I stepped from Plank to Plank
A slow and cautious way
The Stars about my Head I felt
About my feet the Sea.

I knew not but the next
Would be my final inch -
This gave me that precarious Gait
Some call Experience.

Emily Dickinson, c. 1864

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Things change

Norma Jean on the left, me on the right
I woke this morning with competing storylines running around in my head. I spent the entire day yesterday doing something I haven't done in ages: I attended an all-day training that didn't even allow for a free lunch hour. From 7:45am until 5:10pm, I was in one room with ten other women and only got up to use the bathroom or fill my plate with food during our scheduled lunch.

The training was the final step to becoming a certified Advance Care Planning facilitator for the Whatcom Alliance for Health Advancement (WAHA). It was very intense, with several role-playing scenarios (never one of my favorite things, although it's a valuable tool to practice and gain feedback). A great deal was covered and I became familiar with the other women, who will become valued friends in the future, I have no doubt. Many of them are in the health care profession, nurses and counselors; most are donating their time to WAHA while still working full- or part time. I planned to write about yesterday's experience today.

But the other competing storyline has won out: the one about my sister Norma Jean and her latest trial. The lower part of that lead-in picture was taken when I visited her last November. We had a great time and I fully expected to be visiting her again sooner, rather than later, but then life got in the way and I decided against the disruption of travel. The top part of the picture was taken more than six decades ago, on an Easter Sunday in the late 1940s. I know it's Easter because of our matching dresses that Mama probably made for us.

If you've been following this blog for any time at all, you know that I am close to my sister Norma Jean and that we both are rather dedicated exercisers. She swims more than a mile five or six days a week, does power walks around her retirement community, and golfs several times a week. She wears a Fitbit to track her daily progress. I also walk with a group on Saturdays, work out at the gym four days a week and spend all day Thursday hiking with the Senior Trailblazers. She probably gets more exercise than I do, because those more than hour-long swims really burn up the calories.

In mid-January, she was on one of those power walks when she fell, catching her toe on a curb and went down, scraping her knee and breaking her fall with her left hand. She limped home and dressed her knee but realized that her left hand was hurting pretty badly and she should have it checked out at the local Urgent Care clinic. An x-ray confirmed that she had broken the long bone that goes from her little finger to her wrist. This is called a "boxer's fracture" and needs to be set in a cast. However, they don't do that at Urgent Care and told her to see her doctor and sent her home with a splint in the meantime. Unfortunately she could not use that hand at all in that splint, and she had to wait NINE DAYS to get a cast on the hand.
Fingers are cast downward
By the time she finally got to the doctor's office, she said it was very painful to have her fingers bent downward like this, which is (I surmise) to keep the tendons from shortening during the period of time she is required to wear this cast. She is scheduled to have it taken off in mid-February, if all goes well. In the meantime, there is obviously no swimming. No golf. And worst of all, no walking indoors or out because she is not supposed to do anything that would cause her to sweat under that awful cast.

So this is why that storyline won out: I cannot help but imagine myself in the same position of suddenly being unable to do anything after having been active for so many years. How does one cope? And it could happen in the blink of an eye, as it did with Norma Jean. But it is more than just a month of time out of her life: it will take a long time for her to recover back to her original fitness level. There's going to be a period of rehab, of learning to stretch those muscles and make her hand work right again, and who knows how long that will take. Getting that cast off will mean she can at least walk again, and I picture her like a racehorse champing at the bit, waiting for the release so she can charge ahead and finally stretch her legs.

It has made me realize I need to develop for myself some kind of backup plan in case something like this happens to me. You can only read so many books, watch so many shows on TV, and one needs some kind of other stimulation for the body and mind. I figure asking my readers what YOU would do if this happened to you is one way to start formulating a plan.

I learned recently that the brain actually uses as much as twenty percent of the body's energy, so maybe it would be a time one could learn to speak another language, learn calculus or some other taxing mental exercise. Right? Maybe it would be the opportunity to write a book, record my memoirs or some other such activity. It's a mystery as to how I would handle what she's going through right now.

