I truly do not know how many deaths I wrote about during my 10 years as a journalist. I covered crime and courts for nearly all of that time, as well as breaking news including car wrecks, fires and deaths of local citizens. People were shot, stabbed, poisoned and run over. People overdosed, crashed, took their own lives and drowned. People died of cancer, “old age” and incurable diseases.
I was that person talking to sobbing family members at crime scenes and car wrecks. I was the one looking through phone books, searching the internet and court records for relatives, then knocking on strangers’ doors. I was the one blasted by the public for intruding in the lives of those who were grieving.
The thing is, people almost always wanted to talk. They were desperate to tell me about their loved ones, and they begged me to write about fond memories. They showed me childhood photos, they recalled jokes, they told of scholastic and professional achievements. After I had left, they often phoned the numbers on my business card, wanting to tell me one more anecdote. They invited me to funerals, and some even contacted me on an anniversary of their loved one’s death, anxious to keep memories alive. One friend of a domestic violence victim sent me Christmas cards for years. A few found me on Facebook years later.
Even in the midst of gruesome, terrible scenes, I liked the work. I liked recording history, which included the details surrounding the death as well as the people involved. I liked being able to tell others’ stories.
But what happens when it’s my own family?
Until Wednesday, October 14, 2015, I never had to ask that question.
The answer is that I don’t have words. I don’t know how to sum up the life of a man born into an impoverished immigrant family, who went off to fight in WWII, earned a degree at Rutgers and became such a successful businessman that an Iowa town once dedicated an entire day to him. I don’t know how to tell about how he retired but then started a new career. How he made exquisite jewelry as a hobby but then began selling it, how he grew fruit for fun but then had so much that he had to give it away. How he designed and built his last home because he wanted the views to be just right. How he watched “Jeopardy!” every day and was so pleased when he knew the answers. And there were his legendary puns — a trait he passed down to my mother and which sometimes comes through in me.
It’s no wonder grieving families usually talked to me, the badge-wearing, notepad-carrying journalist who was at their door: They wanted someone to write about their loved one, but they didn’t have the words to do it themselves.
“The Cubs just won their first post-season road game for the first time since 1945. I thought I was cheering for the underdogs and I thought I didn’t watch baseball. Well, ‘my team’ is still winning, and I just intermittently watched two innings of baseball. The sky must be falling.”
I remember that time, in my upstairs apartment that had no air conditioning. I sat on my free (used) couch and watched my 19-inch TV with rabbit ear antennae that I had to regularly adjust to reduce some of the static.
I had no knowledge of baseball, but a couple internet friends caught my attention with their sports chatter. The statistics intrigued me, as did the Chicago Cubs’ underdog status. I’d always been picked last in sports games in school, so I liked the idea of rooting for the worst team in baseball. Just three years earlier, I’d expanded my family, and they all lived in Chicago and rooted for the Cubs, so why shouldn’t I add the Cubs, too?
Me, the next week, in October 2003:
“Five days ago, I wrote about how I was taking an interest in baseball. I’m getting worse: I watched part of yesterday’s Chicago vs. Atlanta game and a large part of today’s game. I actually talked to the TV, cheered a few times and then really cheered at the end, when the Cubs won their first postseason round in 95 years.
My sister is appalled that I’m getting into baseball. Many other people are laughing at me or are simply bewildered (as am I). I think I’ll blame it on Jon.
Oh, and the next Cubs game is Tuesday, against the Florida Marlins.”
After the Cubs lost that season, my interest ebbed and flowed. Later that month, though, when the Yankees and Red Sox were playing, they got into a brawl. And I loved quoting this news story:
“NEW YORK (AP) – Boston Red Sox ace Pedro Martinez should have been arrested for throwing 72-year-old Yankees coach Don Zimmer to the ground during Game 3 of the American League Championship Series, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said Sunday.
“If that happened in New York we would have arrested the perpetrator,” Bloomberg said. “Nobody should throw a 70-year-old man to the ground, period. You start doing that, pretty soon you’re going to throw a 61-year-old man to the ground, and I have a big vested interest in that.”
