Wednesday, January 17, 2007

In the moment

Dad spent time in the hospital in Fall, 2000. He had a heart attack the night before classes were due to begin, so I skipped a majority of that first week as I spent time in a large structure downtown, waiting for Dad to get better after an emergency angioplasty that had left him with about 75% functionality in his heart.

He had been on a ventilator since his procedure performed late Monday night and lasting into Tuesday morning. He had since opened his eyes and watched us as we spoke to him. Would squeeze our hands tightly as he cried upon seeing us after we’d been gone a short time. He hated being attached to machines though and would often seek attention to motion at the tube down his throat. He’d make a face and gesture that he wanted it out. We’d tell him we knew – that we were asking people – that we’d have them remove it as soon as possible.

I entered the room one morning after spending the night at home – I curled around our german shepherd and accepted the comfort of her dense coat and sympathetic personality. I woke on the living room floor, the same spot as I’d knelt then laid flat in order to cry. I showered and changed clothes, then went back to the hospital to the tiny room with a single glass wall opposite the one containing a window. Mom was slumped over in a chair, sleeping fitfully, so I quietly moved toward the bed.

Dad’s eyes opened to regard me and he reached for my hand. I wrapped all 10 of my fingers around his palm, blinking back tears as I squeezed.

“Hi, Daddy.” I said softly. “Did you sleep?”

He shrugged in response. Motioned to the bustle taking place on the other side of his glass wall. I turned to look at the nurses and patients and doctors as morning rounds would soon begin.

“Are you feeling any better this morning?” I asked. He shook his head just a little and motioned to his mouth. “I know you don’t like the tube.” I said gently. “I think they’re going to take it out today. I’ll ask when we see the doctor.” He nodded and closed his eyes, opening them only to cough. I kept one of my hands on his and brushed away tears with another.

“Just breathe.” I said. “That’s all you have to do right now. Pull air in, then push it out. Don’t fight the machine – just let it help you breathe.” I waited until he closed his eyes then let my own drift shut. I matched the rhythm of my breathing to his and just focused on the soft sounds as our lungs took in oxygen.

In utter helplessness, we spent time with God. Not praying with words – at least I didn’t – but standing in His presence as I felt Him match his breathing to ours as we stood in a CICU room on a sunny morning in late August. In those minutes, I wasn’t worried about when the tube would come out, though I hoped it would be soon. I didn’t think about where I should be at school. I had no worry for Brother as he slept in a waiting room full of strangers down the hall. I didn’t wonder when the nurses would be in to check on us. All we had to do was breathe. The rest would figure itself out and when the time came to act, I would somehow know what to do.

I was reminded of those moments as I listened to Prayer on my commute to and from work today. God’s mercy flows from the highest point to the lowest. Sometimes our strength separates us from His power and when we are the most needy is often when we can access the most help. It’s not a how-to manual on prayer, but rather a set of explanations on how prayer is considered so important in people’s lives, yet is often such an unsatisfying activity. I like it – I needed to hear it. I think I need to focus on the given moment more and the overall goal a bit less. In these days – when I’m inexplicably struggling pretty damn hard – I just need to breathe. And focus on the little moments that make up a day.

Before Work
I had a few errands to run this morning. My garbage service irritated me before Christmas, so I let them know – quiet haughtily, actually – that I no longer wished to work with them. The dump isn’t far from my home, so I would take care of my trash on my own. It’s rather inconvenient though. Smelly. I put it off until I really must remove my garbage, so I am – as Friend pointed out – punishing myself far more than I am my former garbage people.

“Is there a place for aluminum cans?” I asked the man who supervises when I arrived this morning. He always sits on a stool behind the middle of the green dumpsters. The far left one is for cardboard, then there are two for standard garbage. I had two small bags of garbage, a tiny bag of cardboard, then another bag of diet soda cans. I had properly placed all but the aluminum.

“Are they empty?” He asked, and when I nodded, he tapped a plastic bin in front of him. “Right here.” He advised and I reached for the bag in my trunk, emptying it where directed, then smiled and offered my thanks.

He just stays there – dawn to dusk. Five days a week. Watching people drive in and leave what they no longer want. Enforces the organizational structure. Answers questions when needed. But mostly he sits peacefully and watches. Smiling when smiled at, observing quietly otherwise. I sometimes have seen him get up to push a button that compacts the trash, making room for others to leave their items. Other times he’ll poke with a stick to settle the bags more securely.

After stopping to get gas, I proceeded to work. The bus driver saw me moving across the parking lot rather quickly in my brown flats with their pretty bows. She pulled around the corner and just as I sighed, thinking I’d have to wait until the next one came around, she opened the door and paused as I walked faster to meet her.

“Thank you.” I said breathlessly as I boarded the empty vehicle, took a seat in the front row and crossed my legs. We picked up two more passengers, making three other stops where nobody got on or off. She smiled and said “you’re welcome” when I expressed my gratitude again before departing at my destination.

