Fifteen Minutes

A number of years ago I attended a seminar on President Lincoln.  The title of the course was “Controlled by Events.”  That name puzzled me when I first read the brochure.  Abraham Lincoln, in my mind, was the most dogged, determined figure in American History. Because of his resolve, the Union was saved.  I later learned that the title came from a moment when the President admitted that he couldn’t manage outcomes once the dogs of war were released, just grapple with the aftermath. Now, after our battle with cancer and my husband’s close brush with death, I realize what our 16th president meant.

Through rigorous exertion Chad, my husband, succeeded in sitting up for fifteen minutes-a significant milestone. Soon after, his doctors determined he was ready for transfer to a rehabilitation hospital. This move was designed to teach Chad how to function again.  Seriously, the man could not lift a styrofoam cup, brush his teeth, shave, or comb what was left of his hair.

The nurse notified us by nine in the morning that he was scheduled for transport to the new facility sometime before lunch. Of course that meant the orderlies arrived around two in the afternoon, and Chad was tucked into his new bed in the new hospital by three. Not too bad for hospital time.  But what we heard at the new facility left me despondent, and Chad frightened and frustrated.

One by one, therapists visited us until six that evening. They introduced themselves, and gently informed us that sitting up for fifteen minutes was only the beginning. His relearning would test his endurance, reaching new levels of exertion. Critically frail, Chad grew deeply stressed because what they were asking seemed impossible. I vicariously felt his fears, and could do nothing to allay them.

I couldn’t do anything about anything.

I bumped along the currents of endless medical advice. After all, he couldn’t come home until he reclaimed something of his former body.

There he lay, bag of feces on his belly, an open, seeping surgical cut, from his naval to his groin, and the hospital was forcing him to get up and live again.

The looming deadline ahead for me was school starting again. There was no question that I had to work. We had to have the insurance, and the income if we were to survive this disaster financially. The medical bills were piling up, and I had no choices but to accept my nightmare. Then events, for a change, turned for the better.

One of my students lived behind our home, and I had hired her to tend our dogs while I spent days at the hospital. It turned out her mother was a registered nurse, who, just steps away, could be at our house within minutes. Wow, what a miracle for when he came home. Secondly, my seventy eight-year-old mother informed me she was coming to care for Chad so I could return to work. Honest to God, I didn’t want to bother other people, but had no other options. And both our neighbor and my mother assured me it was no bother, and they were glad to help. Both parties kindly offering the gift of their time and skills.

After two more excruciating weeks in rehab, I got to bring him home.  That night my mother chauffeured by my brother arrived at our door. I was sure my husband looked so much better after four weeks of hospitals and treatment. But when the both of them came in, and their faces betrayed shock by his poor condition.

In the end, unlike Lincoln, my husband survived our intense, little war. Trapped in the maelstrom, careening from one disaster to another we had no future.

Events controlled us.

Gail Chumbley is the author of “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight,” a two-part memoir. Available at http://www.river-of-january.com and on Kindle.

gailchumbley@gmail.com

A Handshake

Normal life attempted to intrude into our ongoing nightmare.  Our daughter had met her first serious boyfriend, and he had driven up to Boise to meet us.  Instead of finding her parents at the cabin in the woods, she tracked us down in a sterile, whispering examination room.  The poor kid she presented to us, Carlos, extended his hand to my husband, and miraculously Chad raised his own in a handshake.  (By the way that is the last thing Chad remembers today, that handshake.)

The two of them arrived at nearly the same time the ER doc returned to the room announcing that we were going on another ride downtown.  Chad’s chemo doc was on-call at the main medical center, and wanted to assess him in person.  Catherine and Carlos decided to meet us across town, and for a fourth time in one afternoon, turned evening, the two of us were loaded onto an ambulance.

Nearing the downtown medical center, the driver, a very nice young man, kept up a light banter with me.  Pulling up to a traffic light I realized we were behind my girl and her new beau.  Why, I’ll never know, my hands were shaking and I wanted to vomit, I asked the driver to give them the siren.  He complied, and we all waved ourselves silly, vehicle to vehicle.