But as I titled this post "Things Change," it dovetails into what I learned yesterday. It is not often that we sit down and think about the fact that as we age, our abilities to do what we always have done begin to decline. One of the scenarios that we thought about often yesterday is how to help people make decisions now in the event that they are incapacitated and unable to speak for themselves. Using the scenario of a car accident or a fall that renders a person unconscious means that our loved ones must decide how to proceed if, for example, the doctors said there is little chance that I would ever regain the ability to know who I am or who I am with.

Thinking about what "living well" means to me, I realize that I need to be able to be outdoors, to see the sunrise, to visit with my friends, laugh and share the trials and tribulations of life with my loved ones. To maintain the ability to reason and ponder the meaning of life, that's very important to me. That means I need a functioning brain, even if the rest of me declines until I'm forced to become sedentary. It's something I'm giving a great deal of thought, planning ahead for a possible future that doesn't look much like my present-day lifestyle. Although my mind might wander for awhile to other realms, it keeps coming back to this question.

Oh, and before I forget: a friend sent me a link to this twenty-year-old New Yorker story, and it is so profound that I really need to share it with as many people as possible. Jo Ann Beard, the author, has captured both inevitable decline and change, as well as a sudden shock to the system, all in one elegantly written piece. You won't be sorry you spent the time to read it (it's long).

And, on that note, I realize that it's not even 7:00am on a Sunday morning and my post is just about finished. The only thing I need to do is look up from my keyboard and take in my familiar surroundings. Is that rain I hear outside? It wouldn't be unusual. My partner is gently snoring next to me, that familiar and cherished sound as he continues to sleep as I sit next to him, the light from the screen casting a soft glow on my face as I tap away, glad to have written this Sunday morning, and giving thanks that I've still got a functioning brain, filled with excitement for a brand new day.

I hope wherever this day takes you, either on great adventures or small ones, that it will be with a smile. Gratitude fills me and spills out onto the screen. If you're quick, you can grab some of it for yourself. Be well until we meet again next week.


Linda Reeder said...

Today is the exact two year anniversary of my spinal surgery. I thought a lot about what I would do during my recovery. Like you, I am an active person and I love being outdoors. I worked to be in the best shape I could be before the surgery. And I planned a list of sedentary activities that I could engage in to keep my brain alive while my body healed.
There was a weeks long session of very poor sleep, and the winter Olympics were happening live during our night time hours. I spent a lot of night time on the couch watching the Olympics on TV, with the cat sitting on me for comfort and company.
On my list was writing my memoir. I did start that process, one that I finally completed just this past November. It is in rough draft form on memory stick and some time I will get back to editing it.
I was fortunate in being able to walk soon after surgery, and within that week Tom was escorting me on mile long walks in the neighborhood or at the mall. At first he had to help me get dressed,including putting on my socks and shoes. It was a milestone when I could tie my own shoes. I learned to be patient with myself as best I could. Being an "invalid" does not suit me.
Anyway, that experience, plus recovery from surgery on my right hand some years ago, and a cast on my ankle for six weeks much longer ago have given me some idea of what your sister is experiencing. She will definitely bounce back.
You are familiar with Jake's ankle injury. That was devastating to his life style, but even while battling depression, he has come through.
Hugs to your sister. She is strong. She will come through.

John's Island said...

Hi DJan, I am sure sorry to hear about Norma Jean’s accident. On the other hand, I’m thankful you’ve written this post which will get me thinking about an important topic: what to do in the event an accident is disabling. While reading your post I started thinking about my last car accident, which happened several years ago, and luckily I was not injured. I was driving southbound on I-5 out of Seattle and in the right hand lane which is my preference when driving on the interstate as there is usually that shoulder you can resort to in an emergency to get out of someone’s way. In my case, an 18-wheeler just didn’t see me on his right and pulled over into my lane. Sadly, there was no shoulder to resort to since I was just south of downtown on that elevated part of I-5 that is sort of like driving on a long bridge. In addition to not being injured, I was lucky that the truck driver pulled over at the next exit and stopped and admitted his error. My first thought at the time was thank goodness I wasn’t hurt and that we were not hit by other cars on the freeway. My second thought was, This is just the beginning. You know how it is when you’re involved in a car accident … it takes all that time to get the information, call the cops, get their report, call insurance company, get estimates, and then actually get the car fixed and all that involves. Ever since then I’m pretty sure that when drivers pass me on the streets around town they wonder to themselves why is that old guy driving so slow. Of course I’ll be driving the speed limit but they don’t want to go that slow. When Norma fell down I wonder if she had any similar thought that this was just the beginning? Excuse my long story, but it leads me to my next thought which is about what to do in the event an accident is disabling. I need to give it more thought but perhaps one thing is simply “listening.” Well, hopefully, one will still be able to “hear” after an accident and if so, how about listening to books on tape, or as they call them now “audio books” or “audible” files. I wonder if this is something Norma Jean might enjoy? Thanks for another interesting post and hope you have a fine week ahead.

