High Anxiety

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I have always prided myself as someone in touch with their feelings.  I can usually pinpoint the source of my emotions. Frustration with a relationship, disappointment in an outcome, anxiety about a challenge, excitement about an upcoming new experience – I can usually identify what is going on. Lately that ability seems muddled – I’ve had more free-floating anxiety than usual.

I was driving south on the Thruway the other day, heading to New York City for something like the 5thtime in a month (I’m usually excited by the prospect of time in the city). This time I just felt nervous, my brain flitting from one thing to another, I was having a hard time concentrating.  Thankfully I was able to focus on the road – it would truly have been a really bad sign if I got lost. I can make the trip on autopilot at this point. I tried to think through what has been going on, why this unease? Why have I been feeling more overwhelmed than circumstances seem to warrant? Since I was alone in the car, I took the opportunity to try and sort it out.

I am well aware that I am very fortunate, my life is an embarrassment of riches. I try to keep gratitude in the forefront, but, oddly, I find that the more I have, the more I fear losing it. I’m not referring to things (though I do have a confusing relationship with things, I like them more than I should), but to people. Readers of this blog know that our daughter-in-law is expecting a baby any day now. I think humming along in the background of my brain has been an awareness of the risks involved for everyone. I am also well aware of the fact that I have no control over how things will go. If only I could wrap up my loved ones in a cocoon to protect them! Obviously, not an option. So, maybe one contributor to my heightened level of anxiety is anticipation of this big event.

It’s funny in some ways because we spend so much time wishing for things (both tangible things and situations/events) and then when they happen, you realize it isn’t quite what you thought. There are strings attached.

You hope that your child finds a partner in life. But when they do, it changes your relationship (in all sorts of ways, many positive, some unanticipated). You look forward to being a grandparent, but that brings new worries. You look forward to a trip, but then you deal with the aggravation of delayed flights or turbulent weather. You want the luxury of a swimming pool in your backyard, but then you have to deal with the maintenance (a seemingly never-ending source of aggravation in our case). These may seem like wildly different ‘things,’ but there is a theme. There is a cost that comes with the things we want. Perhaps that is obvious, but it makes me stop and think. There is virtue in simplicity. Maybe I should consider Buddhism! The way I understand one of its central tenets is that you shouldn’t become attached to things or ideas – you need to let go of expectations. I don’t know if I can do that.

Or maybe I need to figure out how to not let these things get to me; figure out a way to acknowledge the worry, but then set it aside, especially when there isn’t something to be done.

But, it is so easy to lose perspective. Over the last couple of months, we have been enmeshed in the process of buying a condo in NYC. That’s the reason for so many trips to the city. Filling out the paperwork for a mortgage and shepherding it through the process felt like a full-time job. How blessed am I that making this purchase is even an option? But it is also a source of anxiety. It is a huge investment, the numbers are scary. But then I would remind myself that if it fell through, there was no real loss. And, if we successfully closed on it, and it turned out to be too big a financial commitment, we could sell it. So why did it feel so stressful?

In part, I blame Trump. You may ask, what is the connection? As I was driving down the Thruway, mulling things over, I realized that another large piece of my anxiety came from worries about our country’s future. I happened to be reading a novel, Ready Player One, set in a dystopic future that was all too imaginable to me. I have no faith in Trump, he has appalling judgment and is intent on sowing seeds of hate and fear, and Congress isn’t willing to take him on. The threats of climate change, of civil unrest rooted in the growing divide in this country, of America losing its footing, are all too real. Not to mention the tragedy of gun violence. Making such a huge investment in a time like this feels like a leap of faith, but my faith is shaken.

This unsettled feeling about our future was reinforced by an experience I had on that trip. On the day I was driving, a video went viral of a white guy going on a rant in a New York deli because the employees were speaking Spanish. It is the type of thing that seems to be happening a lot more in this age of Trump and ubiquitous cellphones. One of the reasons I was making the trip was to be at the new apartment for the guy to install cable and wifi. The guy arrived, at the appointed time, and, as is often the case, it took quite a bit longer than expected for him to successfully get things running. He was there for a couple of hours. At one point, while we were waiting for technical support people (he was on hold with his office) to try and fix things on their end, his personal phone rang and he asked me if I minded if he answered it. “If I do, I will be speaking Spanish,” he explained. “Of course you can answer your phone,” I responded. He shrugged sheepishly, as he answered. I moved toward the kitchen to give him space.

