Sunday, July 19, 2015

Leaving Home

Later this week the movers will arrive to load up our stuff and take it to a new place. We have lived at our current address (a pleasant ranch-style house on Pleasant Avenue) for nearly 15 years.

We moved here because I was the pastor of a small church in town.  There are many posts on this blog about my life as pastor of the place once known as Jubilee Assembly of God.  When I arrived, Jubilee AG was a place with an extraordinarily difficult history and had already been a struggling congregation for many decades.  There were at least two points in its life when it probably should have closed.

Still, I arrived with a large amount of hope and a firmly-held belief that things were going to turn around.  How hard could it be to genuinely love people, preach reasonably good sermons, be honest and transparent and find ways to be a blessing in our small town?

While I will always love the people I met here, and while I affirm that God was often present in some wonderful ways, things did not turn around in any sort of permanent sense.  We grew. We shrank. We grew. We shrank.  After ten years of trying, I resigned.  Even now, more than five years later, typing those words makes my heart hurt.

I had stayed longer than any pastor who had been there, except the founding one. After me, Jubilee had an interim pastor and then two more pastors and a second name change before finally closing its doors a while back.

I have avoided driving past the church building for quite a while now.  There is going to be a "restart" that will be spearheaded by a large church about 20 miles away.  I hear it will begin this fall.  Last week I drove by.  There was a pile of stuff out by the trash--I think maybe cupboards, and a man was mowing the overgrown lawn.  I'm glad something may still happen there. I wish them the best.

Why we stayed in this town for five years after I no longer served the church is a complicated story. But now it is time to go.  If you have seen my neglected little blog lately you know that my husband, Ken, has been in poor health for about three years.  I thought a condo or senior apartment might be suitable, but Ken hated the idea (truth be told, I did as well) but his days of shoveling snow and lawn care are behind him.  We are moving to a large, two-family home south of here.  Our daughter, Kristina, son in law,Daryl, and granddaughter, Trinity will live upstairs in a nice apartment.  Ken and I will live downstairs.  It is a beautiful old house with lots of character.

The movers are coming in three days, and the house is mostly packed up.  I still have quite a bit to do, but this morning I sat out back with a cup of coffee and enjoyed my home.  The house is nothing special.  As I said, it is a pleasant ranch house. It has always seemed a bit small--mostly because there was nearly always some extra family living in it.  I won't particularly miss it.  However, I will certainly miss our one-third acre yard.

Right now, our tree-filled property is lush and and lovely.  We have a nice little deck out back.  In the long, grey days of winter I look out the kitchen window at piles of snow and I long for warmer days when I can sit in shaded seclusion.

This morning is beautiful.  It is supposed to be hot later, but right now it is pleasant and a breeze is blowing. I made coffee and went to "sit a spell" as my Texas-born mother used to say.

My elderly mother moved in with us about the time we moved to this place.  She was lonely, and it was hard to adjust from living in the south to living in the north.  She never really got over being homesick, and Wisconsin's  harsh winters were difficult. One thing she did love about Wisconsin was how green it is in summer. We used to have a covered swing on the back deck, and she spent many hours there. She also spent a considerable amount of time pulling weeds!  This morning I could almost see her in her jeans, striped cotton shirt (she pronounced it "stripe-ed") and large straw hat, sitting out near bushes on our fence line happily pulling up my poppies.  Poppies really do look like weeds until they put out flowers...I never told her.

My relationship with my mother was always complicated and usually strained.  I loved her very much though, and I was sad to see dementia take an increasing toll.  A friend from the church became her patient  companion for a while (thank you, Laurie), and then a stroke caused me to make the painful decision that a nursing home was needed.  She spent two years there before she passed away.  They were difficult years, made somewhat easier by an excellent CNA who knew her from church and loved her dearly (thank you, Kristen) and visits from a friend (thank you, Pat) who loved her like family.

Not long after my mother died, Ken's disabled brother, Kevin moved here from California to live with us. Kevin lived here for five years before moving to an assisted living place in Sheboygan for several months before his death.  This morning I closed my eyes and listened to the soft cooing of mourning doves and the trill of a cardinal singing from the top of our large birch tree.  Kevin used to comment a lot about the number of birds we had.

Taking a sip from my cup, I smiled thinking of sitting outside next to Kevin in his wheelchair, drinking coffee on a Saturday morning while Ken was still asleep.  Kevin was a character--and Kevin had "issues" and it was not easy having him here. I am glad we did though, and happy that he knew, at the end of his too-short and rather tragic life, that he was loved and valued.  How he enjoyed being part of a family.  He adored his grandniece, Trinity. And I can still see him waving at little Noah, our second grandchild, and saying "Hi, Baby!" because he had a hard time remembering his name. I will always miss Kevin.

Kris, Daryl and Trinity moved in when Kevin moved out.  It has been crowded, but we made it work. Now we move on to what will likely be our last house, and a new chapter of life.  Part of me looks forward to it, and part of me fears it.  There are lots of unknowns and things to be concerned about. But for this morning I sat on the sun-dappled deck and sipped coffee and remembered.

I thought of my mother and of Kevin, of course. But I also thought of my friend Honey sitting in the rocker in my living room and praying for the church and for me.  I thought of many conversations in the back-deck swing with Pat as we pondered the meaning of life and talked about family and read scripture and prayed. I thought of beautiful Tara sitting on the lawn with me and sharing hopes and fears. A few years back I travelled to Tennessee to conduct Tara's wedding. She is now in Florida and her husband is starting the process to become a missionary pilot.  I thought of a birthday party we had in the back yard, celebrating my 60th and Kevin's 50th year of life.  I thought of Kelly and John and Steve and Donna and Gene and so many others who have been on my back deck and shared a slice of life here. 

With deep sadness, I remembered my sister, Darlaine sitting in that same deck swing, beautiful blue eyes filled with sorrow, holding her husband's hand as we talked about her Alzheimer's diagnosis. I thought of my other sister, Paulette, visiting me and our mother as things began to deteriorate.  I remembered our shared sadness and shock at our mother's anger and paranoia.

I thought of David and Mark painting Kevin's room.  I thought of Thanksgivings and Christmastimes and how glad we were when Keith, Ken's youngest brother came to see us here. I thought of sitting with Joshua, our son, as together we pondered the implications of his approaching role as daddy.

Living in this town has been somewhat difficult for me. There have been plenty of perplexing and even frightening moments at this address.  I have walked the floor, cried, prayed, and sometimes fumed.  I have wondered if Ken was going to make it.  I have wondered who I am and how I can go on. I have felt exuberance and hope and I have felt like a pathetic failure. I have answered the middle-of-the-night phone calls with my heart pounding.

But there has also been much discovery and growth and love and laughter and joy.

I have moved many times since marrying Ken.  We lived in military housing, couples housing as we studied for the ministry, parsonages.  When the movers come on Thursday it will be move number 15.  I hate packing, loading, unloading, the mess.  I have never gotten better at it, even after 15 opportunities to improve. 

It is good to have something different ahead and I'm more than ready to say good bye to my home and hello to a new one.  It is time.  Past time, probably.

But leaving a home is always a little nostalgic.  Today I took time to say good bye.


Friday, June 19, 2015

Red and Yellow, Black and White?

I haven't blogged in a long time.  It has been hard to find a voice or anything worth saying in the current sorrow, doubt, anger and weariness that seems to characterize my life at present. 

It has been a long time since I preached a sermon. 

It has been a long time since I felt anything stirring in my heart that needed sharing.  Right now, in the aftermath of the news about precious brothers and sisters being murdered while at prayer, I am longing to be standing behind a pulpit this Sunday.  So much is pounding in my heart that I want to share. 

But if I am truthful, I do not have the energy to attempt to be profound. 

Truthfully, I fear that this blog post will sound trite, but somehow I need to speak, and I am struggling to say something difficult, so please bear with me.

