2016 Beach memories: Pictures worth 20,000 words.

Two years ago, I spent a few arduous days in L.A. with my mother and husband so I could have an appointment with Dr. Chia. Last year, we spent a few days on the Washington coast while I was very sick. We picked the closest coastal town to our house, so it was the shortest drive and my husband did all the work — I just had to get myself in and out of the car. I did it for the dogs, to see their joy on the beach, to try to make up for two and a half years of no adventures and lessened activity… but I was not in good shape.

This year, though… This year we took TWO TRIPS TO THE COAST. Again, all I had to do was pack (no easy feat — it takes me days) and get myself in the car. My angel husband, with good spirits, loads everything in and out and in and out of the car, including my mobility scooter, all my food, bedding, towels etc. I even brought my air purifier. I love being so low-maintenance.

Last June, was our longest trip since I got sick. We stayed in the same place in the same coastal town as we had in 2015, but I was feeling better than I had in years so, on the day we were meant to leave to go back to Seattle, we found a different rental and extended our visit for an extra two days. This new house was right on the beach and had a balcony. I had no idea the difference it would make to my experience. The first rental was further inland and had a fenced-in yard and trees enclosing the garden. It never occurred to me that a view might be nice — might even be soul-enlivening — I was just happy to see four different walls. But the simple act of gazing at an expanse of nature, even from inside a house, is everything when you’ve been housebound for a prolonged period. That first night, when I saw the vast black sky punctured with millions of bright stars, I started weeping. When was the last time I really saw the stars? I will never forget that moment. And the next day, sitting on the balcony, watching the waves… It didn’t even matter if I was feeling too ill to get to the beach. The funny thing was, I experienced none of that Oh-I-feel-so-much-better-near-the-ocean “locations effect” that so many people with ME report. If anything, I was taken down a notch by the wind, the marine smell, bonfire smoke at night, trying to manage my temperature fluctuations etc. Plus, there were, of course, a few difficulties for my sensitive system (a house on stilts that shook so violently, I couldn’t sleep, overwhelming bleach smell in the bathroom, strongly chlorinated tap water, too many stairs), but it was definitely worth it.

Over four months ago, I wrote a Love letter to my sons as a preamble to the big post I intended to write about the coast trip and then, of course, never got around to writing it. I’m struggling at the moment (this post has taken me a week to put together), so I’m going to let the photos do the talking.

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Half the house packed in the car, ready to go.

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ROAD TRIP!

This was the first night we arrived. A beautiful crescent moon welcomed us to the coast.

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Some days were overcast…

… with dramatic evenings.

Some days were glorious…

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…with breathtaking sunsets (taken from the balcony).

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The beach is exhausting. 😀

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The couple next door got married on the dune in front of our house. I wound up talking to them the day we left because I wanted to send them the photos I took and, in a bizarre coincidence, it turned out the bride had been suffering with a similar illness as mine, had tried many of the same treatments, knew all the same doctors. We both got tears in our eyes. It was a surprisingly beautiful thing to talk to someone so freely *in person, not on the internet*, without having to explain anything.

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The flag on the left is where they were wed.

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We had no plans to go again this year, but our best friends wound up renting the house next door to the one we had in June, so, at the beginning of this month and at the very last minute, we decided to join them. I’ve gotten worse the past few months, so I knew I wouldn’t be able to participate as much as I would like to (the first night they all played cards and had drinks, while I was in the other house, resting. The second night they had a bonfire on the beach, while I was inside, resting), but there were wonderful moments of normalcy: Z. chatting with me over morning tea, without the time-pressure of a planned visit; my dogs’ excitement when they saw Aunt Z. and Uncle J. on the beach — missed members of our extended pack; watching their family fly kites on the beach; colouring with sweet Anna while she talked my ear off more than she ever has before; eating dinner at a table with a group of friends, with conversation, laughing and music playing in the background (<~ this most of all: just hanging out amid all the normal sounds, feeling part of a group); and the social time my husband got, just hanging with friends he hasn’t seen properly in years.

The only downside was my dogs are showing their age much more now than they were even four months earlier. I couldn’t use my scooter as much as last time because they simply didn’t have the stamina to walk distances and were both limping after our first short excursion. The last — and warmest — day, Bowie didn’t even get out of the car for more than a minute. He was pooped. And Riley just sat next to me like a sentry, wondering why I was lying on the sand. I fear it really might have been the last hurrah on the beach, which makes me even happier that I pushed myself to go and create new memories.

The boys were thrilled to be back!

