The Fairness of Life

Khaleesi of our dog pack

Khaleesi of our dog pack

When I was 16, my  mother told  me that life wasn’t fair. Until that point I’d understood the lessons learned growing up poor but, at some point at least, I thought the scales would balance out and occasionally the good things in life would come my way.

My mother made it clear that was not to be.

Still, I went on to live a good life with ups and downs, joys and sorrows, and though luck always went to someone else, I was okay with that.

Until my daughter’s death.

Words can’t contain the enormity of the hole left behind by a child’s death. As a writer, I’ve spent the days since October 20, 2014 searching for the ones that will comfort me late at night when I lie in bed trying to find sleep instead of heartache. I haven’t found them yet.

In my parent’s grief group I hear the stories of other mothers and fathers who, too, struggle to get through each day while mourning the loss of their child. We talk about the boxes of belongings we can’t bear to part with. The items of clothing and jewelry we wear in a vain attempt to keep our dead child close. And then, the ones who have survived this pain the longest tell us it will never go away, but it will change.

Some day, they say, the smiles will outnumber the tears.

While I wait for that change to come, I remind  myself of the 27 years I had with her. Her exuberance for life. Her love of her family. The way she adored her dogs. How her smile brightened a room. How her tears could break your heart.  Her persistence. Her love of chocolate and Starbucks and Sonic. Her ability to be both wise and foolish in the same instant. Her transition into a woman who had been disappointed and had her heart broken more than a few times, but kept trying.

In my mind, I knew the adult she would turn out to be. I’ll never see that played out.

Life is unfair like that.

But  I also had 27 years to love her and that was worth every bit of pain I’ve suffered since her death. Maybe life isn’t so unfair after all.

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Alana Concetta Carpenter 8/17/87 to 10/20/14

christmas part deux and brunch 004

Alana and sister Sarah Christmas 2010

Alana and sister Sarah Christmas 2010

Alana Carpenter on whale watch with her sister, Sarah

Alana Carpenter on whale watch with her sister, Sarah

Alana Carpenter at Calyx Farms.

Alana Carpenter at Calyx Farms.

Alana Carpenter at Greenville Sipping Safari

Alana Carpenter at Greenville Sipping Safari

Alana Carpenter with family at Greenville Zoo

Alana Carpenter with family at Greenville Zoo

“Sometimes, when chaos burns like wildfire around us, we have no other choice but to fall in love with the warmth.” Christopher Poindexter

Alana Concetta Carpenter was our warmth.

My Runaway Heart

Have you ever loved someone so much that you would suffer any indignity to remain with them? Someone you loved so fully you’d forgive them anything? Someone you couldn’t imagine living without?

I have. In time, I hope someone will love me with that level of intensity.

Leaving a relationship like that is hard. The mind is a great deceiver when the heart is involved. Sometimes to protect ourselves, we have to flee. And that’s what I did.

How many miles do you need to put between yourself and your broken heart? In my case it’s 1027 miles. That’s how far I had to run to allow my mind to accept what my heart had known for over five years.

It’s been a tough year. So tough that it’s been difficult to write and too dangerous to blog. Most of the venomous, mental vomit I’ve had to spew has been confined to composition books inked with my favorite Pilot G2 pens rather than committed to the internet to live on forever, a toxic reminder of a difficult time. Because even though I know leaving was the right thing, late at night my inner mean girl whispers that if I’d been stronger, I could have stayed and detached rather than running.

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But in leaving I found boldness and courage and the opportunity to remake my life into something I’m proud of. I’ve found that the things my old life told me I sucked at aren’t true. I can finish things. I can stick it out. I can take care of myself financially. I can be alone. I can make friends. I’m not great at everything I attempt, but I can ask for help. I make mistakes. I recover from them.

I’ve found my voice.

It amazes me how much of my old life was based on fear: fear of rejection, fear of failure, fear of looking foolish, fear of being thought of as weak. Now I base my decision on my needs, and if things don’t work out the way I want them to, I make a new plan.

I’ve learned that even the worst plan can be reworked.

Most of all, I’ve realized that there is nothing worse than being with someone that makes you feel alone.

I left New Hampshire because I was weak. In leaving I discovered how strong I really am.

 

 

A Farewell to Dad

He wasn’t the best father, but he was my father.  When my sister called and asked me to accompany her and my brother to his deathbed, I went, even though I hadn’t spoken to my dad in 22 years. I did it, I thought, for my siblings. Turns out I really did it for me.

Our family picture after the death of my oldest brother, Rod.

Our family picture after the death of my oldest brother, Rod.

