Monday, August 29, 2011

Tough Stuff

I had a friend once tell me that she didn’t read my columns because they were ‘too happy’.

She said it made her feel bad that I never seemed to have problems and her life was full of them. I was able to let her comments roll off my back because I know the truth. We have our fair share of problems. Trust me. How could a family with three teens and one tween not have some frost heaves in the road? I just don’t like to dwell on them. I’d rather focus on the good stuff that comes along the path.

But sometimes life just pushes and pushes and pushes until you want to scream, “Enough already!” I had that feeling recently, as one thing after the other seemed to fall apart in front of my eyes. So this column is dedicated to my friend who thinks I live a charmed life.

Oh, where shall we begin?

Let’s start with the house. We bought the house I’m sitting in because it had great square footage, great potential for improvement, and (some day) great resale value. It came with five acres of gorgeous woods, bordered by a stream. It’s kind of rare to find that in East Greenbush, especially when the house is in the middle of a quiet, lovely neighborhood near all major shopping. We spent all our life savings on supplies and then spent five years throwing our sweat equity into fixing it up. We added antique windows into interior walls, found and refinished original wood floors, and updated all the utilities. We painted every wall, added new trim, and replaced almost every floor in the house, not to mention gutted and built back a brand new kitchen.

So when moving time came, we thought we’d be set. We put our house on the market with confidence. And then we sat. And sat. And I’m still sitting. We dropped the price through June and July and are now almost back to the price we paid for it. And still, no takers.

That’s depressing enough, losing almost every penny of equity we’d put into this place, if it weren’t for the fact my whole family just moved out to Colorado without me. I’m stuck here until this fabulous house (that no one seems to want) sells.

Okay, just for fun, lets stir in another major life stressor. Two weeks before we were to drive across the country so I could drop the boys off in Colorado, my little guy took a big fall on his skateboard. Not only did he end up with a broken wrist, but despite a good helmet, he suffered a concussion that put him in the hospital for three days.

It’s a very scary thing to see your child not know who he is, or where he is. It was torture for his daddy to be way off in Colorado, as his little guy struggled to heal. For days he couldn’t seem to stay awake and we didn’t know when we’d ever get out of that hospital room. Well trained teens saved the day and we all got through it together.

So then it was time to take our big drive. The one where I dropped my oldest son off at college in Utah, then sent my two younger boys off to their first days of school in Colorado, before I flew away from them, back to the empty house in New York. Lots of emotions in every part of that plan. You’d think that would be enough, right?

Guess again.

On our last day in Utah, right before I said goodbye to my first college bound child, we stopped by to see our very best friends in the state. They had lived across the street from us when we lived there and quickly became some of our favorite people in the world.

I had heard that my friend was sick, but I had no idea she’d spent the past six days in ICU and was hooked up to respirators, fighting for her life. Seeing her in that hospital room, surrounded by machines, dredged up all the memories I had of losing my mom, seventeen years ago this week. I just wasn’t emotionally prepared to see someone else I loved in that situation.

It nearly knocked me flat.

Somehow we pulled ourselves away from that hospital room, after giving hugs to her husband and offering helpless encouragement. Twenty minutes later I pulled it together and hugged my son on the steps of his college dorm, trying my best to hold back the floodgates of tears and emotion.

And then, on the long drive back to Colorado, where in 48 hours I would be saying goodbye to my husband and my other two boys, I cried.

All the way through Wyoming I let the quiet tears fall. It’s probably a good thing I didn’t have access to a soundproof closet, because I’m not sure how out of control I might have become. So instead I just let the tears do the cleansing.

There is not room in this space to describe the other nightmare that played out in the past two weeks, when my main back account number was stolen and used to buy electronics in Texas. Freezing of major accounts two days before a cross country trip equals trials and tribulations you just don’t want to hear about.

So yeah, really crappy stuff does happen to us. And sometimes it seems overwhelming.

But if I’ve learned anything in my 43 years on the planet, it’s this.

Take stock of the good stuff. My husband has a great job that he loves. My children are all well (and healing well). There is hope for a great life in Colorado, once we all get there.

So for now I’ll just keep jumping over the bumps in the road that lead us to that destination. And keep remembering that there’s always someone else out there who has it worse off than I do.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Local Support

Back in May I had my last official day at work. I never dreamed, when we moved to New York five years ago, that I’d ever work at a library. And I never expected to love it so much. But that’s how life goes. The story of your existence moves forward and chapters are added that have twists and turns you could never have imagined.

