A Surgery Surprise

Mary Oliver

Mary J. Oliver, July 29, 2011

As I reported in my post Life Postponed this January, I haven’t been feeling well for quite awhile.  I finally did get in to see a surgeon on February 21 for a consult. He promised to   call the following week to set up  gall bladder surgery sometime in the near future.

My body couldn’t wait that long.  I had a horrific flare-up on Friday, February 24.  The pain was almost unbearable in the afternoon, but  I “toughed it out” that night.   I have a high tolerance for pain, which has not worked in my favor this time in my life.

Saturday morning I woke up with a fever, so I phoned the on-call nurse.  She told me to report to urgent care, where I was seen very quickly. After an interview, an EKG, check-up and blood tests, the doctor spoke to Dave and me.  He said my white blood cell count and bilirubin was way up and I needed to report to the emergency room.  I thought, “Well, I’m finally going to get this ugly old organ outta me!  It may be a more expensive way, but it will be OVER!”  We were pleased that I was getting the attention I needed.  After an ultrasound of the gall bladder area, I was admitted to the hospital and hooked up to several IVS.

It took a day or so to get my blood count and bilirubin in better zones.  Once this was settled, I went to surgery at 8:40 a.m., Monday, February 27.  Surgery to remove the gall bladder is usually a one hour operation.  When I woke up in the recovery room, there were two nurses hovering around me.  Even without my glasses, I could see the clock hands pointing to noon.   Too woozy to fully take that in, Dave joined us on our journey to room 731 at St. Joseph’s Hospital–where my sister and I were born, where one of my sons-in-law was born, where my mother died 22 years ago, where my youngest grandchild was born almost six years ago.

Dave was a acting weird.  He was pacing the floor, stretching his limbs and finding it hard to sit still.  He told me that Dr. Panian, the surgeon, would be in very soon to talk to me about the surgery.  Meanwhile, I was chattering away about the Academy Awards ceremony I watched the night before.  I generally hate awards television, but it was the only show available on the hospital network that I was even remotely interested in.

Dr. Panian arrived around one o’clock.  He told me that the operation had been much more difficult than expected because the gall bladder had become hard, dried out and fused on one side to the stomach wall and the other side to the duodenum.  He had to enlarge the slits for the laparoscopic surgery.  With the laparoscope he detected a spread of cancer cells from the gall bladder to the side of the abdomen and across the duodenum.  Considering the sites where the cancer had spread, this was an inoperable cancer.  My prognosis, with palliative chemotherapy, is one to two years.

Anatomy of the biliary tree, liver and gall bl...

Anatomy of liver and gall bladder

Image via Wikipedia


Dr. Panian had talked to my husband after the surgery, so Dave knew all of this. He  had volunteered to tell me, so Dave had tried to mask the knowledge and keep me as “Mary, who did not know she had cancer,” as long as possible.

One side of my brain doesn’t think it is real, but the rest of me feels assaulted by bad karma.  I feel cheated out of the opportunity to grow old with Dave–which we had promised ourselves when we got married almost 16 years ago. I don’t want to leave my two daughters now that we are in fulfilling times in our lives.  I want to watch my three grandchildren grow up.  I still have plans and projects that I will not see through to the end. I will miss the change of seasons, my cats, the wildlife around me.  I’m not ready to leave yet.

Covered Bridge near Yellow Springs, Ohio

We will be talking to the oncologist this week to decide the course of therapy.  My nasty old gall bladder had placed me at the bottom of the surgery list.  My cancerous gall bladder puts me right at the top.  It is unusual to have gall bladder cancer at all, but a 64-year-old having it is very strange.  Dr. Panian told us the only cases he encountered were in women in their mid-seventies.

I am fortunate to have a loving husband and sister, as well my daughters, relatives, friends and friends of friends to offer up prayers and good wishes.  In the midst of tragedy, there are blessings.

Yellow Crocus between bricks

The Retirement Bucket List

Knitting with Boojie's help--knitting was on my bucket list!

It may seem retired people do only what they want–nap, watch TV, sleep late, go shopping, travel.  An acquaintance of mine has been retired  for several months.  I know, through other sources, that she has been struggling with retirement ever since.  She may have envisioned her retirement  days as one long weekend that never ends;  in fact, she told me that retirement seems like Saturday every day–it is hard to keep track of the days of the week sometimes.  However,  I feel confident that will change for her over time.    It certainly has for me.

