During a busy week at the hospital where I work, it is announced that we need to be fit-tested for N95 masks. It has been two years since the start of the Covid 19 pandemic and this particular yearly task dictated by the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) of 1996 for medical institutions, has been allowed to be extended to two years. We have been wearing regular surgical masks throughout this whole time continuously and also wearing N95s during high-risk aerosol generating procedures and other contacts in the operating room. Covid numbers have now dropped significantly, and Employee Health has the time to concentrate on making sure all employees have the proper fitting N95s to wear.
There are to be several days during work time when we can sign up to be fit-tested at the hospital building. There is only one day available that I actually work. I find this requirement somewhat useless but decide I might as well sign up and get it over with. I try to follow the rules most of the time. One of my co-workers gives me the phone number to make this appointment. I dial the number.
“Do you have a time available on Tuesday for me to be fit-tested for the N95?” I ask.
“Yes,” says the Employee Health nurse, “We have a 12:30 slot that day. But wait… There is a note here that you need to have a medical evaluation before fit-testing.”
“No,” I say, “I don’t. I was fit-tested when I started working here almost two years ago and nothing has changed. I have been wearing an N95 for this whole time.”
“Well, let me check on this and I will get back to you,” she responds.
I don’t understand this. It makes no sense to me, but I let it go for the time being and go on with my day. My cell phone rings late in the afternoon while I am waking my last patient of the day from their surgical procedure. I let it go to voicemail. Once I am done, I call the nurse back.
“Yes, you need to be medically evaluated before you can be fit-tested. I don’t feel comfortable having you wear a mask until you are medically cleared.”
“What…..??? I don’t understand. I answered that questionnaire 18 months ago and no one seemed concerned at the time. Now they want to hold me to some standard from something I answered months ago. “What seems to be the problem?” I am totally frustrated.
“You marked some things on your pre-evaluation sheet that red-flagged you. You marked that you have had broken ribs, an arrythmia, and a stroke. You also marked that you have anxiety when wearing a mask. You should never have been fit-tested a year and a half ago before being seen by a doctor. I don’t know how you got through.”
This is totally ridiculous and now I am angry. My broken ribs were 10 years ago. The arrythmia has existed since I was a teenager with no one being concerned about it. The stroke several years ago was a mild one from which I am totally recovered. I have gone through the Covid 19 pandemic wearing my N95 without a problem. I have done my job diligently. I have never called in sick or even remotely been ill in the last 2 years. I have not contacted covid either but now suddenly I am too ill to wear an N95 without a doctor’s permission. The sheet I filled out 1 ½ years ago should be being replaced by the current one that I have ready for the appointment that will now not occur. What is even more ludicrous is that the medical establishment has been telling the public that they should all wear N95 masks now to protect themselves, but I apparently need a doctor’s approval to do so.
“Apparently, I need to stop being so honest and just check the boxes as you want them checked,” I grumble. “How about you write down that I refuse to be medically evaluated,” I shoot back at her.
“Then you can’t wear an N95 mask,” she follows the script set for her, “you will have to wear a C-papper (a large over the head hood). And I will have to notify your supervisor.”
I don’t know if I should laugh or cry. If the anxiety of mine is one of employee health’s concerns, then how is the astronaut suit going to help? Does she realize how irrational she sounds? I am not opposed to being fit-tested or wearing the mask. I am opposed to sharing my medical history with a physician who has no reason to even question me based on responses from time long gone by. I have proved I can successfully wear an N95 mask and that I am not going to die from doing so. The rest of this process is so unnecessary. I should be able to sign off that I am medically capable of successfully wearing the mask at this point. It is not my fault that they didn’t follow through on their proper procedures in 2020.
So this is what the medical field has come to? It is guided by protocols and algorithms from which one is to follow without question. No one is allowed to think anymore. No one is to analyze a situation or to think critically. The public especially the sickest people are told by the CDC that they should be wearing N95s at all times for protection from this virus, but the medical profession is still following a standard set forth by OSHA 25 years ago. And no one dare change how those who are responding to the pandemic on the front lines are treated or advised. If wearing an N95 is so potentially dangerous to one’s health, why are we asking millions of people to wear them and why haven’t millions of people keeled over from doing so? Have we all lost our ability to be rational? But then maybe I should just go back into my “I don’t care hole” before I lose my frickin mind.
“We invite you to participate in the Tapestry study, whose goal is to understand how patient care may be impacted when results from DNA sequencing are in the medical record,” states the message that appears with my downloading e-mail. “The Tapestry study is a screening test. It looks at 11 genes associated with BRCA-related hereditary breast and ovarian cancer, Lynch syndrome and familial hypercholesterolemia. It is not a diagnostic test, nor does it look at all of the genes associated with hereditary ovarian cancer,” continues the dialogue.
Hmmmm…. My attention has been captured. Should I consider a genetic study or is this a really bad idea? I did have ovarian cancer when I was 38 years old. But that was 25 years ago, and nothing has happened since. I am pretty sure I don’t have any genetic mutations for cancer. I have no family history of breast or ovarian cancer. But still . . . I do have a daughter who has become concerned here lately as to her risk of ovarian cancer. If all this testing were to come back negative, it would provide her with peace of mind.
Three days later on October 23, 2020, I respond to the e-mail and join Mayo Clinic’s Health Tapestry Genomic Sequencing in Clinical Practice study. I am sent a kit into which I am to collect a specific amount of sputum. I spit into the collection container and mail it off to the lab in the pre-addressed box. Then I wait. The information given me was that the test results would take up to twelve weeks to be reported. That was simple.
Several months go by and I do receive the fun results for the ancestry and genetic traits part of the study. I am 95% of European ancestry with 5% of Middle Eastern and African heritage. Mixed in there is a 0.8% Ashkenazi Jewish. I find out later this is important as 2% of those of Ashkenazi Jewish descent have a BRCA mutation. The results say I am not lactose intolerant (knew that). I have not adapted to be able to avoid malaria (Oh really!). I do not have the adaptation to be able to thrive in lower-oxygen environments at high altitudes (guess I’ll stay on the plains). I do have a genotype associated with the ability to adapt in cold climates (Brr… doesn’t seem like it some days in this cold MN climate). Along with lots of other useless tidbits, I learn I have brown eyes, tend towards curly hair, am taller, and tend to tan rather than sunburn; all things I have somehow managed to figure out after being on earth for 63 years. But what I really want to know, do I have a gene coding for cancer, is suspended in the health results that only say, “pending.” I think this very strange.
Towards the end of January 2021, my husband is also invited to join this same study. He signs up on February 2, 2021, and submits his saliva sample a few days later. Ten weeks later, on April 19, 2021, his results are flashed to us as “ready.” He is negative for all eleven of the genes they are testing for that code for cancer. Hurrah, at least our daughter has a fighting chance!
Puzzled as to why he has received his results and I have not, I send an e-mail to Helix, the company being used by Mayo for this study, “I signed up for the Helix genetic study back in October 2020. The information originally stated that we would receive results by twelve weeks. It has now been 5 months and there are still no medical results. I did get the basic genetic characteristics results, but I am just curious why I still haven’t gotten my medical results…?” Helix does promptly respond, “Our systems indicate that your sequencing has been sent out for interpretation. At this time, I cannot give you a time frame … Your Health results are taking longer to sequence than previously stated. We are unfortunately back logged due to Covid 19.” I find this all very confusing. Yes, maybe Covid is slowing down their results but that doesn’t explain how someone who signed up after me has already received their results and I haven’t. I am convinced that they have lost my sample and/or my results and are finding it convenient to blame it on Covid. It doesn’t occur to me until later that they are simply not telling me the truth; that they do know the results and because they are positive, they are not ready to tell me. If I could read between the lines, it would say, “Your results were positive. Therefore, we sent them to be confirmed by a second company.”
