People often use the phrase “life happens” as a sort of catch-all explanation for why things don’t go as planned. The implication is that life continually happens to us, the passive, unwitting masses. The actor Jim Carey has suggested that life actually happens for us. What I want to know is what do you do when life repeatedly and relentlessly attacks you from all sides? Huh? What do you do?
This story begins in late October, when my 95-year-old mother-in-law suffered what appears to have been a mini-stroke caused by multiple occlusions, which had until then gone undetected. Her son, a retired healthcare worker with whom she lives, rushed her to a local hospital ER, where she was diagnosed and admitted for treatment. Sometime after that, Mom was transferred to a rehab center for physical and occupational therapy.
A few weeks later, my brother-in-law and his wife were scheduled to be at a family wedding in North Carolina. The wedding was to take place on the same day as my daughter’s “big second wedding reception,” but I’ll get to that later. Our intent had been (a) for my wife to care for her mom in her brother’s absence, (b) to involve Mom in our daughter’s big celebration, and (c) to give Mom a nice Thanksgiving. In one fell swoop, all of this had become uncertain at best.
In the days that followed, after one of several visits with her mother at the rehab up in Lindenhurst, my dear wife suffered an unfortunate accident while getting into her car in a near-empty parking lot after dark. The result was an awkward fall that resulted in multiple fractures to her left leg and foot. She texted me from the emergency room of a hospital in Libertyville, “Please don’t get mad,” and proceeded to tell me what had happened. Our son, who lives in Rogers Park on the far north side of Chicago, miles closer than my own home, drove up to offer assistance. The medical staff at the hospital in question — and there seems to be a great deal to question — saw fit to splint my wife’s leg, told her not to put any weight on it, and promptly discharged her. Eventually, our son drove her home.
Meanwhile back in Plainfield, while our son was driving his mother home, our daughter, with the help of her husband and a friend, set up a corner of our TV room with a mini fridge, commode, food, beverages, and other accouterments, with the hope that my injured wife would be able to make do without risk of injuring herself further. In no time at all, it became clear that this was not to be the case. The following day, we were all working together to seek more competent medical attention for my wife.
I should mention that while all this is going on, I had arranged to work remotely in order to ensure that Karen would never be left alone in such a vulnerable state. I can only thank God and my employer, a family-oriented company not quite like any other I have experienced, that this was even possible. Even so, life just kept right on happening. I had been working away on an almost calm Thursday afternoon when the news came to me via email that my mentor of the past four years, also my direct superior, partner in crime, and friend, had “parted ways” with our company. This seemed odd to me, as only hours earlier I had neither seen nor heard any indication from the man that he had any intention of executing such a departure anytime soon. Hmmm. As is my nature, I reached out to people. No information was volunteered and I did not pry. I just let it go at that and went back to shouldering life as it continued happening. And believe me, you ain’t seen nothing yet.
A day later, a competent orthopedic surgeon examined my wife’s injuries, gave a rather alarming assessment of the “cookie cutter splint” that had been applied at the previous facility, scheduled urgent weekend surgery two days hence, and having declared that my wife should never have been discharged in her vulnerable condition, sent her to the emergency room across the street from his office.
Sometime after 3:00 AM the following morning, Karen was admitted to Silver Cross Hospital. One day later, on a Saturday morning down in surgery prep, we were informed that due to a testing oversight, surgery would have to be postponed. To say that Karen was displeased doesn’t quite cut it. Because she could not be safely discharged, my dear wife was now stuck in the hospital pending that surgery. Meanwhile, our daughter’s second wedding reception, two years in the making, was scheduled to take place that very evening.
You see, it’s like this. Two years ago, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, our daughter got married. Teresa had always wanted a big feast of a wedding, like Karen and I had enjoyed so many years ago, but the pandemic restrictions rendered that impossible. At one point, Teresa and her husband-to-be had created a spectrum of contingency plans, ranging from a restricted ceremony with the two of them, a priest, and a witness at the low end, to a modest celebration of up to maybe 50 people at the high end. The latter is what took place, but the whole time, they vowed to follow up with a full-blown reception the following year, after all the restrictions had been lifted. Unfortunately, the following year still held some restrictions and much uncertainty. And so it came to pass that 2022 would be the year of the big second reception.
Karen had been in tears when she realized that she would not be attending our daughter’s big reception but nobody was willing to place her in harm’s way for the sake of attending a party. Still, we all vowed to do the next best thing. If we couldn’t bring Karen to the celebration, we would bring the celebration to Karen! All night long, an entire team was busy capturing elements of the celebration and streaming them to my wife. And believe me, it was a hell of a time. Being surrounded by friends and family enabled me to set aside all my concerns of the day, if only for the moment.
The following Tuesday, we were back in line for surgery, only this time it happened. Without going into the sordid details, the surgery ended up being every bit as involved as it had promised to be, involving substantial hardware to compensate for one repair that would not be possible. Still, it had gone smoothly, the surgeon assured me. As expected, there would be a lengthy recovery ahead.
Hours had passed before I was able to see Karen again. When they brought her back to her room, my wife looked like she had seen too many miles of bad road. I opted to let her rest and went to run all the errands she had assigned to me prior. By the time I returned to the hospital that evening, Karen was her old self again, with color in her face, a twinkle in her eye, and that unmistakable sense of humor that we have so long shared between us. We still had no solid indication of how much longer she would be in the hospital or exactly where she would go next.
Two days later, happy Thanksgiving! Karen was still in the hospital. Administrative red tape, undoubtedly lengthened by the holiday weekend, prevented us from knowing with certainty where she would be going from there, but we knew it would not be home. Based on recommendations from the social worker and from our primary care doctor, Karen selected a rehab facility close to home. But there was paperwork to be filed and then reviewed by somebody, somewhere, before we would have any kind of confirmation of the transfer.
Long before any of this had transpired, our son John had begun scheming an “event within the event” to take place on Thanksgiving Day, which would be hosted for the first time by our daughter Teresa. John assembled an entire team of accomplices, all working together below the radar of his significant other, Emma. Even her mom was in on it, agreeing to fly in from California the night before and be snuck into the house that morning, under cover of carefully orchestrated distractions. At the appointed moment, everybody came together and witnessed a beautiful and most eloquent proposal, all live-streamed to my wife’s hospital room, of course. There were many teary eyes, my own included.
Life, which always happens, had begun to cascade. The following morning, Emma would depart Illinois, first for her home in California and shortly thereafter to Honolulu, to start her latest job assignment. John will follow her sometime in January. Between now and then he will get their belongings moved from their Chicago apartment and move back home for a few weeks, along with their dog and cat. Then he, too, will be off to Hawaii.
But wait, there’s more! I woke up the Friday after Thanksgiving with telltale sinus issues that seemed to indicate I would be coming down with a cold soon. I was already committed to making a run up to see my mother-in-law and bring her some fresh laundry that I’d done a few days earlier. Not being able to make that run on Thanksgiving had killed me inside but with everything else afoot, it was impossible, simply too much — and I was the very last to admit it.
I stopped in Rogers Park to pick up John on my way up. During my last visit to see Mom, when I had picked up her laundry, she wasn’t sure who I was. I tried to help her remember, unsuccessfully, and went home feeling so deflated and alone. My son had this knack for drawing a reaction from his grandma, even if she wasn’t sure who he was, and so he gladly came along. We did better together than I ever would have on my own. I am grateful.
By all rights, this should be the end of my story and it would have been more than enough at that. But you see, life doesn’t just happen. Life continues to happen, sometimes relentlessly.
By Saturday morning, my “cold” symptoms were much worse and on top of all else, my senses of smell and taste had completely disappeared. After more than two years of testing negative for the COVID-19 virus, I had become convinced I was a “no-vid,” incapable of becoming infected. But my God, I had just spent a day surrounded by people celebrating Thanksgiving and then gone to visit my 95-year-old dear mother-in-law, stopping from time to time to visit my health-impaired wife in the hospital! Could there possibly be a worse time to contract this damned thing?
Of course you know what happened next. Not just one but two tests came back positive and I was instructed to quarantine for five days, to inform anyone whom I might have exposed, and to inform my employer and ask once again to continue working remotely. Please pause for a moment, look back on everything I have just shared with you, and try to imagine what this task might look like.
