Thursday, January 5, 2017

Loading anniversary road trip program 4.0

About ten days ago we held the December calendar – still on paper for our household, with 12 months’ worth of kittens – and surveyed the holiday schedule.  We were overdue for a visit to our friend Jim in the prison, and I had a full week off for the Christmas holiday.  We considered the days the prison would probably be closed for the holiday, and realized the 22nd was the best day to plan the visit.  Our anniversary.   Four years we have been married, and Bill suggested we make a nice trip out of it.  You know, to the prison.

So I found an amazing B&B in Edenton, only about 30 minutes from the “correctional facility.”  Edenton, which is known (in Edenton) as one of the prettiest towns in America, is situated on the Albemarle Sound, a large inlet from the ocean that is met on the western side by the Chowan River.  I assume, therefore, the water is brackish, although I don’t actually know.  Anyway, it’s a gorgeous little walking town, with amazing homes, small shops, nice people, and gorgeous photo ops at every turn.

The Cotton Gin Inn, which I found entirely by accident, was absolutely gorgeous – I mean, GORGEOUS – and the owners delightful.  They described the vacant home and the “critters” dislodged in the making of the inn, filling us with remodel envy.  Decorated for the holiday, we found the place warm, inviting, and the perfect setting for our anniversary.

We knew we had a destination and we had a sense of some of the options in the area, so we did not leave with a specific plan in mind.  We decided, then, as we careened east, to revisit the Alligator River Animal Refuge, which you may remember as the scene of Frogpocalypse 2016.  (If you missed that story, you can find it in “The Many Moods of Saturday” listed on the right of this page.)
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And so we headed east on Hwy 64 the entire way, knowing the turn-off for the sanctuary was directly off that highway.  We stopped at the rest area in Plymouth, which welcomes you to Bear Country, and the parking lot lines are painted bear tracks.  Bill, looking quite the lumberjack Bear Country Man with his new  beard, struck a pose under the sign and off we went again.

Next stop was the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge.  Here we found an interesting, raised trail-walk-thingy, with a sign indicating it is “short but marvelous.”  Turns out the Scuppernong River comes right up to Hwy 64, and if you get off at the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, you are treated to a delightful section of marshy wildlife, complete with explanatory signs and a lovely -- I’m not being sarcastic -- raised wooden walkway.  We ventured forth -- and yes this was December 21st, but we were in North Carolina, and it was in the mid-60s with a gentle breeze off the river.

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Let me tell you this, first.  Quicksand has not actually played as big a role in my adult life as I had imagined it would when I was a kid.  We were very prepared, at the age of about 11, to deal with quicksand, and I had read many books describing how to get out of it alive.  So as an adult, I did find myself quite surprised to question its very existence.

However, at the Scuppernong River in the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, it turns out, one can find quicksand.  One needn’t worry, though, because the raised wooden walkway keeps you safe from its terrifying grasp.  We marveled, though, at the sections of fine, silty soil, built up over ages and soaking wet where the river had recently receded.  In the regular mud we saw canine paw prints (presumably someone walking their dog, although possibly coyote) as well as raccoons (look like small hands or cat prints if cats had thumbs), deer and many other undefined print-smears.  

Here at the Scuppernong walk was where we first encountered the overturned trees.  Take a second to do this:  splay your fingers of one hand out as far as you can, and then bend your wrist back toward your arm.  This mimics what we saw, with your arm as the tree, and your hand the area of root system pulled up and standing upright against the landscape.  At this point we were thinking it was the result of one of the recent wind storms, which must have toppled a few trees and lifted their root systems up.  Here in Durham, when trees fall over, they typically break at the trunk base.  Even healthy trees here do not pull up root systems like that. 

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We marvelled at all we could see in the below-spaces.  Roots twisting around on themselves, the place where the trunk turns to root and folds in on itself, the evidence of critter presence underground, the bugs and water taking advantage of the fresh access, the animal tracks where many species (including ourselves) had come to investigate.  We read signs that described the shallow root systems of trees growing in high-water-table environments and thought about what a difference that makes.

On the way out, Bill spotted mistletoe high up in one of the trees hanging over the walkway.  He pulled me in for a romantic holiday kiss, and I realized that this is the best way to honor that old tradition, while the mistletoe still lives.

We wandered, then, to Alligator River, and we were there for several minutes when I noticed another of the uprooted trees.  Then, as I looked along the roadway, I saw a long line of overturned root systems, and in the instant it took me to expand my view, I realized I was seeing hundreds of overturned trees.  The standing trees still outnumbered the turned ones by scores to one, but still…  and it hit me.  Hurricane Matthew had blown through this area in the time since our last visit.

I will be brutally honest for a second (cuz, you know, usually I’m lying), and admit that when we got word of a hurricane coming to North Carolina, my focus was immediately on me.  Our call center does not close for any reason, and when a major weather event threatens our area, the supervisory team kicks into high gear making plans for coverage, contingency coverage, on-call coverage, worst-case scenarios, etc.  In October, when the storm turned ever so slightly eastward and the impact to the triangle minimized, I was only relieved.  The one person I know who lives here is Jim, whose “home” is made of cinder block and who, ironically enough, was in the safest place possible.  Bullet dodged.  

Standing here, seeing all the trees with their exposed roots, I realized how bad it had been.  Now, nearly three months later, the damage is fairly “sanitized” if you will.  Overturned trees, green leaves still on their branches, are all one sees of the storm here.  However, I was immediately struck by what must have been the experience of the rangers when they first had the chance to survey the damage.  Of course they would have focused on populated areas first, but after a few days of assessment, someone would have been tasked with looking for potential dangers and assessing the need for human attention in this vast stretch of wildlife.  That person would have surely witnessed the large-scale loss of life, the land he was fond of and patrolled every day would have fresh wounds, swaths of downed trees, carcasses in their various states of decomp, animal friends lost by the hundreds, if not thousands, including the drowning deaths of animals accustomed to living in the water.  I flashed immediately to Hurricane Fran and the sound of the wind and rain battering my ground floor apartment; the stories friends told of water gushing into their houses while they watched, helpless, with not enough towels in a lifetime of towels to stem the flow; the friend who had a tree come down on her roof and take out half her house--luckily the half that the family, including her infant son, were NOT sleeping in.  

