It’s me, Crystal. Today is Thanksgiving. I want to be thankful, but I’m so scared, God. So many people in my life are sick, and some of my relationships need your help. Suppose my friends and family suffer? Suppose we all can’t call a truce? Please help me find joy despite circumstances, God. Don’t let today be too horrible. Thank you.
In August the Rocky Mountains beckoned, or maybe it was my friend Cheri in Denver—Girls Trip 2020, Telluride, Colorado. Cheri has a Telluride connection, and she invited me and three other friends for a complimentary weekend at a posh three-bedroom condominium in the heart of the action. We grew up together in the Oklahoma panhandle. We’ve all known each other since fifth grade or before. I had never been to Telluride. AND we all rolled up to fifty within the past eight months or so. This was a celebration of empowered women and a new decade, the ultimate slumber party and the feat of forty-year friendships, hot tubs in the mountains and an offer I couldn’t refuse. COVID, shmovid.
One Thursday, after sitting on my ass for 155 nearly-consecutive days with minimal human interaction since mid-March, I made my way to and through George Bush International all masked up and onto an airplane that touched down at Denver International. Denise from Dallas, my friend since age five, arrived ahead of me and waited with Cheri to pick me up. The three of us worked really hard to stay out of trouble before Starla, my friend since age seven, landed later that evening from California. On Friday morning, we three road-tripped into the Rockies and picked up Pamela, who flew from Austin to Montrose, sixty miles or so from our destination. Pamela has been my friend since age ten. Do I realize this is rare? Grown women, who grew up together, now staying connected, and still growing?
I’m sure I could tell some stories, but I would prefer to keep our secrets, just like I know they will keep mine. At the end of our time together, we shared photos and take-aways and one last hug. I can’t stop thinking about how the gondola carried us up and over the mountain, just like the best of friendships.
You see, when I returned home, the sky fell off my life, again. My son Drew, who lives with paranoid schizophrenia and dysfunctionally depends on his dad and me, returned to the hospital for the first time since 2015. An overdue hospitalization. His medication of the past five years, no longer effective. His doctor has been telling me for three years there’s nothing he can do. Me—after living through the 2017 hurricane, and in a hotel for ten months while rebuilding home, and starting a new job in 2017, another in 2018, and then a long-term sub job in 2019, and finally returning to school as a graduate student in 2020—well, I’ve stayed too fucking exhausted to look for a new doctor. Besides, Drew is an adult, and so he must agree to any changes. That’s the problem with seeking help for a person who doesn’t believe he has a problem. Meanwhile at home, Drew shouts at the voices he hears in his head most of the days of the month. His words. Terrible and angry. Racist and sexist. Filthy and threatening. His body odor vile. I don’t care to dive into further detail. All of this is an ongoing battle, Drew is now safe in the hospital, and of course, he wasn’t always this way. This brain disorder has transformed my son and stolen ten years of his life, and of course, I’m sad. In no way do I mean to imply schizophrenia is worse than cancer or Alzheimer’s or drug addiction or Lou Gehrig’s disease or any other infirmity leading to ultimate death. Wow. This post suddenly turned dark as tends to happen when I go down the path of what is wrong. Therefore, I focus on gratitude. Otherwise I may remain in fetal position for the rest of my days. Ain’t nobody got time for that.
And so—I continue to count my blessings. When I don’t even care to put one foot in front of the next or speak a single word, I am so very thankful for the friends and family I have who carry me and for their prayers that lift me like a gondola up the mountain I continue to face.
“Who is set up for the tragedy of suffering? Nobody. The tragedy of the man not set up for tragedy—that is every man’s tragedy.”Philip Roth
And by the way, if you are the type who prays, please join me in believing Drew will understand there is better for him and that his dad and I are here to help and that we love him and that God will direct our steps and give us wisdom in dealing with this illness and that there will be a helpful, hopeful outcome to this hospitalization including a new doctor who believes along with me.
Amen. And thank you.
How many times have I put myself together to mask my falling apart? I have a classic move. When circumstances call, I dress to impress, say a prayer, and wear my grandmother’s pearls.
