Saturday, February 29, 2020

A Science Geek's View of the China Flu

Coronavirus is all over the news, most of it fearmongering in the wake of the upcoming elections.  My husband has spent the last week in Asia, including countries where the flu exists.  I'm concerned but not panicked.  77% of those infected are in one small region in China which he did not visit.  Cases outside of China are minuscule compared to the total population and the death rate in those infected under age 50 is .2 percent (that's POINT two percent, and we are talking countries that often have third world health care). That's significantly lower than regular flu that killed 34,200 people in the 2018-2019 flu season ALONE in the US.

So I'm not freaking out like everyone did with Swine Flu, SARS, and Ebola. As a dual Ph.D. (science and criminal justice) I've taken more microbiology and organic chemistry than should be allowed by law.

I remember a few years ago when H1N1 popped up, here and in Mexico, there was much talk of conspiracies and Doomsday theories to keep peoples eyes away from the economy ("It's Captain Trips!! Start walking across Kansas for the great showdown in Las Vegas. Beware a man whose boots make sparks").   Even the poor pigs got bad press over this, with the virus originally being called the “swine flu” because laboratory testing showed that many of the genes in this new virus were very similar to influenza viruses that normally occur in pigs in North America. But in actuality, studies were born out that that virus was very different from what normally circulates in North American pigs. It was actually a quadruple reassortant virus, with two genes from flu viruses that normally circulate in pigs in Europe and Asia and avian genes and human genes.

Another thing that came up in the conversations was people referencing the WHO "level 5" the Spring of what I believe was 2009. Remember, if that sort of warning pops up again - this warning level is primarily a means to qualify and communicate 1) that this outbreak has crossed regional borders and 2) it has the capability to be spread between human(s). It is not a reasonable scale for giving an accurate indication of how serious or life-threatening the illness may be.

Unfortunately, the media takes that and runs with it even if the paucity of the facts doesn't add up to the level of threat they are going to make it out to be. Now, THIS is why we should keep medical and scientific discussions in Latin and Greek. Attach a catchy name like swine flu or China flu to illnesses and even journalists teleprompter readers can pronounce them.  Keep everything in unfamiliar and difficult to pronounce terms and you won't be able to whip people into a panic. With a populace already highly frustrated by the economy, leadership, or just modern stresses, with the media blasting "Run for your lives - WHO Warning Level 5 !" the mortality concerns of the outbreak are only going to be exaggerated and fear builds.

Yes, the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic killed 10's of millions, with the cytokine storm effect resulting in the deaths of primarily the young and the healthy, as was the case in many SARS deaths, wherein, the immune systems of the young and healthy counteracted so vigorously it killed them. Yes, the 1918 flu was caused by an H1N1 strain. But the H1N1 subtype is now very common, causing many of the seasonal flu outbreaks over the past 90 years. The current vaccine even includes a strain of H1N1, first identified in Brisbane in 2007. Anyone remember the "Swine Flu Outbreak of 1976"? That was a rehash of the 1918 strain and it killed about 90 people, tragic yes, but not the 18 million of the original episode. I was a school kid, but I remember, especially the scary public service announcements, the ominous echo of kettle drums, bad acting, dismissive attitudes resulting in feverish visits to the hospital and the obligatory "old person death". Fear-mongering at its finest.

But if the new flu contains H1N1 and H1N1 subtypes have been around for years that have mutated, I still remember the Lysol cans from 20 years ago that said: "kills the coronavirus" (different strain than the China one). Should you ignore them?   NO. It's simple. The arrangement of genetic components of the new flu has never been seen before—whether in pigs, animals, or people. That, in and of itself, concerned a lot of folks.  Also, by being different from recent strains, the body's immune system may not be able to mount an effective response. Nor is there adequate data yet to see if this strain will target typical "flu death" groups, the very young and elderly, or go another course, even if that course results in few deaths. People will die from this current coronavirus strain, just like any flu strain. Any flu can kill you, not just one with a unique name.