And then I flashed to the ice storm of 2003 (before winter storms were named like hurricanes), and the sound of the trees groaning and snapping from the weight of the ice; the blue arcs flashing through the night as power lines came down; the scores of bent trees when we awoke, changing the landscape of our entire block; the years it took for the landscape to hide and grow over the devastation -- even my wedding pictures later that year would have bent pines in the background, as the trees lasted, bent and dying for months.

I thought then of the massive flooding in eastern Carolina in my early years as a social worker, how colleagues were interviewing children to assess for lasting effects of trauma, and the children were talking about “walking through the water” which has a kind of beachy, vacation feel to it, until you remember the “water” is mud, in which are floating the carcasses of wild- and farm-life for miles around.  Families were limited to what they could carry above the water level as they walked, and their clothes were soaking wet for days.

North Carolina is an incredibly beautiful state, and if you’ve read this blog before, you know I am enamoured of its rolling green hills, blue-ridged mountains, walking paths along lazy rivers, duned beaches and miles and miles of roads winding from one gorgeous vista to another. But she is a cruel lover:  her winters, while blessedly short, are pocked with wicked fast, icy storms; her hurricanes are incredibly powerful and whip through large swaths of the state, endangering even those who know to live away from the beaches.  We now also have earthquakes, which have so far not been damaging, but who knows what the future holds.  

All these thoughts as I surveyed the uprooted trees.  

Last time we had been to Alligator River, we had stayed in the car, creeping ever so slowly along its gravel road and spotting several animals, including a small gator.  Today, though, we drove to the end of the entrance road to the walking trail.  A walking trail through ALLIGATOR RIVER?  Are we nuts?  Apparently, yes.

We parked in the silence and started walking the immaculately groomed path.  At first we felt like we were near the road and essentially in civilization, but after a few yards, a curve in the path brought the trees to a close behind us and suddenly we were alone in the woods at Alligator River Wildlife Refuge.  Suddenly every sound was a bear, every rustle a gator.  Bill jumped several times, which invariably startled me and soon enough we were both jittery.  Then we started seeing scat on the path--every few feet actually.  Mostly we inspected the scat of various flora-eating wildlife with the occasional meat-eater thrown in.  About mid-way we started finding fur scat, in fairly large quantities.  Then we were SURE eyes were on us as we strolled.  We decided that loud was a safer way to go, even if it meant limiting our sightings.  Yeah, whatever left those large fur-scat piles behind -- we didn’t want to bump into that.

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About halfway through the walk we encountered a sign that had a cell phone number and stop designation.  We called the number, entered the stop number, and listened to a recorded tour.  Once started, the kind, librarian-sounding lady accompanied us the entire length of the trail.  She spoke about the wildlife, the history of the area, and the upkeep.  My favorite image, though, was the way she walked us through the lives that inhabited the area throughout history, ending with the indigenous people who would have canoed the river before the modern roads and paths were cut.  During this talk, she also mentioned the guided canoe tours one can take in the spring and summer months.  Oh yeah…  we would definitely be coming back for that.  Can you imagine canoeing through the refuge?  RIGHT?

Displaying FullSizeRender.jpgWe had actually been on the way in when we stopped to watch a large heron doing what herons do.  This was the extent of the fauna spotted that day.

 From the refuge, we went on to Edenton, where we landed at the water at sunset.

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We enjoyed a lovely dinner at the local “fancy” restaurant (definitely not fancy), and were entertained (definitely not entertained) by the family at the table next to us.  We listened in as one out-of-town contingent met up with the other out-of-town contingent, and they were apparently waiting on the somewhere-nearby birthday celebrant.  We enjoyed looking at the cute kids and commented on the names -- Azeril, Asher and Bailey.  No, these are not people like us…  

 Well, gosh, it’s like 7 at this point.  We’d been in the car for pretty much 100 hours that day, so we headed to the B&B and got ourselves into the extremely beautiful and comfortable bed.  I had brought electric candles, thinking we might enjoy a little candlelight on our anniversary, and we both had phones and the ipad, along with the television.  So this 90-year-old couple hunkered down for a quiet evening of Netflix.  Soon we were snoring, and the night was behind us.

The next morning was a prison visit, and then back to one of the prettiest towns in America for lunch and more photos.  Here we discovered the local gull population, numbering in Hitchcockian proportions, sunning on the dock.  

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Eventually we headed home, happy to traverse the boring highway miles and find ourselves back in the company of Eddie and the cats.