When we entered the room where my dad lay dying, he looked exactly like his father had 22 years before. His head, covered with silvery gray hair, was thrown back on the pillow, his mouth gaped open, and harsh, irregular breathing filled the room.  Though the nurses said he could hear us, he was unresponsive.

Unlike my grandfather, who died at home in his living room, my father began his death in an intensive medical care unit. Outside the unit a sign warned us to wear masks due to a flu outbreak.  He was on contact precautions so before we entered his room we added gowns and gloves to the masks that covered our faces. The constant beep of monitors and the intrusion of nurses to empty his catheter, titrate his medications, and turn and position him widened the space between us and him.

It was hard to break that space.

The death of a parent, even a parent that never embraced the traditional role and remained more of a Peter Pan man-child than a King Triton type of dad, is hard. When it’s a father you’ve only seen from a distance for the past 22 years, one you’ve ducked down grocery store aisles to avoid and maintained at least a one room separation from at family gatherings,  it’s a little harder.

In Al-Anon they say one can detach with love or detach with dynamite. I’d always seen my choice, dynamite, as irrevocable.  As I smoothed his hair, wrapped his hand around mine, and reminisced about our shared past, I realized I was wrong.

Even though it was too late to repair the damage done to our relationship, it wasn’t too late to remember the good times we once shared.

In the time we spent alone, I played him the songs we knew together and the ones I’d grown to love since then. Kenny Chesney sang “Boys of Summer” in the background and I talked about fall in New Hampshire, football games my older brother played in, and towns we had rivalries with. Willie Nelson crooned “Always on my Mind” while I told him about the toast  my youngest gave at her sister’s wedding and how it reminded me of him. Craig Morgan sang “Almost Home” as I retold stories of the friends and family that had predeceased him. Over and over, I told him it was okay to let go.

But, he hung on.

The palliative care nurse practitioner said he wouldn’t survive once they stopped the medications, but the medications stopped and he didn’t. Then they said the ambulance ride to the hospice might kill him. One last road trip, I murmured as the stretcher rolled into the Florida sun and bumped up into the ambulance, yet still he hung on.  We can keep him pain-free, they said at the hospice, but it might hasten his death. It doesn’t matter, we told them, yet in spite of the pain and anti anxiety medicine, he breathed on. We sat by his bedside and laughed, prayed, told stories, cried. We watched him take one agonizing breath after another and we held our breath each time they stopped. But he kept breathing.

It wasn’t until late the second night, with all of his children around his bed, that he opened his eyes, took one last breath, and died.

My clearest memory of childhood is my father’s lectures at the dinner table. He’d tell us look around this table, these are the only people you can trust. These are the only people who love you unconditionally and will love you even if you grow up to be a murderer, a rapist, or a thief. For years I joked about his low expectations for us instead of focusing on the other part, how much he loved us and how much he wanted us to love and look out for each other.

Perhaps he hung on to make sure we’d learned the lessons he’d taught us. Even me, the daughter who had ignored him for 22 years.

If we get to make our own heaven, I have no doubt he’s in a place where the Jameson flows freely and the stories and laughter never stop and he is surrounded by people who love him.

He wasn’t the best father, but he was my father, and, in the end, I loved him still.

Things to Worry About

The other night I lay in bed worrying about all of the out-of-control aspects of my life. My recent move to South Carolina, current unemployment, houseboat in need of repairs, and car problems have pushed my shoulders to a permanent position slightly below my ears and caused the left side of my jaw to clench. As a nurse, I know that stress can cause stomach problems, insomnia, elevated blood pressure, and chest pain. Lately, I’ve had them all.

My daughter restricts me to only worrying about three problems each day, but even the process of choosing three problems to focus on leads to palpitations and emotional paralysis. Is it any wonder I find it hard to sit down and write? Any surprise that after three weeks my clothes remain in a suitcase rather than hung up in my closet? I think not.

I’m embarrassed to admit (but some of you won’t be surprised to hear) that some of my anxiety is irrational. It’s one thing to be stressed about finding a plumber to replace a hot water heater on a houseboat, another to worry that poisonous insects will squirm up through the air conditioning vents and crawl into your ears while you sleep. Right? It’s normal to worry you’ll encounter a loose dog while walking your dogs and have to break up a dog fight, slightly crazy to think a black snake (googling a picture will haunt my dreams so I imagine an eight foot long snake as thick as my arm) will be lying in wait on the side of the road and attack me. My daughter tells me it must be hard to live in a world where I’m always waiting for the worst to happen. It is.

Pharmaceuticals aren’t helping nor is alcohol. I could try meditation, but worry some creature will scurry over me while I’m lying prone. In my mind, my South Carolina lakeside home is as dangerous as the Florida Everglades at night. That sums up my skewed thought processes.