Our best friends frolicking. 🙂

Bowie and sweet Anna flying a kite.

One day was dark and brooding and that night it stormed with 50 mph winds.

Another day was sunny and clear.

 

Small steps with payback… But new memories and happy dogs are everything.

Love letter to my sons.

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After more than 10 months, I got away from the house. Every time I look at the grey in my dogs’ muzzles, I have a panic about time slipping by and the knowledge that Bowie is hurtling towards end of life. He is 9 and Rhodesian ridgebacks typically live 10 to 12 years. Bowie is big — the tallest ridgeback I’ve encountered in the flesh or online — I fear he’s more like a small great dane and they typically live 6 to 8 years… So, I’m bracing myself. Truth be told, I’ve been bracing myself for their ends-of-life since they were kids.

Riley was originally found emaciated to the point that he couldn’t stand up and had already been in two foster homes before coming to us. We were meant to be a foster home, too, but, after he was placed with two more families that didn’t work out (and my emotional meltdown with each goodbye), we knew he was meant to be ours. And, wow, was he meant to be ours. I don’t think any other pack would have worked so perfectly. He almost died from some gastrointestinal awfulness soon after we adopted him. I watched him lie on his side, dead-eyed, weakly vomiting blood while the vet told me he thought he might not make it. Not long after that, Bowie hurt his back at the park and I lifted his 110lbs into the car with some sort of super-human mother strength and raced to the emergency vet. I was healthy then, but, still, that’s more than I weigh.
[NB: Of course I called the clinic to verify his weight at that visit.]
[NB: Of course I made sure they weren’t busy before I bothered them with that question.]

So, losing them has been at the forefront of my mind for most of their lives. It may sound morbid, but it makes me appreciate every day that they’re here and I never take a moment for granted. I will miss this hair one day, I think as I pull it out of every meal I eat. I will miss his drool one day, I say as I almost brain myself slipping in the saliva pool on the kitchen floor. I spend an inordinate amount of time cuddling them, memorising every curve and bump of their bodies, making sure I’m always conscious and grateful for their presence.

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I will never forget the first time I took a mobility scooter to the cemetery for a “walk” with Bowie (at the time, I didn’t trust Riley to stay close off-leash, so he went to doggy daycare instead). We had been visiting the cemetery since Bowie was a puppy, but it had been a year since I was housebound and that first year was the longest and sickest of my illness. He lept like a puppy when we got there and I wept as I watched him. I think it was as important for him to see me out as it was for me to be out. Last year, both of my dogs’ mobility declined sharply. Riley is arthritic and Bowie is an old, creaky man. My number 2 wish (after getting better) is to fill their time with as much fun as possible. If I could, I would take them someplace different every day, wear them out, introduce them to novel smells and new friends (every time I’m flabbergasted or frustrated by my acute sense of smell, I think what the world must be like for a dog whose nose is tens of thousands of times as sensitive as a human’s. While a dog’s brain is only 1/10 the size of a human brain, the part that controls smell is 40 times larger. Can you fathom that even slightly? Whenever I see someone yanking on a dog’s leash, I think, imagine what he is smelling down there! Give him a minute!).

My dogs are my kids, my caretakers, my comedy, my inspiration, my reason for pushing myself, my main source of joy.

So, this is all a big preamble (pre-ramble, more like) to the story of our recent road trip to the coast (in a future post) and why it was so important to me. I can’t fly with my dogs to India or Africa or even to different parks very often, but once a year for the last 3 years, we’ve made it to the seaside. This time was different, though. This time I was stronger, I wasn’t as crushed by poisoned pain and my husband and I were happier, not desperately grappling for handfuls of different memories within the blind freefall of sudden severe illness survival. Because that’s what it has felt like: an initial period of confusion, fear and searching, followed by 3+ light-speed years of gasping for air and kicking like mad to keep our heads above water, learning how to navigate this life. And in all that time, it’s felt like we both had faces bowed down in grimaces of pain or duty, grief or worry, eyes meeting fleetingly, but blinded by our separate burdens. So, I remember those previous journeys to the ocean as a bit desperate, slightly lonely and only partially successful. But this time was different. Not easy, not perfect, but more like real life. Like a life where I’m totally present with my husband and easily walking the beach with my sons.

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The Other Shoe.

Whereas my preparation for this trip was incredibly thorough (I will write a post on that later) and the journey down to California went off without a hitch, once we got there, things went a little sideways.