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Sunday, July 17, 2016

The Many Moods of Saturday

It’s our anniversary weekend (of when we started dating) so of course to celebrate, we went to the prison.  That’s what everyone does on a special occasion, right?
The week itself had already been a bit of a roller coaster ride.  Small tragedies blended with national ones to wear us out.  And then it was the French National Holiday, and I had happily suggested my mom could “eat cake” on fb, when we got news of a devastating attack in Nice.
So in the midst of all this, it was the calendar app on my phone that alerted me--oh, by the way, it’s your anniversary.  I woke Bill a little after midnight; we kissed chastely; and that was pretty much it.
This would be our second visit together to the medium-custody prison in Windsor, NC, where our friend is currently incarcerated.  The first time, a little over two weeks ago, was pretty rough.  Minimum security facilities, which I am used to, look more like military camps, with several buildings of varying architecture, and while there is an obvious fence around it, the razor wire is limited to the top of the fence and reminiscent of fencing that surrounds many used car lots.  On our visits there, we walked in through a gate in the fence, and although we showed ID, the whole feel was fairly casual, with the incarcerated men just on the other side of the fence, greeting us as we walked in.
For medium-custody, though, every imposing feature is brought to bear.  The fencing has chain-link on the outside, but the curls of razor wire weave together in long rows, covering every inch of the fence, top to bottom.  Just approaching it on the other side would be risking your life.
Today I approached with more confidence than two weeks ago, now knowing what awaits.  The first building is security, where they only allow you in ten minutes before the visitation starts, and only a few people at a time.  We waited in the North Carolina heat as the group outside grew.  Three at a time they let us in, gathered all our metal belongings, a la every security entrance ever, and we went through the metal detector.  They turned away the tall, beautiful woman next to us because the full-length skirt she was wearing was slit on the sides and at knee-level, was deemed too high.  She protested--she had worn the same dress last time she was here; she had driven five hours to get here.  We directed her to the Family Dollar nearby--maybe she could pin it closed.
We navigated the zig zag lay-out of the security room, with Bill pocketing his head scarf (also not allowed), showed our IDs to the officers behind the glass and signed in.  We had already emptied our pockets in the car, taking only our IDs.  Then they send you back outside, across the 100 yards or so of “No Man’s Land,” the area between the first razor-wire fence and the second.  This area, of course, is where you get shot if you are here inappropriately.  
A large building breaks the fence, and the door here leads to a large lobby, overlooked by tinted glass, with officers behind it.  We pass a reception-looking desk (it’s not) and head to what would be an elevator door in any other lobby but here is a heavy metal contraption that clunks impressively on both open and close.  We wait here for some unknown something to happen, and at some point (how this point is determined I have no idea) the metal door slides open.  We enter a small room and the door slides shut, locking us in; today we are alone, still whispering heatedly about the arbitrary nature of the guards turning the woman away.  Last time we were here, we were in this room with about eight other people.  We wait a few seconds, and a second door opens, with the same intimidating weightiness as the first, and we are ushered into the large visitation room.
We show our IDs again, and are ushered to table 9 of 20.  The room is large, reminiscent of a grade-school cafeteria, with square tables.  The visitors all sit in one direction, facing a cinderblock wall, on which is installed an incongruous photo backdrop of a European street, with cafe tables, a cobblestone walk and a lovely canal.  I idly think of Nice again.  Later, a guard will come around and offer to sign us up to take a picture with our friend.  We will pleasantly decline.
This was a Saturday, and more people were signed up to visit than our previous weekday jaunt.  Almost every table was full, and we ended up waiting for Jim to appear.  Eventually he did, entering through a different but equally imposing sliding metal door, explaining that he is strip-searched before and after every visit, and that was the reason for the delay.
We talked for an all-too-brief two hours.  Bill and Jim spoke of legal matters and things that affect people in prison.  I watched the attractive young man at the table in front of us who was waiting for his visitor who never came.  I assumed he was scheduled to see the young lady who was turned away and hoped to tell him she had been here.  But then I saw her at a table behind us, in a completely different outfit.  This time her skirt had no slit and was a lovely print, but the shirt was white, tight-fitting, and dramatically accented her lovely shape.  She had won, in the end, looking way sexier in her second outfit than she had in the first.
But this meant the man at table 17 had been stood up for real, and that made me sad.
Asked to change the subject to lighter matters, I admitted to Jim that this was our anniversary weekend, and look how romantic Bill is -- he brought me to prison!  Jim had fun letting Bill know what kind of husband that made him, and before we knew it, the two hours were over, and we were saying good-bye, leaving Jim to go back to his bunk in the 84-man unit where he is surrounded by 20-somethings who believe they have nothing left to lose.
We left through the same metal doors, and the same holding area between, this time filled with people shoulder to shoulder.  We offered our support to the young woman with the dress, and she explained she was coming from Charlotte.  We gave her our number in case she ever needed  assistance along the way.  We chatted with the family that appeared to be grandparents and two young boys.  We stood in the heat in no-man’s land as the guards limited access to the security room.  When it was our turn, we gave it up to the older woman behind us and waited again.  The a/c was a welcome relief in the 11 seconds it took to walk out through security.  Even that short time in no-man’s land was enough in the nearly 100-degree weather.
Once in the car, Bill consulted the map, suggesting a celebratory dinner before we head back.  Visitation had ended at 3:30 (on the dot), and we were close to Nag’s Head.  Let’s just do it.  And so off we went, east through the changing landscape as the tobacco and bean fields gave way to sandy and marshy flatlands, the humidity dropping, and the air taking on that breezy, delicate quality that beach air has.  
We drove for a time, listening to our Adventure play list and taking in the beautiful scenery.  We talked about the challenges Jim will face when he gets out--how the culture of prison does not prepare people for success “outside,” and how his basic ideology will be challenged.  “And we will be there for him when it’s really hard,” I said, and Bill agreed.  Eventually the music and North Carolina’s natural beauty worked its magic, and we relaxed away the image of our good-bye to Jim, and were present in road trip fun.
That’s when I saw the sign.  The sign that would change our day completely.  
The sign said “Alligator River.”

Incongruously, the sign logo is a stylized bird, shown in flight with its wings pointed downward in logo-dramatic fashion.  I looked to Bill.  “Do you think there are alligators in Alligator River?”  I wondered if the name reflected its shape rather than its inhabitants, or if it was an outdated nomenclature, from a time before the area had been developed.  Bill said Alligator River did have alligators in it, and I started to get excited.  But then I doubted him.  I genuinely thought NC was too cold for gators.  But remember, I have all the knowledge of mankind in a small device in my hand.  Sure, at that moment it was belting out some Foo Fighters, but it could still tell me important things, so I looked up Alligator River NC and found the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, home not only to gators but bears, red wolves, about a gazillion frogs and many other North Carolina natives.
I WANT TO SEE A GATOR!!!  I could not explain or have ever predicted my unbelievable excitement at that moment, but every fiber of my being suddenly HAD TO SEE a gator.
Thank the gods I have a husband who is perfect for me, because he simply turned right at the next street and we were in the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, and we were on the look-out for gators!