Scientists are constantly studying new and old strains and the flu vaccine each year gets tweaked using such studies. The sequencing and resurrection of the influenza strain responsible for the 1918 pandemic have helped researchers to interpret the sequences of contemporary flu strains. We continually learn from the past,  If you look at sources other than the network news, there is accurate information out there (on medicine AND politics) There are many people, like myself, who have an identification with Orson Scott Card's concept of the Speaker for the Dead - someone whose job it is to make each death more than a statistic.

I have spent some time in a biohazard suit, and have some education in contagions. On my computer desk, there are a few plushie microbe toys from ThinkGeek. Yersinia pestis. My favorite -  the microbe some folks think was responsible for the black death. They've done some interesting historical forensic DNA work on the issue to prove otherwise, as not all scientists believe black death was bubonic plague in its pure form.

Certainly, there was the speed with which it killed, death often occurred within three days of the first symptoms appearing. Anthrax or a hemorrhagic-fever-causing virus similar to Ebola would be more likely than a plague to cause such a rapid demise, say some. But, in my personal opinion, black death was not at least primarily Y. pestis even as it does cause every symptom associated with the historical black death. The symptoms, the high mortality rate, the speed at which the disease spread, and the way the disease spread -- none of it jibes with typical bubonic plague

It's a puzzle, one that may give clues to other plagues that could pop up in our own backyards. Although pestis had evolved to be less fatal to its human hosts over time, it's really changed very little, the genome of the Black Death strain different from the modern & pestis "reference" strain by only about 100 nucleotides.  But each of those genetic differences can be found in at least one of the modern strains. Something made the Black Death "special", but we're not sure why,  rearrangements to the genome, are damn hard to determine from short fragments of DNA. One could try and resurrect the Black Death pathogen by modifying the genomes of the contemporary strains (oh, come on, it'll buff out!) in a controlled lab, where even an accidental infection could be handled with antibiotics. Perhaps they have.

It makes me really, really glad there are experts that continue to study this because the current China Coranovirus panic notwithstanding, there are pandemic threats that exist, and bioterror is not just a source idea for a "thriller" (and having found out by 2 days in Cardiac Critical care ICU that I'm one of those folks that can't take Cipro for a mild UTI or anthrax exposure, I am even happier.)

Yes, I'm a geek. A geek with a little blue-eyed, plushy microbe named "Nessie" (though I do not yet have virus DNA sequences on my iPod).

So I wanted to say this, only as a Ph.D. in science and a Mom. Get a flu shot because "regular" flu is more likely to kill you than China's coronavirus.  If you see symptoms stay home, do NOT go to work and spread it.

Use the same precautions you would use in any flu season- staying home if you are sick, washing your hands with soap and HOT water. (How long to wash? Sing the Happy Birthday song while scrubbing, that's the right length of time, but avoid doing that out loud or often or people will call for professional help). Avoid those openly sick, or if family, use normal precautions in their care. Seek medical help immediately with a sustained high temperature and difficulty in breathing  (the China coronavirus attaches to your lung tissue to replicate in a manner much more aggressive than regular flu).  If you've flown or traveled to a country where the virus is widespread call the hospital before you arrive so they can be set up for necessary precautions as you are tested. As for those face masks (normally made in China), they will NOT help you outside of keeping you from touching your mouth or nose) as they aren't sealed and the virus has easy access to your mouth and skin. Don't panic, take normal precautions, and wash your hands a lot.  You have better odds of winning the lottery than dying from the China coronavirus.

 Barkley and my first virus "plushie"

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

A Toast For Those at The Bridge

For all the members of Blogville that left us last year as they traveled to the Bridge.

 May you be free from anything but joy until we meet again, and may your humans find comfort in your memory.

