Warm Blankets

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I slowly woke up and got my boys ready for school. After breakfast, I stood outside watching them show me tricks on their new swing. I needed to quickly catch up for lost weekend time before I had to load them into the van.

It didn’t matter how many layers of clothes I had put on to try and block out the wind, none of them felt like enough. Not today. The cold winds blew right through me. I wrapped my arms tightly around my waist to try and keep myself warm. The thing is when I’m sensitive from the inside out, I don’t think it’s possible to fully insulate myself from feeling the hurt, the pain, the anger, and inevitably, the sadness. It’s just not fair. So many things that I saw on Sunday. It was too much brokenness. Too much wrong, not enough right. Unfortunate circumstances tangled up with loss. After loss. The good seemed so dim beneath the weight of the pure evil. The hope was drowning and there was nobody there to save it.

Everybody was too busy.

I don’t think I will ever forget the sound of the door to the blanket warmer opening and shutting, when I grab a few blankets for a patient. I think every one of us has wanted to stop at some point and curl up inside of there. Disappear and take a short nap in the middle of one of the shifts that feel more like twenty four hours. It’s sometimes the least and the most that you can do for a patient and family, go snag them a warm blanket. Or a cup of water. Because you can’t do anything about why they are there or how long they will wait, especially when there are real emergencies happening. Everywhere. You can’t tell them that it’s far better to wait impatiently alone than to have a swarm of doctors and nurses quickly take over your room. You can’t tell them that they should be grateful to leave, eventually, with their alive child.

This afternoon, at home, I grabbed a load of warm laundry from the dryer and remembered bits and pieces of the previous long work days. It all feels like a blur sometimes. The giggles. The tears. The loud cries. Infant cries. Toddler cries. School age cries. The silence before a procedure. The begging. The pleading. The lullaby music. The smells of different families, cleaning wipes, popcorn. The sadness or apathy lurking behind certain doors or curtains. The unknowns. All of the brief hallway conversations with co-workers. It all just makes me want to lay my tired body down. Then, I want someone to knock on my door and tuck me under a warm blanket so I will be temporarily sheltered from the harsh winds of sickness, the unknowns, evil, sadness, and pain.

Yet, unfortunately, a warm blanket will not make my work thoughts disappear.

After crazy weekends, there are far too many of my thoughts and feelings seemingly waiting loudly in line, bumping into one another, sharing with each other, asking to be heard, understood, or felt. All in my mind. When it gets too crowded, tears will be shed. My tears. Because I don’t know all the answers. I can’t begin to understand or solve the problems of our broken society. Tiny caskets. Shelters full. Psych facilities full. Hospitals full. It’s overwhelming. My heart can’t begin to fathom the atrocities that certain children see, hear, feel, or live through because of another human being’s ignorance, negligence, mistreatment, or selfishness. The one human being that should love and protect them the most.

I sometimes wonder what may trigger a child or family member to remember the painful moments, hours, or days spent in the hospital. Will a certain toy or TV show or sound or smell remind them of the painful times? Will it be something I said or did? Should I have them watch their favorite movie or not? I still can’t listen to certain songs or smell certain scents without being immediately taken back to specific hospital rooms, or the operating room, or the emergency department unexpectedly recalling my own medical experiences.

But somehow, despite all of my surgeries and recoveries, the warm blankets still always make me feel a little safer, a bit more comforted, and pretty warm too. There aren’t too many perks to being in the hospital. Loads of uncertainty, constant beeping, weird smells, awkward hospital gowns, and so on and so forth.

The warm blankets help.

They matter in a simple yet important way. Similar to a lot of the kind and thoughtful gestures in life, the times we go a bit out of our way to do some small act for another. Perhaps for someone we love or a complete stranger. I’m pretty sure we all possess the power to grab someone a warm blanket, wherever we are in life and whatever we’re doing. Or maybe we are the ones that need to graciously accept a warm blanket from time to time. Either way, the warmth wears off on both the giver and the receiver.

Two ERs

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I woke up. Took a shower, and then I laid back down wrapped up in my towel. In fetal position. My guts hurt and I didn’t think I was ready to face the day. But I had to get up. I had to get my boys ready. I wanted to call in to work but I only had two shifts left. I took a moment then I got myself dressed. Because that’s what you do when you’re a mom. You have jobs, responsibilities and dependents. Even when you have a disease that lately keeps competing with your favorite interruptions in life, your kids.