About five or so years later, I went with friends to a San Francisco Giants game. It was my first professional sports game of any kind — and we had a suite. I was amazed. Then we went to an Oakland A’s game, where we also had a suite as well as a few seats close enough to see the blades of grass, and we took turns sitting in them.
A couple years later, in 2010, I moved to the Bay Area to work for a company that has season tickets to Giants games. I made friends who were Giants fans, some of whom took me under their wings and explained more of the game to me.
Some fans were snooty, looking at me as a bandwagon fan because the team was doing well that season, and because I also rooted for the Cubs. But you have to start somewhere, and I take the firm stand that it’s all just a fun game (played by people who make a ridiculous amount of money).
When the Giants won the World Series, it was inspiring to see their true, honest elation. Then came the 2012 World Series win. And the 2014 win, in which I got to attend two post-season games and cheered until I was almost hoarse.
Now it’s 2015. The Giants had a lot of injuries this year, but they still beat most odds. The joke is that they “only” win the World Series in even-numbered years.
I don’t keep up with All Of The Sports the way some of my friends do. But I was interested when, after the end of another season last year, the Cubs began making big changes, including hiring a new manager and signing a lot of players. Having watched the Giants a lot, I believe true teamwork is key. You don’t get to the major leagues unless you’re a good player, so it’s not like anybody in the MLB is swinging a bat on my level. Everyone out there is talented, but one man’s talent does not win a World Series. Winning requires teamwork, so you know where everyone is on the field, you trust they’ll be there, and you work together for the one goal of winning. If someone gets hurt, the season isn’t ruined — because it takes a whole team to win or lose. That’s one reason I really like the Giants: They’re a team in sickness and in health.
The Cubs are playing with a lot of new team members, all the way up to the manager, and they’ve even started a massive overhaul of Wrigley Field. I believe this season has been crucial, because it’s their best chance to gel as a team. I said last spring that I didn’t know if the Cubs would be ready yet to go all the way this year, that it would depend on how well they could learn to work together and truly trust each other. Well, they finished the regular season with the third best record in baseball (but still had to go to the wildcard game because their division is very talented/tough).
Last night, the Cubs did exactly what the Giants did last year: They shut out the Pittsburgh Pirates for the wildcard win — in Pittsburgh. (I kind of feel sorry for Pittsburgh: Two shutouts in two consecutive years with home field advantage has to be rough.)
I finished the book “Dead Wake” by Erik Larson today. As with his first book “Devil in the White City,” I sat there for a minute and thought, “Wow.” His research is incredibly impressive, and he weaves everything together in a magical, captivating way.
Larson’s work is my kind of writing: Gather lots of research, gather a bit more, and then piece it all together like a puzzle. In college, history classes relieved me, because I could write my way through them rather than guessing at arbitrary multiple choice questions on exams. Term papers were dreaded by many of my classmates, but I truly enjoyed finding the material and then watching it meld together. I liked footnotes and bibliographies, also unlike my classmates, because they were a way to give credit where it was due.
When I wound up in journalism, it’s no wonder that I found it easy. By nature, I’m curious and I like people, so I was being paid to be myself, and then to put everything together in writing. I could tell factual stories, and it was usually effortless. On election days, I was always tasked with going out and talking to people near the polls, because I could get them to talk. Then I would gather all my quotes, and the quotes my colleagues had also managed to collect. I’d piece together the puzzle, adding in numbers and outcomes as polls closed and results began rolling in. I don’t like politics, but this I could do — combine the solid, opinion-free poll numbers with people from all walks of life.
I haven’t written much of anything beyond this little blog in five years now. When I was a little girl, and then a teenager, and then a young adult, I never imagined I would reach this age and have no book with my name on the spine. But if I ever reach that one and only lifelong goal of mine, I like to think it would be a poor imitation of Erik Larson’s work style.
And, hey, he apparently likes the cream part of Oreos, too.