In desperation, I’m trying a new strategy to deal with my stress. Instead of agonizing over it, I write it down on a white board titled “things to worry about.”  My list covers everything from a caterer to fire ants. It’s a grand conglomeration of every single thing I can think to worry about, no matter how insignificant or psycho it seems. It guarantees, unless someone sneaks into my house and erases it, that I don’t have to keep all of my worries at the forefront of my thoughts. Instead they are readily available and easily added on to.

Things to worry about. Must add snakes.

Things to worry about. Must add snakes.

Silly? Perhaps. Effective? Hell, yes. Since I’ve started the list, my muscles have untightened, my sleep improved, and I’ve even managed to pump out a blog post. Now if only I could make money off my brilliant idea…

The Case of the Dirty Dentist

English: Putting toothpaste on a toothbrush. T...

English: Putting toothpaste on a toothbrush. The toothpaste is Crest Pro-Health Clean Cinnamon, 0.454% stannous fluoride, 0.16% w/v fluoride ion. Deutsch: Zahnpasta auf eine Zahnbürste auftragen. Русский: Выдавливание зубной пасты из тюбика на зубную щётку (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Most of us wouldn’t think twice before checking that our silverware is clean at a restaurant.  But, when we sit in the dentist’s chair nervously eying the tray of gleaming stainless-steel instruments laid out beside us, we don’t pick them up and make sure they’re clean. We rely on our dental professionals to sterilize anything going into our mouth. That reliance may be a mistake.

Last week the Board of Dentistry performed a surprise inspection of oral surgeon Dr. Scott Harrington‘s Oklahoma office and found numerous problems with sterilization of instruments. The good doctor’s response when questioned?

“Dr. Harrington referred to his staff regarding all sterilization and drug procedures in his office,” the complaint read. “He advised, ‘They take care of that. I don’t.'” His attitude seems to be that not infecting his patients with blood-borne diseases is someone else’s job.

Other issues that came to light during the inspection included the doctors reuse of needles, disregard of expiration dates (one bottle of morphine expired in 1993) and his use of unlicensed assistants to perform tasks only a licensed dentist should perform, such as giving IV sedation.

Now over 7000 patients will undergo  testing to see if they contracted hepatitis or HIV due to the oral surgeon’s noncompliance with basic infection control practices.  In the meantime, don’t be fooled into thinking this is an isolated problem caused by one errant doctor.  On March 22, 2013 the Rhode Island Board of Dentistry temporarily shut a practice down after finding debris on multiple instruments in ‘sterile’ packages in exam rooms. No word on whether that dentist took responsibility for his office practice.

But, speaking of responsibility, how much responsibility do patients have to protect themselves from healthcare acquired infections? People have been trained not to touch someone else’s blood unless they wear gloves. People are encouraged to use barrier devices, such as condoms, during sex to prevent STD’s. Should our public health officials start a campaign to encourage patients to protect themselves during invasive procedures such as dental procedures, colonoscopies, and injections? If so, how can that be accomplished?

Recent articles have suggested patients ask dentists to prove they’re following guidelines in the care and maintenance of sterilization machines.  They’ve also advised patients to request to inspect the instruments prior to being removed from their sterile packages.  Other tips are to watch the dentist’s glove use, look at the overall office cleanliness, and quiz the dentist and staff as to how they handle reusable instruments. All excellent points, but it also requires a level of doctor-patient transparency and discussion that’s not usually seen. More importantly, how is your dentist going to react to his judgement and cleanliness being questioned?

In my work in the healthcare field, even the idea of a patient (or another healthcare team member) questioning whether someone has washed their hands before patient contact is a source of controversy. In a Swiss study, 76% of patients felt uncomfortable asking a nurse if she’d washed her hands and 77% felt uncomfortable asking a physician the same question. If patients don’t feel comfortable asking a simple question like that, do we really expect them to ask complicated, technical questions about sterilization procedures? Asking for clean instruments should be as easy as asking for a new knife or fork at a restaurant when the one on the table is dirty, but it isn’t.

English: South China Sea (May 16, 2006) - Hosp...

English: South China Sea (May 16, 2006) – Hospital Corpsman Steffon Corna sets up dental tools for a tooth extraction in the Dental Department aboard the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72). Lincoln and embarked Carrier Air Wing Two (CVW-2) are currently underway in the Western Pacific operating area. U.S. Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate Airman Apprentice Brandon C. Wilson (RELEASED) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Will I stop going to my dentist? No. Will I ask to inspect the instruments for debris before my next procedure or cleaning. Yes. Hopefully he’ll understand, but if he doesn’t, I’ll tell him I’m holding him to the same standards I’d hold a restaurant to. I’m sure he doesn’t like eating off dirty forks any more than I do.