Tag Archives: married life

Between one beat and the next

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Photo by Patricia Tser on Unsplash

My friend Bridie and I used to ride our bikes to school together. Every morning I rode the half mile or so to the corner near her house, and then we rode the remaining two or three miles side by side, giggling, ignoring her bossy older sister Jan who pedaled and puffed behind us. One morning Bridie wasn’t there so I rode to her house, leaned my bike against the wall, started to walk through the back door.

Someone – her mother? – grabbed my arms and stopped me. Told me Bridie wouldn’t be coming to school that day because her father had died. He and her mom had gone to bed the night before, but only her mom had woken up. His heart just stopped beating.

Some time later I stormed into her house, raging over the latest fight I’d had with my father. “You should be grateful you still have him,” Jan told me – so pompous! I snarled at her, “You have no idea how lucky you are!” and her face went white as her heart missed a beat. After that we didn’t speak for a long time.

By the time my father had his first heart attack, I think in 1997, which was the year before I married the Hubbit and moved to the US, he and I had achieved a truce of sorts. I was on my way to an interview when someone – my mother? – called me on my cell phone and I changed direction and sped to the hospital. The Egg and her husband were already there, huddled together on one of the long benches in the large, empty waiting area. They directed me to another waiting area next door, where I found Marmeee standing beside him, clutching his hand and looking scared. He was on one of those narrow, wheeled metal hospital beds, gasping for breath, his face the dull yellow of old fat that’s been exposed to air.

Not far from them was a counter, and behind it an empty reception area, and beyond that a room full of nurses engaged in loud conversation while they drank their tea. There was a bell, which I rang furiously with one hand while slapping the wood of the counter with my other hand. A nurse emerged and looked me up and down. “Yes?” she asked.

“My father needs attention!” I demanded.

She glanced dismissively at him. “We are waiting for his file,” she said.

“Where is his file?”

She flipped a languid finger back toward the room where the Egg and her husband were waiting. “The messenger will get it. But now he is on his break,” she said. I stormed through the door, rang a different bell, slapped a different counter. Demanded the file, which I carried back and slammed down in front of the nurse. She rolled her eyes, flicked the file open, froze. Called more nurses. Moments later they wheeled him away, Marmeee scurrying alongside as he clung to her hand.

There was nothing left for me to do, except … I could call for favors. I called Cass, a cardiologist I’d interviewed a few weeks previously. He was a hot shot, associated with a private hospital. My father, who didn’t have medical insurance, was in a state hospital. Cass had liked the story I wrote about him, and had asked me to write another story about organ transplants and the need for donors. I’d told him I would, but that it would be a better story if I could actually witness and write about a heart transplant. So at that point – the point I was at, sitting in the waiting room while my father clung to my mother’s hand in a different room full of machines beeping and nurses scurrying and doctors barking instructions – at that point, we were waiting for one of Cass’s patients to be matched with a donor heart.

Well, if your father has a heart attack and you happen to know the top cardiologist in town, maybe happen to have impressed him enough that he wants a favor, obviously you call him. And even if he can’t personally get involved in the case, he makes a few calls, lets it be known that he has an interest, and the awed cardiac team responsible for your father’s care snaps to attention and gets the job done. The Olde Buzzard had surgery and it went well and he got medical insurance and started seeing Cass regularly, and his heart kept up a steady thump for nearly twenty more years, until Marmeee’s stopped and his no longer had a reason to keep on beating.

It was late Friday afternoon, a hot day at the end of a too-long week. The voice on the phone was warm. Sexy. “Hey there – would you like to spend the night with me?”

My pulse quickened … but … I was in Johannesburg, and the only man at that time likely to make me such an offer was on the other side of the planet. “Who is this?” I squeaked.

He chuckled. “It’s Cass,” he said. We had a heart!

I met him at the hospital a couple hours later, and he took me to meet the patient’s wife. I had forgotten the wife until I read my notes today. At the time she was merely background, barely relevant to the story. It’s interesting how life has a way of teaching one empathy.

I had my laptop with me, and I made my notes in the form of a letter to the Hubbit. He wasn’t my Hubbit yet, of course; we were still at the internet romance stage of our relationship, he in the US and I in South Africa. We didn’t yet expect to meet, but we’d got into the habit of sharing the events of our lives.

Hiya, honeybun!

I’m sitting on the floor of a large passage in the hospital. Nothing much is happening … I need to write down what I’m experiencing, and – hope you don’t mind – it’ll be a lot easier just to tell it all to you. I guess it’s one way to spend the night with you … <smial>

Oh yeah – we got pretty steamy back then. Even with the full bulk of the planet between us he could make my heart flutter!

I told him about the family – Hindu, a large crowd, the women all dressed in saris. The mother, who sat lotus-legged and praying on a plastic chair, one eye covered by an eye patch held in place by masking tape – she’d had cataract surgery a few days previously. Three sons, the youngest 13. A brother who was a cardiologist, who later showed up in the operating theater.

