Monday, May 16, 2016

'Bonsai and Buddha'

I know this will seem trivial and useless to most people, but today is a huge milestone for me. 

For those who know me closely, they have known that I have been working on my second "complex" cross-stitch for more than 10 years. I venture to say, I probably have started it closer to 15 years than 10 years ago. I have worked on it around holidays, and vacation days, and on days when I was home sick, generally. 

My life has changed in so many significant ways during all this time - jobs, time zones, relationships, I have become an aunt twice, I have traveled the country and Europe, I have raised three cats and lost two of them because of old age, and I am grayer, much much grayer. 

This is a milestone for sure!
I had to stop for a second and record it for posterity - picture below. It's not framed yet, but I finished it today, so the day should be marked. 

Today is also the last day of my first ever medical leave. 97 days ago today I was taking time off from work to have open heart surgery. May 17 seemed like an eternity away, and here it is. It's how life works, I guess. I am glad that sometimes we manage to leave something behind to show for all this time past. 

It's called 'Bonsai and Buddha'

Thursday, May 05, 2016

About Spring, Birthday and Easter

It's spring fever. That is what the name of it is. And when you've got it, you want—oh, you don't quite know what it is you do want, but it just fairly makes your heart ache, you want it so!” (Mark Twain)

You noticed right. I posted nothing in April. My favorite month, my month, “the cruelest month” that it is, I had no inspiration. Not totally true – I just stopped breathing there for a while, in awe of this life, and this world around me. And I had to be quiet for a bit to take all the awesomeness in.

Anne Lamott says at one point that “in Easter — and Passover too — something that happens is that we stop. This is the 'dark night of the soul' stuff that John the Divine writes about; that in that stopping we may fall into an abyss that we have been trying to outrun since we were little children. (…) But in Lent, if you are a person of committed spiritual growth, you do stop.”

So, that's what I did, I suppose – just stopped and observed the big world around me with care, and keen eyes. It might be the last time I did – who would know?! We're not giving precise expiration dates.

This April, was the first time in as long a time as I can remember that I really was happy about my birthday. Ever since I was in elementary school, for whatever reason, my birthday was sad to me: another year, vanished and not half of the things I planned to do are checked off the list. So disappointing! Time running out, never returning to me. The mouse in the wheel running out of steam. But this year, the world looks different to me, from the other edge of the precipice that I just hopped over in February.

Like an old poet once said, my “doors of perception were cleansed” and the “world appears now to me as it is – infinite”, and most of all vibrant. I might speak in platitudes here, but there is something humbling about your heart literally being stopped for a bit. To come out of that and still see the light of day is character changing and direction altering. How can it not be?!

As much as I previously hated my birthday, I have always loved spring, and Easter is my favorite holiday. They usually all fall around the same time. I just love sitting still and listening to the life coming back in the spring. The light this time of the year is the light of Easter to me – given to us secretly in the dark church, at midnight, like a big mystery that only we are chosen and fortunate enough to partake into. I love spring because it allows me to enjoy that light, of hope and renewal and “another chance”-ness with every day, unlike the light of Easter, on Resurrection night, for one hour at church.

This year, I enjoyed spring slowly, with every flower, every bloom that showed up in my yard. It's amazing how much time you have when one is not working. I relived, again, every year of my life, with every sunny hour and every tulip that popped open. Since facing death a few months ago, my senses are sharper, and my attention is keener than ever before. I realize more acutely that the end is in every breath. Or could be. Therefore, I am that much grateful when I outlive it. The leaves look sharper green, the sun is warmer and brighter, the music is sweeter and every breath is a blessing. Every touch from my loved ones is uplifting and gracious. I am so unspeakably and undeservingly lucky!

Spring has always been a happy awakening for me, a welcome gift of re-opening my heart to the world once again and trying once more to do it right. For the first time, this year, I associated my birthday with that sentiment, as well. Took 41 years, but I am grateful I finally got it. I hope it forever stays this way – such a gift to be able to awaken my soul as the world awakens its own!

Instead of brooding over the year past and what I did not get to accomplish, I now cherish the simple fact that I made it over another threshold. I cherish people around me, and the fact that they are on this side of the dirt with me. Strawberries taste sweeter this spring, and the wind in my wrinkled and wintry cold skin is a gentle kiss.