I do think I may be the most fortunate man alive. In addition to the outpouring of sympathy and understanding from my wife, my family, and my friends came nothing but solid support from my employer of almost exactly four years and a plan for moving forward from all concerned. And this is exactly what has enabled me to continue on in the face of life as it happens.
Now I am healing. My wife, still in the hospital, waits patiently for her rehab assignment. Various family members and friends are dealing with cold, flu, and covid infections, not all of which are related yet we recognize that we are related and hold each other up as we move forward. We have only one rule and that is to never ask, “What next?”
Unlike most of my stories, this one has no clear ending. Life happens, sometimes all at once. The thing is, life will keep right on happening until it ends. Whether you believe it is happening to you or for you, what you do with this ever-unfolding life is up to you.
Me, I’m still here, still standing, still moving forward. It’s been an interesting few weeks, though. And if you’re still here with me, reading along, thanks for hanging with me.
Some theologians profess that God permits evil in this world in order to bring about a greater good. I promise you that I am not here to argue theology but please bear this point in mind as I share a couple of stories with you because it may become pertinent. Now let me be the first to admit that I am no angel. In fact there are at least a few people out there who probably suspect the opposite about me.
From as far back as I can remember, I have always been a spiritual sort but despite this, I have repeatedly fallen in and out of conformity to the practices — and presumed good graces — of organized religion, specifically Roman Catholicism. I am writing this largely for the benefit of my children and any of their subsequent offspring that may follow, but the rest of you may be amused as well. Let’s talk.
I think I was about fourteen years old when I began to have feelings for this girl from Indiana whose mom was a work associate and good friend of an aunt of mine. By way of the ongoing friendship between those adults, “Agnes” (not her name) and I would meet from time to time and, being close in age, would get paired together. I saw my first major rock concert with her at a stadium in Bloomington, Indiana. We even went on a few trips together. We were too young to know much about love but at that age, the hormones were doing their thing and, well, suffice it to say that we liked each other and never hesitated to express our affections when we were without adult supervision.
One autumn day, I was tagging along with my aunt to run errands in her 1975 Caprice Classic station wagon. As is often the case with young teens, my mind was on that girl. At some point, my aunt commented, “You really like Agnes, don’t you.”
I responded without even thinking, “Sure!” I will never forget what my aunt said next.
“Well, just make sure you keep it friends because her family would never allow you to become more than that.”
I had no clue what she what talking about, so I asked why. The wind had already been taken from my sails and the conversation that ensued twisted my gut into knots. My aunt explained that the girl’s family was Serbian and they belonged to the Serbian Orthodox Church. I hadn’t even known what a Serb was up until then, but I’d had Greek friends since childhood and therefore assumed that the Serbian Orthodox Church must be similar to their Greek Orthodox Church. Okay, fair enough, but that didn’t explain why Agnes couldn’t be my girlfriend. She couldn’t be my girlfriend because of her religion? Why not? I’d had a non-Catholic girlfriend before (my interest in girls started very early) with no issues.
Well let me tell you, the answers to my first questions may have unsettled me, but my aunt’s answers to that last one positively enraged me. Like the Greek, Serb culture is intertwined with their church and to keep that, they tend to marry within their own nationality and religion. I had naively assumed that religion was supposed to bring people together. You know, love thy neighbor and all that good stuff. But here it was, dividing people, just as it has done through the ages. The very idea that I could be declared off limits to a young lady because I was Italian and Catholic floored me.
And from that point, my opinions on religion — not just my own but religion in general — was forever changed. I began to question everything and the more I questioned, the farther I distanced myself. By the time I was halfway through college, I had become a professed agnostic. Not the most welcome thing to be at a Jesuit university, but there I was. And while I was still very spiritual at that point, by choice I was not practicing any religion.
During my last year of undergraduate study, something unusual happened. I became involved with a young lady named Karen, whom I’d known since the start of my freshman year. We had never dated each other nor shown the least inclination to do so. But the circles in which we ran intersected from time to time and on one magic night, something happened that would change the course of history for both of us: I kissed her.
I couldn’t tell you why I did it. I’m not sure I know now. We were sitting in a neighborhood bar frequented by students who lived nearby. We were there with a group of friends, not as a couple, but found ourselves sitting together after everyone else had left the table to play pool, load the jukebox, talk to other patrons, etc. I have no idea what we’d been talking about. I know there was a pause in the conversation and during that pause, I leaned forward and kissed her. Something I cannot define moved me to act in that moment. That’s all I know.
I froze, realizing what I’d just done and not knowing what to expect in response. Karen looked at me and without batting an eye, said, “Oh, come on, you can do better than that.”
I felt like I had slipped in to a dream sequence but not being one to ignore such a challenge, I did indeed try to do better. Apparently I did alright that second time because we continued on from there. By the end of that evening, I went home with my mind swimming in a whole new sea of possibilities. There was only one problem: That young lady was already engaged to another and everybody knew it, including me.
What the hell had I been thinking! We barely knew each other! She was scheduled to be married to another guy! Anybody else in his right mind would have run like hell, had he been foolhardy enough to do what I’d done. But no. I saw her again. And again. And again. The very idea scared the living crap out of her at first. She literally ran away from me the day after that first kiss, as soon as I gave credence to doing anything more than forgetting that kiss had even happened. But I ran out after her and a few blocks later, as soon as I realized she could run faster and farther than me, I begged her to stop running and come back.
Had she kept going, that would have been the end of it then and there. Remember, we still didn’t know much about each other at that point, so going our separate ways shouldn’t have been a very difficult thing to do. But that’s not what happened. She stopped running. She walked back to me. Why? I can only suggest that we both saw something in each other from which we could not run, no matter how utterly wrong moving forward may have seemed to anyone else.
We continued talking. We started going places together. Hanging out together. Spending more and more time together in an effort to discover everything we possibly could about each other. Our relationship grew in all directions, at an astounding pace. At some point, she broke her engagement off with the other guy. That’s right, this lady walked away from a sure thing to take a chance on nothing but the strength of a possibility that we might have a future together.
Most people don’t know this part of my story. There was surely no reason to brag about it. I don’t even think I told my parents about this. Not all of it, anyway. And believe me, I was hated for this. Not by everybody, not even by all that you would have expected to hate me. But by some. Her fiancée, for sure, although he and I never saw each other after what happened. My regular friends seemed to take it all in stride. Karen’s parents and grandparents seemed relieved that her engagement was off, and they were friendly to me from the first time we met, but I’m not certain they saw me as having been the catalyst for that broken engagement.
You want to know who really hated me? Karen’s roommate, who was also engaged at the time. As I came to understand it, my very existence threatened everything that was supposed to be a certainty in her life. She thought Karen was off her rocker and likely told her so. Me, I held no grudge against the roommate. I even attended her wedding. But I don’t know whether her opinion of me ever changed.
To Karen’s fiancée, her roommate, and others like them, I was absolutely the bad guy. What I did was wrong, against the rules, from the very beginning! Why would I even think about doing such a thing? Maybe because I saw past what was apparent on the surface. Maybe we had both been driven by the force of love before either of us had even realized it.
In the end, despite Karen not being Catholic, we did get married, almost three years after that kiss from nowhere. Whatever it was that drew us toward each other with so much force was in fact real and had driven us forward. The greatest possibility came to fruition and we are still married more than thirty-five years later. We produced and raised two children, who are now adults themselves. They would not exist today had I not done the wrong thing so many years ago. I know ours was not exactly a storybook marriage by any stretch of the imagination, but it has been beautiful nonetheless.
But please know this: What we have today was never a sure thing at face value. It was only a sure thing in the realm of possibilities. It is also the product of some wrongdoing. But despite all this, had we not done what we did, there would be no story to tell, no thirty-five-year marriage, and no two grownup kids.
Some theologians profess that God permits evil in this world in order to bring about a greater good. All I can say in this regard is that not everything is as it appears to be. Am I the bad guy? According to some, yes. Would I do it again? Yes. Everything that happened was supposed to happen. This I believe to be true.
Sometimes when the spirit moves us with such force, we’ve just got to go with it.
My last post, My Apolitical Take on Masking, went over like a lead balloon with my readers. Okay, I get that. I’m neither a health and science writer nor a political writer, so that was a bit of a curveball. Fair enough.
