Recently, a nurse who was treating me at an emergency clinic said “I hope 2018 is better than 2017 was for you.” Isn’t that the truth! I wanted to say — the last four months of 2017 were very difficult — and she only knew the (medical) half of it.
Last August, a freak windstorm upended a large oak tree in our front yard that glanced the front of our house before it came to its final rest on the top of our 2015 Honda Civic. The car was totaled. A month later our septic system backed up into the downstairs bathroom of our house. We caught it early but ended up having to pay a lot of money for a septic field rejuvenation at a time when we were dealing with the costliness of our tree catastrophe (our homeowners insurance was very good but didn’t cover everything). In between these two events, the electricity kept mysteriously going out in our upstairs bathroom, necessitating three visits from an electrician; Hurricane Irma loomed over Florida and I spent a weekend worrying over my sister and mother, whose homes were under the storm’s direct path and who refused to get out; and to top it all off, my stomach started feeling ill to the point that I wondered if I had an ulcer.
The stomach pain actually began earlier in the summer, a low level gnawing sensation that partially responded to antacids, and when I consulted my doctor in early September she ordered blood panels, ultrasounds, and other tests that all came back normal. She diagnosed me as having gastritis but the proton-pump inhibitor she prescribed proved useless. Near the end of September I had what I’ll call my first “episode”: sick with nausea and a distended stomach, I lay flat on the couch and fasted for two days in order to be well enough to attend my niece’s wedding (I wasn’t going to miss that wedding for anything!). Afterwards, when the nausea was gone and I was ravenous to the point that I attempted to eat a normal meal, the pain came raging back and I emailed my doctor to request another test. In the meantime, fearing I was having a gallbladder attack or pancreatitis, I also went out and bought digestive enzymes from the health store. Wow, instant relief! A couple days later, I relayed the good news to my doctor that the enzymes had solved my problem. “Great!” she replied, and for weeks I thought so too, but a month later the pain returned worse than ever. In November, I spent four weekends in a row at the ER with nausea and vomiting.
Finally, in December, an endoscopy and a battery of other tests provided a definitive diagnosis — Gastroparesis — a disorder whereby the stomach is abnormally slow to empty, worsened by the fact that I also had a “bezoar,” a ball of undigested food in my gut. “It’s like carrying around a brick in your stomach,” said the gastroenterologist who is now treating me for this condition and who has had me on a no-fiber diet for more than a month. I don’t know how long I’ll have to be on it, because some people have gastroparesis forever and some people eventually recover from it, but for the time being I can’t eat any of the foods I used to eat so much of (vegetables, fruits, nuts, whole grains and legumes). As unhealthy as this seems, it’s working. I miss eating salads and blueberry smoothies, but most days my body feels more normal than it has in ages.
Which brings up a good point: there were, in fact, silver linings to most of 2017’s dark clouds. When our car was totaled by the oak tree, we ended up getting the car I have wanted most of my adult life: a new Subaru Forester. (Shhh. Don’t tell me it’s not sexy! I love its boxy interior, its windows designed for great visibility, and its high SUV seating, not to mention its all-wheel drive.)
We also ended up with a better looking front yard, because the tree that fell once had a twin — an adjacent tree that once matched it in height, but which had shown signs of ailing years before and thus been chopped down to a stump — and they didn’t look right together, the tall tree beside the stump. Now there is just the stump by itself, surrounded by daylily plants that were salvaged from the mess by a landscaper (hired because our yard was a series of ruts and gaping holes from the fallen oak), and looking all the more natural for its loneness.
And, getting the house fixed required me to step up to the plate and be more assertive. Autumn was in full swing and three contractors had turned me down, so I solicited an Amish gentleman from the street, more or less. I didn’t know him from Adam when I spied him working at the Methodist church up the road from me and pulled my car into the parking lot to explain my predicament. Everyone else had said they were “full up for the season” and I surmised there would be a good chance he’d say the same, but to my delight he came right away to assess the damage and give me an estimate. Amish builders are known for having a great work ethic, and Crist (his name) proved this to be the case. He was one of the most polite, professional, and personable workers I have ever met. He and his helper re-shingled the front roof of our house the day before Halloween, in weather so cold and gusty most people wouldn’t leave the house to walk their dog in that air.
The rough patch my husband and I went through in 2017 wasn’t earth shattering, but its back-to-back calamities over a short period of time nevertheless left me with a “What’s going to happen next?” feeling of anxiety. Acknowledging the silver linings is my way of reminding myself that the nature of life is fluid: things we consider good and bad ebb and flow into our lives on a day-by-day basis, and a lot of good things (especially those that fall under the label of “help”) eased my life at this time. At the risk of sounding overly sentimental, I’ll admit that the most important one was in realizing just how much my husband and family care for me. When I was so very ill during those four weeks in November, my husband drove me to the hospital in the wee hours of the morning, groggy from sleep yet never complaining, and stayed long hours in the emergency room massaging my feet and legs while I received fluids and nausea medicine through an IV. My mom and sisters checked in with me daily to monitor how I was doing and to express their love. My two nieces, who both work in the medical field, called me with pep talks and advice and concern in their young voices. I’m not sure why all of this surprised me, but it did. In some ways, I think being sick opened a window that allowed me to realize how profoundly I am loved.
Do calamities play a role in helping us move forward? That’s a hard question to answer, especially when I think of people who have had to deal with the really tough stuff. But as for smaller calamities, even though I wouldn’t want a repeat of any of the ones I went through I do think they brought some clarity into my life. Help is always at hand; you can fix most things that are broken and might even wind up with something better than before; and love is deeper than you think. That’s what became clear to me at the end of 2017, even if it took awhile for me to see it.
And even when life has lots of clouds there are usually sunny breaks in between them. Amid my late-2017 calamities, there were periods of normalcy where I breathed easily and became enamored with new projects. The repair of our yard inspired me to improve the area in front of my picture window — an area that by the end of every summer looks like a shaggy mess of overrun bishop’s weed. In early October I spent three days digging up almost everything that grew in its compacted clay soil, laying down a heavy “rock-cloth” barrier that I covered with pea gravel to prevent plant growth, and installing three strips of recycled bricks in a herringbone pattern to make it look as if the remains of a masonry path are peeking through. After much consideration of how to fill in this now barren space over the winter, I added three garden spheres and a couple of carefully-potted boxwoods. Come spring, I’ll move the boxwoods to a sunnier locale and bring in big potted ferns and other shade-loving potted plants to bring greenery and fullness to this spot.
Even when I was sick, I continued to make stuff. Holiday meals for my family, a winter container for my front stoop, and a hand cream for me and my sister. Naturally, I’m looking forward to making more things in 2018, but one thing I won’t be making is New Year resolutions. I used to make them, but now I figure, who needs them? If 2017 taught me anything, it’s that in the thick of life there is always enough to do and more than a few things to figure out.