Rumi asked “What is this heart? It is not human, and it is not imaginary. I call it you.” Just like the Alchemist, I finally found the treasure – it's always been here, it's always been inside me. This year, I got to meet it. Full circle. Now, I am home.

*Note: Orthodox Easter vigil started April 30th this year. Easter Sunday was May 1st

 "April is the cruelest month, breeding lilacs out of the dead land"
Shades and colors of my garden, in April.

The Light. At Easter.  

"The butterfly counts not months but moments, and has time enough" 

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

From Chrysalis to Butterfly

“It’s no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then.”
― Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland 

Have you ever watched a butterfly come out of the shell of its chrysalis? I mean, really watched it and really saw every single little detail of what happens? It's not pretty.

First, there is some oozing and “bleeding” and goopy stuff comes our, as the chrysalis cracks open. Then, the butterfly pokes a little bit at a time from it, first one antenna, then, another one. Then, a foot, then, another one. Then, the tip of a wing, and then another one, till it frees itself up from the straight jacket it's been in, which all of a sudden is no longer big enough for it.

But even when it's free, it's sort of in a shock. It just sits there, a little wobbly, kinda trying to figure out for itself what the heck happened and how it will be supposed to move and function in the new body it just got. It will look dizzy for a bit, a little shaken up, still with goop all over it, maybe still a bit in pain from the birth, but it will try to move about and try to find its new feet.

Like I said, wobbly at first, shaky, but pushing through it. It won't be for a little while till you see that Monarch spreading wings and taking off on its own. And it is what's it supposed to happen.

Although the drastic transformation is mostly internal, this is kind of what coming out of heart surgery feels like. You go in as you, no doubt (just as the larva thinks it goes in as itself). And they take you away in this … room you only heart about afterwards, because you won't remember… They, then, completely transform you and then, when you finally come to, you start noticing how much your body has changed. And you have no idea what's inside, either!

It's not pretty, at first. When I came to, it was probably 2 AM on February 12, in the ICU, and all I felt was thirsty. I never crushed ice in my teeth before, but then, it's all I wanted to do. I noticed a scar on my lip, scabbed over – I figured from the breathing tube I had in me during surgery. Then, I noticed my right arm had a brick taped to it with catheters going into my wrist. Then, I noticed I could not feel my left arm and leg. I said all these things to the nurses who were hovering over me around the clock.

I asked a lot of questions (the butterfly would, too, had it had a voice, I am sure of it!). I had no idea what happened after I had fallen asleep in the anesthesia room the day before – I asked if I had a stroke (no), if they did circulatory arrest on me (look it up, it's fun – they freeze you up so your brain won't eat up oxygen) (yes), I asked how long was I in arrest (38 minutes), if they fixed my heart (yes, 'I had a looong surgery' they said), if my husband was there (no), or the surgeon (no) – it was 2 AM and they had a long day, so they went home. I didn't ask what they did to me, but the nurses volunteered that information: my surgery was very complex, and very long (12 hours); they replaced my aortic valve, my ascending aorta, and they did a quadruple bypass surgery. I remember being scared: “Oh, my God, I have so many new and moved around parts in me! How will this all work?!”.

Then, the next day, I started feeling more and noticing more: three catheters in my neck, four tubes in my chest, another catheter in my bladder, bandages around my left leg, bandage on my chest and lots of scabs and lots and lots of bruises: my whole left leg was blue, my groin was blue, my stomach, too. I was an experiment. Will I ever come out of this? Will I ever heal? Will I ever come out of this bed?! All I wanted was ice – this is as far as I was thinking.

But I did come out. After 2 days in ICU I took my first walk and ate my first half of a banana and 4 grapes. After 7 more days of pain and grumbling and more tests, and even a random heart attack, just for safe measure, all in the regular hospital room, I got to come home, one chest tube still in me. I got to be driven home in our own car, and sleep in my own bed that night. Well, “sleep” is a metaphor for “laying there all night staring at the ceiling and whining in pain”.

