Friday, April 30, 2010

Savoring the Goodness of Life

Something last night, as I was going to sleep, triggered a memory of trying to find a comfortable way to fall asleep when there were still staples in my head. That reminded me of the unbelievably wonderful feeling of that first shower after the first staples came out, which triggered a rumination about about sensory memories. For whatever reason, that brought back senses of grandmother’s house in Washington, PA, now long gone out of the family. When I was small, and we visited her, there was a feeling--and a special smell--associated with sitting in the breakfast nook off of my grandmother’s kitchen and having a meal. Those were only breakfast or lunch, of course, because we always ate dinner at the dining room table. I don’t know how many times I visited as a child--it couldn’t have been many--but the sensations of her house are crystal clear to me. There was a section of her attic, under the eaves, that was set up as a small playhouse, and it was a very special place indeed, as it could only be accessed through a stairwell inside a closet. It was a little musty, but it had a window and there was a nice quality to the light and a feeling of great safety and security amidst adventure. What more could children ask for?

I have no clue what triggered any of these memories, and no time, really, to think about it right now, so I spent my few moments reliving experiences at two completely different stages of life, and then switched back to thinking about the things that need to be done. That brought sharply into focus how very lucky I am to be worrying about the things that are fretting me right now. They’re all good problems to have, and even better, the kind of busy I am drowning in right now isn’t the kind of stressful that disturbs sleep, which is another, different kind of sensation. It’s just a ton of hard work, with more to go before it slows down.

All around, then, today I’m counting my blessings. And getting back to work. The tree outside our bedroom window is fully leafed out, and the green is a spring green. With the sun filtering through the leaves, it’s a view full of life and possibilities. May your day be that way, too.

P.S. In re-reading this, it came to me that the thoughts of my grandmother’s house were likely triggered by thinking about one of the things lurking around my to-do list, which is writing to one of my cousins who thoughtfully sent me a set of pictures of her current life--and which I haven’t had (or made) time to write properly to thank her for. Before turning to the impossibly long list of stuff to do today, I’ll write a short note to let her know how much I’m enjoying her pictures. Of course, that reminds me of other notes that need writing, but I’m going to write the one and resolutely not think about the others right now, or none of them will get done. Maybe a short note per morning for a few days? That might work.

Monday, April 26, 2010

My Brain is Still Changing

The biggest change since surgery, the one that I regret the most, all the time, is that I cannot really read fiction any more. Having been a reader all my life, this change is fundamental, and affects not only my daily life but also my sense of self.

Tonight, I came home tired after a long day, and reached for a book out of habit. The interesting thing is that habit has been dormant for a long time. Since surgery, the desire to read has been a conscious process, knowing that it gives (gave) me comfort, even though when I’ve tried to read for pleasure it just hasn’t worked. Until today, the desire to try wasn’t really present. Today, I wanted to read and tried to read, and couldn’t. Even this was a big step forward for me, because the interest and desire were there, just not the capacity for follow-through. Still, it felt different than I’ve felt in many a month.

I choose to take this as a really good sign and one that may be a harbinger of better things to come.

Stay tuned. We’ll know more next week.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Stretching to the Finish Line

Literally. I woke up in the night earlier this week sore all over. I was sore enough, in fact, that it wasn’t possible to keep sleeping on my side. After fretting about whether I might somehow have bruised a rib (unlikely without noticing it) and after reviewing heart attack symptoms in my head (totally implausible), it became clear that all the muscles in my torso were clenched. It’s possible that I’m a little tense. In consequence, I’m stretching these days, and meditating on the countdown to the end of the semester. The finish line is in sight: two more meetings of each of my classes, then grading and some stuff to finish up, followed by a trip or two, and then, a major change of scenery for a while. Nirvana awaits.

I don’t much care for exercising, but I do it because it helps me sleep. People I trust say it’s good for me, though it would be hard to prove that by me. A friend has an exercise program she calls “better than nothing:” whenever she does more than nothing, she calls that a victory. Riffing off that concept, when I do strength training, my mantra is “anyone can do three.” Even if I’m doing 10 or 15 reps, breaking them into triads helps me. I’m not ashamed to admit that sometimes I do five sets of three on my way to the ultimate goal.

So, too, the end of the semester. Any one can do three, and I don’t even have that many left. Meanwhile, I’m doing a lot of stretching and planning to be better about doing my shoulder exercises every day.

Finish line, here I come.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Simplify, Simplify, Simplify

One of the things I know about myself is that I tend to make things too complicated or ornate, especially in the first pass. One of the great things about being in an overload state, as I am this semester, is that there no choice but to streamline everything I’m doing, to focus on what’s most important and to find ever-more efficient ways to get from point A to point B.

There are three more weeks to go in the teaching part of the semester and then there’s a grading period, and then... finally... the finish line. Yeah! It’s looking more and more possible to do everything that needs to be done, though it’s a little touch-and-go on some fronts.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Nineteen Month Status Report: Taking Stock

Nineteen months ago, I had a craniotomy to remove a baseball-sized tumor from my left parietal lobe. It turned out to be, as predicted and hoped, a benign meningioma. The medical process, starting not quite a week before with diagnosis, has been an interesting journey. Today, as I write, I’m essentially fully recovered from the surgery, though I’m a different person both physically and mentally than I was before.