Three more months go by. I send several more e-mails to this company and each time I am told that my results, “are delayed due to supply chain issues” or “covid testing taking priority.” Finally, on July 26, they report that “it looks like your results are in a recent batch that should be released by Helix any day now.” Coincidently, Mayo sends an email three days later that says “you will receive an email from Helix very soon, with instructions on how to access your results on the Helix website. As a participant in this study, a Mayo Clinic genetic counselor would like to review your results with you over the phone.” This should have been my clue that Mayo has already known the results for some time, and they are not good. Afterall, they never requested to talk to my hubby by phone to discuss his results.
It isn’t until July 31, 2021, 9 months after signing up for this study that I get the results. “You were found to have an actionable* variant in the BRCA2 gene that is associated with a genetic condition called Hereditary Breast and Ovarian Cancer (HBOC). Individuals with HBOC have an increased risk for certain types of cancer, including breast, ovarian, prostate, and others.”
A numbness spreads over me. Why did I think joining this study was a good idea? I would have been better off never knowing. What I had hoped would provide peace of mind to my daughter has opened a yawning pit of anguish and anxiety. I am now 63 years old and have lived 25 years without any cancer reoccurrence. I have no desire to make any “might be possible cancer” a focus of my life. I can’t live that way. But the question remains, should I ignore what was better unknown or try to pursue some interventions, some of which are of a huge magnitude in order attempt to prevent what might happen? The medical community seems to be in a huge rush now to push me down this path towards interventions. No one seemed to care much before, and my cancer diagnosis 25 years ago has pretty much been forgotten. When I think about it later, the whole process of the genetic testing makes me angry. Helix and Mayo have known for at least 6 months but kept trying to pretend they didn’t by blaming other issues and now, it is all a big rush for me to respond.
I take a breath and step back. There is no emergency here. I don’t have cancer. The first intervention I request is to be retested by another reputable company to make sure this is an accurate result and can be used to drive any decisions made going forward and will be accepted by health insurance companies. After being led along for 9 months, I do not trust the results I am being given. And it is not the first time such a test result has been wrong. I decide to give a blood sample this time as it has a higher rate of reliability than saliva and proceed to do so in early August. But if I was hoping for a different result, I will be disappointed. This test confirms the original finding of a “pathogenic variant (mutation) in the BRCA2 gene associated with Hereditary Breast and Ovarian Cancer syndrome.”
So what is the big deal with this genetic mutation and what are it’s implications? BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes code for proteins that work to suppress cancer cells, mostly in breast tissue, and help to repair any DNA damage that occurs in the course of normal life. If they are missing or damaged, the cells cannot repair themselves and they go on to grow unchecked and become cancerous. BRCA2 is found on chromosome 13 while BRCA1 is found on chromosome 17 so they have slightly different cancer type expressions when missing. BRCA2 is associated with a 45 -83% lifetime risk, according to Mayo genetics, of developing breast cancer by age 70 (the average risk for the general population is 12%), a 27% risk of developing ovarian cancer by age 80 (the general population has a 1-2% risk). I think I have that one covered already. BRCA2 mutations also are associated with a higher risk of pancreatic cancers and melanoma than the general population.
Well, if that isn’t all depressing. And how is one even supposed to begin to deal with statistics like that? My first reaction is to have a double mastectomy without reconstruction and get it over with. I don’t want to be thinking about breast cancer every moment for the rest of my life. But after doing significant research on double mastectomies, I realize that they are not benign surgeries either. Many women have chronic pain afterward. Others have numbness and upper body muscle weakness. I am a fairly healthy 64-year-old by now. I run a chainsaw. I lift weights. I’m active. I do not want a life where I am cancer free but simply existing because I am debilitated and in pain constantly. And finally, having my breasts removed will remove any chance of having a meaningful intimate relationship with my husband. I am distressed to say the least about the dismal statistics but can’t decide what I want to do.
In October, I meet with a doctor from the breast clinic at Mayo. We go through my options: 1. Do nothing (that is not encouraged at all) 2. Have a double mastectomy (see reservations above) 3. Start taking aromatase inhibitors to help prevent cancer and/or 4. Monitor with alternating mammograms and breast MRIs every 6 months. I groan at each of them. I hate visiting medical facilities and doctors and have no desire to visit there constantly. Taking aromatase inhibitors sounds interesting but it is mostly a “hit and miss, maybe” approach. No one knows if I will actually get the kind of cancer that is prevented by drugs that block estrogen production and uptake. So there is a chance that I’m taking a toxic drug that is providing no benefit to me personally. I lean heavily away from their use after I read the side effects: hot flashes, night sweats, join pain by 50% of those taking it, muscle pain, and bone loss. I am back to the same issues of decreased quality of life to treat what currently doesn’t exist. I don’t know what to do.
Before I leave my breast appointment, I am offered the opportunity to join another study, “GENetic Risk Estimation of Breast Cancer Prior to decisions on preventative therapy uptake, risk reduction surgery, or intensive imaging surveillance: A study to determine if a polygenic risk score influences the decision-making options among high-risk women.” The polygenic risk score will take into account genetic risk factors, known as single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) for breast cancer. While individually, these SNP risk factors are of little clinical value, when combined as a polygenic risk score (PRS), they yield a strong risk factor for breast cancer and can be used to personalize breast cancer risk. In other words, the polygenic risk score is an analyzing of 30 or more genes that influence whether a person develops cancer and coming up with a projection for any one particular person as to what their personal chances are of developing breast cancer. At first, I reject the idea of joining another study. I am already overwhelmed by all the information and decisions being thrown at me but the more I think about it, I wonder if it could provide me with the information to make a definitive choice as to the direction I should go. And so I sign up for one more genetic study. While I wait for the results, I try to go about life as normally as possible.
This time, I do not have as long to wait. Within 8 weeks, the results are back. “I have good news,” are the first words from the doctor’s mouth when I sit down with her. “You are in the lowest 7th percentile on the polygenic risk scoring. Because you had a hysterectomy at age 38,” she says, “I assess that you have a 9% risk of developing breast cancer in 5 years, an 18% risk in 10 years, and a lifetime risk of 27%.” That figure is still high compared to the general population, but I now know which direction I am going. At least for the present time, I will alternate the mammogram and breast MRI every six months. If any abnormality ever shows up, I will opt immediately for a double mastectomy without reconstruction. Now that I have made this decision, we have to come up with a plan for safely performing the MRI as I am allergic to the gadolinium dye that they use. This will be my biggest roadblock to following through on this decision.
In November of 2021, after loading up on methylprednisolone and Zyrtec, an anti-histamine, I successfully traverse the breast MRI. All findings are negative. I can breathe a sigh of relief, at least for six months. I begin to move on with life and focus on the future. And then, “your Cologuard test is positive.” Is there no end to this craziness? Is this what old age is all about? Waiting for the cancer shoe to drop? I reject that premise. I choose to live my life in freedom from such fear, God willing – to treasure each day for what it is.
Rrrarf…RRRARF…RRRARF… I am met by drawn back lips, a large yapping jaw, and jagged teeth as I peek through the crack I have created in the doorway. I have come here at the request of the owner of this large totally black male German Shepherd to let him out to go potty since she will be gone for about twelve hours. I visited this home just a couple of days ago to meet Jay, a 7-year-old recently adopted dog. He barked at me initially but then was happy and approachable. He rubbed his head on me and delighted in my ear rubs and sociable pats. He seemed like a friendly fellow.
I am always cautious with animals that do not know me, and I am not surprised at this fairly normal response to my invading his territory. I have come prepared with a couple of dog treats. I extend my hand with the treat to Jay through the crack in the door. He takes one look at what I have to offer, turns tail, and sprints off through the kitchen, continuing the hair-raising barking as he goes. Then all is silent.
I fully push open the door and slowly tread through the lighted kitchen and into the living room. I peer into the darkened bedroom where Jay has fled. Two bright shining circles reflect back at me. I flip on the light switch. Grrr… a low growl emits from the trembling animal perched on the bed.