As I reflect on this interaction, I realize that I would feel differently if he had been in the middle of explaining something to me, then it would be rude to take a personal call, regardless of the language he spoke. But at that point we were just waiting awkwardly. I had no problem with him taking his call. I thought it was a sad commentary that he felt the need to explain that he would be speaking Spanish. It was a personal call, it wasn’t my business to understand his end of the conversation anyway. When he got off the phone I said we had come to a sad place if he needed to ask if it was okay to speak Spanish. He gave a small smile and another shrug.

During my 2 ½ hour drive and as I continue to think about my state of mind, I have come to a better understanding of what’s been going on. Not surprisingly, most of the issues are out of my control. I decided I need to focus on what I can do to manage it.

These are the strategies I came up with:

  1. Avoid reading dystopic novels (at least for a while).
  2. Reduce the number of times I allow myself to look at Twitter and Facebook to two times per day. Look at blocking some of the more vitriolic sources from my Facebook feed.
  3. Find an organization or campaign that I can volunteer for that is in concert with my values. (Or, alternatively, assuming Dan and Beth will allow/need, help with the baby!)
  4. Devote more time to productive activities, whether it is clearing clutter in my home, doing research for my memoir or talking to friends, spend more time doing constructive things so I don’t dwell in worry.

I hope that isn’t too ambitious. It doesn’t seem like it should be.  If you have suggestions, please share. I’ll report back.

It’s that time again

Another Monday morning. Unfortunately I do not have a blog post ready yet. A combination of the business of life and a minor obsession with Downton Abbey got in the way. I found Downton Abbey on Amazon a couple of weeks ago, having not watched it when it aired originally, and it is official: I am addicted. While I am sorry that I don’t have a post ready, I have been enjoying the series. And, it actually wasn’t the only reason I am unprepared – there are those pesky details of life, too. The amount of paperwork and detail involved in a real estate transaction is beyond belief!

On a more pleasant note, two happy distractions from my writing: Happy Birthday (tomorrow), Daniel! And, mazel tov to the Goland Family!

I will post again as soon as I have something that merits sharing. Thanks for checking in.

The Week That Was

It was tough week for me – so I did not write a blog post. First and foremost, from the time I posted last week, things with Trump got much worse. Perhaps related to that, or maybe not (I shouldn’t blame Trump for everything), I had a stomach bug. Things took a turn for the better when we left for a family vacation. For all of those reasons and more, I was not able to write.

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I will be back next week! Thanks for understanding and staying with me.

Took a break

Sorry that I was not able to post my weekly essay today, but hopefully you will understand. Gary and I were in Spain this past week (!) and I had no time to write and little access to the internet. Vacations are wonderful! We took a whirlwind tour that included Barcelona, Granada, Cordoba, Ronda, Seville and Madrid – fascinating and beautiful places all.

Now if I can just figure out what day and time it is, I will be back next week with more stories. Thanks for staying with me!

Two for the Price of One: Two Views

[Note: Another foray into prose/poetry]

Boundaries and Expectations

 

September 12, 1986

Partly cloudy skies.

Driving home alone, I could barely concentrate on the road.

My eyes welled up.

 

Will I be a good mother? Can I do this?

Minutes before,

what I suspected was confirmed.

This was planned, yet I was overwhelmed.

I took a deep breath,

focused on the road and the sky, made my way home.

 

Into our little brick house.

I rush to the phone to call Gary.

He is still on rounds at the VA.

I have him paged.

It takes many minutes, seemingly forever.

 

Hello, Lin?

I’m pregnant!

Wow! This is such great news!

When do you think you’ll be home?

The usual time.

You can’t get out early?

Linda, you know I can’t.

 

I sighed and exhaled, resigned to this reality.

Okay, we’ll talk later.

I was left to my thoughts.

 

Eight months crawl by.

I was not glowing with new life.

Queasy, tired, morning, noon and night.

Ear infection, bronchitis, heartburn

I didn’t enjoy sharing my body.

 

So many rules:

No caffeine, no alcohol, drink milk

I don’t like milk.

Vitamins the size of Pluto.

Alcohol was no loss, caffeine another story.

I’m responsible for this new life!