Shadows fall in their swift and silent passage
echoing the last word of our common fate 
The sorrow of the world surrounds us
carried upon chill air like smoke 
Let us pour a dram of scotch
as our solitude  descends
We drink the smoke in 
so sorrow may sleep


Saturday, February 22, 2020

Things That Go "Click Click Click" in the Night.

Time: 4 o’clock a.m.-ish Place: The Johnson household, primarily bedroom areas. Abby Lab sleeps there, the doors to the living and dining room closed so she has the den/office (former master bedroom), our bedroom (and its deep walk-in closet with a dog bed), hallway and master bath to roam. Lorelei, sleep apnea snoring dog, is happily in her bed in her crate with her favorited stuffed toy in the living room.

Sounds: “Click click, click click.” “Whump!” - as a dog body hits the floor in the hallway outside the bedroom. "Heavy Sigh". “Click click click click click. Click Click Click Click”

Husband Action: Gets up due to all the toenail noise on the hardwood. Finds small female fuzzy sweater fell off doorknob onto floor in front of the closet basically preventing a 85-pound hunting breed dog that can leap several feet into the air for a dog treat from entering the closet to sleep until the alarm. Removes sweater roadblock. Dog goes into closet to sleep.

Redhead Wife Action: Didn’t wake up, took opportunity with husband out of the bed to steal the remaining covers.

Friday, February 21, 2020

Book of the Year Award - For the Rescues

I try not to do much promotion on my books as you are all here for the dogs but  Amazon International #1 Best-Selling book True Course - Lessons from a Life Aloft was selected as 2019 Book of the Year by N.N. Light - a well known book review service, award winning author, and editor.  Here is her review. (sales of this book, as well as my previous 4 books all go to animal rescue so if you buy a 99 cent kindle book all profits will go to animal rescue).

5.0 out of 5 stars Emotionally charged, she bares her soul...
Reviewed in Canada on August 12, 2019
Format: Kindle EditionVerified Purchase
From the time Brigid was a little girl, she wanted to fly. Her parents told her she couldn’t be a pilot and should pursue more domesticated dreams. But the fire inside her wouldn’t be vanquished. It wasn’t easy and as a woman, she got her fair share of disbelief. She learned to fly and spent the next few decades soaring in the skies.

True Course is a collection of short tales filled with lyrical and descriptive narration. She shares everything from growing up in the 1960’s to learning to fly and her career in the sky as a pilot. Her passion for aviation is so evident in her prose, she makes the reader a co-pilot in the cockpit. Every thought, every emotion pours out of her onto the page. It’s breathtaking and inspiring.

What makes this a five-star? Beyond what I’ve already mentioned, what stands out for me is the way Brigid Johnson’s writing feels like she’s a good friend sharing her adventures. Emotionally charged, she bares her soul to the reader. No white-washing here, she reveals both the triumphs and failures. It’s refreshing and adds to the depth of the memoir.

If you’ve ever wanted to fly or are a fan of aviation, True Course is a must-read. A testament to following your heart and achieving your dreams. Highly recommend!

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Garage Life - A Memory of My Brother

It was six years ago - my brother, a retired Submariner, working for Electric Boat, recently having died and myself still commuting between Indianapolis and Chicago as a newlywed not yet transferred to our Chicago office.  On that day, I headed out in the wee morning hours, back to the Newlywed Range where I'd be working from home that week. Between on-call and some travel, I'd not been home in two weeks and I missed it all, the dust, the grass that needed mowing and as always, that shop smell.  Partner in Grime was able to spend both weekends with me, driving down to Indy while I was on-call, but I missed home. 

Abby Lab, our new rescue settled right into her dog bed, happy to be back, and I headed on downstairs, to run a load of laundry and tackle a project downstairs. The Shopsmith stuff was in the garage with the latest British car project, but the walkout basement (with single bath) had been converted to a shop, with one corner of tables and cabinets (and a big tub sink) for prepping and brewing (the Range is known to make some wicked mead).

