Healing Up and Rolling On

About four months ago, I had a freak accident that required total shoulder replacement surgery (technically a reverse shoulder arthroplasty). Severe shoulder fractures are quite painful and in all candor, the surgical procedure and lengthy recovery process that follows are no picnic, either. My total recovery time has been guesstimated at six months to a year but unless I reinjure that joint, the hardest part is now behind me.

I have endured many weeks of physical therapy, investing countless hours and no small amount of dollars in regaining as much range of motion and strength in my left arm and shoulder as is realistically possible. After six weeks, I was able to begin driving again, albeit with some difficulty and a good bit of physical discomfort. That same week, I parted ways with a new employer that I should never have joined in the first place. That certainly didn’t help financially, but because I had wholeheartedly agreed with the decision to separate, I couldn’t exactly mourn the loss. Enough said.

At that point, I also set a personal goal for being able to ride my motorcycle again: Thanksgiving weekend of 2018. This was a fairly aggressive goal and let me tell you why. At the six-week mark, I mounted my motorcycle, but could only lift the 885-pound beast off its side stand with assistance from my son and without using my left arm, which was still under substantial restrictions at the time. Merely setting my left hand on the grip took some effort and I knew I could reach no further forward that day.

By late September, I could stand the bike up by myself, though I was still compensating substantially for my weak left arm. I could also turn the handlebars lock to lock and work the clutch lever without difficulty. Still, it would have been foolish to try riding so soon. Given my stage of healing, there was simply too much at stake. Besides, based on my informal survey of the available internet chatter, I hadn’t heard about anybody riding a heavyweight motorcycle any earlier than four months after a total shoulder replacement. So I bided my time and continued to push myself at physical therapy.

My patience and effort paid off. On the morning of November 22, with an ambient temperature in the mid-thirties, I rolled Miss Scarlett out of my garage and accompanied by my son and his motorcycle, took a brief jaunt through the neighborhood before pulling back in and moving on to our Thanksgiving Day festivities.

The ride lasted only a few minutes and told me everything I needed to know about preparing for my 2019 riding season. For openers, after a four-month layoff, my skills were as rusty as they are after a full winter season of not riding, and then some. Every spring I work on removing that rust by running specific exercises—mainly emergency maneuvers and slow-speed handling—over and over until they become fluid again. Unfortunately, my son and I were a day away from putting our bikes up for a long winter nap. So my riding skills, which had already deteriorated from four months of non-use, were about to be set aside for another four months or so, save for the occasional warm, saltless day.

But what could I do with only one day, a cool and windy one at that? The answer was clear: go ride a little more.

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The following day, we saddled up and rode out to Silver Springs State Fish and Wildlife Area on the outskirts of Yorkville, IL. It was cloudy and cool, but dry and not cold, with winds gusting up to 30-ish mph. The route we chose allowed us to periodically run the bikes at highway speeds or better, with a few opportunities to take sweeping curves, sharp turns, and stretches of moist debris left on the road by farm implements. Let your imagination be your guide. By and large, I did okay and my shoulder caused no issues at all, but I did commit some awkward errors that are typical of novice riders. I noted every one of them for future reference and will work on those, even before I get the chance to ride again, through visualization exercises, followed by actual practice once the warm weather returns.

My son and I discussed these things as we took a walk around Loon Lake at the state park. It was quality father-and-son time for us, though we couldn’t help but notice certain telltale signs, such as residual snow on a shaded path and some floating ice on a slough, all this despite an ambient temperature in the mid-to-upper forties. We knew this would likely be our last run for a while. Ah, but it was golden to me!

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We stopped at the Crusade Burger Bar in Yorkville, where my wife Karen met us for a delicious lunch (try the fried cheese curds appetizer, you will thank me). Then we headed back to Plainfield, stopping to top off our tanks after adding the usual measures of gasoline stabilizer. Afterward, we took a brisk ride through the neighborhood, allowing the stabilizer to mix in and get into our respective fuel lines. Finally, we pulled into the garage, rolling the bikes onto layers of cardboard, to protect the tires, and hooked up our smart chargers. The bikes are, for our purposes, winterized, though they still remain available and ready should an off-season riding opportunity present itself.