Grandma passed on December 11, 1991, almost nine years after Grandpa. She had been living in a nursing home after having a stroke a few years earlier, but that’s not how I remember her. I never heard a single ugly word pass through her lips. I remember the classiest of ladies who dressed to impress and loved the Lord. I remember her picture perfect two-bedroom home with the masters on the walls. All of it on a shoestring budget. She shopped at consignment stores, possessed an eye for elegance, and lived within her means. I inherited her pearls and her Van Gogh and hopefully her attitude.
And for those times that I need to conjure strength and normalcy and class, I stand up straight and choose my clothes with care. I say a prayer and wear my grandmother’s pearls.
Do you find yourself being extra reflective during this time? These days (and the A-Z blogging challenge) have given me pause to give thanks for so many people and things in my life. I hope you have your own little collection:
A is for Apple and B is for Boozer and C is for Champagne and Chanel No. 5 and D is for Dad and E is for Epiphany and F is for Faith + Gratitude = Peace + Hope and G is for Great _______ and H is for Hatbox and Honeysuckle and I for an I and J is for Jesus and K is for Kody and L is for the Lovely Lauren and M is for the Marvelous Misti and a Dirty Martini and N is for the Numbers and O is for the Oversized Owl
Last Sunday I drove southwest on 59 from my home in southwest Houston into the suburbs, almost into the country. In Richmond, I exited the freeway and turned right, down a paved road, another right into a dirt parking lot. The gravel crunched beneath my tires, and I found a spot near a chicken coop. Through the poultry netting and in addition to chickens, I discovered peacocks. On the other side of the coop, sunlight shone down on baby goats with their mothers. Beyond all of that lies a beautiful lake with ducks on the water and then River Pointe Church.
I always say, “You can choose HOPE, or not.” And churches and cathedrals, temples and holy places, farm animals and wide open spaces give me HOPE. I find God in these places—and myself, like the me I hope to be.
Life is heavy. I don’t believe any of us are exempt from challenges, but I do believe in the power of prayer. I keep a list of friends and family in my prayers for surgeries and illnesses, dependencies and dysfunctional relationships, the trials of life and inevitable death.
I believe in the power of believing, and I believe in the power of words. Sometimes the wrong words and the wrong beliefs become trapped inside our heads. That’s when I like to have an arsenal of the right words and the right beliefs. I lifted some lines from church last week—for my arsenal—because they lifted me:
- Nothing has been wasted, no failure or mistake.
When I doubt it, remind me I’m wonderfully made.
- When the world starts to blur and your soul feels heavy,
know that you’re loved.
- It’s gonna be alright.
It’s gonna be okay.
- We often believe that admitting we’ve failed makes us less Christian.
Confession makes us more Christian.
- “Therefore, confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective” (James 5:16)
If the words above don’t lift you, go find words that do and places that do and people who do. You don’t have to believe everything you think, especially the bad stuff. And if you find yourself dwelling in the negative, find a new place to dwell.
Sidenote: A couple of weeks ago the pastor challenged us to read Samuel 1 and 2. These books contain the history of Israel leading into the story of David, as in the chosen-by-God David, who slayed the giant Goliath with his unwavering belief and a single stone. This same David later became king and committed adultery with Bathsheba who became pregnant. King David had Bathsheba’s husband murdered to cover up the sin. The sequence of events displeased the Lord, but King David confessed, and the Lord forgave.
Now, I am no bible scholar, and I don’t understand all of the wartime killing and all of David’s wives and concubines in the context of the Ten Commandments. What truly displeased the Lord was that King David took something that didn’t belong to him amidst everything he already had. Based on this temptation, David is probably the most relatable character in the Bible. (Hello, my name is human.) If an adulterer and a murderer can be forgiven, well then, there’s hope for you and me.
Confession to God grants us forgiveness. Confession to one another makes us whole.
