Category: Life

Oh, the Pain

5/30 – 6/3/13 Thursday-Tuesday: WHY WAS I SENT HOME????

The next six days were spent mostly in a haze of pain, trying to stay as still as possible and occasionally having to shuffle off to the bathroom, one inch at a time, bent over like a soldier holding his guts in on the battlefield. The ER doctors said I would be in pain, but did they not realize how much pain that would be? Is my 8 only a 4 in the ER?

I did want to let my family doctor, Dr F, know what had happened in the ER, so I decided to swallow my fear of being THAT patient and call him on his cell phone. I have had the same family doctor for 22 years, since my first year of teaching. He knows everything about me and is always accessible. I saved his phone number the last time he called to check up on me, thinking I might need it one day. That day had arrived.

Dr F was happy to hear from me and assured me he would get copies of the tests that were run in the ER and let me know the results. I was especially anxious to know if the CA-125 tumor marker test showed any elevated numbers, which might be indicative of cancer.

He strongly recommended that instead of going to the hospital clinic I see a Gynecologic Oncologist he had sent patients to in the past at UT Southwestern Medical Center. He said if there was any chance this could turn out to be cancer he wanted me to have someone doing surgery who specializes in this specific area. He promised he would make an appointment and get back to me.

He asked if I was in pain and if I was eating. I had to admit, the pain was so strong it completely took away my appetite. When I told him the ER had prescribed ibuprofen he said, “that wasn’t very nice of them,” and called in a prescription for Hydrocodone.

The Hydrocodone was like manna from heaven. It enabled me to eat a little soup and crackers, and I could walk a little straighter. It also knocked me out, and the rest of the day was a mixture of falling asleep, trying to get comfortable on the couch, trying to focus on the words on the page in the book I was reading, and worrying about the future.

Dr F read the results from the CA-125 tumor marker test. When I asked about it he said he didn’t have much faith in the test, that it’s really only effective during chemo, for instance, when the numbers can be compared each time it’s given to see if cancer is more or less prevalent during treatment and after a specific amount of time. His answer signaled to me that the numbers were elevated and he didn’t want to alarm me. Even if he didn’t have much faith in the numbers, if they were low he would have told me. I didn’t let it bother me, but it was a red flag.

He was able to contact the new doctor, Dr K, and it was a testament to her dedication that she left surgery to take his second call after she heard my symptoms. She said she would be happy to see me in her office on Tuesday, the earliest day she could see me, to discuss what was going on and to schedule surgery, but she also stressed that if the pain became unbearable I should check myself into the hospital for emergency surgery. My personal preference was to avoid another emergency room visit and to see her and have a planned surgery, so I planned on hunkering down for the next few days and gutting it out until I could see Dr K.

Armed with hydrocodone, heating pad, cable TV, and my iPad, I did nothing but rest. I tried to eat, but all I could muster was Saltine crackers and clear soups.

6/4/13 Tuesday: THE DAY THE WORLD STOPPED SPINNING

I woke up at 3:23AM and could not fall back asleep. Without waking Michael, I plugged in the heating pad and searched the internet on my iPad for a blog to read to learn more about ovarian cancer. Thankfully, I found one that was good enough to keep me preoccupied until Michael got up at 7:30AM.

The entire day felt like a dream. After phone calls back and forth about the new doctor needing a copy of the CT scan and ultrasound films, packing a small bag to take “just in case” they decided to keep me overnight, running over to Methodist Radiology to pick up the disc with the CT scans, and trying to eat some chicken noodle soup (deliciously salty), I felt numb.

Picking up the disc from Methodist was incredibly easy. Traffic was insane. I had about forty-five minutes of waiting at home before having Nick and Nicole drive me over to the cancer center. I sat in silence. I felt like I was going to my own execution. I was filled with dread with what Dr K might tell me.

Would I find out today that I probably had cancer? Would I be told that I was going to die soon?

I felt like I was standing on the edge of a mass grave, one filled with the bodies of millions of women, all killed by cancer. A female holocaust of ovarian cancer.

I felt separate from the outside world, apart from everything around me. I felt different, an outcast. There’s a killer inside me, I thought.

I felt like I did when I finally decided to ride the double loop roller coaster at Six Flags with my son when he was in high school.  Just like on the roller coaster as it  reaches the top of the first hill before the steep plunge into the loops, in that moment of accepting you have no control, I would have paid anyone any amount of money to stop the ride and let me get off.

I felt trapped. No escape.

I felt that, no matter what, it was completely out of my control. There was some peace in acknowledging that, in allowing myself to let go of the branches from the side of the riverbank and glide down river.

The drive over was very quiet. One of my current favorite songs played on the radio (“Safe and Sound,” by Capital Cities), and I took it as a good sign. Two more high energy songs came on afterwards and it had an immediate effect on my mood.

We pulled up to what felt like a luxury hotel. Valet parking, circular stone driveway, and a massive, amazing Chihuly sculpture in the lobby. I immediately regretted never making it over to the Chihully exhibit at the Arboretum last year. Oh well, I thought, at least I got to see this one.

The waiting room felt alive. It was noisy. There were a lot of people, but everyone was talking, laughing, smiling. I wondered how many of the people sitting there had cancer. Maybe they were all actors, hired to sit there and look happy and alive, to give the real patients some hope.

I noticed a sign on the table which said, in big letters: If you have to wait longer than 15 minutes, please tell the receptionist. I was impressed. Sure enough, within eight minutes or less, barely diving into the four page health questionnaire, my name was called. My weight was taken, blood pressure taken (116/78), and we were shuttled back to an exam room where I continued to fill out the form. Dr K walked in less than three minutes later and introduced herself. She needed the form to be completed right then, my husband probably didn’t know where to find us, and I was stressed from the extreme efficiency of the office! She left to find Michael and returned, hubby in tow, just as I finished filling out the questionnaire.

hands

I was nervous.

I immediately felt at ease with Dr K. She spent perhaps thirty minutes asking me in depth questions about my medical history, then about what specifically led to last Wednesday’s ER visit. She wanted to hear everything about what might be the cause of the cyst, and seemed genuinely excited by the mystery of trying to figure out exactly what this thing was.