I don’t want to screw it up!

 

The due date kept changing.

First May 2, then May 11, finally May 16

That day comes and goes.

The longest gestation in history.

I am ready! Nature has its way, though.

 

May 20 Gary travels to Long Island to take part 4 of his medical boards.

My parents come up from Brooklyn to keep me company.

At 5 pm they leave me with friends and

head back home, Gary is on his way.

I feel some contractions: Braxton-Hicks or the real thing?

 

Gary gets home by 9pm.

My water sort of breaks after midnight.

We call the doctor.

He tells us to come to the hospital.

It is before dawn on Thursday morning.

We put the garbage cans by the curb before going to Albany Med.

 

27 hours, the last 7 hard labor,

an apt description.

First, no progress, then Pitocin – a brutal treatment.

Finally, I push!

Such a relief! My body is almost my own again.

 

4:39 am, Friday, May 22, I look at my baby.

Labor was hard on me, but she is perfectly formed.

She is part of me and yet, she might well be an alien.

We are one and we are separate.

I understand her; I feel her joy, her hunger, her frustration.

But I am clueless, she is a mystery.

 

I fall in love over those first few weeks.

Her wondrous eyes, sparking with light.

Her pink, smooth skin.

She emerges into herself.

Curious, demanding, loving.

 

30 years later and

it is all still true.

 

[Note: Gary’s remembrance of that same time]

September 12, 1986.  I was on rounds when I heard my name over the VA hospital intercom for the first (and only) time in my life.  The operator put me through. Linda tells me that we are going to be parents. You could have knocked me down with a feather.  I was elated and scared and excited.  She asked me if I could get home early that day.  But the patients cannot wait.  I work as fast and furiously as I can to get out early but 10PM is the best I can do.  I remember not being able to concentrate during rounds that day which is the one and only time that ever happened.

That VA rotation was in many ways horrible.  Perhaps it was also an experience in growing up.  The VA is an underfunded, second rate health care system and, in my mind, a poor excuse to offer people who fought for our country and now are down on their luck.  And, to be sure, if you are a veteran and have other health care available to you, you are not going to the VA.  So these are the guys who things have not gone well for after they came back home.

I was an intern along with two others on that rotation.  Claude Scialdone was another intern with me and he was amazing. I can’t remember who the third intern was but it was not someone who did all that much.  Worse than that, our resident who was supposed to guide and support us was an empty suit (perhaps an empty white coat is the better medical term?).  And the attending physician came by in the morning to round, as he was supposed to do, but did nothing else.  So Claude and I were basically two guys just out of med school trying to keep 40 very sick veterans alive with basically no help.

It was frightening and it was exhausting.  On a normal day, when I was not on call, I would get there before 7AM and get home anywhere from 8PM to midnight.  When I was on call I wouldn’t get home at all.

One particular patient still sticks in my mind.  He had been there since well before I started my 6 week rotation and he was often times confused, weak and kept running fevers.  I worked him up for sources of infection again and again.  I ordered chest x-rays to look for pneumonia, urine cultures and blood cultures but they repeatedly came back negative.  I asked my resident about the guy – I told him I was certain we were missing something.  There was something going on and we were failing to identify it.  The patient was treading water at best and sooner or later we were going to lose him.

My resident responded by asking me if any of the cultures had grown anything and the answer was no.  He then explained that this means he’s fine.  He wasn’t fine.  He wasn’t close to fine and I knew that in my marrow, but I was out of ideas and had no help.

At that time, the VA closely controlled the use of the newer, broad spectrum antibiotics.  If you ordered any of them, you automatically got an infectious disease consult.  Normally that might not seem like a problem, but in the Albany VA at that time, it meant you got Dr. Aldonna Baltsch on your floor. Dr. Baltsch was as feared as any doctor I have ever known.  She was a phenomenal, dedicated, passionate physician but she was also a perfectionist with a temper.  She would come in and yell at you for all the errors she determined you were making.  I think she just wanted to make us better doctors but perhaps didn’t exactly know how to go about doing it.  In any case, nobody ever wanted to see Dr. Baltsch around.

For that reason, nobody ever called for an infectious disease consult.  And the interns and residents became experts at using combinations of older antibiotics to avoid the newer ones that came with a dreaded visit from Dr. Baltsch.  But in this moment, I realized I feared the prospect of failing and losing this patient more than I feared Dr. Baltsch.