If I were to end my story here, very few people would question my gratitude on this Thanksgiving holiday weekend. But there is more. When I lost my job in September, a handful of friends I had made as business acquaintances took it upon themselves to go beyond the usual lip service—”good luck” and “I’ll keep my eyes open”—and actively sought out potential opportunities for me. These were extraordinary gestures on their part and I am still humbled by their endeavors, one of which resulted in a new job that I started last Monday, at the start of Thanksgiving week.

Diaz Group LLC is a growing force in landscape design, enhancements, and maintenance, as well as snow and ice management services. Located in the Back of the Yards neighborhood of Chicago, this family owned and operated organization has experienced tremendous growth over the past decade. We did business with each other for eight years during my tenure at Cherry Logistics, a national facilities maintenance company, so in effect, we have already known each other for years. When a mutual friend of ours saw the potential and encouraged us to meet, both parties moved on the opportunity. Now I am a member of their management team and I can proudly say without reservation, “I am Diaz Group.” What a rush!

Early on after my injury, I devoted a measure of time to feeling sorry for myself. At some point, I realized I could go further by embracing my healing journey than by mourning my losses. Please think about that for a moment. Right now I could still be wondering why I lost my left shoulder by trying to get my poor, frightened dog home. Right now I could still be mourning the loss of a job that I should have never pursued. Instead, I am back on two wheels and planning my 2019 riding season and I have a new and wonderful workplace that I can call home. What changed? Me.

Embrace the journey! And as always, thanks for hanging with me.

The Most Expensive Dog I’ve Ever Owned

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This is my Thanksgiving story…

I don’t know whether she began her life with a given name. Her shelter name was Madeline and by the time I’d met her, she had already cheated death twice. It was September of 2015. After having said goodbye to Rocky, our last dog of fourteen years, that past April, we’d finally decided that we were ready to bring a new four-legged family member into the fold. I began perusing the adoption listings on petfinder.com, occasionally sharing individual listings with the family to get their opinions on this or that prospect. After a few weeks, Madeline appeared in this listing (still there, with original photos) by Wags 2 Wishes Animal Rescue.

I shared her listing with the family and continued to share others, but I kept circling back to this one. The reason why was anything but obvious. Madeline was described as a lab mix and we weren’t necessarily looking for a large breed, although we had owned labs before. She was also a she, which wasn’t a deal breaker in itself, but we had always gone with male dogs in the past. Finally, she was being kept at a foster home until medically cleared, which meant she had health issues of some sort. There was certainly no shortage of healthy male dogs of smaller breeds, so why did I keep returning to this dog’s listing for another look?

Perhaps something deep inside told me this was the one, that this was to be our dog. After consulting with my wife, I messaged Wags 2 Wishes and inquired about arranging a visit to meet Madeline, who was being fostered somewhere up near the Illinois/Wisconsin border. They replied with an invitation to come see her at the shelter, right in Plainfield,  as she had been cleared medically and was there. Thing was, we wouldn’t be able to get there before the weekend. What if somebody else came and took her? That very thought was driving me nuts. but we didn’t really have any alternatives and as Karen was quick to point out, if it was meant to be, she’d still be there.

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She was there, and she seemed very happy to see Karen and me. If this pup was sickly, she was keeping it well-hidden. Madeline seemed to have the energy and curiosity of any healthy puppy, but as I said, she’d already cheated death twice by the time we first met. Madeline had been rescued from a kill shelter somewhere in Tennessee. What Karen and I hadn’t known is that this pup was listed to be put down the day she was rescued. Then while at her foster home, she became extremely ill. Turns out she had contracted a severe case of parvovirus and was not expected to survive. But she did survive and with a great deal of tender, loving care from her foster family, Madeline was nursed back to health. And so she was there to meet us that day—and after spending some time together at the shelter, she came home with us.

