Budgeting Life

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This weekend, I picked up Dr. Paul Kalanithi’s extraordinary memoir When Breath Becomes Air.  I had bought it on a fire sale as an e-book before Christmas (thanks to this Stirrup Queens post) and when my lunch break rolled around, I thought I’d start on it.

Reading it at two in the morning, just down the hall from the ORs, wearing periwinkle blue surgical scrubs, a vital sign monitor on my desk that I needed to put away after my break made the story more real, and I was pulled in almost immediately.  It was not at all hard to imagine Dr. Paul Kalanithi as a physician, as a neurosurgeon, walking in and issuing his postop orders, doing the usual things surgeons do.

But of course, that is not the whole of the story, nor its most brilliant, poignant part: Paul Kalanithi was an undeniable genius, yes, clearly a gifted physician, yes, but he was also a patient.  The two personas, brought together in one who could clearly articulate the connections, tensions, and even find humor between them are what make this one of the most exceptional books I’ve read in a long time.

Kalanithi’s book was published posthumously and while it is absolutely about dying, it’s about more than that.  It’s about living within limits – unusually cruel tight ones in Kalanithi’s case – but limits are a fairly universal human experience.  I think what I found particularly instructive and lovely about When Breath Becomes Air is its acceptance of human limitation.  Kalanithi accepts that his cancer is terminal and seeks to live within that diagnosis – there’s no talk of “fighting” or being the exception or beating cancer.  Instead, he thoughtfully decides to live fully whatever time he has left.

It’s rare in this day and age where a relentlessly ‘positive’ mindset is stressed and the acknowledgement of the chance that an outcome might be anything less than miraculous restoration of health or a return to previous life is often met with “oh, don’t say that!” to see a treatise like this one.  Even outside of life and death situations, there’s a cultural notion about being able to accomplish anything with enough effort/investment – one with which I know much of the infertility community is intimately familiar.  I think the way this book challenges that is a central part of the appeal, or at least, it certainly was for me.  Kalanithi’s resolution to move forward by grieving his losses, knowing his death will come untimely early, and doing his best to both find and continue in what he valued until that death reads as far more positive than an empty promise to seek a ‘cure’ at any cost.

Personally, when confronted with limitations that truly grieved me, I’ve tended towards anger.  Maybe it’s because sadness and grief seem passive and anger gives the illusion that there’s something I can do, something that with enough force might change the distressing situation (even when I know better).  Kalanithi suggests a very different path.  He interrogates himself to find the values he wishes to cling to within the whirlwind.  And then he does it.  It’s not a denial of emotions or grief or putting a good spin on a tough situation, it’s a measured choosing of response.  “It felt like someone had taken away my credit card and I was having to learn how to budget” he writes.

There’s so much more to consider in the book – and hopefully write about – but that felt particularly resonant.  The next time I must budget my life, I know I’ll return to Kalanithi’s thoughts on doing so.

This post is a part of Microblog Mondays.  If you want to read more, head over to Stirrup Queens.  Thanks to Mel for originating and hosting.

