Sunday, June 19, 2011

This Old Airport's Got Me Down, It's No Earthly Good To Me

I returned to Billings in February of 2004.  After spending the holidays with my dad and stepmother, I saw they needed help.  My stepmother has highly progressive Multiple Sclerosis and, at the time, was buckling under a barrage of new and diabolical symptoms.  It was a scary and uncertain time for her: would she be able to walk?  How bad is her vision getting?  Why isn't her digestive system working correctly?  How long will her hands be clamped shut?  MS is an evil, relentless disease and Sonjah was getting bitchslapped.

My father was a red-hot mess as well.  He almost died from an aneurysm in 1993 and was never quite the same after that.  He broke his ankle, which led to his 6'3" frame lumbering unevenly on his hips.  Eventually, hip replacements were necessary.  To spice it up, he acquired a staff infection in the hospital that required intravenous antibiotics.  He also had heart disease and hypertension.  Because this was more stress than any one human can handle--and dad was not great at handling stress to begin with--he also suffered from horrible anxiety.  In the middle of the night, I would hear him vomiting into the kitchen sink.  The inability to relieve Sonjah's pain; the fear that his own health was critical; and just the general worry he carried at any given time would catch up with him, and he would, quite literally, expel the emotions the only way his body knew how.  He would stand over the kitchen sink for 30-45 minutes vomiting bile when there was no food left in his stomach.  One night, it got so bad I drove him to the emergency room.  I sat next to him in a fluorescent room and held a pink basin under his chin.  Nurses administered medication that didn't help.  Even when his body was weak from continuous vomiting, his internal worry and turmoil continued to rack his guts.  I was helpless; he was powerless.  I read almost all of The DaVinci Code in that hospital room.  Doctors scolded and pleaded with him to care for himself and learn to manage his stress. But his job, and caring for Sonjah in any way he could left little time to--ya know, meditate and find inner peace.

So he found his peace with alcohol.

Dad struggled with drinking since his days as a musician.  There were times he struggled longer and harder with it, each time snowballing from the previous.  That summer, he was a reclusive drunk.  He would drink in his office when no one else was there, or, he would pour a glass and sequester himself in the bedroom.  Normally chatty and animated, he preferred silence or the white noise of television.  We could look at his face and know that the "DON'T POKE THE INEBRIATED BEAR" sign had been turned on above his head.  Sonjah and I kept our distance unless absolutely necessary, because there was a real possibility of him telling us exactly what he thought about his life and/or us.  And trust me, when he was in pain, he could level pride and self-esteem in one biting verbal punch.  It's this contradiction that continues to be the hardest aspect of his death.  Anyone that met him talked of his charming and likable ways.  He was a storyteller, a bit of a philosopher, and he could play the hell out of any Gordon Lightfoot song ever written.  He was loving, insightful, and could say the perfect thing to lift me out of sadness or defeat.   When people tell me I remind them of him, it's a compliment.  How could someone so awesome have this destructive and tragic flaw? 

In between working, playing at the local theater, and having a secret fling with one Mr. D.R. Edmonds ("Oh, it's nothing really.  We adore each other, but he's moving to Los Angeles and I'm moving to Chicago.  We don't really have a shot."), I got to know my father better--the good, the bad and the ugly.  On my 24th birthday, I asked him what he was doing when he was 24.  Amanda and I had not yet rocked his world, so I knew there were some good stories.  He was a little fuzzy on the details, but he told me he was traveling with some buddies in a van to Washington in pursuit of a woman named Ruth.  It's possible there may have been some mind-altering substances in said van.  His eyes sparkled and he chuckled at the old memory.  I smiled, grateful for the new memory.  It was those moments and exchanges--learning about him as a man, and not just as my father--that built a connection that only comes in adulthood, and only comes through the realization that I am more like him than unlike him. 