It was two days before Christmas, and I had a sore throat. It seemed to be like my usual once-a-year sore throat that ran the course of a cold, coughing and nose blowing and a plethora of Kleenex consumption, and by the end of the week, I felt somewhat better. “But suddenly … This ‘but suddenly’ occurs often in stories. The authors are right: life is so full of the unexpected!” 1 But suddenly, the sore throat returned fiercer than before, and the infection—possibly via osmosis, I’m no doctor—attacked my gums, abnormally swollen and the deepest of reds, behind my lower molars.
But it was the holidays. First my birthday on the 30th. Then New Year’s Eve. Then New Year’s Day. So I suffered through the pain and opted for celebratory spirits. I can’t remember the last time I had gone to a general practitioner. I’m normally the picture of health, but I had plans to be out of town for a week beginning January 5th, and I didn’t have time to be ill. So on January 2nd, I set out to find a doctor. Mistakenly I went to a strip-mall Emergency Care center affiliated with a well-known hospital here in Houston. I thought this facility was like the Urgent Care near my house back in Plano. But no, I might as well have gone to the emergency room. They gave me a steroid shot, tested me for flu and strep, which by the way came back negative, and sent me home with an antibiotic and some Tylenol 3, and $5100 hundred later, I was on the mend, or so I thought. (Thankfully I have insurance and didn’t have to pay in full, but what the hell is wrong with our medical system?)
Over the course of the next week, my sore throat felt better, but my gums. Good Lord, my gums! I returned home on January 11th, the spring semester began on January 13th, so I just sort of curled up in my pajamas on the couch for the next few days and did my homework and submitted on line without leaving the house, and finally on January 16th I decided I must return to the doctor. Except this time, I knew I couldn’t go to the ER, so I set about finding a doctor on my insurance and finally had an appointment late that Thursday afternoon.
The doctor was young, like just out of med school, and with one look in my mouth, she said, “Are your gums normally like that?”
I sat on the examination table, my legs dangling, and shook my head “Um, no, that’s why I’m here,” I said. I had already gone through my recent history of sore throat and antibiotics. Yada. Yada.
“It’s like you have two pillars at the back of your mouth. That’s so weird. Does it hurt?”
“Well, it’s not comfortable.” I paused, keeping my snide comments in check. “They swell when I eat, and I’m popping quite a few Advil.”
“I think it might be gingivitis,” she said. “You need to go see your dentist.”
Now, I’m no dentist, but I knew without a doubt, the issue inside my mouth was NOT gingivitis. Gingivitis does not transform healthy gums into swollen mouth pillars. But with the office visit concluded and no co-pay since having already met my deductible for the year, I walked out the door and to my car in the lot, where I sat and dialed my dentist. Come to find out, my dentist takes off at two o’clock on Thursdays, the current time was past four, and he takes off Fridays. So I left a message with his answering service to return my call on Monday.
On Monday, January 20th, I made an appointment for Tuesday, the 21st. Approximately, one month from when the whole ordeal began, I would be getting some help, and I had great faith in my dentist. I just thought since it all started with a sore throat that I should see a medical doctor.
At my Tuesday appointment, the dental hygienist took X-rays and with one look inside my mouth she said, “I’ve never seen anything like this before. I will be really interested to hear what Dr. H. has to say.”
Flash forward a few moments—Dr. H. examined my X-rays and my gums. “Crystal,” he said, looking me square in the eyes. “You have cysts in the back of your mouth. I don’t think it’s any cause for concern, but I want you to be pro-active. I’m referring you to an oral surgeon, and we’ll send these X-rays over so that he can see what’s going on.” He handed me the card of the oral surgeon. “Thanks for coming to see me,” he said.
Once more, I had no co-pay. Once more, I walked out the door and to my car in the lot, where I sat and dialed my phone, this time the office of the surgeon. Monday, January 27th was the date of my next appointment.
Again there were X-rays, and then I saw the doctor. “Wow!” he said.
I couldn’t help shaking my head. Doctors say the craziest things. I looked in his eyes searching for the answer to the question—What does wow mean? I didn’t say it. I just looked at him with expectation for more information.
“I’m going to send you back for a CT scan,” he said. “The fee is $150, and your insurance won’t cover, but it’s necessary. Once I see the results, we’ll talk again and go from there.”