Something my close friends and family know about me is that I really like variety. Look closely at my belongings and you will see it in what I choose in clothing, in books, in music, in food, in flowers. 

When I'm eating Mexican food I don't pretend it is just the same as Thai food.  Both are delicious.  I don't pretend not to hear the differences between classical, jazz, rock or doo wop.  I like them all. Variety keeps life from being boring. My favorite bouquet is not a dozen roses.  Not a bunch of daises...etc.  My favorite flower is the daffodil, but my favorite arrangement is a mass of different shapes and colors.  I don't pretend not to see the differences between the rose, the lily, the carnation and the daffodil.  I enjoy the differences. 

Don't say you are "color blind" or something similar. We don't need to pretend we don't see racial and/or cultural differences.  But maybe, like mature people can do with food, flowers, music....we can celebrate variety and diversity in the human family instead of avoiding it or being frightened or threatened by it.  We can affirm that differences in skin color, accents, hair type, even names, are superficial, temporary and, at best, can add flavor and joy to life. 

Yes, I said it might sound trite.  But if we can start with a seemingly small thing--might it grow into something larger and stronger?

Remember the song some of us learned in our earliest days in church..."Red and yellow, black and white...they are precious in His sight...."  Such a trite little song.   

Might people be a sort of sacred bouquet?

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Aletheia Praise Night at the Prison

Last night was the monthly "Aletheia praise night" at prison.

Aletheia means "the truth that is revealed" and is the name of a weekly Bible study at the prison where my husband is a chaplain. It was given that name many years ago by a chaplain who encouraged inmates to be seekers of God's truth. The gathering is unique for this prison in that some inmates are given a leadership helping role. After the chaplain gives everyone a sheet with the topic/scriptures/questions for the evening, volunteers and an inmate helper guide discussion in several small groups. This is not the only Bible study opportunity, but it is the most well-attended one and includes both Protestants and Catholics and both English and Spanish speakers.

Aletheia Bible Study has continued mostly with volunteers from Reformed churches who have been coming in for years. And I mean many years, long before my husband arrived, and he has been the chaplain there for close to 20 years. Some of these dear people are in their late 80s or even their 90s.

The chapel is not air conditioned. It has tiny windows. The back wall of the chapel (an attractive building with singularly poor design) is glass and faces west. This means that in the summer months the chapel becomes an oven.  It is HOT in there,

I don't usually attend the Bible study nights, but I do occasionally show up to sing at these once-a-month evenings of music, poems, testimonies and rap. As I've noted before in posts about prison, the most challenging individuals to deal with are usually not the prisoners but are the gatehouse guards--the guys who decide whether one comes in or stays out. This is a position of quasi power, and for some individuals that is not at all a good thing.

I went to prison last night.  The guards included "Mr. Grump," an older man with a perpetual frown and a constant bad attitude, and someone I'd never encountered before. Many of the gatehouse staff know I'm the chaplain's wife, but he did not. I'll call him "Mr. Unknown." I'll use MG and MU for the two guards, and ME for...uh...me.

AT THE GATEHOUSE

I found a parking space and entered the gatehouse, just outside the razor wire fencing. I was the first volunteer to arrive. Mr. Unknown greeted me by swearing and then added, not unkindly "What are you doing here, lady? Do you know what a bad day it is to be in the chapel? Do you know that it is at least 110 degrees in there?"

Me: "Yes." I smile. "I'll be okay."

MG: Harumph!  No eye contact, just the grunt.

MU: "I can tell you there is no way in *&% that I'd be in that chapel today. If I were you I would have found something else important to do, or pretended to forget or something." Head shake.

MG: "License." He's never one to use two words if one will do. He has seen me dozens of times and knows who I am. He always acts like he has never seen me before. I hand it over, with a big smile and a "How are you tonight?" He does not respond and he does not look at me or at my driver's license either. He just pushes it back on the counter.

MU: "There's no way anybody but you is showing up on a day like today. You are probably gonna be the only volunteer tonight. I bet the inmates won't come either. I mean, it's hot in the housing units, but not as hot as that *&^% chapel. I bet no one is over there. Are you sure the chaplain even came to work there today?"

This conversation is going on as I remove my watch, glasses and belt and proceed through the metal detector.  I don't say much.  MG says nothing. 

MU continues: "Do you know you are gonna sweat buckets in that sauna? I hope you don't pass out."

Me: "I'll just pretend I'm at a spa sauna! I'll probably lose five pounds! It'll be great." SMILE

MG: Snort

MU: . "If I'm gonna voluntarily sweat it'll be for something important. Nothing important about tonight at that sweatbox of a chapel...."

Me: Actually, being at the chapel does me a lot of good. Probably more than a spa.

MU: looks at me like he just stepped in dog doo doo.

Right about that time five volunteers show up. Four of them are 80+. So much for me being the only fool to attend chapel, but there is no comment from MU. MG checks them in and they pass through the metal detector. To their credit, MG and MU were quick and efficient and made no difficulties. They were, in a stiff way, kind to the old people.

MU: "Do you know it has gotta be over 110 in that chapel, folks? Maybe 120?!  Are you sure you don't wanna go back home?"

AT THE CHAPEL

The sun blazes in. The lights are off. Two fans blow the hot air around. The guitarists are tuning up. One man, a long-time guest of the prison system who had formerly sported a long pony tail has a buzz cut. I ask him about his hair and he tells me that he grew it for "Locks of Love."

Many guys greet me. One has the most beautiful smile I may have ever seen, and he says as he shakes my hand, "We heard you resigned your church. I know you have prayed for me, and now I'm praying for you, sister. You know we love you and pray for you, right?  I know God has something wonderful for you. You know you are always gonna be 'Pastor don't you, Miz Chaplain G.?  Don't you be discouraged."

The evening begins with the Gospel Choir, who sing the best version of "Blessed Be Your Name" that I have ever heard (the newer praise chorus, not the old hymn). As they sang, "You give and take away" my eyes filled with tears.

Next the Spanish Choir sings.  What they lack in skill they make up for with enthusiasm.  One of the Hispanic guys shares a testimony and says this is his last Praise Night because he is leaving the institution. There is loud applause. He says he is happy tonight, not just to be going home but to share in praise to God with his brothers who have blessed and encouraged him. Not a churchgoer on "the outside," he came to chapel at the urging of a friend. He stayed and found God, he says. More loud applause.

I sing and then next up is Bob. Bob is a frail 89 or 90, one of those volunteers who has been coming in for a long time. He smiles broadly as he says he learned to sing hymns as his mother played their old piano. He sings an a capella version of "I Love to Tell the Story." He is seated to a standing ovation. What a blessing to these inmates that an elderly white man from a small town has been ministering to mostly black guys from the inner city, and doing it nearly every week for decades.

And this time, doing it in a chapel where all were sweltering.

We shake hands and wish God' s blessings on the men as they depart.

AT THE GATEHOUSE AGAIN

MG is completely silent and manages, as always to make no eye conact as he checks our hands for the stamp that says we are not inmates. :-)

MU: "You all survived! It was hot as blazes in there, wasn't it? I warned you.  No way I'd have been in that chapel tonight. Go home to your air conditioning!"

Bob: "Yeah, it sure was hot. I think it is a disgrace that the chapel is not air conditioned, and you can tell someone I said so! We sure had a great time praising the Lord though."

MG: Stares.  (Yes, he actually looked at us.)

MU: "I hope the inmates appreciated it. Was anyone there?  Bet not many showed up." Smirks.

Me: "Oh, they came. They always show up for Aletheia Praise Night."

I think that perhaps a little seed was planted in MU's heart. My husband likes him, says he has a good heart, and was surprised to hear of his comments. Will you say a prayer for him today, and MG as well?