Before I left for Chicago in September, one of dad's oldest and best friends, Grant Sears, came to Billings.  Grant knew, through recent conversations, that dad was hanging on by some very thin sanity threads, so he came on a sort of rescue mission.  He arrived on a very large, very shiny motorcycle and my father was immediately seventeen years old.  He circled the bike, stroking his chin and rubbing his head, conjuring ways to lovingly swindle Grant out of this gorgeous machine.  Grant offered a ride and dad couldn't get on the bike fast enough.  I am grateful that the last image I have is my father holding onto his best friend, riding a few moments in a dream to forget his wounds and his worry.

Dad continued drinking after I left.  I would call to tell him of my latest adventures in Chicago, and, while enthusiastic and proud, there were long pauses and slurred words.  Finally, Sonjah--having had one too many encounters with him in addition to her already delicate health--called a friend who was in AA.  I was absolutely supportive of him joining, but I had my reservations.  Previous attempts to get him help had been unsuccessful, but I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.  We all were.

One Sunday, in December, I was putzing around my apartment when he called . . . to apologize.  He sobbed as he acknowledged for the first time that he had been wrong and hurtful at times, and that I was on the receiving end of those episodes more times than he wanted to admit.  I was so stunned and emotional, all I could say was, "It's okay."  We bawled together and promised that we would revisit and rebuild what had been broken between us--between all of us.  We would have conversations and be honest about feelings and circumstances.  No more of this sweep-it-under-the-rug-and-ignore-the-pain--a cornerstone of the Dunn-family mission statement.  He told me he would call me next week to update his progress.  As always, when we hung up, he told me how proud he was of me and that he loved me.  He sounded renewed.  He sounded committed.

I did get a call the following Sunday.  It was the call to tell me that he had died in the night due to heart disease complicated by chronic alcohol abuse.  I remember Sonjah begging to have the "chronic alcohol abuse" removed from his death certificate.  It wasn't that she wanted to deny and ignore it.  She wanted, as a final gesture to her husband, the certifiable acknowledgment that he was taking the steps to value his own life even though his body gave out.  Unfortunately, an autopsy is an autopsy, and the truth is written in 10pt capital letters. 

Almost seven years have passed since that devastating day, and my grief changes.  It began as a constant weight with no respect for time and place.  Break down over the cantaloupes in the produce aisle?  You betcha.  It was heavy and hard to carry, but I adjusted my stride, and carry it I did.  For the past few years it's been certain moments or memories that get me: the way his ankles cracked when he walked up stairs; how he scraped every jar of JIF peanut butter clean; how he struggled to sing sad songs because he was so emotional about music. 

But, today--Father's Day--I realize I miss him differently than ever before.  Today, I miss the man he was going to be.  I picture what he would look like now:  almost 65 years old, clear eyes and a strong, settled heart.  I picture him and Sonjah finding peace and comfort in their life together.  I picture him holding Isla, his only grandchild, who looks so much like him it's eerie.  I picture him and me sitting on a sunny porch, drinking iced tea and tinkering on guitars.  We would play "Early Morning Rain" for the 107th time (and cry for the 107th time), then I would say, "Dad, let me introduce to you 'Mumford & Sons'." He'd be impressed and intrigued by the guitar arrangements.  He would still have the uncanny ability to say the exact sentiment that Amanda and I need to hear when our lives get overwhelming.  He would give us the insight that can only come from a man that has walked that road and come out the other side.

Because I believe he did come out the other side.  He is proud and confident that the souls left down here will carry his life and his memories.  And he is calm and joyful somewhere in the heavenly whirls. 

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Dunnshine's Favorite Things

In an effort to take my writing down a road not populated by thoughts of cancer, recovery, and medication, I am shamelessly stealing this idea from . . . a number of blogs that I read.  It's no schnitzel with noodles, but here are a few of my favorite things:

1.  My Bookmark
I visited the Art Institute of Chicago once during the two years I lived there.  I love wandering the galleries of an art museum just as much as the next person, but I don't find my soul awakened by gazing upon a canvas painted entirely one color by a one-bristled brush made from the hairs of a rare amphibious creature that only comes on land at 11:33am on Thursdays.  An art aficionado I am not.  That said, I completely fell in love that day.