For the first time in the past two years I feel like someone really listened to me about the confusing menopausal symptoms that have plagued me. One overarching trend I’ve noticed in my internet research has been how the majority of women feel no one is listening to them about their problems and issues. They mostly don’t feel like they’re being taken seriously. I’m glad my son’s girlfriend has been able to go through this with me so she can learn how to stand up for herself if she one day has to go through something similar.

THE PELVIC EXAM. OMG.

(WARNING, MEN! Uncomfortably graphic description of a pelvic exam involving lady parts!!!)

Wednesday’s ER pelvic exam was uncomfortable, but this was ten times worse. No matter where Dr K touched, it hurt. She did a full pap smear, scraping and all, then the two worst things you can imagine (or maybe you can’t): the Absolute Fist Clencher–two fingers inserted into the vagina with her pushing around on the belly and along the vaginal wall and cervix, and the Muffled Scream Move–one finger inserted into the vagina and one finger inserted deeply into the rectum.

Y’all. I am no sissy when it comes to pain. I run marathons. I had both children naturally, sans drugs. I suffered almost every single month from the ages of 14 to 23 with menstrual cramps so bad I would vomit at school and be sent home to wallow under a heating pad for the rest of the day. THIS was worse. Far worse. It was almost unbearable, and I was so embarrassed to react the way I did. I felt bad for Dr K because she kept apologizing for causing me pain, and I kept apologizing for how much noise I made.

After the Muffled Scream Move she shut down shop and stopped the torture. The next person who comes close to touching my pelvis again better have a knife in her hand and and a mask on her face or I just might lose it.

Doctor's office

Have we met?

After this she showed us the scans of the cyst on her computer. Once she explained what we were seeing, it was easy to see what all the fuss was about. Holy Toledo, it was massive. To me, it looked like a big piece of chicken shoved in between my hip bones, my stomach wall, and my spine. No wiggle room. No empty space. Packed in tight.

She said it was too bad her research students weren’t with her that day because it was such an instructive case. I liked that she was excited about figuring out what this was. She was like the CSI inspector of ovarian masses and my abdomen was the Murder Mystery Theater.

We scheduled the surgery for Friday afternoon. She didn’t want to wait and do a colonoscopy first (boy was I glad). She had three small procedures in the morning and said it worked out perfectly in her schedule. Because of the size of the mass, it would not be laparoscopic surgery. In fact, the scar would be quite large. Bikini season is over for this middle-aged mama. Maybe I will get a cool Jack and the Beanstalk tattoo to cover the scar.

She will be removing both ovaries. I had been hoping to save one of them, but she says it obviously isn’t working anyway and will only cause problems in the future. I may be in the hospital up to five days post-op, then more recovery time at home. I mentioned how training for Marine Corps Marathon begins at the end of June and she laughed at how we runners are “all the same.” Everything is contingent on what they find in surgery, but I could be running again within several weeks after surgery. But she emphasized that I will be very, very slow. Pace is completely irrelevant to me at this point. My goal is just to run again one day. Running Marine Corps would be nice, but I’m not going to push it.

We met her nurse and they gave me all their contact information. Once again, these women are organized. I can reach them online, by phone–they are always accessible. Very reassuring. We went over pre-op stuff (I will come back in on Thurs to meet the anesthesiologist and go over surgical stuff.) No solid food on Thursday, an enema Thursday night and Friday morning.

Listening

When we walked back out to the waiting room all the laughing families and happy cancer patients were gone. She had taken as much time as we needed with her. She wanted to check the tumor markers again, and five or six vials of blood were drawn.

I went home a completely different person. I felt upbeat, optimistic, almost giddy. Dr K made me feel that much better. I had gotten a few texts from my close friends during our long appointment, so it was time to start calling folks back and telling them the news about the impending surgery.

After dinner I called my daughter, who said I was “chirping like a little songbird.” Not quite, but I felt better than I had in a month, and I could see a light at the end of the tunnel. I debated posting something on Facebook, not wanting to look like I was trolling for sympathy or pity, but because I knew that my friends’ support and love would hold me up during the tough times ahead. I went ahead and posted a few details, asking for everyone’s “prayers, positive thoughts, and energy vibes,” and it was the best thing I could have done.

Later that night, I fell asleep on the couch while watching TV with Michael and Nicole. I was exhausted, and slept like a rock, waking up occasionally, not believing I couldn’t keep my eyes open. I groggily checked my email when Michael went to bed and was brought back to reality when I saw all the Facebook messages from my friends and family.

Oh yeah. I’m having surgery on Friday. I forgot.

Embracing the fact that my sleep patterns have been all over the place this past week, and acknowledging that I get NO writing done when either of The Talkers, Michael or Nicole, is awake, I sat in bed and wrote for an hour or so while Michael slept. I’ve been writing a lot the past two days, and writing helps. For some reason, when I’m anguished or in trouble, I need to write. That’s when I truly find my voice. It’s what got me through childhood, adolescence, and my divorces. Writing and reading in the late/early hours of the day, when the world is quiet and everyone else is asleep, is my salvation.

Finally we had a plan to remove the tumor and get rid of the pain. I had two days to wrap my head around the idea of surgery, to get caught up on some writing, and to get my things packed.

Or did I?

To be continued . . .

Hello, My Little Friend

THE ER

The emergency room of any hospital is a strange place. Ask anyone who has been there. The kids dropped me off at the ER and I walked in to register. I was relieved to see only one other person waiting. I was in so much pain and my hand was shaking so much I couldn’t fill out the registration form. I had to ask the nurse if she could fill it out for me. I slumped over the edge of the counter as I gave her my personal information.

I spoke to the check-in nurse briefly, gave all my insurance info to another woman, then waited some more. We probably waited an hour, and the ER waiting room slowly filled up. I enjoyed looking at the clothes people wore to the ER. There were a lot of track pants, but also a surprising number of six inch heels and tight, short, hoochie mama dresses. I bet there were some good stories connected to those clothes.