After coming home, the process of breaking loose into my new “me” started. I was the same person, but my body had to learn a whole lot of new tricks to be able to get around. After two more weeks, the chest tube came out. After a month from surgery, I took my first nature walk and started shooting (camera, not gun) again. After 6 weeks, I drove for 10 minutes again. I thought it would feel freeing, but it didn't. It felt painful once more. After 7 weeks, this week, my cardiac rehab will be done. I built up endurance to walk up to 45 minutes at 2.8 mi/hour. I started (with the drainage tube in me) with 8 minutes at 1.8 mi/hour and I was sure I was going to heart attack again on the treadmill. But I didn't. I did all these in my new body, with new limitations I had no idea that were possible, with new pain, and new sensitivities everywhere. But I am not stopping. You can't stop once you're up straight.

I have two out of countless scabs still hanging onto me. The bruises are all gone.

How do I feel looking back?! I feel speechlessly lucky and breathlessly humble! After all that I just told you they did to me while I was asleep, I am alive, you all! I am breathing! I eat and lay down, and walk and hug my cat and my husband and I have my brain all here with me. Now that the strong drugs are long gone (gone with the tube), I am, in my head, the same person I ever was before. Hard to believe they drained my body from all the blood, moved it to a machine and put it back in me, changed the course of my blood stream, froze me, for crying out loud, and then put me all back together again to make me look to you all as me again.

How does that not just wanna make you cry?! I just want to hug my surgeon till I die and thank him forever for this. I don't know how many years I was given with this, but I am grateful for today. I am grateful that I kept my brain and that my previously clogged up vessels can now function and pump life giving blood to all my body. I am grateful that I get to see the sun every morning, still. I am in awe!

Just as yoga taught me a billion years ago, the hardest part, really, of all this was quieting down my monkey mind. I am born to be a control freak. So, my nature is to always put my mind in control of anything that happens to me. But with this, you completely have to relinquish everything (your body, your functions, your freedom, your health, your brain … everything you are) to strangers, and let yourself go down that slippery slide. You must trust them (and boy, what a lesson this is in trust!) that they know what they're doing, and trust God that He'll bring you back. After that monkey climbs down from your shoulder, and walks away, you can, too walk into the hospital and volunteer yourself for this life giving surgery. This body stuff, these pains and limitations, these are easy to manage – I am back in control now, you see. But the hardest part was that letting go, closing the eyes and letting the doctors transform my heart to prepare me for my rich, beautiful life to come.

Right now, I feel like the butterfly who came out of that shell, but it's still trying to figure out how it all works now. I am still wobbly. I still need help doing most of everything around me, but I can do more every day and definitely more than chew ice, like that first night in the ICU.

One step in front of the other. Just like the chrysalis doesn't kill the butterfly, it just makes it better, prettier, different, the surgery didn't kill me, much, much to my surprise. It didn't make me prettier on the outside (sorry, all), but I hear it did make my heart prettier. All I know is that it's beating and my surgeon thinks “my heart has completely no murmur (music to the ears of a heart patient who has been used to the murmur for 15+ years now) and my lungs are gorgeous”. I'll take that as inside beauty for sure.

One day, slowly, I'll grow into my wings. One day, I will fly again. For now, I am figuring out my limbs, two of which are still numb. Still, I am in awe of this miracle that the human body is and of its power to regenerate, transform and keep going. There is no way there is not something magical, something we cannot explain for ourselves, something beyond out ability to comprehend in this world to make us come back from something like this! No way!

Good to be back!

Before - the morning of the surgery as I was taken into the anesthesia room.
After - a month from surgery, walking on a nature path.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

The Detour

When I first started this blog, it was supposed to be, I think, about my life in travels. Because I have always seen myself as a gypsy, because I have always lived away from people dear to me, which always required travels, because, for some reason, I have always been in love with things that are far away from where I live (England when I was in Romania, the ocean and the mountains when I lived in the foothills of North Carolina, Montana, Arizona, California and Colorado, now that I live in Utah), I pretty much knew that if I were to tell a story about my life, I would tell a story about my travels. 

I sometimes forget places I ate at, foods I had - all I remember is that they were memorable enough, so I come to the blog and re-read my posts to remind myself of what was. I always thought I'd keep this travel diary to remind my old age mind about where I have been all my life. I kind of look forward to each year's travels, in January, because I can see the new pages I'll fill up with stories, people, pictures, foods, smells, music ... 