Eighteen months ago, an a Friday afternoon in March while driving to a memorial service for a 19-year-old girl, I noticed how brown everything seemed for a spring day. I took this photo:
Since that memorial service, some things have changed and some things have not. Sometimes things remind me of her death and of her parents, and I’ve written a couple blog posts when the mood has struck. Sometimes I’ve had a random urge to text one of her parents for no particular reason, but I’ve worried that it might be a bad time — would I give them a reminder of the sadness at a moment they had managed to smile?
While on vacation last month, I woke up to a dream about her dad. I don’t remember the dream, but the fact that I remembered any part of a dream was rare and I told Deb, my friend/host, a bit about the family’s loss and how it was strange to have such a random dream for no apparent reason. “It sounds like you have some unfinished business there,” Deb said.
Today marks the 21st birthday of that young woman. She should be alive to celebrate it. Instead, I am sitting here, thinking of her parents’ faces on that March day. I still don’t know what my unfinished business is, but there is one thing I can do: To pay for unexpected medical bills, I recently got money out of a college fund I never needed to use. It more than covered my bills, so the rest will be used for airfare to see ailing family. But I am also writing a check to the Kara Adams Memorial Fund, and putting it in the mail to Lodi High School. It’s not much, but it’s a little bit that can make a young student’s future brighter.
On my drive back home from that memorial 18 months ago, I noticed that the light had changed, and the hills no longer looked brown. I took this photo:
Sometimes light can bring a new perspective to the world around you. Sometimes a smile or a kind word can make things seem beautiful again. That’s what Kara’s family wants today — for people to make a gesture of grace to brighten someone else’s day. You never know when it will make all the difference in the world.
After surgery, I had a partial cast that was plaster on one side and lots of soft padding on the other side, to account for swelling. And, boy, was there swelling. My fingers were sausages for about five days. But pain was minimal: I stopped the Norco (Vicodin/Tylenol) the next day because it was keeping me awake, making me foggy, and messing up my digestive system. Yes, it kept me awake; I’m also a weirdo who usually experiences the opposite sleep effect of cold medicine (which is one reason I don’t take the stuff).
Last Thursday, I had my post-operative appointment where they removed all the bandaging and I got to bend my wrist for the first time in a week. I’ll post a photo of the 12 stitches at the end of this post, so prepare your appetite. Now I have this terrible, horrible, painful cast for eight days. My outer wrist bone has become an innocent victim: It sticks out, so the hard cast squishes it 24/7, and I feel it every waking moment. I could have gone in today and had it replaced, but I really didn’t want to deal with hours of post-casting thumb pain, more time off work, and traffic — especially since I’m four days into this cast and will get a new one in another four days.
I’m currently debating the color of the new cast, though I’m thinking of buying decorative duct tape to put around the next cast so it stops catching on my clothes. It’s 2015, and casts are still this terrible?? Why???
Anyway, here is a list of things that are impossible to do if your left thumb is completely immobilized and encased in plaster:
Floss. Those plastic “flosser” things snap instantly on rear molars if your teeth are crowded.
Play the piano.
Use a regular can opener.
Pull open a door while holding a cup of coffee, or any unsealed container.
Paint the fingernails on your other hand.
Turn a mattress that also has a bed skirt under it. Remaking the bed is also a challenge, though it’s not on this list because I can use my foot to prop up the mattress while I valiantly attempt one-handed hospital corners with my “good” hand that is still not 100%.
Alt-tab on a PC. It’s not the same if you have to use two hands to do it (but thankfully, I already use my other thumb on the spacebar so I’m not relearning THAT).
Lift anything heavy, whether it’s a case of water at work or weights at the gym.
Wear long-sleeved shirts/sweaters, unless they have buttons and wide cuffs.
Scrub a potato. (I’m working on this one, though.)
Fully shave your other armpit.
Swim. (Yes, that’s my latest excuse against swimming. I’ll find more once this hand debacle is behind me.)
And, last but NOT LEAST: Take a normal shower that does not involve plastic and waterproof tape.
And now for the post-op stitches photo. I’ll type a couple lines in case you want to stop scrolling. (Mom, this means you.)
I swear, it’s not bad.
Michaela said it looked like Frankenstein, which I’ll take as a compliment.
It’s really not bad at all.
