Grandma Judi

Diary 12/5/19

I am a grandmother to Max Atlas Stojakovic (Stow-yahk-oh-vitch), all 7.4 lbs. and 19 inches of him as of 10:11 on 12/2/19. Since he has developed chipmunk nursing cheeks, he may weigh more already. He is, of course, perfect, and he is truly a cute one, grandmother prejudice aside. It was a normal first birth in terms of length and hard work, but my daughter was a super athlete, as birthing moms are, and her husband a loving, stalwart, and supportive partner all through the long night and into the next morning. They just spent their first night in their own home as a family and my heart is full of what all grandparents say is that particular quality of love as your children become parents of the next generation. It is an everyday miracle.

I am grateful that my surgery occurred when it did so that I could get to the birthing center and walk into my daughter and son-in-law’s room to hold my grandbaby 7 hours after his birth. I was given a ride there by friends at Kendal who made it happen to support this momentous event in my life. I have joined the club of grandparents who were happy to help. I am so delighted to be a new member, and to rejoice at every step of this new family’s adventure.

Some of my new Kendal friends have never married nor wanted to, traveling the world, working hard in one profession or another, some have recently celebrated their 65th wedding anniversary, some are skyping with their great grandchildren- I am content with how my path unfurled before me as I took each step. I have been on the lookout for sorrow that Richard is not here to witness his grandson. The man he was would have been thrilled to love another male child in his family. Truthfully, he is here, ubiquitous in the steady warmth of his love, like the ever-present sun, even behind the gray winter clouds of Ohio. His presence is not only in his DNA, but simply here. I am sure I may know pangs of recognition and loss as Max becomes his own person without his grandfather. But for now, I experience that all is just as it should be.

I wish you much love and light inspired by this new star in my firmament to shine for you now and throughout the New Year.

Gratitude

Diary 11/25/19

I can hardly believe it is Thanksgiving week. Of course, I have been in surgery and recovery mode which took a chunk out of the days passing as anything but usual. Now that my head is emerging above the water, I shake the drops out of my eyes and look around to see it is fully late November. Warmish days, sunny days, cold, gray days, snow piles from the plow melting in the corners of the parking lots- all of it speaks of November. Outside my windows, the grounds people here have been busy planting new shrubs and trees to fill around the skimpy garden I tried to start last spring. This spring, Kendal will provide more perennials that I helped to choose, and my small patch will blend in with this whole side of the building that holds our six-year-old wing of assisted living. It was never properly landscaped before this and now I will be able to observe it come to fullness along with my own growth.

I am delighted to be back in my own room. Being inside my room makes it clear that I have a way to go to undertake the hundreds of small activities I did more easily before. I can stand up without holding on for a minute at a time before I get a still unhealed nerve zing that weakens my leg muscle and have to reach out to hold on. First thing in the morning I am at my strongest. The other day I got up and took an unaided normal step or two before I noticed and quickly had to grab the handles of my rollator. If I have to walk more than twenty feet, I wear my sturdy new back brace and my old foot/ankle orthotic from the time MS had caused bad foot drop on my left side. That condition has returned due to my disrupted nervous system. I work on that every day on my own and I am back to twice-a-week PT sessions now that I am out of rehab when I worked with PT and an OT every day.

My weak back can just handle sitting up for an hour for my meditation groups and the Sunday Quaker meetings, and I hope to get back to my committee meetings and writing groups after this week. Of course, I am mostly focused on the coming grandchild. My lovely waddling daughter is a happily expectant mom, still teaching her classes on the Oberlin campus last week and this. There were indications that her babe may arrive earlier than the December 20th due date, but now it is up to the mysteries to decide when another particular human being will appear in our turbulent world. After this week he is considered full term. As my younger daughter is taking the train here and back from NY state for Thanksgiving, we can hope he waits until after all the plans are fulfilled, a family meal and reunion is concluded, and the activity runway is cleared for his safe and healthy landing. May your own Thanksgiving be full of less obligations and full of more opportunities for gratitude.

This is a love poem for my pregnant daughter and her babe.

