I know the smell of death, the smoky death of a building, the rotting death of food gone bad and the pieces of home and hearth that have vaporized at 2000 degrees then reattaching themselves to different places in the house.
I am the first to see it, to smell it, to feel the burning in my eyes and lungs after the fire is out. The first to stand detached among the debris, the soggy water-soaked aftermath: The first to begin the plan of what to save, what to restore, and what to replace. It’s the things, the mementos, and the snippets of lives that I see with charred and melted edges. The decision of what to do next lies with me, and then I face the family.
“Sorry to meet you under such difficult circumstances”, I say. We’re going to take care of you”. I remember their faces, the grief, the shock and I know they don’t remember those first moments with me. Sometimes we cry together, sometimes we cry alone.
They don’t often die, sometimes a pet, seldom a person. But I’ve seen the outline of a woman baked into her bed, seen her next nights dinner defrosted on the counter, the soot-covered list of things to do and presents to buy and calls to make and I wonder why. She did not expect to die.
I think of how she would feel, my crew, taking her furniture to the dumpster, her next of kin looking on, not wanting her belongings. “She was a packrat”, they say as they leave. “Just set aside the dining room set, we’ll pick it up when it’s cleaned”.
They drive away and I watch them go. They didn’t care about who she was; content to have her life piled into a long open dumpster. It takes us days of sorting, inventorying… we touch what her life was: collections of statues, teddy bears, linens, photographs… her Bible… her clothes, all covered with the fire. We take our mementos, the house now ours to empty and disburse of its contents. We work in respirators and Tyvek suits to protect ourselves from the poison seeping from the soggy debris. The ceiling is on the floor. Long broken pieces of sheet rock, like misshapen platters, piled with eight inches of wet pink insulation. Like a surreal strawberry sundae, the soot and smoke becomes a morbid chocolate topping.
We make our way down hallways with shovels and trash bags. We don’t know what lies beneath the madness and sometimes we don’t want to know. It seems like rape and robbery all at once. The house was dusty; she wouldn’t have wanted us to see that, I bet…I wonder if somehow she’s watching.
I walk the long black path from doorway to dumpster, shouting instructions to the crew, the insulation finding its way out the door like pink fiberglass cotton balls lining the path. The artist in me sees the contrast of colors with the black, the burn, the grass, the pink, and the white gone gray suits of the crew. We are the ghosts that carry her soul away.
Her neighbors look on. They don’t know what to do. Someone has been placing the daily newspaper by the door but she isn’t coming back.
There will be nothing familiar when we are finished. Even the walls where she hung her pictures will be gone, the kitchen cabinets, the front door with the gouges from the firemen’s ax, all beyond repair.
And days later when finally we are through, I walk through the house, now nothing but two by fours and electrical wires on the inside. Like a long dead corpse, only the bones remain and they tell no stories.
In what was once the living room I pause, bend to pick up a piece of paper, but it isn’t. It’s a photograph, it must be her and I feel like she’s looking right out at me.
“I’m sorry”, I say, “Someone’s got to do it”.
“Big Changes Coming and Nobody Gets To Mess WIth Me Any More” a rant about pain, frustration, and time lost
This blog post is not typical of what I write, but more of an accounting of time that led me to a decision of great importance. I have been on a strange journey and now, as I am looking back at it, I am suddenly aware of a new set of lessons. Let me just begin….
Some back story, in case you have not heard me blather endlessly about my current and frustrating situation… I have some health challenges, and one of those challenges is Chronic Pain to the point of disability. It touches and controls every aspect of my life, and I have become more limited and secluded over the last decade. Fibromyalgia, Arthritis, Degenerative Bone Disease, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and PTSD are my diagnoses, and for this, I see a Pain Specialist Physician among others. Because of the pain and the symptoms, I have, over the years, been prescribed a large variety of medications to try to keep the symptoms at bay while allowing me to do every day things, like get up from a chair, or sleep. Some of these medications have worked better than others. In addition to the medications, I must have injections in my neck, back and knees. Without this combination of treatments I would not be able to walk at all and what I am able to do in the course of a day is simply not enough.
Over the last year I have become dissatisfied with the status quo. Anyone would be dissatisfied. I have disintegrated into a shadow, lost my career and income, and my ability to do almost everything that I enjoy, physical and otherwise. Thinking and focusing has become a challenge equal to walking or driving. I do nothing well any more, but I digress. During the monthly trips to the doctor for meds, I began voicing my desire for change, to try something different to see if I could feel even a little bit better. It was decided that I would begin the process of consideration to have a pain pump surgically implanted in my body to deliver narcotics directly into my spine at intervals that would eliminate the ups and downs of oral pain medications. I was all for it, so the process, the slow process began.
