When Life Attacks

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.

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!