The miles and miles of gravel road in the refuge are only slightly elevated from the swampy waterways on either side, so Bill drove slowly and we both looked, eagle-eyed, out our respective windows.  As you probably know, a gator’s camouflage is that he looks like a log in the water.  The inverse of this, when one is looking for gators, is that every log looks like a gator.  But Bill spotted a log sliding into the water, and stopped the car.  He directed me to look at a large tree nearby and to look intently just to the left of the base.  I could see a round spot on the surface of the water but could make out no detail whatsoever.  He had seen it though, and informed me it was the gator’s eye balls.  He turned off the car and we waited, staring excitedly at the eyeball.
We whispered while we waited, taking pictures of the scene.  Of course, no one looking at it would be able to identify the eyeball dot among the plant and insect life.  The water was as still as glass, and even as he had just slid in, the water was undisturbed.  No one could have possibly spotted him had we not known he was there.
After several minutes of silence and building anticipation, he rose in the water, lifting the ridges of his back and his snout above the surface.  When we still didn’t move, he slid silently to the edge, among the reeds and soft grasses, fallen sticks and dark leaves, and eased himself out of the water, sitting for a while parallel to the road, content to let the last minutes of direct sunlight warm his back and sides.
We eventually moved on and continued to look intently.  We would not see another gator, but the attempt let us appreciate the incredible beauty of the still water, the lovely vegetation, and the jurassic insects that followed us, keeping pace with the car, buzzing loudly, and looking every bit as big as our heads.  Something with red blossoms had recently gone to seed, leaving bright red blooms floating just under the surface of the water and appearing, at first glance, like gold fish.  
We passed a gentleman on a bicycle (gator dinner) and many cheerful waving people in cars.  One man stopped to let us know where we might spot a bear cub up ahead, but we never did.  We did, though, see a pair of some sort of water mammals--from a distance looking like otters--that frolicked in a field near the water, chasing one another and gamboling happily.  
Now that I was looking for bears meant lifting my eyes away from the water and staring intently in the darkening woods.  Entire fairy tales unfolded before me in that magical way that forests hold stories in the spaces between the branches and leaves.
Eventually dusk was overcoming us, along with some urgent biological matters and a growing hunger for seafood.  We found our way out of the refuge and turned east.  In a matter of short minutes we were pulling into a gas station and minimart and wait!  WHAT?  Is that a GOAT???  An enormous -- E-NOR-MOUS. -- goat with large horns was sashaying across the parking lot and in front of the doors to the minimart.  
The surreality of it was too much and I had trouble taking it all in, but sure enough, the world’s largest goat was about to grab a slurpee.
We got out of the car and introduced ourselves to the goat, who was now rubbing her neck along the rough concrete side of the store; Bill petted her and got a few friendly headbuts in return.  A small crowd had gathered, and when we were ready to go inside, our caprine friend sauntered on in with us.  I cannot begin to tell you how weird it is to see a very large goat navigate a convenience store.  I was initially concerned because this particular store had a large aisle of glass and other breakable souvenirs.  I needn’t have worried since this goat knew exactly where the chips ahoy cookies were, and that’s exactly where she went.
After our bathroom break, Bill and I assisted the staff in removing the goat from the store (they initially tried to bribe her with treats, but she knew the treat aisle offered more, so they ended up spraying her with water, which did the trick as long as we could herd her toward an open door).
And so again, we were on our way.  We drove all the way to Nag’s Head, and along the way, spotted signs for Dirty Dick’s Crab House, featuring a bikini-clad model being nipped by a crab.  Classy.  But in the end, we happened upon it and gave it a try.  Fantastic food and one of the best waiters we have ever had.  We ate, drank a toast to our anniversary, and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.  The maps app said we were about three hours from home, so our 8:30 departure seemed reasonable.
But you’ve forgotten so easily--Bill likes to look at the maps app, find the most direct route home, and then press “definitely not that route.”
He noticed where 264 runs “parallel” to 64, and if we take that, it takes us back through the animal refuge and won’t add much time to the trip.
Ladies and gentlemen, let me tell you this now.
This decision was a huge mistake.  
A.  Huge. Mistake.
We were back in the car, heading home.  Now that I realized we were only about three hours away, we should plan a trip to come to Kitty Hawk.  Maybe in the fall, when the air will be crisp and the wind will add to the feeling the Wright Brothers had.  Yes, yes, we will return in the fall.  And then the fateful moment came when we turned off Hwy 64 (home!! home!!) and headed south back into the wildlife refuge.
Within a minute or two, I noticed the frog jumping from left to right in front of me.  I swerved gently to avoid him and hoped he hopped safely to the other side when the next frog hopped into view.  I swerved back into my lane to avoid him as well, and oh wait there’s another.  For the next 20 minutes or so, the frogs hopped with alarming regularity, always from left to right.  I tried to miss as many as I could, with Bill protesting loudly.  “I can never be sure we’re not going to wreck!”  “I don’t think you can miss them all!”  “Maybe it’s best to just drive straight!”
Some were tiny and hopped low, others were remarkably strong and appeared at eye level of the minivan, legs outstretched, body at a 45-degree angle from the ground, leaping magnificently.  An enormous shadow moved in front of the right tire--I swerved left--what WAS that?  A large, slower moving frog.  Some had the sense to wait patiently while we passed; others waited until the exact moment to ensure they would get squished.  I couldn’t possibly avoid them all, try as I might.
Scores of leaping amphibians became hundreds in the minutes that passed, my headlights illuminating their suicidal efforts just before the inevitable.  We groaned with every death, Bill let out a startled gasp with every swerve.  Thankfully, we were the only car on the road.  Clearly, EVERYONE ELSE knew better.  
And then something changed.
Whereas before the frogs were consistently leaping left to right in front of us, suddenly we entered  a new landscape.  Now entire committee meetings and political frog rallies were being held in the street.  Under the glow of the headlights, the street moved and undulated.  Frogs by the hundreds leapt in every direction.  They moved in and out of our path hop hop hopping wildly.  There was no way to avoid them.  THEY WERE EVERYWHERE.
They leapt left.  They leapt right.  They leapt right at us, their legs outstretched, their bodies flung through the air.  
We screamed.  And screamed.  And screamed.
We were seriously living out some Biblical myth, some Karmic hell.  With every passing yard of road, scores more frogs sacrificed themselves.  We were inundated, screaming down the road, both of us horrified at the frogslaughter happening all around us.  This kept on for so long.  “Why didn’t they close the road???”  “Why is this happening to us???”  OMG!!!  The frog death!! OMG!!!
Finally, with a final ribbitty gasp, the frogslaughter stopped.  No more frogs leapt in front of us.  The marshy fields on either side gave way to solid ground, and eventually there were houses and maybe even a church.  Finally, a good way down the road, we pulled into a gas station.  We stretched our tense bodies, shook off the frog death, cleaned the windshield of the van.  It was 10:30.  We had been driving for two hours.  I pulled up the map app.  We were three hours from home.
We had driven due south through frog hell and were only now heading west.  We collected ourselves.  We could do this.  We could get home at 1:30.  We had a full tank of gas.  The frogtrauma was over.  We could do this.
We had now been gone for 13 hours.  We changed the playlist.  We hugged each other.  We can do this.
At 1:30, 16 hours after our departure, we finally pulled our frog death machine into the driveway.  A team of neighbors, my mom, and my brother had taken care of our animals in our unexpected absence, leaving us free to tumble into bed, which we did with deep gratitude.  We slept the sleep of the dead, and didn’t even dream of frog revenge.
And that is the story of our Saturday.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Appomattox Friday

Bill and I promised each other we would go for a drive the day after Thanksgiving.  We have had SUCH a year, and I haven’t posted in this blog since his stroke.  But we are very much recovered from all that and things are looking way up—we feel like ourselves again, and so it was time to get back on the road.  We love day trips – no worries about animal care, no huge expenses, nothing but a chance to explore the area and really get to know our community.