I nodded my okay, and the dental assistant ushered me into another room with a CT machine, where I stood stone still with my face in a contraption while technology circled my head, shooting more 3-D images. Afterwards, I returned to the examination room to wait with my feet propped up in the dental chair.
The results were there instantly, and once the doctor took a look, he returned to see me within moments. “The results are consistent with what you told me about your sore throat,” he said.
“Do you mind if I take notes on my phone?” I had the feeling I would be hearing some technical news.
“No problem.” He paused. “The infection from your throat has made its way into your gums and jaw bone.” He kept his eyes on mine, me looking up occasionally from my phone keyboard. “The bone doesn’t look normal. I want you to see the X-ray.” He pointed to the image on the wall and the areas of bone loss. “The infection is causing this bone erosion on both sides. See, this image should be smooth all the way around like this.” His finger circled back to the areas of healthy bone. “Your gums on both sides are really red, and the infection could be fungal, bacterial, viral, or all three. We won’t know exactly until we get in there, but we need to go in and clean out the dead bone and the infection and take cultures to see if we are dealing with anything else.”
The doctor gave me an official diagnosis that I asked him to spell, and he wrote it down and handed it to me instead: Actinomycosis.
And if you want to be grossed out, Google it. And if you care to pray for me, I’m headed into oral surgery at 7:30 on January 28. Oh, and thank you for bearing with me here to the end. Oh, and thank you for those prayers if you are that person.
1 I borrowed the “But suddenly” line from last week’s studies: “The Death of a Clerk,” Selected Stories of Anton Chekhov, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.
Today started with Jay Z.
I wrote his words on the white board stuck to my classroom door. I typed them into my power point agenda right above today’s plan—Timed Write (2 x Minor) and projected it on to my screen. From there I said, “Did you guys know that after today I will only see all of you together three more times before your AP Literature test? That’s including today. And that’s why I want you to remember what Jay Z said, ‘The genius thing we did was, we didn’t give up.’” I pointed to the quote on the screen. “Some of you guys might know that I’ve been boxing and kickboxing since January.” I noted a couple of raised eyebrows. “When I started, I committed to going three times a week for three months, and I did it until about Spring Break, and then I went out of town, and after that I had some company, but I’m still there twice a week at least. And you know what? I can punch a lot harder than I could in January. And what difference does that make? Well, none, except that I’m sticking with it and hopefully I can defend myself if I ever need to. But my point is—if you spend two to three hours a week practicing anything, you’ll see results, and that’s what we’re still doing today. We’re practicing, and we’re improving, and we’re not giving up.” I forged on. Certain times of the year call for psychology. “I know that the last thing you want to do is write back-to-back essays.”
I know this because yesterday juniors all took the SAT, a four-and-a-half hour timed test, and I proctored. At the end of the exam, I said, “You guys are welcome to move around and talk to each other until they release us.” As if I had spoken Greek, blank stares and a few blinks met my gaze. On top of yesterday, today and tomorrow my AP Lit juniors are all taking their U. S. History final exam.
Also, I know that after today we only have two more days, and so I passed out a packet of three essays prompts—a poetry analysis, a prose analysis, and a theme prompt based on a major literary work from this year—as I continued my pep talk. “And I only share my boxing because first of all, do I look like a boxer?”
I actually heard a “yes” or two, which is hilarious.
“Most days I don’t want to go, and often I think to myself, ‘I want to quit.’ You know how you hear your own voice in your head?”
I saw nods and their eyes. They were with me.
“Well, you can’t believe everything you think. And sometimes, you have to get back into your head and tell yourself the opposite. ‘I can do this…I can do anything for an hour…’ Guys, boxing is hard and kickboxing—” I just stood there shaking my head back and forth. “But I can do anything for an hour, and I’m getting better.”
Next class period students will self-score using rubrics and sample essays and spend time comparing these essays to past teacher-scored essays in their writing portfolios. After that, all that’s left is extra psychology, some last-minute tips, a healthy dose of prayer, and maybe some Shane Koyczan.