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Ken's Ordeal #17: No More Tests to Do

In the last post with the tag "Ken's Ordeal" I said that Ken was waiting for a brain MRI and to hear the results of many hours of neurological and psychological tests.  There were delays, but finally the MRI was done and we returned to the VA for the results.  The MRI reveals some abnormalities, but nothing immediately alarming.  There may be frontal lobe damage from many severe episodes of hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), thanks to the pheochromocytoma.  We were told that there is really no way to know. 

We were also told that there are no more diagnostic tests to do.

The psychological tests revealed some deficits in cognitive function, especially for things that required quick responses or multitasking.  Otherwise, his cognitive function is normal, and his IQ is still mostly in the above-average to superior range. 

His psychological profile was not as positive.  He is depressed (of course) and there are other things that I do not want to post about.  Some may be the long-delayed result of much abuse in his childhood. 

The rheumatologist does think that Ken had that droid-sounding disease, RS3PE, but that it was connected to the tumor and he no longer has it.  While his extreme pain remains, there is no more hand swelling.  On the contrary, his hands show a distirbing amount of muscle deterioration.  There is no real explanation forthcoming for the weight loss, continued exhaustion, or any of the other symptoms.  They are recommending he meets with a psychiatrist who specializes in helping people deal with severe, chronic pain.  The hope is to reduce the need for narcotic medications.  If that can happen, his mental function should improve too.

I keep thinking of T.S. Elliot's poem "The Hollow Men."  It is a poem I greatly dislike, especially the final lines.

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper
.

But this feels like that. An anticlimax. We have been searching for a diagnosis for a long time now.  Ken has been noticeably ill for about three years.  When the rare adrenal tumor, a pheochromocytoma, was diagnosed, we thought that at last we had an answer.  Partially, we did.  Looking back, we know that the pheo was likely present, wreaking havoc, for decades.  After it was removed, along with the adrenal gland it had invaded, many of Ken's symptoms were reduced or gone.  His blood sugars are easily controlled with minimal insulin.  His blood pressure is on the low side.  There are no more "episodes."

I will always think the pheochromocytoma was due to the toxic water situation at Camp Lejeune.  We will never know, of course.

However, many other mysterious symptoms remain.  Two years of tests at many medical facilities, including the Mayo Clinic, have yielded limited answers.

Ken has aged many years in the last three.  He has lost a lot of hair, his shoulders are stooped, he is thin and his muscles are atrophied, he walks unsteadily and slowly, is nearly always exhausted, depressed, and in chronic severe pain. There are some other mental and physical symptoms I do not want to write about. 

Recently I had a conversation with an acquaintance who hadn't seen Ken in some time.  She encountered  him in a local store, and later she told me, "I did not recognize him.  I can't believe the change.  I wasn't sure if I should speak to him and was thinking, 'Can that man be Ken?' -- and then I recognized his hat."

So...we now are faced with answers that are not much of an answer.  And we will need, evidently, to find way to deal with the new normal.

I may not write about this again.  I'm not sure, but Ken asked me to do so, believing there would be answers.  As for now, there seems little point in continuing.

PS  About the pheochromocytoma
Just in case you may read this and find yourself with the same symptoms, Ken really was a classic case.  When, AFTER the tumor was accidentally discovered, I did some research, I saw how Ken had experienced all the typical warning signs.  Pheos are very rare, "one in a million" we were told.  But someone, particularly his endocrinologist, should have known. Symptoms were: unexplained weight loss, uncontrolled blood sugar highs and lows (that had no reasonable explanation), "episodes" of faintness, heart palpitations, and light-headedness.  Also high blood pressure that was not well controlled, even with three medications.  In the last months, episodes of faintness and heart symptoms also included a pounding headache and discomfort that travelled from Ken's feet to his head, or vice versa. On the day he was finally admitted to the hospital he shook so badly he could hardly stand.  It was almost like a seizure.  It would likely have soon been fatal because the flood of adrenaline and other hormones would have caused heart attack and/or stroke.   It may be rare, but if this sounds familiar, make sure someone does a CT kidney scan.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Blue Shard

I walked in the city
On a sidewalk
No one near.
Strangely lonely,
Empty city.

In the gutter,  
A glint of sunshine.
I stopped,
Looked. 

Vivid with color
A large shard of glass,
Cobalt blue, shot through
With streaks of scarlet,
Gold, and purple.

Just a sharp sliver…
Of... something.
Thick on one side,
Thin on another,
Sun bright on its curve.

Had this glass,
Been a plate?
Or a cup?
Graceful vase?

I stepped into the gutter,
Stooped down to touch the surface,
Half afraid,
Half admiring,
Of the arrowed, slivered remnant

Something once complete.
Covered with cracks,
Some ridged and defined,
Some fine as a web,
Every part.

How came it?
Who made it?
For what purpose?
This once-lovely thing,
Now a shard?

Slivered,
Cracked,
In the street.
Like me.
 
Carefully,
Minding fingers,
I picked up the glass and
Held it to the light.

A once lovely thing,
Made for…something,
Its network of cracks caught the light,

I thought it sad to leave it,
I should put it in a fishbowl,
On a window, or a shelf...or...

As I sat on the curb to consider,
I placed it back
On the pavement, 
And the shard crumbled to slivers.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Friday Five: The Sound of Muzak (tm)

I have not played the Friday Five for a very long time.  Today is the day, since I'm home from work.  Over at Rev Gal Blog Pals, Deb has this to say:

Recently, we got some Indian take-out food. While we were paying for our order, we heard a “Bollywood” version of “My Favorite Things.” We almost missed it because music is so much a part of our lives that we can ignore it!

Since then, I’ve been noticing some of the background music in my world. Sometimes it’s the busker at the Metro station, playing away for some quarters. Sometimes it’s the usual “oldies” station, or the “Mix” station (“the BEST of yesterday and today!!!”). And sometimes it is completely random, like that Bollywood moment…
SOooo let’s talk background music this week for our Friday Five.
1. At the office: If you have a choice, do you turn it up, turn it off, or drown it out with headphones? 
It depends on what I'm doing.  If I really need to concentrate, sometimes music gets irritating.  In general though, I turn it up.

2. At the grocery store or mall: What song (or genre of music) makes you want to hurl? Or throw something?
Genre: Rap.  If there is one thing I dislike, music wise, it is repetitive sounds over and over and over and over and over and over and over.  But you already figured out I HATE techno, but that usually isn't heard in grocery stores.  As for a song I never need to hear again, "The Pina Colada Song" might just top the list.

3. If you were going to create a “perfect playlist”, who are the artists (or songs/pieces) that you would include?
This is very hard because I love all kinds of music.  It would depend on my mood of the day, but somewhere in there I'd have Mozart, Bach, Debussy, The Iron Butterfly, The Beatles, Ian and Sylvia, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Coldplay, Dave Matthews Band, Simply Red, Louis Armstrong, Jason Upton, Casting Crowns, Eric Clapton (unplugged), B.B. King, Fleetwood Mac, Aretha Franklin, maybe a little Who, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Cherry Poppin' Daddies, Fish, Straight No Chaser....oh....it is a looooong playlist.

4. Have you ever tried using recorded music in worship? If so, what was your plan, and how did it go over?
At my last pastorate, there was no worship team when I arrived.  We sang to CDs.  Many people were used to it because it had been the norm for a while.  I disliked it intensely, but you do what you gotta do!  One of my first goals was to get some real singers and musicians together.  As for using a special song, I did this often.  Sometimes it was a secular song, but always with a specific purpose.  I recall, "All We Need is Love" from the Beatles and "The Times They Are a Changin' from Dylan and once something from Harry Connick Jr.  I think it went over fine.  I often used a recording of a particularly nice communion song--"Come to the Table"--and it was beautiful.

5. When is the earliest you’ve heard Christmas music in the grocery store or mall?
August.  It was at Kohls.  I was so irritated I refused to shop at Kohls till the Holidays were past.