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Later that day we dropped her shelter name and gave our pup her forever name, Leia. In the weeks and months that followed, Leia’s size and strength increased substantially. One day Karen thanked me for getting her the horse she’d always wanted. After much debate, we decided that her lineage is most likely a mix of Labrador Retriever and German Shepherd. She also began to show quite a mischievous streak. Leia—or the black princess, as I sometimes call her—proved herself to be a capable runner, digger and chewer, like none I had ever seen before. She tore all the landscape timbers from the ground and made kindling of them. She dug holes in the same rocky soil that blunted my best shovel and spade.She broke off fence planks on two sides of the yard so that she and the neighbor dogs can converse more easily. Last spring, in an effort to expend some of that energy, Leia and I began walking a few miles each day, which turned out to be good for me, too.

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In so many ways, Leia has been unlike any other dog I’ve had. But as has been the case with every single canine companion of mine, we grew very close. When I come home, she eagerly greets me. Karen says she knows the sound of my motorcycle, apart from all the others in our area, and when I return from a ride, she can tell that it’s me heading into our subdivision. She is decidedly not a lap dog, yet she chooses to be near me. When I move around within our home, she follows. I can’t tell you how many times I have come out of the bathroom to find her curled up outside the door.

November 10, 2016 began as any other day for me. I woke up, said good morning to Leia, got ready for work, and then the two of us went downstairs. A few minutes later, I was on my way to work. Nothing had seemed different in any way, shape or form. But within minutes after I had arrived at work, my wife called to tell me Leia had collapsed and that she and our daughter were in the process of rushing her to the emergency vet. My head swam trying to process what I had just been told. I had a full day of work ahead of me and absolutely no desire to deal with any of it, but I knew that if I didn’t busy myself right then and there, I’d go mad. So I worked and waited.

We didn’t learn much that first day, only that Leia was in big trouble. She had no strength at all, couldn’t even stand up. Her blood counts had gone berserk and she was not clotting. Attempts to take simple blood draw caused a large hematoma on her neck. They had to wheel her in on a cart for Karen to say goodbye before taking her in back to begin administering fluids. A teary-eyed Karen filled me in and then left to get ready for work. I felt so empty inside, having no choice but to wait. My personal productivity that day was probably not the greatest, but I know I gave it my best, knowing that Karen would be back at the animal hospital before I could even leave my office.

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When Karen returned around mid-afternoon that day, she had to visit Leia in her crate and the dog barely lifted her head in acknowledgement. On her last visit, right before visiting hours eneded, Leia walked into the exam/visiting room under her own power, albeit very slowly. Then she almost immediately laid down and closed her eyes. Karen visited for a while, spoke with the veterinarian, and then sent me the photo she took along with an update, that Leia was holding her own, but not improving. If she survived the next 24 hours, her prognosis might be better. In order to keep a medical appointment of my own, I wouldn’t be able to get back to Plainfield before visiting hours were over. My heart was heavy, not knowing whether I would see my girl again. I steeled myself  and hoped for the best.

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The following day, following a telephone update or two, I was able to go see Leia myself. Again she walked into the room under her own power, but that was about it. Karen had brought some scrambled eggs for her, but the dog would not eat. Her platelet and glucose counts were dangerously low and her liver values were too high to be measured by the vet’s equipment. One day later, an external lab result came back with a liver enzyme value above 10,000. Normal was 12 and high was anything over 60. The animal hospital’s machine would have counted anything up to 1,000. Leia’s values were higher than her vet had ever seen in a dog. Whatever had happened was causing her liver to die off. It could be a toxin, such as xylitol, the effects of a tick bite (we knew she’d had at least one), or even an autoimmune reaction. In addition, one of the lab results that came back indicated that she was heartworm positive, despite having been on a preventative medication all summer long. Treating the wrong cause could make it worse, so our only hope was to keep her liver going long enough to fight back. They gave her fluids, platelets, and antibiotics. On top of everyting else, the original estimate for the cost of treatment had been surpassed by the end of day two. We waited.