It's shadowed and it's old and it has little in the way of modern conveniences. But I like it that way.  It's a place where tools are old, wood is honed, metal is bent and burnt offerings are offered to Lucas, Prince of Darkness (or Dimness, depending upon your religious persuasion). It's easy to spend hours down there without realizing it, the space between tasks still composing time, yet consisting of minutes that no longer run straight ahead in diminishing allotment, but rather run parallel between, like looping bands of wiring, without apparent ending.
It is only when the light fades and the stomach growls that one looks up and notes the time, setting down the tools, rendering the machinery mute, returning upstairs to the house, a faint shadow against the steps in the fading West.

Most of my neighbors now are parked in the driveway, their garages full of "stuff", boxes, bikes, lawn and exercise equipment, you name it.  When I was a kid, it seemed most of our cars were actually IN the garage. Ours was a dark green ranch house with a dark green Chevy Malibu in the garage.  Outside, at the front edge of the lawn, there was a huge tree that Mom loved, that draped its branches over the driveway like a canopy, filling up the gutters with leaves every year. 

No one seems to have their cars in their garages anymore. Is it because we now, as a society, amass more "stuff", or are we more transitory, moving more often, with those things that are precious to us, left in boxes in the garage in between?   It's a little bit of both, perhaps.
When I would spend my vacations visiting Dad after my Mom died, it seemed I always found a reason to visit the garage.  There was always an extra freezer out there, full of an assortment of bundled cow,  mysterious Tupperware labeled "Brussels sprouts" and "creamed peas" which we found out too late, were actually cookies that Mom squirreled away for Church Basement Ladies functions, knowing we'd not raid the "creamed peas".  There was lefse from the Son's of Norway Bake Sale.  There was always ice cream.

In the corner were he and Big Bro's golf clubs, in front of them, space where we used to park our bikes. My last one was a Huffy 10 speed that Dad waited hours to bid on at a police auction of unclaimed bikes, knowing how much  I wanted a new yellow Schwinn,  knowing he couldn't afford $100 for one.  He got it and cleaned it all up so it looked new.  I wasn't what I'd wanted, but it was much more, as it was offered with quiet and undiluted love, the faithful care and attention that most don't put into anything anymore. That was a lesson that I may not have recognized then, but I do today.

The biggest decorative item in the garage was the tacky Mexican bullfighting picture he bought for he and Mom's first home which was immediately banished to the garage.  It joined a well-used dartboard and other works of fine art that found a home in Dad's "man cave".
Off to one side of the garage was a big workbench, with cupboards built above for storage.  To the day the home sold, it had not changed, except for the calendar, always the smiling, buxom girl in shorts and a T-shirt or a swimsuit, selling tools or beer.

In the shadows of the other side of the garage were deep storage cabinets where Dad stored all his fishing and outdoor gear. Everything was meticulously kept in place, even as the fabric of the net rotted, laying in wait with that spent but alert quality that aging things bear, as if they doubted the absoluteness of their eventual discard, as if they will be necessary and needed tomorrow.
There's just a single garage door. There's probably a small dent in the bottom of it. I tried to ride my bike at warp speed INTO the garage when the car was out and the door was partway up,  planning on ducking, just not ducking enough.  It knocked me clean off my bike, but no permanent damage was done, really (twitch twitch). But the windows that once brought light in are covered so not to let potential burglars peer in to see if anyone is home, the neighborhood, no longer being the safe haven that it was.

In the driveway, there used to be a little VW Beetle,  Mom's official  Bug out Vehicle which later became my car. But the Chevy was always stored in the garage, but for those rainy weekends where we set up the Lionel trains on large pieces of sheet plywood, spray-painted green, sitting on trestles. Old Pringle containers were fastened underneath to hold the tracks, and we'd run the trains along frantic loops of a track until our stomachs growled and the fading evening light illuminated them like silvered spider webs that run off into the distance.  Only then, on Sunday night, were the trains put away amidst the other supplies.
When the weather was good, Dad would work at his bench while we'd get a Wiffle bat and send that ball down the drive towards the road, into that conundrum of physics and aerodynamics that never failed to fascinate me.  More than one go-cart was assembled out in the drive with Dad's advice and more than a few of his tools.

