31 December 2016

Hospital essentials

"Who was it, anyway, invented the cool side of the pillow?"

Colum McCann
Thirteen ways of looking

30 December 2016

Calling Dr Clooney

I call this raw pain. I was warned that it may be severe after today's final attempt if conservative therapy. Strong the doctor said. The literal translation of the German stark can mean severe or strong. I wonder if google translate knows the difference.

But strong means strength and this
pain makes me weak. During the days I could concentrate on all the various tests and treatments and visitors and hospital routines. At night I have exhausted the repertoire of painkillers the nurses are permitted to administer - bar opiates which I just declined again. And worse, no drip tonight. My last remaining venous access on my black and blue arms and hands collapsed this afternoon, while my left leg was still pain free and paralysed after the early morning injection into my spine.

I spent a giddy afternoon showing off the dead weight of a painfree leg to my visitors. I should have used my time better, should have slept while the pain slept.

Another night to wait, wade through all my tools and skills of distraction and concentration. Slow breathing and humming. A damp cloth to wipe over my face and hands. I would love to sit under a cool shower except - the risks, the rules. It is 2:43 am after all, at the trauma surgery ward. I have the room all to myself.

Calling on memories of floating in a volcanic crater lake, deepest black water carrying my body while my eyes follow the course of sharp white clouds in the summer sky above.

Remembering family xmas days and Sunday afternoons picking raspberries and walking along the east pier on a windy evening.

While the pain, a knife, a snake, a hot stream of molten lead runs from my spine into my toes.
And I recall the MRI printouts they showed me two days ago.
See that dark area, they said. We take it out if all of this doesn't work. Early next week.
Four more nights. Five maybe.

27 December 2016

Shit happened at the ER

When we drove through the dark and empty city early on xmas day I expected to be sent home with the usual wait and whatever needed to be excluded as possible scenarios after 48hrs of quite awful lower back pain which dr google had diagnosed as mere sciatica. 

Little did we know.

On a scale from one to ten, the pain last night hit 25 and I was drugged out if my wits. My right leg is a furry lump and most reluctant to participate in the business of keeping an upright stance. My right foot refuses to lift which renders my attempts of walking to a silly duck-like plop plop shuffle.

The long road of diagnostic work up so far has excluded any fracture. I should be so cheerful. Most of all I would like to have less pain and a good few hours of sleep. Somewhere down the line this is waiting for me. Keep your fingers crossed.

From the large window beside my bed I can see the sky and the tree tops.
And the unlimited supply of coffee is decent.

26 December 2016

Jitterbug with George Michael

We are upstairs in the cozy room with the woodburning stove. The little black and white portable tv is on the desk chair. We are dancing to Top of the Pops. My toddler is doing elaborate jumping moves on the big sofa while I display my repertoire of shakes and fancy steps. Together we clap and snip our fingers and sing along at the top of our voices:


Downstairs the big front door bangs shut and I can hear A walking upstairs. He leans on the door frame, hands deep in the pockets of his corduroy pants watching the scene and when I see the smirk on his face I call, hey what?
Agh, he says almost angrily, here is another one who has to pretend, another one of the millions who won't dare to come out.
But his feet are quietly tapping.
The music is crap, he mutters and with a sudden smile he turns to the jumping toddler, did you leave any dinner for an old man or do I have to come up on the sofa and dance for it? And S explodes into giggles.

22 December 2016

don't play dumb

In case anybody has blanked out the fact that both poles are rapidly losing ice, here is a graphic of the Antarctic ice loss as published by NSIDC. After years of increases the current loss of ice is massive. This marks a huge reversal in trend that is not only quite unexpected but also extremely worrying. Big ice shelves now have massive cracks and the glaciers behind them are melting into the sea.
This will lead to an acceleration in sea level rise in a few short years .

There is no way of reversing the trend.

21 December 2016

Midwinter, darkest day, longest night.
Cold frosty air.
A short hour of sunshine.
Now find the metaphor.

And this:

  (You will not get our hate in Berlin either.)

20 December 2016

There is ground beneath my feet again, knees still shaking though. I can look at the windows  from my horizontal position and the world is no longer turning. I am still struggling to get out from under the big wave that's been knocking me about for the last three weeks, my physical activity level is a laughable slow-motion at best. Actually,  I prefer to not move at all. Apart from getting all shaky and shivery when I do get up, there are new and interesting whooshing noises in my ears when I am vertical and R has started a spreadsheet tracking my miserably low bp  (I secretly believe that the measuring gadget he brought home from school is not working). 
In other words, I feel like shit. 
At least, R is as good as new and we have devised a cunning plan based on my various past emergency health scenarios and potential what ifs. Basically, we are ready for whatever will hit the fan but won't be disappointed if I just get better without much fuss.

