Moving to a new town has left me feeling a bit like a foreigner in these beginning months of transition. I’m the newbie overwhelmed by the slight cultural differences I pick up on every single day from what people wear to how people engage or don’t engage around here. I’m the annoyingly slow driver trying to figure out where I’m going and how to get there because these streets are not the ones I’ve known most of my life. I’m the mama who has to ask a hundred questions about a hundred different things going on at the kids’ schools because we haven’t been a part of this community for years. It’s exhausting for this gal right here (yes, my two thumbs were just pointing toward my cheesy self).
The truth is, trying new things and putting myself out there has always been a struggle. That may sound shocking to some who know of my family adventures to Uganda and my seeker-tendencies that have led to varying vocational paths requiring substantial risk and change. The only explanation I can offer is that when there is a clear and undeniable intuitive sense that a calling is connected to some kind of divine energy, I know well enough to follow that curiosity even if I think it may lead to an anxiety-induced heart attack and do me in for good. Somehow that sense of the Divine compels me enough to move in spite of my own fears and discomforts.
The anxiety that has accompanied this new adventure hasn’t been the paralyzing kind I have known with previous out-of-my-small-comfort-zone experiences. It’s more of a gut-punching every morning reminder that each day continues to require courage. It takes courage to take up space in this world with billions of human beings walking around all over the place. It takes courage to decide that I can make this town, this neighborhood, and this community the place I belong. It takes courage to determine that you can make spaces or places or relationships in this world your home simply because your story has led you there. It takes courage…but it also takes hope. Why muster up the courage to show up day after day if there isn’t first the hope that it even matters?
I am banking on lots of hope these days. I hope that this move wasn’t just a random and unnecessary re-routing. I hope that the lessons we are all learning in this experience mark us for good. I hope that if I keep showing up every day, mustering the courage to face new things and new faces, that my showing up isn’t just for me – that it’s also for the ways I will mark the world around me. I hope that is true for all of us – that our stories matter in this world – that what the world needs is simply for everyone to really just show up every darn day.
My daughter’s name actually means “bringer of light.” However, I’m wondering if I should have named her something that means “bringer of love.”
Before I embark on this week’s story, I’d like to share with you just a couple of ways Lucy loves. Whenever she sees a baby, she says “Aaaaaaawwwwwww!” for an unusually long amount of time. When I criticize our elder dog because he is snappy and grumpy and barks obnoxiously, she is quick to his defense and reminds me that I am hurting his feelings. Every school day she is roaming around the house looking for various things that she promised to bring for a friend: a new pencil, orange duct tape, minecraft creations made from Perler beads, candy for someone who couldn’t go trick-or-treating, to name a few. The last day they had off of school, she hand created a scroll letter and mini vase of felt and pipe-cleaner flowers to surprise Karl and I with breakfast in bed and was nearly heart broken when she woke up to find Karl already gone for his morning run. She is constantly carrying Gizmo around like a baby and then gently tucks him into his bed when its time for dinner. And whether out of fear or affection none of us in the family leave her presence with out a hug, kiss, “I love you,” and sweet good-bye. She is conscientious and kind; her compassion has deep roots already. Perhaps that in itself brings light along with love to everyone she meets.
So, imagine this girl’s concern when we drive all around Seattle and at many, many intersections, stoplights or off-ramps, we encounter members of a large homeless population. They sit in the in the rain and the cold holding signs and pleading for help. For the longest time, I didn’t know an age-appropriate response to her inquiry of why we didn’t give them money. I worked with this population for three years in a drug and alcohol addiction treatment center. The general consensus is that giving them money is not particularly helpful. However, food, warmth, kindness are allotted in spades. So, with that explanation, Lucy then asked why we don’t give them food. That was another question I had a hard time answering. Until finally I said, “We could and we should. I just need to remember to keep granola bars and water in the car.” Subsequently, each time after that when she witnessed someone sitting at a stoplight with a sign, she would remind me.