As we got older, the trains we played with were replaced by Big Bro's first car. He and his friends forever tinkering with something they bought cheap and fixed up.  One day while I was hanging around, just to be close to him,  as he was changing the oil, he handed me a  wrench and said: "let me show you how to do this".  I asked, "why?" His voice stopped for a moment, though his tone remained in the air, like when the needle is lifted off an old record album by the hand of someone wondering if someone else hears the same music.
I was listening. He paused to wipe the sweat from his brow and said, with a steadiness that told me I needed to listen, "   you need to learn how to do some of this yourself.   I won't always be here, but you will always have yourself." 

Salt and truth. He knew me better than I knew myself.  To my Dad I would always be his little girl, to protect and to care for.  But Big Bro recognized that  I was not the type to be happy dependent on someone, fated to dependency, to settle for flesh and bone durable enough to do battle for both of us, while I stood in the shadows, the inviolate bride of silence, doomed to fail. He saw that, though it was a while and some tears before I learned it for myself.

So I learned how to change my oil and a tire, to do a basic tune-up, and keep my car in running order. While female classmates were frosting each other's hair blonder, I was putting Purple Horny Headers on my VW Bug (it was still a Bug, but you could hear me coming 5 blocks away) while we listened to an old transistor radio.  I learned the safe handling of tools and what was used for what purpose, working together out in the garage as if our forms were joined by some mechanical arm. We'd work until my arms ached, fading light drowsing on the floor like a drop cloth, slowed down by fatigue but still motion, still inevitable. Only when Mom, or later Dad, called us into supper, would we quit.
On my last trip out to check on Dad before his house went up for sale as he went into Assisted Living by his own choice, I made my trip to the garage as I always do.  The car was gone, he'd given it to my brother when he wasn't able to drive any longer and when my brother passed it went to his son.  In its former space were boxes and boxes of life, all of Big Bro's things, carefully packed for his children to take, most of the clothes going to charity, a few pieces of his sub memorabilia on my dresser now, the rest, simple, still shadows.  Still, I could see past them, to what was there, so long before.

I stayed just long enough to take out the trash to the barrel outside and to check the freezer to see if I needed to buy Dad some more ice cream for his last few days in his home.  It was hard to see inside, my eyes misty, breathing in the bracing density of cold air laced with pine and motor oil, a smell I loved, even after all those years. It is the smell of morning's breath, full of wood and silence.
Before I closed the garage door, I stood for just a moment, looking deep into this familiar space, out onto the driveway, shaded by Mom's old tree. For just a moment, the boxes were gone from my vision, replaced by a memory of hands and tools and laughter. I could almost see my big brother there, the shifting green shimmer of persistent leaves creating an illusion of shadow, of form within, working away until Mom called us in for supper.

It was in that driveway he finally collapsed, tending to Dad as we both have always done.  We later asked ourselves, if he'd tended more to himself, and less to the family;  had he shared the pain he was hiding, would he have had a few months longer?  But that is just who he was, always a submariner, always on the quiet watch, the risk and the fear of death second to those things which men store within the depths of a human heart.
The tragedy is, not that he was gone so soon, but that he was no longer here to see what remained, the hearts he repaired, the things that he built that can't be contained in one's hands. He went full speed up to the end, not wanting to extinguish his thirsting heart, but only to slake it.

As I stood on the step from the garage to the laundry room, hitting the button for the garage door, I  took in the sight, the smell of it. I can't imagine him not being here, something that just IS, like the loud CRACK of a bat hitting a Wiffle ball, the bounce of a bicycle off of gravel as kids come careening into home, the way an old baseball game seeps out of a transistor radio as a loved one works away, sounds that echo even as the door closes and darkness descends.