Life is monotonous, I decided. Poke at then compact the garbage. Drive the same route in the same campus to take people from their cars to their offices. Re-do experiments and re-write papers. Just because it’s superficially boring or seems pointless, I decided, doesn’t mean it’s not valuable in the larger scheme. If you do a job where you can think your thoughts and provide for your family, that’s profoundly important. In recognizing that for others, perhaps there’s hope in seeing it in myself.

“If you don’t have anything to talk about in therapy,” I wrote after I arrived at my desk this morning, “ask about the names of the chairs.”

“I didn’t have to ask.” She reported an hour later. I eagerly await her description of the event and hope it arrives soon.

“You’re not supposed to cry in yellow.” I told her after she gave me meager details. “If you view my diagram, I think you’ll see that crying should be done in Dark Blue. I spent most of my time in Dark Blue. Yellow just felt…foreign. What God wants me to be – this blissful creature in tune and at peace with everything around her? Doesn’t sound like me.”

That's reason enough to dread therapy tomorrow, I think.

I greeted people as they entered the conference room, then selected two slices of pizza. Shaking my head over the grease content, I found a napkin and viewed the title slide of someone’s PowerPoint presentation.

“I wanted everyone to introduce themselves to Dawn.” Boss said from his seat at my right. “She should be here soon, then we’ll get started.”

She entered the room and smiled as we all dutifully offered our names and areas of specialization. She sat at the end of the table near the door and I turned my back to her as I viewed the screen on which the presentation would be projected. I tried mightily to focus my attention, but had only moments of success.

In truth, I’ve spent some time lately thinking about Winnie. How she’ll fit in my book, how so much potential was lost, how I can’t really be angry at her for leaving so I’ll instead focus that disappointment on the one who did decide to go. I wondered how her family did this Christmas. If their loss occupied all of their thoughts or if they found ways to enjoy old traditions while incorporating new ones. I prayed they were well.

When the lights came on and the projector was turned off, I turned to face the center of the table. When we were all dismissed and rose to leave, I took a breath and went to say hello to Dawn. She is – in many ways – the opposite of Winnie. Smaller – in stature and in spirit. She’s quiet and polite, her smile is more refined than joyful. I couldn’t picture her admiring my pretty shoes, sharing her struggles to make me feel less alone or coming to distract me before I had a talk. Winnie left an empty space. Dawn won’t fill it. She will, however, make room for herself, which is exactly as it should be.

“Have you moved in yet?” I asked her. She’ll be using a desk diagonal from my own in the large-ish room I use.

“Only some.” She responded. “I brought in a clock, but the rest of my stuff is at home.” I smiled and shared stories of the multiple times I’ve moved since my arrival at my current institution and told her to let me know if she needed anything. I went back to the office to see her clock – it was shaped like a pink flower as it hung prettily on the far wall. I looked around at my items – the teddy bear holding a felt flower, my magnet toy, the violet, my calendar of North American landscapes, my photos of family and friends. I liked her clock, I decided, and told her so.

We talked about her project as she sat at her desk. I moved some journals out of a file drawer for her. They weren’t mine so I put them in the library. When she asked about being a woman in an all-male department, I paused to consider her seriously. I offered an honest opinion on the subject and wondered if she’d disagree when she’d been here for some time. I listened to her teaching philosophies and her reasons for returning to research. I laughed and admitted I have no idea when she asked what I’d be doing when I left here. I showed her where the office supplies were kept and asked if she needed post-its, pens, pencils, paper, paper clips, or any other item beginning with a p and belonging on a desk.

I sent an email to Maria – she’ll be using the desk directly behind mine. My little office is filling with people. I think that can only be good. I sent a summary of Project H to the penguin. I looked at an article from GradStudent (already in my office) and pondered a statistic with which I’m unfamiliar. I did some reading and looking and we talked about what we thought these people were trying to measure.

Driving home, I listened to more thoughts on prayer. Thought of standing next to my dad and helping him breathe. Decided that being in the moment – accepting when there was humor or joy or breathtaking pain – was a good strategy for now. At the very least, today was better than yesterday. And that’s something.


TitleTroubles said...

No reason to dread therapy tomorrow. As I said, he's looking forward to seeing you. *evil grin*

But you were mean to me today, so I may make you continue to wait for more than meager details. So there.

Lucy said...

I'm glad today was a better day. *hugs*

The Contessa said...

Your hospital and prayer stories brought back memories of my dad who I lost in 2003. We had many such days like yours and many unspoken prayers. Just focusing on the breathing is meditation in it's own way. Matching pace with another person's breathing is a good exercize in peace as well. I love your spin on it - particularly as I have read some wonderful current stories of your dad and am so thankful he's come through that time safely.

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