In my most recent post of June 5th, I wrote about my intentions to take a time of respite and renewal, including a break from my workshops and this blog. If you’ve remembered times of making good intentions in your lives, you know that more often than not, we fail to realize them. I am no exception.
As I began my “vacation” from my regular activities, I envisioned writing the family stories I’ve wanted to capture so long. I imagined long relaxing walks with my dog in Toronto’s parks and nearby trails. I wanted that relaxed time to nourish my spirit, body and creative energy. It’s three months later, and few, if any, of those intentions were realized. Yet now, September has begun, students are heading back to classes, and for those of us whose lives have long been tied to the rhythm of an academic year, I feel a persistent drive “to get back to work again.” That has begun here, with this first blog after my summer hiatus. And just as in my youth, when first day of grade school typically involved a written assignment, often entitled, “How I Spent My Summer,” my current post is my adult version of that grade school assignment.
I still remember the excitement of that first day in a new grade, my new pencil poised over a fresh sheet of blue-lined paper, and in my very best handwriting, recounting the highlights of my summer vacation. Summertime meant long afternoons at the community swimming pool, camping trips and waterskiing at Northern California lakes, fishing with my father in nearby rivers, the imaginative expeditions with other neighborhood children, moving carefully through barbed wire fences to explore and create adventures among pine trees, hills, manzanita “fortresses,” the “rockpiles,” and taking along coffee tins for blackberry picking, our lips turning purple with the juices.
In the long summer evenings, we gathered again to play softball or touch football in the street, turn cartwheels on our lawns, have sleepovers under the stars in our backyards, or create mini-fairs or plays to entertain our parents. Sometimes, we piled into our family station wagon as my father drove the 650 miles to Southern California to visit our relatives. I had no shortage of experiences to write about in that first back-to-school assignment. My summers were filled with imaginative play, adventures and fun.
Yet this summer has been a far cry from the fun of my childhood or my well intended plans for a time of renewal. As I reflect on the summer I experienced vs. the one I intended, the memories are not of a period of respite or renewal, but rather a roller coaster ride of emotion: worry, hope, disappointment, renewed hope and near the end, gratitude, all defining my days and nights from June to the middle of August.
It began in late spring with follow-up medical appointments after some worrisome heart episodes in late spring. When I met with my cardiologist and learned that my mitral valve was “leaking,” regurgitating about 50% of the oxygenated blood from the upper chamber, which explained why I was increasingly fatigued and winded whenever I walked up hill or at too brisk a pace. An additional medication was added to my daily regiment to better regulate my heart beat, a transesophageal cardiogram scheduled and I was referred to a team of cardiologists to evaluate my suitability for a mitral valve clip. The month of June dragged on as I waited for the decision: would I qualify for the procedure or not? Waiting, as so many of you already know, is a large part of the medical experience that accompanies illness and disease, expressed so clearly in Robert Carroll’s poem, “What Waiting Is.” Here’s an excerpt:
You know what waiting is.
If you know anything, you know what waiting is.
It’s not about you.
This is about
illness and hospitals and life and death…
(In: What Waiting Is, 1998)
June was consumed by waiting. As the weeks dragged on without any decision from the doctors, my emotional life was defined by increased anxiety and worry that I might not be accepted for the procedure. Hopefulness turned to doubt, and four weeks later, when the head of the medical team informed me I had been rejected as a viable candidate for the procedure given the damage done to my heart, my spirits plunged. But my cardiologist called shortly afterward to see how I was feeling and offered another possibility for hope. I’m lucky that she is a doctor who “fights” for the best interests of her patients and is not one to take “no” for an answer until every option has been explored. She had immediately referred my results to a cardiologist practicing at a different hospital than she does, someone described as “doing some magic” with mitral clips for difficult cases. “Magic” was sounding pretty darn good to me. In less than two weeks after initially being turned down at my regular cardiac clinic, I was admitted for a mitral valve procedure with the “magician” cardiologist. A day later, I returned home for a brief recovery period, two mitral valve clips successfully installed and functioning well.
Although I never imagined my summer would be consumed by my physical health, I have emerged from it with a sense of renewal: more physical energy and stamina, the pleasure of walking without stopping to catch my breath every block or two, and an enduring sense of gratitude for the determination, support and skill of my doctors and the compassionate nurses who card for me pre-and post-procedure. I am also deeply grateful for the support of my family and friends scattered around Canada, the US and Japan. The wisdom of my 13 year old my grandson summed it all up: “Keep your spirits up,” he wrote, “remember that more people are there for you than you think.”
He was right. I am one lucky woman. Summer intentions aside, the experience of these past weeks has been an extraordinary gift. That’s life, I guess, and I am very grateful for the one I have.
“Starfish” by Ellen Lerman
This is what life does. It lets you walk up to
the store to buy breakfast and the paper, on a
stiff knee. It lets you choose the way you have
your eggs, your coffee…Then it sits a fisherman
down beside you at the counter who says, “Last night
the channel was full of starfish.” And you wonder
is this a message, finally, or just another day?
Life lets you take the dog for a walk down to the
pond, where whole generations of biological
processes are boiling beneath the mud. Reeds
speak to you of the natural world: they whisper,
they sing. And herons pass by. Are you old
enough to appreciate the moment? Too old?
…Later, you wake up beside your old love, the one
who never had any conditions, the one who waited
you out. This is life’s way of letting you know that
you are lucky…
So life lets you have a sandwich, and pie for your
late night dessert. (Pie for the dog as well.) And
then life sends you back to bed, to dreamland,
while outside, the starfish drift through the channel,
with smiles on their starry faces as they head
out to deep water, to the far and boundless sea.
(From: Our Post-Soviet History Unfolds, 2005)
- Write about a time when your good intentions went awry. What were the intentions? What got in the way of your acting on them? What happened? What, if anything, did you learn from the experience.
- Go back in memory to your youth. Think of the summer, once school was out, and the opportunities for fun, play and new adventures was yours. Write about one summer (or more) that stands out most in your memory. Why?
- Life doesn’t always go as we’d planned, and yet, we can discover new ways of being, new opportunities, even gratitude despite life not behaving as we intended for ourselves. Has that happened to you? Write about such a time, the new insights or gifts you discovered when your life took a different turn.