These have been most unusual times for many of us, in so many ways. I have close friends who are not yet able to articulate their fears about what has been going on in their lives. I am sympathetic to them because I have things going on in my own life that I don’t talk about, either. Moreover, circumstances are such that I have a deal of free, solitary, discretionary time, during my evenings and weekends, that I assure you, I never wanted to have. But I have it. So I did what any writer would do… er. well, almost.
I’ve been taking a poetry class. Not so that I could begin spewing out love sonnets — although that would be something — but because I wanted to push my boundaries further with regard to the way I use words to convey not just thoughts and ideas but also emotions and sensory experiences. Poetry.
The course I’m taking recently had a session on metaphor and included a writing prompt on crafting a conceit, where the entire poem becomes an extended metaphor. My readers can breathe easy because I didn’t write a poem about masking. No, I wrote something I called The Ride. It did okay in peer review, so I thought I’d share it here.
Many years ago, I worked with a guy named Gene. A genuine, likable man, Gene had been the warehouse manager at a Chicago-based business where I ran purchasing, customer service, and marketing (it was a smaller company at the time). Our job roles were such that we were each constantly orchestrating projects and processes that affected the other.
Over the course of fourteen years, Gene and I came to know each other very well and we got along famously, yet it was inevitable that from time to time, one of us would do something that displeased the other, to put it mildly. Between the two of us, Gene was much more even-tempered. He was older and more experienced than me, plus he had survived a bleeding ulcer that nearly killed him. As such, he had learned to keep a more even keel, no matter what happened in the course of our day-to-day business dealings.
Back then, and for decades that followed, I was not nearly so even-keeled. Whenever I got angry, frustrated, or overwhelmed, it showed. It showed at once. You would see it in my eyes, a silent flare of intense, negative energy. For whatever reason, I continued to let things get to me and in no time at all, I was the one munching antacids like candy. Gene picked up on this and in his own simple-yet-subtle way, helped me avoid earning an ulcer of my own. How?
After a while, without explaining why he was doing so, Gene would use a code phrase to alert me that I was about to receive potentially upsetting news. Before delivering the blow, so to speak, he would look me in the eye, smile gently and say, “Now don’t get mad.” When he first began using this phrase, I would indeed get mad but after a while, I became conditioned to steel myself for whatever came out of his mouth next. Simple, right? But it worked.
To become frustrated, angry, upset, whatever, is an emotional response to some sort of stimulus. Whether that stimulus takes the form of an external event that actually happened or something that was merely imagined is quite immaterial. In either case, the stimulus is very real. And a negative response, especially one left unchecked, is rarely if ever a good thing for anyone involved.
Case in point, I have spent decades letting my emotional response be my first response in environments where individuals looked to me for leadership, support, and guidance. Bad idea. In doing so, I let them down every time. Mind you, I did no favors for myself, either. In letting my emotions get the best of me time and time again, I sabotaged my own career and probably derailed the career paths of a few others in the process.
It’s not only about business, either. I can recall another instance when, following an abrupt breakup with a person very near and dear to me, I woke up the next morning so emotionally distraught that I repeatedly (and quite painfully) sliced into my face while shaving, as the result of my inability to control my own shaking hands. Let those words sink in: my inability to control. To be controlled by one’s emotional state instead of the other way around, that’s such a bad place for anybody to be. To whose advantage my rage? I’ll tell you: nobody! Nobody at all.
Emotional responses, positive or negative, come from within. They have nothing to do with whatever happens — actual or perceived — out there. Good days, bad days, nice people, mean people, good fortune, misfortune, sunshine, rainstorms… stimulus. It’s all bullshit. Only you can determine your response. And your response is everything because that more than anything determines your results.
I’ve learned a little trick, if you’re interested, a four-step method to crafting a more structured response to whatever stimulus may hit you. I developed this with the help of two valued mentors and several published sources. It’s simple, yet effective. Check it out. Whenever you sense something causing you to lose your cool…
Stop — Slam on the brakes. Call a time out. Do whatever you have to do in order to prevent any reaction at all, if only for the moment.
Analyze — What has actually happened? Gather any real facts you have and weigh whatever options you can identify.
Choose — Out of all the responses you have available to you, which is the best choice? Act on it.
Close — After you have resolved whatever the problem was, then decide how you feel about it. By then, much if not all of that initial flare of emotions will have passed. And since the issue has already been acted upon, the world has already moved on. So should you.
Will this work every time? Unlikely. But with practice, we all learn. We can all get better.
Hey, have you stuck with me through this entire post? I’m grateful. Thank you for hanging with me.
On a cold winter night in the early ’90s, my daughter Teresa came into this world. My wife Karen and I had been waiting for her, enduring nearly 24 hours of induced labor for naught. You see, our daughter has had a stubborn streak since before birth and to this day, we argue over which one of us she gets it from. And so we were taken to an operating room, where two surgeons were preparing to take our first child by force. We did not yet know whether we were having a boy or a girl, so we had names picked out for each possible outcome. Back then there were only two possibilities, male or female, and we were ready for either. Some of the dialogue going on in the O.R. was priceless.
“I feel like I’m gonna fall off this table.”
“That’s normal. We won’t let you fall off.”
“I think I’m starting to shiver. I feel so cold.”
“That’s just the anesthesia. It’s perfectly normal.”
“I feel like I might throw up.”
“That’s perfectly normal. You’re fine!”
Meanwhile, I’m clutching my wife’s hand, cowering behind an imaginary “blue field” boundary under warning that if I crossed the field, all progress would halt while they resterilized the entire room before starting over again.
“Hey, Karen, have you had your appendix removed?”
“That’s funny, it’s not where it’s supposed to be… Oh, wait a minute, here it is!”
After what seemed like forever, the team extracted an offspring and exclaimed, “It’s a girl!”
“We have a Teresa,” I announced to my wife with a quivering voice as our new daughter uttered her first cry. One doesn’t forget moments like that.
I have fond memories of including my growing family in one of my favorite activities, road trips. When Teresa was just six months old, we spent a week up in Door County with some dear college friends and their own toddler daughter. We rented a small house right on the shore of Sturgeon Bay for just a few hundred dollars (try doing that today). It was an awesome time for all involved and as I recall, that was the week Teresa learned to pull herself up and take steps while holding furniture. We also found her climbing up a flight of stairs. We returned to Door County once, many years later, but instead of camping, we stayed at a wonderful motel in Baileys Harbor on the Lake Michigan side. A year or two later, joined by our new son, we went visiting relatives in Philadelphia and New Jersey. It was fun showing off our new offspring. I also got to see my grandmother alive one last time. More than anything else, I recall saying goodbye and telling Grandma I loved her, knowing that in all likelihood we would not see each other again. The sun was shining as I walked out of the nursing home, fighting back tears and holding on to my kids with an odd-yet-comforting sense of gratitude.
There were camping trips, too. I used to have a boat, a 17-foot bowrider that we would trailer up to Calumet County Park on the eastern shore of Lake Winnebago in Wisconsin. I really liked that secluded park, but it didn’t seem to like us very much. Some of the worst weather I’ve ever experienced happened during various stays there. The very last time we visited, Teresa slipped off a slippery rock in the lake and broke one of her adult teeth on the same large stone. Years later we spent a weekend camping at Devil’s Lake State Park, possibly my favorite park in the entire state. We even brought the dog. The weather was perfect and we all seemed to have a great time. Why we never returned is a mystery.
I would be remiss not to mention my daughter’s fascination with, make-up, costumes, the performing arts, and art in general throughout her life. My son pursued acting in high school, college, post-graduate studies, and then professionally only because his big sister had been so active in theater during their middle school years and drew him in. Teresa took numerous art classes in college and went to cosmetology school after graduating, in order to help pay for her grad school tuition. Today she is my hairdresser — and a very capable one — but she is about to obtain her Masters in Social Work so I don’t know how much longer I’ll be able to boast about that.
I’ve been a motorcycle fanatic since my preschool years but didn’t truly become a motorcyclist until I was 43 years old. When I got into motorcycling, Teresa naturally followed, as did her brother before long. We attended the Chicago International Motorcycle Show year after year, religiously rode together in the Chicagoland Ride for Kids charity event, and took a few overnight motorcycle road trips. When they were old enough, Teresa and her brother John went halfsies on an old Kawasaki Vulcan 500. In the years that have followed, he has ridden more and more, she less and less, for personal reasons. Still, Teresa and I have made enough two-wheeled memories to last a lifetime.