The physical part of this adventure was relatively straightforward: major surgery is a physical assault from which it takes time to recover. The hospital experience and the convalescence have commonalities across different organ systems, and the creeping nature of returning energy and confidence are not unique to me. The craters on my skull are standard and boring even though they hold such an unhappy fascination for me and are invisible because of all that curly hair. The strange scalp sensations haven’t completely receded, but they are expected to, eventually. Probably, little of what we’ve all gone through is unique from the physical perspective.

The particular symptoms I had, stemming from the size and placement of the tumor produced combinations of known effects, but usually only in hindsight: little enough is truly known about the brain that there was no good way to predict what would happen, only explain it afterward. For example, when the whole process seemed to re-start and send me through menopause all over again, no one predicted that, but the surgeon said, as happily as he said everything else once it became clear that I was functionally intact, “that happens sometimes!” He was similarly cheerful about each of the other side effects as they emerged, and did a lot of smiling and bobbing his head with each successive report: “Yup, that happens sometimes!” The problems I had with use of my shoulder and arm fell within the realm of the explainable, because the tumor pressed on the part of my brain controlling my shoulder. No one knew in advance of the effect it would all have, but it made perfect sense with some thought. The vertigo and balance problems haven’t been specifically explained physiologically except, you guessed it, that happens sometimes.

For a long time, I struggled with the existential question of “who gets a brain tumor anyway?” and the scary part, nicely captured by West Coast, of what it means to get a brain tumor when being able to think crisply and deeply has always been what distinguished me and let me accomplish what I have in my life.

Today, the predominant leftover effect of this experience is the disruption caused by having this experience at a time when I was just becoming comfortable in my own skin. I knew and lived according to a set of values I’d been working on for a long time, finally mostly understood when to trust (and not) my taste and instincts and generally knew how to play to my strengths and compensate for my weaknesses.

In the middle of that, everything changed. Things I’d known about myself, many acquired through uncomfortable introspection and examination, didn’t necessarily hold true any more. Techniques I’d used for self-soothing--like reading and making things with my hands--weren’t possible any more. Certain kinds of mental processes, from making connections to synthesis to word games, vanished or were severely curtailed. My independence and I-can-do-it-my-own-selfness (one of my favorite phrases from parenting and watching babies evolve into self-propelled beings) were compromised beyond recognition.

Emerging from that phase, there’s a lot that still needs thinking about. There are activities for which I still must ask for assistance on a daily basis. I’ve gotten better at that, as well as at accepting the help that is always offered so generously and graciously.

Parts of who I thought I was are probably irrevocably changed: at nineteen months, the power of neuroplasticity or not, there are capacities and interests that are not likely ever to come back. In some ways, it’s a gift, at midlife, to be able to reshape who I am and want to be. There are parts of it, though, that are mostly finding ways to come to terms with loss amidst the incredible gift of almost-total recovery and the many blessings of this experience: a supportive and loving family and friends, a gifted surgeon, a benign tumor that didn’t invade my brain, perfect hair for brain surgery, an intact sense of humor, flexible work that could be adapted to my new reality, and as confirmed this week, no tumor recurrence so far… the list is long.

It seems fitting to mark today as the close of Part Nine, and the opening of Part Ten of this adventure. Part Ten seems to be about my integrating this experience into my me-ness and re-imagining my life going forward. I’m different than I was before, diminished in some ways, more grown-up and enhanced in others. I’m still trying to get a handle on all of that.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Got Brain Tumors?



Don't need another scan for a year. A scan a year for five years, then every two years.

Big relief.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Emerging from the Deep

It’s a little difficult to pin down the train of thought that produced the decisions to agree to help with some special projects in the semester I am teaching both an overload and a new course for the first time. There isn’t much time to think about it, so perhaps that explains why no answers have emerged. Whatever.

The overload course is a partial-semester course, and though it’s a ton of work, I always enjoy it--and I always forget just how much time it takes to do it properly. If I’d known then what I know now, it’s not so clear that I would have agreed to design the new course I’m teaching, what with its interlocking with another course that had to be revised at the same time as the new one was designed. Even knowing how slammed I would be, I absolutely would have agreed to help with the conference this summer, but maybe bitten off a bit less of those tasks? That one’s hard to figure. For certain, I would not have scheduled getting sick in the midst of it all, or overshooting my energy so badly one weekend that I had a recurrence. Those are easy. Definite errors in judgement.

The bright side of everything is, well, the bright side: it’s spring. The magnolia outside the bedroom window is in beautiful bloom, the tree just beyond my desk is budding out so fast you can practically watch the process and the sun, glorious sun, has been shining almost every day. I haven’t worn a coat to campus in days. It’s glorious. Another silver lining is that I’ve been so busy I haven’t had much time or energy to worry much about the upcoming MRI, though it is creeping into my dreams the last few nights. It’s not the actual MRI, of course, that’s the issue, but the results. As they say, whatever the outcomes, we’ll know more next week.

Thank you again for the notes and inquiries and good wishes during recent days. I hope I’ve re-calibrated and reorganized so that things will be in better balance and I’ll get back to posting more regularly. If you live somewhere there’s spring, revel in it. If you don’t, let me just remind you gently that you probably don’t appreciate your weather enough because it’s there all the time. Spring, even after the relatively mild winter we had, is soul-feeding.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Short Report

I’m fine, just busy. Thank you for the inquiries and concern. The bug I had finally passed after the antibiotics and tons of rest, and since then, I’ve just been working, trying to keep things going on a number of fronts. Sadly, one of the things that’s fallen off the table has been keeping up here. I hope to resume as soon as I get a couple of major projects out the door. Cheers.