So you get up. Get moving. Think positive. Keep the faith. You fight harder. You push back. You breathe deeply. You remind yourself how powerful your thinking is. And you tell yourself that you can do it. Then, you believe it. You pray and ask, or is it demand, for God’s help. You need his strength to jump start yours. Then, you take a moment to curse the disease. You may even irrationally tell it that you hate it and you don’t want it anymore. It’s not like you are childhood best friends or anything. You know it’s a bit absurd. As if you could just return it to the chronic illness store, at this point in your life. You’ve had it too long. No exchanges or returns. Sorry.

Some days, you’re painfully aware. Like the moments when you look down in the shower. This amazing life preserving sort of gift of your small intestine coming out of your body. It’s beautiful and visible and life changing. You recognize and appreciate the lessons that having the disease has taught you. The silly unimportant things it has freed you from, in order to help you focus in on the ones that matter. The gentle touch of strangers doing their job, taking care of you, getting you warm blankets. Because you drove to the ER alone. In the middle of the night. It’s what you needed to do and your husband needed to stay with the sleeping boys. Thankfully there are the kind hearted, the compassionate, the ones who don’t know you but they see you vulnerable, hurting and they tend to you like their own. They touch your shoulder, speak gently and tell you they love your name. The nurses.

Other days, you’re just so damn tired. More like utterly exhausted. From life. And you feel like the disease is the heavy weight champion and you’re curled up in the corner of the ring with your head in between your legs and your eyes are shut so tightly. Just. Go. Away. Leave me alone, will you? Please. You beg. And plead.

It’s the worst listener.

It’s really a great big juggling act balancing all the present thoughts, feelings, pain, anticipation and previous medical experiences. Then, there’s the future. What are your options? Will this be the thing that kills you? Should you ever go to that land of unknowns? Probably not. Just stay where you are. You stay positive and present with the many, many painful experiences you’ve had before. You let gratefulness fill you up and smother the little flames of pity, fear and shame. You know that you’re not as bad off as you have been before. You’re hopeful that like all the other times, you will make it through this valley filled with it’s fair share of obstacles. You will always, always learn something that’s bigger and better than the pain. And soon, you will look back once again to realize that it wasn’t ever your strength so much as it was the overwhelming and never ending strength, love, and support of those surrounding you, encouraging you and helping you. You will never ever forget the friend who picked you up on the curb. And drove your tired body home and acted like you gave her the greatest birthday gift in letting her help you. You will always remember her. You will remember that love wins. Every time.

You know that when you get to feeling better you will do everything possible to show others this kind of readily available, self sacrificing, beautiful and rare kind of love. Because you believe that it’s not fair, every person deserves to feel this kind of love. Not just you.

The Mercy Tree

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If I wanted to be funny, I would say that I just couldn’t take it anymore. That it nearly broke me when they eradicated the sugar-free cokes. And then the chocolate covered cinnamon bears disappeared. Next they replaced the entire grill and deep fat fryers with weird non-ovens. I’m no good at packing my lunch and bringing it to work unless I pretend that I’m that homeless man’s mother off of 71 hi-way and pack us both a lunch. So, I would like to blame my resignation on something trivial like the gradual disappearance of non-healthy comfort foods in the hospital cafeteria. A junk food extinction. I don’t “feel better” about it. But that would just be ridiculous. Because everybody knows if you work in the emergency department, you will typically be surrounded by carbs. And more carbs. Carbs of every kind. Pretty much every shift. Especially on Sundays.

The truth is that I’ve been saying goodbye to this place for months. I knew I had to prepare my heart far in advance. I’ve spent too many years here to only give myself a two weeks notice of goodbyes. I’ve walked around differently, a bit more slowly, soaking in the views from the many different hallways and places I’ve worked. I’ve tried to avoid thinking about the last times. The last time I would prepare and support a child or teen as they navigate through a lengthy and humiliating exam. The last time I may temporarily squeeze into the shoes of a mother or a sister or a friend. I’ve held on tightly, so tightly, to the beautiful moments when a mother hugged me after I did something small to help her child or her. I’ve jumped at the opportunity to console a tiny crying one or comfort a sibling or explain that an accident was not his fault. Most times, even when I’ve been hurting or tired, I’ve eagerly grabbed my Mary Poppins bag full of distraction materials to quickly go support a patient getting sutures or an IV.