So I ordered a new wave, broad spectrum, expensive antibiotic when my resident wasn’t looking.  I did so because I knew that, while it would bring the holy wrath of Dr. Baltsch, it would also bring her expertise.  She came up and was really, really angry.  It was as if Mount Vesuvius was going to erupt and the lava would scorch us all.  However, as it turned out, her anger was entirely directed at my resident.  She never even spoke to me – which was fine with me.

And she ordered exactly the same tests I had ordered.  But this time, after they yet again came back negative, she ordered an LP (spinal tap).  That came back negative too but she told the lab to hold onto the spinal fluid sample longer for viral cultures and they eventually came back positive for Varicella (the virus that causes Chicken Pox).  Turned out he had Varicella encephalitis, an infection of his brain caused by that virus.  This is still the only case of Varicella encephalitis I have ever seen.

He was placed on antiviral antibiotics.  His fevers ceased after a few days and he finally started to get better.  Dr. Baltsch called for a special meeting of everyone in the entire department of medicine basically to humiliate my resident.  It looked like vultures picking at a carcass as the entire faculty went after the guy.  I almost felt sorry for him.

That rotation eventually gave way to others, some nearly as hard and some not quite as tough.

But fall turned to winter and winter to spring and then I took my boards exam on Long Island.  Knowing Linda was past her due date and could go into labor at any minute, I rushed through the exam.  It was the only time in my life that I was the first person out of the room on such an exam.  That night, Linda had spontaneous rupture of membranes (her water broke).  We took out the garbage and drove reasonably calmly to Albany Medical Center where she gave birth after 27 long hours of labor.

She was an amazing trooper.  No anesthesia.  One single dose of one pain killer.  Hour after hour.  I spent much of the time with her but also left to do rounds and see patients during parts of the process.  At the end, on May 22nd, Leah emerged, perfect, beautiful, alert and brilliant.  A miracle in our lives who has been such a great joy ever since.

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Just a few hours after birth – Leah looking directly at the camera, alert and bright. Gary, on the other hand, exhausted.

Leah was a force of nature.  It is hard to explain how even in those earliest days she had a spirit and a liveliness and a curiosity.  I felt like she saw and understood the world around her in ways that most babies could not and her smile melted my heart.  Life had taken on new meaning and I fell in love with her.

Still I was torn.  I could not devote less time to my patients than what I felt I needed to.  And yet I wanted to be home; to be with Leah; to help Linda who was in some ways almost a single parent. She was exhausted and I was exhausted.  And I could not do all I wished I could do.  I could not do all Linda needed me to do.

Having already completed all of the hardest rotations in May of 1987, my last rotation of internship was scheduled to be an easy one in a community hospital very near our house.  It was going to be perfect.  I would be working a short walk from our house, the hours would be reasonable.  A long, hard winter was about to give way to a beautiful spring and hours with Leah and Linda.  It didn’t work out that way.  On the day Leah was born, an intern quit the program and the department of medicine met to determine who should cover that intern’s rotation. They decided I should cover it.  I was back in the VA hospital.

Uncle Mike

We were laughing in the snow. Tossing snowballs at each other in front of our house in Canarsie. Sliding around on the snow-covered walkway and driveway, enjoying the horseplay. The way I remember it, my brothers, Uncle Mike and maybe my cousins, Laurie and Ira were there. But, I may be remembering a photograph of us in the snow from a different time. This is clear: I felt a cold snowball smushed into my nose and mouth. Uncle Mike suddenly had me in a headlock and had a mound of snow that he was pushing into my face. I twisted and squirmed to get away. Just as suddenly he let me go. I was shocked. I didn’t know where that came from. It would be some years later, but I would come to understand.

It seems to me that a significant part of life is luck. The family you are born into, the time and place, the particular constellation of genes that you inherit are all out of your control. That isn’t to say a person can’t overcome a bad hand or those disadvantages mean a life won’t have joy and accomplishment. But some people seem to be blessed with a life of mostly sunny skies, and others not so much. Uncle Mike, my mother’s younger brother, fell into the latter category.