We were finally called back and told that all the rooms were full, was it okay if they gave us a curtained off area along the hallway? I laughed and asked if we really had a choice, and she said some people actually choose to wait for a room. I guess some emergencies are more private–and urgent–than others. My curtained cubicle was not bad, situated right across from the main nurses’ desk, and I asked to leave the curtains halfway open so I could see what was going on around me. No chairs are allowed in these cubicles in the hallway (fire hazard), so Nick and Nicole squeezed onto the end of the bed with me. I was just glad to be in a bed. The pain was definitely an 8 by now.

emergency room

Just happy to be in a bed.

A nice nurse gave me a gown and a warm blanket, and a young paramedic put in an IV. It took two attempts. Ugh.

By far the worst part of any trip to a hospital, for me, is putting in an IV. They are not fun. The worst location to have one put in is on the wrist or top of the hand. No matter where they put it, it hurts. Maybe my abdominal pain was enough to divert my attention, but it really didn’t hurt too much this time, despite the fact that it took two attempts. The nice nurse came and asked the young paramedic why it didn’t work the first time, told him to “push right on through the valve,” and stood by for assistance on the second arm. I could tell he was a little nervous because we were all watching him.

More waiting. Dr H introduced himself, pushed at my stomach near the belly button telling me it sounded like diverticulitis, then frowned as I guided his hand down to the actual location of pain and told him my hormonal issues from the past few months. He didn’t seem convinced that it was anything other than diverticulitis, and eventually I was wheeled off for a CT scan–for the first time ever without having to drink the dreaded 35 ounces of contrast liquid. I guess I talked about hating it so much that they took pity on me. I sent the kids off for some lunch for themselves while I had the scan.

The man who wheeled me down to the CT room asked if I had ever had diverticulitis before, then was amazed when I told him I’d had the rare duodenal form twice. He literally oohed and aahed. I think it made his day. He didn’t know why they were doing the scan without the contrast, checked to make sure they weren’t making a mistake, then had me slide across the bed to the big donut-shaped tube. I took a few deep breaths when my old familiar buddy, British Accent Man, told me to, and then it was back to my “room” to wait for results.

spine

I have no idea where the cyst is in this cross-section from the CT scan, but at least I can identify the spine!

The nice nurse came by a little later with something for the IV. When I asked her what it was she told me saline, because the doctor thought I looked a little “peaked.” Oh, and this little vial here that I’m inserting into your IV? Morphine. Morphine! The effects were almost immediate and the pain subsided to about a 3. It was the first time I’d felt comfortable all day.

Dr H eventually came by with results from the CT scan. I had a cyst on my left ovary. A 10cm, “complicated” cyst. He said because of its composition (fluid and solid particles) and size, he was going to call someone from gynecology to come down and give me more information. Though he said it was too soon to start worrying about cancer, he admitted there was some cause for concern.

A cyst the size of a grapefruit. Well, hello, my little friend. This explained a lot about the bloating, tight jeans, and frequent trips to the bathroom.

I was calm. I was relaxed while I took in the news. I felt a slight sense of satisfaction that I was right about something being wrong with my hormones and ovaries these past few months. The idea of cancer, however, had never entered my mind. I told the kids I wasn’t worried at all, that except for the excruciating pain in my belly I felt strong and healthy. I ran marathons. I was thin. I had had two children. I breastfed both for a year each. I had none of the risk factors and no family history. I didn’t feel seriously ill in the least.

The gynecologist (or gynecological nurse, I’m not sure which) came down and explained more, telling me they wanted to run some tests to rule out all the “bad stuff” first. She said it didn’t mean there was anything to worry about, they just wanted to rule out the bad first and go from there. She asked me a lot of questions, then I was wheeled off to an examination room for a pelvic exam, which another gynecologist performed.

She was nice, but her cool demeanor wasn’t very calming. She seemed a little stiff and nervous. She spoke to me about torsion, which is when a cyst twists on itself and cuts off the blood supply to the ovary–which is “very bad,” though she didn’t explain why. She told the nurse to bring a pap smear kit, and I asked her if that was necessary since I’d had a hysterectomy five years earlier. Oops. She admitted she forgot I’d had a hysterectomy and apologized. Everyone makes mistakes, but it made her lose a little credibility in my eyes. Both doctors did a pelvic exam. This was not comfortable at all, even with the morphine. She said my stomach wasn’t too tight or hard, which was a good sign, and she didn’t think there was any torsion.

The cyst and ovary would definitely need to be removed, as soon as possible. She asked if I wanted my doctor to make all the arrangements or if I wanted to come to the clinic across the street. Maybe it was the morphine, but this is where I kind of spaced out. I wondered why my family doctor would need to be informed when he’s not a gynecologist, so she said she would schedule an appointment for the following Monday in preparation for surgery and that they would call me (they never did). Monday was still five long days away . . .

We were finally given our own room with a teeny, tiny TV monitor on a long, expandable arm that my son had fun annoying us with, and three chairs. Michael arrived from work, and we saw on the TV that it was storming outside. We heard nothing inside the hospital, and I was sorry to be missing a good thunderstorm. I thought about the dogs alone at home, who hate thunderstorms.

The nice nurse asked if I’d ever had a transvaginal ultrasound before, then told me about the grapefruit sized ovarian cyst she’d had years ago. She called hers a “chocolate cyst” based on the color of the fluid. Hers was removed, was noncancerous, and she went on to give birth to a son three years later. She knew all about the pain I was going through.

Emergency room

Waiting for the ultrasound.

A CA-125 blood test was given to test for tumor markers, then I was wheeled off again for an ultrasound. First the technician tried on top of my abdomen, but she said there was so much fluid inside my abdominal cavity she was having a difficult time finding either ovary. I asked if that was a bad thing, to have fluid in the abdomen, and what it meant, but all she would say was that it could mean different things. She next did a transvaginal ultrasound which gave her slightly better results. Both procedures were uncomfortable but not painful. The technician was very quiet and made almost no small talk, which was not very reassuring.

After getting to the doctor’s office around 11:00AM, and the ER around 1:00PM,  by the time we left the hospital around 7:30PM it had been a full day. The young paramedic removed the IV shunt while I joked about him leaving it in and giving me a vial of morphine to take home with me. Trainspotting Mom! Maybe my joking waved a red flag because I was sent home with nothing stronger than prescription strength ibuprofen (800 mg).