We hadn’t yet picked a destination when we awoke on Friday so I opened Google maps (I love this century!!) as we discussed the general direction—north!  I saw several Virginia towns in a reasonable radius, and then noticed Appomattox.  I remembered it had historical significance, but couldn’t remember what.  But lo, this is the internet age, and in seconds I had my answer—Appomattox was the site where the Civil War ended.  The perfect destination for a beautiful weekend!

We left unceremoniously, heading north at first, and then a seemingly endless series of lefts.  So many lefts!  The roads were two lanes, sometimes with large expanses past the shoulders and other times where the trees encroached nearby. I began to wonder where Siri was leading us.  I remembered days of paper maps and thought how the idea of Siri would have seemed unbelievable, just a short time ago.

True to our road trip traditions, we were wending our way through the landscape, passing quaint churches, dilapidated barns, small cemeteries, and scores of lovely houses.  Virginia has rolling fields of bright green grass and our route took us past a few farms with cattle, horses, and the occasional goat.  Our adventure playlist on the radio, we passed through small towns with twisty roads, shops with their doors opening on small sidewalks, and beautiful, colonial-style homes.  Very occasionally we saw a car with a Christmas tree on top, and people were smiling and cheerful at our stops.

My brief internet search had told me that the Appomattox Court House was a national park at the site of the surrender and that we should start at the Visitor Center down town.  Once in Appomattox we found the old train depot/visitor center where a stately older woman with a thick, classically southern accent answered our questions.  She showed me the map to the national park and provided us the context of the train depot, where northern troops had captured a south-bound train, seizing troops, artillery, food and supplies for the citizens of the southern states.  Near the end of the war, this defeat had a devastating impact.  Southerners were literally starving, with stories of people eating the paste from their wallpaper in desperation.  The battle at the train depot was a crushing blow.

The courthouse national park was about ten miles away, through a rather crappy looking area.  Appomattox as a modern town is not my favorite sampling of Americana and apparently grew in a time when we didn’t care too much how things looked.  We saw rather boring and fairly run down strip malls, torn up asphalt patches, and architecture that was far more functional than interesting to look at.  I found the atmosphere rather depressing, especially for an area of Virginia that is usually so beautiful.

But soon enough we spotted the classic Civil War fencing – also known as Shenandoah stack rail – that lines the national parks.  Green grass shone through the fencing, and eventually we saw the brown signs leading us to the courthouse.  We parked in the lower lot and saw the tall, square, brick buildings I associate with the 1860s.  Hilly grass fields surrounded the whole area, and with the buildings spaced far apart, the gentle, natural beauty of the scene was irrepressible.

I had a sudden impression of my father, who loved these Civil War parks.  Like me, my father would drive for a mood-lift, and we often took day trips to destinations like this.  He loved the Civil War parks and taught me the love of history and the life energy held in the stones and trees and buildings. 

In our tour of the area, we learned quite a bit.  Southern troops had been pushed back and were trying to regain ground, but the northern troops kept a constant pressure.  As Lee’s men tried to move north past Richmond, they were pushed further and further west until finally being surrounded – as some of Grant’s troops slid south behind the Rebels – at Appomattox. Ultimately, Lee surrendered on Palm Sunday, when the courthouse was closed; the meeting of the two generals took place in a home owned by the McLean family, about 150 yards away.

McLean, who owned several properties in Virginia, happened to also own property in Manassas at the site of the first Civil War battle.  In a strange coincidence, he is quoted as saying, “The war started in my front yard and ended in my living room.”  He had moved to Appomattox to settle his family away from the war.  A man of considerable means after marrying a rich widow, he and his family were financially ruined by the war since their capital was entirely Confederate money and property.

Early in our tour, we learned that Lincoln had met months prior to the surrender with Grant and other Union big wigs, and they planned for the end of the war.  Lincoln was adamant that the end of the war must begin the healing of the country, and even though the Rebel troops were considered criminals, they would be pardoned and allowed to return home. 

We heard often of the dignity and class shared by Grant and Lee.  Lee had a new uniform and was decked out in finery, even as he surrendered.  Grant, on the other hand, was fresh from the battlefield, with muddy boots and uniform.  But both treated the occasion with dignity and respect.  They chatted amiably before getting to the business of the surrender, and history (written by the victors) says that Grant provided generous terms of surrender, which Lee accepted.  The southern soldiers were paroled there at the Courthouse site, and within two days Grant’s men had printed 20,000 passes for them.  The southern soldiers would be able to keep their horses, were given free passage on federal transportation, and would be fed at Union camps on their way home.

What I did not appreciate is that Lincoln was killed a mere five days later.  I had not remembered that his assassination fell so shortly after the surrender.  Thinking now of how information would have travelled, I marvel that the war did not re-ignite.  The materials at the site mentioned the frailty of the peace and that the unrest following his murder was significant.

The trip got me thinking about the reconstruction after such a dramatic division.  Here we were, literally at war, and somehow the men Lincoln met with that day had a vision that the country would heal, the citizenship would knit together and be able to see themselves as a whole, single country again.  I was struck by the reports of Confederate soldiers crying on the battlefields, defeated in spite of their utter exhaustion and starvation – they had lost so much and would now head home without the spoils of war.

We managed to reunite the country, for the most part, after a terrible and bloody war.  Are we a people who could do that now?  Do we have that kind of strength and determination?  I hope so.  We certainly have work to do, don’t we?

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

45 Hours

The morning after we learned Bill had had a stroke, I awoke around 7, as I usually do.  Tolliver was waiting for me on the porch rail, as he usually is, and I fed the animals, as I usually do.  I made coffee, I packed a bag for Bill, gathered up the chargers he would need, some clothes, a do rag, etc.  He had texted me that he was given special yellow socks (no-slip) to mark him as a fall risk on the ward.  He told me later he had set off the bed alarm trying to get to the bathroom, and the staff had run in, cheerfully informing him that he couldn’t get away with sneaking out of bed.  All over his room were large signs, rimmed in yellow, with the phrase, “Call, don’t fall!!”  