 - Brigid

Monday, February 17, 2020

Walking Dread - Spiders in the House

While visiting a friends farm in Northern Indiana one fall, someone brought over these round green balls that appeared to be some kind of pod or alien fruit. "What the heck are those?". I asked. Apparently they were the fruit off of the Osage Orange tree, otherwise known as Hedge Apples. My friends  said they repel spiders. You put them in a bowl or on a piece of foil and place them around the house. They won't spoil or mold and eventually just shrink to the side of a walnut. I should have brought more of them home.

For I am afraid of spiders. I can watch "Walking Dead" and sleep like a baby, but spot a big hairy spider in the house and I'm tip toeing around with a rolled up newspaper for days.

Snakes, bats in my hair (been there, done that), no problem. When you're out in the wild, sometimes hiking, sometimes working behind the yellow crime scene tape, you run into it all, bears, wolves, coyotes, horny toads, horny tourists, bugs, ants that bite and those little plastic containered, cellophane-covered sandwiches they carbon date for freshness and sell at gas stations.

I lived in the desert after grad school, and woke once to find a tarantula in my bed. My roommate, raised there, heard my shout and got a dust pan and gently picked it up, talking to it softly, and took it back to the yard to be released. "They do more good than harm" she said. I slept on the couch for the next month.
When I too lived out in the country a few years ago, spiders were a constant, short of running them over with your giant Chevy Subdivision, they were pretty indestructible.  The little ones, I left alone, as they do eat bugs and such around the property, letting them be or gently removing them from house to garden. But those large hairy fast moving spiders scared me to no end.  One night I opened the door to let the dog in and in rushes a grasshopper, into the house as fast as he could go.  What the. . ??  He was being chased, by a large spider.  I got the door closed before a spidey security breach, got the grasshopper picked up in a jar, and put him out the back door at the opposite end of the house..  Next time I opened the front door, the spider was waiting, rushing at the door again. . .

 "I Am Sparta!"  SLAM.

 We used the back door for a couple of weeks.

I can handle a lot of things, be it heights, or horror movies. My family is from Montana, we're tough.  But  I do not want to deal with giant spiders.

So there I was, staying with some friends who live out in the country, up at 3:30 in the morning to use the bathroom (note to self no Guinness after 8 pm) and as I'm taking care of business, a wolf spider about the size of a Buick runs across the floor towards me. Barefoot, I threw a hand towel on it and proceeded with my rendition of the Grapes of Wrath stomp.

Stomp Stomp Stomp. Die Spider Die!

No movement from under the towel. He didn't escape, the floor around it was clear. I left it there for the morning.

At 5 am, I got up (wearing slippers just in case) and look at the towel, prepared to just shake it outside and then throw it in the wash. But what caught my eye was the large dead spider, legs curled up, a few inches away. He'd managed to crawl out and expire next to the tub, rolled up like a crescent roll. OK. At least he was dead. I went to get a paper towel to dispose of the remains.

This is where the fun started

I came back and Mr. Spider was completely reanimated, and pissed off, on TOP of the towel, ready to pounce on my foot like a Chihuahua on a pork chop.

He'd been dead. I'd been sure of it. I'm kind of trained in those things. Now he's back.

I had the only zombie spider in all of the Midwest.

Fortunately, I was highly trained in zombie spider removal and wearing nothing but tactical bunny slippers, dispatched him with a roll of paper towels.

Zombie Spider Rule # 2
The Double Tap

Saturday, February 15, 2020

Stuffie Surgery

I got home from work to find a familiar box sitting on the large front porch we have. CHEWY!

"Hey Mom, the Chewy box is here, stop what you're doing in the kitchen and open it!"

We were getting low on dog food so I made a stop on to order some (placing order the first part of the week and it was here today and shipping was FREE) as well as a surprise treat for Abby and Lorelei.