But on this particular Thursday, I was very aware that my routine was about to change. I stopped off at Stewarts on my way in, like I had so many mornings before. I swung into the parking spot that is so familiar. I’ve parked there hundreds of times in the past five years. When I came around the corner, the front door was held open for me by a friendly construction worker, as it often is when I’m stopping by for our almost daily gallon of milk.

I looked around this place that has become so much a part of my everyday life. My neighbor works behind the counter and never fails to ask me how Sam is doing. The other clerks are just as friendly. They always seem to have smiles to spare and I’ve seen them more than once go out of their way to help a an elderly customer. On chaotic free ice cream days, when they have a pretty valid excuse to be crabby, they always seem to be as excited as the kids who are asking for cones.

On that Thursday in May it occurred to me that I’m not only leaving behind friends and family, when we move to Colorado next month. I’m also leaving behind my neighborhood, the things that bring me a quality of life I’ve come to appreciate. As a person who’s moved many times in the past decade, I know firsthand how precious these basics in life are. It takes a while to build up a pattern and rhythm, when you move to a new place.

I left that Stewarts, the one I consider my own personal convenience store, and headed off to work that day. And as I went to open the front doors of the library I saw a familiar face. The same construction worker who’d held the door for me was now taking a minute to drop off his overdue book. This time I held the door for him.

I will never take for granted the web of comfort we’ve woven here in New York. It takes some time to find a good doctor and dentist, but it also takes time to find a good hair dresser and a good mechanic. I don’t think we’ll ever find a doctor we love as much as Dr. Karen (and her nurses) and Dr. Dong has done a great job of keeping my family’s teeth cavity free, in her efficient, friendly way.

I will miss my hairdresser, Lisa, who is one of the few people I’ve ever known who actually cut my hair the way I wanted, not the way she thought it should be. She is a great conversationalist and an even better hair dresser. I will be searching high and low in Colorado, to find someone who can match her standard.

And as I tell my daughter, the most valuable man you can marry is an electrician, a plumber or a mechanic. I lucked into finding my ‘car guy’, Norm. I always knew he’d never charge me for work that didn’t need to be done, and I’ve been suspicious that he’s undercharged me for work that was valid. I’m leaving him in charge of watching over my daughter’s car, as she stays behind to live here in New York. I always tell her, “If Norm says something’s wrong with it, something’s wrong with it!” It gives me peace of mind to know Norm will be looking out for her.

I discovered the magic of a transfer station in our years in New York. The guys who work there are my first go to guys when I need advice about who to call for products and services. They know who does the best work in every category imaginable and their friendly banter made going to drop off trash one of the fun things on my to do list.

I’ll also forever be grateful for George, my trusty oil guy. This state was my first experience with home heating oil and George not only answered all my questions with patience, I always knew he’d give me the best price he could on the oil he delivered.

As much as I think I’m unique and different, I have to admit the old saying is true - we are all just creatures of habit. We tend to shop at the same stores every week, and buy our gas at the same pumps when the gauge says empty. I’ve filled up more milk club cards than you’d ever believe and racked up gas points for being a ‘chopper shopper’. I will not miss the never ending commercials for Huck Finns Warehouse or the round man in the untucked shirts yelling “HUUGE!” through my television. But it’s all become a part of my life.

My daily routine will be different in Colorado. Just by the nature of living in a mountain town, the everyday habits I create will be unique to that climate. We’ll explore different areas on the weekends, but I’ll also have to get used to which gas stations have the best prices on gas and milk.

I’ve come to love the routine I’ve found in New York. It’s consistency gave me comfort. But it’s time to make a new routine and carve out a new life. Eventually I’ll find another ‘Lisa’ and another ‘Norm’. But I’ll never forget the ones I left behind.

I’ll always appreciate the cast of characters that made my five years in New York unique and special, just in the routine ways they did their jobs so well.

Monday, August 1, 2011


I knew Sunday would be a crazy day, but I had naively assumed the craziness would be related to the fact we had a house showing at 11 in the morning, and the only people home (to clean up the house) were me and my youngest son, Sam. We got up early, then scurried around picking up trash and dishes, wiping down counters, putting away laundry. We’re living pretty streamlined these days. Half of our stuff is in storage. But the daily living stuff can really add up.

Especially when your only helper is a ten year old boy.

We flew out the door just as the potential buyers were pulling into the driveway. During our wait, we drove over to pick up his teenage brother, who had been camping with a friend. We waited patiently for the hour to be up, then drove back home and stepped back into life. I pushed the two of them out the door, saying, “Go play outside. You need the fresh air!”