But this year is different. This year, we'll step aside from the nice, lovely, straight road, and we'll take the grassy road that wants wear and go on to have our heart surgery next. That will be followed, if all goes well, and all should go well, by a long process of recovery and rebuilding my new body, with new heart parts in it. A new valve. A new part of my aorta. Some re-positioned blood vessels to bypass the sick ones. You know, old age "stuff". This is what this year's posts will be about, along with how I get out and see the world during it all.

I have struggled in the past few  months with the overwhelming severity of my condition, the risks, the possible complications, the strange state I live in and the scarce amount of good medical care. I have been at the very bottom of the hope bucket. I have cried, and been depressed and sad, and feared for my life. I could not bear the thought of not ever seeing my family, my husband, my life as I know today ever again. 

But knowledge is power. I talked myself into learning and researching, meeting people like me online, researching the best surgeon possible in this darn state. Love is power, too. I have been listening to people who know and love me and who pulled me back to the shore from my deep, deep waters of confusion. And you know I needed help, 'cause I can't swim. 

So today, only a bit over 12 hours before surgery starts tomorrow, I am ready. I am ready for this, as I have never thought I could be before. I don't know much about medicine and what my body will decide to do during the surgery. I don't know much about God's plans, either. I just hope He agrees with mine. But I do know that deep in my heart, I am not ready to end it here. As I have mentioned in my previous 2 posts, I got stuff to do! I am ready to start plan it, just as soon as this surgery and its recovery is over and just as soon as it's safe again to be out there. 

This is not sad, to me. I am grateful, because this condition, for now, is fixable. I am grateful that I have a surgeon who gives hugs and tells me the truth about everything, no matter how bleak, while cheering me on that I can do it. I am grateful for friends and for my rock solid husband who will not let me fail. I know this. 

I am hopeful and ready. This is my big detour. That is all. Sometimes it's necessary, you know. And as the poet knows, and we know now to be true, "that will make all the difference". 

Talk at you folks, in some time. But we will talk! 

Thursday, February 04, 2016

My Bucket List Now

(I pray that God is listening and finds me worthy of granting these wishes ...)

I don’t know many people who don’t love the movie “The Bucket List”. Even my husband, who finds it depressing, loves it. How can you not?! If we can’t make fun of our mortality, how else can we muddle through to the end, right?!

These days, I think a lot about my “bucket list”. And I am thinking that with every day, it keeps changing. As I think it should. Every day is different. Like the proverbial onion, every day peels off another mystery which triggers more opportunities to explore, learn, get involved, and grow ... There are big things on here and small things and just rightly sized things. They are my things and I treasure them as my heart children.

Here is my “bucket list” today - not in a specific order. 
Tomorrow ... well, that’s another story ...

  1. To see my nephews graduate and have families
  2. To show my nephews the world, the way I saw it, and sought it
  3. To see Australia
  4. To camp in our new camper till it falls apart and all it's good for is firewood
  5. To ride across  America in our camper
  6. To see Alaska and shoot the glaciers there and the bald eagles
  7. To move to my retirement place, wherever that is: Florida? North Carolina? Oregon? Somewhere with green lush trees,  mild temps, and clean air
  8. To see Ireland
  9. To write a book (at least one)
  10. To scan all my negatives into digital format, to leave them to my nephews
  11. To retire
  12. To go to Hawaii at least one more time
  13. To go on a cruise
  14. To see Los Angeles and walk on Venice Beach
  15. To visit Graceland (Elvis's home)
  16. To be really, really good at yoga, again
  17. To shoot Yosemite, the redwoods in California and the Grand Canyon
  18. To eat lobster in Maine while looking at whales in the Atlantic, and hike in Vermont
  19. To eat sushi in Japan
  20. To order bayou shrimp again at Village Tavern in Greensboro, NC
  21. To see The Vatican and Jesus's tomb in Israel
  22. To paint really well
  23. To celebrate at least my 25th wedding anniversary and maybe my 50th, too, with my husband right next to me
  24. To take my sister on some trips, just the two of us
  25. To win more trophies for making a difference
  26. To go to Colorado Springs, CO and hike at least a little bit of Pike's Peak
  27. To hike The Wave in Utah
  28. I want to camp in the desert, sandwiched between the starry skies and the red rocks
  29. To spend a week on the North Carolina beaches with my girlfriends one more time. And bring my sister along this time
  30. To spend many Holidays with our families, together, somewhere
  31. To take my husband to New Orleans and get lost in the French Quarter, lead only by the smell of food and the sound of zydeco music
  32. To live in a cabin in the woods
  33. To live small
  34. To speak about cholesterol and heart disease to whomever will listen
  35. And more than anything: to survive my open heart surgery with a functional life ahead to allow for all these
  36. To write a lot more lists like this, after this one is accomplished.