I’ve absolutely cherished last conversations with coworkers who I love so dearly that it physically hurts to think I won’t see them on a regular basis. Maybe if I could memorize their voices, their laughs, and their faces, it will help me later when I’m missing them.

I’ve prepared myself because I need to walk out of here with my head held high. More proud than sad. I’ve prepared myself because I know it’s best for me and because that’s what I have always done with kids. Hundreds and hundreds of kids. Nearly twelve years worth of kids and families. I’ve blown at least a million bubbles. I’ve held hundreds of nervous, scared or confused hands. I’ve taken a million deep breaths. I’ve said thousands of prayers. I think I’ve heard “Let it Go” at least a trillion times. It’s really, really difficult, almost incomprehensible, to think that soon I won’t navigate these halls with the ease, familiarity and confidence that comes with years and years of experience. This place has been like my second home with all of my beautiful brothers and sisters, my work family.

So, I’m feeling a bit shaky, like a volunteer tree. You know those opportunistic little seedlings? The ones that fall from the strong well-established mature tree and plant themselves in a perfect or not so perfect place in a forest or yard and they begin to grow. That’s me. I have fallen or taken a leap or perhaps the winds of life have pushed me away from my big comfortable home base work tree. It’s all a little scary. And uncertain. Definitely unfamiliar. But change is always new. And hard. And usually a risk. So many new doors to embark upon or windows to slide through.

A month or so ago, a kind-hearted and smart gardening friend of mine came over and walked around my backyard with me and pointed out flowers, and perennials and weeds. She also pointed out my “volunteer trees.” The trees that had grown on their own accord…because well, I didn’t plant them. Some of them were so tiny and cute, little toy trees that could easily be uprooted by my children running or tromping on top of them. Other volunteer trees appeared strong like they had strategically placed themselves in a perfect growing spot. Like they may take some real effort to dig out. So maybe I should just leave them alone and let them keep growing. Plant a tree. Or just be open to one planting itself. And leave it alone.

Let it grow.

That’s what I’m hoping to do. Little volunteer tree me. Grow through the change. Battle the winds. The seasons. The unknowns. And just keep growing. Just keep growing. I will tell myself. I will always think of all of the encouragement and support and love I’ve been filled up with. And I think I will manage alright because I’ve learned from one of the strongest, most resilient and beautiful trees that exist. The Mercy Tree.

Chocolate Chip Cookies

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Tonight, after we said a long gratefulness bedtime prayer and I heard my boys’ breathing get deep sleep heavy, I cried like a big old baby. There must have been a hundred reasons as I thought about all of the beauty of the day.  That yellow finch playing in the street in that puddle. The ruby throated hummingbird whizzing up to my kitchen window. My boys’ pure endless and exhausting innocence. It’s so damn hard to know if they’re prednisone tears without some sort of litmus paper, but I think tonight, they were the real deal. The kind that flood your face for a reason. Or perhaps a million.

I thought about eating lunch earlier today. “Mama, can I sit on your lap?” My almost five year old boy asked. We had a whole bench to ourselves, but yes. I sat across the table from a man, somehow my husband. A man that loves me in ways that blow my mind. Yet, I don’t always feel the enormous, overpowering sense of gratitude for him because marriage is hard. And distracting. Marriage with jobs, kids, and chronic illness takes hard to another level. But we do the hard together. And it’s not always pretty, but it’s always together. Always.

After school, my boys and I got ice cream. Then, we took a bag full of “World IBD Day” treats i.e. soft toilet paper, bubble gum, coloring books, flowers, smelly soap etc. for the nurses to give out to GI patients that maybe needed a boost. As we walked the halls of Saint Luke’s, hospital memories, many of them painful, suddenly overwhelmed me. Thankfully, the distraction of my boys fighting over who got to push the elevator buttons interupted some of the more difficult memories. The repeated NG placements. The depressing, long days spent laying in that hospital bed. The prayers that I uttered as they moved my fragile, aching infected body after surgery from one part of the hospital to another. I understand why people avoid going back to hospitals or places that trigger some of those vivid sensitive and hard to forget memories.