The patient is only 47. He has had heart disease for about six years and they had been keeping it under control with medication, but early this year he went into heart arrest and Cass said it was time to plan for a transplant. He’s been incredibly lucky – he’s had to wait only five weeks. Some people wait years.

An orderly brought him his pre-med while I was there – a tiny plastic tot glass of water and a handful of pills. The orderly told him not to drink more of the water than he absolutely had to, but he must have been thirsty – he downed the whole lot almost compulsively. Then they had to give him an injection; wanted to give it into his shoulder, but he’s so thin there’s not enough flesh there. They had to inject him in the buttock.

Suddenly it was time to take him away. Orderlies pushed his hospital bed speedily toward the operating theater, and his family streamed behind, keeping pace with his bed until a nurse stopped them, gently told them to say goodbye, that they’d see him the next day. They stood in a small cluster, waving and smiling with determination, and kept waving even after he was out of sight, their fear surrounding them like a fog.

Then a nurse brought me a hideous green overall to wear. Needless to say the one-size-fits-all trousers didn’t, but she found me some bigger ones. I had the MOST frustrating time trying to persuade my hair to stay tucked inside a silly little cap. I’m wearing nothing but thin plastic overshoes on my feet, because I didn’t think to change into sneakers and the overshoes won’t work with the heels I was wearing. My feet are freezing! Now I’m sitting in a little room outside the theater, drinking tea and waiting for something to happen. In TV hospital programs hospital life looks like one adrenaline rush after another. Not so. This evening has been mainly waiting.

And now I’m in the theater! I rushed in and was promptly chased out – I’d forgotten my face mask! Put it on – how do doctors wear these things? After less than a minute I felt as though I was suffocating.

The operating theater was a small room crammed with equipment and crowded with people – several nurses, an anesthetist, two cardiologists, all chatting and joking as though they were at a party. The perfusionist – the person responsible for the heart-lung machine – sat next to the patient reading a Playboy magazine. The two cardiac surgeons had their own extra-high-sterility area, separated from everyone else by a low divider covered with hanging towels.

At the center of it all is the patient. He is very still, and is almost completely covered by green sheets; even his face is covered, except for a little slit where a tube goes in. On the cardiac monitor his heartbeat is erratic, frantic… They’ve started cutting and his heart is going crazy… They’ve sawed open his sternum. It looks like meat, but the smell is strange, nasty.

Okay … I went to stand above the patient’s head, and watched the surgeon cut open the pericardium. I saw inside his body. I saw his heart, laboring sluggishly to keep going. And now … we wait. The new heart is on its way. They are ready.

Time is of the essence in a heart transplant. The donor heart must be in and beating within four hours or tissues start to break down. In this case, the donor heart was flown up to Johannesburg from a town on the coast. To save time they opened up the patient and were ready to go, but they didn’t disconnect his old heart until the new one had actually arrived.

The heart is packed in ice, inside a plastic bag, the whole kaboodle inside the kind of polystyrene cooler box one uses for picnics. They’ve put it next to an identical box that’s full of ice and soft drinks. The packaged heart looks like someone’s groceries.

They have taken out the old heart. It fibrillated for about 15 minutes while they were connecting the heart-lung machine, before they removed it and the monitor finally fell silent. Now it’s lying off to one side in a kidney dish, still trying its best to beat. Cass says it wouldn’t have lasted longer than a few more weeks. It makes me sad to think of it being thrown away now, though, when it’s tried so hard.

The new heart looks more solid, meatier, than the old one. The surgeons agree that it’s a nice heart. It used to belong to a 43-year-old woman who lived in a small coastal town. Today she had a cerebral aneurysm – she had a massive bleed and died – just like that. Well, technically, she didn’t die until they took her heart out about two-and-a-half hours ago. I wonder what she’d planned to do today.

And right now, technically, this patient is also dead. A machine is doing his breathing and moving his blood, and his temperature’s right down at 28 Celsius. Every now and then a nurse takes some ice out of the picnic box and puts it into his heart cavity to keep it cold. I touched his head. It felt … horrible. Icy. Not alive.

The surgery I watched was something of a milestone. I’d forgotten that too, until reading my notes. It was the first time of using surgical superglue in a heart transplant in South Africa. They spent an hour stitching the heart and supplemented the stitches with glue. I’m sure by now surgeons use glue alone to connect the blood vessels to the heart tissue. According to my notes that was the goal, anyway.

They’re trying to start the heart by pumping blood into it, massaging it gently by hand, and shocking it. It doesn’t want to start. They massage, shock, look at the monitor. It fibrillates, then stops. They try again and again. They look like Sunday afternoon mechanics huddled around a car engine, coaxing it to life.

Ten minutes in the beat is strong and steady. There are a few little leaks, which the surgeons are stitching and gluing. There’s gore everywhere, and the surgeons are spattered with blood.