She was on a wall near the exit, kind of bunched in with some others.  Maybe it was the tilt of her head; maybe it was the look on her face; maybe it was her heavy-handed rouge application.  Regardless, I had to know her name.  According to the placard nearby, it is Woman with a Necklace, 1917, by Modigliani.  At the time, I couldn't tell you anything about Modigliani other than I thought he needed to jazz up his painting titles.  My goal was to snag a print from the gift shop and feel very smug that I had a real piece of art on my wall.  My checkbook, however--all $12.56 of it--had other ideas.  I bought the largest print I could.  A postcard.

I like to call her Beatrice Firecheeks.

Since I left Chicago (almost five years ago) I have searched for a print online.  Nothing.  I told D.R. it was my favorite painting, and in a sweeping gesture of romance, he said, "I will find you a print."  He's still sweeping.  I've called the Art Institute for suggestions.  The "art authority" I spoke with didn't even remember the painting being a part of the collection.  Nice.  All the while, I've carried her around as my bookmark.  The white stress lines at the top are from poking out the top of books that are thrown into my purse or luggage.  A couple years ago, she lost her red bouffant hair and I lovingly swaddled her in packaging tape.  She's taken a couple swims because I like to read in the bathtub.  She's still lovely, but I would like to get a larger print before she is lost or disintegrates.   

2.  The Green Monster Smoothie
I discovered this concoction last year while training for my half-marathon.  It makes a great post-run recovery meal (protein), and--well, it's just damn tasty, so have it whenever.  All that cancer-fighting spinach isn't bad either.  Just sayin'.

There are numerous recipes to finagle, but my favorite is:
  • 1 1/2 cups of milk (I use unsweetened vanilla almond milk, but any milk will do.)
  • half of a frozen banana (frozen fruit eliminates the need for ice.)
  • 1/3-ish cup of some other frozen fruit (I've used blueberries, strawberries, mango, pineapple, nectarines, really anything works here.  Although, I did not have good luck with avocados.)
  • 1 scoop of protein powder (optional)
  • 1 scoop of greens powder (I buy mine at Trader Joe's, but it's available online or at health food stores.  Again, optional.)
  • 2-3 cups of washed baby spinach (must be fresh, frozen spinach does not blend properly.)

Add all ingredients to the blender in order listed.  The amount of spinach will depend on the size of your blender.  I pack mine down a bit to get more in.  If you are so inclined, add a glug of honey or agave syrup for sweetness.  Turn on the blender and wait for the smooth bright green gorgeousness to appear.

I would post a picture, but it is in my belly.   

3. Bootcamp H2O 
Sometimes I get burned out on running and have to spice up my fitness routine.  For the month of June, I joined these crazies.  This endeavor is accomplishing a few things:
Photo by, Igor Porciuncula
  • Renewing my love of swimming.
  • Renewing my fear of drowning.
  • Knowledge that my classmates are jealous of my bright blue floral swim cap.
  • And bright yellow swim fins.
  • Thanks to Bossypants by Tina Fey, a new appreciation for my crotch biscuits--"the wobbly triangles on one's inner thigh".
  • Thanks to my long torso, high-cut leg holes, and the placement of my tattoo, a new appreciation for my hip biscuits. 
  • A sense of wellness and freedom as I move through the water, building strength and stamina each time I attend class.  Of course. 
4. Peonies

    These are in my living room right now.
    This time every year, Trader Joe's is stocked with these gorgeous flowers.  They start out in tight little balls that do not resemble anything even remotely floral.  But, get them home into a loving container and they just open and bloom for days.  I am compelled to smell them almost every time I walk by.  De-lic-ious. 

    5.  "Unctuous" 
    I often fantasize I am a guest on "Inside the Actors Studio".  James Lipton is somewhat creepy, but I do love the end-of-show questionnaire.  Currently, my answer to "What is your favorite word?" is "unctuous".  Defined as an oily or soapy quality, it describes any number of things from people ("She was unctuous in her pursuits of his fortune.") to cuisine ("The clams gave off their unctuous aroma.").  I love it because it sounds somewhat sexual, but it also could be a new band (The Unctuous Monkeys!) Also, I challenge anyone to use the word in a sentence and not lay down some shoulder action or make a strange face.  "Unctuous" is not for the faint of vocab.