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December Updates

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  • I’m working on reestablishing my exercise routine. I hadn’t fully realized how much the lack of movement was affecting my physical strength as well as my mental health.  It’s meant getting much more creative than previously, but I’m really trying to get in 3-4 30 minute sessions of moving (whether that’s walking/jogging outdoors, indoor running, using the mini trampoline, circuit training at home, or actually going to the gym) per week.  Hopefully as my strength improves, I can increase those to 45 minutes or do a 30 minute + a later 15-20 minute session.
  • Speaking of movement and mental health, I’ve long had a personal rule that for the first half of my run, I would think about all the things that were frustrating, angering, or otherwise hacking me off but then for the second half, work on considering more meditative or thankful thoughts (yes, this led to some pretty long runs during infertility since I wasn’t ready to be calm until 2.5-3 miles in!). I’m doing that again and have noticed that I’m less stressed at other times – I know I’m going to have some specific time devoted to worrying/anger/frustration and that helps me to be more functional at other times.
  • We’re decorated for Christmas! I bought a “tree collar” this year – mine’s a wicker thing that covers the base of the tree and a little way up to the bottom branches – that hides the weights I use to prevent the tree from getting accidentally tipped over better than the tree skirt.  It’s amazing, honestly, after years of carving out space that didn’t really exist in our apartments for the tree to have places to put decorations now.
  • Tree Collar
  • Above is tree collar, I can’t seem to get a picture of mine without all kinds of stuff around it :), below are some of my actual decorations
  • I made myself a dress!!!! Not the one I initially started on, but a different one.  The sleeves are slightly wrinkled (ugh) but really, for my first time I set in sleeves and did all of it, I’m pretty proud of how things came out!
  • The original dress is on its way back, however. My aunt saved my rear end after I cut it too small and was able to put in gussets to make up the difference.  I get to hem it. I’m so fortunate to have so many wonderful aunts.
  • I also made myself an infinity scarf with the left-over fabric from a skirt. I gather that animal prints are in this season and I am…not normally an animal print wearer.  However, it’s a nice, lightweight seersucker with zebra stripes and perfect for an easy scarf to add a touch of flair to an outfit.
  • The kids are doing well and growing fast. E is 3 going on 13 😉.  The other day, we finished off a paper towel roll, she held out the cardboard tube and goes “we need to recycle this.”  I told her: “Yeah, but look!  There are so many cool things we can do with this!  We could make a trumpet!” (made trumpeting noises with it).  E stared at me, very unimpressed, and goes “Are you done?  We need to recycle this.”  Ha, and here I thought I had a few years before I became embarrassing to her 😊!
  • The cold is really starting to set in, and I am very thankful for a garage! First time in 13+ years we’ve had one during the winter and it is marvelous.

This post is a part of Microblog Mondays.  If you want more, please check out Stirrup Queens!  Thanks to Mel for originating and hosting.  

Once Bitten…

Content note: breastfeeding

After my experience trying (and failing) to breastfeed E, I was determined that if I was able to have another baby, I was going to breastfeed.  I tried to set myself up for success when I found out I was expecting M, reading books and purchasing a new, high quality double electric pump (I wore out the motor on the one I used with E).  When M was born, I worked on getting milk supply established, making sure she had a good latch and was feeding well.  I was fortunate my body responded this time, and we were happy.

For the last seven and a half months, everything went well.  M loved breastfeeding.  I had a huge supply.  I froze lots, and ultimately wound up donating to the local milk bank when I overflowed the freezer.  I followed all the new guidelines that stipulated exclusive breastfeeding until 6 months.  I loved breastfeeding and figured we were set.

(You can tell where this is going.)

Then, about two months ago, the first little crack in that rosy picture appeared when, out of nowhere, in the middle of a happy nursing session, my adorable baby smiled up at me…and promptly bit down.  Hard.

M didn’t have any teeth at the time, so while I was startled and it hurt, I just let out a little “ow!” and stared down at her.  She, seemingly oblivious, resumed nursing.  I figured it was a one-off and didn’t think much of it.

Until it happened again.  And again.  And again.  Thanks to no teeth, it didn’t bother me all that much, and eventually M quit, right around the time she got her first tooth.

Then, in late October, M started biting again.  The situation escalated over about a week, culminating with Halloween, where she bit me seven times, including once that drew blood.  I did some research, concluded that I needed to keep a closer eye on her when nursing and watched her latch like a hawk.  She bit me one more time on November 1, then we reached a détente.  M nursed.  I watched.  It was no longer quite the carefree, cuddly experience from before.

The peace held until Tuesday.  M bit me once in the morning.  I unlatched her, set her down, and told her “no” soberly.  The next nursing session went fine.  I went to latch her on for the afternoon session, and M bit.  This time, she drew blood.  I yelped, took her off, waited twenty minutes until I could see her giving hunger cues, then I gingerly started to put her onto the other breast.

Within seconds, I was bleeding again.

Because I am nothing if not persistent, I waited until I saw hunger cues again, about fifteen minutes later, and tried again on the first breast.  Before I knew it, she clamped down, leaving behind a pair of bloody toothmarks.

I called the lactation consultant, who advised that I pump and let myself heal.

I went to nurse M again on Thursday morning, and found myself terrified.  I could not bring myself to put my breast in that mouth, which turned out to be a correct instinct as she bit her bottle over and over.  I went and saw the lactation consultant.  We figured out a few things, but the upshot is, as of today, M screams whenever she sees my breast.  She’s on a nursing strike.

