aroma of decay. The wind grows until I have to duck into an entryway of building so as to escape from the stench that threatens to coat my skin with an oily scum.

Looking through the scratched silver windows of the building lobby, I keep my eyes moving... hoping for someone to talk to. I really want to find a bathroom.

Walking farther down the street, I find a body curled around a bench made from the same perforated metal rounded into tables like I saw earlier. Finding at first his head amongst the papers and rags, I was unsure he was awake. With none of his hands visible I feared that if I asked of their absence, knowing would be worse than the reek wafting from him. Just when I was sure that he was deep aslumber, he opened one eye at me. Asking me with that same downward glaze and soundless hush, he asked why I was there.

I told him I wanted to die.

I also needed to pee.

Laughing into last month's urine soaked newspaper, he turned his head to me. Our eyes met only briefly before I turned away, afraid that his one good eye might see me for what I was. His other eye, caked with drying puss, kept oozing with each blink.If only he would look away... I could ask him again.

Before I can repeat myself he lifts his shriveled hands from beneath his shabby mound and points to an alleyway a few feet away. Slumped between a wall uncertain of its future and the ground well past worn, a woman looks at the needle in her arm, hoping for release. I am not even worth a glare from her direction.

With a plaintive look on my face, I ask again: how can I die?

Shouldering the wet mass of cloth and sopping cardboard, paper and shit, he pushes me headlong towards a guardrail over a highway. Looking down, bits of detritus falling away, he admonishes me to pick one. Slow or fast, both definite. Either way, I could die. Looking for some merciful solution, I look all around, hoping someone would see me in my plight. I asked again: How can I die?

Laughing that piteous laugh again, he slurs through wet teeth that all I need to do is keep eating the food that came out of that slot.


For folks who wonder: I have contemplated suicide only a few times in my life. Mostly during a rough time in college when my girlfriend had been replaced with a demon from hell.

I find it interesting that while in the coma, I needed to pee. I find this to have been almost an omnipresent sensation throughout all of the coma dreams.

But the wish for dying? I did want to know. How could I escape the 3am grey-gloom? I would have done anything to break free of those awful smells and sights. Even now, I feel the need to scrub my body with borax in the shower... anything to get that oily stench off of my skin.

I know you don't smell things in dreams. I never dreamed for years at a time before either.

Landing the Planes (repost from May 2010)

Though these dreams probably flew through my mind in some order of disarray, I can no longer say which ones came first. If I had to guess, I would say they all happened simultaneously. Especially in light of how so many of them overlap in odd ways. Seriously, when asked to recollect which order these dreams happened, I am always at a loss. Some of them repeated multiple times. (We'll get to those sometime soon... kinda scary.) With that said, here is installment #3- Landing the Planes.

It is sometime post-war, probably late 1948 or so. I am stationed on a Marine air base somewhere in the Pacific Ocean, fairly near Japan. I know this because my job is to help land airplanes all day (and sometimes into the evening). The planes are predominantly Vought F4U Corsairs. Long and blue, with those beautiful bent wings. And the sound of their engines howling as they screamed at take off!

In this dream, my job is to establish radio contact with incoming airplanes and guide them back home. Most of the time this is proves to be fairly mundane. There are usually four to six of us manning the radio in shifts with two to three of us glassing the horizon, looking long for that broken wing silhouette.

Most aircraft at this time were not adequately equipped for nighttime landings. Without radar, it was even more difficult to land six to ten aircraft in short order at night. On this night, it was made nearly impossible with a fog that came in before dinner. The flight was late returning. Six planes coming back from Okinawa. Due in over half an hour earlier, we knew that the fog was delaying their arrival.

We asked the ground crew to prepare searchlights, but their beams couldn't penetrate the fog. For all their effort, only a dull glow reached through the fog. The woman who I was sharing the shift with suggested aiming the search beams low, almost parallel to the runways. Our hope was that then the runways would be lit up and more visible from the air.

When the rain began it was more of a wet mist first. It didn't take long though before none of us could see more than 100 yards or so along the runway... and that was with the help of the search lights. The tension on the ground was palpable. Each of us had somewhere they would much rather have been, only because worry had surpassed reason. Something was amiss and there was nothing we could do.

After what seemed like hours, the radio let loose the first crackle that didn't end in static. Numbers were squawked out, repeated and new coordinates relayed. Six times we traded this information until we knew each pilot could see our blur of light winking in the soggy wet. With sighs and relief we each surrendered our headphones and unplugged from our panels.

