Thursday, December 17, 2009

Lyme Disease

Nearly five years ago I began to feel sick. Nothing specific, a general feeling of grave illness. I actually felt the presence of Death, my death. I was shaking with chills and sweating so profusely that streams of perspiration would drip down my spine as I stood in front of a class of SAT students in the summer of 2005. I began losing weight. I started wearing clothes I'd never been able to get into. My face was becoming angular. I could see my jaw and cheek bones. This was not all bad. Getting thin in our society is the right move. Thin is good; heavy is bad. Or so the commercials would have us believe.
I made plans. I decided to cut back on my teaching load and eventually retire early so that I might enjoy whatever time I had left. Cancer runs deep in my family and I have no illusions about escaping that sentence. When my weight loss became dangerous and my libido died my wife decided it was time to fight back. I'd been to my doctor a few times, but he missed the diagnosis by a mile. I never thought much of him or his skills so I neglected to mention that months ago I'd had a rash on my ankle--a nasty, irregular-shaped, blood-colored ovoid. Friends became concerned about my health and forced me to find a good doctor. You know how that goes--the really skilled practitioners are jammed with patients and their practices are closed. You can't get in. By a stroke of luck I had taught the son of one of Woodstock's most skilled doctors and was able to whine and plead my way in. At our first meeting my new doctor said, "Do you want to know what you have?". I was stunned. He said we'd need blood tests to confirm, but he was certain I had Lyme Disease. He was right. And the damage was already done.
Let me tell you about Lyme Disease. I know two people who have chronic Lyme similar to my case. One is a young woman with a husband and two young children. Her Lyme has attacked her heart. She lives in constant panic that her heart will stop or explode. She's been to Day Kimball's emergency room so often they know her by name. The other sufferer is a man in his 40's with a wife and children. His Lyme has activated a latent Multiple Sclerosis condition that is life threatening. After talking to these people and reading about the disease I have learned that, in some cases, Lyme Disease acts like a catalyst in your system. It kick-starts any genetic weaknesses. In my case I learned, at age 57, that I have a birth defect--Spina Bifida Occulta. My spinal column is not completely formed and my vertebrae and disks are open and at risk. So the Lyme has attacked my spine and nerves. My vertebrae are beginning to rub on each other, causing bone-spurs and nerve damage. I have lost over 2" in height as my spine collapses into itself. The pain is related to my skeleton and nervous system--mostly joint pain and a constant burning pain in my lower back and legs. For other people the Lyme attacks are focused on hearts or other genetically weak areas.
Lyme disease is not well understood. The test is remarkably inaccurate. Our medical community doesn't have a well-defined plan of action against this virulent disease. I've begun reading web sites devoted to Lyme Disease. Try it sometime. Ordinary people like me post their stories and they are terrifying. They all have one theme in common: if you don't treat Lyme immediately and properly you are facing a life sentence of pain.
Let's talk about chronic pain. Pain makes you selfish, tired, anxious and depressed. Presently, I'm fighting a wave of panic, anxiety and depression. Every morning I get out of bed looking forward to another day of constant pain and a night of anxiety. In my case there is little hope. I have no disks left in my spine. If I do normal things--cutting wood, lifting equipment, changing tires--I am in greater pain the next day.
The true struggle for me now is to keep going.
There's a line from Cormac McCarthy's novel "The Road" that fits here: a man's son asks him what's the bravest thing you've ever done, daddy. The father looks into his son's eyes and says, "Getting out of bed this morning".
Lyme Disease. Learn about it. Please.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Dawn's Early Light

I wish I knew how it works. I was looking out my bedroom window, listening to our 4 dogs barking in the pen, letting me know it was time to bring them inside and feed them things--biscuits, puperoni, apples, tea, cheese, celery, cashews--when I was filled with a vivid memory from 38 years ago. Vivid. Maybe it was the fact that I had trouble sleeping last night and lay awake as the room filled with that eerie, blue/gray light of dawn. Maybe.