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

My Heart

"For in the dew of little things, the heart finds its morning as is refreshed." (Khalil Gibran)

I am sitting here, writing. I can almost hear my heart, almost as loud as the fridge in the kitchen. Beating. Very clearly spaced out, beat after beat, after beat.

I think this is what gave away for sure that I existed in my mom's womb - the heartbeat. My heart has since then been the rascal of my being: mom tells me all throughout her pregnancy with me, the doctor (who did not have access to an ultrasound machine back then) always heard two heartbeats in her stomach. So, he always thought she was carrying twins. She didn't. It was just my show off, loud heart.

As I grew up, I have learned I have a condition that will eventually damage my heart, as well as my brain, as well as many other vital parts of my body. But the heart was always the number one concern for all doctors - the heart goes first.

Almost all of my life, since I was 6, I have known that one day my heart would give me trouble. Well, that day has come. I am scheduled for open heart surgery in just a bit over a week.

Ever since I can remember, I have looked up to open heart surgery patients! The concept of it is no less than Frankensteinian! To crack your chest open. To stop your heart. To cut your heart. And replace parts in it ... who does this?!?! What kind of stomach does a doctor need to muster?! And then, the surviving, the moving on. The acceptance of a life on the watchout. Forever. For as long as you are lucky to breathe after that. The scare of maybe repeating the surgery, again. Oh, Lord!

Although I have known this for what seems ever to me, I am still in semi-shock. I have been lucky to have known about this for months now, and it's still hard to swallow! For 40 years, there was always "something else" they needed to try and surgery was not mandatory. There was a pill. A lifestyle change. Another test to be done. Now, there is no going around it anymore. No more delays. No avenues. No path not taken. Just a wall. A big, huge wall. A mountain to climb, and on the other side, hopefully ... life.

I pray. I beg. I cry "why me". I cry "forgive me, Lord". And I take one day at a time. And I hope. I am a big hoper these days.

I am not even in the least bit afraid of the recovery time - of all the pain, the forever meds I'll be on, the trauma, the light head, the nausea, the gore ... I am afraid of those 6 hours where my whole life, my rebel, crazy, stubborn, loud heartbeat, that first "me" of this world, will be silenced, and will only be placed solely in the hands of God and the medical staff I have only recently met. I am mortified.

I hope and pray that life will continue even better and louder than before. I hope I will meet my family, my friends, my future, on the other side. I have so much to look forward to. I miss my nephews. I miss my dad. I miss reading books I have not bought yet. I miss writing books I have not dreamed about yet. I will come back. I need to. I must.

Sick as it's been, and struggling, my heart has beaten fully, eagerly and passionately, for so many - my sister, to begin with, early on. My mom, with her blue eyes, always watching over me, beating for me, trying to make her proud of me, always. My grandma, maia, who raised me. My dad who made me tough. My aunt and all other grandparents who welcomed me, spoiled rotten, as their first born ... and not the least my husband - who keeps me together and re-stitches my broken self, daily. My cats. All the space in my heart is filled with them, overflowing.  I know all their love must keep me together because what else is there to?! So many others that never knew I cared for and about ...

I am afraid of not being the same at the end of this, the most. I am afraid that my mind will lapse and slip away, that my memory won't be all there, that my feelings will change and my outlook on life will be compromised. I am afraid of the post-op me, I guess, the most... I guess we're always afraid of what we don't know, what we don't see, and what we can't control ... but this is the ultimate in that. My dad jokingly said: "Honey, they'll pick up your heart, pull it out of your chest, wash it with some disinfectant, wipe it clean, and put it right back in". They might as well do that, or do that to my brain, and I feel just the same.