BONUS: “Weird Al Yankovich” has been releasing a stream of his parody music videos lately. Among my favorites: “Because I’m Tacky” :) If Weird Al was going to do a music video of your life, or a recent experience, what song/hymn/musical would the parody be based on?
I LOVE Weird Al.  I think it would be....hmmmm....."An American Tune" from Paul Simon. Here is a clip.

http://youtu.be/AE3kKUEY5WU

Saturday, July 12, 2014

The Story of the Blue Countertops

The story of the blue counters begins with a dream that came at a terrible time in our lives.  While this story is not about that time, I share a little of it so you understand--and so I don’t forget--why the dream was important.

Ken and I were struggling with the sudden death of a big plan, one that we had cherished for years and believed was God-given.  Ken had spent nine years in the US Marine Corps as a COBOL computer programmer and systems analyst.  This was in the late ‘70s and COBOL, a complicated business data processing language “spoke” to computers so large entire frigidly air-conditioned buildings were required for them. Brilliant and extraordinarily good at his job, when Ken decided to leave the military he received several offers to work in data processing for large private companies.  The starting salaries he was quoted would compare to six figures today.  Flattered, he nonetheless declined all offers.  He was resigning from the USMC in order to study theology.  As it turned out, we both did, helping each other with coursework, kids, and work.  That was not an easy time, but we had a goal. We were going to minister overseas as missionaries. 
Fast-forward several years.  We were co-pastoring our second church, but some time before we had applied to our denominations’ world missions department.  Things were moving along in the complicated process, albeit slowly.  We were stunned when we received a letter that turned out to be a polite but strangely unequivocal “No, thanks.” 

I remember the two of us sitting on the bed staring at each other, speechless and teary-eyed. This sudden death of something we had planned for and worked towards for years was devastating and confusing. 
We were living on a very low salary and struggling to make ends meet. We thought about those large salary offers from nationally-known companies, and we cried and we prayed and we struggled to understand.  We never did, and this was deeply painful for a long time. We tried to find out more, but there was, we were told, no negotiating and no further explanation forthcoming.  While we struggled with the unexpected NO, we struggled even more with the seeming injustice of it.
Meanwhile, our small rural church had been growing.  We were excited about what might lie in store and we talked about the approaching need to expand our facilities. If we weren't going to fulfill the dream of an overseas missions assignment, we would turn our thoughts and energy to our current place.

Then things began to go bad. Very bad.  Unknown to us, a monstrous lie had been told, followed by another and another. No one told us, so we were mystified at what was happening to our congregation.  There were other complicated issues involving a beloved former pastor who remained in the congregation and the deacon board, one of whom was the son-in-law of that former pastor. 

Things got really ugly.  Small towns are often places where news travels fast and rumors travel too. Unfortunately, there are plenty of people who love to spread gossip—especially if it is about clergy.  One very bad day, our daughter came home crying because someone on her school bus had repeated one of those monstrous lies to her, adding that maybe her dad should go to jail. Once a teacher at the middle school said to her, “I don’t believe what people are saying about your mom and dad.  They must be good people to have a daughter like you.”  That teacher’s comment was well meant but not particularly comforting. 
I wanted Ken to resign, but he said he could not. We still disagree, all these years later, about what the “right” thing to do would have been. The stress on us was extraordinary and unrelenting.  Eventually we were asked, at a particularly horrid business meeting, to leave.  Only afterwards did a dear church couple visit us and tell us about the second and third lies. Too late, of course.  We were horrified and our hearts were broken. 

We examined our motives and our actions, reminded ourselves that we could not afford to get bitter, did our best to forgive.  Still, we were spent and knew we could not just try to pastor another church somewhere.  We needed to leave “the ministry” for a while, but we had two children as well as ourselves to think about.  We had to quickly find an income, but the computer world had changed in the years since Ken’s expertise had been prized.
The church building was right across a narrow driveway from our home, which was a “parsonage” owned by the church.  We had 30 days to vacate. I closed the curtains so we did not have to constantly see the church building.  Looking back, I think both of us were perilously close to breakdowns. 

All that leads me to the night I had the dream of the blue counters.
I lay in bed, deeply depressed and trying to pray. Eventually I slept and dreamed a vivid dream.  Ken and I were with our children in a kitchen, the counters of which were a deep royal blue, my favorite color.  I still remember, nearly 30 years later, the expression on our little boy Joshua’s face as he laughed, jumped and clapped his hands. We were extraordinarily excited. There was more exuberance than we would likely have displayed in real life. Even in the dream, I knew we were happy because we had found a new home.  We were safe.

Next morning I didn’t say anything, but the details remained clear in my thoughts--our dreamt-of laughter, our smiles and joy.  And most vivid of all were the blue counters.  I couldn’t stop thinking about them, and the details seemed much more like a memory of a real-life event than a dream.  Eventually I wondered if the dream might be important. Somewhat sheepishly, I told Ken about it.
Not long afterwards, Ken found a job as a fuel truck driver. I had already been working part-time for the county Department on Aging.  About a week before we had to leave the parsonage, we found an available rental. The house and yard were a mess, but there were many things to like about the place and the rent was affordable.  The landlord was a hate-filled nut, but we didn’t know that yet. 

The relief at having a source of income and a place to live was enormous, but I stood in the kitchen and looked at the counters.  They were not blue. They were a particularly ugly brownish yellow. I told Ken, “I guess that dream was just a regular dream after all.” 

The spiteful nature of our landlord soon became apparent. We avoided him as much as possible.  One day we came home to a hand-written note that informed us we were being “evicted” and had two weeks to leave.  He would not be returning our deposit.  Feeling fed up with injustice, we went to small-claims court and we listened, incredulous, as the landlord described how we had ruined his house.  He had no proof.  We had actually cleaned up a great deal of garbage and improved the place enough that someone wanted to buy it.

The clearly intoxicated judge said he didn’t know what to believe and handed down a decision completely contrary to landlord-tenant law. While we weren’t exactly evicted, the landlord had sold the house and we had to move.  It was a few weeks before Christmas.
Someone told us about a house owned by a missionary couple who were relocating and needed to rent it quickly.  One cold night, Ken and I, feeling utterly defeated, went to look at a large house secluded in thick pine woods. There were no visible neighbors.  In the back, a hill sloped down to a small lake. We soon saw that the house was beautiful inside too. 

Ken whispered to me, “Don’t get your hopes up. On my current paycheck there is no way we will be able to afford what they will want for rent.”  I whispered back that it would be rude not to take the tour. 
We passed through a formal living room to an oak stairway. On the second floor were three bedrooms. The master bedroom was about the size of the parsonage living room, with a private bath and large glass doors leading out to a deck that overlooked the moonlit lake.  Downstairs we saw a dining room and a large family room with a fireplace.  Another set of glass doors led to a second deck.  Ken looked at me and shook his head, but talked to the husband of the pair about rent as, chatting about the loons that lived at the edge of the lake, the woman led me to the kitchen. I heard no more of what she said.  My mouth, I have no doubt, was open. 

The counters in the kitchen were blue.  Not just any blue, they were a lovely, bright royal blue. I had never before, and I have never since, seen royal blue countertops. This was the kitchen of my dream.   

I bit dazed, I followed her back to the family room.  Ken told me what they wanted for rent, adding to the man, “I’m not sure we can do that.”  Some sort of negotiation followed, but all the while I was urging Ken towards the kitchen door.  “Honey, you must come see the kitchen.”
Ken sighed a bit, and said, “Dorcas, this is a great house, but we just can’t afford the rent.  It is less than I expected, but still too much for us….” He stopped talking and stared at the blue counters. 