So many memories of all kinds, really. I recall the birthdays, Teresa’s first day of kindergarten, grade school, middle school, high school. and college. And of course, I remember the graduations. Each was a milestone. Each served to remind me that my little one was growing up. Some were harder than others — the day she went off to college, for example. I have never had a good poker face, so when a dear friend of mine asked what was up, I was honest with him about what had been bothering me.
I’ll never forget the advice he gave me that day. His eyes fixed on mine with a warm look of understanding as he said, “We spend all of their lives preparing them for this, for adulthood. Then one day, it happens.”
Life happens. Some of it hits me harder than others, I guess. My daughter recently became engaged. This event was not entirely unexpected but you see, it was just a few short years ago, on a cold winter night in the early ’90s, that I heard my little one utter her first cry. Such is the bittersweet passage of time.
MGD, Grandma Ruth, and John D’Aversa, Thanksgiving 2019
Before we get started, please know that there has not been a death in my family this weekend nor have we just received bad news about anyone in the family. Furthermore, I am not terminally ill — well, no more than the next guy, anyway. I am merely taking this opportunity to share some thoughts with you, thoughts that have been weighing on me lately.
The photo above was taken on Thanksgiving Day 2019, just a captured moment of my son John and I visiting with “Grandma Ruth” who is 92 years old. Ruth has long referred to me as her favorite son-in-law, which is sweet despite the fact that I am first in a field of one. But seriously, we have always gotten along famously since the day I first showed up at her home. I was then a college senior who seemed to be in an ever-deepening relationship with her daughter, who was engaged to be married to another young man at the time. That, however, is a story for another time. My point is that my mother-in-law and I have always been close and now, some thirty-four years after I became her son-in-law, she is the last living parent between Karen and me.
Karen and Ruth, Mother’s Day 2017
I can remember with striking clarity what it felt like to lose first Karen’s dad in August of 1997, then my mother in April of 2006, and my father in February of 2011. To be clear, it hurt like hell each time. My father-in-law had been struggling with an inoperable brain tumor but his death came quite suddenly and unexpectedly. My mom suffered a cerebral hemorrhage on the Monday after Easter and about an hour after my family and I had left my folks’ house following a nice lunch together. My dad passed after years of steady decline from dealing with leukemia.
In each case, none of us had known when we last saw each other that it was to be the last time we would see each other. Sure, each parent had been dealing with their own health problems, and my parents were in their eighties when they passed, but we always assumed we had time yet. With my father-in-law, with my mom, with my dad, we parted ways for the last time assuming there would be a next time. It hurts to realize there won’t be a next time.
Grandma Ruth with Teresa and Karen D’Aversa, Thanksgiving 2015
Ruth has relatively few health issues for a woman of her age, though her memory is failing and she has become more frail in recent years. Hey, we can’t turn back the clock; we can only keep moving forward. That’s why I must cherish every opportunity I get to spend a little time visiting with my dear mother-in-law, knowing that one of those visits will be our last.
If there is a lesson to be had here, it’s don’t take any day for granted. If you have loved ones in your life, no matter their age or physical state, for God’s sake love them now, while you still can. Make the phone call, have that lunch date, give that hug, tell someone they matter to you, whatever. Just don’t assume you can do it next time.
I was only in the hospital for two days, but two days spent lying in a bed gives one plenty of time to think, to dwell, to obsess… and yes, to fear. My left arm had been bound into an immobilizer (picture a sling on steroids, with generous helpings of velcro and foam) before they wheeled me out of the OR. My entire left arm, held firmly in place by that synthetic getup, felt like a decorative sculpture of sorts that had been left beside me as a memento of my surgery. Dr. Saleem said that as soon as he got inside, he knew there was no hope of repairing the bone, but that the replacement had gone very well.
I wasn’t too choked up about having had my shoulder replaced but it was necessary, given the severity of my injury. I adapted. Learned to eat with one hand. Never once had to use a bedpan or one of those confounded plastic handheld urinals. All in all, I thought I’d been doing pretty well. Then about midway through the following day, the nerve block began to wear off in ever increasing waves. A cold, metallic achiness began to pulse from my left shoulder, right through the elbow, across my wrist, into the very substance of each knuckle, and ever down, down, down, until it seemed as though the pain had begun to drip from each of my fingernails. As soon as I’d realized what was going on, I rang for the nurse, who materialized almost instantly.
“Can I help you?”
“Hi, I seem to be having a lot more pain. Can you give me… oh, jeez!” Each successive wave of pain was worse than the last. Of course the nurse immediately understood what was happening and arranged to administer an IV pain med, in addition to adjusting the dosage and frequency of my oral medication. That worked fine, but could not be kept up indefinitely. We gradually weaned off the IV juice and tried reducing the oral as well, but found my pain threshold pretty quickly. Reducing the dosage and frequency of my oral pain med—an acetaminophen/narcotic combo—took quite a few days.
Two days after surgery, I was released from the hospital. I sure hadn’t felt ready for that. Right up until discharge procedures were initiated, my nurses wouldn’t even let me walk the few feet from my bed to the bathroom without an escort. How was I going to fare in my cluttered house, with its stairs and other hazards, to say nothing of the animals, one of whom had put me in the hospital in the first place? We would soon find out because I was going home.
The nurse removed my IV port with ease. My physical therapist made her daily visit, as did an occupational therapist, who tried to show me how to put my own shirt on, a pretty tall order for a guy who is afraid to move his left arm. Last of all came my dressing change and drain removal. Karen observed as the nurse carefully removed the original dressing. I looked away wincing as some of the more aggressive adhesive strips came off. The nurse chose not to warn me before yanking the sizable drain tube out of my arm, probably a wise move, but did apologize after I stopped yelping like a dog whose tail just had a car door slammed on it. Then with a new, much thinner dressing in place and a hefty band-aid placed over the former location of my drain tube, I was ready to go home.
Eh, I did alright. At first I was petrified anytime the dog or cat tried to come near me. In time, I adapted to life in my recliner. Leia, who had already earned the title of “The Most Expensive Dog I’ve Ever Owned” before this incident, gradually learned to approach me calmly and head-on rather than to my left side. I eventually allowed Jazzy to assume her duties as a medicinal cat and take naps on my blanket-covered lap. Me, I took my pain meds on time, did my therapy exercises three times a day, and slept a lot.
The pain meds and the immobilizer were my main concerns. I couldn’t do anything about the immobilizer, which I had to wear it at all times, except when getting dressed or doing my exercises. It was torture, but vitally necessary to protect my new shoulder as the bone and muscle tissues began to mend around the artificial parts. I wasn’t allowed to lift anything with that arm anyway, not even a Kleenex.
The opioid pain meds were a pain in and of themselves. On the one hand, they were effective if taken regularly. On the other hand, keeping an adequate supply was difficult and I ran out more than once while waiting for the doctor’s office, the pharmacy, and the insurance company to sync up. That annoyed me, as did the prospect of getting hooked on the stuff, so I began replacing every other dose with plain Tylenol. Eventually I was taking only over-the-counter pain relievers and before long, I was taking nothing at all. This of course took time, but over the course of two to three weeks, I did it.
About a week after I went home, I had my first follow-up with the surgeon, who was very pleased with my results. I also had my stitches removed and the incision no longer required a dressing. I just had to leave the steri-strips in place until they fell off on their own. A few days after that, I was cleared for actual bathing and celebrated by shaving my entire face for the first time in over 20 years, traumatizing my kids and several of my friends in the process. The following day I began regrowing my facial landscaping.
A day or so after seeing the surgeon, I began going to physical therapy three times a week, while continuing to exercise at home three times daily. At first I was afraid to move, but the therapists at Advanced Physicians are a top-shelf group of professionals who are apparently very used to dealing with big babies and had me doing new and exciting things in no time.
I was still homebound for several more weeks and having earned no paid time off at my new job, I made an arrangement with my employer to work from home to the extent that I could for a fraction of my usual pay. I was glad to be earning at least some income and downright grateful to still have my new job, which I loved despite some inherent challenges and shortcomings.
The weeks that followed were a continuum of baby steps forward. It seemed like every time I went to physical therapy, I was making some form of progress in my range of motion, strength, or my ability to add on another exercise. Everyday life activities, like showering and dressing, were also becoming easier.
