After breaking with my pattern and writing the emotionally difficult blog about my mother, in May, I had a revelation: Prior to that post I had been blogging about experiences and events in my distant past; it was easier, less painful, less personal. It was also less authentic because it didn’t include the raw uncensored aspects of my journey. It’s not that I intentionally bend the facts, later; it’s just that during the time that lapses, between the experiences and when I relate them, I have ample opportunity to soften the edges of the memories—or sharpen them, given my sporadic vacillation between drama and comedy—because first and foremost: I am a storyteller. So regardless of the chosen direction—waxing philosophical or breaking cynical—the recollection of events experienced months or years prior to my telling, are not raw and real. They are tainted and reconstructed with humor, irony and goodwill; whatever makes them easier to live with. But I fear that ultimately these stories become like “easy-listening” radio as opposed to full-on Leonard Cohen… Okay, I’ll never be Leonard Cohen… But hopefully you get my drift.
From here on out I resolve to be more honest—by being more current—when blogging.
Here and now I want to relate a not-too-distant-past event that I survived, but chose not to blog, because it was and is still painful. I realized a few weeks ago that I’d avoided almost all mention of this enormous, life-changing event—even on Facebook.
A short backstory for anyone just entering this blog:
I’ve lived abroad for the better part of 17 years, during which time I raised two amazing daughters and chose a lovely partner, Egil, to share my journey with. Three years ago, after the girls left home, Egil and I relocated from Latvia to Scotland. The reason for relocation was the collapse of the Latvian economy. The reason we chose Scotland was our love for the country.
Reinventing our life has been maximally challenging for many reasons—being people of a certain age is one; conducting a job search in the midst of a terrible recession, as immigrants, is another… The list goes on from there.
Americans are not permitted to live in Scotland for more than 6 months at a time without a visa or living permit. I couldn’t acquire a visa /living permit until Egil—my sponsor—was able to generate enough income, on a regular basis, to support me. Being a European National, he had the right to live and work here in Scotland; finding work was another matter altogether.
So every 6 months I traveled back to the US for 6 months, while Egil worked diligently on finding a niche here in Scotland.
I am now approaching the aforementioned event.
I returned to the US for 6 months in May, 2011. About a week into my visit I contracted an upper-respiratory infection extraordinaire. I was ill for almost 2 weeks. Being one of the 50 million uninsured Americans—and certain I would recover with enough vitamin C, chamomile tea and rest—I did not see a doctor.
Shortly after recovering from this flu I went on a cruise to Alaska; this had been a high priority on my bucket list and was a gift from my cherished friend, and former boarding-school roommate, Brenda. I had said, repeatedly since the early 1970’s, that I would cruise to Alaska before I died. When vowing this, I had no idea how these two events—an Alaskan cruise and my death—would almost simultaneously occur.
In early June, floating off the Alaskan coast, I had an anxiety attack; or so I believed. By the end of July I was having these attacks regularly but believed they were asthma. By the end of October, instead of packing my bags to return to Scotland, I was so ill I could not raise my arms above my head without losing my breath. My feet were swollen and I was coughing up blood…
On October 29th, one day after my 60th birthday, I was hospitalized—insured or not. To my horror I learned, very quickly, that I was in congestive heart failure.
It turns out that almost any flu, if it feels so inclined, can attack any organ of our body after it completes its initial mission. In my case, the bug that attacked my upper respiratory system in May continued its onslaught, well into June, only now it targeted my heart.
I will interject my non-scientific personal beliefs here: My heart was deeply saddened as I watched the sudden and terrible decline of Latvia and was further burdened when Scotland ejected me every 6 months; it was broken a bit more with each prolonged separation from Egil. My heart was weak and vulnerable—an easy target—by May 2011. That flu saw me coming a mile away.
For five and a half months I struggled to move from room to room in my friend, Bette’s, house. For the last two of those months I struggled to breathe even while sitting in a chair. Bedtime was a nightmare; I awakened every hour or so bolting upright, gasping for breath. My dreams were of suffocating and being strangled…
I need to write about this event to get it outside of me… I need to relate how dark and murky that place is—that place that we go when our heart is broken and malfunctioning and we have no medical insurance and no idea where to turn for help. That place where I went. I felt completely helpless and frightened out of my mind for months, with nowhere to turn. I wish I could break philosophical here and tell you that I learned a huge amount and I feel blessed to have had the opportunity to_______. You fill in the blank space with your choice of great learning experiences that you’re pretty sure you would have had. Make up all sorts of reasons why this was a gift from the Universe. Go ahead. I dare you… Because the way I see it is this: I got ripped off of more than 5 months of my life (time that I now recall as one muddy, ugly snapshot flowing into the next) followed by another 8 months of recovery time. Factually, I do believe in a divine plan and that all is well. Somewhere. But here, in my little corner of planet earth, I lost months of my life to illness and more months of time with my partner: Time I will never get back. Then there were the thousands of dollars of medical bills racked up—after trying with all my might to avoid getting help—because my country doesn’t believe its people have the right to healthcare.