He had posted to FB that he was on a liquid diet, and this concerned me.  Remembering the reference to a neurosurgeon the night before, I wondered if this were related to a possible surgery.  (Later I realized they would not have allowed him any intake, but I wasn't at my best at this point.)
I called my mom who offered to make me breakfast before I left, and I found my way to the hospital.  Bill had texted me his room number, and when I arrived around ten, he was gone, presumably off to some test.  

I sat with the iPad for over an hour.  As our friends woke up on Friday morning, they were receiving and reading my email from the night before, and the replies, via text, email and fb were rolling in.  I answered each one, but also watched my Facebook newsfeed fill in as people posted about their Fridays.  I was happy to see all the other things going on in the world.  I was able to keep some perspective about my situation and hear joyful and humorous news from my community.  At some point the doctor came in, initially looking for Bill.  When he didn’t find him, though, he introduced himself to me.  The doctor is very good-looking, makes eye contact when he shakes your hand with a firm grip, and generally instills great confidence in his ability to provide medical care.  Except that he is decades younger than I.  

Even though I have worked with residents for all these years, I’m still surprised to find a doctor that is not yet shaving.  Oy, this was going to be an adjustment.
In the end, though, he was wonderful.  He would eventually talk to me about how the neurologist, though not yet on site, was in careful communication with the team, was checking all the scans and tests, and guiding the specific treatments.  I felt confident in the care and throughout the process was struck by the consistency of information and the team's cohesive treatment approach.

While Bill was gone, I took a call from one of his best friends.  I described the situation to him and he said he had just seen new information on this type of stroke--that people miss the signs because they are unlike what we expect from stroke.  Even primary-care docs are missing it, he said.  He told me there has been an increase in these types of stroke, and the injuries to the neck are being cause by (or triggered by, at least) things like yoga classes, chiropractic care, and the sinks in barber shops and beauty parlors.  This was consistent with the ER interviews, where they asked Bill if he were getting chiropractic care or had recently been to the barber shop.  This made me feel better--that it's a "thing," and that other people, even doctors, were missing the signs.  Perhaps I had not totally failed my husband after all; perhaps another wife might have also gone to work the day her husband had a stroke.

Bill had two MRIs while he was gone, and he came back hungry and quite tired of the MRI machine.  Almost immediately, a speech therapist came in to assess his ability to swallow, and cleared him for solid food.  This was a relief to me, as it meant the liquid diet did not indicate a concern about surgery; and she promised she would rush the information over to the dining staff so he could have a solid lunch.  She was not in time, and when his beef broth lunch appeared, he despaired--he may never eat solid food again!!  One of the NAs was in the room, saw the problem, and called down to dining to fix it.  Within a few minutes Bill had a solid-food lunch and felt greatly relieved. 

Bill was then cleared by the physical therapist who came in to assess his coordination and balance.  He was able to do all she asked, and even when she asked him to stand, she was surprised with how fast he stood.  "All my clients are 85," she said, "I'm in no hurry."  She fastened a bright pink belt around him and walked with him in the hall, holding on in case he fell.  But he didn't.  She said he wobbled slightly at one point, but was otherwise functioning well.  She cleared him completely, without the recommendation for further physical therapy.  She mentioned, though, that if he had difficulty in the future, he could get outpatient physical therapy, and she recommended a provider in town.  This improved our moods greatly, and we were both in good spirits when Bill started to have visitors.  Bill has an easy sense of humor and was happy to be the butt of jokes about the big dead spot on his brain.  He also got a printed greeting card from the hospital, which a friend had sent in electronically -- "So glad your brain didn't leak out of your head (because of all the ego stuffed in there)."  It would be fairly smooth sailing from here.

We napped in the late afternoon, and at 5:15 on a Friday afternoon, the neurologist came to see Bill face to face.  He was clearly familiar with Bill's case, reported in-depth information completely consistent with everything we had heard from the team, and explained the decision-making regarding the treatment offered and what was planned.  Again, the consistency of the information and the thoroughness of the explanations gave us great confidence in the care.

He reported that Bill's balance was likely to return in full, and he was cleared to drive.  He said he thought Bill would be able to ride his motorcycle once the blood thinners were discontinued (in about six months) but that he strongly advised against riding a motorcycle while taking the medication.  He explained the aggressive treatment of the arterial dissection--that Bill was young and should expect to recover fully with aggressive treatment.  I felt an incredible sense of relief that he would eventually be able to ride again.  We would skip the winter, obviously, but that's ok--the almanac is calling for a cold, wet winter anyway.  But he would not have to give up one of his favorite activities.

As a second wave of visitors came, I went home to take care of the animals and await my best girlfriend who had promised to visit.  It was about 8 when I got home, and I planned to clean up a bit and generally prepare for her arrival.  We had already agreed she would stay at my mom's house, but I thought it would be nice to offer the option of staying with us.  Unfortunately, I discovered I simply could not keep my eyes open.  I don't think I have ever been so tired in my life.  I called my mom who thought it ludicrous for my friend to stay anywhere else BUT her place, and I fell asleep.  In seconds.

I popped awake at midnight, when my friend was expected to arrive, and in a few minutes she was there.  We chatted a few hours and made plans for the following morning.  She went off to my mom's, and I again slept.

Saturday morning was similar to Friday.  I ate a quick breakfast with my mom, said good morning to my bestie, and headed to the hospital.  Bill had phoned me earlier to say he would be discharged that morning.  And sure enough, within a few hours, the nurse was reading the discharge instructions and going over his medication.  He had a follow-up appointment scheduled with his primary-care doc and four new meds.  From the minute we walked in to the ER door to the minute he walked out to the parking lot, was 45 hours.

I stopped at the pharmacy and had his medication filled.  They asked about the situation, and I explained Bill had had a stroke.  I told them circumstances and the presenting symptoms, and they expressed shock that they had not heard of such a presentation.  We talked about the risk factors, and the pharmacist said she had heard that some of these things increased the risk of stroke, but she assumed they were the typical presentation we think of with one-side paralysis or weakness.  I felt glad I was spreading the word about this type of stroke.  I also felt a little better, again, about missing the signs. 