“Jay, it’s OK. I’m not going to hurt you,” I speak kindly and softly while tossing another of my treats his way and taking a few steps in his direction. He continues to stare at me and send that little rumbling growl my way. We repeat this a few times over the next ten minutes with little progress.
“Do you want me to take over?” It’s the voice of my hubby behind me who has followed me after hearing the initial greeting.
“He’s all yours.”
“It’s OK, Jay. Do you want to go out?
The ears perk up and Jay jumps off the bed, heading for the door Dave holds open for him. In a flash he is gone. I am not sure this was a good idea. I am thinking we should have left him for tonight and hoped for the best. My biggest fear now is that he is out, and we will not be able to corral him. He does have an e-collar on that his owner told me that, if pressed, he would return right away. I pace on the porch holding the remote control to the collar while Dave tries to keep a sight line on the dog’s hurried strides around the yard. I am anxious and worried. I think he has gone far enough into the dark, so I push the button, “Jay, come here,” I call. He bounds up the step then back through the door I am holding open. But I am too slow and whatever fear overwhelms him takes over again and all his power is applied to the door as he makes a determined escape.
“Jay, come here,” I demand but I am ignored. He paces a few times in the southern yard than disappears around the house. Dave follows. I wait, hoping that they will reappear but as the minutes tick by, no dark shadows re-appear. In the distance, coyotes howl. I finally walk around the house. There is no one in sight. “Where are you?” I call into the stillness. There is no reply.
Now I am really worried and desperate. Did Jay run off into the field and Dave follow? I dig out the flashlight, shining it into the deepening darkness while I stride out into the field to the west of the house. Where could they have gone? How can they have totally disappeared so fast?
“Dave, where are you?” I call over and over into the blackness. No voice drifts back to me. Now I am panicked. Finally, the light bulb goes on in my head. Use your phone and call him. Dah! As I am preparing to dial, I hear my name being called.
“Where have you been?” I demand
“Jay came around the house right to the other door, so I let him in.”
All this time, I have been desperately searching, he and the dog have been safely inside the house.
“I thought I should let him in if that’s what he wanted even if it wasn’t the right door. I don’t think he peed but that’s the way it is. I was able to get him to eat the treats. He let me rub his ears and his belly and I got his e-collar off.”
Well, Dave gets the prize for being the dog whisperer. Not sure we accomplished what we set out to do but at least the doggie is safely back in the house.
My traveling partner, Dawn and I arrived in Moab, Utah around 5:30 p.m. local time on Monday, July 12, 2021. The temperature is 105 degrees. “At least, it’s a dry heat,” people often say but it is still hot. Red rock rises into the sky on both sides of the highway and the landscape is dry and barren. Nothing grows green. Moab is a sprawling western tourist town with probably more motels than anything else. We check into our accommodations at Bowen Motel and then decide to walk across the street to Wendy’s to get supper. Apparently, Utah is still hanging onto the Covid 19 restrictions yet regardless of whether one is vaccinated or not. Wendy’s lobby is locked up tight but there appears to be cars going through the drive thru. We turn away and stroll south along the sidewalk. There has to be something open within walking distance. However, each place we pass has a “closed” sign on the door. I am getting hot and frustrated. Dawn wants one thing and I want another. We are like two old married people who can’t agree. We finally decide to walk back to the motel, get the car, and drive through Wendy’s drive thru. We are the fourth car in line. Our hopes rise that we will soon be chowing down and filling our bellies. Unfortunately, the minutes tick by while we chomp at the bit. They finally take one order and fifteen minutes later, another. The gas idles away as we wait. Fifteen more minutes goes by.
“Let’s go somewhere else,” I finally say, “This is ridiculous.”
I quickly check the GPS for suggestions of other nearby fast-food places since the ones unique to Moab all seem to be closed or not open for dine-in. I am so glad I brought my GPS along. It has provided useful information on restaurants, gas stations, and rest stops along our route. McDonald’s is just .6 mile down the street. We are met with the same drive through line only there but at least it is moving. We soon have some sandwiches, fries, and a milkshake to satisfy our growling stomachs. We have made it safely to our destination.
The sun is peaking over the cliff just to the east of our motel when I enter the warm morning air. The temperature has not dropped below 80 degrees during the night. Orientation is scheduled for 10 a.m. at the Mild and Wild Rafting office in Moab. Dawn has brought along an electric skillet, and she whips up some French toast. This along with grapes is our breakfast meal.
A little before 9:30, we head out for the rafting headquarters. It only takes a few minutes to make the drive. A young lady sits at a picnic table under a shady canvas canopy. There is a light breeze which wafts away the feeling of overwhelming heat.
“Can I help you?” she greets us.
“We are here for the orientation,” we respond.
“You are early,” she says, “but I will go see if I can find one of the guys to do your orientation.”
Soon she is back with a young man, Haden, who is to be one of our guides on our adventure. “You are the only two that will be here for orientation so I will just do it now,” he declares, “The other family is not flying in until this evening.”
He gives us each a waterproof sack twice as big as a pillow. Into this, which already includes our tent, we each are to stuff a sleeping bag, a mattress, and a duffel bag of personal clothes and necessities. With a little creative stuffing, I finally get the task accomplished. And that is the extent of our orientation. We are ready to leave and go about our day by ten. So why did we come a day early?
We make a decision to drive the short distance to Arches National Park. After reading on-line about the overcrowding of our national parks and the high chance of being turned away if one is not there by 7:30 in the morning, I have grave doubts that we will be able to get in. But there is no line, and we easily zip through the ticketing process. Motoring around the park in our vehicle is mostly our means of sightseeing. Large red rock formations rise against the sky. Many of them have acquired names for their shapes. This national park is known for its sandstone arches of which there are many. We swing into a parking pullout every so often to snap a photo. Even a couple of very short hikes are in order, but the heat soon chases us back to the car. Before we know it, our stomach is calling us to head back to Moab for some food. We discover at Denny’s the same issue we had the night before at Wendy’s. They are extremely short of help with only one man seating patrons, cleaning tables, taking orders and delivering food. In spite of this, we are back out the door within an hour.
After an afternoon siesta time, we head downtown on foot to scope out the various shops and enjoy an ice cream treat. Our final task of the day is to deliver our electronics to the rafting company office for safekeeping. Leaving them in a 200-degree car for four days does not seem like a prudent idea.
Raindrops splatter on the windowpane and slide down the glass. The sky is dark and lowering. I sigh. Not another rainy day. Yesterday, the water poured from the sky all day leaving an inch of water in the rain gauge. I was hoping for a better day today, Friday, as the lawn is growing lush and green heralding the need for a mowing. I wanted to get the mowing done before Saturday as we are going into the Memorial Day weekend. Oh well, it may just have to wait until tomorrow.
Surprisingly, by noon, patches of blue sky with peaks of sunshine begin to appear and a renewed hope rises within me. I know the yard is slightly damp yet and our trails through the woods are probably soggy, but I am going to give it a try. With a roar of the engine, I am off and soon going around and around shaving that lush green grass into a mat of fresh smelling clippings.
The last part of the task is to clip the overgrown trail through the woods. I make my first pass from the house winding through the trees down to the gravel road. The last fifty feet of the trail is downhill and culminates in a steep headfirst dive to the road ditch. Sliding down the hill sideways is not my idea of fun so the wise thing to do is to avoid that. My plan is to turn around and go back the way I came before the steep descent. Even then, I am uncertain of being able to ascend back up the incline I came down. The X540 John Deere that we own has rear tires with lug tread but even with them, I have learned it tends to be extremely helpless on an upslope. I hold my breath as I back around and head out of my precarious position. Just a few spins of the tires and I am wheeling along back towards the house. Whew! Made that one.