Everyone is tired, coming down off a high. The final stage of the process is mechanical. They disconnect the heart-lung machine and the perfusionist packs it and his magazines away. Release the clamps that have been holding his rib cage open, remove the swabs, finish cauterizing the wound – that disgusting smell again. Insert drains and sew him up.

I thanked the hot cardiologist for giving me one of the best nights of my life. “I learned a lot!” I told him, and went home.

The Hubbit’s new cardiologist isn’t especially hot. He’s a large, blustery man, a kind man, I believe a good doctor, but as hard to pin down as a picnic blanket on a windy day. I’m learning from him that the language of the heart is imprecise. Love … fear … loss … failure … What do these words actually mean? I tried to ask him: in the context of this husband, in this consulting room, at this moment, what exactly is heart failure?

I asked him question after question, and his words were like bits of dry grass swept up by a dust devil. They had no shape or pattern. He tried to answer. He opened a folder and showed me printouts – the results of many tests over the past few weeks. He used words like “ventricle”, “left”, “right”, “congestion”. I think he may have showed me a diagram. At last he gave up, ordered another test. It’s scheduled for the day after tomorrow.

Perhaps it’s not his answers that are imprecise, but my questions. I will rephrase them.

Will his heart keep going, or will it just stop between one beat and the next?

Will I wake up one night, hear the soft snores of the dogs snuggled between us, raise my head and strain my failing ears, hear silence from his side of the bed, reach out and touch him and find him cold as ice?

Can you fix it?

In the context of right here, right now, how best should I cherish him?

Usually I end with questions for you, dear reader. An invitation to engage. This time, my questions are all directed elsewhere … but please engage anyway.

So this year for Christmas the Hubbit ran over himself with a tractor

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Needless to say, he didn’t pick the little old Ford tractor to get run over by …

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Not this dinky early 40s model, which is the first tractor we bought when we moved out to the farmlet. (Picture taken some years back. We haven’t had any snow this year … and although I should be stressing over climate change, right now it’s working for me. I haven’t the faintest idea how to keep our driveway clear!)

… although, on consideration, that one might have been worse, because although it’s little and cute it has monster wheels designed for gripping soft stuff, like dirt, snow and the flesh of absent-minded old men. In any case, the tractor of choice for his life-altering moment of inattention was this one…

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About 3 tons of He-Power, probably more than you want rolling over your foot-leg-groin-gut-chest, although less horrifying if the tires are smoothish, like those on cars.

If I’m sounding a tad pissed off, it’s partly because this is not how this blog was supposed to go. When I started here, my goal was to entertain, with occasional detours to expound, philosophize, denounce, and share recipes. But the first seven months of this year were so fundamentally shitty that I quit writing altogether until I recognized it was my sole defense against the Black Dog, and since then it’s been one damn shitty thing after another, and now this.

Here’s what happened: The Hubbit was in the workshop getting grain into buckets to feed the cattle before he started on some tractor-related fun-on-the-farm. The tractor takes a while to warm up, so to save time he stood beside it to turn it on. It was supposed to be in neutral. He always  leaves it in neutral. Except this time.

He leaned into the tractor, pushing down the clutch pedal with one hand while he started it with the other. It roared to life, and he released the clutch. The tractor leaped forward. The big rear wheel trapped his foot, rolled up against his leg, and slammed him down onto the gravel scattered over the concrete apron at the door of the shop. It crunched over his pelvis, abdomen and shoulder, before – oh, the sweet grace of God – it rolled off him, rammed into some barrier inside the shop, and stopped.

I was in the corral, around the corner of the shop, pitching apples into a wheelbarrow to feed to the cattle. I heard him yelling. “I’m coming!” I called, starting to close the gate to the stall where the apples were so that my old horse, Vos, wouldn’t get in and eat them all and founder himself. The Hubbit kept calling.

It’s annoying, living with a deaf person. They call you, and you say “Yes?” You say, “I’m coming!” and they don’t hear. They keep calling. Sometimes it’s as though they’re not even trying to listen for an answer. Just call, call, call until you appear. Sometimes it’s so annoying that I very deliberately finish what I’m doing and take my time about going to him, refusing to be rushed.

But not this time. There was something in his voice that snatched my attention so that I left the gate swinging wide, let the apple-laden wheelbarrow tip over, ignored Vos as he shoved forward to grab what he could. I wrested the big corral gate open, hurried to the tractor – I’m too damn fat to run, but I can hurry. He was on the ground and at first I thought he’d just fallen – it happens; his knees are shot and the dogs are clumsy. But he kept calling until I was right up next to him and put my hand on him. He appeared to be bleeding from his eyes, his face was bloody and scratched. “Get an ambulance!” he wheezed.