First, I was cleared by a psychologist. They want to be sure that you are a stable person, and not suicidal…. Think about that… I don’t want pills. I want an implant to eliminate pills… the things that come in large quantities… in exchange for a medication whose delivery is completely out of my hands. This should have been my first clue. It took a couple of months of waiting before I could get an appointment to see this psychologist, and I easily passed his scrutiny. I could now see the surgeon. I waited several months, patiently, to get a referral and I don’t know why it took so long and I will not speculate. When I went to my appointment in mid-November of 2013 to have my pills counted, to pee in a cup and get new prescriptions, I was told that the referral was being made, finally, and I should be hearing from the surgeons office shortly to make the first appointment to see about the pain pump… what I hoped would make my life better. The waiting was driving me crazy.
Two weeks went by, and I called my doctor’s office and was assured that I would be getting a call “any day now”. I went to my medication appointment in mid-December, and asked again, why in the word I had not heard a word about something that was so important to me. My life and my mobility were slipping away. Why didn’t it matter? I was told a call was made, and that my file was on the surgeons’ desk… the time was near. I gathered my prescription refills like I do every month, made my appointment for January, and away I went on my hour long drive home feeling discouraged and tired.
Jump forward to mid-January. The day of my appointment is nearing and I am suddenly greeted one morning by a severe pain in my left eye. It is Iritis… for the second time. Iritis is a special little problem… you see, your body decides that your eye is a foreign body and tries to get rid of it, and the only way to take care of it is by using a series of eye drops every HOUR to keep your eye from being destroyed, and going blind. It is NOT a fun thing to deal with and it takes months for it to go away. All the while the affected eye or eyes are quite blurry and uncomfortable. So, I call my pain doctor’s office to see if they can send the prescriptions through the mail this month since I am having trouble seeing, and have no ride to bring me… plus I need to see the ophthalmologist and a blizzard is coming. Well, NO they say. The doctor needs to see me, they say. I must come to Asheville, they say. So, I am thinking that maybe it is something about the surgeon. Maybe there is some compelling reason that they want me to drive an hour to their office, with my vision diminished by a considerable degree. So I go.
I arrive at the designated place at the designated time, and I wait. Finally I am called back and I sit down, my vitals are taken and I wait some more. The doctors’ assistant comes in. The doctor is way behind schedule and can’t see me. I think to myself, “I drove all the way here, with the snow starting, not being able to see, and the doctor doesn’t have TIME for me? REALLY?” I am so angry that I forget to ask about the surgeon. I take my prescriptions and head for home through the snow. I go to Candace’s office to trade my car for the truck so one of us can get all the way home, and if needed, I can come down the mountain on our ATV to bring Candace up to the house if she needs to park the car on the road below. I leave the prescriptions with her to drop off for me. Driving or just riding in a vehicle is one of the most tiring and painful things I do these days. I used to love to get in the car and go. Now, I dread it, and pay the price with days of increased pain just to go to the store, a friend’s house, or a doctor’s appointment.
Candace drops off the prescriptions for me as she does so faithfully every month. (It is one of dozens, maybe hundreds of things she does now that she shouldn’t have to do for a 54 year old woman) She tells the pharmacist she will pick them up at the end of the day. As this takes place, I am at home sitting in front of the fire, heat pack on my neck, still paying for the drive to town and fuming about the BS that I deal with every month just to stay somewhat ahead of this damnable pain. The phone rings.
I answer and it is the pharmacy calling to inform me that I am unable to pick up my prescription medications today because the doctor(or rather the charming assistant) has made a note on the prescription not to fill one until the following Monday, and the other, four days later. WHAT? WHY? She does not know. I do not know. This is something new and I feel myself flush with embarrassment. It feels dehumanizing and degrading. I feel like some sort of criminal. An addict. Someone who can’t be trusted. I hang up the phone. I feel awful. I call Candace to tell her that there is no reason to return to the pharmacy today, and then try to call my doctor’s office. Too late. They are closed for the day. It is Thursday, and they are always closed Friday and the following Monday is MLK day. My pills run out on January 19th. I can’t get them until the 20th, and there is Nobody. To. Call.