The next section of trail winds through the forest on the north side of the gravel road. Hubby and I have built a 20-foot bridge over the road ditch which extends from the ditch to the woodland opening. The bridge is just wide enough for the tractor, so precision is required with a little speed to make the slight incline at the other end. The hope is to not end up in the ditch here either. Traveling this portion goes off without a hitch. I do have a little problem with spinning on the trail which should have been my first clue that this whole operation is not a good idea today but hey, I am not one to give up what I have started. Use of the differential lock seems to overcome most of my difficulty. About ½ mile along this trail, we have installed another bridge that straddles a large washout. It lies at the bottom of a V slope in the trail. I know that if I descend into the V that I will not get out either way with it being as wet as it is so I turn around and head back. Without a problem, I am able to mow back to the road at the beginning. Now all that is left to do is mow the last section of trail that comes in from the opposite way to the V.
My confidence growing, I speed to the opposite end and begin again. I can do this. As I approach the treacherous section again, I am apprehensive. I have to be careful and not let myself get down into the valley or I am done. Falling into the wash would be disastrous as well. I roar up a little incline and position myself to turn around but there is not much room, and the terrain is inclined. Turning around requires backing uphill with the tractor. Not only do the back tires want to spin, the front tires do not want to turn the machine to bring it back around to the path. They just slide further off the trail. Between accidently hitting the forward foot pedal instead of the reverse more than once, I am soon helplessly positioned off the path and stuck against a tree with the mower. I have dug a big hole with the back tires and wedged the front against a log. Oh No! Frustrated, I sit there. I am in the middle of the woods. No one else is around and we have no other vehicle to pull with that will fit down the path. I have no idea how we are ever going to get this out of here. I might just as well walk home. It is 3:30 in the afternoon. I was doing so well and now I am dead in the water.
“How late r u going to be?” I text Dave.
“Not late. Around 4:10.”
“I will wait for you then. I got the tractor royally stuck in the woods.”
Right on time, Dave’s white pickup rolls up the drive.
“How are we going to do this?” I question him.
Confident, he replies, “We will take the tow rope and a Come-Along. Hopefully, we can find a tree nearby to pull from.”
This is a solution that has not ever even occurred to me. It infuses me with optimism.
Soon we are hiking up the path carrying two sets of tow rope and the Come-Along. My heart sinks just a little when I realize how few sturdy trees there are close to our predicament spot. There is no tree to be able to pull backward or forward from. The only available tree is about 25 feet away and off at a 45-degree angle. We come up with a plan to hook onto the front frame of the little tractor and to try and pull the front end around onto the trail. Within just a few minutes, my competent Hubby is slowly ratcheting the front around to face the trail.
“Now get on it and see if you can drive it out,” is the command.
I have my doubts, but I stomp on the differential lock and push the gas pedal to the floor. With a roar, it rises up out of its hole. Hurrah! I am off.
Since, I was almost done anyway, I decide to finish that last pass on the path and make a couple of passes along the side of the gravel road. That should only take fifteen minutes or so. I have just about reached the hardtop road when the mower abruptly and unexpectedly stops and the engine stalls out. The engine starts without a problem but each time I try to engage the mower, the tractor stalls. So now what’s wrong? I might as well give up. I turn around and head the tractor for the house. But on one last thought, at the end of the drive, I stop, get off and peer under the mower. Ah! There is the problem. A 5-6” diameter rock is wedged between the mower blade and the deck. I knock it out and climb back into the seat. With a screech, the mower whirls to life without killing the engine. Soon I am done.
Dave is laying on the lawn soaking in the sunshine when I return. Claire dances around him waiting for flying toys.
I sprawl beside him and kiss him on the cheek, “What would I do without you? I had no idea how we were ever going to get that tractor out of there.”
“Oh, I had time to think about it on the way home,” he responds.
Life is so much easier to tackle when one has someone to help shoulder the challenges. This year we will have spent thirty years helping each other deal with life. It reminds me of the Bible verse, “Two people are better than one because together they have a good reward for their hard work. If one falls, the other can help his friend get up. But how tragic it is for the one who is all alone when he falls. There is no one to help him get up.” Ecclesiastes 4:9-12
“Riiiinggggg, riiiinggggg, riiiinggggg,” The sound of my hubby’s phone interrupts our supper preparation on this Saturday. I feel that twitch of annoyance but then sigh. This has always been my life for almost thirty years of being married to a self-employed electrician. This time it is our tenant who rents the apartment above Gordon’s shop.
“Could you come and fix the garage door opener? It doesn’t work and I am going to have weight-loss surgery on Tuesday and won’t be able to lift it afterward,” she implores.
When Gordon returns an hour later, he indicates that he has not been successful in diagnosing the problem, “Can you call an overhead door company on Monday? She said her surgery was on Tuesday, so we need to get it fixed before then.”
Monday afternoon finds me guiding the overhead door repair technician to the vexing garage door. I push it up by hand and step inside the garage. Whoa! What is that putrid horrible smell? The lady tenant has lived in our above-the-shop apartment for almost twelve years. Neither my hubby nor I have been in the actual apartment in many years. For just a fleeting moment, a thought crosses my mind, what if she dies while having this surgery done, what will we find up there in that apartment. I quickly dismiss that notion. That’s not likely.
The tenant has communicated to me that she expects to be back on Saturday. I toy with the idea of going up there while she is gone and seeing just what is going on. Gordon and I have suspected that she now has a dog. She had a cat when she moved in. And how does one care for a large dog in an upstairs apartment when one can hardly get up and down the steps themselves? I quickly dismiss my desire to investigate as we have not informed her of any intent to enter the apartment as is legally required.
Thursday morning, I receive a call from my husband. He sounds distressed.
“Sally died in Mexico!” He blurts out.
What??? My premonition is disturbingly slapping me in the face. I exhale a short laugh. “I was not really expecting that, but I am not too surprised,” I tell him.
“Her brother called,” continues my husband, “and said that she died. I didn’t know she was going to Mexico for her surgery. He is going to contact us later about removing her possessions from the apartment and cleaning up. I gave him until the end of December to get everything out.”
“The end of December!?” I repeat, my heart sinking.
My stomach has clenched into a tight knot and a wave of weariness slides over me. She is gone, just like that. Guess it is time to go see exactly what the condition of the apartment is. I knew a day of reckoning was coming. I just wasn’t expecting it quite yet. But denial of the signs- the glimpses of a dog, the smell – only works for so long.
The rancid smell touches my nose as soon as I push open the front entry door. Behind the door is a package of doggie training pads and cardboard laid out on the cement landing. The seventeen steep steps to the apartment are a little dirty but not bad. Both latches on the final entry door have been busted out. I gingerly push open the door. I gasp at the sight that greets my eyes, followed by total breath holding. The stench is overpowering. Covering the floor in the dining area are rumbled blankets, dog poop, and urine stains coated with cat and dog hair. My stomach has started to churn. I tiptoe carefully around piles of dog excrement as I explore the bedroom, living area, kitchen, and finally the bathroom. I touch nothing. I am repulsed. I cannot believe anyone would want to even sit on the toilet. I am about to gag, and I make a hasty escape from this dungeon.
I wonder where the dog and cat are. The tenant’s brother informs me in a phone conversation later that day that he picked up the dog from the local kennel before flying to Mexico. He insists however, “Sally left the cat in the apartment because she wasn’t going to be gone that long.” I am puzzled as I look around on my second trip to investigate this claim. There is a big bowl of water in the middle of the kitchen floor but no cat to be seen, no cat food visible and no litter box. I text the tenant’s brother with this information. I finish, “The cat could be hiding so I have decided to take some cat food today and see if it disappears.” I also suggest that maybe she boarded the cat with someone at the last minute.
“I just don’t want a cat to starve to death in the apartment or destroy the property,” he expresses his concern in return.