Message

You are swimming

in the dark belly of the mothership

the ocean that bore us all

silently awaiting cell by cell

powerful waves of mystery

wave after wave after wave

will launch you towards our bright shore

Love to love

and you will inhale

your First Breath alone

your latest message from Home

will touch many hearts

all the years of your life

“Gather all the Kindling”

When the light around lessens
And your thoughts darken until
Your body feels fear turn
Cold as a stone inside,


When you find yourself bereft
Of any belief in yourself
And all you unknowingly
Leaned on has fallen,

When one voice commands
Your whole heart,
And it is raven dark,

Steady yourself and see
That it is your own thinking
That darkens your world.

Search and you will find
A diamond-thought of light,

Know that you are not alone,
And that this darkness has purpose;
Gradually it will school your eyes,
To find the one gift your life requires
Hidden within this night-corner.

Invoke the learning
Of every suffering
You have suffered.

Close your eyes.
Gather all the kindling
About your heart
To create one spark
That is all you need
To nourish the flame
That will cleanse the dark
Of its weight of festered fear.

A new confidence will come alive
To urge you towards higher ground
Where your imagination
will learn to engage difficulty
As its most rewarding threshold!

                                    John O’Donohue

John O’Donohue says it best. What schools my eyes today is the innate resilience of my body that has been lurking under chronic pain for so long. I am slowly healing. Through this healing time, I am in less and less nerve pain, and the pain from the surgery itself is not hard to handle. Connecting nerves to muscles is an ongoing lesson plan. With the help of a wonderful back brace and my old left foot/ankle orthotic from when my MS was much worse, I am walking longer and farther every day. I must be very careful because sudden nerve spasms can fell me if I am not holding on carefully to my rollator. I cannot twist around my low back and can lean forward only with great care. Otherwise I am becoming more self-sufficient and expect I will be able to leave the rehab area of the Care Center and return to my own room next Thursday. I look forward to having my own space and no longer having to be checked for levels of various body functions at all times of the day as is necessary for skilled nursing care.

To be on a healing path with the obstacles removed and my spine revamped is a true joy. Boredom, fatigue, and irritation are small passing squalls that do not temper the underlying momentum of healing that my beleaguered body has shown during my days here. I know I will be stronger after I recover, and I will return to my life with renewed gratitude.

“A new confidence will come alive
To urge you towards higher ground
Where your imagination
will learn to engage difficulty
As its most rewarding threshold!”

Home

11/9/19

I am back at Kendal in the rehab area of the nursing center that encompasses my own room in the Assisted Living wing. The surgery went well. Four and a half days in a small local hospital was hard, and I experienced the worst physical suffering of my life for two of those nights. Off the chart post-surgical pain, nausea, and a pounding headache created a harsh mix of sensation. Drugs both helped and didn’t help, but it is what I had to work with. After my last surgery, a Kendal friend of mine who used to be a nurse gave me a get-well card that said, “People who say that laughter is the best medicine have never tried morphine.” I say, first the morphine, and then the laughter.

There is something very pure and clarifying about undergoing intense pain. The urge to disassociate from my body was strong. It was not a “near death” experience, because my pain was not signifying life or death. Nonetheless, I had to summon something that insists on life not usually called upon from deep within. It happens during childbirth, on the battlefield, extreme athletics, or at any time the body is threatened at that level. I kept breathing, and the pain receded by degrees. I know I went through an ordeal, but the body memory fades it from view as soon as it passes. I remember sobbing on the toilet (sitting up at all was hard) with a nurse calmly standing by without judgement as I wailed, “I can’t take this anymore.”

My pride was in shreds. I wanted her to know that this is not my usual reaction to pain, that I am very strong, that I am not some flaky wimp. I calmed down and staggered back to bed with my rollator. I was glad she held neutral ground. My pain meds were adjusted, and then I could laugh at the picture of helplessness of me weeping all exposed in that hospital bathroom. That reassertion to live is a gift and, I begin to realize, so is the pain that precedes it. I have worked on embracing chronic pain for many years. Though I never would call it my favorite teacher, I see now that it is, in fact, a gifted teacher. Pain is an immediate humbler of the ego. It is paint stripper to the personality, creating an opportunity to see what else you are made of beneath the carefully cultivated images we strive to maintain.