I felt I was leaving the ER with more questions than answers. I had a large ovarian cyst. It could be cancerous. It would have to be removed, along with the ovary and possibly the other ovary as well, no matter what the CA-125 blood test showed. I would still be in pain for the next few days.

In the meantime, the morphine was starting to wear off.

To be continued . . .

Cancer: And So the Story Begins

I am one of those people who probably tells more than they should. If I were a celebrity the tabloids would love me. I can be brutally honest, and I don’t care much what others think of how I live my life.

Last week something happened to me, something you might consider a “life changing event.” I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.

This is my story. It’s long, so I’ll be telling it in segments. And stay tuned. Despite the inevitable ending (the same ending you will have one day as well, my friend), I plan on being around for a long time:

5/29/13, Wednesday: THE BEGINNING

I turned over in bed and felt a sharp twinge of pain in my abdomen. It was Tuesday morning. It was as simple as that.

I got up, ate an early lunch, and felt nothing the rest of the day.

The next morning the pain was back, only worse. I could barely walk to the bathroom. I had to sit on the bed while I brushed my teeth. It felt suspiciously similar to the duodenal diverticulitis I’d had twice in the past seven years, with the last episode just a year ago, only this time it was in a different location and I felt nauseous. I knew the drill: CT scan in the emergency room and antibiotics with lots of bed rest at home.

I called my doctor’s office, and they said they would fit me in. I took a quick shower and woke up my son and his girlfriend. The pain was so intense that I knew there was no way I would be able to drive myself.

In the back of my mind, I wondered if there was any possibility of this being related to some annoyingly odd issues I had been having. For the past four months I had been telling anyone who would listen, including my doctor and dermatologist, that something was out of whack with my hormones. I had been experiencing extremely oily skin, unrelenting acne, and hair loss. In addition, the last two months it dawned on me one day that I often felt full after three bites and that I was going to the bathroom a lot more frequently than normal.

My doctor said it was almost certainly related to too much estrogen, and advised I stop taking the estrogen patch he had prescribed six months earlier for some extreme menopausal symptoms I had been experiencing (mainly hot flashes and depression). The dermatologist told me acne was essentially incurable, then rattled off a long list of possible treatments, and we decided on a benzoyl peroxide facial wash, Pan Oxyl, a thin layer of Finacea each night (which the box says is for rosacea, something the dermatologist never mentioned),  and some type of pill to be taken that might kick the acne out of my system. I discovered at the drugstore that this pill was not covered by my insurance and would cost $1,000 out of pocket for 30 pills! Um, no. I was frustrated. I wanted to know why this was happening, not just what to do about it.

Bryce Canyon NP

What I did after seeing the doctor and dermatologist: went hiking in Bryce Canyon NP.

The benzoyl peroxide was harsh at first, but I did notice results, and the Finacea also seemed to make a difference. I continued to have breakouts, and they were the deep cystic kind of zits, but repeated dabbing with some Neutrogena Fight and Fade gel usually helped them heal quicker. Despite washing my face sometimes three times a day, every morning there would be a new crop of zits on my chin or along my hairline.

Even more distressing was the hair loss. I have always had very thick, fine-textured hair, so there was plenty of hair to spare before the hair loss would become noticeable. Also, I could wash my hair in the morning and it would be greasy by the end of the day. I felt like I was 14 again. I tried shampoo after shampoo, looking for something that would keep it from getting greasy so quickly, but without drying out the ends.

I was frustrated and felt mildly unsettled after seeing my doctor and dermatologist, as if my concerns were somehow not being taken seriously. Both doctors are excellent, but it all just played into my general unsettling sense of becoming more invisible to society the older I get. Of course acne is not life threatening, but I had just turned 53, dammit, and had already paid my dues years ago on that front! The hair loss was even more distressing, and I had visions of myself turning overnight into an old, hunched over, white haired crone with hair so thin you could see through to the scalp. I had a cane and was chasing kids and dogs off my lawn. I might even be missing a few teeth.

Angel's Landing, Zion NP

My death-defying hike to the top of Angel’s Landing in Zion NP a month before the pain shut me down.

One day, while playing Super Sleuth on the internet to find a reason and solution for the acne, I ran across a comment by someone who said her sister had suddenly begun having horrible acne in her 40’s, went to the gynecologist for a regular check-up, and was told “after one look” that she had ovarian cysts. That one comment was enough to peak my interest enough to start reading about ovarian cysts and cancer.

I did some digging and discovered ovarian cysts can indeed cause some of the same symptoms I had been experiencing, but there was very little real info to be found. Most sites didn’t even mention acne or hair loss in conjunction with ovarian cysts. If this one comment was legit, it was the first time I had heard anyone make that connection. And if it truly was a possibility, I knew it could be a player in the new pain in my lower left abdomen.

The doctor’s office was thankfully not very crowded. The only other person waiting was a fabulous looking 78 year old woman with thyroid cancer. She shook her head slowly, smiled, and told me, “These doctors just take your money and create new symptoms to keep you coming back. It’s all about making money.” Then she talked about the coming rapture and how she’s “seen it all coming” since she was a little girl in church. I steered the discussion towards politics and Obama, and we both agreed on how disappointed we had become in him. I mean, how DOES one deflect talk of the rapture in a doctor’s office waiting room? And I loved my doctor and didn’t agree that he just wanted my money.

In the meantime, I half sat/half reclined and felt nauseous. All of the pain was centralized in one location, but it affected my entire abdomen. All I really wanted to do was find a bed.

After they called me back and weighed me, I had the sudden urge to vomit. I ran to the bathroom and made it just in time. Since I hadn’t eaten anything all day, it wasn’t bad. But I still felt nauseous.

My doctor’s initial conclusion was that it was probably diverticulitis, only this time in the colon where most people have it. When I asked about the possibility of an ovarian cyst, he admitted that could also be the cause of the pain. By this time the pain was severe.

He recommended I check myself into the ER for a CT scan. He also thought my pain was bad enough that they would want to admit me into the hospital, but I had no intention of letting that happen.

hospital hallway

Diverticulitis is fairly common, but duodenal diverticulitis is not. The first time it appeared it caused a five day stay in the hospital. The head of surgery had no idea what the large mass on my duodenum was, only that it was a large mass and it was causing an infection. He didn’t want to operate because of its size and the possibility of bursting, but he knew that it wasn’t cancer. I stayed hooked up to an IV with all food and and liquids delivered intravenously for the entire five day stay. I had all kinds of GI tests run after the mass healed but no one could figure out exactly what “it” had been.