Marie Smith said...

When we bought our current house, I looked at it from the perspective of a disabled person and how this house could work for that eventuality. Since my knee problems, writing, and reading have replaced all the walking I did previously. Twenty to thirty minutes a day are all I can manage now. I find it's no trouble keeping busy, it's a different kind of busy though. More academic pursuits replaced the physical. I hope to be able to walk more soon but will continue my present pursuits too.

It sounds like your training was intense be worthwhile. The work will be very rewarding I think.

I hooe your sister has a speedy recovery!

Far Side of Fifty said...

Baby steps. I am sorry to hear of Norma Jeans injury. There is a site that has a waterproofcast protector. Perhaps that will help her, they seem to work.

I think you learn to adapt after an injury...and do what you can do. From personal experience sometimes casts just sweat even if you are doing nothing. Perhaps some Tai Chi would work for Norma Jean you can even do that sitting down.

So good to hear you are all done and all ready to be a Advanced Care person, many people need to be guided through that process, I am certain you will meet many interesting people:)

Elephant's Child said...

Thank you for that link. Profound, beautiful and unsettling.
I am sorry to hear about Norma Jean's injury. Very sorry.
My body is treacherous. I do what I can, and try and keep my mind active. I really, really hope I can.

Jackie said...

Speedy recovery to Norma Jean. I'm so sorry that she had the fall and got the bumps and bruises and that she broke the bone in her hand.
I'm wondering why it took so long to get the cast on? I don't understand that.
I am praying for her because I know (through your blog) how active she is.
It is hard to not be active when one is used to it as much as she is.
Lots of patience for her.
Sending you both hugs,

Arkansas Patti said...

I am so sorry about Norma Jean's accident. She is obviously dependent on exercise and it hurts to be sidelined. It takes us no time to get out of shape as we age and forever to get back in. I'd have her check out that waterproof cast protector Far Side suggested. Even if she can't swim her mile, she will still get benefit out of a lesser session.
Plan B's are vital and help us adjust to a lifestyle adjustment. Usually when these things happen, the determined find an alternative. You and your sister are both determined. Often the plan B we find was nowhere on our lists. Just have faith in that fertile mind you have. It will find a way.

Tabor said...

You are such a deep thinker and such an industrious personality. You have me worried now that I remember how easy it is to injure oneself at our age and how it completely upsets the routine. She is in good health and should heal well, though. You both look very energetic and young in that photo.

Red said...

Always a good post. I hope your sister recovers quickly. People who are in peak form heal faster and get back on track. You're e right. We are fragile and things can change in an instant as it did for me today. I was going skiing and slipped on ice at the end of my driveway. I have a very sore shoulder when I reach up. I'm hoping things will improve on their own. No more weight lifting for a while! By the way, I didn't go skiing either.

Rhapsody said...

love the passage of time photos.
I imagine things will be challenging for your sister however it is for a short period. Perhaps she can do some reading?

Scary subject --- what you will do if? Big if, scary if. I suppose it is something we should all truly consider for not is promised and things change on a dime.

Thanks for sharing....

The Furry Gnome said...

Wow, what thoughtful comments! I for one think you should try writing a book or your memoirs. After such an interesting life, it would be great! I think you need to work at staying both physically and intellectually active, so something to keep that brain engaged is essential.

Anonymous said...

That story about Gang Lu being the mass murderer made me very sad. And the demise of the author's marriage, that was sad, too.