We rented the house for a lower figure than first asked and we lived there nearly three years.  They were difficult years but the time was made easier by our secluded house in the woods.   We didn’t have to see anyone if we didn’t choose to—and we usually didn’t.  We marveled at the deep silence and the beauty of the snow-covered pines all around us.  In spring their scent filled the air.  We often sat on the deck to listen to loons calling across the lake, and we watched a pair of Canadian geese teach their little ones to swim.  At night, a great horned owl sometimes hooted in a tall pine just beyond our bedroom deck.
At some point, Ken applied to the Wisconsin Department of Corrections (the DOC) for a chaplain position.  He took the test and scored highly. He expected an interview but we heard nothing and after a time we forgot about it. 

Eventually our landlords wanted more rent and we moved into a tiny house in town.  As it turned out, it would have been better if we had just stayed a few more months because not long afterwards, Ken heard from the DOC and was subsequently hired at Kettle Moraine Correctional Institution near Plymouth, WI. There had been a "hiring freeze" for all state positions, and his test results had remained in a file for over a year.  
He applied for and received official endorsement from our denomination as a “nationally-appointed home missionary.”
We sometimes missed our beautiful, secluded home in the woods.  But the healing of our hearts had begun there, and life went on.  Ken spent over twenty years at KMCI, only leaving when his illness made it unavoidable. 

It seems to me that God is silent and distant.  I can’t pray. I struggle with tears and anger every time I attend church. But lately I have been thinking of that other time of sorrow and confusion.  I am, for the first time in a long time, thinking about that vivid dream and those beautiful blue counters. 

Monday, July 07, 2014

Ken's Ordeal Part 16: Neurological Tests

It has been three months since a post about Ken, but here is number sixteen.  That in itself is a bit horrifying.  I think I have avoided posting because things seem pretty grim.  It is difficult to be optimistic when writing post number sixteen.

For the good news, Ken's knee healed fine with no infection.  It is a bit swollen, which will be the case for about a year.  He limps slightly when walking, but this is a great improvement over his really frighting, lurching, bow-legged gait before the surgery to "revise" the previous knee prosthetic.  He has very little knee pain. The VA rheumatologists have prescribed an antibiotic that has a side effect of lessening joint pain, and it is helping somewhat with Ken's overall pain, though not enough to discontinue the high levels of pain meds.

Last post, I mentioned tests in the VA neurology department.  Ken had a nerve test to once again try to discover if his pain is due to nerve damage or some undiagnosed nerve disease.  It is a painful test that always brings Ken to tears and has now been done three times, once in Sheboygan, once at Mayo and now at the VA. The results, once again, showed the kind of neuropathy that would be expected in a long-time diabetic but nothing of note.

Then we went back for an actual neurology consult.  (I had insisted on one and the rheumatologist had agreed.)  I wheeled Ken into the little room in a wheelchair.  In the room were a white-haired doctor about our age who had been present during the previous nerve testing, and  a young, soft-voiced middle-eastern woman who appeared to be a student.  The older doc was grumbling quietly to her.  ".....and what are those guys in rheumatology doing?  What do they want?  We already did the test..." 

The woman began to ask Ken about his knee, apparently thinking he was in a wheelchair because of that.  (There is a bad-looking scar.)  Then she asked other very general questions about pain.  Ken was not having a good day, and he struggled to answer. His voice was weak, and he kept his head down. Meanwhile, the older doctor had his back to us as he typed on a computer keyboard.

I got angry.  I said, "STOP!  Please stop asking questions and just listen to me, and I'll save us some time." 

The young woman stopped, looking surprised, and the typing at the keyboard stopped too.  I apologized for being rude, telling her I wasn't angry at her, but I was frustrated.  (Serious understatement.)

I went on, speaking quickly, "Ken is not in a wheelchair because of his knee.  He does not have enough energy to walk around this medical center.   He is in severe pain, as you know.  He has also lost about 130 lbs. with no dieting.  His testosterone level remains quite low in spite of monthly injections.  He sleeps a great deal of the time.  He has trouble with memory, and this is getting worse.  He has been to Mayo six times and between Mayo and here has been tested for all kinds of things.  We still have NO DIAGNOSIS after over a year and a half!  He had a pheochromocytoma. [If you are one who has read these posts from the first one, you will likely remember that is what started this series--the one-in-a-million tumor that is often diagnosed post mortem because it is so rare.] The tumor was removed in February of last year and he was expected to get well.  His blood pressure is no longer high.  His blood sugars have stabilized and he no longer has to deal with hormonal 'storms' that caused all kinds of weird symptoms for years on end--but as you can see, he is NOT WELL!"

At this point the older doctor turned and said, "Well, your husband has been a diabetic for a long time, I see." He started explaining to me as if I did not know what diabetes can do to a person.  I put my hand up.  "Please stop.  We know this."

He looked irritated, started to say something, stopped, and then looked closely at Ken who was still sitting with his head down. After a long moment, the doctor asked quietly, "Mr. George, how old are you?"

"Sixty-two.  I'll be 63 in July."

"Hmmm...sixty-two...." he paused, and I said, feeling testy, "Yes, he is only 62.  He is 62 going on 82."  Tears came to my eyes, and the doctor looked at me kindly. I have since wondered if he is 62.

"I see," he said.

And it seems he did.  The atmosphere in the room changed.  He asked Ken some simple questions, examined his hands, had him raise his arms and do some other range-of-motion movements.  Ken mostly kept his eyes closed.  I'm not sure why.  I expect just from exhaustion and maybe frustration.  

"Mr. George, you can open your eyes," the doctor said gently. 

Looking at me, the doctor reviewed the symptoms I had just recited. Then he turned to Ken.

"Mr. George, did you have any episodes of hypoglycemia?"  (That's low blood sugar.)

Ken said, "Yeah.  A few." He shrugged.

I said, "Not a few.  Many.  And some were severe enough that he passed out.  His blood sugar swings were crazy.  He could go from a blood sugar level of over 300 to one below 50 in half an hour.  Of course, we now understand why nothing Ken did made any difference.  It was the tumor."

"Aha.  Yes." 

He paused a long time, continuing to look at Ken, before saying, "High blood sugar is a bad thing, of course.  But low blood sugar can be even worse.  We may be dealing with brain damage." 

Ken had a stroke many years ago.  He recovered well, and he never even missed work, though he should have.  There were some lasting effects, but they were mild and went mostly unnoticed by people who did not know him beforehand.  The doctor told us that sometimes low blood sugar could increase the damage already caused by the stroke.  Of course, other areas could be damaged too.

He said to me, "You were right that I did not understand, but now I do. This is really complicated, so thank you for helping me put it together. There must be some sort of central event, some single cause for why Mr. George has changed dramatically in a relatively short time.  There has to be. This can't be all unrelated."  He began to explain, but I nodded and said, "There is no need to explain. Ken and I understand this.  We have been saying that to every doctor we have seen.  So many I don't remember them all."

He scheduled two things.  First, Ken would have several hours of neuropsych tests.  Second, he would have a brain MRI.  He seemed astonished that Ken's Aurora Clinic doctor had never ordered a MRI.  He said, "I would have ordered one be done yearly, since you did have a stroke."  He was surprised that none was done at Mayo either.  Perhaps it eventually would have been, except that the VA stopped payments to outside providers and required Ken to receive all care at the VA. 
(And I am broken hearted by the news on TV about the VA and deeply glad we do not live in Phoenix, AZ.)

Anyway, a few weeks later, Ken spent an hour talking to a nice woman who is a nueropsychiatrist.  When Ken left the room, our daughter, Kris, who was the one with Ken that day, said "My dad used to be a genius."  Kris told me that the doctor replied, "Oh, I can tell."  She even told the technician who would administer the testing, "This will require some additional tests.  This is a very intelligent man."

When Ken was in the US Marine Corps, his IQ test had a result of 170.  Yep.  A very intelligent man.  In the USMC he was a computer programmer/systems analyst and was the lead programmer who wrote the fiscal system for the Marine Corps (winning the prestigious Navy Acheivement Medal for his work).  He graduated from college Magna cum Laude with five minors (missing "Summa" by one tenth of a point) in spite of having a family, working several hours a week, and playing basketball on the Trinity team.  On the morning he went for the neuropsych tests, he said, "If I am The Scarecrow will you still love me."  I can't type that without crying.  The Scarecrow, of course, is the Wizard of Oz character who had no brain.