When it happened again last year, six years after the first time, the ER staff took another CT scan and compared it with the one from six years ago, which showed the lesion in exactly the same spot. A doctor young enough to be my daughter made an immediate diagnosis of duodenal diverticulitis, which is apparently rare enough to explain why no one figured it out the first time. I was sent home with a round of antibiotics and was up and running again within ten days.

So it was off to the emergency room again, just over a year since the last visit. My doctor is kind and caring, but I was embarrassed when he insisted on one of his nurses wheeling me out to the car in a wheelchair. I hate being fussed over and drawing attention to myself. I run marathons! I’m tough! I could do this on my own!

To be continued . . .

The Wildness Without

Why are wild places so vital to our existence?

I’ve pondered this question since my first trip years ago to Yellowstone National Park, and wrote a photographic post about the subject last year. Most people may not think of a national park as being “wild,” but I assure you, once you step off the main road or the shorter, more visited hiking trails and enter the back country, you are indeed in a wild place. Sometimes you’re lucky enough to experience it directly from the main road, such as when coming across a pack of wolves circling a group of elk cows and their calves, like I did one summer, or when you spot a grizzly bear at dusk, just off the road, pawing grubs at the base of a decomposing tree trunk.

Man’s presence is not needed for the wild to flourish, but I’m convinced we need wild places in order to flourish as human beings. We’re not separate from nature, we’re just another part of it. Wild places strip us of our modern contrivances and remind us how simple and present life really is.

Sepulcher Mountain, Yellowstone

Off the Beaten Path wrote about wild places recently and put into words exactly how I feel. She writes about viewing a grizzly sow and her cub:

For the first time I truly understood what a privilege it is to be able to visit a wild place; a place that provides a space for animals as wild as grizzly bears to live. That just knowing that these places are there adds value to our lives, even if we don’t go there often. This was an epiphany; and silly as it sounds, I realized that I hadn’t really understood why wild spaces are so important until that moment.

When I was still teaching fifth grade, I used to come back from our summer road trips to Montana and Wyoming feeling sad that most of my students had never experienced a wild place, and probably never would. I felt certain that if only I could pack them all into a bus bound for Yellowstone, get them on the trails, and let them spend time in the wild, it would change their lives. Children need to see that the earth is a living thing, that there are wild places with rules all their own, and that everything they think is important in life really isn’t.

Sepulcher Mountain, Yellowstone

Once in Yellowstone we mistakenly took a left instead of a right and wound up taking an unplanned all day hike up Sepulcher Mountain. For almost an entire day we never saw another human. The weather was somewhat stormy, and I remembered all the warnings I had ever read about hiking in the mountains during lightning. There is something life-altering about spending an entire day in nature, having to be alert and attentive to the possibility of death from weather or wild animal, and yet feeling so completely alive because of it.

We sat at the top and viewed the mountains around us. I had a profound feeling that I was at the center of the world, and that it didn’t matter what happened to the rest of the world, Yellowstone and the wilderness would always be there. It didn’t need us. It didn’t need me. Life would always continue, with or without man.

There was still snow at the top, and because we were lightly dressed we ran down the side of the mountain in our hiking boots. It felt like we were flying. Missing that turn on the road turned out to be one of the best days of my life.

Sepulcher Mountain, Yellowstone

I think back often on that day climbing Sepulcher Mountain. I can imagine the grizzly bears, the bison, and the wolves going on with their lives, oblivious to anything but survival. Life is harsh in the wild, but perhaps our own modern lives are just as harsh, if not more so, than anything we can imagine in the wild.

Perhaps the need to connect with wildness is why I love trail running. When I’m running on a trail in a beautiful location, even if it’s only half an hour’s drive outside the city, I’m always cognizant of the possibility of danger. I don’t want to get chased down by a bobcat or trip over a rattlesnake, but running through a forest or desert canyon gives me a sense of freedom and being alive like nothing else does.

Sepulcher Mountain, Yellowstone

So find someplace wild to visit. Spend time in the Needles in Canyonlands, or hike into the wilds of Alaska. Get out of the car. Walk. Make yourself a part of the natural world. Remind yourself that the entire world is your home. See what lessons wild places have to teach you.

What Makes a Place Feel Like Home

They say home is where the heart is, and I believe it. I’ve written before about how being in Wyoming feels like home, even though I’ve never lived there. What is it about certain places that instantaneously feels like home?

I admit that home doesn’t have to be a place. People can also feel like home, and make the unknown places you visit better if that person is with you. But for me, home is a place, where things are open and spacious, inspire awe, and make me joyful to be alive.

On the road to Moab, Utah

On the road to Moab, Utah

For me, a place feels like home when I can be myself, when I don’t have to hide who I am or pretend to be someone I’m not. I can live in jeans and t-shirts, forgo almost all makeup, and not worry about having the latest hairstyle or making enough money. I’ve lived most of my life in Dallas and have spent most of that time trying to get away. Even though my closest friends and family are here, as are years of memories, it’s not where I belong.

The first time we drove out West to visit my then-husband’s family, I felt like I relaxed for the first time in my life, like being surprised to realize you’ve been holding your breath and tightening your shoulders. All that melted away when I saw the beautiful, sweeping grandeur of the West.

Utah

South of Moab, Utah

At first I thought it was just the landscape that made it feel like home, like finally being somewhere I could explore the outdoors and hike and run in beauty. But it was more than that. I lived in Switzerland for seven years in my early twenties, and despite its breathtaking scenery, I never felt comfortable there. I felt like an outsider, and it was a feeling that never left. Switzerland couldn’t have been more different from Texas in every way imaginable, and I was the stranger next door peeking in.

Flaming Gorge

Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area

There is something about being in the West that speaks to my soul. I can understand traveling across the country on foot, next to a wagon, following a trail that leads to an unseen place to start a new life. I can understand taking that risk, especially if it brought me to a place where life was what I could make it, not what someone else told me it should be.