Five years before I actually retired from my teaching job, I chose to work half-time for half-pay.  This was not the best financial decision for me, but it was necessary for my mental health.  My father had passed away the previous year after suffering through several years of dementia.  The whole experience of dealing with his illness, as well as the loss of him, wiped out my coping abilities.   I had also endured several other upheavals and changes in my life and career during those years before he died.  I wanted to just pack it in, but I did not have the required equation (age plus years invested), or the savings,  to just quit working.    However, the thought  of  spending another five years in the classroom caused panic attacks.  I simply had to make a change in my life.   After negotiating with my principal and the school board, I was designated a half-time teacher of the gifted and talented  at the elementary school where I was already employed.

I’m not going to describe the ups and downs of having a special assignment in a school like the one from which I retired.  That is the subject for another blog entry.  Personal relationships with the other teachers changed dramatically, and I unwisely used much of my time at home working on lessons.  A teacher’s work is never done, especially in her own mind.!   On the plus side, with more time to take care of myself, my health did improve, as did my state of mind.  The negatives included the aforementioned issues, as well as guilt about not working enough.

From my experience, as well as that of my husband and some relatives who have retired, I can say that retirement requires planning.  Over time we discovered the need for hobbies and avocations–some kind of routine and work.   Depression can set in if a formerly busy and employed person has no direction.

You may have goals and hobbies that you always wanted to pursue if you only had the time.  Those might work out or not, so it is important to look beyond them.  I always wanted to write a novel, but discovered that fiction writing was not for me.  I wrote poetry and enjoyed that for awhile.  Ultimately I ended up writing a family memoir and I’m now working on a family history.  These turned out to be more to my liking and an outgrowth of my interests.  Blogging for the everyday person evolved since my retirement, which has also fed my desire to write.

My husband retired involuntarily after the financial crash in 2008.  He was an architect who loved what he did, and hoped to do it forever.  The recent  turn down in home building wiped out his prospects, so he had to do a lot of exploring, experimenting and reflecting before settling into a satisfying routine of writing a murder mystery and accomplishing household design and building and around the house.  We had hoped to travel a lot, but that has been curtailed by reduced finances.  Readjusting, reevaluating and revamping have all become part of our daily discussions.  We have helped each other reflect on what a

Bucket List

change in lifestyle means for us–our bucket lists, so to speak.

Yesterday and today I have been reworking my goals–what don’t I need to do after all?  What is most important to me?  What is my legacy for my children and grandchildren?   All of these are further thoughts for future blogs…

The Joy of Grandchildren

Julia, Beck and Andrew

Not too long ago I saw a teaching colleague whom I hadn’t seen for years.  We discussed retirement and caught up with the doings of our children.  When she mentioned that her daughters were married and lived in other states quite far away, I expressed my regrets.  She said, “Oh, that’s fine.  I don’t have to babysit my grandchildren.”  I was amazed!  How diminished my life would be without my children and grandchildren close by!  They are my family, and family is right at the top of my list of priorities.

I’m writing this after we hosted our grandsons for an overnight this past Saturday. We always try to plan ahead for their visits so that we have the right treats and activities available.  Andrew is six and Beck is three.  Actually, they are “halves”–three 1/2 and 6 1/2, which does make a difference, especially for Beck.  A year ago he fussed for his mother, but now that he goes to preschool, he pushes her out the door.  I guess he is asserting his independence, which part of the whole growing-up experience.

The evening moved smoothly with Moon Sand (appropriate for indoor play, but very messy).  It is made in Sweden, but marketed by a Chinese company.  Just so readers know, it isn’t something fancy.  I bought it at Target.   The package  says the sand stays moist and no water need be added.  Well, it was moist, but neither Sweden or China had anticipated a dry mountain climate.  Frustratingly, the molded sand didn’t hold together very well, but that didn’t matter to the boys.  They built roads, walls and ramps and ran their play dump trucks over and into  them.  When we were ready to clean up, Dave found more of Beck’s sand on his chair and the floor than on the table.  For those who might wonder, it cleaned up beautifully!

Andrew is the best big brother I have ever encountered.  His mom and dad have taught him to look out for Beck and he takes that role seriously.  He is as vigilant as a parent.  Not only that, he thinks his brother is very funny, which he is.  When Beck demonstrated the Happy Feet penguin dance, Andrew ran up and hugged him.  He remarked that he was lucky to have Beck as his little brother.  What a sweetheart!  During dinner, Beck took a big bite of pizza and then grabbed my water bottle, taking a big swig.  He then remarked, “That was spicy!”  Andrew commented, “That’s Beck!”  When Beck decided he wanted to eat breakfast in the kitchen rather than in the dining room with us, Andrew advised, “Just ignore him.  He does stuff like that, but he’ll eventually come in here.”  He was right!