We live 20, 30 minutes from town. While we waited I hurry-hurry-hurried inside for blankets and pillows – not much use against the cold ground – I didn’t dare move him – but better than nothing. He’d fallen below the bucket of the tractor, and I didn’t trust the hydraulics to keep it up, and even more I didn’t trust myself to raise it, so I scurried about finding random objects that I could prop under it so it wouldn’t drop and crush him. I called the Cool Dude, who called our neighbor Paranoiber, who arrived and then left immediately to chase down the ambulances and lead them down our private road. (They brought in a helicopter as well; it landed in Vos’ pasture, but he was too busy eating apples to care.)

And then the the bustle of people whose clothes glowed luminous orange and yellow, reassuring smiles, figuring-it-out frowns, staying out of the way, staying close enough to answer questions. A wail of pain as they lifted him, the juddering roar of the unwanted helicopter leaving, the wail of the ambulance on the road to the hospital. Cool Dude insisted on taking me in and then didn’t listen when I told him the way to the new hospital location. His battered, swollen face on the white hospital pillow. Internal bleeding that demanded a flight to a better hospital in Spokane. I came home when they took him away, took a shower, threw some clothes in a bag, fed the dogs. I put fresh bedding on the bed so it would be nice when he came home – which seemed to make sense at the time.

He has a fractured pelvis, broken ribs, a cracked scapula, and bruising, but no organ damage. The scans also revealed a lump in his throat – something unrelated to the accident – so before they released him they biopsied that, which gives us something extra to think about.

I spent the first interminable week in Spokane sitting, first in ICU then in the orthopedic ward. I kept insisting that I hadn’t married him for his looks so his brain better be okay until, to shut me up, they showed me scans that proved the wheel had missed his head. I cracked inappropriate jokes about every indignity, photographed under his hospital gown so he could see the astonishing size and purpleness of his swollen groin, nagged him to suck on one plastic tube and blow into another, coaxed him to eat, bitched when his blood sugar soared, applauded when it dropped, and, hour after hour, waited for the doctors to come.

He’s been in rehab now for a week, and the waiting continues. He can sit up, can get from his bed to his wheelchair, can use a portable commode if they get it to him in time, but it’ll be a while before he can walk. He’s on heavy doses of pain medication, so of course he also needs laxatives, and … well, suffice to say they’ve spent the past few days figuring out how much of those he needs and how long they take to work. I’d like to think that next time the need for laxatives arises they’ll be in less of a hurry for them to work before they wallop him with an extra dose, but since the people giving the laxatives aren’t the people cleaning up when they do what they’re meant to do, that’s by no means certain.

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The Hubbit’s little princesses, Patchee and Ntombi, are learning to make do with me. Today I took them to visit him for the first time. Ntombi was most interested in befriending the man in the other bed, whose wife had brought snacks, but Patchee trembled and lay down under the Hubbit’s wheelchair, and when it was time to leave she begged me to let her stay.

I visit him for an hour or two most afternoons. Usually I take a dog or two. Sometimes we chat; sometimes we seem to have said everything we will ever have to say to each other. They put him through an array of tests when he arrived and, for the first time in his life, he didn’t ace the cognition test. His world has shrunk; it encompasses his pain scale, his physical therapy exercises, his carb intake, his blood sugar count, his bowels. He has a pile of books that he doesn’t read. For the first time in as long as I’ve known him he watches television. I’ve bought him a Lumosity subscription for Christmas, and when he’s dull and spacey I release my inner bitch and pick fights with him over his failure to despise that asshole in the White House as comprehensively or intensely as I do. (Sometimes it takes a poke with a sharp stick – or the verbal equivalent – to send a good surge of oxygen-laden red blood cells shooting brainwards. One does one’s wifely best.)

My world is misshapen and discombobulated, and to find my way around it I’m redefining the boundaries of what matters, and excising everything else with a sharp and ruthless blade. Some days I look at the weeks or months ahead and blaze with a kind of excitement – this is a shake-up, an opportunity to change, to renew our marriage, our life, ourselves. I’m acutely conscious of God’s grace, and hungry to draw close to Him. I make lists of the things I can make better, develop strategies for personal growth and home improvements. Other days I drag myself out of bed and put one foot in front of the other until it’s bedtime again, and then sometimes I can sleep.

Let’s talk. Have you had periods in your life when every time you thought things were as bad as they could be they got worse? How did you cope?

How I found out that my bell peppers weren’t stunted after all

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I’m into my third day of a total fast – water only, except morning and evening when I add a splash of raw apple cider vinegar in a glass of water. I’ve taken it on and off for years for general gut health; there’s no better cure for indigestion or heartburn. (Yes, I know it’s counter-intuitive to drink vinegar for heartburn. Try it. It works.)

That said, even with gut health one can have too much of a good thing. It turns out that the efficacy of apple cider vinegar as a Gut Repair & Activation Force is enhanced by an absence of food in said gut. What this means is, if you’re taking ACV twice daily while fasting and you find yourself wanting to sneak a tiny booty-toot … don’t. Chances are it’ll be more than hot air. And that’s all I have to say about that.