I’d never been to LA and it was a learning curve. I’m very grateful that my therapist warned me about the vastness of the area and I had a few friends on which to rely for info (Patrick and SGV, I’m looking at you). For example, I was told to look at Palos Verdes, which is a bluff above the city, overlooking the ocean. I thought it must kind of be like a bigger Queen Anne in Seattle, a neighbourhood on a hill. However, Palos Verdes has 4 towns on this hill. There are multiple airports in LA and they are all legitimate, proper airports. I know that sounds silly, but, in Dublin, there’s Dublin airport, in Seattle there’s SeaTac and some landing strips. I like to say, in Seattle it takes about half an hour to get anywhere — give or take 10 minutes. A childhood friend of mine lives in LA, but she lives hours away from where I was staying, to see her would practically be a planned road-trip. They are obvious differences — it’s a huge city, after all — but I needed to make a mental shift that I never did in London or New York, for example.

Anyway, I was told that the heat and air quality in LA were awful — refineries sit very close to Dr. Chia’s office and stagnant air plagues the whole inland city. I was also warned of mold issues in beach areas. I was treating this as an 8-day retreat with my mother, whom I see rarely, a week to let my husband have some alone time and a test away from my home and dogs for the first time since I got sick. I was concerned about picking a rental in an area that made it difficult to sit outside. I imagined languishing in an air-conditioned house the entire time, with the garden being too hot and acrid and my being too sick to venture out to a different area.

(Aside: I had a few people suggest things I should do in LA ~ go to the beach, see the glass chapel ~ and it baffled me that they thought I’d be able to manage things after a grueling journey that I can’t manage when I’m at home resting. People can never fully grasp how limited we are, even people that see us, know us, live with us. They can never know the constant tally of energy expenditure versus energy conservation that goes on in our brains. The almost-subconscious weighing of necessity, desire and payback. The ever-present knowledge of what we’ve done that day and what we still need to do before bed that dictates our every word and movement.)

So, I found an AirBnB rental that was in Rancho Palos Verdes. The host was extremely nice, said it was quiet, there was no mold and they rarely had to turn on their A/C. It was about half an hour from the airport and 25 minutes to Dr. Chia. As we drove up the hill, the temperature dropped from the high 80s to the high 70s; it was perfect. The house was beautiful, with an expansive view of the ocean and it was sunny, but not too hot. I rested in the garden and watched the sunset, drinking up the view, so deeply submerged in gratitude, I thought it might overwhelm me. I never thought I’d be anywhere but Seattle again. Honestly, I thought I might not be anywhere but my house again. It was at once completely foreign and very familiar. I was taking in every scent and colour like an alien in our world, but it also felt completely normal, like the past two years were only two weeks and I was navigating just another part of the earth, like I have so many times before.

Then the other shoe dropped. Huge, billowing rolls of fog came in off the ocean and the humidity shot up and the temperature dropped. The damp soaked into my bones and gave me a chill that never really went away.

The fog rolling in. In person, this was huge ~ the photo can't do it justice.

The fog rolling in.
In person, this was huge ~ the photo can’t do it justice.

I went back into the bedroom to rest and it reeked. It was like walking into a wall of mildew. The en suite bathroom had no fan and the shower head couldn’t be turned to stop the water from spurting all over the floor. The closet was moldy, the duvet was musty and the blanket was crusty with something spilled on it. There was more, like stained pillows, toilets backing up, dirty dishes in the cupboard, moldy food in the fridge, a filthy oven, loud construction in the lot next door, but none of that bothered me like the smell of the back rooms and bathrooms. Even my husband, whose nose doesn’t work as far as I can tell, commented on how bad the bathroom was. The whole house felt damp and heavy. Between 7pm and 11am, the humidity never dropped below 78% and the temperature was in the low 60s. I didn’t have very many warm clothes with me, but I put them all on. Every day, I would sit on the couch, wearing three layers of clothes, and wait for the first beam of sunlight to break through the clouds and then go out to that spot and bake myself, like trying to dry out a water-logged book. The day we left, the humidity was 96% and it was completely overcast. That’s, like, raining indoors.

RPV bedroom on the left, my room at home on the right (humidity on the top, temperature in Fahrenheit on the bottom). I've never been so happy to be back in Seattle dryness in my life.

RPV bedroom on the left, my room at home on the right (humidity on the top, temperature in Fahrenheit on the bottom). I’ve never been so happy to be back in Seattle dryness in my life.