Given his blood thinners, I had questions about pain relief.  The pharmacist recommended Tylenol.  I asked about maximum doses and she said no more than eight tablets a day; I took a marker and wrote "Max 8/day" on the box, and later on the bottle directly.  I didn't want to leave anything up to memory at this point.  At home I set up a dry erase board with "Tylenol Times" written on it, and we started tracking when he took them; since they were taken as needed, I feared we would forget taking a dose and end up doubling up.  So much had changed in our routine and so much new information was present, I worried we would make a mess of things.

Saturday was more resting and a few visitors, and we went out to dinner with our closest friends.  Sunday was the start of the casserole brigade and several visitors who came to cheer us up.  We felt supported and cared for.  I had originally thought we would not need anything from our friends, other than their well wishes.  When they suggested sending food, I felt guilty, like we were fine and would be ok on our own.  The truth was, though, we were exhausted.  I had become almost numbed with all the worry and relief.  I think my emotional self was simply overloaded, and new information wasn't getting in very well.  Bill, meanwhile, was feeling a new lease on life and feeling excited about living.  He chatted happily with friends and opened our fridge, encouraging everyone to drink up the beer, since he would be unable to for six months. 

By Monday I was back at work.  Bill had arranged to have friends stay with him during the day, and so we had company Sunday through Tuesday nights.  By Wednesday Bill had seen his doctor and was driving again.  Things seemed to be settling in to normal, although Bill continued to be tired. 

For several days Bill said he would have sudden, sharp pains in his head, but they were gone by about Tuesday.  For several days, he said, "My brain doesn't feel right.  I can't describe it; it's just not right."  That, too, had stopped by midweek.  Every once in a while he doesn't remember something, but it's usually something that happened during the high stress of the hospitalization. 

Things really appear to have returned to normal.  He will be on blood thinners until the spring, so there will be a Medicalert bracelet soon, along with frequent labs and concerns about green, leafy vegetables.  Everything else seems to be exactly as it was.  What a strange adventure it has been!

Friday, September 12, 2014

The Longest Night

It was a Tuesday morning, and I was just about to leave for work, when my husband became suddenly ill.  He was nauseated, vomiting, and with a killer headache.  He said when he stood up, the room started spinning, and he vomited immediately; feeling the room swim around him, the nausea unavoidable.

I called my office to say I would not be on time.  “My husband is suddenly violently ill,” I said. “I’ll be about 20 minutes late.” My supervisor laughed at me.  “Take your time; take care of your husband.”  Later, when I logged in to our computerized system EXACTLY on time, she and I laughed together about the exchange.  My husband is grown, he can take care of himself, but he did deserve a few minutes’ TLC.

After calling work, I returned to him, lying on the bed.  His head hurt, he couldn’t keep down the Advil I gave him, and he was miserable.  We ran through the possibilities—ear infection, vertigo, migraine.  I asked him if he was afraid it was something more serious, and he said no, he was just upset about feeling so bad and knowing he needed to be at work.  We were both very wrong.

His vertigo, nausea, and headache did not relent.  That night he was able to have a little soup, as long as he didn’t move his head too much.  He fought to keep it down, along with some Advil.

When he awoke the next morning, still miserable, we called his doctor.  We made a same-day appointment.  This time I really was going to be late for work.

The doctor assessed him—his blood pressure was fine, his blood sugar was fine, he did not have the neck stiffness associated with meningitis, and although he was still dizzy, he could walk and function.  She checked his eyes, and could tell his brain was not pushing against his eye balls.  She verbalized her own thinking of the differential diagnosis, landed on virus, and sent him home.  She encouraged us to call back Friday if he wasn’t completely better.  He ate a small dinner, struggling bite by bite to keep it down.

The next morning was Thursday, and because of our schedules, I was already at work when he awoke, and right away called to tell me not only was he not feeling better, but he felt much worse.  The room was still spinning violently, nothing was helping the headache which was now unbearable, and he couldn’t keep anything down.  He called his doctor for advice.  She suggested the ER for imaging.

I left work early, although honestly, we debated the need for this.  We know, though, how long these things take, and figured the earlier we got started, the earlier we would get home.

We walked through the emergency room door of Duke Regional Hospital at 5:30 and were triaged almost immediately.  The triage nurse also went with vertigo, apologetically warned us that the wait time was nearly three hours, and sent us back to the waiting room.  Bill lay down and slept.  I read Cuckoo’s Calling by JK Rowling on my iPad. 

About three hours later we were shown a room in the ER, and at 9:01, the team came in for the assessment.  There were questions about the symptoms, we said we were there for imaging, but we were concerned about the cost.  The nurse very appropriately, with just a touch of firmness but not overbearing, said, “No, we’re going to do a CT scan.  With symptoms like this, you really need it.  In the end, it’s probably a virus, but we don’t want to take a chance.”  She strung up an IV fluid bag.  The sign on the wall said the wait for a head CT is about 90 minutes.

We could hear other patients with headache and nausea, some with vertigo, getting fluids, getting scans, feeling better, going home.  We expressed gratitude for our health insurance and resigned ourselves to the CT scan.  Nursing staff with various credentials came in to offer pain meds, some oral, some through the IV.  They started the contrast.

Bill went for the scan about 90 minutes later, came back, and at a few minutes after 11, Jill-the-nurse came in to report that Bill had had a stroke.  There was a “sizeable” infarct – or section of his brain that was dead and would never recover.  While speaking to us, she interrupted herself with, “That’s the neurosurgeon on the phone.  Let me talk to him and I’ll come right back.”


The nurse was going to speak to the neurosurgeon about my husband.  I stared at the door where she had just disappeared.  Alarm bells sounded dimly in the way-back part of my world.  There had been a stroke.  There was an infarct.  There will be a neurosurgeon.

Bill, it turns out, was feeling waves of relief.  He had a diagnosis.  They would know what they’re treating.  The pain would stop soon.  He lay his head on the pillow and chatted pleasantly with me.

I did what NO ONE should ever do.  I knew, even as I did it, that it was a mistake.  I know better.  I opened up my iPad and googled cerebral infarct.  Within seconds I had this sentence forever in my brain:  Cerebral infarctions vary in their severity with one third of the cases resulting in death.

Bill was talking pleasantly next to me.  I have no idea what he was saying, but I was sure my face betrayed my fear.  The next few minutes passed in a fog, and at some point Bill looked at me, and said, “Is this bad?”