I hope Norma Jean recovers from her accident. I tend to be sedentary anyway, so if something like that happened to me, it would not make much of a difference.

Mel said...

Thank you for this post, it is very timely for me too, as I just returned from a visit with my mother. She is increasingly unable to do the things she used to do, and like your sister was a very active woman. I don't know how to help her to accept the things she can still do, and to help her let go of the things she can no longer do. It is a very hard process. We got her a Netflix subscription and she has enjoyed that immensely, along with reading and using skype to talk to far away friends and family. But she is still struggling to accept her new reality. I suggested she follow the sun around her house, sitting in the brightest rooms and reading or listening to music. I hope Norma Jean continues to heal. It is very hard for a busy person to downshift to sedentary.

I'm really looking forward to you writing more about your facilitator training. It sounds very interesting. Have a wonderful week!

Rita said...

I was completely knocked off the grid in my early 50s. Quite shocking when we are usually active in my family until into our 80s and 90s. Honestly, I think it took me a couple of years to internally even begin to accept it was really happening and my life had changed that much. Being unable to physically function like you used to...hard to describe. The internet and Netflix are truly a blessing I could never have imagined. I am so grateful I have my mind--even if it is foggier than it was before this change to my life. I am so grateful I loved to read, write letters, watch movies & documentaries, play with arts & crafts, make cards...and that I was a born optimist to the bone. ;)

Your sister will be able to return to being physically active. That is a true blessing in itself. I am sure she will learn things about herself during this time of change, too.

That was an amazing story from the New Yorker! Told with truth and tenderness.

Barbara Torris said...

20% of my energy goes to my mind? Oh my gosh...maybe that is why I am not thinner.

I think that many times a sudden fall or illness is a gift. I really makes us slow down, rest, read and connect with the world on a different level.

Be careful though, we don't need to test my theory today or anytime soon. :)


Barb said...

Thank you for that splash of gratitude! At this point while I'm waiting for my calf to heal, I'm a little bit stir-crazy. I don't know how I'd adjust if I was permanently disabled. What I have been doing is fiddling with my macro lens inside. I even dug out my tripod this morning. I read a lot and think about meals I can make when my kids and grandkids visit on the weekend. (I'm not a good cook and don't like to cook, but planning is necessary.) Good Luck to your sis - yes, it can all change in an instant!

Sally Wessely said...

I am so sorry to hear about Norma Jean's accident. I can't imagine how trying this must be to her. Over the years, I've had three major surgeries on my right upper extremity, all of which meant for several months each time, I was very limited in the use of my right hand. I am sure she will find something to fill her time and will work hard to bring back her hand to full use.

A fall can be so stunning and unexpected. One just wants to do a do over!

Thanks for sharing the story that I had in my blog. That was some story wasn't it?

I'm thrilled to hear of your training. End of life advance care facilitators are so needed as we all age. You will be perfect for such a calling.

Deb Shucka said...

Wishing Norma Jean a speedy recovery and the ability to find the gifts in this situation. This is a lovely piece, and as always, you've left me with much to reflect on.

Glenda Council Beall said...

A good post, DJan, and I can attest to having a plan when you can't do for yourself. I had a fall on Wednesday morning as I was getting out of bed. Today my right arm, hand and shoulder aches terribly. Also my right side is sore. I felt so badly today I spent most of the time in bed. I live alone and have no one to help me, but I am thinking I need to begin planning for the time when I need someone in the house with me at least three times a week and someone I can call on when I need help.
I look forward to more of your posts on planning for the end of life.

Midlife Roadtripper said...

A thought provoking post here, for certain. I have no problem entertaining myself with a book or newspapers. And since I normally have to force myself to go exercise, I could relish a reason not to do it. But, lack of movement only suits me for about three days and I'm back on the walking or something trail. Food for thought. And I will look up that article in the New Yorker -- as soon as I get through the backlog of those sitting beside my chair. Hey, maybe its in that stack.

Kay said...

Oh ouch! Poor Norma Jean! That looks so painful and inconvenient. I sure hope things heal quickly. I didn't even realize you had this blog until I read about it on Red's blog.