Friday, May 27, 2011

Uncle Ron and The Amputee Ward

My dad was the oldest of seven.  He came of age during World War II,  joined the army and helped bring the Allies to victory in Europe. Except for a badly injured back due to a glider crash, he returned home after the war pretty much intact.  The youngest of the family was Ron and not all that many years older than me.  That's because my grandmother had married young and started birthing children soon afterwards, making the age difference between my dad and his youngest brother considerable.  Ron came of age during the Vietnam War.  But unlike his oldest brother, he didn't join the Army.  He joined the Navy and became part of the Construction Brigade, more commonly known as the Seabees.  They were in Vietnam building aircraft-support facilities, roads and bridges for their buddies who were on the line and in the air. But they were also humanitarians, building schools and hospitals and digging wells for the Vietnamese. Uncle Ron was a big guy.  If things had turned out differently for him, I think he might have gone into trucking or highway construction.  But he was never able to do those things, and unlike his brother, Ron came home early.

Uncle Ron and my grandmother not too long before he joined the Seabees

I had a dream long ago that I was standing at the top of a hill with a large wheel in my hand.   Letting go,  it rolled down the hill and ran over someone's leg at the base of the hill.  I was writing Uncle Ron who was serving in Viet Nam at the time, and I remember telling him in one of my letters about the strange dream I'd had.  I certainly didn't see it as a warning or premonition,  but it wasn't too much later that my grandmother received the news that her youngest son had been seriously injured.  He'd been thrown from his equipment, and the tire from the large earth-moving machine he'd been operating had run over his leg.  They couldn't save it.

There are certain episodes in our lives that make an indelible impact on us.  My parents packed the five of us into our station wagon early one morning.  We were going to the U.S. Naval Hospital in Philadelphia to see my uncle where he was recuperating and rehabilitating from his injury.  Even after all these years I see and feel the sheer size of the building and hear the echo from our shoes hitting the hard tile floor. I couldn't help but wonder if time had altered what I remembered about that day and place.  So I did what any good blogger would do,  I started googling and discovered the place was 352,000 square feet and 15 stories high.  My memory was right on.   And the size of the building only added to the enormity of that war for me, that it was full of people who had come home terribly wounded and were therefore changed.  As a young teenager, I was overwhelmed by that reality.

It seemed like we walked through ward after ward until we found my uncle. And then there he was, his bed in the midst of so many other beds, all filled with amputees.  A muscular young soldier lay in the bed next to his, both legs gone well above the knee.  He was working his upper body and what was left of his legs with a couple of acrobatic type rings hanging from the ceiling.  I didn't want to gawk but couldn't keep my eyes off him.  Without stopping his regimen he asked if I'd ever seen anything like what I was seeing there in that room.  I shook my head, not knowing what to say.  I felt awkward, uncomfortable, as if this place should be private,  devoid of outsiders.  But then it was my turn to visit with my uncle.  I walked over to the bed and any words I might have prepared remained unspoken.  I was so overcome,  not just with the emotion of seeing him in that place, but by the sea of amputees all around me.  So all I did was hold his hand and he held mine, not letting go for a long time.

U.S. Naval Hospital in Philadelphia

The U.S. Naval Hospital of Philadelphia is gone now.  The Navy decided not to keep it and sold it to the city of Philadelphia.  They demolished it ten years ago.   My Uncle Ron is gone too.  He eventually married, had three children and lived a pretty productive life doing things he enjoyed.  After I moved away I didn't see him much, but he and my father remained close.  He died suddenly, unexpectedly, just a few months after my dad passed on.  I often think of him, and sometimes when I do I'm back in that amputee ward with those wounded soldiers all around me.  I can't help but feel my throat thicken just like it did on that day long ago, and I know the words won't come.  I don't think they ever will.

Postscript:  The acreage where the hospital sat is now used as a parking lot for the Philadephia Eagles.  Sadly, there's not even a commemorative plaque on the site.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Through The Storm

It was Wednesday, April 27th.  We were on our way to Alabama for a wedding and had spent the night before at my sister's in Frederick, Maryland.  The second leg of our trip would take us as far as Cleveland, Tennessee, a city just east of Chattanooga where Larry's brother lives.  It'd be a long day of driving and I wanted to know if we'd be having much rain.  Dawn got on her computer and pulled up a weather map.  It didn't look good, lots of serious storm activity was being forecast throughout the south.  I was glad I'd thought to bring an umbrella.

The drive was pretty uneventful until we hit some hard rain right outside of Knoxville later that afternoon.  I pushed the scan button on the radio hoping to get an idea what we were driving into, and it didn't take long to find out.  A local station was taking calls from people all over that part of Tennessee with stories of strong winds, hail and even a few tornado sightings.  The rain was picking up, blowing in sheets across the highway in front of us, making it harder to see.  We sighted a Cracker Barrel sign and took the ramp; we might want to wait this out.  We were barely seated when the weather seemed to clear a bit.  I looked at the menu, then at Larry.  We weren't really all that hungry anyways.  We apologetically handed the menus back to our server, ordered some coffee to go and headed back onto the interstate.  The sky looked pretty clear up ahead.  Maybe the worst was over.