Oregon Trail, Wyoming

The Oregon Trail crosses through this land towards South Pass, Wyoming

I don’t like crowds, and generally avoid large cities when I travel. I especially take to emptiness and lonely landscapes. I like having space. Most people find the places I love to be boring, a whole lot of nothing. Not me. I imagine lying in the grass, watching the clouds slide by, or viewing the heavens on a star-filled night.

I used to do a lot of that when I was a child. Being outdoors, with no particular purpose, may be my best childhood memory and the thing I miss most about being a child. Just being. Outdoors. Just enjoying.

Moab, Utah

South of Moab, Utah

Some places feel like more than home, they feel sacred. Utah is that place for me. I don’t really believe in energy vortexes and all that stuff, but there is a certain feel about all that dry, barren, rockiness that seems electric. It’s almost an unnameable mystery that makes me want to be there. I think of walking there, exploring, trail running, or meditating, of vision quests and being creative, living in a trailer, rejecting modern society, and making things with my hands.

Utah brings out my inner hippie.

Wilson Arch

Wilson Arch

Home feels like a place where you don’t care what others think of you, because you know most of the people around you either think the same, or you know they will be accepting of your differences. You speak the same language, so to speak. It doesn’t matter your political views, your stance on religion, or what kind of car you drive. When you’re outdoors, you’re a member of the same tribe.

La Sal Mountains

La Sal Mountains, just south of Moab, Utah

Remember that old John Denver song, Rocky Mountain High, about “coming home, to a place he’d never been before?” It happens, and when it does, even if you can’t always be home, you know you can live anywhere because home is never far from your heart and mind.

I hope you find your home.

Moab, Utah

What do you consider “home?” Is it a place, or the people you love? Is it where you grew up, where you now live, or someplace else?

No Words Needed

Sometimes a picture really is worth more than a thousand words.

I have always been a lover of words. As a child, I loved nursery rhymes and limericks, fairy tales and songs, and I lost myself in books. I learned early the power of words, how they could make you feel invincible, or hurt you worse than any other weapon. As I grew older, I loved writing and manipulating words, expressing sorrows, joys, and petty jealousies in long-lost diaries and journals. I went to college and analyzed and argued the classics, and became a teacher to convince children of the power of words.

It’s the unspoken words, however, that are the most powerful and sometimes tell the best stories.

And nothing tells a story better than a great photograph.

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My dog, Shasta, is very high energy. Her looks tell all. After Christmas dinner, while everyone else is hooked up to their gadgets and distractions, and all she wants is a little attention.

Bored Dog

In the summer, we don’t get much rain, but when it does rain it can be dramatic. Even if it spoils your Saturday afternoon plans of sitting on a restaurant patio, tossing back a few cold ones with your buddies, an unexpected rain storm can be a joyous occasion.

Rainy Day in Dallas

On the flip side, nothing says West Texas like a windmill and cattle next to empty railroad tracks on the Llano Estacado. If you follow 287 into Amarillo, this is pretty much what you’ll see, for miles and miles and miles.

West Texas Railroad and Windmill

Remember when you were a kid and you thought if you hid behind something, no matter how small, as long as you couldn’t see the other person they couldn’t see you either? And remember looking at the world through a balloon, and how the world suddenly became wrapped in yellow and you almost stopped breathing because it was so familiarly strange?

Child hiding behind a big balloon

You don’t have to run a marathon to know they’re not easy. In most races the last mile is always the hardest, and at mile 25, with the end in sight, you sometimes need a little help. All you have to do is look at her face to know how many miles she held on, waiting for that hand to give her the strength to finish.

Fatigue at Mile 26 of a Marathon

Photos capture things from the past. We remember the events, but we forget what it felt like to be there. Was it really that beautiful? Did I feel as small and insignificant that day as I look in the photograph? Did I gasp at the grandeur of the vista, or was I too tired to notice? Did I feel joy? Did I appreciate it then as much as I do now looking back at the photograph?

Alkaline Ridge, Wyoming

Words are important, whether spoken or unspoken. Words can paint a scene or an emotion, or they can twist and corrupt with their silence. Be careful what you say–or where you point your camera.

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Here is a great website started by National Geographic photographers who tell stories without words. 

Going Home to Wyoming

There are places in the world that feel like home even if you’ve never lived there. Places that feel immediately familiar, where your shoulders relax and you sigh deeply. Places that deeply touch some part of your soul and beg you to stay. Places you yearn for when you’re away. Places where you don’t have to be anything other than who you are.

For me, that place is Wyoming.

Wyoming Rainbows

I’ve traversed America countless times to return to Wyoming. Each time is like a homecoming.

On a flight to Oregon once we flew directly over eastern Wyoming. It’s expansive nothingness was unmistakable. I looked out the window and thought, “My heart is down there.”

I don’t think I’ve ever said anything more true.

Eastern Wyoming

For years, my family made summer road trips to Montana and Wyoming. My daughter worked as a park ranger in Yellowstone, then a geologist in Jackson Hole. This summer we returned for her wedding overlooking the Tetons.

Tetons

On our first trips, Wyoming seemed so far away. Two full days of driving with two bored kids in the backseat almost didn’t seem worth it. The fights, the restlessness, the boredom. But once we got out of Texas (which is over nine hours of the entire trip), and the drive became more scenic, even the kids couldn’t complain too much.

Nowadays we avoid Colorado and sacrifice mountain views for the easy, monotonous drive through Oklahoma, Kansas, and Nebraska. I ponder the emigrants of the 1800’s walking through these arid places, following their wagons, ready to start a new life. I wonder what it would have been like to be a woman, coming to such a place and raising a family.

Kansas Barn

This year we drove up through southern Utah, another place I think of as home. Still clinging to our stressful, fast paced city lives, we were anxious to reach Wyoming and help with wedding preparations, and made no stops in Utah. It was tough to drive past Canyonlands and Arches and not enter the parks. For me, southern Utah and the four corners area is like the center of the world, and if there is such a thing as “sacred space,” it is found in Utah.

Southern Utah

Regardless of which direction we enter Wyoming, I’m in love the moment we cross the state line. From the lonely, empty landscapes of the east, to the mountains of the west, it’s all magical to me. The sky is huge and never remains the same. Weather changes are dramatic and sudden.