At Kendal, the nurses here know me, and I know them as well. They know me as a person, not just a patient. We work together as a team and exchange helpful dialogue where my personal perspective counts as much if not more than theirs. That atmosphere in and of itself is healing. I do not need to push for self-advocacy. We all need to be truly heard and seen. It is Love in action. Hospitals are filled with professional strangers and do not provide a nurturing environment. Nurses run from room to room filling out endless paperwork, running meds, checking stats and have little time to give compassionate care. For the last three nights in a row I asked my three different new young night nurses how they liked working at Kendal. All three gushed that they loved it. Here they get to care for patients as people. I am beyond lucky to be here.

I learned something else. In my humbled vulnerability while waiting for the ambulance to transport me, I couldn’t wait to come HOME. I hadn’t realized how significant that thought was until I was back in my rehab bedroom. Once I was settled down, people kept dropping in to see for themselves that I was back. Some were friends, some were members of the community I know only a little, but everybody knew that I had been gone and had now returned. I hadn’t been wishing to go to back to my former house and home. I wanted to be here at Kendal with my community. These people are my home now. The transition from my former life has already happened. Home is not a particular room or a house, or a specific time of your life. It is the interactions of the heart cultivated with others around you. Corny, but true- home is where the flexible, spacious heart is. Home is not a static location. It includes all friends and family, the beloved old ones, and the shiny new ones still to come.

Exile From Home

10/27/19

Exile is such a brutal word. Many of us have decided that self-imposed exile is the best choice to disentangle from an impossible situation. We may exile ourselves from toxic families, spouses, jobs, a former community of colleagues, or friends. Wavering between the context of cowardice or courage, we finally may choose self-exile as the better part of valor. To be exiled by others is that much harder. To forcefully lose your home and the country of your heart through catastrophes, natural or manmade, is heartrending. When your reasons for wishing to return to the country of your origin are benign, but opposing forces conspire to prevent that from happening, it appears as grossly unjust.

Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk from Viet Nam, experienced political exile for forty long years. I read his lovely book of short stories and essays, At Home in the World. After practicing Buddhism since the age of sixteen on his way to becoming a monk, he credits this painful obstacle of exile from his country for helping him to attain his True Nature. There is a Buddhist saying, “The obstacle becomes the path.” Most of us search to find meaning in our own obstacles, and acknowledge the growth required to have met our challenges. In the end, gratitude arises when we find that we can now bear the apparently unbearable.

Where have I experienced self-imposed exile? Most of my struggles have been placed within the geography of my own body. I was another sexually abused child. Growing up in my small world of dance, I was once famous for the fastest footwork known to young females, unconsciously trying to escape my body. Later I endeavored to transcend my unidentified suffering by living with my spiritual head high up in the clouds. I choreographed, and performed in, potent dances highlighting separation and wholeness. I wrote songs that spoke to the unfulfilled longing of the human heart. I tried to ground myself in my body and heart while I tried escaping it through artistic expression at the same time.

I finally understood how much damage was behind the need for these semi-successful strategies and spent years in therapeutic practices and spiritual searching to uncover and heal my wounds. I seem to have laid down neurological tracks utilizing my genetic inheritance of MS to erase my bodily sensations from the ground up. That I also had degenerative disc disease was not identified until recently, when stenosis and bad arthritis in my spine began to cause the kind of pain at a younger age than is usually the case.

Honestly addressing causes of lifelong stress does not necessarily lead to a cure. In my case, I have applied and studied a wide variety of therapies and disciplines, including both allopathic and Western medicines to heal my mind/body issues. I have long been actively returning from exile, welcoming the tattered refugees of various bodily ailments into my loving care. I now see myself as a co-creator in the country of my life. I see that I am responsible to, not solely responsible for, what occurs within my boundaries. I love this home which life manifests within and around me. I respect my past choices for survival and current choices for revival. The spaciousness of unbounded spirit as I know it, is one and the same as my citizenship of this planet. Exploration and celebration of the full range of the human condition feels like Love in action. I, too, am slowly learning to be At Home in the World.

For My Next Act…

I will have a laminectomy on November 4th. The surgeon will be fusing vertebrae L 3-5 which means he will drill through the presenting lamina bone to reach behind into the interior area. He saves the bone dust to fill in the hole later. The interior is where my discs should be cushioning between each vertebra. But they are not, resulting in bad arthritis. The discs are disintegrating, and one is bulging out causing pressure on a root nerve, which is responsible for much of my pain. This arthritis also allows one vertebra to slip back and forth over another which increases the inflammatory pain with the slightest movement in the wrong direction. The discs will be removed and I will have new titanium springs to replace them. I never imagined that I would be someone with double sets of metal in her spine. A metal cage will hold the three vertebrae in place. I am assured I will not lose too much range of motion and anyway, I am barely moving my back now.

