Tributary

bright uellow gerber daisy

There are exceptional people you can come across in life if you are lucky, people who make you feel like a better version of you. Smarter. Prettier. Kinder. More patient. 

Not empty flattery. No. They have a knack for finding the gem of you and making you sparkle and shine.

I have been blessed to find a few of these people in my lifetime. Paul Curran was one of those. I looked forward to his comments for that very selfish reason. He made me feel better about me.

I realize that he was a virtual friend, someone I never met, but what I feel now is a very real sense of grief and sadness. Strangely that is made worse by the fact that I can find no obituary, no mark of his passing except for the deafening silence that exists now on my blog and on many others. 

I want to fill up that emptiness. I want to shout out to the world, to his physical friends, to his family: I KNEW PAUL CURRAN. He was my friend. He existed. He was a priceless member of the human race. He touched many lives. He made a difference. He mattered.

Just as I hope someone will say about me when I am gone.

We’ve lost Paul Curran, our master guest columnist and prolific comment-leaver

Whenever I made a post, I could count on Paul to have something to say. Most of the time, his comments were better than my posts. I am going to miss him something fierce. Rest In Peace, my friend.

Mark Bialczak

Those of us who’ve grown to love the lively words that bounced from the head and fingers of Paul Curran will never be the same.

The writer from Canada has died, according to his neighbor Steve Watson.

I received this email on the contact tab from my blog:

With great sadness I have to tell you that Paul Curran has passed away. Paul passed last week.

Our guest blogger, Paul Curran. Our guest blogger, Paul Curran.

Your Barrista -- Paul Curran Your Barrista — Paul Curran

Now Your Barrista – Paul Curran Now Your Barrista – Paul
Curran

A series of the column head shots Paul sent me since 2013 to just a month ago.

I found the email this morning. I arrived yesterday. Steve Watson was listed as the photographer in the If We Were Having Coffee Sunday column Paul had me post here on Sept. 11 after his emergency operation.

I could not find an obituary through search engines.

Paul lived in Ottawa, Ontario…

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Circular 

interior, cathedral in France, with stained glass
He closed his eyes, blocking out the shadow of her face until she was just a body in the dark. He needed for her to be someone else this time, someone with less power over him. 

Someone who could not touch him.

At the same time, she lay still and closed her eyes, feeling him move, willing for it to be someone else she felt instead. Someone who saw her for who she was and wanted her anyway.

They both made love to their shadow puppets and it was enough. 

For now.

Comparing 

zinnia in black amd white

Life is made of joys and sadness. Ignoring the sad, painful times neutralizes the joyful ones.

One of my office managers keeps insisting that we not talk at all about the negatives of our job. He would prefer that the staff and physicians only project happiness, sunshine, and roses at all times. I am not sure that is entirely healthy.

This is the way of life lately. No one wants to hear or even acknowledge the negative. Sadness makes us uncomfortable. It is painful. It is a natural thing to want to avoid it.

Why can’t you just be happy?

The problem is that completely ignoring it promotes isolation. It keeps us from recognizing who is suffering, who is at risk, who needs help. This is a tough job for all involved. What is wrong with acknowledging that so we can all work through it together? 

Am I the only one who feels this way? What is wrong with me?

And it takes away the drive to get better. 

If everyone is happy, why do I have to do it right?

The worst part is that it takes away the celebration of the real triumphs. 

What? Can we BE more happy?

It is OK to feel fear, doubt, sadness, frustration. It is what we do with those emotions that is the key. How do we respond and use them constructively?

I see this in patients, too. So many believe they should not have to feel any negative feelings, that such feelings should be avoided at all costs. 

I know I should still be happy. I am going bankrupt, my wife left me, and my son is in jail, but I should be happy. Everyone tells me I should just be happy. Make me feel happy.

Doc, I am really, really trying to stay positive. I have metastatic cancer and I am in pain all the time and chemo is kicking my butt. Everyone tells me I should stay positive or I won’t beat this but I really just want to cry. I need to cry.

You know what? Being sick sucks. Having cancer sucks. Sometimes life just sucks.

And it should be OK to say it sucks. It should be OK to grieve and be sad and to cry if need be, even if it makes others uncomfortable. 

What we need is balance. Not a cult of happiness.

Threadbare

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I am sneezing and wheezing again as I pull out old Nancy Drew volumes from the shelves and plunk them into a musty cardboard box. 

Why didn’t I bring my asthma inhaler?

The dust hangs heavily all around me, dust that has lain here for decades. It was not how I envisioned spending Easter but my mother had begged me. I squint and blink as I read titles, as much to keep the dust out of my eyes as to keep the tears at bay. There is a reason I have been avoiding it for so long.

This room used to be mine.

I grew up here, shed more tears than I care to remember within these walls. I cried out to God so many times when I just wanted to die. There was no hope left for me here.

Please. Take me away.