Four weeks after my surgery, I was cleared to return to work, ramping up to full-time over the course of two weeks. But because I was still in the immobilizer, my wife Karen chauffered me to and from work, 35 miles each way, until I was able to do so myself. She must have really wanted me out of the house badly.
Five weeks after my surgery, I had another follow-up with the surgeon’s assistant, who cleared me to begin weaning myself off the immobilizer the following week and to begin driving, but only short distances. When I asked her about the 35-mile, 60-to-90-minute commute to work, she shook her head and said not to try that for several more weeks. The chauffering would have to continue for a while. Karen said she didn’t mind and we both agreed that we had been enjoying the hour-plus discussions we’d been having while stuck in traffic. Still, I was sad because of what was to happen in week six.
Last winter, while I’d still been living a somewhat normal life, I put together a motorcycle rendezvous near Green Bay that would take place over Labor Day weekend, now known as week six. A small group of people would be riding in from at least three different states. The idea was for everyone to arrive Friday, spend all day Saturday touring Door County on the bikes, and then each do our own thing from Sunday morning on. I had found the perfect hotel from which to base, the AmericInn by Wyndham Green Bay East, whose sales manager set me up with a block of rooms and everything. My friend Ann was to be my pillion passenger.
As that weekend approached, realizing that I was still months away from being ready to ride again, I had arranged for Ann and me to drive up to the rendezvous, hang with the group at the hotel, and then do our own touring by car while a friend of ours from Minnesota would lead the bike tour. Now it seemed like I wasn’t even able to drive.
Ann and Karen to the rescue! Karen drove me to Kenosha, from where Ann picked me up and drove me around for the rest of the weekend before returning me to Kenosha on Sunday so that Karen could take me home. Together the two of them solved all of my logistical issues.
And so there Ann and I were, up in Wisconsin on Friday morning, only to learn that the rest of our group had been canceling out since late Thursday night. In their defense, the weekend weather forecast for Green Bay and the Door County peninsula did include some chances of rain, although as far as I could tell, no day would be a complete washout. Nonetheless, the rest of our merry band had canceled. What to do?
What to do indeed! We had breakfast, went for a walk, and then headed for Green Bay. Breakfast was at a really happening place in Delafield called Lumber Inn. The food was great and the portions large. The walk was particularly enjoyable and also meaningful to me. See, during the first couple of weeks after my surgery, while I was basically stuck at home, Ann would take me along on her daily walks by sending me photos from her phone, promising that when I was able to do so, I could go along for real. And so I did. We saw deer, a turtle, fish, and people, some of whom had dogs. We spoke with some of the people and fed breadcrumbs to some of the fish. It was a pretty cool way to start out.
Our next stop was the Rahr-West Art Museum, part of which is housed in a Queen Anne style Victorian mansion in Manitowoc. The mansion itself is cool to see and the museum has some interesting pieces, both inside and outside. The facility is owned by the City of Manitowoc and admission is free, although donations are gratefully accepted.
Twenty or so years ago, whenever we were camping and boating over on Lake Winnebago, I would take my wife and kids over to Manitowoc and we always went to the big Wisconsin Maritime Museum down by the lakefront. Ann and I didn’t go into the museum, but we did enjoy a nice walk out back. I wanted her to see the USS Cobia, a World War II fleet submarine that had been built in Manitowoc. I had toured the Cobia a few times back in the day but would have had a difficult time passing through the hatches with one bad arm.
I also wanted to see if the Lake Michigan car ferry S.S. Badger was in port, but it wasn’t. We did walk past a pretty neat small ship called the Grande Mariner that was being fueled and “pumped out” by a couple of local tank trucks. I had never seen this vessel before, nor had I heard of its company, Blount Small Ship Adventures, so I made a point of Googling them after I got home. Apparently the Grande Mariner was doing its “Magical Lake Michigan” tour, a counterclockwise coastal journey that begins and ends in Chicago.
We walked along the Manitowoc River, where the Cobia is permanently docked, out to the Lake Michigan shore and onto a short concrete pier, part of the US Army Corps of Engineers Manitowoc Harbor Navigation Project. After all these years, I never seem to get tired of the sights, sounds, or smells of this or any of the great lakes. Ann took a few photos, while I took a photo or two of Ann taking photos. It’s almost an inside joke now.
Our last stop before reaching Green Bay was at the Trout Springs Winery in Greenleaf. What a delightful little place! The vineyard rows come right up to a small parking area in front of the main building. Free range chickens roam about the vineyard helping to keep the insect pest population in check. The tasting room is a friendly, inviting sort of place. Ann and I were greeted by a Welsh Corgi, who occasionally checked on us as we tasted several wines. We eventually selected an estate-grown wine called Rainbow Blush to enjoy in Green Bay that evening. Ann also picked up a Babordo Vino Nuovo port-style wine as a gift for one of her family members.
We arrived at the hotel in Green Bay late Friday afternoon and as anticipated, did not see one motorcycle in the parking lot. We kept to the planned itinerary that evening and went up the road to Wertel’s Tap for their Friday fish fry. A classic family-owned bar/restaurant, Wertel’s was positively hopping when we arrived. There are a number of larger, more prominent restaurants near the hotel, just off the interstate, but this little cash-only establishment further up the road draws a substantial local crowd. And why not? The service is prompt and friendly, the food is wholesome and well-prepared, and they have ice-cold bottles of Spotted Cow, which Ann and I both enjoyed very much.
I had worn my prized Ralph Marlin designer Three Stooges button front shirt that day and it did not go unnoticed. While Ann and I were at the lakefront in Manitowoc, someone with a group of motorcyclists lounging on the lawn called out a halfway decent “woop-woop-woop” to us and then during supper at Wertel’s, a delightful older gentleman addressed me as a “fellow Stooge” and proceeded to describe his own extensive collection of Three Stooges memorabilia in detail. I couldn’t help but smile, both times.
Ann and I met for the hotel’s “free” breakfast before heading out to tour Door County for the day. The AmericInn’s location, just off Interstate 43 and only a few miles south of Wisconsin 57, made it a perfect jumping off point and if I try putting this run together again next year, I would try to base the group out of this same hotel. It was clean, relatively up-to-date, and had a decent-sized indoor pool. The staff there is friendly and courteous, too.
Our first scheduled stop on the beautiful Door County peninsula was at Sturgeon Bay, the county seat and, I believe, its most industrialized community. Although this small city has a great deal to offer in and of itself, we were there to visit one fairly small park and then a much larger one. Both were worthy of our time. Ann and I got a little turned around looking for the Wisconsin Motorcycle Memorial Park but once we were there, we couldn’t help but linger. Established as “a place to recognize and honor the memories of friends and loved ones who are/were motorcycle enthusiasts,” this well-maintained park is at once solemn and lighthearted, if such a thing is possible. It’s also peaceful and beautiful. The “Walkway of Remembrance”, a path paved with tribute stones, is emotionally moving, not only for what it is but for the mementos left behind by friends and loved ones of those whose names are inscribed on the pavers.
The sculptures and furnishings, all donated, are also noteworthy. Some pieces made us smile or giggle, perhaps as reminders that this park was not intended to be a sad place. All of them held our attention for one reason or another. Ann and I approached an impressive metal sculpture of an eagle—created and donated by Art Weborg of Sister Bay—and realized that it had been changing direction with the breeze. As Ann was shooting some video footage of this, I noted an example of the real thing soaring high in the distance. It was a very cool moment.
Over 25 years ago, my then-young family and I (along with some very close friends) visited Potawatomi State Park, on the shore of Sturgeon Bay just northwest of the city. While we were there, we climbed a 74-foot observation tower and were impressed by the view (and a brisk wind that had been blowing that day) once we had reached the top. Although I was younger then, I fancied the idea of climbing that tower again and showing Ann the spectacular views from the top. Imagine my disappointment upon finding that tower only to learn that it had been permanently closed due to “structural deterioration and safety concerns.” I couldn’t help but notice that some of the old wooden staircases seemed to be listing to one side or another. So there I stood at the foot of the old wooden structure, looking up toward the top, remembering how nothing of this earth is forever and suddenly feeling a bit structurally deteriorated myself. Ann consoled me and suggested that we continue our tour of the park, which still offers some wonderful views.