Then, one day we had a surplus of protein drinks that we couldn’t fit on our shelves with a new load of groceries (the irony is not lost on me). Those drinks then became the base for what would be Lucy’s new project. That night she asked if we could go to the store to buy the rest of the supplies that might be helpful. We brainstormed what we could fit in a gallon ziplock bag and she included needs and possibly wants, pleasure and something to pass the time. Her kits include: a water bottle, a granola bar, a protein drink, a mini maze game, a sucker, and some Bazooka Joe bubble gum.
Walking back from the store with our loot, her energy and excitement was palpable. She rushed in the door and began opening up packages and created a sort of mini assembly line. Every minute she enjoyed arranging the bags, making certain each one had every time. Lining them up in a row, counting how many she produced. There were 16 bags in all. We then decided to divide them up; 6 in my car and 10 in our van.
Since the genesis of her project, sadly, she has not gotten to hand out any of the bags, yet. We live in a city where we don’t have to get in the car and go very far very often. But, this week, I had the privilege of handing out two. During my first experience, I noticed the awkwardness first. Pausing too long at the stop sign. Handing someone a bag that they may or may not appreciate. For certain, they have no idea what’s inside, and may feel confused. But after the pleasant exchange, I found myself looking in the rear view mirror. I was delighted to see them opening the package and begin perusing its contents. The second time, the awkwardness still lingered, but the kindness triumphed in the end.
I recognize that this gesture is not grand. But it is more than anything I’ve ever done on my own accord. To remind oneself, plan, prepare and package something for the mere chance of an opportunity to be kind requires more faith, hope and love than my numb heart allows for. Someone wise said, “A little child shall lead them.” My 10 year-old daughter, with her fresh spirit and fierce tenderness, softens my hard heart and leads me to kindness, compassion and action. And that is just one of many reasons why I love Lucy.
Gratitude begins in our hearts and then dovetails into behavior. It almost always makes you willing to be of service, which is where the joy resides. It means that you are willing to stop being such a jerk. When you are aware of all that has been given to you, in your lifetime and the past few days, it is hard not to be humbled, and pleased to give back.~Anne Lamott in Help Thanks Wow
I think about death a lot. That is probably not the way you expected an after-Thanksgiving post to begin. But it’s the truth. Though it’s difficult to recall my mindframe pre-near-death-exeperience, I’m pretty certain I did not think about death as much back then. Perhaps these more frequent thoughts are related to some residual post-traumatic stress. But maybe not. Perhaps it’s because every which way I look there is something reminding me of our mortality as human beings. From recent public conversations about the young woman who opted to end her own life rather than allow her inoperable brain tumor to run its own course of cruelty, to an episode on Grey’s Anatomy, there are reminders of death every single day. Maybe the increase in thoughts is simply a reflection of aging. After all, the older we grow the more loss we are likely to encounter.
About six weeks into my recovery from Briella’s birth, I drove to work for the first time. I was initially surprised by how natural it felt to be heading back to work, driving the vehicle I’ve spent much of my life maneuvering around. Just as I was about to turn onto the off-ramp from the highway, I was assaulted by an imaginary image of the car in front of me being flung into my windshield. My brain registerred the possiblity of another car being struck and sky-rocketing into my direction and apparently thought it was something I needed to be prepared to handle. The imagined and envisioned scenario jolted my heartrate and left me breathless, but it was not the first indication of my post-traumatic stress. Up until that point, I had also been experiencing dreams almost every night where I was unexplainably draining fluid out of every pore of my body. The dreams felt so real that I would wake up and ask Brian to check to see if there was anything dripping down my back. Considering the amount of blood I lost in both surgeries, the retention of nearly 50 pounds of fluid that my body shed over the course of the two weeks following, and the tubes I had coming out of my body to drain urine while both my bladder and my ureters continued to heal, it wasn’t that difficult to discern what my brain was trying to process in the late hours of those restless nights. But this new fear of cars flying through my windshield was not as easy to explain away.