It’s like a lock has sprung open on all those crappy feelings from infertility and prematurity and my inability to breastfeed with E.  A representative sampling: This is why you’re infertile.  You’re a bad mother.  You caused this to happen, you reacted wrong.  You aren’t trying hard enough, anyone can breastfeed.  You gave up too soon with E, you know that you could have gotten her latched eventually.  If you can’t breastfeed M until she’s one, you’ve failed and she’s going to have tons of health problems.

I know these are ridiculous, and also?  Totally untrue.  I also know something else from all the past struggles: I can set myself up for success and do the work, but sometimes, the end result is out of my hands.  The problem is, it’s hard to keep reminding myself of those facts.

I have given M eight months of breastfeeding.  I found ways to bond with E that had nothing to do with nursing.  We are all going to be okay, regardless of the outcome, regardless of if I manage to get her back on the breast, or pump and feed for the next four months, or wind up formula feeding.  In the end, fed is best.

But right now?  The whole thing bites.   

Odds and Ends

A couple of weeks ago, E knocked my laptop off the coffee table accidentally.  In a freak sort of moment, it hit the corner of a heavy basket I keep next to the table and cracked the screen.  Since the crack didn’t affect the LCD part of the screen (it was a very surface crack), I groaned and figured I’d keep using the laptop for a bit while researching potential replacements and saving.

A few days later, M spit up directly into the keypad.  I turned it off immediately, wiped up what I could, and waited.  The laptop is mostly working now, but has some sticky keys and is clearly running even more obviously on borrowed time than before.  Arthur is researching alternatives and hopefully we’ll get one ordered in the next week or so before this laptop dies entirely.  I’m backing up all my files to the external hard-drive and getting ready to move my bookmarks and such before that happens.

It is telling that upon seeing the screen crack, my first thought was: well, this will most likely be less expensive to replace than two vials of foll.istim and definitely less expensive than a single IUI.

Infertility has clearly skewed my view of the term “expensive”.

~*~

Life is in that busy but largely pleasant mode for the most part these days.  I’ve been back to work since mid-June, which is going well.  I enjoy what I do, so while I’m tired (trying to readjust to working nights is taking some time), it’s great to have a chance to interact with my coworkers and take on some projects.

Arthur and I got to go to a fundraiser for the local zoo on Friday with his parents and a couple of his siblings.  It’s a sort of local “taste and drink” deal, where many of the restaurants and catering companies in town set up booths with small portions and typically a signature drink or two.  Because I have a terrible sweet tooth, my favorite is the artisan chocolate company.  It was a lot of fun, made more so because the animals were far more active at night than they typically are during the day.

~*~

E is almost finished with speech therapy.  We have one last session in September just to make sure she hasn’t regressed.  I’m not too worried at this point.  The other day, she walked up to me and started talking about the “botanical garden”.  Yep, with the word ‘botanical’ clearly pronounced.  We’ve come a long way from the 18 month who had what the speech therapist termed a “moderate to severe” speech delay.

She’s doing extremely well overall.  Still doing some physical therapy for a few motor issues, but we see improvement and hope that soon enough the gymnastics class I’ve got her enrolled in at our local YMCA will be enough.  We’re gearing up for a minor procedure for E in September due to congenital partially blocked tear ducts, but hopefully that will be her final surgery for the foreseeable future.

M is growing so fast!  Having a term baby after a very premature one is a totally different game.  She’s a happy, giggly baby who smiles and babbles a lot.  It’s strange not to be in a doctor’s office on a regular basis and to watch her outgrow clothes at an absolutely (to me) extraordinary rate.

~*~

Arthur and I scheduled a consult with Dr. E to discuss our two remaining embryos.  We aren’t anywhere near ready to make a final decision, but we need information to make some of those decisions, time to potentially save up financially, and a discussion of what’s even possible or advisable at this point.

~*~

We’re starting to make appointments to prepare for a house purchase.  We’ve been looking at various neighborhoods, narrowed what we are looking for, and decided on a couple of financial institutions to talk to for the mortgage.  It’s both daunting and exciting to get to this point.