Walking down the stairs, I asked the woman beside me what she was hurrying off to. Looking like a teenager off to prom she laughed and let on as how she was going to a concert. Around me the room changed from air station to a space more akin to a waiting room in a large airport. She fell in line behind a crowd waiting to leave the terminal. Waiting there, I had to ask: what sort of music would they be playing at this concert. Punk music of course! Curious, I asked how she knew anything about punk music. She explained that the lead singer of the band was a friend of a friend, and he had invented a bionic knee device. I asked her if they were any good and she laughed. She said she was their biggest fan. Then the line opened up and with nothing more said, she was off into the night.


At first glance this dream seems to make sense (until the punk-rock concert goer rears her head)...

I told my mom about this dream, since my memory of this coma dream puts her into the dream as it transitions from the air station to the waiting room/airport scene. As I related this story to her, she started to stutter. I decided to jump straight in and ask: Did you leave me at the hospital to go to a punk rock concert? Yep. And yes, the lead singer in the band happens to have invented a knee-replacement device which borders on science fiction. Very cutting edge. They have just released their newest album and guess what's on the back of the closing liner notes? "Dedicated to our biggest fan: Candace" (That's my mom for ya.)

Apparently though, that wasn't what had left my mother so speechless. Her concern was that I had never met my great-aunt Sally. My maternal grandfather was the youngest of ten siblings and the only male. From my grandfather I knew little bits and pieces about his sisters. I spent parts of my summers in Wyoming getting to know my great aunts Louise, Winnie and Ollie. But I never got to meet Aunt Sally.

The little I knew about her was that she had lived overseas. I think most of her adult life had been spent in and around Japan. Once she sent us a lamp in the shape of an owl, made from a tank shell casing from World War II... left behind in Okinawa. Some part of me always thought that it could have been fired from my grandfather's amphibious tank he crewed during the invasion of Okinawa.

What I didn't know about Aunt Sally was that she used to land airplanes. In the Pacific... around Japan, for years following the conclusion of the war. She landed Vought Corsairs. And according to my mother, women were often used because their voices came through the radio more clearly and their eyes more easily spotted the broken wing pattern against the sea and sky.


Other thoughts:
I have no idea how any of this could have entered into my dreams. Ideas? Has anyone read about this sort of thing? There is more to come. Maybe later in the week.

Too Hot and Never Cold Enough (repost from June 2010)

Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros, Yalla Yalla.

Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros, Yalla Yalla

Tonight, as I wait for things to cool down, for my crappy day to slowly wind down, I found myself thinking about how hot I was in the hospital. Imagine if you will, laying in bed, with a fever, being covered in multiple layers of blankets. Now add to this, not being able to move. You cant kick off the blankets. Each day I would sweat through many changes of sheets, over and over. You think they would have gotten the clue.

And where was my mind? In the snow. Walking uphill. Feeling the cinders and ice and small stones under my bare feet. Some slipping now and again. That tingle one gets from being wet, cold but still moving. What makes some of this even stranger for me is that every now and then, I would hear strains of this song by Joe Strummer. Yalla Yalla.

The song's lyrics have no real bearing on anything I hear in the music. Somehow this sound transports me. Even now, when I listen, I am not here. I am not sweating in my humid house. I can feel the cold winds. My feet are chilled and wet. I have no idea why, but this is a good thing, I think.

Surreality (repost of Jan 4, 2010)

Monday morning I head to the cardiologist for a stress test. From the sound of things, they'll put me on a treadmill, run me till my heart rate peaks, then pump some radioactive compound through my heart and take pictures. Hmmm. Needless to say, I am sleepless tonight. The idea of stressing out my heart doesn't exactly fill me with calm, collected thoughts. As a result, sleeptime slides away and my anxiety runs chasing after it. Not how I planned on spending my new year.

When I went in for my original surgery, I genuinely felt that it would go just as all my other surgeries had gone previously. I would wake up, groggy but aware, in pain but manageable. It had happened through my back surgeries, my sinus surgery... why not this one? When I woke up a month later unable to speak or move, all I knew was that all bets were off. When all I could do to tell Nancy I was in there was to cry hot tears, I knew things weren't okay. Talking was off the menu. Moving was impossible. I did my laughable best to try to write. Yeah, I couldnt lift my own hand, but I was sure I could write. Four weeks later I could barely fill out a form without becoming exhausted.