Sweet Potato treats.  Single-ingredient and safe for sensitive tummies. They're dehydrated so they make a chewy/rawhide type treat.  Abby apparently has never had this type of treat before (Lorelei made hers disappear like piranha on a cow).

I gave one to Abby and she just carried it around in her mouth for  while, then I hear a noise and come back to this.

I killed it Mom!
Sigh.  Barkley loved those things, perhaps I'll do a demo with some turkey jerky just have to show her how you're supposed to eat them, not dismantle them.  She has no problems chewing on other things.

Mr. Rabbit sprung a leak.  Abby and Lorelei won't de-squeak their sturdy Kong Cozie stuffies (available at as well!)  They iterally carry them around in their mouths and sleep with them.   But they do like to make them squeak and sometimes a tooth catches an ear or a tail and  over a few weeks we have a small hole (overall they have held up better than all other plush toys).  Balls or flat toys that squeak are quickly de-squeaked but  not her animal stuffies. Those are her fur-ends.

Mr. Rabbit wasn't a Kong toy so he had sprung a slightly larger tear above his tail, but the squeaker was intact. So Dr. Dad did some stuffie surgery while Abby waited in the waiting room with her favorite Kong Cozie Mr. Moose

Aren't you done yet?

Abby was quite happy to have her rabbit back and I saw her getting sleepy.  It wouldn't be long before she picks him up and heads to her dog bed.

Remember - Dr. Dad isn't on call all the time so . . .

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Love and Hope

Barkley - Guardian of the Loveseat

I know a number of our community are dealing with aging parents with Alzheimer's so this post is for you.

Do you ever wake up and not know where you are?  If you've traveled a lot on business, you know the feeling. But to wake and not know who you are, that would be a terrible thing to behold.

My stepmom married my Dad two years after my Mom died.  He grieved for my Mom terribly, but he was still a relatively young man, and lonely. She was a widow with three grown kids. They were set up on a blind date by a female friend of my Dad's.

She was always a bundle of energy, 5 feet nothing and 95 pounds of whirlwind motion, laughter, and care.  An expert seamstress, she joined a group of ladies from the church who handcrafted stuffed teddy bears to give to kids being brought into the trauma unit at the hospital.  I've written of them before, the ladies making the bears from scratch with clothing and accessories, all unique, cowboy bears, farmer bears, made with love, and all at their own expense. 

I remember one story of a trip the ladies made to the hospital with the newest batch of bears. While they were there, a very elderly man was brought in, muttering in pain and confusion, hurting and alone.  His eyes lit up at the bears and he asked to hold one. She gave him one and he hugged it to him, like a little child would, talking to it, breathing deep of the comfort of soft fur. The ladies let him keep it, a small bit of peace for someone lost and alone.

She had her little moments of forgetfulness, like any aging person, but a previously diagnosed cancer was in remission and she was doing really well, still active in church and in volunteering, taking dance classes, working in the garden.  But one morning, a few months later, she came into the kitchen and sat down, looked at me and I realized she did not have a clue as to who I was.

What struck me, was not that, but the look on her face as she realized this, realized she should know. I obviously wasn't a bugler or a neighbor over for coffee, I was a girl with red hair like everyone else in the family, wearing a fuzzy robe that she herself had washed and put in the guest closet the night before.  I will never forget the look of her at that moment. It was the most starkly exposed face I'd ever seen, a face in which unknown terrors haunted the edges; the face of a fledgling dove about to tumble from the nest.

It came into our lives quickly, one moment she was laughing, engaging in board games and puns with us, her face bright, her wit razor sharp. Then came those moments where everything just went sort of dim. The doctor only confirmed what Dad had suspected and kept from us for some months until he knew for sure.  Alzheimer's.

It's a terrible disease for all involved. We read what we could about it, we planned as a family  and we prayed.  There really wasn't more we could do.

As the next year and a half passed, there were a  few moments she was quite lucid, and happy. But those were the hardest for all of us, for in those brief moments she was fully aware that her mind was going, what was happening to her and how helpless she was to do anything about it.