Clothing-Specific Memories

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Sorting through clothing is a funny thing.  I know people who do not become sentimentally attached to their sweaters or jeans, who cull their collections regularly and who don’t overstuff their drawers, but I am not one of them.  There’s some clothing I can get rid of pretty easily: things that are stained, that obviously don’t fit, basic tees or undershirts that have reached the end of their usefulness, but there’s a whole separate class of clothing that lives in my closet that presents a bigger challenge.

Apparently, I’m not the only one who has this issue, something I was reminded of when I ran across this article, poignantly titled “What Do We Do With the Clothing of Grief?”  As the author recounts the sweater she bought so hopefully during a lost pregnancy, I couldn’t help but think of my own “clothing of grief”.

In my case, it’s the brightly colored peplum boiled wool jacket I wore to the doctor’s office the day there was no more heartbeat.  The black fleece pants that I wore throughout my pregnancy with E and wore to the hospital the day my water broke at 21 weeks.  The olive-green dress with embroidered cranes I wore the day after my brother died.  I don’t know why it’s that dress, the day after, that I associate so strongly with that tragedy, but for some reason, the two are inextricably woven together in my memory.

Sometimes I wonder if I’m ever going to make a decision about those clothes.  I did sell one piece, the sweater I was wearing the day I was diagnosed with PCOS that lay crumpled in a drawer for years, never worn again.  The others, however, seem either too practical (the fleece pants) or too much difficult to reacquire pieces that I really like (the jacket and the dress).  What’s really strange is that I had memories in the jacket in particular that are fairly happy memories before that day.

Perhaps it’s too much to ask that the clothing of grief be repurposed into something truly neutral, but I do sometimes pull out the pieces and wonder if I can find the courage to start wearing them again, make enough memories in them to imbue them with both joy and sorrow.  Instead of the clothing of grief, make them something more akin to the clothing of memory.

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The jacket, on a much happier day (visiting the Hoover Dam in Nevada)

Thanks to Mel for hosting and originating Microblog Mondays!  If you want more posts, head over to Stirrup Queens to read.

 

Kneeling In The Mud

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Sifting through my jewelry box for a pair of earrings the other day, I noticed a piece of cardstock sticking out from the disorganized pile of necklaces and earrings that got tangled in transport when we moved and that I’m still sorting out. I managed to separate the cardstock, which had a necklace attached to it. Ah, yes. I remembered this necklace well.

Arthur and I had decided to plan a trip that fell after our IVF cycle last year. We figured that if the cycle worked, we could celebrate being pregnant, and if it didn’t, we’d have something fun planned to help with the aftermath. The weekend that worked also happened to coincide with my 31st birthday. On the way home from our trip, we had made plans to stop in the city on the way home to eat supper and Arthur offered to take me to a little fair-trade shop carrying items by women artisans from around the world there that I always enjoyed.

I was in a wonderful, surprisingly relaxed mood. I had an ultrasound scheduled the next day to check the progress of my pregnancy, I was feeling great, and since it was my birthday, I even had a little bit of gift money I could spend. I looked over scarves, earrings, and purses. What caught my eye, however, was a blue, white, and orange pendant made from china with a silver chain on an upper shelf. I read the card that explained a bit about the necklace and the artist, smiled, and knew I had found the piece I wanted.

About a week and a half later, everything went south, and the necklace went into my jewelry box, forgotten.

It’s not a secret that I’ve been struggling to deal with everything that happened over the last eight months, and really, the past three years. It’s why I’ve been slow or absent with blogging or responding to people lately. That I’ve so keenly felt the dissonance and sadness has been a surprise to me. While I certainly said all the right things – that it would probably take awhile to resolve the infertility even after having a child, that I was just grateful to have my daughter at all, and so on and so forth – it’s shocked me how much I have left to sort through emotionally. I think, deep down, despite all my protestations to the contrary, I did expect having a living child to heal most of the wounds caused by infertility and loss.

Instead, I still struggle with pregnancy announcements. Ultrasound photos that I’m not prepared for have a tendency to send me into intense and unpleasant flashbacks of all those ultrasounds I had with E, concerned voices noting the size of my SCH or the lack of amniotic fluid. Watching women having uncomplicated pregnancies go about the wonderful business of decorating their nurseries, shopping for maternity clothes and joining in the chatter about symptoms have me sighing wistfully and feeling a distinct pang of jealousy.