Here I sit, staring another sleepless night in the face. Marveling at the surreality of it all. I nearly died. It's very difficult for me to rationalize, because very few people I know have come close to death and not been irrevocably changed. My little brother Martin came out of his coma with permanent damage to his motor cortex resulting in some minor short term memory issues. When he and I compared coma time during his visit this fall, we found that our experiences were totally different. He got on his motorbike, felt/saw the impact and the next thing he remembers is waking up from the coma. No dreams.

At least I got to have the dreamtime. Since awaking from the coma, I have shared a few of the dreams with interested folks, a clergyman, my family (and once, in this blog). I realized this evening that my brain would not slow down as I tried to sleep. I don't know if this sleeplessness is caused by the lack of meds in my system (in prep for the stress test tomorrow) or if it is really a manifestation of the anxiety I am dealing with. Either way, the last four hours in bed were noteable for the total lack of imagery. It was as though my brain was left on hold and forced to listen to muzak.

Is it strange to miss being in the coma dreamtime? Sure, some of the dreams were hideous and difficult. But some of that time was wonderful, quiet, gentle even. I doubt I will ever forget the smell from the door of the roadside diner as I walked out into the snow covered parking lot. The surrounding spruces just smelled sweet and blue. In the darkness, blue smells differently than it looks. Over my shoulder the diner's amber light winked out, leaving me with the sharp snow in my nose and hope in my heart that a ride might come my way, saving me from a frigid walk home.

Even now, I feel like that scene is part of my history. It didn't happen in my past. It happened just the other day. I had given serious thought to putting all these dreams in a box (via EMDR) but I am not so sure anymore. Some nights they are good places to go and visit. The only downside is that now, it is just visiting. I don't live there anymore. And that feels surreal.

I've Asked You All Here to Discuss... (repost from June 25, 2010)

This an excerpt from a letter I wrote to a dear friend, mentor, teacher and potter.

I have put this letter off long enough. I apologize for not writing back sooner.

I am grieving.

This is a long story. If you want the short version, skip to the end. It's all there in the last
paragraph. Otherwise....

Not long after NCECA (National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts) I took a long (and far too dangerous) drive to the Cleveland Clinic to have a long talk with the best colo-rectal surgeons in the US. I really should have either flown or had someone else drive. We didn't know it at the time, but have since learned that one of the side effects from this coma has been that I have developed extreme obstructive sleep apnea. Apparently I haven't slept real sleep since before surgery. The exhaustion caught up to me about a month ago... but I am getting ahead of myself. Before the drive to Cleveland, we knew that I was exhibiting extreme sleep exhaustion. I had a hard time staying awake on the drive into town(Ithaca) each day for PT. I had fallen asleep at the wheel at least 1-2 times a week. Bad stuff. But I knew I needed to get to Cleveland,
and Nancy doesn't drive. Friends offered but I figured it would be no problem. Luckily I took Aurora with me and she acted as my conscience. When I started to doze she was adamant that we get off the road and made me sleep.

Even with all of our precautions it was still a rough drive.

And that was the easy part.

Walking into a hospital, of my own accord, under my own power... to submit to more
tests, probings, and worse....

It was rough.

Finally I was able to see the surgeon with my clothes on for his assessment of my candidacy
for a "reversal or takedown" procedure. I will spare you the lesson in anatomy and say only
that my chances of a simple surgery fall into the category of slim to none. He wasn't optimistic.
He gave me a few options and a final ulimatum - lose 50# or he wouldn't even consider me for surgery.

I asked him how he would repair my abdomen so that I would no longer have this monstrous herniation at the colostomy site. I also asked him how soon after surgery I could actually RESUME my life as a potter.

He looked me in the eye and said it was time for a career change. I am glad Aurora was there. I might not have been able to walk out otherwise. From the looks of things, I will not ever be able to do what I could do so easily before.

No lifting of things greater than 20-25#. Definitely no heavy lifting. No moving of kiln shelves. Or boxes of clay. Or buckets of glaze. Or boxes of pots.

I thought about this on the six hour drive home. There were hour long stretches where Aurora and I said nothing. The Clash, The Pogues and U2 screamed through the stereo. And now and again, she would find me crying. Sobbing. Trying hard to keep focus.

The following week I met with my cardiologist who let me know that my heart had a scary story to tell about my sleep issues. Short version: I was a prime candidate for a stroke. My heart was being tortured every night... first from lack of oxygen and then from racing constantly to wake me up and start that adrenaline racing. Bad combination.