I chuckle sarcastically to myself. This man is clueless about his sister. “I appreciate your concern for the property,” I text, “but it is too late for that.” I want to cry. The hardwood floors are totally ruined. But he is still in Mexico and trying to deal with his sister’s body. I assure him that I will feed and water the cat until he can come if it is there and alive yet.
I drive home on this Saturday and collect a small bag of cat food and a dish. This time I don an N95 mask and some gloves. I don’t really think there is a cat here, but this will be the litmus test. I leave a small dish of food. I gather up my courage to climb those steps into the cesspool again on Monday morning to check the result of my experiment. The bowl is empty. OK, something ate it. I fill the bowl again with cat food and decide to drive home to get a litter box. I am not sure it will be of much help at this point but maybe it will prevent a couple of dumps into the already toxic mess. When I return in just under an hour, the food again is gone. That smothers my doubts. Somewhere in here is a cat.
Each day, I make the trip to put out food which disappears by the next time I come. On Thursday, I spend a few minutes quietly standing and looking around.
“Meow, Meow,” I hear the soft sound. And there she is, a thin silver-gray colored kitty. She approaches tentatively and finally allows me to pet her. It is time for me to go and as I close the door behind me, the cell phone rings.
“I would like to come this afternoon and see what the situation is,” begins the voice of the tenant’s brother, “and maybe if we can catch the cat, I will take her.” In the background, a harsh loud meowing reverberates over and over through the door. Well, the cat has had enough of being alone. Maybe there is hope of catching her today.
A few hours later as the tenant’s brother, nephew, and I climb the stairs, they are shocked by the state of affairs that we find, “I can’t believe that she was living like this. I had no idea.”
At first, there is no sign of the cat. “Here, kitty, kitty, kitty,” I call. In a few minutes, she appears from one of the open kitchen cabinets. She still is not sure about all these strange people and stays just out of reach. Nephew reaches down and strokes her face hesitantly. “I don’t want to get bitten,” he wavers. He does finally pick her up but as she struggles to get away, he releases her. My heart sinks. I can just see her escaping back into her secure hiding place. She doesn’t look too wild or dangerous to me. Once she calms down, I pick her up again and hang on when she attempts to flee. Soon she calms down and allows me to hold her and stroke her back.
Nephew looks around for something to contain the cat in for transport. There is a Tupperware storage container between the living room and dining area that looks promising.
“See if you can empty that and we can put her in there,” I suggest.
He lifts the lid and peeks in. Quickly, he slams it back shut. “Un Uh!” he says.
“Well, what is in there?” I question.
“Poop,” he answers.
Oh dear. Really? The poop storage container!!!
The decision is eventually made to take Kitty without a carrier. I just hope she doesn’t disappear in their vehicle or escape. Good-bye Kitty.
On Friday, I drive by the apartment building and notice that the dumpster is full. They are not losing any time in tackling this project. I am relieved as there is nothing quite so depressing as being faced with such a mess.
I text Brother on Saturday to let him know that all the appliances are to be left with the apartment. I forgot to inform him of that.
“Okay, thanks,” He responds, “We got a start yesterday, but the real work begins on Monday. I am renting a dump trailer and planning on having the apartment empty by Tuesday evening. Wish us luck.”
“I do wish you luck,” I answer, “And thank you so much for taking care of this.” I feel a huge sense of relief that Brother is diving right in and taking on this overwhelming, gross task. I am afraid that if I were in his shoes, I would have thrown my hands in the air and just walked away, leaving the mess for the landlord. I think he is being overoptimistic with his time estimation but every step forward that he makes is one less that I have to navigate.
I climb the steps to the apartment on Tuesday evening. The stench has decreased significantly with the emptying of the contents of the building. It is still filthy but so much better. I look through cabinets, the closet, and various nooks and crannies. Most everything is gone with the exception of two things. The carpet still rests on the living room floor. That grimy piece of dirt infested threads needs to go too. I peek in the refrigerator. He must have forgotten that. It is still plumb full.
“I will be back on Friday,” he informs me when I contact him about his further plans.
“Could you carry the carpet down to the dumpster when you come back?” I ask. “And by the way, the refrigerator is full yet.” I think he may have forgotten.
I am hopeful that those final two items will get taken care of in addition to the emptying of the garage downstairs when he returns. Then we will be ready to hire a commercial heavy-duty cleaner.
I have been so impressed with the work that this gentleman has done so far that I have allowed myself to be overly optimistic. On Friday, I receive his final text, “I’ve gone as far as I’m going to go. I did not empty the refrigerator. I just don’t have a stomach for it.”
OK so I guess emptying the refrigerator is my job. He did not say anything about the rug, so it is time to investigate just what is left. On Sunday, we stop at the shop for my hubby to check on some supplies. I peek in the dumpster. There is no rug in it. That means it is still upstairs. Well, I guess that is our job too. Next, I head straight for the garage below the apartment. As I open the overhead door, I am jolted. I was expecting an empty garage. Instead, it is half-full of discarded computers, a monitor, printers, a 64” TV, 4 various vacuum cleaners, a couple of brand new looking handicapped accessories, and various other miscellaneous pieces. What am I supposed to do with all this stuff? They are all items that need a cash outlay in order to discard. Great! Just great! I guess he got tired of his non-paying non-productive task and just decided he was done. I can’t say I blame him, but I am disappointed that his great start just petered out and flopped.
I return to the apartment on Monday with a couple of tasks in mind. I want to try all the devices that Brother has left and see if any of them work. I want to take down the curtains to wash them and I need to empty the refrigerator. I begin with the curtains. Ugh, they are dirty. Well, so much for my idea of washing them. I cringe at the filth then stuff them in a garbage bag. As I traverse the laundry room removing curtains, I decide to give the clothes dryer a spin. It responds quite promptly and begins to turn. Clunk, Clunk, Clunk…. It sounds like it is running on scorched bearings. I shut it off immediately once the burning smell reaches my nostrils.
It is time to move on to the refrigerator. The freezer is stacked plumb full of frozen single serve meals. It seems a shame to throw it all away but even it emits a nasty odor. The main cooling compartment contains curdled milk in a jug and various leftovers in different stages of disintegration. Four large garbage bags fill as I pull out container after container. I peak in the bottom drawers and discover an inch-deep layer of mold. Ick! My last discovery is on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator. Box after box of the medication insulin for diabetes touches my fingers. What a waste! It all gets heaved into the dumpster. I let out a sad mournful sigh. The apartment is empty, and this is the end of one life here on earth. Now it is time to move on to the cleaning.
“We should re-stain the deck,” comments my hubby while gazing out the large bay window at the birdfeed cluttered deck. It has been a few years and the green-treated boards are becoming dark and mildew coated.
Staining the deck is not a job I have ever desired to do. In the past, I have always hired someone for deck maintenance, but it cost us $800 to $1000 each time. Now I do not have that kind of money. Being retired has its perks but having lots of money is not one of them. As I think about this prospect, I begin to relent. Maybe I could do the job. I could rent a high-pressure washer to clean and prepare the wood and buy a paint sprayer to stain it. That doesn’t seem so difficult. I begin to search on-line researching the products needed to clean the wood, exploring the various stains available, and investigating the many different choices in paint sprayers. I decide on a specific sprayer and order it.
On a beautiful summer day in July, I motor over to the local hardware store to rent the high-pressure gas-powered washer. The temperature is predicted to be in the mid-80s with fairly low humidity. It should be a great day for this job. I am hoping I can fit the piece of equipment into my Subaru SUV.
“How do you start this?” I ask the store employee who is helping me with the rental.
“Well here is the throttle. Here is the choke. And here is the on/off button,” she reiterates and instructs me. “And then of course, you pull the start cord.”
No problem. I get it. I have started many a gas engine before. I am sure I can do this. We do struggle to get the washer to fit into the back of my vehicle. It is just a few inches too tall. Laying it down would result in all the gas leaking out so we prop it up tentatively on the wheel well projection – maybe it will stay there for six miles.