    Friday, June 3, 2011

    Hormone Drama

    My doctor started me on 100mcg of Levothyroxine after radiation.  Even then, he was sure that dosage was too low, but he wanted to see how my body responded after the trifecta of surgery, radiation and hormone replacement.  Last week, he called with the results of my latest blood test.  Very bluntly, he asked, "Umm, are you even taking the medication that I prescribed for you?  Your levels are really high."
    Confused and defensive, I answered, "Yes I am.  Why, what's wrong?"

    I know that prattling off a bunch of medical lingo is a fast way to make friends, but I prefer to dramatize what I believe to be the discussion Levothyroxine is currently having with my brain.  In this scene, I picture Ed Asner playing my brain, and Rob Lowe playing Levothyroxine. 

    (Curtain Up)

    Levothyroxine:  Good afternoon, Brain.  First, I just wanna say that I'm a huge fan of your work.  Unfortunately though, we've had some complaints about your performance.

    Brain:  Complaints?  About what?

    Levo:  Did that neuron come by and let you know Samantha doesn't have a thyroid anymore?

    Brain:  It's possible.  I can't recollect exactly.  As you can see, I've got a lot on my hypothalamus today.

    Levo:  No worries.  It's just that--well, ummmm . . . how do I put this diplomatically? . . . it's possible that you gave Samantha cancer.

    Brain:  What!?  I would never do such a thing.

    Levo:  Well, it's a delicate situation and we have teams working all the time to figure out what exactly went wrong.  She does breathe that Los Angeles air, but it could also be something in the milk she drinks.  There does seem to be a family history so it could be you were working with contaminated information to begin with.  Of course there is her penchant for sugar--

    Brain:  Levo, your point, please?  I've got a progress meeting with the Amygdala in a few minutes.

    Levo:  Certainly.  As I was saying, I've sent some messages your way letting you know that you can stop pumping out so much hormone.  I'll take it from here.

    Brain:  Well, I just sent some hormones down there a while ago.  Nothing out of the ordinary has been reported.  None of this "Samantha doesn't have a thyroid" that you speak of.

    Levo:  Yes, that's where I come in.  I've been called in to sort of . . . revamp the landscape, if you will?  Samantha requires some specialized attention.  I'm taking over this particular project so you don't have to devote so much time to it.  I mean, I know the heart and lungs keep you busy.  Listen, Brain, you will always be a part of this.  I appreciate you laying the groundwork for me and I'll be sure to keep you updated on her progress, but it's time for you to back off a little and let me do my job.

    Brain:  And what if I don't back off?!  What are you gonna do then, huh?! You replacement hormones come in here with your well-timed sparkly transmitters thinking you own the place.  You know, I've been doing this job for almost 32 years and Samantha has been operating just fineI don't believe your hippy voodoo replacement hormones are any better than what I'm pumping out up here.  So, what do you think about that? Levothyroxine schmevothyroxine . . .

    Levo:  I know this is hard to wrap your brain around, but you are pumping out too much hormone.  The bottom line is, if you don't stop, there's a chance the cancer could come back.  We all just want what's best for Samantha, so I'm asking you--one chemical compound to another--to lay off.  Right now, I'm keeping it low key; I'm asking you nicely.  But, if you don't start cooperating, I'm gonna have to bring in more of my boys and we're gonna have to get rowdy, OK?

    Brain:  OK . . . fine.

    Levo:  Thanks, Brain.  Hey, by the way, that dream last night with Samantha and Julie Andrews running a tannery--some really good stuff in there.

    Brain:  Aww, thanks.  REM sleep and I were pretty proud of that one.

    Levo:  OK.  Good talk.

    (End Scene)

    So, my doctor has upped my dosage and we'll see what transpires from here.