The previous two sleepovers we hosted included the boys’ cousin, Julia.  She is 7 1/2 going on thirty–also a very responsible young lady and full of creative play ideas.   Our townhouse is her stage, with the boys trailing along behind her while she serves as the director.  Andrew used to just let her tell him what to do, but occasionally he will say, “I feel bad when you leave me in the other room and go off with Beck.  I don’t like what I’m doing!”    Usually, however, they mesh very well, all three of them.  Both boys adore Julia.  One day she said to me, with a big sigh, “I don’t know why my cousins want to be me.”  I remarked that they looked up to her because she is the oldest.  Her reply: “Just wait until Andrew gets into second grade.  It is really hard.”

Whenever the grandchildren leave, the house seems very quiet.  We both suffer a let down, with all their young energy gone.  Young children are infinitely fascinating–their perspective and immediacy.  Of course, I was an elementary school teacher, so I’ve always enjoyed the freshness of young eyes.  However, Dave doesn’t have children of his own, so he has never had close enounters with youngsters growing up right under his nose.  He loves how the ordinary is extraordinary to kids–all his household tools, kitchen utensils, flash lights, hats–it goes on and on.  One of Dave’s great assets is his ability to remember how it felt to be a boy and the fact that he had a wonderful Dad who taught him how to do things and honored his curiousity.

“Our granchildren accept us for ourselves, without rebuke or effort to change us,as no one in our entire lives has ever done, not our parents, siblings, spouses, friends–and hardly ever our own grown children.”~

Time Warp

This past Sunday Dave and I browsed some favorite antique and collectibles stores, and we discovered some new ones too.  When I visit one of these stores I have an  “out of body” experience because I travel into my past.   Dave always teases me because I like to touch everything, pick it up and hold it, often losing myself in a rush of nostalgia.  It is fortunate that the shops we like are not high end!  I guess one of the reasons my husband and I are so compatible is that we are historians even more than collectors–always connecting the past with the present.

Because I am in my sixties, the items I find that link me to my childhood or teenage years are now between fifty and sixty years old.  On a shelf I might see a doll with a cloth body and molded plastic face, very much like the one I spotted in a baby picture of me.  I don’t even remember the doll–just a wisp of memory that I can’t really capture.   A darling fitted wool coat with matching hat and muff  tickles a memory of me wearing such a coat to church or school when I was my granddaughter’s age.  Aisles and aisles of dishes, lamps, spice cans, old magazines, Golden Books, Life magazines, furniture, Corning Ware, pottery, coffee carafes–all of them transport me back to childhood remembrances  of a different world, a different time, another country all together.

Recently we have begun renting old television shows from Netflix .  These anthologies come from Playhouse 90, Kraft Theater and Westinghouse’s Studio One, to name a few.  The one we watched last night featured Jackie Gleason and Art Carney in a 1953 Studio One performance.   Of course they are performed live, broadcast  in black and white with patchy sound and the poor picture quality.  Nevertheless, Gleason and Carney’s talent surmounted all of that.  The story was nuanced and and had a spiritual quality to it that is missing from much of modern television.   Of course, early television was avant garde at its outset.   These shows originated from New York City, so they featured Broadway actors for the most part, many of whom were experienced and older than the actors who populate most of our television today.  Given the newness of the medium, they were pioneers and took chances.

Cable shows such Damages, Breaking Bad and Mad Men dare to take these kind of  risks with meaningful stories today, but they are a premium. Anyone who views them pays to have cable or satellite link-ups.   I guess, in a way, people in 1953 who could afford a television set and lived in an area where it was available also paid because televisions were a luxury item.  The argument that I am making, however, is that television producers and their sponsors believed that people wanted quality programming all the time. They had respect for the  audience.  Even the old Perry Mason series featured a more complex vocabulary than most television today.

Okay, okay–I’m beginning to sound like my grandmother, talking about the malaise of the modern world.  I guess that is part of having  lived several decades so I can compare and contrast, but I have to say that I don’t think everything new is an improvement.

Another program we ordered from Netflix was a documentary from 2005 titled The End of Suburbia. Since it was produced in 2004/2005,  it seemed prophetic when it predicted the recession and decline of the American lifestyle, the continuing war and threats to American safety, the gasoline price crisis and the problems we have because we built our lives around suburbs, cars and highways.   The huge divisions between haves and have-nots were also analyzed.  In fact, experts knew in the late 1960s/early 1970s that we would run short of oil before the end of the century, but kept silent about it.  Anyone who did speak out, such as Jimmy Carter, was called a gloom and doom naysayer.   Dave and I  kept pausing the video to analyze all that we were hearing.

On our drive home from “antiquing”, we talked about how much more complicated life has become.  We know so much more than we did twenty or thirty years ago and the world has changed so fast, even within the last ten years.   The very idea of living to 100 years of age seems daunting–how much more change can we absorb?   Childhood seems a long, long time ago.  And 30+ more years of life seems more of the future than we might be able to endure.