Thoughts of flying cars have morphed into far more horrific scenarios of which my children or husband are the primary victims. It’s as if living through trauma, an experience where I came face to face with my potential finality in this bodily form, caused a breach in the protective armor many of us live encased within throughout much of life. I think the armor is constructed by equal parts of denial and hope. Denial keeps the inevitable reality of our end and the end of those we love the most at a safe enough distance to function relatively unfazed. Sure, we all know that we will dies someday, but knowing by way of an idea is a very different thing from knowing by way of experience. Hope sustains our life as it compels us to travel further and further down a road we trust will lead us to joy even in the midst of potential tragedy and sorrow. Denial and hope, the two are very different things…or so I’ve learned over the past couple of years.
In my case, denial took the greatest blow in the aftermath of my trauma experience. I’m not sure I will ever be able to live in bliss with that psychological defense mechanism again. I now have an intimate knowledge of how quickly and unexpectedly my own life or anyone’s can come to an end. So how do I function in the midst of this new knowing? My capacity to function now directly correlates to my capacity to live in gratitude. It was gratitude for my life that sustained me during the months of painful recovery. It is gratitude that comes upon me like a wave knocking me off my feet when I’m sitting in the theater watching the production of Once next to the love of my life. It is gratitude that welcomes the tears shed after hard conversations with my oldest daughters about life and love and sex and beauty and shame and struggle. This gratitude thing isn’t about just feeling lucky. It’s about feeling like EVERYTHING is a gift. EVERYTHING. Every day. Every moment. Everything. I am not always able to live out of this place of gratitude – hence the days I don’t function as well. But learning how to practice saying thank you to the source of life daily has been my saving grace. Thanksgiving has moved its way up towards the top of my favorite holiday list over the past couple of years because it’s a day that simply invites us into the practice of gratitude. Let’s hope the spirit of Thanksgiving carries us all through the rest of this holiday season.
Check out our pinterest page for gratitude practices.
For as long as I can remember, my dad has taken every available opportunity to point out large birds of prey flying high in the sky or perched on telephone wires. We might be driving down I-25 from Littleton to Colorado Springs and see a number of falcons or hawks circling open fields looking for their evening dinner. Most people cruising down the six-lane highway would be oblivious to these remarkable creatures or mistake them for mere crows or vultures or even ospreys. But my father would rather easily be able to tell the difference between a red-tailed hawk and a peregrine falcon from a distance. Among other strange talents my dad has acquired in his lifetime, being a falconer is quite possibly one of his favorites. The story about how he trained to become a licensed falconer is one for another time. Suffice it to say that if we ever wanted to get my dad something for his birthday or Father’s Day, it would be some kind of bald eagle ornament or statue. He grew quite the collection of his favorite bird of prey.
This picture circa 1970s is of my dad with Omega, the official bird of the US Federal Fish and Wildlife Service. Because he so readily admired great birds of prey, their majesty and splendor, I too have taken to appreciating them as well. So, on our summer road trip, Karl and the kids often heard me shout that I saw some kind of hawk or falcon flying in the sky just out our window (though I didn’t know the difference unless I saw the fanciful tail feathers of the red-tailed hawk, I knew that one). We even saw one dive into the brush and come out with a snake dangling it its grip. It’s quite amazing what you can witness when you have particular eyes to see and know for what you’re looking.
Now, living in the Pacific Northwest, I find it both a privilege and an honor to see bald eagles regularly. In fact, there is one who frequents Green Lake, the neighborhood I live in. Perched high above the water in an amazingly ancient evergreen, you can see him from nearly halfway around the lake. Yet, even though I get to see these incredible birds far more often than I ever did in Colorado (in fact, some may never get a chance to see our national bird up close), the sighting never ceases to take my breath away, pull my car over and take a picture if I can, and just soak in the grandeur of the magnificent creature.