Meanwhile, xmas. 
(This is mainly for Colette)
Even without being able to provide substantial proof I feel certain that in my neighbourhood - and in most German households - as of today, there isn't a single tree standing. There well could be one, wrapped in mesh, hiding in the basement, on the balcony or behind the garage. But indoors four days before xmas? No way. There are lots and lots of boring and/or hideously decorated trees in public spaces, schools and shop windows of course. They don't count, they are only for show, not the real thing. Right now, the good Germans at home will light the four candles on their advent wreaths and nibble Dominosteine, Spritzgebäck, Vanillekipferl and Springerle. More traditional households may also provide dried figs and dates. And juicy clementines of course.

The real xmas tree is brought in on xmas eve and absolutely not a day earlier. I can also vouch for the fact that in households with small children, the tree will come inside under cover of darkness and will be decorated in secret, possibly by angels, elves or any other of the Christkind's helpers. Once the children have reached the age when they have figured out the whole shebang they may help decorating - to kill time on xmas eve. Public viewing will commence on xmas eve when it gets dark or when the family returns from their annual church visit (which could well be the once annual visit for many).

Again, despite the absence of actual statistics, I contend as follows:

95% of trees will be real trees
75% will have real candles, mostly beeswax
100% will be decorated, inter alia, with these little chocolate sweets
(The things about these chocolates is that you can quietly pull out one of them and eat it and nobody notices until all of them are reduced to two or are gone all together.)

On xmas eve, shops start to close from noon onward. By late afternoon, there is a hush and by the time it gets dark, the first trees in their full shiny candles glory can be seen through the windows. By now, everybody is dressed up and it's time for the gifts. (Yes, on xmas eve.) We call this Bescherung (giving of gifts) and there are as many different rituals as there are families.
(I wrote about my childhood xmas here.)

Same with the food served on xmas eve. Potatoe salad with wieners is very popular. My mother went for the more elaborate, little gratins in real oyster shells, smoked fish and Melba toast.

The real food comes out over the next two days. There is no traditional German xmas dinner as in turkey and ham. Game is popular, carp is traditional for some, roast goose, anything fancy with large whole fish. We mostly had roast saddle of venison, cranberry sauce, dumplings, red cabbage. Tons of different desserts.
And since for every child there is a Bunter Teller under the tree, the first tummy aches start on day two, latest.

The tree stays there until early January. There are fixed days for tree collection and tough luck if you miss the date.

The last xmas tree in this house was maybe in 2005. I vaguely remember S coming home from university and throwing a temper tantrum because we hadn't prepared anything and in fact had no intention to. So in the end, she went out with R and got the whole show on the road. The cats messed with the baubles as usual. But no fear, we used to have lovely trees, we were proper xmas champions. More about that maybe later.

This is one of my mother's trees, ca. 1966. White xmas and all.