Western Wyoming

We camped on Shadow Mountain, across the valley and overlooking the Teton mountains. We camped five nights on forest service land, and I couldn’t have been happier. We had only planned on camping three nights, but the choice between a hotel room and sleeping outdoors was an easy one. Despite a fire ban, which meant no evening campfires, every minute spent on the mountain was priceless.

Tetons from Our Tent

My daughter was married there.

Teton Wedding

The Tetons wear a different face every morning. Its face changes throughout the day. It’s fascinating to watch those changes. I could never grow tired of the view.

Sunset Tetons

One could sit for a lifetime on Shadow Mountain and grow old, watching the changes sweep across the mountains, and know that despite the changes, nothing really changed at all. This is the mountains’ greatest lesson.

I used to think of Wyoming as being someplace far, far removed from my Texas life. It isn’t. Even if I never physically live there, I will always carry it’s songs and pictures in my heart.

Teton Bison

When I’m back in Dallas, in my air conditioned house trying to escape the 100+ degree temperatures outside, I can close my eyes and imagine myself standing before the Tetons. I know all the roads that will take me there. I imagine one long road, a tether, an umbilical cord, between myself and the mountains. I know that at any moment, if my everyday life ever becomes too overwhelming or artificial, all I have to do is start driving.

I’ll be there soon enough.

Why Do We All Notice THAT Kind Of Woman?

A few weeks ago we went to a party at a friend’s house. I didn’t know many of the people there, but one person stood out from all the rest. You all know the woman I’m talking about.

Bleach blonde, thin, 40-something, fake boobs, wedge heels, strapless black top, and short shorts. She’s attractive, but in a contrived sort of way. She knows people (men) are watching her, and that’s just the way she likes it. She looked like a middle-aged Barbie.

I didn’t know this woman, but I became fascinated watching the effect she had on the people around her. Men’s eyes followed her. Women kept looking back at her. Even I found myself watching her, and I couldn’t for the life of me figure out exactly what it was about her that sparked such interest.

She made a comment to one of the men in our party that she was disappointed so-and-so had just left, and hoped he didn’t think she was with whats-his-name, because she wasn’t. Within ten minutes she was making the rounds, and within another couple of hours was seen leaving with that-guy-over-there.

I’m not being catty, just curious. I don’t know her, didn’t talk to her, and my first impression of her could be way off the mark. She could be a microbiologist with a Nobel prize in her back pocket for all I know.

To be honest, maybe I’ve even been that woman in the past, and I was merely recognizing something familiar.

Blonde

Women like to look nice. We spend a huge amount of time and money searching for things to make ourselves look attractive. But do we sometimes go overboard and make our appearance–and our motives for looking attractive–the main focus of our lives?

Especially if we reach a certain age and find ourselves unmarried, do we sell ourselves short and become desperately “flashy” in an attempt to attract attention?

To me, there seemed something sad about her. There was nothing unique or genuine about her. She looked like your stereotypical Dallas woman. Did she know who she was? Was her only objective in life to snag a man?

And why did I care?

I’m not married, but I do live with someone. This is the first relationship I’ve had that gives me the freedom I never had when I was married. And by freedom, I mean the freedom to BE myself and do the things that make me happy. I’m not saying you can’t have that freedom in a marriage. For whatever reason, I never felt I had as much as I do now.

Maybe it was because of being so busy raising two children. That’s a choice I would never undo, and that particular loss of freedom had many more rewards than sacrifices.

In all honesty, it was more a matter of playing second fiddle to someone else. Their outside interests came first. I let myself  become swallowed up in my husband’s life and path, and never took the time to develop my own.

No blame to him. It was my own responsibility and I let myself down.

Now I’m older and wiser. Younger women seem to be much better at making their own lives before marriage and not giving up so much of their own dreams and goals for their husbands or families. I do believe you can have it all, but it may not be easy.

We don’t have to sell ourselves short. I don’t think the woman at the party gave herself enough credit. Rather than being happy in her own skin, she seemed to be playing the role of what she expected others wanted. I’ve been there. It never works. You wind up making poor choices and getting used.

Perhaps I’m way off base about the woman at the party. Maybe she has a thriving life, full of activities and endeavors that keep her fulfilled and satisfied. Maybe she’s philosophical and has interesting ideas. Maybe she isn’t as desperate as she seemed that night.

Maybe she was just lonely. For whatever reason, we certainly all noticed.


Stealing My Safety

A few weeks ago someone stole our grill. They parked their car at the end of our well-lit driveway, walked past our two parked cars, picked up the grill on the other side of the bedroom window behind our bed, shoved it into the trunk of their car, and drove away. It was 10:30pm and we had gone to bed five minutes earlier. The only sound the thief made was a thump as he tried to fit the grill in his trunk, alerting the dogs. Michael got up to look, saw the car, and only realized what had happened when he saw the wheels of our grill sticking out of the trunk as the thief drove away.

It was a $60 grill.

I was angry for days. I couldn’t believe someone would be so bold. I couldn’t believe the dogs didn’t bark earlier. I couldn’t believe we hadn’t heard anything.

I felt jumpy the next week. I kept the doors locked and the blinds open, and I watched every car and pedestrian that passed the house. I didn’t run or walk the dogs in my neighborhood. I signed up for daily emails listing robberies in my neighborhood. I felt suspicious and unsafe. What if he came back and tried to break into the house?

I wanted to get a shotgun and a pit bull and install cameras and floodlights around our house. I felt like the Clint Eastwood character in Gran Torino.

A few years ago someone stole the hanging flower baskets off our front porch. Michael left the ladder out one night and we saw the footprints the next morning through the backyard where someone had walked in from the alley and taken it. I was angry those times as well, but not like this. This was a seething, vengeful, pit-of-your-belly type of anger. I wanted to catch the thief and spit in his face. And worse.

Police

I got over it, but it took awhile. It felt personal, but I was thankful it was only a cheap grill. It made me think, however, about why I felt so angry.

Years ago, when I was a single mom finishing up my college degree and living in student housing on campus, I came home with both kids and a few sacks of groceries. I took the kids and some bags upstairs to our apartment, and left the rest downstairs. When I came back the groceries were gone. Surprised, but not angry, I remember thinking to myself, “Well, someone must have needed that food more than me.” As I walked back upstairs, the hall director came running up the stairs with the missing groceries. He was prone to pranks.