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Leia was hospitalized for six days and but for that first day, I managed to see her at least once each day. During those days I watched her gradually become more alert. About halfway through, I got her to eat some grilled chicken that I’d cooked especially for her. Mostly we laid together and talked. We had to get her eating again in order to make it possible for her to take oral medications, thus making it possible for her to come home. We also had to have proof that her numbers were returning to normal, even though it might take a long time to get there. In an effort to give her veins and arteries a chance to recover, all four of her legs had been shaven and used for IV’s and blood draws. Every day we saw progress, though it was clear that Leia looked better in person than on paper, where her numbers still told a different story.

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On the evening of day five, we got a call from one of the vets saying that Leia would be put on oral meds the following day and sent home. Her liver numbers had come down to 8,800, still many times normal, but a clear indication that her liver was no longer dying off. Understand that for most of this week, nobody on that veterinary staff had expected this dog to get out alive. That night, emotionally exhausted, even Karen admitted that she hadn’t believed Leia would come home again.

On the evening of day six, we brought Leia home. She had a long list of medications to take and we had a list of symptoms to watch for, any one of which might mean rushing her back to the animal hospital. Total billing to date was in excess of five thousand dollars. As long as everything went okay, we would come back in a week for another blood test. Because of the heartworm result, though, they prescribed six weeks of cage rest—little to no exercise of any kind that could cause an elevated heart rate.The idea was that any exertion could dislodge an adult heartworm and potentially kill my dog. Absolute cage rest was, however, out of the question for this dog, who in an effort to free herself had literally bent the bars of the strongest crate we could find.

So we did what we felt was the next best thing. Leia never went out except on a leash. I took her for daily walks, but only around one block—a fraction of what she’d been accustomed to—and only at a slow, walking pace. As her strength and energy returned with each passing day, Leia quickly grew tired of this routine.Meanwhile, Leia had many people hoping and praying for her, even since before she’d gotten out of the hospital, and her Facebook following surpassed my own.

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As the one-week mark approached, Leia had visibly returned as close to normal as I could have hoped for. Along with all her other fans, I had been praying for her every day and as the day of her next blood test approached, I became certain that just getting her liver and platelet counts wouldn’t be good enough. So we made a rather unusual request: “Since you have to draw blood anyway, please run the heartworm test again.” The vet was understanding, but cautioned us that these results were usually very reliable.

On Wednesday, November 23, the day before Thanksgiving, Karen called me at work. Her voice was trembling as she relayed the news to me. The liver number had dropped to 826, a 90% decrease from one week prior. Her platelet count was normal… and the heartworm test had come back negative. Leia was now cleared for any activity. At that point Karen was crying and I was pretty close to doing so myself as I passed the news along to my family, friends and anybody at work who was willing to listen.

And so you see, this year Thanksgiving took on a very special meaning to me. Leia, my black princess, has cheated death three times. I have my dog back. It was raining on that Wednesday, and Leia hates getting wet, so we waited until Thanksgiving day to take our celebratory walk—over three miles worth. Today we did 3.7 miles, and only kept it down to that because I couldn’t keep up with the girl. The video clip below was taken during our walk. She’s back! Thanks be to God, my Leia is back!

Close Encounters of the Thanksgiving Kind

roast-turkey-1566802-639x479   My memories of Thanksgiving are not exactly the stuff of Norman Rockwell illustrations. Oh, there have been plenty of fond memories, just not your typical textbook Americana vignettes. For one thing, I didn’t grow up in a traditional American household. My mother and father were Italian immigrants, as was the overwhelming majority of my cousins. I was born here, but my first words were probably spoken with an Italian accent.

how-to-make-italian-food-2-1566265-1280x960The traditional American Thanksgiving dinner consists of roast turkey with cranberry sauce and dressing, mashed potatoes, green beans and other assorted goodies. My Thanksgiving dinners came with most of that, plus a steaming bowl of homemade pasta smothered in homemade tomato sauce and a huge platter of meat that had spent hours simmering in that sauce – things like homemade meatballs, braciole and salsiccia (aka fresh Italian sausage). There was always homemade wine and homemade bread on our dinner table. The insalata – a tossed salad dressed with vinegar and oil, plus a small plate of olives on the side, in case anybody wanted some – came after the main course and before the dessert, which may have included pumpkin pie, raisin pie (my father’s favorite), biscotti, and who knows what else.