I arrive home with only one stop to re-prop my unsteady piece of equipment. Once home, I check the gas tank. Looks good. Then I hook up the water hose. The water seems to run all over out another hose that extends from the side, so I shut off the spigot again – just until I can get it started. Now to pull the rope. At first, it sticks, and the wheel doesn’t want to spin the engine. But then, it lets loose, and I pull the rope over and over and over. The heat begins to rise up the back of my neck and I begin to sweat. I fiddle with the throttle. I fiddle with the choke. I turn the on/off button the opposite way until I no longer know which way is on and which way is off. I will be exhausted before I even get this started.
“Where are you working today,” I finally text Hubby. I don’t want to bother him, but I am at my wits end.
“Elgin,” he answers, “I can come.”
“I just can’t start this stupid thing,” I text emphatically if that is possible. “Doesn’t even sputter.”
“Be there soon.”
I sit down to wait and collect my wits. Why did I think this project was a good do it yourself one? Ten minutes roll by before that familiar white pickup comes roaring up the drive with Alex, our employee at the wheel.
Gordon and Alex walk with me around to the back of the house while I expound on my situation. Hubby looks at all the start mechanisms with me while Alex observes from the other side.
“What’s this on/off switch over here?” questions Alex. He is looking at the opposite side of the motor at a small round red knob that is labeled with those words of on and off. He reaches down and turns the knob to on and then grabs the pull rope and gives it a tug. Putt, Putt, Putt goes the engine – just like that.
Now I feel really stupid. And to top it off, I remember that I have forgotten to buy the deck wash when I picked up the washer. That is what that hose is for that is leaking water all over the lawn. It is supposed to go into the cleaning solution. Uggh! Well, time to make a trip back to town. Not only will I be exhausted, but my day will be half gone before I even get started.
A half hour later, I am back with the solution. I decide to start on the outside deck railing. Our deck is twelve to fifteen feet in the air. This means I need to climb a step ladder to direct the high-powered flow of water onto the weathered wood on the outside of the railing. A pull of the trigger and I am jerked backwards by the force of 3000 pounds per square inch of pressure. The water stream splatters specks of dirt in all directions, but this works like a charm. I can see the mildew and dirt peeling off, leaving a bright looking new wood surface.
I move the ladder a few feet each time as I progress around the deck. My knees begin to protest the repetitive bending and my leg muscles tremble with fatigue as I traverse up and down the ladder over and over. It is also a continual balancing act to counteract the force of the water gun. Balance is not something I have a lot of anyway. During one move, I catch my feet on each other and tumble off the second rung of my structure into the mud I have created. I land with a thud on my left hip and left hand. Great! I have added to the already present wrist sprain from two earlier falls this summer but nothing else other than my pride seems injured.
Once I move to the upper level of the deck, the challenges become less, and I soon have a sparkling clean platform ready to stain once it is dry. I am ready to return my borrowed piece of equipment. I look at myself. For just a second, I contemplate taking a selfie, then reject that idea. I have dirt and mud in my hair and all over my clothes. I look like I rolled in the mud – well technically I did. Even if I have to pay more for the use of the washer because of the extra time, I have to take a shower and change clothes before I make my trip to town.
My plan is to allow the wood to dry for three or four days until next week before doing the staining. I have asked my hubby to accompany me to Menards to buy the stain needed on Saturday. But while waiting for the weekend, I get an e-mail notice, “We’re writing to inform you that your order … has been canceled because the item you purchased is out of stock.” The paint sprayer I have so carefully researched and ordered is not coming. Now what am I going to do? There is not enough time to order another one or from a different company. I add “buy a paint sprayer” to the list of items needed from Menards.
Our shopping trip on Saturday reveals limited choices of paint sprayers at Menards. One type of sprayer includes a long wand. That would work great for what I am trying to do but the price is high considering this may never be used again. We finally settle on a middle-of-the-road cost sprayer. It is small and light but will need to be filled frequently. We also acquire three gallons of new-cedar colored stain, a 100-foot roll of plastic sheeting, and a full jump suit to keep me from becoming a brown mummy. Now I am ready.
The next week is predicted to be a sunny beautiful week with no rain and temperatures in the low 80s. This should be perfect. Tuesday is the day set aside to tackle the task. Saturday afternoon, we string several ten-foot-wide strips of plastic sheeting down the side of the house under the deck and over the patio floor. Monday evening, we finish our protective measures by covering the house siding above the deck with the same sheeting. Afterall, we have no idea how wild I will be with a paint sprayer. I have never tried this before.
Imagine my sinking heart when I hear rain pouring on the house roof at 5 a.m. Tuesday morning. Noooo! Wednesday it will have to be as I am starting a new job on Thursday.
“Could I have one of your taller ladders,” I question Gordon on Tuesday evening. I think that if I can climb a little higher without running out of ladder, I will be able to more safely reach the outside deck railings.
“I need to go downtown and get you one of my old ones,” He consents, “I need the ones on the truck tomorrow and I don’t want brown stain all over my good ones.”
“Good Grief. OK, whatever works for you.”
Wednesday morning dawns pleasant and warm but not too hot. I am glad I asked for that taller ladder. I gather all my paint supplies together – more plastic sheeting for the garage floor where I plan to do all my reloading, the paint, the sprayer, a paint brush, a mixing stick, and protective gear. First, I need to read the directions on the paint sprayer. It has a very flexible holding container and the most important requirement for the sprayer to work apparently is to get all the air out of that holding tank by squishing the air to the top port hole.
I pry off the paint can lid and stir the stain. I am ready to pour. But pouring paint is not the simple process I envision it to be. The stain runs down the side of the can and splashes in a spreading pool on the plastic before I can get it aimed into the sprayer receptacle. Oh dear! This is distressing. Finally, the sprayer cup is full and I have a stain covered container to screw onto the sprayer. I have more paint on me and the floor, I think, than in the sprayer. I have purposely waited to don my clothing protector gear until I had the sprayer ready to go. As I step into the coverall, I realize this is not a simple paper coverup but more of a rubberized hazmat suit. Next comes the N95 mask to keep me from breathing in the paint mist and some old safety prescription glasses I have found to protect my eyes. It even has a hood to protect one’s hair. Now I am sufficiently encased and protected from all hazards.
I expel the air, prime the pump, and turn the nozzle to spray. I am pleased that when I press the trigger, the stain ejects in a wide spray. With the taller ladder and a little coordinated reaching, I am able to nicely distribute the stain onto the railings. However, within three minutes, my paint gun container is empty, I am feeling smothered, and my glasses are steamed up. Down the ladder I go to fill up again. By the third fill-up in less than fifteen minutes, I am sweating profusely, my mask is wet inside, and I can no longer see out of my fogged glasses. My hearing aid begins its high-pitched squeal indicating it is shorted out from being too damp. Off comes the hearing aid and the glasses. I will just have to do this without being able to hear and see. I do realize that I need to drink if I am not going to faint before this is done – something I don’t normally do much of. Therefore, I make frequent stops at the refrigerator for glass after glass of ice water.
By the time I reach the last section of railing on the outside, my moving has slowed down to a crawl. Each trip up the ladder takes another ounce of strength out of me until I am gasping for air, feeling lightheaded, weak and with trembling knees. I have to get out of this getup. I cannot stand this any longer. A massive heat wave emanates from me as I unzip the coverall. I pour water out of the sleeves as I slide my arms out and my clothes look like someone poured a bucket of water on me. I am on the verge of a heat stroke and the day is not even particularly hot. My regular clothes are just going to have to get stained if need be. Ah, it feels so good to not be encased in plastic.