Unfortunately, it is illegal to pull my car over where I last saw a bald eagle.
The east side is to the city of Seattle what the Denver Tech Center is to downtown Denver. Bellevue, Redmond, and Kirkland are meccas for technological industries like Microsoft and Nintendo. Once a week at 4:00 PM, I drive from my home on the west side of town across Lake Washington to contract at a location other than my neighborhood office. That time of day is the worst time to be on I-5. Traffic is backed up even on the ramp to get onto the highway. Cars move at a ridiculously slow pace and one might find herself listening to the same CD over and over and over, just in one mind-numbing commute. And isn’t it odd when traffic is so slow, you imagine there must be an accident up ahead, only to find out there is zero reason for the painfully sluggish pace?
But once I hit the 520 going east, traffic speeds up and there is a sort of pleasant rhythm driving on the bridge passing over the concrete seams and whipping by the street lamps. I enjoy that part of my commute. There is something about watching the water that is soothing. When it is windy, you can literally see white caps on the waves to the south side of the bridge, and absolute calm to the north. Last week, I saw two people kite surfing on my left while the waves were aggressively chasing each other on my right. And up ahead, perched high above the road on top of a large streetlight, was the unmistakable white head of a bald eagle. I spotted it and gazed at it just long enough ahead of me before glancing in my rear-view mirror to see it one more time. The moment felt akin to seeing a shooting star. Maybe it was nostalgia. Or, perhaps it was relief coming off the stress of previous traffic. Maybe the feeling is what you get when you witness something that takes you by surprise. Whatever happened in that moment, seeing that wonderfully splendid bird felt like a gift – one that I strove to see as long as possible without veering off the road or causing an accident. I wonder how many other thousands of drivers were crossing the bridge at the same time and saw that glorious creature? Did they miss out on a moment of wonderful? Or are they just better drivers? I suppose both are possibilities.
But I conclude that I saw that bird because I wanted to see it. I look for birds of prey. I spot the differences between commonly found fowl and those that are rare and resplendent. How I learned to identify these creatures was just osmosis, something I picked up from my dad. But now, I see because I want to. My heart longs to witness the mysterious, surprising, unpredictable beauty that is all around but we so often fail to see. I desire to be captivated by the unusual, random acts of wonderful that are available for each of us to experience. But where are we looking? Down? Up? Ahead? Behind? Across? What are we looking for? Are we afraid to look because we will be so disappointed if we do not see?
Well, guess what? Later that night when I was returning to my home in Seattle, I was hoping, wishing and maybe even praying for a glimpse of that bald eagle once again. And wouldn’t you know it – I didn’t just see one, I saw two.
I awoke in a fog to the rhythmic sound of the breathing tube still lodged down my throat. I was surprised at how anti-climatic it all felt. There I was, lying again in the same ICU room attached to what appeared to be all of the same machines and equipment. Having only a slight awareness that it was late into the evening, I began trying to sort through the sequence of events. My mind was hard at work grasping for the few details I could recall. Briella. Her name came to me first. Yes, I reminded myself, I now had a set of four little women. My family was complete. But how can she be okay if I am here connected to all of these tubes? Panic began to set in as I wondered where everyone was…where my baby girl was. Wait, I thought, am I really here? I’m assuming I survived whatever the heck just happened…otherwise, why would I be in this sterile, cold, loud ICU room void of any sense of nurture or comfort?