   38 years ago I was sleeping in a small room in the Bachelor Officers' Quarters on Camp Ames in South Korea. Ames is a tiny outpost in the mountains about 7 miles outside Taegu. Camp Ames contained nuclear weapons and I was the Security Operations Officer. 24 years old. 2nd Lieutenant. There must be some mistake, I kept thinking. You expect me to keep nuclear weapons safe from angry South Korean farmers who want to steal a nuke and throw it across No Man's Land into the North? Or maybe some serious terrorists who would love to nuke a city in Korea for their vision of the future? You've got the wrong guy, sir. Nope. I was it.
   So, 38 years ago the phone rings in my cubicle. It was still dark, so this couldn't possibly be good news. It wasn't. The voice on the other end--one of my MPs--told me that Sgt. Booze was headed toward the medical building and I should get over there fast. It didn't look good.
   It wasn't good. When I got to the operating room Sgt. Booze was laying on one of those stainless-steel trolleys where they put dead bodies. He was unconscious. His 'girlfriend' lay on another trolley nearby, but no one paid her much attention. She was a very small, thin Korean woman who planned to live with Booze for the entirety of his 13-month tour. Then, with any luck, she'd find another soldier to live with. If not, she's pick up soldiers nightly in one of the numerous bars of Chong Dong-Ni, our village. Chong Dong-Ni contained bars, restaurants, tailor shops and about 300 working girls. These girls had absolutely no social standing in Korean culture. They were dead as far as honest, hardworking Koreans were concerned. The fact that some of them had been sold to the mama-san by desperate parents didn't seem to matter much. They were invisible outside Chong Dong-Ni. But here she lay, alongside Booze, in the Dawn's Early Light. The doctor, a good friend of mine who looked and lived  like a character from MASH, was working furiously on Booze. He told me what had happened.
   Booze lived off-base with his girl in her hut. The huts were heated by small charcoal heaters in the center of the hut. The charcoal pieces looked like larger versions of the stuff we'd light in the incense burners at Catholic mass when I was an altar boy. I always got a kick out of loading the stove in some girl's hut and thinking back to the days of serving 7 o'clock mass in the gray morning light. Anyway, sometimes the heaters leaked. Most of them leaked. Carbon Monoxide. Deadly. If you were small and thin you'd probably sleep very close to the heater and inhale much more CO. Also, if you were small it would take much less gas to kill you.
   The doctor finally revived Booze and I stopped composing that letter in my head to his mom. "Dear Mrs. Booze: I regret telling you that your son died last night serving his country in a far away place. He was a fine soldier." I'd had to write one letter already from Camp Ames the night I arrived. One of my guards shot and killed himself while walking perimeter with his guard dog. The dog wouldn't let anyone get to his handler's body and I was afriad we'd have to shoot the dog too. 
   Booze's girl never made it. She was dead on arrival. I remember looking at her terribly small, thin body laying on the cold steel gurney in that cold, gray light. No one to claim her or care for her.
   Booze was one of my favorite soldiers in Korea. He saved my life one night, so I was doubly happy to be part of the welcoming-back-to-consciousness party that dawn 38 years ago. One night I was in a bar, waiting for a certain girl to arrive. There were 2 other soldiers in the place. Ugly, redneck boys. And they were bullying one of the girls. I don't like ignorant folks. I don't like bullies. So, I stepped in. Big mistake. Huge mistake. They turned on me like angry rattlesnakes. I fished my wallet out and showed them my ID like Van Helsing holding up a Cross to a threatening vampire. I'm an OFFICER!! Of course, the boys had noticed that I was in my civvies...and anybody could get an officer's ID. They had backed me into a corner and I was making my peace with God when the door opened and Sgt Booze--all 6'3" of him, muscled and black (did I mention that Brother Booze was a Black man?), in his MP outfit with .45 pistol and night stick--entered the joint. Booze was a martial artist as well as being a fitness fanatic. And tonight Sgt Booze decided that he would take off his pistol belt and night stick. Yes, Brother Booze thought, tonight I want to use my hands and feet on these good old boys who are threatening my officer. He kicked and punched the 2 redneck gents for about 45 seconds. Both ended up laying against opposite walls on the floor where they were arrested and cuffed and taken to the jail facilities on base.
   Booze turned to me and said, "Sir, I think you should return to base."
   Roger that, Brother Booze.
   So, there you have it. Dawn's Early Light 38 years ago in the mountain village of Chong Dong-Ni--me and Brother Booze.
And a nameless, faceless, lifeless Korean woman.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Black Dog

Maybe it's the time of year.
We're in the twelfth month and one more year is about to enter the record books. I suppose it's natural to look back and evaluate your life. I'm OK with looking back and grading the past year, but I'm not OK with the Black Dog following me relentlessly. Just out of reach, but always there.
You know the Black Dog. Some people call it 'the Blues', others call it Depression. The Black Dog is real. And powerful.

Let's give this canine symbol a gender--female, for my lovely seven year old Black Lab, Sophie.

She's with me as I go to bed and when I wake. I know she's there, so I plan my days around her. Develop strategies for going to Cumberland Farms for gas, Mrs Bridges' Pantry for tea and lunch, 85 Main for drinks and dinner.
Being stalked by the Black Dog is exhausting. She keeps me on the defensive--which is depressing. The weather doesn't help much--gray, raw days with terrible light quality. What will happen when the snow storms batter our roads and driveways?? Good news is quickly overwhelmed by the mind-numbing, never-ending pat-pat of the Black Dog's paws just behind me. And bad news is like a fire-works show. Owww!!

There are strategies for dealing with the Black Dog:
1) Stay physically busy. Rake leaves. Cut fallen trees. Split wood. Be outside. Accomplish things.
2) Say kind things to your friends and family. The cheezier the better. If your children understand that you're trying desperately to chase that dog away they may join in the effort--and then you have a chance.
3) Be good to your spouse. (I'm sure that you're always good to your spouse...but, during these times of extreme touchiness, it can't hurt to be extra gentle and caring.)
4) Forgive your fellow humans as they trample over your hopes and dreams, take your parking spot, cause you to miss the traffic light, and take 10 minutes to complete their business ahead of you in the bank.

So, it's December. Another year is almost over and I don't know where the time went. My brother-in-law says it's because we didn't get a summer this year. I don't know. How can a person misplace 334 days? Another problem is that the Black Dog follows me into the new year. She disappears for a day or two at New Year's, but can be found, tail wagging, tongue out, panting at the kitchen door any day after January 5th. She disappears sometime around April. I think it's the sweet scent of rebirth, the warm/chill breeze carrying the smell of earth and decay, the sure knowledge that Spring has returned that causes the Black Dog to move on, to trot over the hill without even a momentary pause and turning of the head to say good-bye.
I suppose the Black Dog doesn't need to look back. I know she'll be back.
Where does she go in the meantime?????