Inside the main ER the verdict came in, Chad was to be admitted overnight for tests.  The last place either of us wished to be–a hospital–looked like home-base for us, at least for the night.  Orderlies rolled Chad into a side elevator to the fourth floor.  We followed in the public lift.  It was while looking for his room number, that I came face to face with a former student.  She was an aide on the floor.  Automatically smiling, I put my hand out to shake hers.  The girl having none of that, threw her arms around me in a big comforting hug.  That gave me no comfort, she must have known of his dire condition.

Punched up with more Dilaudid, my husband managed to talk to his Chemo doctor clearly, lying in his new surroundings.  He admitted that he hadn’t used the bathroom except to urinate for three days.  I heard her murmur, “fleet” again, quite clearly, but without enthusiasm. “Life flight for an enema,’ darkly crossed my mind.

The two kids sat down in the deep window sill of the room, all eyes, slowly acclimating from their new mutual attachment, into the reality of our medical abyss.

Finally, after passing a number of emotions across her face, the oncologist ordered a CT scan for my husband.  She then told us that it would be late before the procedure took place, and that we should go and get some rest.  Her words surprised me.  Darkness had crept in while I was distracted.  It was already ten at night when our worried little entourage was dismissed from the hospital.

The doctor promised she would call me when she knew something.

Support Our Troops?

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The armistice ending World War One, also known as the “Great War” was signed on this day in 1918.  The idea behind Armistice turned Veterans Day, was to remember the price paid by servicemen living and dead.  A visit to Arlington Cemetery provides a sobering, powerful lesson in the extraordinary price paid by those who gave ‘Their Last Full Measure’, to quote President Lincoln.

Row after  exact row, rank and file marble headstones arc the green, rolling acreage of Mary Custis Lee’s childhood plantation. Surveying this overwhelming vista, proof of the price paid by those in arms raises a difficult, perhaps unanswerable question. How can Americans best provide solace, comfort and justice for our fighting men and women?

One option is pictured above.  While I was still in the classroom, my History Club provided Christmas gifts for those on duty overseas. We wrapped, labeled, and itemized customs slips–mailing the boxes to APO addresses nearly everywhere.  The soldiers pictured expressed their appreciation by sending this group photo, letting us know the packages had made it on time. Oddly enough, I don’t think they even cared what the boxes contained, it was simply being remembered while serving so far away. One soldier thanked us for adding a hometown newspaper sports section. It was the link to home that meant so much.

Support Our Troops,” bumper stickers scold incessantly next to exhaust pipes. Do gift packages overseas meet that test?  What about promised services, and psychiatric aid from the Veterans Administration to those returned?  Is it enough to purchase artificial poppies from elderly veterans planted in front of grocery stores on this day?  Honestly how can we best “Support Our Troops?”

A former student visited my classroom after serving a double tour in Iraq.  He bore that “Five Hundred Foot Stare,” so common to soldiers scarred by the horror of battle.  In an earnest voice he explained, “We build schools for them (the Iraqis) during the day, and they try to kills us at night.”  This sweet, insulated, middle class boy, born in Idaho, raised on John Wayne movies, could not comprehend the absence of welcome from the Iraqi people.  They not only failed to show gratitude, but lashed out in lethal hostility. How do I support him?

I am reminded of two messages that resonate from two memorable episodes in my career.  The first came from the Chaplain of the House of Representatives in his opening prayer at the World War Two Memorial dedication in Washington. This minister reminded the gathering “that peace is not the absence of war, but the nearness of God.”  I felt not only wise calm in his words, but a new truth in his prayer.

Then there was the sage Chinese philosopher of war, Sun Tzu who has offered his own advice from ancient times. This brilliant military strategist observed that “the best wars are those not fought.”

Gail Chumbley is a historian and author of River of January, her new memoir.