On any Sunday or holiday, my mother would get up around 5:30 and start preparing dinner, which we ate at noon, or shortly thereafter. By 9:00 AM, if you walked anywhere near my mother’s kitchen, the aromas alone could cause you to gain two pounds. And if she was expecting ten people for dinner that day, my mother cooked for twenty. That woman would rather have died than see us run out of food. My father used to say, “If you leave my table hungry, you’re a damn fool.”

olivesWhen I was a child, back in the 1960’s, there were still a good number of live poultry shops in the Chicago area. And since my grandfather, who briefly shared ownership of a small restaurant, refused to eat any bird we hadn’t killed ourselves, the centerpiece of our Thanksgiving dinner was usually still walking during the wee hours of Thanksgiving morning. I still recall a particularly traumatic experience I had one Wednesday afternoon prior to Thanksgiving, when I ran down to the basement of our Blue Island home, probably looking for my father, and came face-to-face with a tom turkey that was every bit as tall as I was. Maybe taller. We both stood there for a moment, staring at each other in the dim light of what was remaining daylight filtered through a small basement window above our heads.Turkey

The turkey said nothing. I turned and bolted back up the basement stairs, yelling at the top of my lungs, “Mmmmaaaaaaaa!” In the decades that followed, for as long as that house remained in the family, I always approached the basement with caution.

As time went on, it became apparent that nobody in our family cared all that much for leftover turkey. So by the mid 1970’s my mother had discovered the perfect solution to this: She stopped making turkey for Thanksgiving and baked a ham instead. This went on for years until 1986, the first year my new bride and I had Thanksgiving dinner at my folks’ house. A few weeks before, my mother turned to my wife and asked, “Karen, what would you like to have for Thanksgiving dinner?” Ma was just was trying to be accommodating to her new daughter-in-law. And in a similar spirit, not wanting her mother-in-law to go out of her way, my new wife responded, “Oh, a turkey would be fine.”

We had a huge turkey that Thanksgiving, plus all the other stuff – even a small ham. When Karen found out, after the fact, that my mother hadn’t cooked a turkey for Thanksgiving in years, but in fact had prepared that trophy bird just to please her, she seemed irritated with me for some reason. “I’m gonna’ kill you,” she hissed at me as I drove us home. “Why didn’t you tell me?!”

“But dear, had I done that, you would have given an answer to please Ma, when all she wanted to do was please you. See?”

Let me tell you, my wife may have been small, but she could sure pack a punch.

I’ll never forget the first time my wife baked a big, beautiful ham for dinner. Within 30 minutes, the whole house was filled with this burning chemical stench. It seems my bride had removed the outer plastic wrapper without realizing there had been a second layer of plastic beneath it. I came running into the kitchen just as she was removing our slightly charred, plastic-glazed dinner from the oven.

I tried to lighten up the situation by exclaiming, “Oh, look, a laminated ham!” Man, that woman can really swat when she wants to.

So yeah, our Thanksgiving gatherings may sometimes be more suitable for a slapstick comedy that the cover of Life magazine, but they are no less memorable. And it’s still very much about family for us. Grandparents. Parents. Aunts. Uncles. Cousins. Brothers. Sisters. And always, always children. These have surrounded me on various major holidays throughout the years – and there have been a lot of them now.

One last thought: Traveling has become a little easier for me over the years. When I first got married, starting the Thanksgiving holiday with a full tank of gas was very important, because even the local gas stations were closed on major holidays. I can only speculate that this is because, being people, retailers back then had their own families with whom to spend their holidays – and hearts that made them want to do nothing less. I wouldn’t mind seeing more of that again.

To all of my readers, old and new, I wish a happy Thanksgiving to you and yours!