About thirty minutes out of Cleveland we hit rain again, but this time it came with such fury that the wipers could hardly keep up with the deluge striking the windshield.  This went on for several miles.  And though it was barely six o'clock, it seemed much later, the dark storm clouds blocking what light there was. It was then we heard and felt the hail hitting our little Escort.  With gas hovering close to four dollars a gallon, we had made the choice to drive the more economical of our two vehicles, but now I felt particularly vulnerable as we heard the balls of ice striking the roof.  I sat tensely with my hands clutching the seat, almost expecting to be blown off the road.  But a lighthouse in the form of an eighteen-wheeler with flashing red lights suddenly loomed in front of us, and Larry followed and fixed his eyes on that beacon until we were able to catch sight of our exit.  

As we left the ramp everything was dark, traffic lights included.  Trees are especially vulnerable during a storm and Tennessee has its share of them.   No doubt there would be the roar of chain saws over the next several days.  But as we settled in for the night, all was still, the tempest having passed on to wreck havoc further east.  The house seemed unnaturally quiet without the soothing hum of the refrigerator coming from the kitchen.   Larry had lost his mother seven months earlier, and his brother Paul had just acquired the letters his parents had written each other long ago.  So as we sat and talked by candlelight, it seemed only natural and appropriate that he should read portions of what had been written some sixty years earlier.   Later the news would come that almost 300 lives were lost that day due to that same storm, something I'll never forget.  But I will also remember the sound of Paul's voice in the hush of that living room reading his parents' private expressions of love and longing. For me, the two will always be connected.

The young lovers

The contrast between Wednesday's and Thursday's skies was striking as we left Cleveland behind us that  morning, the temper tantrum most definitely over. And except for some downed trees, we saw little to remind us what had transpired the day before.  But I knew that not far from the highway we traveled there were families and communities devastated by loss, reeling with grief.  We would be in Cottondale tomorrow,  a suburb of Tuscaloosa, just a few miles from the flattened ruins of hundreds of homes and businesses.  We had come all this way to celebrate the wedding of a friend who had been ravaged by his own personal storm a few years earlier.  Betrayal and broken vows had produced heartbreaking loss and grief.   The irony of all this was not lost on me. People recover from storms all the time, no matter how devastating at the time.  Our friend had weathered his.  Love, joy and laughter had been restored through a lovely new bride named Charlotte.

Our friend Larry and his new bride Charlotte, three days after the storm
Our last couple of days were spent back in Prattville where we stayed with our friends John and Brenda Doublerly.  Their son Jeremy just finished up his last year at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa.  He lived on the third floor of an apartment complex but decided at the last minute to take refuge in the clubhouse.  That's where he was when the tornado came barreling down on the city that fateful afternoon. It swiped at the building where he huddled with the others, fortunately no one was hurt.  The story was different for those living directly across the street, however.  When Jeremy exited the clubhouse, he saw that the entire neighborhood had been leveled by the twister, everything lay in ruin.  I didn't pry into all he'd seen, but I know there were some who died there.  And then he smiled and said something like this:  "You know, even with everything going on, there was something funny that happened.  This huge black guy runs into the clubhouse right before the tornado hit and heads for the wall trying to get cover.  And as soon as it's over, he reaches into every part of his shirt and starts pulling out kittens."

When we were crossing Tennessee a week earlier our oldest daughter Angela had texted me.  She had seen the reports coming out of Alabama and was begging us to turn around.   But that wasn't an option,  we were already in the middle of it.   That's simply how life is.  The storms come, usually unexpectedly, and we have no choice but to get through them.  Jeremy's story of the man and his kittens reminds me, however, that no matter the outcome, our Heavenly Father holds us close, refusing to leave us.  The quiet hush of that candle lit room in Cleveland speaks of the peace that comes after the thunder and lightning have subsided.  And the wedding celebration of our friend who had been so battered, the reason we'd come through the storm in the first place, declares that God not only rescues, he restores.

Monday, May 9, 2011

In My Weakness

I'm heading to New York tomorrow for the Botox injections into the muscles that help control my vocal cords.  I've learned to recognize some of the subtle changes in my voice that tell me it's almost time.  First there's that raspy, husky quality, a mix of Lauren Bacall, Tallulah Bankhead and Kathleen Turner all in one. I don't mind it really as I actually get compliments when it's like that. I had a guy tell me once that he could listen to me all day, but since he wasn't my husband, I simply thanked him and left it at that.  I could probably hire myself out to do voice-overs for commercials or animated features, but even if I did, I could easily sound like Porky Pig one day and Darth Vader the next.  I know that's a bit of an exaggeration, but in the world of Spasmodic Dysphonia and Botox injections, one is never sure what the voice will do.