After a lifetime of proper German holy xmas, all the beeswax candles and playing the recorder in the family carol quartet, the hushed atmosphere of quiet rituals (no tv, family only, classical music etc.), I walked into the hurricane of an Irish xmas.
The first thing that threw me was the tree. In my future in-laws house, the tree was situated in the corner of the front room. The front room, decorated in my mother-in-law's favourite pink, was only used for special occasions. For everyday family life there was the cramped tv room - or 'den', as it was renamed after  my future in-laws had visited the US.
From the first of December, however, the front room was opened and remained so in order to allow visitors to view the tree. This was a small white plastic affair, hastily decorated with blue, red and pink tinsel, gold baubles and a couple of ancient play-do decorations from R's distant childhood. A string of multi-coloured electric lights kept on flashing irregularly and on my first viewing, I suspected a faulty connection somewhere - which was received with great laughter all round.
Throughout December, the regular string of visitors to my future in-law's house increased dramatically, and every visit included a viewing, a glass of sherry, a mince pie, the exchanging of xmas cards and the placing of a wrapped gift parcel under the tree. By mid December, the tree was more or less covered by parcels. These were daily lifted and shook by passing family members to guess their contents. Even bets were placed.
While the tree as such had been a slight disappointment in comparison to my mother's, I was more baffled by the card business. This is how it looked to me (and still does): People write seasonal sentiments on xmas cards and then proceed to exchange these cards in person while verbally repeating the exact same seasonal sentiments written on these cards.
I was told that there would be no stockings on xmas morning as these were reserved for small children only. It took me a while to get the hint and we provided one small child two years later.
There was also no chance for breakfast in the morning as all female members of my future family-in-law, in their dressing gowns, were working their way through items on a secret task list in the kitchen, before getting dressed in splendid finery and leaving the house, in stages, to work their way through more secret tasks, such as going to mass, chauffeuring old folks to church, singing carols in some hospital ward, buying more cream (shops were open!!) and dropping off last minute presents and, yes, personally handing over more xmas cards.
By midday, the family was once again at home and for the next two hours or so the house began to fill up with a seemingly endless stream of coming and going visitors. Neighbours, colleagues, cousins, friends, friends of friends home from abroad, and a couple of priests. I was sent around with plates of canapés and R was taking orders for drinks. There was laughter and gossip and singing and yes, more xmas card exchanges.
When the last visitors had left, the family sat down for xmas dinner.
The menu:
1 smoked salmon on soda bread
2 soup with Melba toast
3 turkey and ham, stuffing, gravy, mashed and roast potatoes, celery (boiled, unfortunately), Brussels sprouts
4 sherry trifle
5 xmas pudding - with flambé whiskey (?)
Before the trifle, strange longish parcels wrapped in shiny paper were held in a complicated cross-over chain of hands around the table and pulled resulting in small plops (or not). This produced great hilarity with funny little trinkets and small slips of paper, which were unfolded and found to bear important jokes to be read out loud.
By now I was totally lost.
After dinner all proceeded to the front room and after much debate a Santa was chosen, who, wearing a Santa hat of course, would spend the next hour lifting one parcel after another from under the tree, reading the gift tag and throwing it across the room to the recipient, while the dogs tried to catch it midair.
Parcels were unwrapped immediately with much shouting, running or crawling across the room and hugging etc. while the dogs sniffed their way through the growing pile of torn wrapping paper in the middle (the coffee table had been thoughtfully removed).
That over and done, it was now time for a good cup of tea and the last mince pies.
After a brief interval, glasses of bubbly were passed around and the birthday cake for R's sister (who for obvious reasons is named Noelle) was carried into the room and the next party began. You know, candles, singing, cheers, presents etc.
This is only a glimpse. There was much more, incl. charades, reciting, singing, children dancing and crying. But this should give you an idea.

18 December 2016

Birth is migration from the womb to the open air.
We are all immigrants
Death is migration of breath and air
The last migration. The vast migration.
Migration is our nature.

Lemn Sissay

from Whale Translation 

17 December 2016

The hard task of regaining balance.
I should know this, I have been here so often. But it hits me in the gut every time again and while these tiny little spirals in my inner ears are healing from whatever is attacking them, I am struggling with all the other balances in my mind and heart to recover some form of calm, while high dose cortisone is spinning my emotions to those weird levels of freakishness I would otherwise find ridiculous (in myself).
It's all down to hope, because this is so fishy. I have no clear symptoms other than waves of vertigo and/or hearing loss every other day, I am sleepy and exhausted but the rest of me is supposedly healthy. Medically speaking. So again, I rely on the niggling feelings of doubt and benevolence that medical experts express, those who have seen me better not too long ago and can compare. And have done their homework, i.e. reading about autoimmune inner ear events (rare but that's not my fault). I almost cheered when I sneezed out the first clot of blood, a little tadpole, from my cemented sinuses last night. A first picture book symptom!
In my Living Will I have stipulated that after my death I wish to donate my cochleas to medical research and should nobody be interested, which is highly likely, I want them made into the most perfect earrings for my daughter to wear. A cochlea is a beautiful thing. It's a pity I won't be around to see what my pair looks like.
Then there is seasickness.  My old companion. A childhood of puking in the car, sitting in the back, three kids sharp elbow to sharp elbow, my mother chain-smoking in the front and never an open window for fear of catching a cold. On every family holiday, a motorway restroom where my mother washes my face, changes my clothes, muttering curses under her breath. Gagging on dramamine while my sister licks her ice cream.
Ginger, acupuncture wristbands, eyes like saucers from cinnarizine, I have been there and done it.  On our first trip with a six months old S, as a drug-free breastfeeding  mother, I sat outside at the back of the ferry for the entire 30 hours, staring at the horizon, willing time to move faster. In the morning just before we arrived, a steward came up to me. There had been complaints. Was I drunk?
It's not always that bad, I am ok when I can drive myself. Of course, cycling works like a dream.
This is my third week of constant seasickness, a new record.

14 December 2016

This is from the archeological museum in the Italian Alps near where Oetzi, the mummy from the glacier, was found. I find this immensely uplifting to read at the moment. The way things stand, I am putting my faith and trust in women. Look at the mess the men have done.