Ten minutes later they were back. I heard Sam sniffling as he came in the back door and one look at him revealed why. He was covered in road rash from a skateboarding crash. But even more concerning was the red smear on his forehead that seemed to be swelling by the second.

As I put a cold cloth on it to clean it off, the words that freeze a mama’s heart came out of his mouth. “What happened? Where am I? How did I get here?”

Now we’ve gone through a lot of medical stuff with our kids. Mainly the boys, but even their big sister broke her arm sledding in Utah, bad enough that she had surgery and 8 weeks of casts. We’ve had many broken bones, dozens of stitches, plenty of blood. We’re no strangers to boo boos. But this was my first real head injury.

And it took all the courage I had not to fall apart right next to my boy.

I have a good friend who survived a traumatic brain injury. They’re not something to take lightly. Suddenly the red angry scrapes all over his body, and the very sore arm that may or may not be broken, didn’t seem to matter. I needed to get my son to medical treatment as soon as possible.

With a few deep breaths I went into action. I called the local urgent care center, just down the street, to find out if they were open on Sundays. I set up my teenager by the phone, in case his dad called from Colorado and wanted an update. I gathered up my boy and we headed for the car.

On the drive over to the clinic he kept asking me the same three questions over and over. It reminded me of the Alzheimer’s patients I used to work with. I would answer the question and ten seconds later he’d ask it again, not remembering my previous answer. It’s very unsettling to have your usually bright, happy go lucky boy be so confused.

Several times he’d ask me if he’d just woken up. He had no memory of going out to skateboard with his brother. He had no memory of the accident. He didn’t even remember getting into the car. I tried to force myself not to burst into tears right along with him.

A kind nurse ushered us into the exam room and a doctor quickly followed. He did a variety of tests to check Sam’s mental capacity. I explained the confusion I’d been witnessing. There was no question, as the doctor put it, that my boy had ‘gotten his bell rung pretty hard’. With a diagnosis of concussion, we were sent to the ER for a CAT scan.

Again, on the drive over, the questions started. “How did I get here?” “Did I just wake up?” “What happened?” Deep breaths. Deep breaths and patient answers.
Once we did our obligatory time in the waiting room, where Sam continued to whisper questions to me, and occasionally sob out of pure weariness and frustration, we were sent back to an exam room.

Another doctor did the tests, physical and mental. We walked down a short hallway to the CAT scan, and then an X-ray on a suspiciously sore elbow. More waiting. Then another X-ray on his wrist, that had suddenly stopped working too. After four hours we were finally headed home.


Just the fact we were headed home gave me great joy. My boy was going to be okay. A specialist will set his broken wrist this week and I will do my best to keep him ‘calm and quiet’, as the doctors ordered, so his brain can heal from the concussion. We escaped the big stuff. This time.

Laying in bed with him last night, after we’d finally uncovered all his oozing road rash wounds and put antibiotic cream on them, and set his temporarily casted arm up on a pillow, I finally breathed my sigh of relief. He was joking with his siblings. He had his sense of humor back. He was even working on his accident story, feeling like ‘a skateboard accident’ didn’t sound nearly as fun as ‘a bar fight’.

And I was reminded again about the importance of helmets. Sam is never allowed to do any sport without his helmet. Skateboarding, biking, skiing…no sports without head protection. In this case, it might have saved his life. I will go out to buy him a new helmet this week. His old one is pretty chipped up. But I don’t mind. It’s a pretty small price to pay for my boy’s future mental health.

As the seasons change, and skateboarding boys begin to mountain bike on Colorado trails, then ski on Colorado slopes, I will continue to insist my boys put on their head hear. It’s a non negotiable in this house.

As it should be in every household.

Trust me, your child’s brain is worth it.

Follow up: Two hours after I wrote this column, I was once again back in the ER with my boy. After having a very 'normal' morning, he suddenly started shivering, got very lethargic, and couldn't seem to stay awake. We spent the next three days in the hospital, trying to figure out why his temperature kept spiking, and he couldn't manage to eat anything. They were suspicious that he had internal injuries that we just couldn't find.

It was decided that he had picked up a virus from somewhere, and it hit just 24 hours after his wreck. So the symptoms from both were mixing together, causing a mystery that included many CT scans, ultrasounds and blood tests to figure out.
The doctors were pleased as he began to show signs of recovery, and even more pleased that he had been wearing his helmet. Once he's up to it, we're headed to the store to purchase a new one.

In the meantime, he has a new, bright green cast, and will get it changed in ten days, the day before we drive off to Colorado. Then I have to dig up an orthopedic guy out there to continue his healing process.