Deepest Darkness and Brilliant Light
It all began on New Years Day 2019 with a flat tire. We were leaving our friends’ timeshare where we had spent a couple of days of fun, relaxation, great food, and even better company. I hope this isn’t an omen for the coming year,” (expletives excluded) I grumbled to Simon. But in my heart, I feared it was.
The Nightmare Begins
The first two weeks of January passed without incident. We had been teaching a course, “An Introduction to International Travel”, at Craven Community College, and had just finished our last class when what we knew would eventually happened, happened. My precious Otto, my cuddly boy, four of the six legs that traveled, and my guide through two trans-Atlantic cruises, 16 countries, and a multitude of cities, passed away in his sleep the night of January 18. Our hearts were broken.
Meanwhile, Simon and I had to prepare for a trip to NYC to attend our second annual International Media Market (IMM) event, as well as Media Day at the New York Times Travel Show. My first trip without Otto was tough, but Simon, as always was patient and caring, and did a masterful job of guiding me through the crowds at both events.
Although I had to cope with the loss of my three previous dogs, the process never got easier. Guide Dogs for the Blind (GDB) in San Raphael, California had supported me both financially and emotionally throughout Otto’s illness, and eased me through the application process to train with a new guide. The waiting period would have been about eight months, so I had something to look forward to in or around August. Or so I thought.
The Nightmare Continues
On February 11, Simon dragged me to the doctor to see about a persistent cough, sore throat and fever. I went home with some meds and began to feel better over the following two days. But by the weekend, I began spiking temps of 103 and feeling much worse.
It was back to the doctor on February 18, a month after losing Otto. This time, I was shipped off to our local hospital in an ambulance.
The short version of the story is that I spent 10 days there before being transferred to UNC at Chapel Hill by a critical care ambulance, where I spent the next month. After two weeks in ICU in a medically-induced coma, five days of which were spent on life support, my breathing had improved enough to have the tube removed and the drugs that had kept me in la-la land gradually reduced. The culprit? Pneumonia brought on by the H1N1 virus, which I contracted I don’t know where.
The doctors put my chances of survival at five percent. Kevin and Gary came to see me for what they thought would be the last time. One of my deepest regrets will always be that the people I loved most had to see me on a respirator and with tubes coming out of various parts of my body.
I’m glad I never dropped acid in my college years because, if that would have been anything like la-la land, I’d surely have lost my mind completely. I saw spinning lights, doctors wearing funny headdresses, cans of Arizona Ice tea floating by me, the discovery of a previously unknown sub-marine society that started a new religion, and more crazy stuff. I even conjured up a redheaded twin sister named Isabel. She died young and was my mother’s favorite. A shrink would have had a field day with that one.
My first coherent memory was of Simon telling me that I had been very sick. He then introduced me to one of the doctors who had been pulling out all the stops to save my life. At this point, I told the doctor to do the physiologically impossible, and then I passed out.
Yes, I did get the chance to apologize. The good doc just laughed and told me that he had heard a lot worse from patients coming out of comas.
The Nightmare Recedes
My sister-in-law, Elizabeth – not a la-la land twin, but a true sister – flew over from England to give Simon and me support. I was still in and out at that point, but I clearly remember her feeding me chicken soup, and showing me a pair of earrings she had bought for me. She told me later that she needed to believe that I would live to wear them. And I have, numerous times.
Elizabeth stayed three days, by which time my breathing was rapidly improving, along with my prognosis.
The weeks that followed were long and, at times, frustrating. An allergy to one of my meds made my hands and feet itch. My kidneys had completely shut down, my body couldn’t tolerate the dialysis. I required vascular surgery, because of a huge hematoma in my upper right leg, where doctors had tried to insert the ECMO tube that, once inserted in my left leg, saved my life. A bleeding ulcer had to be repaired with another surgery. “I feel like Humpty Dumpty,” I wailed. To which Simon emphatically responded, “You’re not Humpty Dumpty.” Yet the feeling persisted.