The tests were all about mental functioning and took nearly four hours.  Tomorrow I will take Ken to the VA Medical Center for the brain scan.  Then we will make an appointment to meet with the original white-haired neurologist to discuss the results of these tests. 

So at Post Number Sixteen, we are back to looking at the results of the pheochromocytoma, the "little ball of hate" as the urologist who did the surgery to remove it over a year ago, said to us.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Ken's Ordeal Part 15: Knee Surgery

On April 4th the long-awaited replacement of Ken's failed knee prosthetic took place at Milwaukee's VA Medical Center.  His pain had steadily increased in the two weeks or so leading up to surgery, perhaps because he had reduced his level of pain meds or perhaps because the damage in his leg was worse, or both.  At any rate, walking was difficult and his knee looked like a large cantaloupe.  Reducing the level of narcotics meant that post surgery pain could be better controlled, but there had been weeks of increased misery. 

So even though we were aware it might be  a challenge, Ken mostly seemed relieved that the time for this surgery had finally come.  It was last summer when an orthopedic doctor at Mayo had said, "This replaced knee MUST come out, and soon."  No one knew if they would be able to put in a new knee or if they would discover previously hidden infection, necessitating months of immobility and a delay of replacing the prosthetic.

The VA staff was friendly and efficient.  I was a little sad when a tall, smiling black woman came in and introduced herself as the anesthesiologist who would be taking care of Ken during the operation.  I had been looking forward to seeing the doctor I wrote about in my last post--an anesthesiologist who seemed to "get it" more than most had.  As Ken was wheeled away, she gave me a little pat and a large smile, assuring me, "We'll take good care of him."  I nodded, trying to smile and failing.

I waited in a rather unpleasant family waiting room.  It was crowded, noisy, and the opposite of private.  There were rows of uncomfortable chairs.  No coffee, no snacks or fruit, none of the trappings one might see elsewhere.  I had been told that the resection of the failed knee prosthetic would likely take longer than a typical first-time knee replacement and to expect a wait of three to four hours. 

Pastor Sharon came and sat with me in the cafeteria and we talked as we munched on lukewarm biscuits and gravy and drank bad coffee.  A bit later, Rev Gal (and a longtime cyber friend) Julie came and we talked about church and life and how things have changed for us both.  She gave me a hug that was from all my dear Rev Gal Blog Pal cyber friends. 

About three hours after Ken went to the operating room, I received a call from one of the nurses.  "We are still working on getting the old knee replacement out.  He is stable though, and vital signs are good.  It will be a while." 

Our daughter, Kris, arrived and we sat in the waiting room trying to ignore the loud cell phone conversation about someone's bladder infection, the complaints about Obamacare and politics in general, the anxious people.   We talked a little, read, took short walks.  And we waited and waited and waited.  It was three more hours before we were informed that the surgery was finally finished and Ken was in the recovery area.  Ken later told us, "It was really crowded back there."

A surgery resident told us that it had been quite difficult to remove the old prosthetic.  They needed to remove large amounts of inflamed tissue in order to get to it, resulting in quite a bit of blood loss.  The thigh bone had been badly damaged by the "rattling around" of the loose knee replacement, so they had to repair it with cement before they could put in the new prosthetic.  He commented, "That was on the difficult end of the scale of surgery... but it looks good now."  There was no sign of infection in the knee.   This was both good and bad news.  Good news because instead of months of recuperation followed by another surgery, they were able to put in the new knee now.  It was bad news because an infection might have explained Ken's months of illness.

The subsequent hospital stay was a mix of good things and bad.   There were competent and caring nurses, a great physical therapist and occupational therapist, and a pleasant room (unlike some others at the VA).  There were also inexcusable incidents of missed medications and a very evident lack of communication between members of the health care "team."  Ken seemed exhausted, was in great pain and quite depressed, and no one seemed to have been told that the knee pain was not the only issue.  He was told more than once to , "Just grab the trapeze and pull  yourself up; after all you have upper body strength" and similar remarks. 

Kris posted a large sign that read something like:
Ken George is ill. He has lost 130 lbs. with no dieting.  He experiences severe all-over joint pain similar to RA.  He has limited hand and upper body strength. 

After he received two units of blood, Ken felt better. He was discharged after six days in the hospital.  He is still waiting for the authorization to receive physical therapy locally.  He is very tired, but he is walking reasonably well and doing leg lifts as much as he can.

Two days ago we drove to Milwaukee to see the doctors in the rheumatology clinic. The ride to Milwaukee and back was painful for Ken because he can't straighten his knee.  He looked grey and had a hard time talking by the time we arrived.  It was a depressing and mostly pointless visit.  They clearly have no ideas, but they did say they are referring Ken to a VA neurologist.  They also said his blood count was quite low, about the same as when he had received the transfusion after surgery.  They sent him to the lab for some further blood work. 

We have heard nothing about the lab results, but we are going back to Milwaukee today for the follow-up visit at the orthopedic department so we will check to see what they plan to do. As for the knee, hopefully the staples can come out today, and hopefully Ken will be able to get going on  physical therapy. 

And we will wait for the tests that are scheduled in the neurology department.  Some of these tests were undoubtedly done at Mayo--but we shall see.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Ken's Ordeal Part 14 No Cancer, But is this Good News?

It has been two months since I posted.  Where to start?

Ken had a PET scan.The rheumatologist says that the illness Ken has, whatever it is, cannot be RS3PE, much as the symptoms fit, because certain things should show up on the PET scan and did not.  Ditto for rheumatoid arthritis. 

As I mentioned in #13, they were looking for cancer (because if Ken had a new tumor, RS3PE would almost certainly be the diagnosis).  The VA Rheumatologist (the Fellow I mentioned before) said, "It is good news, Mr. George.  You do not have cancer."  Of course, that is good news.  But in a strange and sickening way, it would have been a sort of relief to have a tumor show up on the PET scan.  Why?  Because then we would have had a plan of action, a known enemy--even if a bad one--to fight.  As it was, it doesn't mean Ken is better.  He is continuing to get worse. It just means we still have no diagnosis. 

They decided to try Ken out on an Rx that might reduce inflammation and pain.  It has been two months, and there is no improvement.

Meanwhile, he has a horrible open wound on one of his toes.  He has been going to Milwaukee to the VA wound clinic for weeks now.  It is finally starting to show a little progress in healing.

As for the request for a new primary care doctor, Ken's request was denied.  He was informed that his PCP was doing "all he needed to do."  Interesting, since he has never seen Ken again after the introductory visit.  He was told, "If you do not like our decision, write to your congressman."

So we have been waiting for the time to pass for the replacement of the failed knee prosthetic to finally take place in early April.  Ken can hardly walk, especially when first rising from a sitting position.  His leg is bowing outward.  It is severely painful, in spite of the narcotics he is taking.  Yesterday we went to the VA for the usual preoperative lab work and visit with the anesthesiologist.  The anesthesiologist was concerned about the wound on Ken's toe.  He delayed his appointment with Ken and instead sent us to orthopedics.  They inspected the wound, ordered additional labs and withdrew four large syringes of bloody fluid from Ken's nearly-basketball-sized knee.

I asked about the possibility that the inflamed knee could be causing Ken's other illness symptoms and was told it was "highly unlikely."  The very young ortho doc, who Ken had not seen before, said the wound looked "clean" and cleared him for surgery.  Relieved, we headed back to the anesthesiologist. 

He was great.  I only wish Ken's primary care doctor had shown such careful concern.  He asked many questions, looked up records from other places, and said, several times, "But what is wrong?   Clearly something is wrong beyond a failed knee replacement.  What tests have been done?"