The panic did not sit well in my stomach and the questions brought forth attention to the pounding in my head. I was only awake for a matter of seconds before every last bit of substance from my stomach began hurling itself up and out of my poor beat up body as if it was expressing it’s bitter grief for all it had endured in less than 24 hours. Bile filled my throat and mouth and began to rob me of the air my lungs weren’t strong enough to reach for anyway. My poor mother, who unbeknownst to me, had nodded off after one of the longest days of her life only to be awakened by the stench of my vomit and the sound of my desperate pleas for air. I was helpless lying there, restrained and at the mercy of those willing to care for me in those moments. The irony still causes me to take pause. Like an infant entering into the harsh circumstances of life outside the womb, I too was tended to with a maternal love that can only be described as ferocious. My mother’s care as she helped clear the vomit from my mouth and call out for assistance assured me that I was very much alive. I must have fought hard to be here. Of course I fought hard to be here.
My mother tended to my needs throughout the remainder of that awful night as my body continued to be repulsed by the cocktail of narcotics, fluids, transfused blood and anesthesia it had been forced to receive during both the c-section and hysterectomy as well as the emergency surgery to address the hemorrhaging. All the while, Brian was mothering our new baby girl in his own room on the Mom-Baby floor of the hospital. He held her all night long mutually offering and deriving comfort in an effort to tend to the emotional trauma they’d both endured. It was one heck of a dark night of the soul for all involved, but the dawn finally appeared and with it came a new hope that the storm might actually be over.
They were able to remove me from all of the life-saving machines by midmorning and transferred me to a new room to recover and reconnect with that little human that needed her mama, her home, her person. And what a glorious reunion it was. Briella was accompanied by her big sisters and the man they are lucky enough to call their father and I am honored to call my partner in this wild life. Faith, our then 12 year old, was the first to speak, “Mommy, you look so much better!” The relief in her eyes revealed that these spoken words were more characteristic of a sigh of relief than words of affirmation for my own encouragement.
That day was filled with doctors filing in and out of my room attempting to construct the narrative of exactly what had happened in both of my operations. In the initial cesarean section, the doctor discovered early on that not only was it apparent that I had the condition everyone had warned me about (called Placenta Accreta) where the placenta attaches to deeply to the uterine wall, but that the presentation of this condition was in it’s worst form. The life source for Briella while in utero was actually jeopardizing both of our lives all along as it’s blood vessels had grown through my uterine wall and out into my abdominal cavity adhering slightly to my bladder as well. Had any of those blood vessels ruptured throughout my pregnancy both Briella and I would have been in grave risk of fatality. It was this condition that necessitated an emergency hysterectomy once Briella was removed from my body. There was an injury to my bladder during the removal of the uterus that required initial reparations from a urologist and because of the presence of a benign tumor, my right ovary was removed as well. As a result, the blood loss I experienced put my life on the line as the surgeons and anesthesiologists worked tirelessly to transfuse enough blood product to stabilize the borderline DIC condition of my body. After six hours, everyone that mattered believed I was stable enough to be sent to the ICU for monitoring.
It was only a few short hours later that they discovered I was hemorrhaging. With an estimated two liters of blood in my vaginal canal the doctors believed that their only option was to conduct an exploratory abdominal surgery to sort out where the bleeding was coming from. Though they were never able to confirm the source of the bleeding, they inspected and re-sutured organs that had been impacted most by the previous surgery. They also transfused even more blood product which likely provided the balance of blood and platelets still needed for my body to stabilize. At that point, everyone collectively exhaled a sigh of relief as it appeared all would be well. Once all of the doctors were finished explaining the outcome of my surgeries, I was left with a catheter that I would have in for two weeks as my bladder continued to heal. It was difficult for my mind to rest comfortably in the hope that all of this trauma was behind us, though the doctors all agreed I was now on a relatively short road to recovery.
The glimmer of hope that the doctors had dangled before us was snuffed out before we could ever grab hold of it. Later that first night out of the ICU, I heard those infamous words once again, “Don’t worry too much…” a nurse responded after I communicated that I was experiencing lower back pain on my left side. Yet again, those words did not provide the comfort they were likely spoken to deliver. Instead, my mind fell easily into the trap that trauma creates. What if something else is wrong? How can my body possibly endure another surgery? What if coming this far was just so I could have a day to tell everyone how much I love them…but now that I’ve been afforded that luxury, perhaps it really is my time to go. These were the thoughts flooding my mind. I was drowning and a voice of reason or a reassuring statement were not an adequate life preserver.