Taking My Life Back One Inch at a Time
After 44 days in a hospital bed, my muscles had atrophied to the point where I couldn’t bring myself up to a sitting position on my own, let alone walk. I could barely feed myself, and couldn’t even lift my phone to make a call. It was time to get back to New Bern and a rehab facility. The medical staff at UNC-Chapel Hill treated me with dignity and kindness, and I will be eternally grateful for the superior care they gave me, but I needed to begin regaining what I had lost during my illness.
On April 2, I was transferred to Pruitt, a rehab center about 25 minutes from our home. This meant that Simon, who had stayed in Chapel Hill to be my advocate, guest blogger and my rock, could finally sleep in our bed. It also meant that I had to work extra hard to get the hell out of there.
The next three-and-a-half weeks consisted of daily triumphs, my first steps, climbing four stairs, riding a recumbent exercise bike for 15 minutes, standing unsupported for 15 minutes, my first solo trip to the bathroom, and the first time I was able to hook my own bra, were all cause for celebration. And with the copious amounts of chocolate my friends brought me, we had great celebration material.
Finally, on April 27, I arrived home for the first time in over two months, but there was still much work to do. The first time Simon and I ventured out on foot, I barely made it to the bottom of our driveway and back. I could only haul myself up the 15 stairs in our house once or twice a day.
In the kitchen, I had to sit at the table to do all my chopping, slicing, rolling of meatballs, and such.
Two weeks later, Elizabeth and husband, Mark, came for a visit. Elizabeth took me out walking daily, and by the time they left, I was up to half a mile.
By the end of June, I could walk one-and-a-half miles without my oxygen level dropping below 90. GDB reactivated my application, and the field representative for my area came out to do an evaluation. I was then scheduled to begin my two-week training in San Raphael on December 8.
I may be a tough old bird, but this episode very nearly did me in. Two weeks of my life are still missing, but I’ve come to terms with it. Elizabeth pointed out that during that time, I was receiving excellent care, and both religious and secular prayers were being prayed. I learned later that many of my friends and families asked their congregations to pray for my recovery. Did it make a difference? I don’t know, but I can’t discount the possibility either. What I do know is that my remarkable husband, children, extended family, and friends made a tremendous difference in my ability to navigate the physical and emotional challenges I faced and subsequently overcame. I couldn’t have done it without their love, support, and chocolate.
Season of Light
The second half of 2019 brought a renewed energy. We drove down to Jacksonville, Florida to see Gary, Then made our way to Kevin in Charlotte. On our way back to New Bern, we stopped in Durham to be hosted by GrayBeard Distillery and a Zimbabwean restaurant called Zwelis.
In August, we flew to New York for our godson’, Adam’s wedding. It was a bittersweet event because Vikki, Adam’s mother and one of our closest friends, should have been alive and healthy to celebrate with us.
We spent time with my cousin and his family and took the opportunity to review the CityPass we had been given at IMM in January. One of the days we spent in NYC I walked a total of five miles. Considering where I was less than five months earlier, that was pretty damn good, if I say so myself.
On the Road Again
In September, we hit the road for our first multi-country trip this year. We began with a press trip to the Wild Center near Tupper Lake in New York’s Adirondacks. Warm dry weather greeted us when we arrived at the center, and we immediately fell in love with the area. We were treated to a day of Native American food, culture and tradition across the Canadian border, a hilarious play at a quaint theater in Saranac Lake, and a tour of the Wild Center that wowed us to the core.
From Tupper Lake, we drove to NYC to fly to London, Gatwick. After a glorious week with family and our first look at our great nephew, Nate, we flew to Bucharest for a few days of sight-seeing. From there, we traveled to Transylvania for five days of volunteering at Angloville, an organization that gives volunteers room and board in exchange for speaking English with their clients, professionals working for multi-national corporations. We found the organization sloppy and disorganized, but loved our students. I guess Diverbo in Spain spoiled us.
Since we had the luxury of time, we spent a delightful week exploring imposing castles, intriguing churches, and charming towns and villages on our way to meet Elizabeth and Mark in Budapest. The Air BnB we shared was simple but comfortable, and a cozy place to spend our evenings together after exploring this remarkable city.
We took walking tours, visited the 19th-century opera house, indulged ourselves at the Turkish baths, as well as palate-pleasing traditional food. BTW, I managed to walk eight miles on one of the days we spent in Budapest.