We traveled up the peninsula in a clockwise fashion, touring the more populated west coast along Wisconsin 42 before heading back down on the eastern side on Wisconsin 57. I won’t mention every town or every shop, but I will hit a few highlights for you. Predictably, some towns were rather crowded on this Labor Day holiday weekend, but most parts were quite tolerable. A case in point, Egg Harbor seemed to have more vehicular and pedestrian traffic than did most, but not enough to prevent us from stopping, shopping, and eating there.
We enjoyed lunch at a bar and restaurant called Casey’s BBQ & Smokehouse, which is well-rated across various internet and social media channels—and for good reason. You might not expect to find a decent barbecue joint in this part of Wisconsin, but we found one. Fancy? No. Popular? Seemingly so. Crowded? Not so bad, though we weren’t there during a peak meal time. All I can tell you is the smoked meats were nicely done, the waitress was friendly, the portions were quite generous for the money, and the service was prompt. They only had one barbecue sauce on the table, but it’s their own signature sauce, which has a pleasant if mild flavor to it.
After lunch it was on to Fish Creek for a stop at Peninsula State Park, where 75-foot observation tower once stood. We learned from speaking with a helpful gentleman in a guard shack that this particular tower had been taken down two years ago. The good news, however, is that thanks to a fundraising effort, groundbreaking for a new tower was to take place in November. It’s too early to tell whether the same thing will happen at Potawatomi.
Still, Ann and I had a great time exploring the many views that this park has to offer. At 3,776 acres, this is Wisconsin’s third largest state park. It seems like a popular one as well.
We encountered only one bad traffic clog during our entire day of touring and we encountered it twice, once each way: a gapers block in front of Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant in Sister Bay that stretched for blocks in either direction. The pedestrian traffic in Sister Bay was substantial, too. Understandably so, because it’s a nice touristy town. Just the same, we chose not to stop. And there is no simple way around that town, unless you know the side roads, because the main drag, which is Wisconsin 42, leads on to the top of the peninsula and Wisconsin 57 also ties in there to take drivers south along the east coast. Something to be figured out before we go back, especially if we return with a group of motorcycles.
We continued north on 42 as far as we could, stopping in Gills Rock to explore a couple of shops and admire the view. It was already late afternoon, so hopping the ferry to explore Washington Island was not an option this time. We knew in advance that this would probably be the case. Door County has a lot more than can be experienced in one day. Another consideration, should we decide to attempt another motorcycle rendezvous next year, is that it may be worthwhile staying until Monday. We’ll see.
We made only one stop on our way down the peninsula’s eastern shore, mainly because we were running out of time, but that one stop was magical. Anclam Park is at the southern end of Baileys Harbor, a lovely, uncrowded community on the Lake Michigan shore. The last time my family and I visited Door County, we stayed at the Beachfront Inn in Baileys Harbor and absolutely loved it there. The inn is visible from Anclam Park and looking across at it brought back some fond memories of the days when my kids were still kids.
The lakefront was nearly perfect that afternoon and even though the park isn’t that large, Ann and I lingered there a while, enjoying the peaceful sights and sounds. Then we continued down Wisconsin 57 back to the hotel. Still pretty full from the big lunch we’d eaten at Casey’s, we opted to nibble on some snacks we’d picked up and drink one of the wines we bought at the Door Peninsula Winery earlier that day.
On Sunday, September 2, Ann and I ate another free breakfast, checked out of our respective rooms, and headed for home. But we had time to kill before Karen was to pick me up in Kenosha, so we took our time and made a couple of cool stops, the first of which was Lambeau Field. This had been my suggestion, but I think Ann wanted to see a little of Green Bay before we left. Nothing was happening there that day, but there were people on the property walking around and taking photographs, just like us. It was kind of neat and much easier to get to than Soldier Field, down by me.
Our next stop was at the Experimental Aircraft Association Museum in Oshkosh. This one was Ann’s idea and having never stopped there before, I was anxious to see this place about which I’d heard so much. It was cool! Lots of informative exhibits and their historic airplane collection is impressive, to say the least. As is the case with many places Ann and I had visited this weekend, we could have spent more time here than we did. I’m glad we stopped.
While we were walking the EAA grounds, Ann told me about a program called “Young Eagles” that was started in 1992 as a means of introducing young people to aviation. That sounded like a terrific idea to me and I wondered if a similar approach could be taken by the motorcycling community to get more young people interested in our hobby. For me, motorcycling has always been a sensory, experiential thing. I became a motorcycle fanatic as a small child, when I got my first motorcycle ride. There was something about the engine sounds and vibrations, as well as the way the motorcycle behaved as my older cousin worked through the gears and steered his bike through the neighborhood. All the multimedia endeavors in the world cannot take the place of taking a real motorcycle ride. There will be more to come on this subject, I’m sure.
We left the EAA grounds just in time for lunch and as luck would have it, there is a Friar Tuck’s located very close by. I had been to their Fond du Lac location with my son a few years ago, based on a recommendation from Ann that I would like their burgers (she was correct). Her parents were fans of Friar Tuck’s and now, so am I. Their decor can best be described as dark and dated. Their food offerings are fresh, hearty, generously sized, and quite delicious. If you are ever in Oshkosh, Fond du Lac, or Manitowoc at lunch or supper time, give them a try.
The only torrential rain we got all weekend long occurred less than five minutes after we stopped at Ann’s place to check on the cats, separate our respective purchases, and rest a while. Before long it was time for Ann to drive me to Kenosha, where Karen would meet us and take me home. Not counting business travel, my least favorite part of nearly every trip I’ve ever taken has been the end. Despite the rash of cancelations we had, this one was no exception. Sure, I had my limitations—I couldn’t even drive—but this had been my first road trip of any consequence since the accident. And with no small amount of help from Ann, it had gone very well.
Week seven brought the same thing that the week following Labor Day always brings: the Sandwich Fair. Established in 1888, the Sandwich Fair is the oldest continuing county fair in Illinois and has been a D’Aversa family favorite for about 15 years now. It’s not even our county—this is DeKalb County’s fair and we live in Will County—but we love this fair and haven’t missed it in years. Karen and I have already established certain traditions. I must have a foot-long Pronto Pup as soon as possible after we arrive at the fair. Karen requires an ear of roasted corn. We usually get cream puffs and/or eclairs. We visit all of the commercial buildings. If it’s convenient, we take in a tractor pull or better yet, a demolition derby. And Karen must visit with the sheep.
You read right. Like any worthwhile county fair, the Sandwich Fair has a comprehensive collection of animal exhibits. A number of years ago, we were perusing the sheep barn when a large, healthy-looking sheep all but jumped out of its pen to greet Karen as she wheeled by. The two conversed for a while, I took photos, and then we moved on. Every year since then, Karen looks forward to hanging with the sheep at the Sandwich Fair. Some visits are more fruitful than others. This year four sheep wanted to visit with her, three of them from a single pen. Of those three, one attempted to eat Karen’s hat. Both Karen and the sheep seemed to enjoy the encounter immensely.
At the beginning of week eight, I began driving myself to work. This was just one more baby step in a continual succession of small personal victories but to me, it was a milestone. If I could handle the 60-to-90-minute commute to and from work, I could handle longer drives, too—no more chauffering required.
At the end of week eight, with an estimated sixteen more weeks of recovery still ahead of me, my employer decided to sever our at-will employment agreement and abruptly did so. I will not say any more about this other than to confirm that what they did to me was legal and that I am no longer an employee of that company. How unfortunate for both of us.
I am publishing this post on the eve of the 2018 autumnal equinox, the first day of fall. My summer that was so unexpectedly interrupted will also be over with. That suits me just fine. I’d rather look ahead than behind, anyway.
In the photo above, I am sitting on my motorcycle with my hands on the grips as they would normally be. When this photo was taken, my son had to help me lift the bike off its side stand and my left hand was extended as far forward as it could go, just to rest on that hand grip. Today I can stand the bike up myself, though not with equal effort by both hands, and I can turn those handlebars lock-to-lock. By all accounts, I am still two months away from actually riding the beast, but suffice it to say I have already been in training for that eventuality for eight weeks now.