I just finished my second sleep study a week ago. I am finally sleeping for more than two hours straight. It has been over eight months. As I talk to the doctors they are all remarkably surprised I am even here at this moment.

Since sleeping I have had more cognitive function again... (I have had virtually no short term memory for months. Would realize I was somewhere and have no idea why or how I got there)
Being able to think has been a radical relief. Nancy jokes that my brain running on half-power puts me in the position most folks are in every day. That is simply not acceptable.

So... now that I am sleeping again, I have had more time to think and greater focus during the day. I have been trying to figure out how to dig myself out of this hole I have pulled my family into. We are broke. Well, worse than broke. We started looking at bankruptcy back in March.
Since then things haven't gotten better... until this past week.

So where am I going with all of this? What is the point to this lengthy blathering?
To say that I am letting go of my dreams in clay. I had high hopes years ago, that I would be teaching young college students by now. I had visions of classrooms with students ready for a challenge. Kiln pads crowded with ware carts loading and unloading firing after firing. Smoky air filling the quad as wood kilns and raku firings finished up. Ironically I have never had any real course of study planned. I sure love teaching. Strangely enough, I think the only thing I have ever really wanted to impart is my love for learning.

Which leads me to where this is all going. In letting go of clay, I am taking up my camera again. Fortunately this seems doable. I am finding myself capable and competent. Building a new career is daunting but exciting. It hasn't come easily though. I have been ruminating on this since waking from the coma.

Letting go of my dreams though, has been hard. Walking into my studio and finding nothing to trim, no pots to load into the kiln... and dust and cobwebs where there should be plastic sheeting... it has been difficult. I can still throw pots. And I may. I think if I can find a way to make enough of a living to have spare time again, I would love to make pots as time allows. I don't think that my expectations for this business were ever going to be realized, so this is something of a wake-up call. I love the idea of making the pots I WANT to make, firing them any way I feel like firing them and then, once a year, having a nice studio sale where folks can come and pick out what they want. No orders. No galleries. No showroom. Just pots.

For now, this means we are planning to close the studio and gallery in September... maybe sooner. I am ready to turn the showroom into our new photography space. A clean room with places to sit, to shoot, to review work, to see big prints... who knows? Having said all of this (which I am sure has been far too long a letter for anyone to read) I must apologize. Knowing that you have followed my progress, success and failure alike, means a great deal to me. I know there is a bright future ahead, but letting go of clay has been .... well, you can imagine.

All the best,

Scars (from Dec 2010)

Until my first spinal surgery back in 2001, I had only had two scars my entire life. One was from smashing my knee into a cinder block stack while firing a salt kiln late at night. That one was a doozy. I should have had it stiched up or at least butterflied. Instead I taped it with packing tape and hoped for the best.

My second scar was from a childhood pet iguana who decided that my hand was meant to be held while he chomped down on it. His teeth marks went away in a week, but the line his claws left in my hand are still slightly visible.

The reason I bring this up is that for the past year I have looked at myself in the mirror most mornings wondering where some of these scars came from. I know the procedures (from watching too much House M.D., St. Elsewhere and Grey's Anatomy)... but I wasn't really there for them. I look down and I don't have their story. I can read about them in the posts that Nancy wrote while I was in the coma, but the level of detachment is still overwhelming.

Today I read through those few weeks of Nancy posting in my stead while I was off in coma-land. Staggering. I am not sure I can explain how bizarre it is to read about one's self as though there is a chance you won't be there the following day. Nancy was so kind in what she wrote. Always full of optimism, keeping the postings free of her frustration, fear and anger.

When I look at the scars around my neck, I see Nancy's tears. I know how hard she fought to get my tracheostomy. There is the "smile" line, which has healed in well, albeit with none of my usual furriness to mask its passing. Then around it are five small white scars from where the trach-tube was stitched to the flesh of my neck. I can touch them and remember the sensation of having this tube sticking out of my body. I will never forget the sensation of having them remove the tube the day before Halloween. I figured it would hurt. Nope. I was sure they would put a couple of stitches in to hold it shut. Nope. Just a strip of gauze, and a warning to keep it dry and clean for a few days till it sealed over.

So on Halloween I walked around the physical therapy gym "sharing" how weird it was that I could blow hot air out of my trach wound... and sure enough I could blow air out of it for a couple days. Crazy! Aurora couldn't decide if it was insanely cool or grosser than gross. Three days later it was closed and gone.