Moving on to other bodily functions: I’m hungry, of course, but it’s bearable, and I’m doing just fine without any mind-altering drugs. I get tired, both physically and mentally, but I’ve given myself permission to take life easy while I wait for the energy surge ketosis will bring. Even food cravings aren’t a real problem.

Last night I dreamed that something happened – I forget what it was, but I remember it upset me – and I declared, “Screw fasting – I’m going to eat chocolate!” and then in my dream my mouth went, “Meh. Nah, I don’t think so.” (Apparently fasting causes vivid dreams, but nobody said they had to be interesting.)

The toughest challenge I’ve faced so far has been while walking through my veggie garden. Apricots arrayed like my own private sunset, clusters of small sweet grapes peeping between the leaves, tomatoes detonating wherever I look, and I imagine the sensation of biting down, the pop as their skin yields to my teeth, the explosion of flavor. Even the sweet bell peppers, disappointingly small and stunted this year, tempt me to crunch.

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Somewhat relevant picture … The view from my veggie garden this evening. There was a fire some miles from our home – houses burned and humans were evicted, and caring friends called because it was heading our way. I’ve been brooding over the annual conflagrations in California and found it hard to take seriously. This may make me a bad neighbor.

I’m finding hunger is easier to ignore than boredom. My gut, so far, is content to grumble to itself, but my mouth wants to be entertained!

Before I started this fast I had a long list of things I told myself I had to do before I could step outside of “normal life”. Clean the house, catch up on laundry, cook a whole lot of food to keep the Hubbit going while I’m not eating, make up a batch of bone broth for when I start eating again. Every time I looked at the list it got longer – tidy my desk, catch up on filing, weed the veggie garden and start the winter crop, treat the chickens for mites, get all my rescue work up to date, gradually phase out the drugs. I’d planned to start last Thursday, but that ever-growing list pushed the start date back and back as I continued to avoid the to-dos while playing sudoku… because that’s what I do. That’s why this fast is necessary. I need it to clear my head, revitalize my body, awaken my will, and power me up to take control of what’s left of my life.

So on Thursday night on my way home from a dog training class, I swung by Carl’s Jr. and bought a chocolate shake and a teriyaki burger, which I ate in the parking lot while ignoring the German Shepherd drooling down the back of my neck. Sitting there, feeling my gut start to twist the way it always does when I fill it up with garbage, I gloomily pondered all that I still had to do before I could start.

And then it dawned on me: the dirty house, the unfed husband, the tottering piles of paperwork, the erupting weeds – those are all symptoms, and you don’t postpone surgery to focus on the symptoms. So I deleted the list. It was that easy.

I gave the last of the burger and the dregs of the shake to the German Shepherd and came home, where the Hubbit offered me ice cream (Ben & Jerry cherry garcia, yet!) and I astonished both of us by saying, “No thanks!” and meaning it. (Yes, dear reader, I am entirely capable of consuming a tub of B&J cherry garcia on top of a burger and a chocolate shake, never mind the squirmy gut.)

Well, moving on. My evening dose of apple cider vinegar settled the gut, and the burger and shake kept me going most of Friday. Saturday morning I woke feeling … well, awake! So I started the bone broth, and its rich fragrance will fill the house for the next several days. It makes my mouth water, but I can wait.

I found the recipe online, here – and pretty much everything that went into my broth was raised right here on our farmlet. When I defrosted the soup bones they turned out to be more meat than bone, so I cut away most of the meat (I’ll make it into casserole; that will keep the Hubbit going) and weighed out 4 lb of meaty beef bones. I browned them in some olive oil that I poured over fresh rosemary a few days ago and left to steep. I tipped the bones and meat into the slow cooker, covered with water and a generous dollop of apple cider vinegar, and ambled out to the veggie garden to get the celery, onions and leeks.

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Habanero peppers … just like stunted bell peppers, right up until you touch them.

My veggie garden is full of interesting things this year. The leeks are next to a mass of tomatoes, and tucked between the tomatoes are a few bell pepper bushes. They’ve been a disappointment this year; I’ve been waiting and waiting for them to grow, but although there are lots of peppers there is no size to them. I grabbed a handful anyway – I figured they’d add a zing to the broth. Brought it all into the kitchen and happily got busy chopping and frying – oh so fragralicious!

Then it happened. A hank of hair fell into my face, so I pushed it back, and my finger brushed against my eye, and ohhhh shitte! The burn! The running of water over eyes! The frantic removal of contact lenses, and the ow! Ow! Owweee! as eye came in contact with finger – because washing doesn’t help, because capsaicin is oily, people! It doesn’t wash off in water! I put my lenses onto the end of my tongue for safe-keeping, and my mouth burst into flame!