            It is amazing to me that modern medicine can clearly see inside the human body to address this problem. It is further amazing that they now can fix it with only two small incisions on either side of my spine, which is why it is called Minimally Invasive Surgery. MIS it may be but having undergone my cervical surgery, I understand that while reducing the impact on healing cut muscles and nerves, MIS does not change the internal assault on the spine. I know it will be excruciatingly painful for a few days, and in a week’s time it will be tolerable with fewer and fewer painkillers. I am willing to trade my never-ending unstable back pain for a different temporary pain that should totally heal within a few months.

            At first, I had no idea how to time this operation against the reality of becoming a grandmother in late December. When I walked into my doctor’s office last week, he said that he had just gotten a cancellation for the 4th and did I want it. I figured it was my sign to go for it, that the timing was as good as it could get. I should be fairly functional by Thanksgiving, and free of still anticipating a medical intervention after the baby is born. I can’t quite remember what it is like to be free of constant pain in that specific area in my back anymore. To deal with a pain that is always changing as it heals sounds like a wonderful alternative to me.

            I like my surgeon, I got cleared for my pre-operation testing yesterday, and I have a new primary care physician whose office is right next to my surgeon’s. They even like each other, which is a good feeling. I am confident the outcome will be successful and am practicing staying in the moment when I start to spin out into fear of further pain and “what ifs.”  

            I only need to stay in the hospital for one night. Kendal is the right place for me to pursue healing my body as best I can. The rehabilitation nursing staff is just down the hall from my room. As I need less medication and care to see that my wounds are healing, I should only be there a few days before I return home to my own room. My daughter, pregnant as she is, will confer with the doctor when I am in recovery from surgery at the nearby hospital. Back at Kendal she can visit with me when she is done teaching for the day just across from the Oberlin campus. I have many Kendal friends to look in on me. The nurses already know me, and physical therapists know me well and how my body works. I am entirely grateful to feel cared for in all these ways.

            My friends, near and far, shall also be with me in spirit and I am blessed.

Twone

Above is the download button you can press to see the original power point of a poem/slideshow I called Twone. You press on each slide on the left to move it along to display the next one on the screen. I worked with a new resident friend, Rebecca Cardozo, to create this piece which we presented to a Kendal audience in September. She is a like-minded-new friend, and a brilliant wildlife and landscape photographer. She has hundreds of stunning slides from her worldwide travels.

The music committee at Kendal came up with the theme of Tea for Two for this variety show. We were asked to share two people collaborations of all kinds. Ours was the above with me speaking the poem aloud as the slides went by. Of course, the rest of the offerings ran the gamut from four hands piano versions of Tea for Two, a tap dance, a Tango, stringed instruments duet, harmonica/guitar and harmonica/ autoharp duets, and more, all MC ‘d by our local Mad Hatter including repartee with Alice.

Below is both a shaky handheld iPhone video of the live performance and I also include the poem on its own. I borrowed the title from a dance choreographed and performed by my dear friends Johan Kos and Elizabeth Orwig, many years ago. I honor their work and could think of no better title for this new collaboration.

https://photos.app.goo.gl/5Rg4fj7igMqMYXR79

Twone

I lost my most intimate mirror

when my husband died.

Where will I find my reflection now?

Who will rest with me together upon the earth

when no words need be spoken?

Who will confront me

when I am at fault?

Who will be my forever companion?

Who will laugh at my sense of humor?

Who will play with me

like the time we slid down the wintry slope

in cardboard boxes

at midnight

in the moonlight ​?

Who will remember climbing our mountains

swimming our oceans in joyful awe?

Who remembers birthing lambs

from our flock of Icelandic sheep?

Who is milking the ewes

and making our favorite manchego cheese?

Who will grandfather

our first grandchild

to be born this coming December?

Beneath one sky

by day and by night

we are reaching for one another.

Who will celebrate with me

the astonishing

diversity

of scale and claw and hoof and feathers and atennae?

Who mourns with me as species after species disappear?

Now I find you everywhere.

The shortest distance between us

is no distance at all.

We are Twone.