I am so pissed-off…
Wait a minute… As I wrote that last sentence I realized how ungrateful I sound.
Okay, let me clarify: I know I’m fortunate to be alive. Of course, I’m blessed to have received the help I needed—albeit in the nick of time because of the lack of healthcare thing… I’m incredibly fortunate that I was born in an era when the medications necessary to save my life were available… I am blessed with good friends and family who hosted me for months while I was immobile and later while recovering… I know all of that! But that’s not the point; is it?
Wait a minute I need to sort through my feelings in order to stay real.
Okay, I’m back…
Something just hit me: I’ll bet you that if blog about this event in the future, I’ll be disgustingly upbeat about it. At least I’ll have turned it into a black comedy of sorts—smoothing down the edges and fine-tuning the humor… I will have philosophized this event up one side and down the other until it’s hardly recognizable… I’m slipping into it—that saccharinely sweet Pollyanna place—already…
That’s me. That’s how I roll. Damn it all!
It’s not that I’m actually disingenuous. I’m just an incurable optimist—probably bordering on being a romantic—who needs to put every memory into a tidy happy, aesthetically pleasing box, prior to filing it away; that way, when reflecting back on my life, I smile if not laugh.
Now to the present:
I returned home a little over two weeks ago. I’m now back in Stirling, Scotland with the Symes (my Scottish family) and Egil. As I write this blog, Egil is on the phone, interpreting and working with other immigrants who also fled dire economics. Yes, he found his niche and we’re heading towards a normal life again…
And oddly, as frustrated and angry as I was when I began this blog earlier today, at some point I began remembering other aspects of this horrible, amazing, eventful, year: Because of my illness I was in the states when my mother fell and broke her hip—a story that ended with her in a nursing home. I was able to visit her as she made that transition and I was there to support my sibs at this most difficult and important time. I spent months with my dear brother, Tim, and his wife, Mia, (my sister of choice not birth) and their children and their children’s children—more time than I’ve had with that branch of my family in… well, actually more time than I’ve ever had with them. I was there when my namesake, Holly, gave birth to her beautiful baby, Trey, and I watched him become a toddler. I had time with my sister, Jeannine, who battled breast cancer for the better part of this year and had the privilege of seeing her beautiful baldhead defiantly sprout brand new, soft curly hair, declaring her victorious over the disease. I spent time with my devoted sister, Heather, who walked herself into blisters this year, to raise money for breast cancer research and hovered over Jeannine and me like a mother hen, at every opportunity. I enjoyed time with my children and my beautiful blessed grandchildren. I was present for my daughter Jessica’s graduation from University and proudly cried through the entire day. I had months of quality time with my old and dear friend Bette, who never once commented that my 6-month visit had turned into 15. And Bette and I reconnected with Donna, another friend from childhood… I experienced an earthquake, survived a derecho and had the opportunity to say goodbye to a beloved uncle. I turned one of my children’s books into a musical with the great jazz artist, Heidi Martin. I practiced yoga with my precious friend Mary Lou, who became a certified yoga instructor during this most auspicious and terrible year. I spent time with two of my wise and beautiful, aging aunts…
Damn it, I’m glad I wrote about how pissed off I was with my ill health, and the US lack of healthcare, before I began reflecting on all of the wondrous and beautiful happenings of the past year and a half…
I feel the sharp edges of my memories wearing away as I write, replaced with gratitude that I’m alive, I’m loved, and I have so many beautiful people in my life to love.
I’m sliding into a smile… because I really am incredibly thankful to be alive and writing. I am also supremely grateful for my partner, who waits patiently for me no matter where I go or how long I stay…
How can I hold a grudge against my life with all of its perfect imperfections when the bottom line is: I am alive, living in Scotland and loving it, with all of its midges, mountains, rain and lochs? The fact is: I see unicorns and rainbows in my rearview mirror. I can’t help myself. But I will blog about current events and experiences more often—if for no other reason than to travel through the raw painful honesty of it all.