Life-Work: Finding The Space

So far 2010 has been about organizing my Stuff–and it needed to be!   People who have retired from a paying job still crave some kind of  work.   When I retired from teaching elementary school in September 2002, I thought I knew what I would do as a “second career.”  I had spent four years working as a half-time teacher, “transitioning” into retirement.   After that “practice” retirement, I realized that the real thing requires on-the-job training.

Throughout the years I worked as an elementary school teacher, I dreamed of being a writer.  I had always kept a journal, but I added poetry and stories when on summer breaks from teaching.   During the school year, inevitably I became  frustrated with the regimen of classroom teaching.  I  saw myself setting my own agenda and working as a writer from home.  In hind sight, I know that most people become frustrated with their work, picturing  what they would do if they had it to do all over again.  Often writing is one of those romantic choices.   However, during those years, I was the only person I knew who believed she was a writer trapped in a classroom.

However, this isn’t a blog entry about suddenly discovering my calling.   Rather, I am writing about life-work.  Although I love children and I am glad that I had the opportunity to teach, I have never been sorry to be doing something else.  My teaching experience has helped me to play creatively with my grandchildren and enjoy being part of their expanding discovery of the world around them.  I have no regrets about my professional choices because they gave me insights into childhood and the importance of keeping my mind open to new opportunities.

Since retirement I have worked as a writer, though I haven’t received much money for my efforts.  I  finished writing a book in November.  It is “resting” while I decide on marketing and publishing strategies.  I love blogs and  blogging and have now started my third blog (!).  I’ve also developed numerous hobbies that are both creative efforts and keep my days full.  Fitting new interests into a townhouse, however, requires a different kind of creativity.  Enter Dave, my husband, the architect.  He knows all about space!

I have two working spaces in the house.  One of them is this room where I am writing.  It contains my computer and printer, paper, notebooks, pencils and pens–as well as two cat beds.  I also do the household accounts, so I have calculators, check books and the bills here.  This is The Office.  Since I  also taught myself to knit recently, I have knitting books, needles and the yarn I am currently using stored in here.  My bookcases contain dictionaries, writing books, genealogy books and family records (another hobby), most of the pictures from my ancestors,  childhood and my life up to now.  We also store some of our cookbooks in this room, plus my recipe collection–although cooking is not one of my hobbies.

Upstairs I have another room, called The Atelier.  It is also shared with our two cats, two more round beds for them and the towels stretched across a top shelf in the sunniest window.  This space was to be Dave’s architectural studio, but the room’s orientation is too hot and bright in the afternoons–which is why the cats like it and it is sometimes referred to as The Lair.   Dave’s  closet and bathroom are off of this room.  The walls show off some of his favorite architectural scenes and the bookshelves store his favorite mystery books. There I have my sewing machine and table,  patterns, wool for felting, felting needles and tools, as well as sewing books & doll magazines.

I restarted my doll collection after I gained a granddaughter, so I have my doll collection in a display case in the bedroom.  Dave built a play scale (not miniature) doll house for my granddaughter Julia and me.   When she comes over we play elaborate games with my dolls, and a few that I bought for her.

This doll collecting led to another mini-hobby–buying and selling dolls and doll stuff on eBay.  That endeavor has gone into semi-retirement, although I did enjoy it.  I had many business writing experiences creating descriptions for dolls, as well as reformulating my shipping and return policy. I also resold online most of the hardback fiction that I bought and hadn’t passed on to friends and family so that we would have room for other Stuff.  Our new neighborhood library, conveniently located several blocks away, sees a lot of us now!

For the last few weeks Dave and I have been reorganizing and storing my cloth and yarn stash since he has moved his office/studio to the basement.  Now that he is a retired–but still open to options–architect, we reshuffled his Stuff, my Stuff and our whole living space.  Most of my teaching materials and supplies are long gone.

During this next phase of both our lives, and the lives of friends and family who have retired, we have noticed that retirement isn’t easy on a number of levels.  My father said that you have to prepare for it, but I’m not sure that is really possible for everyone.  Most people don’t realize that retirement can feel like being “side-lined”, whether you chose to retire or were forced into it–with tinfoil parachutes, as my sister-in-law called her sudden forced retirement not long ago.

Even though I wanted to retire, to start something new, I still felt at loose ends.   My job had defined my daily parameters with schedules and requirements, so I was ill-equipped to delineate my own timefor a long time.  Then there was always the question of where to spend my time.  I had whole days to “squander,” which didn’t feel right to me.  I was flighty and unfocused.  It has taken years to work my way through all that I thought I wanted to do and find what fits my evolving interests.

I know I am a work-in-progress, just like the two sweaters I am knitting.  I work awhile, tear out a few rows, re-knit them and add that many more.  I’m counting on the sweaters being done long before I am!