There is a different bed but everything else, including the ancient fraying pastel curtains, used to be mine. Now it is called the guest room but no one has ever been brave enough to spend the night here, not since my last night in 1997, the night before I eloped.

I wanted to escape.

“We have three bathrooms but when it rains only one toilet works…” My father thinks it is funny that the toilet overflowed on a high school friend of mine. He likes to tell the story over and over again. I don’t remember it, truthfully, but why argue? He will not remember next time I come.

The walls of an ancient box are crumbling down around my old drawings. “You used to be so artistic,” my mother says wistfully as I stuff sheafs of paper into a new box. My kids might get a good laugh out of them now. They are truly awful…

No more crying. Not here. Not in this room. Not now. This is not me anymore, is it?

Old stuffed animals are still strewn about, untouched except by the unrelenting hands of time. My precious giant pink hippo that I bought from the Goodwill store with money from hours and hours of pulling weeds in the garden in 100 degree heat now has a giant hole that stuffing is pouring out of. How does that happen when you are not looking? The threads that hold you to your childhood just decay away.

“Maybe you can sew up the hole?” my mother says.

“It’s, OK. Just throw them all out…” I try to act as if I don’t care.

There are holes in the walls from pipe work done when I was a teenager. They wanted to keep the holes in case they needed more work done on the plumbing at some point, work that was never needed. I covered up the holes with posters of an F-16 fighter jet and Faberge eggs.

Plugging the holes with strength and beauty. I understand it now.

Out the window I can see the lawn hasn’t been mowed in months and the grass now stands knee high due to the early spring. My father says he is afraid to mow when there is any wind because the clippings might land in neighboring yards and upset someone. Not that anyone has ever complained about clippings. They will complain about the unsightly yard soon enough, I bet. He shouldn’t be mowing anyway, though.

Financially they are in a great place now. They could pay to have all of this fixed. Hell, they could demolish everything and build anew three times over. But they won’t. Instead, my mother complains about the lettering on her Pyrex measuring cup wearing off too soon. She has had it since I was a child.

“How much do they cost? And how long should one last, anyway, mother? Just buy a new one!”

This place is a mausoleum. When I am away I can choose to remember how I want to remember, what I want to remember. Here, the memories are forced upon me whether I want them or not. 

I will not do this to my children. I will redecorate their rooms as soon as they leave for college.

I know I should visit more often but when I go, the place fills me with grief. I still want to run away, to save myself. I still want to escape that little girl’s despair. And yet…. I think the thread is unraveling bit by bit. The hold is getting weaker, I can feel it. 

Someday, this place will no longer exist for me.  

Jagged

  
“Hey! Are you Dr. Victo?”

“Yes….” I looked up to see a tall slender woman staring at me curiously. I was sitting with my daughter in the lobby, waiting for the church service to end so I could trade my homemade sourdough bread for farm eggs.

“I thought so!” Her voice warmed. “I used to be your patient before you moved. I sure do miss having you for a doctor. Are you still in that new place?”

“Yes. Yes, I am. It’s been almost seven years now, actually…” I struggled to place her face as I quickly distracted my daughter with a smart phone app. I knew from experience where this was heading.

“Oh.” There was an awkward silence. She took a step back. “Well I am NOT going to drive that far. My friend says she does, but I won’t.”

“I understand,” I told her. “I am not sure I would that far for me…”

I shrugged and smiled as she walked away, even though it stung. Almost every time I am out and about in town something like this happens. 

The grocery store. 

The park. 

At a restaurant. 

People still remember me, which is remarkable in itself, but I wonder what my kids will take away from these encounters…

Distance

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“I am always sad this time of year. I miss my son.” Her voice wavered a bit as she tried to speak around the lump forming in her throat. 

“I am sorry,” I said quietly, grabbing the box of tissues for her.

“He’s been gone for four years now and I still cannot shake this sadness at the holidays.” Tears formed and overflowed. She dabbed at them. I already know that she is in counseling, that she does not want to discuss meds, that she is not a danger to herself.

“I am not sure you will ever get over it, you know. Not completely.” She nodded understanding.

My heart aches for her. A pain that threatens to swallow me up if I let it. 

I stand.

Part of me wants to stay. I want to talk to her about her son. What was he like? What does she miss about him the most? But I can’t. My other three rooms are full and I am running 20 minutes behind. 

My mind races ahead to what lies in the next exam room…

So instead I give her hand a squeeze and when that just does not feel adequate, I give her a good, strong hug. 

“Rosie will be in shortly to take you to the lab for the blood draw. I’ll see you back again in three months.”

And I walk away…

The Visitation

 bare tree branches in the forest 
She stood at the bedside, holding his hand. She was wearing tight jeans that cradled her back side just so and a warm, bulky sweater that still showed off her perky breasts.

He could not see her, how good she looked, but he would have appreciated it, I am sure.

The machines beeped and rang and whooshed all around. Everything was moving except for him. He lay so very still, barely breathing.