After much deliberation, we decided to leave early. I was fine for those few hours that the sun was up and I could be in the garden, but with the forecast calling for a chance of rain and even more clouds, I had to get out. My breathing felt heavy and I didn’t know what I was inhaling while sleeping in that room, so I didn’t have a “safe” place to lie and rest. So we changed our tickets for the evening flight the day after my Dr. Chia appointment. There were only two flights a day out of Long Beach Airport and the morning would be too difficult on my system. If I don’t rest in the mornings, eat properly, poop properly, hydrate and salt properly, I tend to have crashes of one sort or another: blood pressure, blood sugar, weakness etc.

Note to self: don’t choose the last flight of the night when you are sick, in a wheelchair and on a special diet.

Our flight was scheduled to depart at 7:25pm, which was already pushing it because I wouldn’t get home until around 11pm, well past my bedtime. We were told the flight was delayed at around 7:15pm — there was engine trouble and a mechanic was coming to take a look at it. Of course, I knew immediately it would be canceled and it was the last flight to Seattle that night. They could have moved quickly and gotten us to LAX for one of a number of nonstop flights to Seattle, but, instead, we waited over two hours to be told at 9:30pm that the mechanic had finally arrived. My husband actually had us transferred to a flight leaving out of LAX at 8:55pm, but we wouldn’t have been able to make it there in time. Actually, we probably wouldn’t even have been able to get my suitcase in time. We asked about getting a hotel and were told there were no open rooms in the city. No hotel rooms in the whole of LA. Hhmm. By then, I had finished all the food I had brought for the flight (not much: carrots, cucumbers and a bunch of Terra vegetable chips) and was curled up with my feet on a chair and my head on the wheelchair, feeling woozy and slurry. Through all of this, my heroic mother stood in line to talk to a gate agent with the throngs of other people and did everything she could to fix the situation.

I had already spent a lot of time on my phone looking for a hotel to no avail, but I didn’t trust my efforts, so I asked my husband to help from Seattle (he had only come to L.A. for two days to drive and help get us settled). He texted me three motels that he found through Expedia, but we didn’t know if they were places that Alaska Airlines would refund, plus my mother still was holding out hope that the engine would be fixed, so we held tight.

The little engine that couldn't.

The little engine that couldn’t.

When we finally got word that the flight was canceled, I wasn’t in the best shape. Two of the places my husband had found were now full and the last one was a $60 motel in Anaheim, charging $657 through Expedia. In desperation and delirium, thinking the airline would reimburse us, I booked it. And, when I called to tell them we were on our way, got thoroughly spooked by the very shady sounding person who answered the phone and seemed half drunk and not the type that should be in charge of a motel. Or even, of operating a phone. I had a meltdown. We were the last ones in the terminal, maybe in the whole airport. Everyone else had, presumably, gone back to their friends’ or family’s homes. My mother was busy begging the gate agent to help us since I was so ill and needed to get home. They offered to call the paramedics for me. People with M.E. love emergency rooms. I said, “If it’ll guarantee me a bed with no doctors bothering me, sure.” My mother said, “She’s not that kind of sick; it’s a chronic illness.”

They told us there were no seats on any flights the next day. I melted down a little further. The gate agent said we could fly out of LAX at 7am or John Wayne Airport at 12:30pm. We chose John Wayne because it was closer to the Anaheim dive that I was trying to get the nerve up to go to, but we couldn’t get the disabled bulkhead seating and we couldn’t get two seats together. Then my husband texted that there had been a mechanical glitch in Expedia’s system and my shady motel reservation didn’t exist. Oh, thank god! Because I had already realised Alaska would not be refunding any $657 for a dump in a different city. But… that left us with the airport floor to sleep on. Melting down…

My sister, A, who was on a camping trip in Eastern Washington with no cell phone service had asked if she could help. So had my friend, Z, who was probably asleep after working and caring for her baby all day. I didn’t think there was any hope. I had tried (ineptly) to look online, my husband had tried from Seattle, the gate agents had tried every contact they had… even the airplane crew was stranded at the airport.

At 10:41pm, my sister dropped what she was doing with her friends to help me, but I knew it was hopeless. I had a a new fun symptom develop around this time: my voice started coming haltingly, words coming out broken. It sounded like I was having a bad neurological problem, staccato speech, each syllable coughed out separately and slowly. It scared me. The incredibly kind and empathetic gate agent helped us get my suitcase and then wheeled it upstairs so my mother could push my chair. She showed us a couch where I could sleep and got us water. I got out my pillow, sheets, eye shades and ear plugs and texted my sister that I was done, signing off.