There’s no way I would be that magnanimous today. Look how I reacted to someone taking our grill. What had changed?

What does this say about me, that stealing something stupid like a grill would make me want to go Rambo? And what does it say about our world, when you would risk jail time or getting shot over something that insignificant?

I was shocked when I started reading the police reports for my neighborhood. Apparently there are a lot of houses and cars being robbed. Even more alarming are the increasing numbers of armed robbery.

And it’s not just my neighborhood, it’s all over the city–and probably the entire country.

The guy who stole our grill was a pro. Stealing is his job. It was too dark to see the grill from the street, which means he had seen it earlier when the cars were gone and came back later when we turned out the lights.

Is this what happens when there aren’t enough jobs to go around? I doubt it. There always have been and always will be people who steal.

The worst part of this minor, insignificant incident was the way it suddenly made me feel distrustful and suspicious. Losing the grill was unimportant. Losing my feeling of safety was huge. I like to think that people are inherently good, and that if I’m careful and observant I’ll stay safe. Having something stolen, no matter how small, reminds me that there are others out there who are lost–and dangerous.

And this is perhaps what made me so angry, that my view of the world could be wrong. I’m not so naive as to imagine the world is like a Disney movie, where the good guys always win and the bad guys always get caught. I’ve known bad people. But knowing there are people who make their living by stealing and threatening and physically hurting others makes me angry. I want them to go away and be better people.

I read a report of an armed robbery a few blocks from my house. A man was walking back to his car from a restaurant and was accosted by two young men with a gun. They got angry because all he had was $23 in cash and an iPhone.

If you would hold a gun to someone’s head for $23, and be willing to take a life for an iPhone, then your own life must be worthless.

And that is truly heartbreaking, for all of us.

The Snow Day and the Thugs

Now that the days are getting long and hot, and I search for anything to get me through to October when the days might cool off a bit if we’re lucky, I dream of snow. White, cold, fluffy snow.

And snow always makes me think of one of my students.

We have a rule in our school district that if the weather turns bad after a certain time in the morning, the buses will run and the schools will open. No matter how bad the weather gets, once the decision is made schools stay open for the entire day.

We rarely get snow in Dallas, but on this one day it started to snow after the cutoff time. By the time school opened at 8:00, the ground was covered in white and the snow was still falling.

Snow in Dallas

As you can imagine, trying to get a bunch of fifth graders to settle down when all they want to be doing is playing in the snow, is tough. School is the last place they want to be.

On days like this you usually have two kinds of kids who show up: the straight A students who never miss, and the ones you pray will stay home just this one day, please dear God.

Ramon (name changed to protect the innocent) was in that first group. He was a smart kid. He never got in trouble, always did his work, and was very well-liked by his classmates. He even had a few girls think he was cute. But there are times when even the good kids go bad.

Like on a snow day.

After picking up the students, walking them up the stairs and past the windows where they could all moan and groan about the fact that they were here and not there, and telling them for the fifteenth time that no, we can’t go outside and play in the snow, the students settled down and got to work on journal writing. The usual suspects stared off into space, not a clue as to what they should write about, and the others wrote furiously about the unfairness of being stuck at school while so-and-so got to stay home and play in the snow. Pencil leads were snapping, sighs and moans were expelled, and even I felt gipped that school wasn’t closed.

A few minutes into journal  writing, Ramon walked up to me with a worried look on his face and asked if he could go to the restroom, it was an emergency. I gave him the Disbelieving Teacher Look, saw the desperate look in his eyes, and decided he was legit. He grabbed the hall pass and escaped.

Class continued. I decided to read a chapter aloud from the book I had been reading to the students, knowing they would lord it over the kids who hadn’t come to school that day. It was a particularly good part of the book, and I was enjoying making the story as dramatic as possible. The class listened intently as I read.

After fifteen minutes or so, I looked up to see the assistant principal standing in my doorway. Mildly annoyed that she was interrupting our right at the good part, I also noticed she had someone with her. Someone who was hiding behind her.

Ramon.

“Excuse me,” she said. “Is this your student?”

Uh oh. I had forgotten about Ramon.

“Yes. He went to the restroom,” I meekly replied.

“Uh huh!” she said. “Do you have any idea where I found him?”

I looked at Ramon. He was looking at the floor. Ramon was in trouble and somehow it was my fault.

The AP called me into the hallway. The class was loving every minute of this. I walked out into the hallway, sweeping the room with my Evil Eye Teacher Look that said don’t even think about it.

Apparently the AP had been making the rounds downstairs after the bell rang, making sure everyone was in class and accounted for, when she heard someone yelling and knocking outside the door to the playground. The door was set to lock when it closed. When she opened the door who did she discover? Ramon.

For some completely innocent reason, Ramon had decided to go to the downstairs restroom. He couldn’t explain why. As he passed the door leading to the playground, he heard someone knocking to be let in. Being the good Samaritan that he is, of course, he opened the door–and was promptly thrown into the snow by some THUGS! They had really done a number on him, too, because his hair, shirt, and jeans were sopping wet.

“Who were these thugs?” I asked. “Just some guys who wanted to be mean” he sheepishly answered.

I said, “Wow, those were some really mean guys to throw you down in the snow like that! That’s awful, Ramon. It’s too bad you opened the door for them.”

He swore it was all true. He even cried.

We sent him into class, closed the door, and burst out laughing in the hallway.

Snow in Dallas

We teased him all year about the thugs. We warned him to watch out for the thugs at dismissal at the end of the day. We asked him if the thugs ate his homework when he didn’t have it in class. We made sure he had a buddy on field trips so the thugs wouldn’t force him to do fun things again.

We were so worried about him, we even had him explain it to his mom on Parent Conference night. After a long look at him, she rolled her eyes and shook her head.

He knew he had been caught red handed, and he laughed along with us. I told him he would never, ever forget the day he went bad. He said he would never, ever do something that stupid again.

So on these horribly hot days of summer, when I’m running in temperatures that are meant for an oven, I’ll think of Ramon and how much fun he must have had rolling in the snow. He said it was worth it, and I believe him.