I suddenly understand something. I am controlled completely. Someone with a pen and a snotty nose controls when I come and go, and makes me jump through hoops to be able to take medication that I hate… that I only take because nothing else has worked. Suddenly, I am done. Nobody gets to fuck with me like this. I will go through the horrible withdrawal from Oxycontin. I did it when the FDA suddenly snatched the Methadone I was taking off the market. I did two weeks of hell withdrawing then and I can do it again. Death has nothing to scare me with. Pain? Yeah, I live with it every day and have lived with it most of my life, so fuck you, doc. I will take no more of your pills. I will not pee in a cup. I will not come running at your whim. I. Am. Done.
I am terrified. The change is big and I could very easily end up worse than I am right now, physically, but as I see it I have no choice but to try. Lots of pain patients have patches on their skin, or take alternative treatments and that is what I want. That is what I will have or I will find a doctor who will treat me like a person and not suddenly, after many years throw me a curveball that hurts my spirit. Go ahead and punch me in the mouth, but don’t you dare treat me like some sort of criminal, not allowing me to pick up my medication until the previous one runs out. You FUCKER. You did it, and you never said a word to me. First do no harm…. ?? Oh, and forget the pump implant as well. HAH!
So, I have reduced my daily intake of medication for pain by one third on my own, and when my appointment rolls around in February, I will march in and give them back whatever pills are left, and I will begin the trial of complete withdrawal from narcotics for the last time. I will choose the next course of treatments, and I will decide what is best for me and my illnesses from now on. I will continue to try new things until I find a way to be able to enjoy my life and do at least something that I enjoy. Right now, I observe. I exist. I suffer. It is not good enough, and from now on, the future will be in my hands and not in a bottle, or at the hand of anyone else. It is going to hurt. It is going to take time, and I may fall, but I am going to keep going and keep trying to have at least part of my life back. I am a warrior and I will never give up. Never.
It has been an interesting year in many ways. How redundant for me to start that way. Every year is interesting and brings learning, loss, newness, hellos, epiphany and more. Death is on my mind right now because there is always so much of it. It is the only thing that is certain and we all share it, from the tiniest microorganism to the biggest forest to the longest living things… we all die.
On our farm we see it unexpectedly when a hawk comes hurling from the sky and flies away with a chicken in its claws, leaving a skewed pile of feathers as the only remains. We see it in our field, where the incessant rains have carried away our crops for the second year in a row. We see it in our lives too, with a startling phone call or a neighbor stopping by as they go by the house.
July begins with excitement. Summer is in full swing. Patriotism is winding up for the annual grand display with fireworks, grilled food, much flag waving and gratitude. Then it begins with a phone call and suddenly Candace has lost a brother and I a brother-in-law. Just a few days later and a friend I have known since I was a young teen has passed just as unexpectedly. He was part of my second family growing up and was the closest thing I could have had to a brother at that time. Even though I had not seen either of them in some time I am transported to times when we were younger, remembering times both good and bad. How did the time pass so quickly?
Time. Another phone call only days later. Our social circle is cracked to pieces as word spreads of the death of a friend. Young. Gentle. Caring. Surgery and recovery gone horribly, inexplicably wrong and a true light is snuffed out. The grief is palpable now. I can taste it and I am filled with sorrow and rage. How. Can. This. Happen.
I remember my 20s, 30s, 40s, and feeling like I had so much time. I was wrong.
Now it is September and my neighbor Bill and friend Ruth have both passed and I find myself in tears at random moments… when I am digging in the garden, or folding laundry. When the phone rings I cringe and wonder who else has passed, what more has gone wrong.
Death is not the only darkness… people disappear from out lives for many reasons and in many ways, some leaving me dumbfounded, some leaving me broken, all breaking a piece of me away to roll to a dusty corner. A loud voice tells me to flee, to hide, to keep all away, to build a wall to protect me from the pain of goodbye… from the pain of silence when the words don’t come and I am left with only questions.
Some days like today, the darkness is calling to me from my past, from moments in time that linger like flies over carrion. Today, when nothing makes sense and trust has a bitter taste that I spit out and grind into the dirt with worn wet sneakers. Where do we go when the darkness comes, when we feel that hand on our shoulder, know what it is, and not want to turn to see it. Where do we go when everything stops and all that is good and right and sure drains away like the blood drains, crimson and thick from a deep wound. When the dark comes calling, like fear, uncertainty, or a speeding train…. where do we go. Where do I go. What do I do now.