It could be worse: My friend Matt was rear-ended by a car while on his bike the other day, and he has to worry about scaring customers at work with his injuries. (Yes, a car rear-ended him. In broad daylight. After he had signaled to turn, but the car decided to pass him. On a solid center line. So many WTF questions for that driver.)
Reminder: Always wear a helmet.
Okay, enough typing. Mom, if you’re still reading, here comes the photo.
Also, there are a couple Sharpie marks left. Don’t worry; those aren’t permanent.
I’ve followed runner Caitlin Smith’s blog for years, watching as she’s had ups and downs on the local trails I know, and on both the local and bigger racing circuit. She doesn’t post often, so it’s always refreshing to see her name pop up in my blog feed.
This time, she did well. Moreover, she appreciated it. I especially liked this line: “In life and running nothing is linear, but the chaos is well worth the moments like these.” Today, my marathon PR is two years old. Sometimes I think my fastest times are behind me, but then I read something like this and it makes me want to keep pushing through the chaos.
“Hi! I’m here to be operated on!!!” I said to the receptionist, upon walking into the surgery center yesterday morning.
She was expecting me, but I don’t think she was expecting a cheerful me. Granted, it had been 11 hours since my last water or food. But it had been two weeks since I broke my thumb and tore a ligament, so I was anxious to be out of limbo and on the road to recovery.
That was my attitude through the wait, which became FOUR HOURS due to a complication with an earlier patient (spoiler: I had no complications). My friend Deanne and I arrived at 10:15 a.m., and at 10:30 I was taken to a room to change. “We ran out of some gowns and only have XXXL or pediatric. You probably don’t want a mini skirt…” the nurse said. So I put on a gown with a bear print on it — no, I wasn’t seeing a veterinarian — that could have wrapped around me three times, though it ultimately didn’t matter because I was lying on a bed the whole time. The socks were just absurd, even for my size 10 feet, but the nurse found some slightly smaller ones without bear prints on them. The hair net was as attractive as a nun’s habit. Then her assistant struggled valiantly and successfully found my vein (and did much better than the Red Cross people).
Then they let Deanne in the room to keep me company. Their plan was for me to arrive at 10:15 a.m. with a 12:15 p.m. surgery start time. Surgery would last an hour, and recovery would be another hour. I had no choice; diabetics, elderly and young kids get priority due to having to fast since midnight. Well, then a nurse came in and said the doctor was running behind due to “a bump” in the surgery two people ahead of me. We asked how far behind… An hour-and-a half behind! Poor Deanne hadn’t eaten much and was getting a headache, had driven more than two hours just to my house, and yet, she didn’t leave to get food. I felt so bad, but it really was nice to have her company — plus, we don’t catch up as often these days since we live further apart. Our chatter combined with a few texts to pass the time.
The surgeon came in, looked at my hand, and then drew an arrow and initialed it with a Sharpie marker. I asked him about my “good” hand, which had been giving me concern. He looked at it, maneuvered the thumb a bit, and said he thinks it is okay but he’ll X-ray it next week at my post-op visit. The combination of a sprain in that wrist and little strength in that thumb have been wreaking havoc on me, and I suspect some of the pain was in my head. He said to use it as much as I can without too much pain, and that was a huge relief. He left the room and we resumed our wait, though now I was sweating (probably from the anxiety related to my worry about the “good” hand.)
Finally, the OR nurse came in, which I had been told meant that I would be on my way soon. And that’s when honest little ole’ me told the truth when she asked if I was wearing contact lenses. Yes, I was. But they were disposable one-day lenses, I’ve slept in contacts before, and I’ve been wearing them for more than 20 years. Plus, I’m so near-sighted that when woken up from the anesthesia, I wouldn’t be able to see anyone or anything (this is true; I can’t see stoplights without them). She went and talked to the anesthesiologist, who had met me earlier, and I think my good humor, patience and reasoning paid off: I was allowed to keep my contacts! That had been the one thing I really wanted to fight for, so I was happy.