A few days later, as I showered in the monstrous shower designed for about 10 people (not one)... I felt a new scar on the side of my ribs, right side... mid-rib cage. Weird. So I started asking the nursing staff what it could be from. Turned out to have been from a drain that was inserted into my chest to drain a plural effusion. The idea that I could have fluid building up behind my lungs just seems so impossible to me. To have had pneumonia on top of that seems downright cruel. I remember the coughing and choking. I remember not sleeping for days on end. And when sleep did come it was filled with nightmares of choking. I remember Nancy and my mom always being there to help suction the goop out of my trach tube. Talk about devotion!

Scars have stories. Most of my scars have been about what I did to cause the scar... the "before I got hurt" part. Now I have scars that are all about what happened after the scar. Strangely enough, I find that to be a positive thing. Even with all the complications from this past year, I am starting to become ready for the next round of surgeries to fix all of these scars (and problems!). More about that tomorrow!

Seen Through a Sliver (repost from Jan 15, 2011)

It was here that the beginning and the end wrapped behind him to caress the sores on his spine. His fingernails had become misshapen bloody nubs as he tapped out the rhythms of the voices beckoning through the slit in the wall. Not as raw any longer, but calloused from years of calling out with the only voice left him.

Rolling over to find the darkest spot of blackness, off behind his head, against the far ceiling, he cries out. Wordless, the sobs are drained by the hollow maw surrounding his broken frame. As his body adjusts to the transition from body-warm stones to the new-cold pavers, he shivers and tries to bring his knees to his chest. His heat is quickly tugged from his extremities.

His eyes roll back in his head as he seeks the soft warmth of sleep. A tiny sound outside and his eyelids pull back, anticipating. With one eye fully open and focused on the floor, the other eye half-heartedly stays focused on the darkness. A knife appears through the wall and spreads buttery warmth along the cobbles. Both eyes are open now. Waiting.

First he learns that she is excited, anxious, anticipatory... though the words are stretched taffy-like through the narrow crack. He can see her move in and out of frame as the light spreads her worry on the floor beneath him. His eyes can make out her decision to bundle up today, warding off winter's cruel teeth. As her shadow peeks in and out of the glow laid like a map across his floor, he struggles to read her story.

All he knows is that every few days, usually grey days filled with rain or wet fog, she will stand outside. He knows that she is different from the other people outside because he can smell the seasons on her silhouette. Once he could even make out the chicken salad sandwich she had eaten for lunch, right down to the cucumber slices and dill. The summer-ness tiptoed around his room before being tackled against the far wall and being pummeled unconscious by the inky shadow. He listened to the wind whisper through her hair, leaving bits of leaves and the smell of snow not far off. Reaching out to the sliver of light that cut through his room, his hands ached to touch, to know.

And then she was gone.

Replaced by the form he knew too well. This one, he knew preferred throwing hot water against the wall rather than actually using it on his body to clean. The smell of wet mud and yeasty molded bread always barked a warning before his shadow crossed the frame. Once into the light, his story poured out with no hope of stemming the flow.

He could tell this man spent his days cleaning the floors, reaching into the corners behind the garbage cans in hopes of finding the makings of a quick bite. His lunchtime was taken hunched over behind the boiler in hopes no one would notice his pant legs covered in wet filth. By the time he had downed his meager lunch, his clothes would have shared the better part of the meal. Somehow, the light carried this simple letter through the wall, sharing the day's goings-on in an instant.

As the wind outside pounded against the silent stone, only the light wavered. No sounds came through the tiny slit. He knew the gale would only last till morning, and when the morning men came with their egg hair and laughing cigarettes, the storm would have passed. A new day meant that these men would trade their rippling laughter as shadows dancing across the beam of light. One's arm was much too small, though at least his shadow wasn't embarrassed. The other fellow's yellowness came through no matter what he ate. He could turn cold oatmeal into sunshine with his laughing hair.

Today they brought him delicious blackberry jam, spread warm across thick toast. The bitter dark coffee rings around the silky shadow touched the solid ice of his feet. As he reached over, into the slice of light, the wine stained shadows washed over his imagined repast, revealing only tired grooves in the stone's mortar.

Rolling over, he closed his tired eyes and searched out the songs that lulled him to sleep. By the time he reached the refrain, the sliver of light had crept from the room, leaving him.