I just barely remembered to switch off the stove before I scurried to the bedroom, where the Hubbit was sprawled behind a book, taking a lazy afternoon. He glanced with mild interest at my red and streaming eyes, and chuckled indulgently when I sputtered about deceitful, nasty, imitation stunted bell peppers.

I demanded that he ask Google what I should do to stop the burning, since the best suggestion he could come up with was water, which didn’t work. “Okay, Google,” he said – that man has no idea how close to death he came – he has to know by now that the “Okay Google” route is way slower than just tapping out your question on the keyboard! Google eventually recommended whole milk. Fortunately the low fat milk the Hubbit insists on buying worked too, possibly with less clouding of the vision .

Once I could see again I carefully fished the pepper pieces out of the pot, and dumped the rest of the veggies into the slow cooker with the meat and bones. I have set the peppers aside. I’m sure they’ll make a tasty surprise for Somebody, next time I have an attack of wifely dutifulness and fix him an omelet or a sandwich.

 

At the tunnel mouth, waiting for the Black Dog

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Where do I begin? With the Tunnel I’ve avoided for half a century? Or with the Black Dog that bites my ankles and drives me toward it?

I begin today. I choose to walk into the dark with the dog at my heels.

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In February I turned sixty. In three days time I will be sixty-and-a-half. It’s time to figure out what to be when I grow up.

Hah – that’s a cute start to a blog post, right? A little zing, a perky finger to convention, a zap of wry, dry, slyly self-denigrating humor. But, unfortunately, not true.

I know what I want to be – I always have. I even know how to get there. What I don’t know – what I haven’t figured out in forty years, five months and twenty-eight days of trying (the first twenty years it didn’t occur to me “trying” was involved; I still believed in the magical inevitability of I Am) – is how the fuck to make myself keep walking all the way to the destination. (I even know there is no destination, only an unmarked trail through the dark, but I must take it or go nowhere.)

So. Sixty years old. Three-quarters of my life. (Yes, I know it might be only two-thirds, and it may also be sixty sixty-oneths – but three quarters of my grandparents and all my parents made it to their eighties, so that seems a reasonable number to shoot for. Assuming I don’t absent-mindedly shoot myself before I get there.) I spent the first quarter daughtering, the second quarter mothering, the third quarter wifing. Now what?

To be clear, while the daughtering has ended and the mothering is only occasional, the wifing continues. The Hubbit and I ignored our twentieth wedding anniversary a little over a week ago. Random factoid set: Traditionally – insofar as something started less than a century ago can be deemed traditional – in the UK and the US the twentieth is the “china” anniversary. For reasons I haven’t bothered to research, the Chicago Public Library designates it the platinum anniversary. Flowers and jewels are also mentioned.  (I love Wikipedia, don’t you?) So, if we’d been a traditional couple, even marginally romantically inclined, the Hubbit could have escorted me to the antique mall or the art show to buy a big china mixing bowl to replace the one he broke a few years ago and that I still miss every time I have to make do with the greasy-smooth plastic one, or he could have showered me with asters or bedecked me with emeralds. In return, I could have given him pretty much anything from this store, since one of the first things he ever told me about his personal life philosophy (and in twenty years I’ve never seen him stray from it) is that it’s impossible to own too many tools.

What I asked for – in our/my own style of non-traditional romanticity – was that he repair the motor on the boat so that we could once again float down the Columbia, I nude but for a book and he sternly watching our dangling fishing lines. (He used to threaten to pull my line out of the water if I didn’t learn to take the fish off the hook myself, until he realized I was there to be naked in the middle of the river and really didn’t care about the catching part of fishing). I wanted to remember what it was that made me want to live here, so far from Africa. You see, I fell in love with the man first … but it was the river that sealed the deal. We don’t have rivers like the Columbia in Africa.

In any case, I would have settled for a conclusive repair to the septic pump. In return, I promised to clean the house. Neither of us delivered, and in the end it was easier to pretend twenty wasn’t a big deal. Twenty-five years, now – that’s a quarter century. That’s silver. Surely he can get both the boat and the septic fixed, and I can get the house clean, within the next five years.

To get back to my original point: in the context of a lifetime, looking at one more (potential) twenty year stretch, I find myself thinking … this one’s for me.

I started pondering this post a few days ago. (I should have written it then, before brain fog descended, muddling my thoughts and tangling my fingers.) I started writing it early today. (I should have finished it right away, before the dark began to suck me into itself.) Now I’m finding it increasingly difficult to write coherently. Tears dam up behind my cheeks, and the pressure of holding them back makes my face ache. When I look back, trying to make sense of how I got to this place, I see word soup. Fragmented ideas, fractured phrases. They drift just out of reach.

When I read this post again, I will hate it. I will be compelled to edit it. But I will write it anyway, I will say what I have to say as simply and clearly as possible, and I will post it without delay even though I can’t remember why I must, or whom it’s for. It is my yawp.