I have done some crazy stuff in my sick life. One should really not be allowed this much happiness, and gusto as I have known in my 40 years. Especially with a sick body like mine. To say that I have been blessed is to insult the word.  I have lived on impulse, spoken the truth, and never feared to look fear itself in the eye. But this time is somewhat different. Every time before, I was (although sometimes just seemingly) in control. This time, it's God and the doctors. I am just a guest at my own sorcery business.

I hope one day,  folks will remember me for one thing. And I hope that being scared out of my wits for almost the first time in my life won't be it!

I'll continue to listen to that beat. Every moment of every day. Every second. Every glimpse. For as long as God will allow. Love it and cherish it like my own first born. It needs to know it's loved and cherished. This beat needs to continue its march and stay the showoff rascal it's accustomed this world (and me) to be. I need to tell it, it's perfect just the way it is now, so it will come back promptly and carry me through many, many more winters ...

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Random Thoughts During Quiet Times

A cold winter. A long rest ...

"I am home.
I am an imperfect citizen of an imperfect, odd beautiful, dysfunctional, delicious place. 
But at least we ain't dull." (Rick Bragg - My Southern Journey. True Stories from the Heart of the South)

Rick Bragg was writing this about The South. But it could be said about Romanians, too. And this is the very reason why I felt at home in The South. 

We haven't been doing much lately. It's not for lack of options, but you know, sometimes, you just need a break. Granted, our break has been pretty much lasting since October or so, but, hey, when you're happy, who's counting days, right?! 

It's been a colder winter (and longer, it feels, of course, because of it) than we're used to, and because of colds and getting old, we simply don't have the drive we used to to go out and explore. There shall be happenin' times to come. We hope. 

Reading and watching the birds and the piling snow, one weather event after another, along with comfort food cooking and eating is pretty much the day-to-day around here, outside work. 

I have also been dreaming a lot about the South. I am reading the book I quoted from above and dreaming of why I feel, why I always have felt, like a Southerner. For some reason, now more than before, I feel worse than ever that I need to be there. 

I just get lost in this book, as I slip into slumber, every night. It makes me think and dream and giggle and ponder on either how can I one day return there, or how can I recreate that heaven, right here in the mountains. But you need people like that, for this, and food like that, too.

And it's more beautiful, simple writing than I have come across in a long while. Lately, I have been missing good stories. With a wealth of ordinary but cleverly sewn together words, that flow easily like a good meal down the hatch. Words and phrases that make you go: "Why didn't I think of that?!", Bragg gives me that. 

I'll quote some more:

"I loved a Cajun woman once. It was her eyes, I believe. 
When I was a little boy, just because it is the kind of things boys do, I would look at the hot sun through a green, sweating bottle of 7UP. The sunlight seemed to freeze in the middle of the bottle, and glow.
She had eyes like that." 

I've been taking more pictures of the winter and of the frosty purple finches outside my window, because I can't venture far in these temps! The reading, the warmth of the home, the closeness of my small family is all that I plan for for a while. Nothing more, or less. 

The weight of the snow. The tallness of it. It's why I miss "just a dusting" from my previous Southern days. 

These guys are so cute, but not sure why they call them "purple".  

I am not even missing airports, like I used to when not traveling. Or the tropics. I am just content to be and grateful to have eyes to see and read, and ears to hear good music once in a while. Touchy fingers to feel Gypsy's silky fur.

There will be times for travel. And times for partying and playing. But for now, it's time to stay put and marvel in the quiet beauty of the world. Outside and in-between the pages of a a good book. 

I hope everyone finds that, when they crave it. 

This is the opening chapter in the book. And it's why I know I will make it to the end - because you want to experience this journey, promised:

"It suits me here. 
My people tell their stories of vast red fields and bitter turnip greens and harsh white whiskey like they are rocking in some invisible chair, smooth and easy even in the terrible parts, because the past has already done its worst. The joys of this Southern life, we polish like old silver. We are good at stories.
We buff our beloved ancestors till they are smooth of sin, and give our scoundrels a hard shake, though sometimes we cannot remember exactly which is who.
I wonder if, north of here, they might even run out of stories someday. It might seem silly, but it is cold up there, too cold to mosey, to piddle, to loafer, and summer only lasts a week and a half. The people spit the words out so fast when they talk, like they are trying to discard them somehow, banish them, rather than relish the sound and the story. We will not run out of them here. We talk like we are tasting something. 
I do it for a living, which is stealing, really."