I finally got into the OR around 2:45 p.m. It was chilly in there, which was such a relief. A couple more people introduced themselves and I asked, “Is there going to be a name quiz? Because I’m going to fail. You’re Guy In Mask, right?” I bet they’ve heard every joke by now… Then they put me next to what I now know was the operating table. A guy said something like, “Okay, you can move,” and I had no idea what he meant. “You haven’t done this before??” he asked. “NOPE, this is alllll new to me!” I replied.
The big light fixtures above me were cool and I wished I could take a picture. Then they started looking like doubles and I asked if they had started the anesthesia. The anesthesiologist joked, “It depends.” I think I said something about the lights swimming and he said, “Yes, we did.” And that’s all I remember.
Apparently the doctor came out and talked to Deanne shortly before 4 p.m. Everything had gone as expected, and he had successfully reattached my ligament. Whew! The next thing I knew, I was looking at numbers, which I realized were my vital signs on a machine. The contact lenses were so welcome, because I focused on the heart rate number, watching it go from 50 to 52 to 51 to 50 (yes, I distinctly remember those numbers), probably because I was walking up.
And now the humorous “what I said while waking up from anesthesia” part, as told to me by Deanne: I asked the same questions four times each, including what medicine they had given me. I was happy that nobody had mis-pronounced my name. Then I was insisting to the nurse that I could exercise the next day. She said no because the open wound would get sweaty and probably infected, and that I could miss one week out of 52. The funny thing is, I had known this and intentionally ran 5 miles the previous night so I’d have one last bit of endorphins.
I don’t remember putting on my clothes, but I must have done that, because I didn’t leave in the ridiculous bear gown. And I’ve since learned that the nurse was impressed at how well I did at getting dressed. I’ve also learned that the nurse sat there and went over post-op instructions with Deanne and me, but I don’t remember any of that, either. They took me out to Deanne’s car in a wheelchair (and I didn’t freak out and start hyperventilating like the last time I was in a wheelchair, which is another story). The first thing I really remember is putting my feet on the wheelchair foot rests. Now I understand why they don’t allow patients to go home alone in a taxi.
While I was in surgery, Deanne went to Chipotle. We had some traffic on the drive home, so I was finally in my house and eating around 5:30 p.m., 19 hours since my last meal. That burrito bowl tasted soooo good. I wasn’t in pain, I didn’t feel groggy anymore, it was easy to eat, and I was ravenous. But it took me forever to eat — everything just took so much huge effort.
Deanne was beyond helpful. She’s put up with me for more than a dozen years now, and she drove more than five hours total to help me with surgery. Several other lovely friends offered to help, and any of them would have been amazing. But I doubt they have been through quite as many surgeries as Deanne has, both herself and her family. She brought me food ready to heat up, along with a little container of sour cream because she knows I’m a spice wimp. She stopped at the store for cereal and juice, which I just discovered she pre-opened because my “good” hand can’t really do that stuff. She opened a can for me; she stirred the new jar of peanut butter; she cooked a pizza, cut it and packaged it up; she emptied my dishwasher. She checked my mail and took out my trash. She set medicine alarms on my phone, filled a water bottle, and put it with some of the pills on my nightstand. She arranged pillows so I would elevate my hand overnight.
I went to bed — and proceeded to lie there wide awake. The medication (Norco, aka Vicodin and Tylenol) is notorious for causing drowsiness. Well, that was most certainly not the case here! On the plus side, at 10 p.m. I could call family in a timezone three hours earlier. I also had no problem waking up to the midnight and 4 a.m. medicine alarms, and by 6 I was awake for the day.
I’m going to end this long-winded narrative, since typing is a struggle (now I know to ask about cast thickness when I get a full one next week). But I’ve been amazed at the amount of support and offers for help. From ride offers to Facebook “likes,” I have appreciated every one of them. When I’ve had a couple melt-downs, the support hasn’t faded. I can’t name all of you, but please know that I appreciate it. I can only hope to be as kind as you have been.
I’m taking a break (pun unintended) from kvetching about my hand woes to bring you this catchy video from Rock County, Wisconsin (go, cheeseheads!). I’ve spent a lot more time around police officers and firefighters than the average person, but I don’t think that even matters. It’s just fun for all ages!