“Sam, I have to go. I can’t do it. I can’t be the woman who helps you get through all of this.” She sniffed, dabbing at a tear stained cheek with a crumpled up tissue.

I tried not to stare.

Still, I could not take my eyes off of them. It just seemed so wrong. I could have been her, given other circumstances.

She sensed it and looked over, fixing me in her gaze. I coughed uncomfortably, looking down at the patient chart. Quickly, I flipped to the orders section and started scribbling.

“Good-bye.” She gave his limp hand a final squeeze and then was gone.

The doors to ICU eased shut behind her with a soft thump.

Silence.

He sat up. 

“Pssst!” He whispered at me. “Is she gone?” 

I checked the video monitor to be sure. There she was walking away. No looking back. “Yeah…. She’s gone.”

He smiled.

“Thanks! I owe you…” He untaped the fake IV, unwrapped the gauze turban around his head, and pulled off the hospital gown. Thankfully, he still had on pants underneath.

“That is the last time I help you break up with a girlfriend, Sam. I swear.”

He laughed, then started buttoning up his blue and white striped dress shirt.

A pager went off.

“Yours or mine?” He asked. 

I checked.

“Yours.”

He sighed, holding out his hand. I slapped the cold, black thing into his open palm. He finished tying the yellow tie, then shrugged into his brown corduroy sports coat. A quick check of his hair in the reflection off the paper towel holder by the sink and he was off to his next conquest.

“You’re a piece of shit, you know.”

“Yeah, yeah. Merry Christmas,” he called out over his shoulder as he walked past.

He was so damn handsome.

It could have been me…

Act Two 

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Steeling myself, I walk through the door. Christmas music is playing. There are twinkle lights all around, red ribbons and wreaths. Festive, really. The room is full of other physicians, people I know and work with every day at the hospital.

The men are chatting each other up, talking shop.Their spouses laugh together about childbirth and children, extolling the virtues and woes of being a stay-at-home wife/mom. They look up briefly, going silent as they regard me with suspicion. I spend more time with their husbands than they do which makes me a threat. I do not understand them. They do not understand me.

The few other female physicians stand about, sprinkled around the room with their non-medical spouses, also eyeing each other with suspicion. I smile pleasantly at them, they smile pleasantly back. But no one moves and one speaks. We are in competition with each other, after all.

My husband didn’t come. He hates these functions even more than I hate them. I cannot decide if it is better to have him with me. His being uncomfortable makes me more uncomfortable. Still, a distraction would be nice. 

When I am in the clinic, I am in a position of power. I can play the part of the outgoing, caring lady doc. I am a great actress. But here? I feel exposed and vulnerable and I hate it.

I move to a small group of my partners and nod as I stand silently near them trying look as if I fit in. I laugh at their jokes and smile as if I enjoy their company, waiting for dinner to be served. At least during the meal I can pretend to be busy with the food. 

Money. That is what I am to all of these people. Hiring another female physician was a purely financial decision by the group. And the specialists? They just want my referrals. I don’t know if I am truly friends with any of them.

I am popular socially, outside of medicine, but some time ago I realized that it was not because I am a particularly good friend or because I am fun to hang out with. I serve a purpose, providing social standing to people who want to say they have a doctor in their inner circle. No one checks to see how I am doing unless they want me to diagnose their kid’s rash over text.

This is my life now.

I am a grown woman, though, not the scared little girl in the grade school lunch room.

So I turn and leave. 

Silence

Cambodia 440

“Doc, I don’t want to check my blood sugars. It hurts too much.”

Airplanes just hit the twin towers. I need to tell my mother to make my father stay home from work today. He is supposed to be in a federal sky scraper. What if there are more targets? Wait. I hate the man. Why am I caring? Do I care? Yes. But I don’t want to care….

“It hurts too much? You are on insulin. You have been hospitalized for diabetic ketoacidosis twice so far this year. If you DON’T check your blood sugar you are going to end up back in ICU. Maybe dead. That is really gonna hurt…”

The towers are burning. Collapsing. All of those people hurting, in pain. And YOU think it is too much of a burden to do a tiny finger prick every day?!?! I want to scream at you.

“This stuffy nose started yesterday. Make it go away.”

Is the red phone in the ER?

“But I can’t make it just go away. It is a viral infection. Your body will have to do that. You are just going to have to treat the symptoms as best you can and let it run its course.”

A stuffy nose? That’s it?!??! Since yesterday? Have you seen what is happening? I want YOU to go away! I need to make phone calls, check on people that I love. I need to cry, to grieve. But there is no time right now…

“Doc, my knee has been bothering me for two years…”

“Two years? Why today? Why is today the day to have it fixed?” 

What is knee pain in the greater scope? It isn’t your fault you came in today, you could not have known when you made this appointment, but still I am angry. I want to be angry with someone. You. You are here. You have a face, a body I can touch. You are real. 

The world shifted then stood still, silent for a fraction of a second, then unfairly continued on.