The disease's progression is as predictable as its course is certain.  Mood swings and aggression, words that made no sense, dropping to the floor like marbles, tears as she tried to mentally gather them up, anger at the very air around her. She always was gentle with my Dad though. Only with him would she remain calm, the reasoning that was blind and deaf somehow responding to something in him that her mind could still see.  Dad cared for her at home, no matter how bad it got.   We arranged for a home health aide to come in and lend a hand a few hours a week but he refused to let anyone else care for "his girl" or to send her to skilled nursing care. When she passed, it was quite sudden, after she contracted pneumonia. From her sudden coughing to her collapse, was just days.

Sometimes when you get to the far edge, the edge just breaks away.

We laid her to rest on a tree-covered hilltop. We visit, we bring flowers, we hug and shed some tears, neither of us immune to having our heartbroken.  Then we smile through the tears, sharing their stories as we make the long trip home to photos and a little stuffed bear wearing the colors of the flag.

Would she have lived her life differently had she known her fate ahead of time? Perhaps not. Perhaps, in essence, she did, her mother dying of the same disease, as she and my Dad courted. 

She lived life to the hilt, a wheel in motion, racing downhill, a light against the darkness, the whir of a needle into the soft fabric. I have a picture of her and my Dad on their first date, and you could see something in their smiles that would be lost on so many people.  Love is a story that tells itself.

I woke up the other morning abruptly, the glaring ringtone of the bat phone waking me with a message just after I'd fallen asleep.  For a moment, I did not know where I was at. The small room was cold, the sound of my black lab checking on me muffled from carpet, not hardwood floors.  I was in my place near work, traveling on the previous day to go on call.  My heart was pounding as that particular ring will do that to me, the surge of adrenaline. There would be no going back to sleep.

But I was aware, of every tick of the clock, of the feel of my skin, the soft panting of doggie breath waiting to see if I was going to get up and leave or go back to sleep.  I was so blissfully aware, of these moments, these sounds. It was a new day, and even if tired and cranky, I'd leap right in, like a deer into the brush, feeling no thorns.

So I go, and so I watch, finding sense in the senseless, finding my purpose even as sparrows fall to earth. People watching from a distance would think me too quiet, too still, shouldn't this activity be a frenzy of lights and motion, like on TV?  But there is a great activity in being the quiet observer, standing in a stillness that smells of silence,  breathing in so many scents in damp cold air. Sweat, blood and a flower that only blooms in the dark, the wind so scant it's like breath on a mirror. Each smell blended yet distinct, always overlayed with the copper tang of life spilled. The air hums along to the nights quiet as all I see, smell and feel, forms into a substance I can almost feel on my flesh, capturing it, recording it there in the stillness. The truth is often still, inarticulate, not knowing it is the truth.

When I next get out to my Dad's, I'll once again see that photo of them on that first date, the feelings there so sudden and so very unexpected, incapable of being formed into sound. I'll look at another photo, the last one we have of her where she was completely with us, a laughing woman on my deck in the Indiana summer, her movements that of a bird, free and spirited. There is no fear in her, in that memory, even as the picture lays silent. But there is hope.

Those last days with her were difficult, but they taught me a lot.  Not just visible confirmation of what my Dad was truly made of, but that words aren't necessary to define what you believe, that nestled in the strong crook of an arm of the one who understands you without words, you know exactly who you are.  Even when she didn't know who I was, she taught me about not being limited by fear but going forward with hope, even if the future is not articulated.

Home and love, love and desire, can be what propels us silently onward.  Hope and love,  love and desire, can also merely sound, that people who have never hoped or loved or desired have for what they never possessed, and will not until such time as they forget the words.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Tuesday Smiles

My husband was out of town last week which meant all dog wrangling and snow shoveling was up to me.  So in lieu of a post, some smiles collected during the week.