What lies ahead? Hopefully a new and prosperous employment situation—one with at least as many challenges but none of the shortcomings—but that’s just one component of what lies ahead, one of many objectives. From the moment of my painful freak accident on the evening of July 4, 2018, I have had one end in mind: recovery. To me, that means gaining back as much of what I have lost as possible: physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, financially, socially, etc. Beyond a doubt, I have come a long way already. Yet there is still more to be done.
This has been a long post indeed. From the bottom of my heart, thanks for hanging with me.
It had been a pleasant, relatively quiet Independence Day holiday for me. I had settled into my recliner for the evening, laptop in front of me, cool drink at my side. My intent had been to write a blog post about the two weekends I had spent riding to and from Rock Island, to see a couple of my son’s stage performances, and I was doing exactly that when someone in the neighborhood began setting off heavy mortar-type fireworks.
My wife ran to the sliding door to call our dog in. Leia, a high-spirited black Shepherd/Labrador mix, was afraid of fireworks and would not have been outside had we realized the neighborhood idiots were going to pull out the heavy artillery that early. Karen called several times and then stepped out onto the deck. She returned quickly, yelling out, “She’s not in the yard; she’s gone!”
Leia runs fast and jumps effortlessly. Once underway, she doesn’t really spring when she jumps; she merely raises her landing gear and soars over obstacles. At three years of age, she is still quite the puppy and she absolutely does not like fireworks. She had jumped our picket fence several times in the past, so as a precaution, we had installed some plastic “deer mesh” fencing several feet above our wooden fence. We would later find out that on this particular night, Leia had been so spooked, she flew right through the deer fence, leaving a large, gaping hole in one panel. But we hadn’t seen that yet and since my girl had never gone very far in the past, I went out after her without stopping to grab a leash.
Several minutes later, two of our neighbors were out combing the neighborhood in an effort to help me find my dog. Four or five blocks out, my neighbor Jim caught up with Leia along Joliet Road, a fairly busy street, and walked her toward me. Not having a leash, I took Leia by the collar and the three of us began walking toward home. We were with a block or two of arriving when my wife pulled up to the curb in her minivan. Recognizing the van at once, Leia veered toward Karen’s van and lunged with all her might, pulling me right off my feet.
What occurred next took all of a second or two. I pinwheeled toward the van for a couple or three yards before gravity took over. As Leia broke free of my grip and zipped around to the driver’s side of the van, where Karen had opened the door to let her in, both of my feet left the ground and went out behind me. An instant later I landed in bellyflop fashion, making full body contact with a concrete sidewalk. There is some speculation that I may have hit the side of Karen’s van with my left hand as I went down—she said it had sounded like something had hit the van hard and from her vantage point, she thought it might have been my head. I have no recollection of that. What I can recall are shock and pain. My torso had taken most of the impact on landing, or so I thought. The wind had been knocked out of me and I felt a wall of pain across my chest and stomach areas. My right elbow had taken a bit of a scrape and was bleeding. I felt no worse pain in my left arm than anywhere else. Yet.
“Do you need help getting up?” That was Jim, one of the nicest neighbors I’ve ever known. He had moved in to assist as needed and by that time, Karen was standing over me, too.
“I dunno, but let’s wait a minute before we find out.” I was still lying face-down on the sidewalk, trying to get my wind back and hoping the pain across my body would subside. My mind was not particularly clear. They stood by and let me wait a bit longer. Then I tried to get up.
The pain that fired through my left arm from shoulder to fingertips assured me that all was not right. I went loose again, lying prone on the concrete. “I can’t use my arm!”
Jim helped me to my feet and got me over to the van. I vaguely recall he and Karen saying something about the emergency room. After thanking Jim profusely, and our other neighbor, Tony, who’d been covering the area by bicycle, Karen drove to our house only long enough to put Leia in the house, and then drove me to the Edward Emergency Department of Plainfield, a component of Edward-Elmhurst Health and the only ER in town.
The 4th of July must be one of the worst days to need emergency care. It must rank right up there with New Year’s Eve and Christmas. I’m sure the people working those days see some very interesting cases. I’m also sure they’d rather be elsewhere. I know I did.
Before I go any further, let me state for the record that every staff member I saw at the Edward facility that night seemed friendly, courteous, and professional. Let me also add that most of our past experiences there have been positive ones. It was only in hindsight that I saw a dreadful comedy of errors unfold—and I was playing the unfortunate straight man in that comedy. Without going deep into every detail, here are the low points of what happened.
When we arrived, I nearly passed out walking from the van to the doors. Karen went in to get help. They came out to talk to me but all I could tell them was that I couldn’t see, that everything was going black. They brought out a wheelchair and took me inside.
After some preliminaries, they took me for x-rays. There were two techs in the room, both very nice. In order to take the x-rays, I had to stand in front of some sort of panel. I did the best I could but the room started going dark again. As soon as they were done, they let me sit down and once the images were verified, they wheeled me back to where I had been before.
A doctor on staff came in and informed me that I had fractured my shoulder. They gave me some pain medicine, a sling and the phone number of an orthopaedic surgeon to call the next day, explaining that the specialist would determine whether or not surgery would be necessary. I asked about the pain med they’d given me, which hadn’t seemed to lessen the pain at all. The nurse suggested that I give it more time.
They wheeled me outside and Karen brought the van around. I almost blacked out a third time but got myself into the van. The pain meds still hadn’t done much for me. We went home and as I walked in, rather than blacking out, I was hit by a wave of nausea. Fortunately, it passed after I settled into my recliner, where I spent the night.
As you read this, I want you to bear in mind that I had sustained a very painful injury, the extent of which had not yet been discovered or disclosed, and for which I had received no treatment other than x-rays, a sling, and a bottle of pills that weren’t anywhere near strong enough to take the edge off my pain. Anything that caused me to clench the muscles in that sector of my body set off a wave of pain strong enough to make me scream. I make no exaggeration here, I assure you.
The following day, Karen phoned the orthopaedic surgeon’s office and was told he wouldn’t see me because this guy is a foot and ankle specialist. I think it was at this point that we began to seriously question the “care” I’d received the previous evening. Karen called the ER back and left a message.
While this was transpiring, I contacted my new employer and explained the situation. I was supposed to be at work, but that was not possible due to the extent of my injuries, my inability to drive, and the narcotic-though-insufficient pain meds I was taking. I hadn’t been there long enough to earn paid time off or any benefits, for that matter. My only hope was to still have a job by the time this nightmare was over. My CEO was quick to allay my fears in that regard, which only increased my admiration for the man and for the organization he leads.
Karen then proceded to spend a few hours calling my primary care physician (closed) and a host of other offices, none of whom could schedule me to be seen timely. This includes the DuPage Medical Group, to which the foot and ankle specialist belonged. After spending substantial time on the phone with DuPage and getting nowhere, Karen declared them “useless” and vowed never to use them again if she has a choice.
I had taken to sharing my experience thus far on Facebook. I got lots of sympathy and a few well-meaning suggestions, but no outright help. That is until a friend of mine who works at Rush CopleyMedical Center in Aurora gave me the name of an orthopaedic group to call and the specific doctor for whom to ask. An insider recommendation!
Upon receiving the recommendation, Karen called Rush Castle Orthopaedics and requested an appointment with one Arif Saleem, MD, a shoulder specialist. Although the doctor himself was out of town—hey, 4th of July holiday—his assistant was willing and able to see me that very afternoon. Karen scheduled an appointment, hung up the phone, and just breathed for a while.
At some point, an Edward ER nurse called back insisting that the orthopaedic surgeon whose name they’d given me should still be willing to see me. Karen again relayed what she had been told. This was turning out to be anything but a fruitful conversation and I could feel my wife’s frustration building to a dangerous level, so I suggested she tell them we’d already found somebody else to see. She did so and that ended the conversation, but not my troubles.
Later that afternoon, the Physician Assistant saw me. She was friendly, professional, and by all indications, highly competent. Just one problem, she couldn’t tell much from the x-rays that had been taken at the ER the night before—yet another red flag concerning the treatment I’d received there, if you’ll pardon the exaggeration. So she ordered another set, which showed not just a fracture, but a severe one, involving a shoulder that was likely broken into “a number of pieces.” She wrote an order for a CT scan, which would be necessary to determine the best course of action, but added that surgery seemed quite likely.
At this point we obtained an appointment to see Dr. Saleem on Thursday, July 12, which would be eight days after my accident.