This is what I have done: I have stopped the drugs. Prozac, Bupropion – it’s been nice to know I could put a leash on the Black Dog, but I want to see what happens if I let it run. Will it turn and devour me? Or will it go fetch – and if so, what will it bring me? And Adderall – it was such a relief to have a diagnosis, an official Label, to paste over a lifetime’s worth of fumbles and failures. Such a victory to think more clearly, to say I would do something and then actually do it.

We – my doctor and I – juggled the drugs until I got to a place where I could actually tell when I was fucking up. Sometimes that made it possible to not fuck up, but even when it didn’t, the experience of actually seeing what my brain was doing was revelatory.

Until it wasn’t. I still create to-do lists, which I edit and organize and reorganize compulsively, in between staring at the wall and playing sudoku – which is what I’d much rather be doing right now, by the way – mindlessly organizing numbers rather than trying to organize my own thoughts into a coherent … what the fuck is this? Explanation? Description? Record? Take a deep breath. What am I doing? I’m trying to write – no, I am writing about where the first six months of the next, maybe last, maybe twenty years of my life have brought me: to the mouth of the Tunnel, to the lair of the Black Dog.

Here, I think, are my options. I can go back to the doctor and have her increase the dose, or change the prescription, or … whatever occurs to her. If I do that, I’ll feel better. The Tunnel will disappear in a puff of fairy dust, and the Black Dog will curl up at my feet like any old Labrador.

And then?

How will I grow up if I never walk through the Tunnel? What can I be if I don’t learn to run with the Black Dog?

So. I have quit the drugs. The next step, which will take me in through the tunnel mouth, is to quit eating.

No, not permanently, for fuck’s sake – I’m not committing suicide. I’m fasting. I don’t know how long for … five days? Forty? As long as I can. I have to go through the hungry and find the burn and then get hungry again, and after that I will eat.

As for the reasons … I was going to write about those but you have Google – they have to do with energy, and ketosis, and autophagy, and cleansing my body of all the toxic crap that (I suspect, and who are you to say I’m wrong?) is off-gassing into my meat my bones my brain.

I remember now why I had to write this. It’s because this is going to suck, mainly for me but also for anyone near me. I may not be a lot of fun to have around. I may have to stop talking. I may not be able to listen. I may not be entirely reliable. I may have to hide under a blanket, or in the closet with the light off. Girl Child and Twiglet, Ngalitjeng, Wonder Woman, Kuja, Parri, and of course my own Hubbit: I have to make this journey, and I don’t know how long it will take, and you can’t come with me and I can’t talk to you about it – except, perhaps, here, where I talk to anyone in the world who happens by.

Don’t call me back. I have to find out who I can be. And if you see the Black Dog with my heart between its teeth, that’s okay. You know I’m good with dogs.

Black dog

Kill day

Standard

We usually do it in late fall, after the flies are gone but before we start feeding hay.  It felt weird to do it on Labor Day, wrong to rob them of the last weeks of summer. But at a time of year when our pasture should be lush it is looking tired. That’s why I scheduled kill day early – supposedly next week Monday, but Shane the kill guy and I got our wires crossed and he came today.

Today we killed the first cattle that we’d raised from birth on this land. I know, gruesome … but it kinda feels like a milestone.

We used to buy steers from auction and from private sellers, buying in spring and pasturing them until fall of the following year. But I didn’t like them being taken from their mothers so young, and also we kept buying duds – not every time, of course, but often enough a steer failed to grow as expected, which meant less income from meat, which meant less money for hay through the following winter. So I started niggling at the Hubbit about making our own baby beefs, and he rolled his eyes in that resigned sort of way and bought our first heifer.

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Tshepo became more friendly after she learned about treats.

Her previous owner told us she used to keep her on a halter, tied up to graze in different areas of the yard, so we thought she’d be easy. We were wrong. She turned out to be a bloody-minded baggage, who took one look at our nice big pastures – bigger than a backyard, anyway – before she stuck her tail in the air and refused to have anything to do with us. Undaunted, we added another cow and her heifer. I named them Tumelo, Tshepo and Lerato – which are Sepedi words meaning Faith, Hope and Love.

In case you’re wondering, I’m not a sentimental idiot. I don’t name the steers. They are food, and you don’t name food. The first steers we brought home we named Mac and Arby, but that was a joke. Also, naming them after hamburger chains was the Hubbit’s sweetly subtle way of reminding me that they were beef, not pets. He seemed to find it necessary to make a point of this. I’m not sure why … Maybe it had something to do with the fact that I couldn’t bear the way my nannies looked at me after we murdered their kids, and eventually insisted we deliver the whole lot of them to a goat rescue 300 miles away. But that was then, and goats are smarter than steers. In any case, I don’t name the meat.