I'll never forget my first injection.  Since I'd never had a treatment before, the doctor guessed at the dosage.  The first couple of days I sounded pretty good.  I didn't realize that it takes about three days for the stuff to kick in.  I woke up that Sunday morning sounding like one of the Chipmunks.  My daughters thought it was hilarious and would phone me so that I could talk to their friends. Needless to say, the doctor cut my dose on the next visit.

After the raspy voice comes the fatigue,  meaning it just takes more effort to talk.  Simple conversations become work.  We'll be riding along and I won't say anything or very little.  Larry will look over at me all concerned then rather tentatively ask if everything's alright.  Well, yes and no.  Things are fine but I'm simply too tired to carry on a conversation.  That's hard for him as he really likes to talk.  Then soon after, the spasms become more intense.  The voice no longer has that deep, husky sound, it merely sounds like it's in pain.  It isn't, but to anyone listening, it seems that way.

So back to my appointment in Manhattan.  I fly tomorrow to meet with my doctor who incidentally is the absolute best at doing what he does. After all, he was a pioneer, the first to use botox in the treatment of Spasmodic Dysphonia.  He's so confident, so adept at his work, I'll be in and out of the chair in just a matter of minutes.  And since I've set up an early appointment,  I can relax afterwards and hang out on Fifth Avenue for a few hours before my flight home.  It's really not a bad way to spend a beautiful day in May.

There was a time when I pleaded with God to give me my voice back.  And there have been times, especially over the last year or so, when it was so strong,  I thought the spasms might never return.  But they did and they do.  That hasn't changed what I believe, however.  I know unequivocally that my Creator could rewire that piece of brain sending the wrong impulses to my vocal cords, restore my voice,  even make it better.  But sometimes it better serves His purpose to leave things as they are.

When I left South Carolina a couple of years back I was hardly able to talk.  Because of insurance headaches, I hadn't had a treatment in well over a year.  But I came into a church that desperately needed someone to take over the music program and I seemed the logical choice.  The piano wasn't a problem, my hands and fingers were working just fine.  I could certainly plan the music and practice with the musicians.  I couldn't sing, but it wasn't all that hard pounding out notes.  Yeah, I could do this.  So I had worked out the music that first week with the singers and the instrumentalists and I knew we were ready.  Except for one thing.  I had no spokesperson, someone to tie the music and the service together.  "You do it."  Ever hear God's voice?  I did, and I argued with Him.  "I can't Lord, not with this voice."   Aah.  My voice.  That was who I had been, my voice central as musician and teacher.  I had done community theater and formed a successful drama ministry. Those things had brought me a sense of pride, of accomplishment.  But now they required too much effort.  Besides,  they were part of my past, not my present.  He responded,  "Now it's time to let me show what I can do.  Trust me."

I can't begin to express how nervous I was that first Sunday standing at the keyboard.  I have never been afraid of microphones but found this one intimidating.  It was time to introduce the first song.  I took a deep breath, opened my mouth and the words poured out easily.  My speech felt free for the first time in months, and except for a slightly raspy throat, no one would have ever suspected a voice disorder. 

This continued for the next several months as I was able to speak week after week.  Without fail, however, the spasms would return immediately after the service ended, simply a reminder that this had nothing to do with me.  This was God's doing.  His strength manifesting itself in my weakness became an ever present reality in my life.  There were even a few occasions when I was able to pray over someone with clarity, effortlessly. But as soon as the prayer was over,  the spasms were back.

So I'm getting my treatment tomorrow.  Did I mention that my doctor's one of the best in the world?  Used to be I could go only a few months without another injection.  I've been going lots longer than that,  and except for a raspy voice, I don't sound all that bad.  Did I mention I'm singing again?  It doesn't come quite so easily as it used to,  so now I ask God to help me with each and every note.  I'm glad He doesn't make it too easy for me.  Besides, I had to learn that I can't do what I do without Him.  There's just one more thing. The injections don't last more than four months,  I happen to be going on eight. Last visit I asked Dr. Blitzer how I'm able to go so long. He told me that sometimes the brain gets fooled and it takes awhile for it to figure things out. 

Hmmm.  Perhaps that how it works for some.  But as for me, I had some learning to do and God knew I needed an object lesson.   So here's what I think He might have said to me:   "Marcy, I'm going to take what you consider the strongest thing in your life to show you that you're nothing without me.  That just happens to be your voice box.  It's going to be hard.  You won't understand at first.  You'll plead, you'll cry, you'll grieve.  But the day will come when you'll understand, and you'll see that it's in your weakness my strength comes through. And you will feel more blessed than you can possibly imagine. Trust me on this one."  He was right.