A little chocolate and a few cups of milk restore my energy and I am able to slowly complete the upper deck. I see that it pretty much got a first coat from all the spray shooting through the spindle slats. Now I just need to give it one finishing coat. I survey my work as I make the last spray strokes. It looks really good – just like a new deck. But next time, it is going to be a hired job. I’m not doing that again no matter how much the cost savings.
“Major snowstorm coming in for the holiday week with 5-9” of snow possible from Tuesday afternoon through Wednesday followed by 35-45 mile per hour winds,” emphasizes the meteorologist during the Monday evening weather forecast. I groan. I must work two days this week and one of them is to be Wednesday. I am not looking forward to trying to traverse a blizzard whipped road to meet my work obligation. I just hope that Thanksgiving is nice as I am looking forward to having our daughter and her husband join us for the holiday. They have a four-hour drive from Ames, Iowa.
Tuesday dawns with a dark curtain hanging low over the land. However, the temperature is mild, rising into the forties and the wind is calm. This depressing atmosphere pervades throughout the day, but no raindrops or snowflakes fall from the pregnant clouds. Only a few snowflakes have fallen by the time the earth circles into the darker darkness of night. Maybe the weatherman will be wrong.
“I’m going to go take my shower,” I inform my husband around 9:15 Tuesday evening. Soon I am basking in the warm pleasant water of the shower, scrubbing the suds of the soap bar into all the cracks and crevices. Without warning, I am thrown into complete darkness. Great! Just great! Maybe it will come back on again.
“You are going to run out of water if you keep letting it run,” comes a voice from the doorway.
“Well, yeah! But I am not going to stand here with soap all over me.” I turn off the water and stumble out of the shower groping for a towel in the blackness.
“I didn’t think it was that bad outside that the power should go out.” I comment to my husband, “Could you start the generator for a while?”
“I’m going as soon as I can find a flashlight,” his voice recedes into the murky hole of the stairwell.
Soon there is a roar from the garage and a flood of bright light from the kitchen indicates we are generating limited electricity. At least, the water pump will run and I can finish my shower. But now what do we do? It’s too early to go to bed. A few extension cords are pulled from the drawer and strung so we can view the weather on TV. Still, the power has not been restored.
“Should we leave the generator run and go to bed,” questions my hubby. “I really don’t like to leave the generator run while we are sleeping.”
“Let’s just turn it off. It’s not that cold out and we can snuggle together in bed.”
But I am reminded as we settle into bed that my bed warmer needs electricity, our Sleep Number bed is hard too. It can’t adjust without power, and Hubby’s CPAP mask doesn’t operate on air either. Ughhhh… I lay there listening to the snores beside me with eyes wide open. There is not going to be any sleep for me tonight. I have just started to doze off when I am startled awake by the overhead bedroom light glaring in our face. The power is back on.
The next day, we learn that the power outage was the result of a local crop farmer who was headed home from last minute corn harvesting. The steep hill a mile from our house had become layered with fresh ice and snow causing his large John Deere combine to slide off the road and snap a power pole in two.
I am feeling exhausted when I climb out of bed the next morning from the events of the previous night. About 8” of new snow greets me when I peek out the front door. To top off the situation, the wind is howling. Hubby heads out to clear the driveway. The biggest problem for plowing is that the ground is not yet frozen, and the snow is wet and heavy. This results in rolls and rolls of driveway gravel ending up in the ditch- a distressing result to me this early in the season.
For the last three weeks, I have been driving a new 2019 Subaru Crosstrek as a loaner car while mine is in the shop. I can see myself smashing this one in a winter storm before I am able to return it. But it is a Subaru and it is an all-wheel drive so what could possibly go wrong. I leave a ½ hour early in order to be able to drive carefully. The roadway is plowed but patches of drifts have developed where the snow has been driven by the westerly wind across the road. I find myself following a van whose driver thinks 30 miles per hour is an exceedingly high speed. Every few minutes, she (I am presuming it is a she) finds herself “flying” down the road at 32 or 33 mph and the brake lights come on. Over and over, this happens. I take a deep breath and bite my lip. I might actually make it to work. Thank goodness, I left early. It seems a little icy to try and pass especially with a car I do not know well so I patiently follow. I soon park safely in the parking ramp. I have promised my hubby that I will text him when I get to work to let him know I have arrived safely. I type the text in the car and hit “send.” “No service,” pops up along with a question, “Do you want to send when service is restored?” I hit the “yes” button and head into the hospital. I check my sent messages a couple of times to make sure my text went. Satisfied, I turn off my phone.
Not only is this a snowy wintery day, it is the day before Thanksgiving, and we are busy in surgery. I find myself running an hour overtime and it is 8 p.m. before I am ready to head for home. I turn the phone back on and see I have a frantic message from the morning from my hubby, “I haven’t heard from you. Are you OK? Are you in the ditch? Should I come look for you?” Now I am flustered. Did my text not ever get to him? I quickly dial his number.
“I just got your text from this morning,” he informs me. “I have been worrying all day that something happened to you.”
“I’m sorry. I sent you a text. I guess you can figure that if no one from work has called looking for me, that all is well,” is the only response I have for him.
I am frustrated that my well-laid intentions did not work out and Hubby has been anxious all day. There is not much I can do about it now, but I guess I have learned not to trust text messaging.
It is no longer snowing as I head for home and the state road heading north seems clear. It isn’t until I turn onto a county east-west road, that I see the first pickup in the ditch. As I scan the road about another mile ahead, numerous red brake lights shine back at me. A glaze on the blacktop reflects back from where the snow has been skittering across the road all day. There is an obvious problem ahead as well. Sure enough, another pickup is in the ditch. I crawl around the disaster to avoid the same fate myself. I come up behind a car that is crawling along with hazard lights flashing. Seriously! That’s annoying to have intermittent orange bouncing off my retinas. I think I can tell we need to go slow.
By 9 p.m., I am safely in the garage, only to be confronted by another problem. The internet is not working. I can only guess the dish is snow and ice covered. That problem will have to wait until morning.
After a good night’s sleep in a warm, snuggly, electrically-operating-properly bed, we decide to solve our outdoor issues while waiting for the young folks to show up for Thanksgiving. The satellite dish is covered with snow, so a ladder and a broom are obtained to wipe off the offending material. A coating of ice remains after the snow is removed. The connection is trying to work now but ever so slowly. It is brainstorming time. How do we get the ice off the dish? Hubby produces a tree trimming pole and I dig through the drawer for a hair dryer. Electrical tape them together and we have a useful tool for thawing ice high up on the side of the house. Ten minutes of hair drying, and we have an internet connection.
Our daughter and son-in-law along with two large dogs soon sweep in with a flurry and we have a Thanksgiving feast together. Well timed by the Lord above, it is the only day of the week with quiet weather and a smooth-running day. Our bellies are laden with turkey, stuffing, squash, and pumpkin pie and our hearts are gladdened with family fellowship.
Friday morning after climbing out of bed, I turn on the water at the sink in the bathroom. Hmmm? Nothing is coming out of the faucet.
I return to the bedroom to my sleeping husband. “I think we have a water problem.”
He sleepily crawls out of bed and dresses. “It has been almost 25 years. One of these times, we are going to end up pulling the pump.”
I sure hope it is not the pump. Pulling it now would be a huge headache. Our yard already has a four-foot drift in it and getting a well truck backed up to the garden would take some doing. Well, I can’t wash up, but I can comb my hair and get dressed while Hubby disappears to the basement with his electrical meter to do some checking and diagnosing. A few minutes go by before the bathroom is thrown into darkness. A resetting of the breaker has caused a bang as the breaker kicks out again. “There is a dead short,” is the response I get when I go to check on progress. Soon he is kneeling in the snow in the garden by the well attempting to make a final determination of the problem. “I think it is the underground and that I can fix. I just hope I am right,” he concludes.