At this point, I think every possible diagnostic test may have been done, either at St. Luke's (at the time the pheochromocytoma was removed) or at Mayo (remember, Ken was there six times) or at the VA.  The PET scan was the last. 

The anesthesiologist kept shaking his head, looking perplexed.  He looked very serious.  He told Ken all the risks, of course, which are horrific.  And then he added, looking directly at me, "If it were me, I would not get this done until your toe wound is healed.  Dr. C. (the surgeon who comes to the VA once a month just to do failed knee replacement surgery)  does not know your whole history.  He does not know how bad your leg circulation is, nor about your several severe bouts of cellulitis (leg infections).  Nor about your current general state of illness.  The risk of infection is great and having a wound makes it greater." 

Then he said, "If you have an infection, in spite of all the lab work and scans saying you don't, it would explain why you are so ill. You do have to do this knee surgery, because the knee may be making you sick."He went on, "I understand that you do not want to delay.  It has been too long already.  I am just the anesthesiologist, but I am very concerned.  On surgery day, if you don't delay it, insist that Dr. C. actually looks at your toe and talks to you before he does ANYTHING.  Insist."  He repeated this at least three times before we left. 

He told us he was very concerned about pain management post surgery, since Ken is already in severe pain in spite of taking both methadone and Oxycontin.  He urged Ken to cut back, saying, "Of course, you are dependent by this time."  Of course.  "Don't suffer unduly, and if you have to keep up the current dose, do so.....but....really try to lessen it.  If you can't you will pay for it later when the knee is worked on." 

We decided not to cancel the surgery, for now.  If the toe wound is still open at the next visit to the wound clinic, we will consider cancelling.

Which is worse?  The possibility of severe infection?  Loss of a leg, or worse?  Or continued decline because all this illness is due to hidden infection or prolonged inflammation?

We were silent on the two-hour trip home. 

There was a letter from Aetna in the mailbox.  It informed Ken that his long-term disability with the state is denied.  They never received any form from the rheumatologist, in spite of us sending it twice and calling them twice as well.  (Remember, the primary care doctor refused to fill it out but the rheumatologist said he would.)  We have appeal rights. 

I went to bed,  put the pillow over my head and cried for a long time.  Ken told me this AM that he didn't get much sleep, since he cut his pain med in half before taking a bedtime dose.  He looks miserable. 

I am going to see my sister in South Carolina next week.  She had a near-fatal medical situation earlier this year.  I feel guilty saying it, but I am glad I will have a week away while Ken attempts to lower his pain meds.  I will file an appeal about the denied disability claim, and I will call the VA patient advocate and pitch a fit when I get back home.

And we will keep close watch on Ken's toe, and try to decide which course of action is the wise one.  I hope this makes sense and isn't full of typos.  Written on the fly.

Thanks to those who are still reading.  I love you.

Saturday, February 08, 2014

Remembering Kevin

Last Sunday, January 2nd, Ken's brother, Kevin passed away.  He was 54.

Kevin lived with us for almost five years.  The last few months, mainly because Ken has been so ill, Kevin has lived in a group home. We all knew that it was not likely he would live a long life, but the end came shockingly quick. 

When I think of my brother-in-law, Kevin, it is as one of three quite destinct persons. The first is the child.  My earliest clear memory of him was after going to 4th of July fireworks with Ken, his mother, and his two little brothers, Kevin and Keith.  Ken and I were just teenagers. We were all eating ice cream at the counter of a Howard Johnson's restaurant somewhere in California's San Fernando Valley.  Kevin (about  five years old) said, "Mom, is Ken going to marry Dorcas?"  I can still see him--dark brown eyes full of childlike innocence, and that mop of thick wiry hair.  Ken and I laughed self-consciously. 

I soon learned that the George household was not a happy one.  I saw and heard things that shocked me. I was young and I was horrified, and I did not know what to do about what I observed.

Both my mother and father in law have died.  I loved them, and I miss them.  They each had some wonderful qualities.  Mom and Dad were not bad people, but they were very bad parents.  They had no idea how to raise children. I think they loved their kids but were afraid that to show tenderness or affection would make their children weak.   It was impossible to know what would set one, or both, of them into a rage.  A Mormon family, the nice fa├žade was on when needed, but it was quickly discarded at home.

Kevin was an average child with three very intelligent siblings.  The eldest, Karal, was the only girl and had left home by the time I met Ken. All of them endured physical and verbal abuse.  They were  demeaned constantly.  They were hit, sworn at and repeatedly told that they were stupid, dumb, or worthless  Kevin took it to heart the most perhaps. I sometimes wondered, "If the Georges act like that with me around, what must they do when they don't have company?"

Kevin was a good-looking little boy, a  tall, gangly, rather hapless kid. I can see his face when Ken graduated from Marine Corps boot camp. He smiled and smiled--so proud of his big brother. It was a rare good day with the family.  The child Kevin had a sweet smile and an innocent and kind heart. He made me sad.  I knew he was a child who needed affirmation and encouragement but rarely got it. 

Kevin tried to kill himself at age twelve. He was in a coma for a few days, and he was never quite the same afterwards.  A few years ago he told me that he started using drugs at 14. "The stoners," he said, "accepted me."

The second Kevin became an angry, selfish, rebellious teenager who landed in juvenile hall more than once. Mom and dad couldn't handle him, so he was sent to live with big sister, Karal--a  disaster that lasted only a few months and ended very badly.  Next stop to land was with us.  While longer than the stint with Karal (about a year and a half), it did not go well.  We tried, but we were young and Kevin was broken.  There were sometimes glimpses of the person he should have been, but they were rare.  He was too angry, too sullen, too bitter and hate-filled for anyone to deal with.  When I picture him during that time, his face is dark--and not just from his olive skin.  He was quite handsome, but he was always scowling.  He was a thief and an almost pathological liar. 

He did go to church with us, and there was a time when we saw a change which lasted a couple of months. Then he was worse than ever.  He ran away, missing finishing high school by a mere three credits.  After a few encounters here and there, one for his father's funeral and one for his sister's funeral, we did not see him again.   Years passed. Rarely, we heard a little about him.  He was a carnival worker down south somewhere. He was in the Army. He was tossed out of the Army. He was married and back in California.  He was divorced.  He was homeless. He was living with a cousin. 

All attempts to talk to him, including a phone call when his mother died, were refused.  We prayed for him, off and on, and we thought about him sometimes--less as two decades went by.  Sometimes we wondered if he was still alive.

And then one day the phone rang.  It was Kevin.  He was clearly strung out.  He couldn't stop talking.  The voice was unrecognizable.  But it was Kevin.  So I talked, or rather listened, for a while, tears running down my face and then passed the phone to Ken.  Afterwards, we hugged each other and cried.  There were no words to say.

I don't want to write much of what we learned about Kevin. The details of his life are gruesome and sordid.  He had endured eight amputations.  A diabetic who never took care of himself, he developed gangrene in his foot. His foot was amputated, and then, as the infection advanced, more of his leg.  But he said to Ken, "They told me they couldn't take off any more and if it didn't work this time I would die.  I left my anger on the operating room floor with my leg.  I love you and Dorcas.  I don't remember why I hated you so much.  I asked God to forgive me."  He sent us a picture--a scrawny shadow of his former self, with no teeth.  I threw it away. 

A few years passed with occasional phone calls, and two brief visits.  I wrote about one HERE.  He wanted to move here, I think because he thought living with us would help him stop the drugs.  We had no room for him, because my elderly mother lived with us.

Once he called after an extended hospital stay.  He had suffered a third heart attack and he realized that meth, which he had been shooting up for years, was going to kill him at last.  He told us, "I had been trying to talk to God ever since I forgave you when the last of my leg came off.  I just couldn't stop the drugs, and I knew I was going to die.  I never forgot what I heard when I lived with you guys.  I was desperate and I cried out to God to deliver me.  And God did!  I mean, I haven't used meth since.  It has been a month.  I haven't even wanted any.  It has to be the Lord."