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That was 11:22pm. At 11:52pm, she texted to say she had found a room in a hotel — not a motel — for $164 — not $657 — across the street from John Wayne Airport — not in Anaheim or Palmdale, which is where the plane crew eventually found a room, 1.5 hours away. How could it be possible? I called the hotel: “Do you really have a room? For two of us? Even if it takes an hour to get there??” “Yes, Elizabeth, I talked to your sister, it’s all ready for you.” Disbelief.

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We packed up and — another angel restoring my faith in humanity — a woman also sleeping in the airport helped wheel our suitcases downstairs and outside the airport. Everything was deserted. The airport was effectively shut down. Tumbleweeds. And, then, as we were searching for a taxi number, one pulled up to drop someone off. Heaven sent. $75 later, we got to the hotel, they had a wheelchair for guests and a man helped us to our room. It was gorgeous. Two beds, a big balcony, swimming pools… By 1:30am, I was in bed. It was glorious. My sister moved mountains from the middle of nowhere and I will never be able to thank her enough.

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I didn’t sleep very much, of course, but I was able to recover more than I could have in the airport. My voice went back to normal, although I woke up nauseous, shaking like a leaf (not blood sugar) and with odd heart tremors. I mentioned how I felt on Facebook and Erik Johnson, of extreme mold avoidance fame, answered: “Take a shower. Wash your hair extremely well. Change into completely different clothes and put the ones you are wearing in a plastic bag.” It was like someone slapped me upside the head. Of course. I am in the habit of not showering in order to conserve energy, but showering is the only way to decontaminate — if not toxic mold spores, at least airplane germs and travel stank (from which I was definitely suffering). So I showered and changed into the only other clothes I had: a fun mix of compression stockings, shorts, tank tops and pajamas. I drank a salt and potassium water and was good to go. The shuttle to the new airport took about 3 minutes (again: how did my sister do it? Right across the street!) and the flight home was uneventful. My body even cooperated having only survived on plantain crackers, Rice Chex and vegetable crisps for 24 hours. And my husband greeted me at the airport with chicken and kale bone broth. Liquid life force.

Home is where the broth is.

Home is where the broth is.

Although I don’t think the journey to see Dr. Chia was worth it (as in, I wouldn’t advise someone else in my situation to go — but more on that in my Dr. Chia post to come) and the rental was not ideal and the journey back was filled with Travel Worst Case Scenarios, I don’t regret the trip at all. I didn’t feel terrible after either flight. I thought they might be carrying me from the airplane and that I might spend days in bed with my meningitis-type symptoms in full flare, but that wasn’t the case. I was actually just fine. The worst I’ve felt since before I left is the last three days and I don’t even know if it’s payback from the trip because it’s so delayed. It could be something in my home. It could just be M.E.

The whole expedition cost a small fortune and it was too much planning, packing and mental gymnastics for the few short days we were there, but I did it. We did it. My mother and husband were unimaginably brilliant and took every precaution to make it successful. And now we know how to do it, if we ever have to again. And I got to spend time with my Momma and create new memories. Priceless.

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Going to California in Pictures

I will post about my visit with Dr. Chia and I will write about successful travel with this illness, but first let me tell you about the trip to California.

On the way to the airport. This was the furthest south I'd been in two years.

On the way to the airport. This was the furthest south I’d been in two years.

On the train in SeaTac airport, feeling like a normal person going on a trip (besides the wheelchair and mask).

On the train in SeaTac airport, feeling like a normal person going on a trip (besides the wheelchair and mask).

You can't get much better than this. Flying over Mount Rainier, leaving Seattle. And an unexpected side effect of my illness: my fear of flying is gone. I'm living on borrowed time, what do I have to fear? :)

You can’t get much better than this. Flying over Mount Rainier, leaving Seattle.
And an unexpected side effect of my illness: my fear of flying is gone. I’m living on borrowed time, what do I have to fear? 🙂

Driving to our rental: 2 military helicopters flew right over the bridge.

Driving to our rental: 2 military helicopters flew right over the bridge.

Our beautiful garden away from home.

Our beautiful garden away from home.

How do you explain what it feels like to spend time somewhere other than your house for the first time in years? To see the ocean when you never that you would again? To feel alive when you once thought you might not live? There are no words.

How do you explain what it feels like to spend time somewhere other than your house for the first time in years? To see the ocean when you never that you would again? To feel alive when you once thought you might not live? There are no words.

Our first night.

Our first night.

Creating new memories.

Creating new memories.