13 December 2016

12 December 2016

everything is related

Just now, I clicked the last little box to cancel our xmas trip to Ireland, ten days of wild seaside and windy mountains and walking and dogs and very noisy dinners, deleted. Keeping fingers crossed we may get a refund and have another go at easter. It's dark and grey outside and after seven days of antibiotics, R's CRP level is still shot through the roof. He tells me that his brain is surprisingly alert, which is why he is working online most of the day in between coughing fits and inhalation sessions.

Not to be left out of the picture, I had a weird 24 hrs episode of sudden hearing loss, a euphoric morning of recovery followed by another 24 hrs of extreme vertigo incl. all of the nasty side effects (aka seasickness related emptying of stomach and guts). Today, I am nursing what feels like a massive hangover if I want to describe it kindly. Our polite GP sent us home to rest for another week. We walked out of the surgery like the blind leading the lame, tweedle dee and tweedle dum holding hands.

There is a tiny voice inside my booming head whispering flare-up, cortisone, flare-up, unemployment, end of the world etc. So far, I am successfully shutting it out with rest and mindless distraction. But I started bribing my colleagues to send some work and We Shall See.

Meanwhile, my father escaped from hospital ("nothing but a prison") after two nights and went into hiding only to have another fall and another one and after a couple of shouting matches lengthy discussions with his three grown-up children (not sure whether he sees us that way), he has backed down somewhat and is considering various options, incl. assisted living more or less across the road from my brother.

I believe it when I see it. At night, I feel overwhelmed with sadness for him. This is what his hands looked like last summer. It's much worse now. You should see his legs. He claims it's all perfectly normal for an old man aged 88. He is so proud of his age and his independence.

09 December 2016

One of my nephews, a big strong young man with a shaggy beard, some questionable habits and a degree in marine biology, is preparing to start a new job. Come January, he will spend an entire year on a research vessel in the Atlantic, way south beyond the equator, towards Antarctica, where the ocean is rough and wild and cold.
He has been a troubling and troubled boy and young man, still is at times, this is his first job opportunity in a year or even more. But he loves the sea and all the amazing life forms in our planet's oceans and while we often, with a sigh and shaking our heads, call him a chancer, a cheater, a messer in so many ways, he knows what's at stake.
This is for him.

Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner

06 December 2016

I will try to make this stop at the place of self pity the briefest possible. But be warned, I have a tendency to dwell. 
As a child, long before anybody ever considered contact allergies, I would forever pick and remove and restick the sticky plasters covering my multitude of injuries resulting from climbing trees, playing hide-and-seek on the building sites of our growing suburb, cycling accidents, general fighting, all that feral outdoor stuff. Once I got the plaster off for good, I continued picking the, by now, red and itchy wound or scab, trying to hide well away from my mother's slap and yet another application of sticky plaster. 
Years later, when I worked as a night cleaner at the university clinics in Heidelberg (a much sought after student job at the time) and developed a nasty looking rash, a dermatologist covered my back with a zillion sticky test patches for 48 very very itchy hours. The result was that I am allergic to just one thing, sticky plaster. (The rash was a chemical burn from one of the cleaning agents I used at work.)
Life can be so easy sometimes. 

Today, the house booms with R's coughing. The kitchen reeks of the eucalyptus and thyme oil concoction he inhales, his fever has dropped, the world did not come to a sudden end after he swallowed his first ever antibiotic pill and the resulting recovery process is a joy to observe. Of course, he would not describe events as such. He is suffering greatly and requires a considerable yet predictable amount of cajoling and distraction to get through this extremely unfair onslaught on his usually excellent health and the resulting massive burden of boredom.
Whereas I crawl along, exhausted yet fever-free, non-coughing yet miserably chesty, basically waiting for the ground to open up beneath my feet. I have no idea why I remembered the sticky plaster stuff.
Meanwhile, my father has turned off his mobile phone because we interrupted him too often, he is watching the skiing tournaments live on tv from his hospital bed.

In frost-free tropical paradise, this was our back garden.

05 December 2016

If you break your neck, if you have nothing to eat, if your house is on fire—then you got a problem. Everything else is inconvenience. Life is inconvenient. Life is lumpy. Learn to separate the inconveniences from the real problems. You will live longer.
More about this quote of a quote here. 

What was it again about  things that come in threes?  Let me show off my Latin, wow I am so fabulous: omne trium perfectum - have a guess.

Like The Three Little Pigs and The Three Musketeers. Or specifically, my father in hospital, my man with his first ever strep throat still contemplating his first ever prescription of antibiotics (we are not there yet and you have no idea) and myself with a temperature of something above normal but hey, no strep throat.
Outside, heavy frost. Wait, that's four things.

04 December 2016

Our antidote to cultures of fear is knowledge, empathy, compassion. The open hand. The open imagination.

Paul Salopek