My fears weren’t silenced by sleep that night. Instead, I repeatedly woke up feeling like fluid was escaping every pour of my body. At one point, I sat straight up in bed (a painful thing to do after undergoing two abdominal surgeries) and woke Brian to check and see why my back was drenched with some kind of fluid. He was confused as he felt my hospital gown and realized it was dry. It is a strange thing for a therapist who has studied the impact of trauma to observe oneself experiencing symptoms of PTSD. I oscillated between the triggered panic and a reflective awareness that sounded a bit like, “Ahhh…so your brain is in a state of hypervigilance and hyperarrousal, Shauna. Don’t worry too much…it’s just your brain.”
By morning, though, the pain in my lower back had not dissipated or decreased. In fact, over the course of the next four days the pain went from bad to worse. The first couple of days, nurses and doctors alike presumed that the pain was from the excess fluid my body had retained after the two surgeries. One nurse even suggested that it could be gas. Looking back on those conversations now can at times send me into a conversation with my inner critic:
Why didn’t you trust your internal voice, Shauna? Why was it so hard for you to listen to your body and all the ways it was still trying to tell you that it was not okay? When did the voices of strangers, medical professionals though they were, become more important and more trustworthy than you own?
But even now as shame tries to weave its way through every step of those questions, I know the answers already and can always find my way back to grace. I learned early on, like many other victims of abuse, to disconnect from what my body was feeling. So much of my journey has been about finding my way back to wholeness, and I have made such significant strides in that direction, but there are wounds that may need tending to for many years to come.
On the third day of experiencing excruciating pain while on morphine, I met my limit of tolerance. I remember thinking at the time that the pain in my back was far worse than any labor experience, which would explain why mentally I went to a different land entirely. I hope to never have to re-enter that territory for the rest of my life. It was a desolate land where hope was non-existent, where the desire to live had no place to call home in my being any longer. Whatever survival instinct I had tapped into the few days prior had abandoned me in that place. I just wanted the pain to end.
Once again, it was my own mother who came to my rescue. She trusted the pain in my body more than I had been able to and she became the bullhorn I desperately needed her to be.
“SOMETHING IS WRONG. FIGURE IT OUT NOW!” She demanded and they finally ran enough tests to determine that during my second surgery, the surgeon had somehow obstructed both of my ureters. Your ureters are tiny little straw-like organs that connect your kidneys to your bladder. They are a very necessary part of our drainage system. So for days upon days, urine was backing up in both of my kidneys, but most significantly in my left kidney. MY POOR KIDNEYS WERE LITERALLY DROWNING IN URINE. Had it been another couple of days before the identified the injury, I would have likely lost at least my left one.
What we had been told previously would have been a relatively short road to recovery became a 5 month ordeal filled with what I not-so-fondly referred to as “pee bags,” multiple tubes inside and outside my body, a ridiculous number of trips to and from various doctors offices, on-going infections leading to on-going bouts with Thrush, and nearly a dozen invasive procedures ALL involving my lady parts. It was one of the most vulnerable, life-altering, perspective-shifting seasons of my entire life. It is not something I can tie a pretty little bow on…and thank GOD, because bows are overrated and overused. But what I can tell you is that this story, like any story, is connected to the grander narrative of my life- a life of trauma and healing, a life of desire and loss, a life of grief and glory. It’s messy. And I like it that way…because I’m really good at sifting through the mess.
Thank you for entering into this ridiculously long and drawn out story. Though I have gifted all of you with the major details in this four-part series, there is plenty more I have to say about the meaning(s) I’ve discovered along the way.
*Our first night home from the hospital. After going over a week without eating food, I was under strict orders from the doctor to drink lots of milkshakes!