“Honey, it’s bad.”

His demeanor didn’t really falter.  “It’s gonna be ok,” he said, and I started to re-orient myself.  The stroke had happened; the infarct was there.  My husband was not dead.  He was also not different.  He was his usual self; he could talk and joke, and was not at all diminished.  He just couldn’t walk without getting dizzy and sick.  But in fact, there were times when he could walk fine, as long as he held his head steady.  The room continued to swim in and out of focus, but I started to feel less like I was floating over a huge chasm.

At some point the nurse came in, said the doctor would be in to see us soon, that Bill would be admitted to the hospital, and I think she probably started some new medication.  She expressed her own surprise that Bill was doing so well, saying “What’s remarkable is that he has no deficits.  It’s incredible, really.” 

In this period, I started texting some of my closest friends with the news.  It was about 11:30.  I found out later, each in turn had done the same as I, had seen the “one third of the cases resulting in death” sentence, and responded tactfully. 

I went back to Nurse Jill and asked her as straightforwardly as I could, “I understand the event has happened.  He will heal from here.  He will get better, as much as the brain can, which can vary.  But he is not going to get worse.  The situation is done, and it’s all better from here.  Am I right?”

She confirmed that, yes, this was as bad as it would get, and it would, indeed, get MUCH better. 

I could breathe again. 

I started texting those friends that things were ok, and were only going to get better.

“My husband had a stroke,” kept coming in to my head.  I couldn’t stop it.  Such a daunting phrase.

The doctor came in the room.  He was amazing.  He explained to Bill that he had had a stroke, and now there was permanent cell death to a spot near the back of his head.  He explained that the stroke happened in the part of the brain that affects balance.  It was all starting to make sense.

He explained that this type of stroke is most often caused by an injury to the neck, where the artery clots while trying to heal; the clot travels into the brain and gets stuck, blocking off blood and oxygen to the neighboring cells.  He said we can never really know with things as complicated as the brain, but that he had plenty of reasons to assume Bill would make a full recovery. 

He was drawing a picture of the brain that looked an awful lot like Q-bert.  I said that out loud just as the realization hit me that he was too young to know what Q-bert was.  Sigh…

He explained that it was important to verify its cause, and not assume, in order to effectively prevent another.  We agreed totally.  He said there would be another CT scan, this time of his neck, to assess the damage to the artery.  The two large arteries in the back of the neck that feed the brain are called vertebral arteries, and damage to these arteries is called a dissection.  He was writing with a magic marker, and wrote next to Q-bert, “cerebellar stroke,” saying “This is what we know.”  Then he wrote next to his little drawing of a heart and its big arteries, “vertebral dissection,” and said, “This is what we want to confirm.” 

Some part of my brain marveled at his bedside manner.  I felt informed, comforted, respected, and hopeful.  He even said, after mulling it over for a few minutes while he spoke, “Q-bert was the one that jumped, right?” 

I started to believe it when Bill had said, “It’s going to be all right.”

A nurse came in to do a simple chest x-ray.  Although they explained why at the time, I don’t remember now, but I think because they wanted to rule out gross abnormalities of Bill’s heart, and to identify any other risks that might be slinking around in his chest and abdomen.  The nurse pointed me in the direction of glass doors so I could get enough signal to use the phone, and I called my mom.  As I dialed, I fought back a wave of tears.  The urge left me, and it never returned.  I couldn’t help feeling like we had come incredibly close to disaster, but I also felt incredibly grateful.  It had already turned out ok.   

My worries waved back over me throughout the night.  Even though I knew with my thinking self that the worst was over, I still had a visceral reaction to the dangerousness.  “… with one third of the cases resulting in death.”  I remember a moment around 2 when I had the Kindle app open in front of me, and I was staring at the last few pages of Cuckoo’s Calling.  I had a surreal feeling of being in a dream.  I was sure I would wake up any second.  I would be in my room, Eddie next to me, snoring his little dog snores, and Bill there.  I would look around the room and feel the relief that this was just a dream.  I checked in to my senses and my intuition.  Could it be a dream?  I wasn’t waking.  I knew it was real.  From now on, there would never be a day when this hadn’t happened.  I wasn’t going to wake up.

At 3:30 we were still waiting on the neck CT scan, our animals had not had dinner, and Bill said he really just wanted to nap.  He suggested I go home, and I agreed, asking him to call me when the result from the CT came back.

An observing part of my brain was surrealistically aware I was driving out of a hospital parking lot at 3:30 in the morning.  When was the last time I was even on the road at this hour?  What was I doing driving in the pitch black, in this strange car, at this end of town?  How did this happen?

I plugged in my phone and blared Spiral Rhythm, going straight to “The Faith Inside.”  I was grateful that this is my daily choice of music; the familiarity was soothing beyond the message, “There ain’t nothing in this world that faith can’t get you through.”  The surreal observer asked the atheist what, exactly, she had faith in.  The doctors?  The science?  Bill?  I shoved those thoughts aside and basked in the soothing music; I thought about the thank-you note I would write to Spiral Rhythm; I wondered again what the hell I was doing following my headlights down Duke Street in the middle of the night.

At home I rounded up the animals I could.  Tolliver was out on his nightly prowl and would not return before 6, but everyone else was there, wondering why the dinner service was so late.  I fed them with little ado, and told Eddie aloud, “Daddy won’t be home for a few days.”  He didn’t seem to appreciate the gravity of the news as he nuzzled my knee.

I stared around the house.  I tried to imagine myself going to bed and falling asleep.  Alone.  In my house.   “… with one third of the cases resulting in death.”  I wandered over to the computer.  I texted Bill to see if he was ready for me to send out an email to our friends.  He agreed, it was time.  I sat down and drafted the most incredible email of my life.  I filled in the address list to about 75 people.  I realized there were more on Facebook and messaged a few people there.  It’s an embarrassment of riches to email nearly 100 people, none of them from our jobs, when something important happens.  I again felt grateful for my Village, for living in the City of Medicine, for my husband being well.

I went to bed with Murder She Wrote on Netflix.  It’s just enough of a distraction to allow me to sleep.  I was out before the first notes of the charming and cheerful theme song played.  Bill woke me briefly to say the CT scan had come back positive—the cause was a vertebral dissection.  The mysteries were all solved, and recovery would continue.  I slept.