Since I finally left the hospital with my daughter, I tried mightily to cultivate an outwardly positive attitude about all things pregnancy and childbearing, to smile and be genuinely okay. When that failed, I played more vicious rounds of the pain olympics than I’d care to admit, applied as much guilt as possible to cajole myself out of the grief, and told myself it was time to suck it up. Unsurprisingly, all this achieved was a deeper hole. That’s what led me to search for earrings: another effort to lift the sadness by going through the motions of normalcy.

The necklace is from Japan, made from a shard of pottery pulled out of the wreckage from the 2011 tsunami. The card reads “Beauty from Brokenness” and states “As each colorful shard is transformed into a beautiful treasure, so too are lives being filled with renewed dignity, beauty and hope for their future”.

My world wasn’t rocked by anything as traumatic as that tsunami, but there’s no denying the pain. I stared at the pendant for awhile, recognizing that as beautiful as it is, the piece of pottery it once belonged to is still shattered. Nothing will put that back together.

In a culture that expects grief to be over within weeks of a trauma, that frowns on the expression of that grief, that disenfranchises the grief of miscarriage and infertility, that promises wholeness with enough work, I’m realizing that this simply isn’t the case for me. Making my peace and coming to acceptance is going to be the work of years. Nothing will put my life back together the way it once existed.

There are so many things I’m grieving right now. Some are losses that will reverberate over a long time, such as my miscarriages. Some are more petty, such as my the maternity photo shoot I had looked forward to throughout most of infertility and had to cancel. I’m beginning to understand that in the end, I can’t cajole myself out of that grief. I can’t refuse to feel it. I can’t ignore it or pretend I wasn’t changed by it. I can’t pretend it doesn’t exist. I can’t reason or guilt or force it to go away.

In the end, I hold out the hope that perhaps, like the pottery in my necklace, there will be something new created that is beautiful in its own right. To do that, however, means kneeling in the mud, carefully picking out the shards. It means not trying to fit the pieces back into place, disguising the cracks, and pretending it is whole and unaltered. It means acknowledging the brokenness.

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Want to read more Microblog Mondays posts?  Head over to Stirrup Queens.  Thanks to Mel for hosting and originating. 

The Endings of Stories

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Spoiler alert for the book Deep Down Dark.  While most of what I’m about to talk about has actually been covered in the media at various times, if you didn’t see it or have forgotten and want to read the book with no spoilers, this post is going to have a few. 

When I was in the hospital, I read Deep Down Dark: The Untold Stories of 33 Men Buried in a Chilean Mine and the Miracle That Set Them Free. At the time, I needed a book engrossing enough to transport me out of my hospital room and most of all, have a happy ending. I found myself transfixed by Hector Tobar’s account of the miners’ 69 days underground and their dramatic rescue.

It’s really an incredible story. The thing that fascinates me most now, however, is not how the miners endured the horrifying conditions, the near starvation, or the triumphant moments as each man emerged from the rescue capsule. It’s the true ending, what happened once the media spotlight faded.

After the breathless media coverage, the fame, the money given to each of them, most of them went back to living essentially the way they were before the mine collapse. Several have even gone back to work as miners.

The humanities major in me isn’t very satisfied with this ending. In the US, there’s a strong cultural ideal surrounding redemption narratives, life-changing experiences, and being an entirely different – and better, improved – person after struggle or hardship, especially when the ending is as miraculous as with this particular story. I’m used to movies, memoirs, or novels that end this way. Reading how the men still had the problems they entered the mine that day with, how they picked up where they left off, doesn’t fit that narrative.

And yet.

It’s been a sort of comfort to realize that, having survived (on a much smaller scale) a difficult and life-changing experience and becoming one of those miracle stories, I still recognize myself. Not everything has changed despite a new home, new city, new job, new daughter. I’m still introverted, still more quick-tempered than I’d like to be, still pig-headed, still with many of the same issues and strengths I took with me to the hospital that January night. It doesn’t fit with what I’d consider the somehow less complicated, more media-friendly life-totally-transformed ending, but perhaps that’s one of the unsung miracles of human resilience: how often life goes on flowing stubbornly around all the rocks and falls in its path.

This post is part of Microblog Mondays.  If you want to read more posts or get in on the action, please go visit Mel over at Stirrup Queens.