Of course some of them have names when they arrive. When that happens, I have to respect it. Like the little guy who liked to stay quietly by himself in a corner of the field – obviously he was Ferdinand; I didn’t just name him after some book character. And the goofy one with a sickle moon on his forehead was Moonboy, as clearly as if he’d been wearing a name tag.

Okay, there were also last year’s calves, Kitty and Obie – but Kitty was the first calf to be actually born here, so obviously she had to have a name by way of acknowledging the event, and the Hubbit named Obie; I had nothing to do with that. And … okay, fine, this spring’s steers are named Pi and Eezee, but there are good reasons for that.

Usually I don’t name the meat.

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let me get back to telling you about today. It started fairly leisurely. I yawned and stretched and thought about getting out of bed, and at about 7.15 I noticed that Shane had left me a voice mail yesterday evening, to say he’d be here between 7.00 and 7.30AM. It sounded like the kind of message he always leaves the day before he comes … not the week before.

I called him. “Shane?” I said.

“I’m sorry, I’m running late, I’m on my way!” He sounded stressed. As for me, I went straight from “Ho hum tra-la-la” to “Fuckadoodledoo!” and rushed off in search of the Hubbit.

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Lerato, expressing an opinion.

Here’s the thing: we have a routine – more of a ritual, really – for kill day. A few days ahead of time we split our small herd. The doomed go into one pasture and get special treats, not because they need to put on weight but … just because. Meanwhile, the others get used to being without them. On kill day, before Shane arrives, the Hubbit puts the horses into their stalls, while I stay in bed with a pillow over my face and one ear exposed, tensely listening for rifle shots. After a while I phone the Hubbit and he tells me everything’s okay, it all went according to plan, yes they are dead, no they didn’t suffer, yes the others are fine. Then I can get up and get on with the day. But I wait until they no longer have faces before I go outside to thank Shane personally, and admire the marbling in the meat. (I like Shane. He never has to shoot twice.)

Well, there was no time for any rituals today. There wasn’t even any time for me to get used to the fact that I’d condemned my favorite cow to the freezer. There definitely wasn’t time to feed her treats. That made a crappy situation even crappier. Sometimes I hate being a grownup!

For a while the Hubbit had been quietly insisting that three cows plus their progeny plus two horses was too much for our pasture to carry, and I’d been loudly declaiming, “But we can’t live without Hope!” (Tshepo, aka Hope, was the smallest cow, so least likely to produce a large calf and most likely to get into trouble if trying to birth a large calf.) Well, last week I accepted that he was right, which is something that happens more often than he likes to admit (me accepting, I mean; the silly fellow thinks he’s always right, hahaha). But it made me sad because I’d become fond of her, and she was supposed to grow old with us. Her independence, her bossy way of marching over to see what I wanted if I went into the pasture, her enthusiasm for treats … they reminded me of me.

Well, anyway … At about 7.30, Shane’s white truck rumbled down the dirt road and through our gate. All the cattle in our neighbors’ pastures clustered in groups behind their fences and watched. Our girls and their two little boys were relaxing together at the far end of their pasture, but they got up and thundered alongside the fence, keeping pace with the truck. I don’t know why they do that. I’ll swear they know what he’s there for, but they act like it’s a holiday every time.

I was already up; it was too late to stay in bed so I hid behind my computer. Through the window I watched the horses galloping up and down their pasture, snorting and stamping, their tails like banners. After a while,  I went outside to say hi to Shane. The carcasses, clothed only in thick jackets of fat, looked enormous. The heads, skinned and staring blindly, lay in a heap to one side. The Hubbit and his friend Cool Dude were busy sorting various inside bits according to whether they were for human or canine consumption. Between the dogs and various friends, very little is wasted.

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Men at work. I’m glad I get to hide away!

After Shane was done and had left to deliver the beefs to the butcher, Cool Dude brought a wheelbarrow heaped with innards up to the workshop. It always startles me how hot meat is even several hours after killing. We loaded it into big plastic bags and put it inside a chest freezer to cool, because warm meat is rubbery, making it difficult to cut and also disgusting. Later the Hubbit backed his truck up to the shop door, and while he and CD cut the almost-chilled meat into manageable lumps, I slapped away swarms of flies and stuffed it into Ziploc bags, which went into the dog meat freezer.

So that was my Labor Day, and I know it probably sounds completely horrible to you, but I liked it. Not the killing, and not the betrayal – I don’t really think cows feel betrayed, but I feel as though I betray them. The price of their contented existence is their lives, which is better than most farm animals get, but undeniably a one-sided deal. At the same time, eliminating anthropomorphism from the equation, I like that, having chosen to eat meat, I can also choose to ensure that the creatures who provide it experience lush pasture and sunshine, companionship, peace … and, at the end, the grace of a single bullet while grass is still sweet on their tongue.

How about you? Do you eat meat? Do you care what kind of life it lived before it became meat? Would you eat it if you knew its name?