Eventually, after my mother died, Kevin moved here with his dogs, Soo Lin the pug and Juanita the Chihuahua--the Most Annoying Dogs Ever--but enough about them.  That brings me to the third Kevin I think of.

Having Kevin at our house was not easy.  He had clearly done a lot of damage to his body and mind.  He had some annoying quirks, like talking loudly to the television.  His hygiene was sporadic.  He was often ill.  He had lived on little besides Ramen noodles for a long time.  Better nutrition and regular doctor visits helped.  There was no more smoking pot, and with the help of Chantrix he even quit smoking cigarettes.

Kevin was almost painfully polite and rather articulate.  Many people did not realize that this middle-aged man was vulnerable and childlike in numerious ways. He continued to make foolish decisions, such as refusing to drink water or really anything but highly creamed and sweetened coffee or diet soda.  It took more than one visit to the Emergency Room with dehydration to eventually convince him that he had to drink water.

He thanked us many times for bringing him to Wisconsin, saying he loved it here. It was so clean...so green...so friendly...so safe.  The first fall, with our beautiful trees, amazed Kevin, as did the first major snowfall.  He took pleasure in simple things.

He attended church at Jubilee AG for a while, even though I was no longer the pastor. In warm weather he could motor there in his electric wheelchair. He became a greeter--a very good one I am told.    Eventually he started coming to church with us, and he loved to sing.  He was baptized and became a church member, something of which he was very proud.    He loved it when Kris, our daughter, and her family moved not far away.  Trinity, his grandniece, often spent Friday night at our house, and many Saturday mornings found the two of them propped up on his bed, laughing together at cartoons.  When Noah, our son Josh's little boy, was born two years ago, Kevin rejoiced at another child in the family.  He often forgot Noah's name, so he usually called both Noah and Trinity, "Baby."  Having children around caused him to think of his long-ago family.  He expressed much sadness and regret about his failed marriage, telling me not long ago, "I will always love Michelle.  And I will always love Kenny and Kelly, my step kids. I did a lot of bad things.  I was not a good dad.  I hope they forgive me." 

He talked to anyone who would listen--the mail carriers, the garbage men, the neighbors, the grocery clerks.  He wasn't shy about sharing his past and telling people that God was the reason he was still alive.  Once he was invited to speak to a local youth group.  With help, he shared his story, telling the kids, "I am a wreck because of bad choices.  I did this to myself, and I am an example of what not to do."  I was later told, "It was probably the best meeting we ever had.  The kids hung on every word, and asked lots of questions.  Even the 'difficult' kids who sit in back were quiet and listened intently."

In the end, the Kevin I will choose to remember is the third one.  He was the affectionate child Kevin returned in a broken adult body.  Emotionally he seemed about 14.  But he was drug and alcohol free for five years, and he gradually laid down most of his bitterness and anger.  He once again became the sweet person he always was underneath.  He loved to hug us and was always glad to see any family or friends who visited.  We had a wonderful time Thanksgiving of 2012, meeting up with  youngest brother, Keith, and other family, our first time together in many years. 

Keith came to our house at Christmas along with Josh, Stephanie and Noah. Our house is small.  Ken, me, Kris, Daryl, Trinity, Josh, Stephanie, Noah, Kevin and Keith in our living room is about six people too many for comfort, but we had a good time.  Yes, Ken remains very sick.  Still, we laughed and smiled and opened presents, and ate too much and watched the two cousins play. There were jokes and hugs and remembering.  There was joy.  Kevin was loved.  All of us were.

Last week he got pneumonia and his kidneys failed and his heart soon gave out.  As the ICU doctor said, "The damage to his body has been great.  It is just too much to undo."

Kevin failed at many things. In the end, he succeeded at the most important things of all.  He gave his live to the keeping of God, he forgave, he loved, he accepted responsibility for his wrongs, he spent several years clean and sober.  He touched many people with his smile, his conversation, his honesty. 

As we talked to him in the ICU, the only part of his body that could move was his foot. He moved his foot at specific times.  We held his hand and told him we love him. We shared a few stories. Trinity was a little scared, but at the end she went back to say, "Good bye, Uncle Kevin.  I love you." 

We said good bye for others who couldn't be there.  We told him that Juanita would be cared for (not by us!) and we told him how glad we were that we reconnected and that he came to Wisconsin.    We told him we were proud of him.  We told him we will see him again.  We remember Kevin.
 

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Ken's Ordeal Part 13: Scans and more Scans

Ken has returned to the Milwaukee Veteran's Medical Center a couple of times for scans that are designed to reveal infection in the bones.  The good news is that the scans reveal no infection.  Why the knee replacement failed (it's been getting worse for over 10 years) remains unknown.  The chance of post operative infection is still a great concern. There is some confusion as to whether Ken can go out of the VA system (due to backlog of surgery scheduling) or not.  The "patient advocate" is trying to get that clarified for us and if Ken has to stay at the VA he is trying to get the surgery expedited.   Meanwhile, Ken can barely walk.  He uses a wheelchair when he has to go to the clinic.   

As for the rheumatology issues, prednisone is the treatment of choice for RS3PE, the disease Ken apparently has.  He had prednisone many months ago with no change.   As I mentioned last post, RS3PE is sometimes connected with tumors.

This series of posts started with a diagnosis of an adrenal tumor, a pheochromocytoma, which was removed last February.

When prednisone doesn't wok, a tumor is suspected.  The VA rheumatologist is scheduling a positron emission tomography (PET) scan, an imaging test that uses a radioactive substance called a tracer to look for disease in the body.  We assume the PET scan is checking for cancer, though no one has said this.  That is the primary reason for PET scans.

The scan is projected to last two hours and, like an MRI, is done in a large "tube."  Because of excruciating pain, Ken was unable to lie still for MRIs at Mayo that lasted for a much shorter time.  We informed the rheumatologist of this, and we are waiting to see what they suggest.

He also has an open wound on his big toe that has been there for a while.  He has been to the VA podiatrist twice, and yesterday finally saw an RN in the wound clinic.  I hadn't seen the wound for a few days, and I was shocked at what I saw when the dressing came off.  His toe looks horrible.  The RN says it is not infected, just not healing and she is trying out some high-powered cream  He goes back in two weeks.

Ken is deteriorating.  He is weaker, the weight loss continues, along with the severe pain, and he can hardly get out of his recliner.  He can only walk very short distances.  Yesterday, I am chagrined to say, as I tried to help share the urgency of the situation with the nice man who is the VA Patient Advocate, I started crying.  I don't cry in these kind of situations.  Not usually.  It isn't that I think crying is bad, especially given the nature of this whole process, it is that I am afraid that if the dam breaks, as it did yesterday, I won't stop.   

Ken has been on short-term disability which now should be switched to long-term disability retirement.   He received a simple form from the insurance company back in mid December (about the 5th or 6th one that has had to be filled out over the last year).  He sent the form to his primary care physician--the new one at the VA.  A few days ago he got a call from the insurance company asking about the whereabouts of the form.  Two calls to the doctor led to him saying that he did not know Ken well enough to fill out the form and that he should go back to his doctor at Aurora to get it filled out.  This from a physician who was quite frank about having not looked at any of the numerous records that Mayo had sent to him.

Ken relayed this to the insurance company.  They said the form had to be from his current doctor, not from one who has not seen him in months.  Of course. 

Ken called and asked for an appointment with his VA doc.  This was refused.

So yesterday we spoke to the patient advocate about this, as well as other issues.  He contacted the primary care doctor and later relayed the following to Ken.  Dr. __________ says, "I can fill out the form for Mr. George if he insists.  He won't like it, because he may lose benefits.  I do not think he is disabled."

We have asked for a different primary care physician, but do not know what will happen.