From the get go Uncle Mike couldn’t catch a break. He was born with a digestive problem that required that he go to the pediatrician’s office regularly for an injection. According to the story my mom told me, she would take Mike in his carriage to the doctor’s office. When he realized where they were going he would start to cry. Mom, not knowing what to do, would mislead him into thinking they were going somewhere else. She felt guilty about this and carries the weight of that to this day.

Despite the health issues, Uncle Mike grew to be a big man, around 6’3”. He struggled mightily with his weight. Obesity runs in our family and at various points Uncle Mike was morbidly obese. Some big men have a toughness about them, or are a presence in a room. That was not Uncle Mike. He was good-natured and he had a softness that wasn’t just physical. He had many friends, but was also the target of bullies. He carried the scars of low self-esteem.

Uncle Mike was 13 years younger than my mother, 13 years older than me. He lived upstairs with my grandparents while I was growing up. He graduated from high school but didn’t get a college degree. He was smart, but he didn’t pursue higher education. In contrast, each of his three siblings earned graduate degrees. For a number of years he drove a truck delivering bakery goods in the city (for the same commercial bakery where my grandfather worked). He frequently worked nights and slept during the day. I was careful not to wake him.

Uncle Mike was fastidious and had no tolerance for anyone who was ill-mannered. Chewing with your mouth open was a favorite target of a zinger. If he heard me chewing gum, he let me know about it. “What are you, Elsie?” his voice dripping with sarcasm, referring of course to the cow, followed immediately by the reminder, “Chew with your mouth closed!” Actually, it was a good lesson – perhaps it could have been delivered more kindly.

An important part of our family life was sports and Uncle Mike was no exception. He was a fan and he participated, playing football and softball with his friends. Uncle Mike was a Jets and Mets fan. My mother and her two brothers had season tickets to the Jet games at Shea Stadium. One more piece of evidence that my family was a little unusual – my father didn’t go to the games, my mother did!

My brothers and I relished watching Met games with him in his bedroom. He would have the air conditioner cranked to meat locker temperature – it felt great since the rest of the house was usually stifling. He provided funny commentary about the lovable losers. He always identified with the underdog. He hated the Yankees, which was the team I favored, though I did it quietly. He loved the movie “Rocky.”

He had a loyal group of friends who visited the house often. I grew up knowing his buddies: Alfred, Philly, Walter and Barry. I was the official scorer at their softball games. I went with Uncle Mike to Staten Island where they played and kept the scorebook for them. While I would have preferred to play, it was fun being there and I learned some colorful language, too.

During my later teen years, Uncle Mike made a concerted, successful effort to lose weight. He moved into his own apartment. I remember going with him to shop for new jeans. He was looking forward to going out on a date and we picked out some sharp clothes.

Uncle Mike was trying to turn his life around. Though in that day and age, it wasn’t spoken of, I believe he sought help through therapy. I remember my dad saying that if emotional issues got in the way of your day-to-day life, and you weren’t able to be happy, it was time to seek help. I think he said that in the context of Uncle Mike, but I’m a little fuzzy on that. Either way, I took that message to heart.

It was around that time that Uncle Mike apologized to me. The way I remember it, we were riding in his car to Aunt Simma’s for dinner. He said he was sorry for teasing me so much when I was younger and for giving me such a hard time. I didn’t know what to say, I was so surprised. He went on to explain that he resented my relationship with Nana, his mom, and took it out on me. I accepted his apology and told him it was okay.

I didn’t fully appreciate his gesture until I became an adult. The courage it took to be that honest with me. In so many ways life wasn’t kind to him. His marriage didn’t work out and as a result he was separated from his son, various business ventures fell apart, his health deteriorated, diabetes ravaged him.

Uncle Mike was living in Zada’s apartment in Century Village West Palm Beach when Gary, my husband, and I went to visit him somewhere around 2002 or 2003. At this point his eyesight had deteriorated so that he couldn’t drive and he had parts of his toes amputated because of diabetes. We chatted in his apartment before going to lunch. Uncle Mike wanted to give us a gift. He looked around the apartment, knowing Gary was a huge Met fan. He picked up his mousepad with a giant Met logo in the middle. He insisted Gary take it. Gary was reluctant, but understanding that Mike wanted to make the gesture, he took it.

Through it all he remained good-natured, he enjoyed a good meal, loved movies and telling stories, rooting for the Mets, seeing family and friends. Uncle Mike died of complications of diabetes when he was 58 years old in 2005.