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. I’ll get there one day.

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Bonfire of the Vanities

I haven’t had the balls to write too much about this because it is all tied up in feelings of self-worth, obsessive perfectionism and long-dormant insecurities. This illness has taken a ruthless toll on my body and the changes on the outside have, surprisingly, been some of the hardest to accept. I say surprisingly because, if you are housebound and never see anybody, who cares what you look like? But the visible manifestations of youthful vitality disappearing have really saddened me and hit it home that I’m a different person now- in every respect. Even if I came out of this tomorrow, I am changed physically as well as spiritually.

I always looked, felt and, undoubtedly, acted younger than my age. About a year after becoming sick, that abruptly changed. Obviously, I don’t have a spring in my step anymore and I’m not as chirpy, lighthearted and energetic as I was, but my looks have also changed and it was a blow to my ego. I stopped cutting and dyeing my hair and its texture changed — it is dry and fluffy, rather than smooth and shiny. It becomes greasy very quickly. The hair loss on the top and sides of my head makes me feel old and sickly. My eyes are no longer bright; the whites are a dull grey and I’ve lost eyebrows and eyelashes that were already sparse. Last year, I saw an ophthalmologist for the first time with a list of grievances: gritty eyes, dry eyes, vibrating eyes, styes, blurry vision, floaters, difficulty focusing, difficulty reading… It was a long appointment and he did a battery of tests. My vision, remarkably, is still 20/20. I thought, considering I rarely focus beyond my four walls, that it would have deteriorated. But, the health of my eyes was a different story. He told me to hold a warm cloth over my lids for a few minutes every day to open the pores and treat blepharitis and, also, to use preservative-free dry eye drops four times a day (I was very impressed with his “preservative-free” recommendation based on my reactions to drugs. I’m happy to know they exist since I was using Bausch & Lomb eye wash and it would leave red track marks down my cheeks). He also found that my eyes had two different pressures, which he said was not normal and made me a glaucoma suspect. I return next month to have a check-up.

Dilated pupils to see the optic nerve.

Dilated pupils to see the optic nerve.

I went off the birth control pill 16 months ago and, immediately afterwards, my skin began to break out. But this was no normal acne. I’ve dealt with skin issues my whole life, but I was familiar with them and I knew where spots would pop up (chin, nose), why they were there (hormones, smoking, picking), and how long they would last. For the past year, I’ve had acne along my hairline and jawline. My forehead, which was always pristine, became rough and braille-like. This really took a toll on my self-esteem. Even if I could have visitors, I didn’t want anyone to see me. I went from feeling not pretty to feeling downright ugly.

My visit to the dermatologist has given me renewed hope and a plan of attack. She wanted me to take antibiotics, but I refused based on my gut dysbiosis. She wanted to try a drug that is used to lower blood pressure, but also has the side effect of clearing skin, but I can’t because my low BP is a constant challenge. She wanted to use some sulfa Rx, but I’m possibly allergic. So, I have a glycolic acid face wash, a new moisturizer, Finacea in the morning and clindamycin in the evening. It is already making a difference. The braille turned out to be eczema, which I’ve never had in my life, but Desonide cream cleared it up in 4 days. I can’t tell you how nice it is to have my smooth forehead back. I keep petting it (which will probably cause more spots).

New this year is weight loss. I spent my teen years wanting to be tall and thin, worrying about my body, and now I weigh less than I did when I was 15. It’s partly to do with my elimination diet – nuts and oats might have been the bulk of my calories – but I am eating as much as I can every day. I lather on the butter and rely too much on Terra chips for added calories.

I started experiencing what I now know is called gastroparesis. My food sits high in my stomach and doesn’t digest. I want to eat more, but physically can’t. The food I do eat, I don’t think is being absorbed properly because I’m eating more than enough for a 5 foot-nothing, mostly-bedbound lady. Muscle wasting is now more evident. I have chicken legs. One of my greatest wishes would be to bulk up my legs. I never thought I’d say that. I want muscular thighs. I want my calves back. I want to have faith in my strength like I did my whole life. My height never made me feel like I was weaker than anyone else. I tried bench-pressing with my brothers, I was good at arm wrestling, I hoisted kegs of beer around at work and ran up and down stairs with heavy plates and large trays of food and cocktails, held over my head. I was proud of my strength and now feel like every movement might injure me. My chicken legs won’t reliably carry me and my muscles feel taut and brittle.

The good news is digestive enzymes and HCl are helping me to move food on down so I can eat more. I don’t necessarily want to add fat on top of bone, so my goal is to continue to absorb nutrients and increase activity.

Vanity always seems worthless and trivial, but, in the face of chronic illness, it seems almost sinful. Tall? Thin? Nice clothes? Pretty hair? Perfect skin? All I want is strong bones, muscles and cellular energy. Who cares about the rest? Well, I still do, but it’s a work in progress. M.E. holds a mirror up and exposes your bare bones… burns away the affectation and demands you be okay with the foundation and framework, without the superficies and facade. Be okay with the soul, alone. There is a bigger lesson here for me to learn.

Forces pulling from the center of the earth again…

My Mother, in an effort to give advice on things that could help my mood and mental fortitude, pointed out that there is never music playing in the house and reminded me that my number one rule of life, written in fading marker on an A4 page taped to her kitchen wall, was: NEVER BE WITHOUT MUSIC. I glowered at her. “I’m too exhausted to go downstairs and find a cd.” “It might help bring some joy back into your life”, she suggested. I went back to grimacing silently in pain.

A little later, she tried again: “You could even listen to music on your phone?” “Yeah, I do, but it just makes me emotional and I’m trying NOT to be emotional. Every time I’m upset, my symptoms get worse. Every time my symptoms get worse, I get more upset. So, I’m staying away from music.” “Not all music will make you upset…”, she said. I think I growled in reply.

Four hours later, I’m alone in the house. I go out to the front porch and watch the warm, beautiful October day. I realise I haven’t actually listened to any music since September 13th when I was at the dog park feeling so good, before the Crash Of The Year. So, I put my headphones on and plugged into my “Guilty Pleasures” playlist. It’s the poppy or hip-hoppy, beat-heavy, fun stuff that makes me feel empowered — like I can do backflips, like I’m one of the stars of Grease/Fame/Glee, like I’m young and strong and athletic. And then… I was smiling. I was swaying. I was elevated. And, even though I knew I couldn’t, I was itching to run, to dance, to sing at the top of my lungs, to compete in the Olympics… And I had the thought: Fuck you, disease. I got this. You think a little pain and exhaustion is gonna do me in? You think daily flu will break me? I’m made of sterner stuff than that. You don’t get to ruin my life. I’ve got nieces and nephews to watch grow up. I’ve got dogs that need to be played with.

It feels like weeks since I felt a little bit of that strength, confidence, happiness. Mother always knows best.