A trip to town is next to get a roll of wire which we string across the yard to the house. A hole is drilled in the garage/house wall to gain access to the basement and then my resident electrician re-wires the well. A flip of the breaker results in rising water pressure and a stream from the faucet. Hurrah! So why has the underground decided to go bad now after twenty-three years? We can only speculate. This fall, we added a porch to the front of the house. One of the posts was extremely close to the buried well wire. The builders did not think they hit it but maybe, they nicked it and now it has burned off or maybe, the concrete poured into the hole for the foundation has shifted enough to put tension on a previous splice. We will be waiting until spring now to run another permanent underground wire.
But we do have electricity and water again just in time for the next winter weather system to move through dropping rain, freezing rain, and snow over the next three days – days that I thankfully do not have to venture out to work. We are more than ready for the bright sunshine that appears on the Monday morning that next week. It heralds the beginning of December and the start of the Christmas season.
I am always looking
for new books to read. I especially love non-fiction novels about the lives of
others. I want to know how they dealt with the experiences in their lives and
how it worked out for them. I came across a book entitled “Educated” by Tara
Westover. It is a New York Times best seller. My curiosity was triggered, and I
bought the book.
It is a story about Tara
Westover’s life growing up in a Mormon family in Idaho. Even by Mormon
standards, her father especially, is an outsider in his own faith tradition.
Eccentric might be another term that one would use. Tara and some of her other
younger siblings are never sent to school and their so-called “homeschooling”
is basically no schooling. Her father believes school will contaminate his
children to the world- a world in which he sees himself as God’s prophet.
There are so many
psychological and religious issues in this story that I can relate to on so
many levels from my own personal experience. Although, I grew up Mennonite and
not Mormon and the religious beliefs are different, the cultural dynamics are
First, Tara grows up in a family where the father is the ruler and women are seen as needing to always be submissive to men. This is a standard Mormon belief as well as one of many evangelical Christians, but her father uses that belief to control and to manipulate his family into a separate kind of lifestyle ruled by paranoia of everything “out there”, religious superiority, and an expectation of family loyalty. He does this through demanding an adherence to a distorted preaching of his faith as the one and true faith, by shaming his children if they so much as show any interest in how others live and attempt to copy that behavior. I couldn’t help but make that connection to my own father. Though my father was not nearly as off-center as Mr. Westover, I recognized the same behavior from my childhood. The result is the child feels alone and unable to connect with anyone often for life.
Tara finds herself
alienated from everyone in her world except her family. She sits alone in
Sunday School and of course, she has no friends for two reasons. She feels
different from everyone else and her father makes sure that she has no time or
opportunity to cultivate friendships with others. He stresses that girls she
meets are not good enough for her. Her father uses his faith to condemn them as
not living the way a person of God should live. She, therefore, feels guilty
for even wanting to associate with such “wicked” people.
Tara, even after she
leaves home and goes to college, finds herself unable to fit in and at odds
with pretty much everyone. I don’t think she, for many years, recognizes that
this is a result of the socialization or lack thereof from her home life. It is
deeply and complexly rooted in the emotional, psychological, religious, and
cultural dynamics of her early years. I find it interesting that she titles the
book, “Educated,” as if obtaining an education is what moves her to a place in
society that she is accepted as “normal” by others. The lack of education is a
handicap and with certainty will keep her a captive in her father’s strange
world, but it is not what makes her feel alone, strange, and like she doesn’t
belong in the new world that she explores. Getting educated will not fix what
is broken inside of her from her childhood. It only gives her a better platform
from which the self can say, “Now I am somebody.” I did the same thing. I went
to school and got a master’s degree and a job that is viewed with respect and
awe. And while working in it, I feel strong, accepted, and like I have worth. But
outside of it, I still feel friendless and different from everyone else. I
watch Tara as the story progresses feeling this total alienation from others
and struggling with it. From my own experience, I have learned the feeling
never goes away. One simply has to learn to be comfortable with being alone and
knowing that this is who I am.
A part of her psychic also does the same thing that I did with my family even after leaving. It longs for the love of one’s parents and siblings. Tara, like me, keeps coming back to the family trying to convince them of reality and what is right. Even though on a logical level, one comes to understand that one’s family is mentally unhealthy, there is this deep seated need to stay connected to them. Afterall, if those who bore you and nurtured you in childhood don’t love you, then why would anyone else especially God. Tara loses herself and becomes mentally unstable for a year after she realizes that her family does not want to know the truth that one son has been viciously abusing other members. Her parents are not interested in addressing the problems in the family and the highest value of loyalty makes everyone choose to accept “the delusion that they are one big happy family” which will allow them to remain part of the family. Tara realizes that the family “truth” and loyalty are more important than loving her. This is devastating to her.
What really destroys her is that her mother betrays
her in this battle to expose evil. Her mother one minute acknowledges to Tara
that she knows about and will speak to her father about Shawn’s unacceptable
behavior. But when there is an actual confrontation, her mother turns against
her and sides with her father. Her mother tries to destroy Tara’s reputation
and character. For the mother to stand
against the patriarch of the family requires too high of a price. It reminds me
so much of my own mother who swung from seemingly being rational to total denial
and perpetrating vicious attacks on my character. It leaves one very confused
and in the case of Tara, she cannot concentrate enough to even study. She falls
into a deep depression. She had this deep-seated hope that her family would
change because of her speaking the truth. But her family, like mine, was
incapable of changing. Denial is a powerful substance that keeps the system
stable no matter how dysfunctional. Only the individual has the power to change
and often doesn’t because of these pressures from different aspects of society
to conform, especially the family of origin and one’s religious community.
If you enjoy exploring the complex dynamics of
families, “Educated” is a compelling read. My books “If You Leave This Farm”
and “No Longer a Child of Promise” also explore many of the same dynamics. My
third book, “Once An Insider, Now Without a Church Home” explores the same
dynamics and pressures within the evangelical church as found within the
family. One is only a friend and a member as long as one follows the dictated
expected behavior and norms.
I appreciate all those who have the courage to write
their stories. It helps me to know that I am really not alone and that I don’t
need to be ashamed to share my own story.
“Do you want to go along with me to Albert Lea,” questions my husband, “It is the only place I can find a silver cover for this light fixture that I need.”
Lea is about sixty-five miles from our home but not outrageously so. “Sure,” I
respond, “Why not.”
decide to go to the early service at a church in the local big city. Not only
will it be closer to our destination, but we will be able to get an earlier
start on our journey.
Instead of turning to get onto the interstate after church, Hubby pulls into the local Kwik Trip. “I need to get a Dr. Pepper.”
wait while he makes his purchase and a bathroom stop and then we are on the
way. No sooner are we on the interstate and the car’s cruise control set at 70
miles an hour than he decides to take a drink from the newly opened Dr. Pepper.
Suddenly, the car swerves violently and my heart skips a few beats. What is that all about? I reach for the
steering wheel as I glance over to see what the problem is. Hubby is holding
out a volcanic spewing pop bottle. Dr. Pepper is spilling onto him, the seat,
and the center console of the car. I am distressed by the flow all over
everything. Trying to help out, I reach out and take the bottle so he can gain
control of the car. “@#@#@#,” I exclaim as the vomiting bottle continues to
gush all over me.
did this happen?” I throw my question at him while trying to contain my rising irritation.
didn’t get the cap back on right and then I dropped it – twice.”
Great! I stuff my exasperation the best
that I can. It wasn’t intentional.
But I am still distraught. The driver’s car seat and Hubby’s pants are wet, the
passenger car seat and my pants are wet, and dark spots of sticky liquid cling
to nooks and crannies I hardly knew existed. We pull off the interstate and try
to salvage the inside of my car. That pile of napkins I have been collecting in
the glove compartment comes in handy along with Hubby’s handkerchief. Soon, we
have cleaned and wiped all the surfaces that seem to have been hit by the
cyclone bomb. It actually looks cleaner than before we started. I sigh. Let it go. No need to spoil the day over
some spilt milk – Oh I mean Dr. Pepper.