From Budapest, Simon and I took a bus to Ljubljana in Slovenia. We didn’t know much about the city, but it didn’t take long for us to add the city to our list of favorites. From there, we rented a car and drove to Lake Bled for two days of walking and enjoying the fresh air and spectacular scenery of this increasingly popular area of the country.
La Bella Italia
From Slovenia, we made our way to Venice. We had planned to visit twice before, but my broken leg in March 2018 and Gary’s shoulder surgery in November of the same year, along with Otto’s chemo schedule kept us away. But third time was a charm. Venice was everything we had anticipated and more. Traveling everywhere on water busses, crossing a bridge over a canal every couple of minutes, and the pride the population takes in calling itself Venetian instead of Italian made me feel as though the city was on another planet entirely.
Bologna and Emilia Romana
Bologna was next. A city of arcades, funky architecture, and over-the-top scrumptious food. While there, we were invited on a 10-hour food tour that was unlike any other we have experienced. The time-honored technique of making Parmigiano Reggiano, the process of making fine aged balsamic vinegar, and the procedure involved in the production of prosciutto were revealed to us by an entertaining guide. Needless to say, copious amounts of food were also part of the tour.
Exploring more of the region of Emilia Romana took us to Cremona, where we were invited to learn how the world’s finest violins are custom crafted, and how instruments belonging to some of the world’s most famous musicians are repaired and restored.
The final leg of our trip was another transatlantic Holland America cruise out of Civitavecchia. Eighteen days of visiting the ports of Barcelona, Malaga, Cadiz, Casablanca, Tenerife, and Funchal on the island of Madeira, along with an eight-day crossing, gave us the opportunity to relax and recharge. And after nearly two months of constant travel, we needed it.
I’l be sharing details of some of these priceless experiences throughout 2020.
A Splendid End to 2019
On December 9, in San Raphael, a beautiful 19-month-old Lab-Golden cross, came into my life. Her name is Splendid – AKA Splendida, Splendie, and Splendisima. The two weeks I spent training with her seemed to go by in a flash, and before I knew it, we were on a plane headed for home.
Splendid is a soft, cuddly, well-behaved pup with a calm, yet playful personality. Most important though, she is an excellent guide. Also, she is just what I need to help me heal from Otto’s loss. Hopefully, we will travel many miles to many lands together.
I had the pleasure of meeting Splendid’s puppy raiser at graduation in San Raphael. Emma Barna, a high school junior, and her mother, Christina, came all the way from San Antonio, Texas to see Splendid graduate. Now, I’m not overstating when I say this young lady is phenomenal. I learned a lot of about Splendid’s habits and little quirks. I also found out how much time and effort Emma put into exposing Splendid to every imaginable experience, including taking her to her classes and activities. I saw more maturity and grace in that girl than I see in many adults. Thank you, Emma, for turning out the perfect guide dog for me. I will cherish and love her for the rest of my days.
Splendid and I arrived home three days before Christmas. Kevin and Gary were already here, and after spending Christmas Eve with good friends, we had a quiet and especially precious Christmas Day. And that made the deep darkness that began 2019 worth it all.
Yes, there were a couple of setbacks and disappointments in the second half of 2019, but after nearly losing my life, they seem trivial. While visiting Gary in late July, I tripped and fractured a bone in my left foot – the same one I broke the previous year – and clomped around in an orthopedic boot until we left for England. Then, while I was training with Splendid, we learned that our planned April, 2020 trip to Japan and a Pacific crossing on the Westerdam needed to be scrapped due to a technicality regarding a blood test Splendid would need no less than six months before entering Japan.
This and other things pissed me off, but could never detract from the joy of being alive to appreciate the love of my husband, sons, extended family, and friends. When all is said and done, love is all that really matters. Everything else is just frosting on the cake. Sure, frosting is yummy, but without the cake, the frosting is nothing but a thick puddle of goop.
If you have any post-holiday funds you would like to donate to a worthy cause, I hope you will choose to support Guide Dogs for the Blind.
May you all have a healthy, prosperous, and love-rich year in 2020.