We couldn’t get the CT scan done that day, July 5, because it was late and because some front desk worker claimed they would need approval from my insurance provider—and that she had three days to accomplish that feat.
On Friday, July 6, the front desk called to inform us that no approval was necessary and we could schedule the CT scan. When Karen called back, the earliest appointment she could get at any location was on Sunday, July 8, four days after my injury had been sustained.
Four days had passed, so far. Again, any time I moved wrong or sneezed or the planets aligned a certain way, I involuntarily cried out in pain and then waited, sometimes for quite a while, for the pain to subside. This had become very disconcerting for my wife, my sisters, my friend Ann (herself a healthcare professional), and anybody else close enough to me to know what was really going down.
On Sunday, July 8, I went to Rush Copley Medical Center and had my CT scan. Then I went home. Everyone was very helpful, friendly and professional, but not one person gave me any indication that going four days without actual treatment of my injuries was the least bit out of the ordinary.
I repeatedly ran out of pain meds because prescriptions for opioids cannot be written for large quantities or to include refills. No skin off my banana except I was still experiencing substantial pain from my as-yet untreated injuries. I totally understood the need for strict controls but at that time I was not yet an addict in the making; I was just a guy who didn’t want to keep screaming in pain every time I upset the bag of jacks that was my left shoulder joint.
On Thursday, July 12, I met Dr. Saleem and instantly liked the man. He didn’t sugarcoat anything. I had sustained a severe compound fracture and surgery was indicated without question. Once in, his first option would be to try and repair the fractured head of my humerus, the “ball” of my shoulder joint. This seemed unlikely but was still his first option. Barring that, he would replace the joint. By approving both options, I allowed him to address my injury one way or the other. I would enter the OR as an outpatient. If he could save the shoulder, I would go home that day. If a replacement had to be performed, I would become a guest of Rush Copley Medical Center for a couple of days. Surgery was scheduled for Tuesday, July 17.
This, in a nutshell, is how Edward-Elmhurst Health allowed a patient to “get away” and end up being treated by Rush Copley, a hospital that doesn’t even serve Plainfield. On one hand, I’m gravely disappointed in the way my case was handled by the ER, from the insufficient x-ray images to the inappropriate surgeon referral, all of which prolonged the amount of time that passed between the day I sustained my injury and the day it was fixed. On the other hand, their actions allowed me to connect with a well-regarded shoulder specialist, thanks to a personal recommendation from a friend. So maybe I was better off.
By the time Tuesday, July 17 came around, I was ready to have that painful broken shoulder fixed one way or the other. My hope, of course, was that Dr. Saleem would go in and find a shoulder that could be repaired instead of replaced. When they wheeled me out of recovery and into an elevator instead of back to the prep room where I had started, I knew that wasn’t the case. As the nurse wheeled my bed out of the elevator and onto an upper floor, I said my first full sentence following surgery: “I take it I’m an inpatient now.”
To which the nurse calmly replied, “Yes, you’re an inpatient.”
On the evening of July 4. 2018, I sat down to write about what would have been one of my usual blog topics, but just a few paragraphs into it, a life-changing event occurred and I never went back to finish writing that post. Until now. At the risk of running really long, I’d like to start out with my original story and then roll right into what happened next.
There just wasn’t enough time. That’s been the running theme for me since last May, when I accepted an offer for what may become the most meaningful job I’ve ever had. That’s not the subject of this post, but it shapes many aspects of the story. Without going into gross detail, I am the marketing director for a strong local/regional player in an industry that is all but entirely new to me. The hours are long and they’re bookended by a commute that I can only describe as horrendous. Because I’m essentially starting over, I have to earn my keep, prove my worth, earn my perks, etc. But I do love my job so and have deemed my latest employment situation to be worthy of my efforts and dedication.
My son John is back in Illinois! At the beginning of June, he rode his motorcycle from his three-year temporary home in Portland, Oregon to Rock Island, Illinois, where he was once again working for the Mississippi Bend Players, a professional regional theatre group at Augustana College. He came out last year to act in one of their productions and also served as a construction intern. This year he once again performed in one of their productions, a seven-time Tony Award winner called Big River. For those not familiar, it’s a musical based on Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. It was wonderful and I was there. Twice.
Photo by Ann M. Fischler
I was able to attend two performances of Big River, each on a Saturday night, one week apart. Again because of my new work schedule, everything had been somewhat tentative, so the basic plan both times involved me getting home from work Saturday afternoon, hopping on my motorcycle, and high-tailing it to Rock Island in order to arrive in time for the show. My other family members had similar plans but went on different days according to their respective availabilities. Under the circumstances, this was the best we could do.
On the first weekend, I was joined by my dear friend and pillion photographer Ann, who had timed her arrival in Plainfield to coincide with my own arrival home from work. After a few pleasantries and preparations, we were zooming west on Interstate 80. My wife Karen had attended the opening night performance the prior evening and was heading east at the same time. We kept an eye out for each other and somewhere between Princeton and the Quad Cities, we exchanged waves, each of us doing 70 MPH for a combined effect of 140 MPH. It was a quick wave.
We had a little more time on our way back the following day, so rather than stay on the Interstate again, we exited at Illinois 178 and enjoyed a little two-lane touring through Utica, Ottawa, and points beyond. This is a very picturesque pocket of north-central Illinois featuring curvy roads, wooded areas, a rolling river, and even a few interesting elevation changes. Many bikers and cagers alike favor this area, so we had plenty of company on this beautiful day. Still, we enjoyed this portion of the ride home very much.
The following weekend was similar but different. Once again, I hightailed it after work on Saturday, only with a different set of friends. We were attending the Saturday performance. My wife was bringing her 90-year-old mother in that afternoon to see the Sunday matinee the next day. This presented an excellent opportunity for all of us to gather for supper early Saturday evening at the Bierstube in Moline. My mother-in-law was the star of our party, but nobody thought to take pictures (just one more reason why I appreciate having Ann on board). Still, a good time was had by all. My friends and I thoroughly enjoyed the Saturday night performance of Big River. My wife, daughter, and mother-in-law did likewise on Sunday afternoon, much to the delight of my son, the thespian artist.
There is more, but we are quickly reaching the point at which my story got interrupted in a big way.
I had an unusual dream prior to waking up this morning and want to record it here before the entire dream fades from my memory. I am making no claims about the substance of this dream.
As my dream began, for reasons unknown to me, I found myself alongside God—or rather, I should say I discovered God beside me. Don’t ask me how I knew who it was. In dreams sometimes certain things are simply understood to be so. I was not in a particular place. In fact, to the best of my recollection, there were no surroundings at all, other than some sort of heavy white woven fabric laid out before me that seemed to flow from Him. We were side-by-side, as opposed to facing each other. Although I never looked directly at his face or saw his body, in this dream God seemed like a man, albeit a very large one who positively dwarfed me, like a grown man beside a young child.
And that’s exactly how I felt, like a small child. For the duration of this dream, I never said a word. Now that’s very unusual for me. Whether in a dream or awake, silence is not among my strong suits. From my left side, God spoke to me in a soft, deep voice. There was no echo, no Cecil B. DeMille special effects. Here is how it went.
“People wonder why I don’t do more to help them.” He placed several large crystals on the cloth in front of me, although I never saw his hand.
“This is salt. Go ahead, pick one up.” I picked up a white crystal the size of a Brazil nut. “Look at it. Feel it. Hold it in your hand.” I did as I was told.
“Put it in your other hand.” I moved the crystal from my right hand to my left. “Now put it behind you and switch it back.” I obeyed, not really understanding the point of this exercise. It was sort of like playing Simon Says with the Almighty. He told me what to do and I did it. If only real life worked like this.
“See? It’s real. I put that there. The problem is, people don’t use what I give them” That’s when I understood. I turned to my left, grabbing fistfuls of the heavy woven fabric, and began to cry.
He said one last thing to me, with emphasis. “Pick up the salt.”
Then I woke up, wondering what I may have been ignoring or underutilizing and what salt had to do with it. I’m not often able to remember my dreams, so I guess the way this one stuck in my mind bothered me a little. I’m also not one for quoting Bible verses, but let me leave you with this one that popped into my head. As I said when I started, I make no claims.
“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trodden under foot by men.” (Matthew 5:13)