To Be Quiet and Listen

hills

Three weeks ago, I returned from the inaugural Renewal Retreat on La Finca, in the cloud forest outside Bogotá, Colombia.

For almost as long as I have known my friend Andrea, she has talked with reverence about her family’s finca (farm) in the mountains. I’d always wanted to see it in person, and when she offered this first foray into retreat there, I knew I had to go. Rather than submit a travelogue here, I want to share the story of my inner journey. The intention I set before the retreat began was this:

I will write with courage and focus until my story is complete.

Though this was not officially a writing retreat, I had decided to treat it as such for myself. In the months leading up to the retreat, as I neared the end of the book I’m writing about parenting my daughter through her medical mystery, trauma, and healing, I found myself held back. Reliving the experiences while I wrote them was hard, and I fought the focus I needed to get it done. It was a struggle to write in the same house where many of those experiences happened. Sitting at a coffeeshop or at my rented co-working space kept me from writing courageously, knowing that the tears would come and, in public, I’d have to stifle them. Not knowing what the retreat space might look like, I did know that the land around the houses where we’d stay would be vast and, if necessary, I could hike into the forest with my laptop and sob as loudly as I needed.

And so, with a backpack containing my laptop and the notes for my proposal, I boarded the plane that would take me to Colombia.

Nothing had prepared me for the boundless, immense, boastful beauty of Andrea’s family farm. Standing at dusk in the grassy courtyard between two of the houses, I stared into an unending vista of green, undulating land. Aside from the worn horse path that connects the grazing fields for the farm’s dairy cattle, there was nothing to interrupt the work of nature. Ten-thousand feet above sea level, my steps necessarily slowed by altitude, I simply stood and stared. Over the course of the next six days, I lost track of how many times I stopped in my tracks to stare.

renewal-retreat-finca

Because everything I needed was provided by the lovely people Andrea hired to cook and clean, I was left — perhaps for the first time since childhood — with no decisions to make aside from where I wanted to put my body and what I wanted it to do. I opted not to connect to the patchy wi-fi, and so I surrendered my hold on my family at home, too. I woke and ate, walked and looked, stopped and rested, spoke with the other women or chose solitude.

And, finally, I wrote. Continue Reading…

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No, It Doesn’t Get Old

restaurant

One evening, almost exactly four years ago, I went out to dinner alone with my nine year old daughter, Sammi. Her older sister had religious school from 6pm to 8pm, and sometimes, I couldn’t bear to drive home, cook something, try to get Sammi to eat quickly, and then scoot back out the door again. The local Thai restaurant was easier, and besides, just a month earlier, I’d been left awestruck when Sammi ate an entire plate of pad woon sen in that very booth.

Six months earlier, she’d undergone major cardio-thoracic surgery to move her meandering aorta away from the places where it was smashing her esophagus nearly closed. Before that surgery, an adult portion of any restaurant meal would spoil in the fridge before she could finish the whole thing; she’d sit at a restaurant, fidgeting and chatting, the bite of tofu speared on her fork going cold. Mealtimes were frustrating slogs through her inability to swallow.

Even once the cause had been discovered and her aorta gently moved to the side and sewed to her sternum, eating was still slow and frustrating for her and us. We’d sent her to feeding therapy, a white flag waved at the eight years of labored eating that had conditioned her to chew slowly, fill her belly with water, and avoid the kind of dense food that would help her grow. Over the entire summer, once-per-week therapy over her lunchtime seemed to do little to help her regain the ground she’d lost. I waited for the growth spurt that didn’t come.

Then, one November day at the thai restaurant down the street, I mentally planned for her leftovers to go in her lunch the next day (and the next, and the next), only to look across at the plate of mild glass noodles and vegetables to see it slowly emptying. By the end of the evening, I was so excited that I took a photo of her empty plate and texted to my husband, my mother-in-law, my parents, and several friends. Continue Reading…

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Being a Child

being-child

More has been written about Atul Gawande’s book Being Mortal than on most other books on medicine and health, combined. It was reviewed in the New York Times, The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal, and dozens of other newspapers, magazines, and other publications large and small.  Its study of how the medical profession handles the process of dying — whether that process comes at the end of a full life or far too soon — has changed the national narrative. Doctors are coming around to the idea of supporting patients on their own terms as the end draws near, a concept which, to many, seems antithetical to their oaths. After all, are they not charged to “do no harm?” Gawande’s Being Mortal forces the discussion and redefinition of “harm.”

In an early chapter of the book, he writes that there are two kinds of courage. “The first,” he says,  “is the courage to confront the reality of mortality—the courage to seek out the truth of what is to be feared and what is to be hoped when one is seriously ill. Such courage is difficult enough, but even more daunting is the second kind of courage—the courage to act on the truth we find.” As he shares the stories of his own patients — choosing between risky surgery and an uncomplicated but speedier end; finding ways to maintain autonomy as they age; managing varying levels of discomfort while remaining lucid and cogent — it is clear that all the scenarios where his courage to “act on the truth we find” are predicated on the first courage to “seek out the truth of what is to be feared.”

In other words, there can be no action toward healing without first determining how his patients define healing. Continue Reading…

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Contrast This

ct-scan

About six weeks ago, I tripped over a bolt jutting out of the floor of my garage and landed, head-first, on a spare car battery. It became clear within a few hours that I had a whopping concussion. In the impossibly bright lights of the emergency room, a friendly young resident told me she was considering whether or not to give me a CT scan.

“It’s just how tender your skull seems to be,” she said, puzzling it over. “I’m a little worried about whether you’ve fractured it, or whether there’s any bleeding in your brain.”

“What are the reasons for and against it?” my husband, ever the pragmatist, asked her.

“Well, if we did it and found out she has bleeding, we’d definitely keep her overnight, just to be able to check her regularly and get another scan in the morning.”

“So, why not do it?” I asked.

“Well, it’s a lot of radiation, is all…hang on a minute,” she mused, paging through my chart. “How old are you, again?”

“Forty-four, last week,” I told her.

She did what looked like some mental calculations in the air above her, then recommended that we do the CT scan. When pressed, she explained that the cancer risk comes about forty years after the exposure to radiation. By then, she calculated, I’d already be pretty old. It was a worthwhile risk, given the math. Continue Reading…

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Listen to Us

this-is-the-sign

This poem, by Shel Silverstein, always made me sad. When I was a little girl, I had an audiocassette of him reciting it, and his warm, avuncular voice is the one I hear in my head when I read it.

The Little Boy and the Old Man

by Shel Silverstein (1930-1999)

Said the little boy, “Sometimes I drop my spoon.”
Said the little old man, “I do that too.”
The little boy whispered, “I wet my pants.”
“I do that too,” laughed the little old man.
Said the little boy, “I often cry.”
The old man nodded, “So do I.”
“But worst of all,” said the boy, “it seems
Grown-ups don’t pay attention to me.”
And he felt the warmth of a wrinkled old hand.
“I know what you mean,” said the little old man.

It’s hard not to feel heard. Little children sense that they’re being ignored even if they can’t express it well. They may do other things to get the attention of grown-ups: break something, have a tantrum, or find other ways to force that grown-up to take notice. Old men may quietly do what they want, or give up entirely, but they have an understanding of who they were when they were young men — that they ignored their elders, that they paid less attention than they wished they had, and the empathy they have might lessen that feeling of sadness. These are expected responses.

But what about women? Continue Reading…

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