But I happen to love hospitals, specifically when I’m not a patient. I love the people there. They truly feel like touching heaven sometimes. Tonight, we rode several wrong elevators. We got lost and everybody helped us out. Everybody thanked us for coming. Perhaps, it helps being accompanied by three energetic young boys carrying chocolate chip cookies for the nursing staff. They had a hidden agenda. They eagerly hoped to meet all of the NICU nurses who helped take care of them in their first few weeks of life. On the car ride, they had planned out what they would say, “Hey! Do you remember me?” I didn’t have the heart to tell them that the nurses may not remember them. Seven years later. Little egos need not be deflated too soon.

After our hospital visit, we drove past a fun looking park on our way home, so we stopped. I hoped I could link the hospital visit to the fun playground in their memories and we could do it again next year. On World IBD Day. The boys asked if I would be “the monster” and since I had my running shoes on and I had just left a hospital that I used to long to get out of, I chased my boys around. And around. Because I could. Because I was free. Because I know there are others that want to be recovered and walking, running, and desperately want to feel better and want out of the hospital. I played for them. Maybe one day soon, they will play for somebody else too.

The most meaningful part of the day happened in the van, on our ride home. One of my seven year old boys likes to read bits and pieces of my blog posts. Yesterday, he had seen the title “It’s Not a Shit Bag.” I talked to him about my bag and how it’s hard to truly understand something if you don’t know anybody with it. His seven year old heart knows that the “shit” word is not a kind name. I talked about how we all can say things that might not be intended to be hurtful, we may even be trying to be funny but that our words have the power to really hurt others. Or really help others. I talked to my boys about the power of teaching others and forgiving others who made a mistake and may have said something that hurt us. They talked to me about being a pebble in the water. A sweet school lesson on the ripple effect. I believe that people, for the most part, want to be loving and impact others for good, but sometimes, we just don’t know what that looks like. I’m grateful that we got to have a conversation that truly mattered. On a day that possessed so much beauty.

I wanted to say thank you for all of your kindness and support and love. Today. And most every day. I’m so damn lucky to have all of you.

Magic Bubbles

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I watched you cry. Silent, trapped cries that pushed and pushed resulting in your gasping and straining. These are the hardest cries to see. And not hear. The tiny veins in your face grew as you tried to scream in protest. And I wished I could do more.

I blew bubbles.

Your dad sat beside you and held you. Your mom stood next to the bed. Your brother played in a different world, he popped bubbles with Buzz Lightyear. I know you wanted us all to leave your room. And leave you alone. I know you wanted to go home. You knew exactly everything we had to do. I wondered if you hate bubbles. A hospital bubble aversion. All that they represent. All that they predict. This place. These experiences. Your pain. And your trapped cries.

I blew more bubbles.

This time for your mom. She stood there, helpless, yet not paralyzed by the unfairness of watching you, her beautiful child, suffer. She talked about the bubbles. She popped the bubbles for you. I hope you weren’t mad that I kept blowing them. For her. She needed the distraction. She needed a role. She needed to feel like she could offer you some comfort, some familiarity, a glimpse of hope.

I exhaled. Slowly. Repeatedly. My breaths filled all of the giant, tiny and medium sized bubbles that escaped. Into the air of your room. Before they vanished or popped.

I heard your father interupt the nurse as she prepared you for another “poke.” I think your dad wanted to protect you. Or maybe himself. Maybe he hoped you would cry less. Your nurse performed her job beautifully. She handled herself gracefully. She calmly stood her ground yet held her tongue. A delicate skill mastered by nurses who empathize, relate to, love and often sacrifice a bit of their pride, when necessary, by not fighting back. Because they understand that everyone’s on the same team. Or should be. A team that wants to get you feeling better. A team that wishes we could cause less hurt to help you. A team that will do some of the hardest things because we have to. To help you. Because we love kids. Especially the most resilient, the kids like you.

I blew bubbles.

Over and over. Again.

And again.

Until it was done. I left momentarily to go find your prize. When I returned to your room, I looked at you. No more hurt. No more crying. There, I saw it, resting in your lap, your two tiny hands gripped my pink and purple bubble container the best they could. While I was gone, you chose to hold the bubbles. I watched you happily play as you pushed the bubble wand in and pulled it back out. This helped me feel a tiny bit better, knowing that maybe you didn’t hate bubbles after all.

I put the bubbles away into my bag. I let them rest. I knew I would be using them again. A lot of times today. The next time my pager beep, beep, beeped at me.

So I walked into the next room. And I saw you.

You laid across your daddy’s lap. Your sweet ocean colored eyes peaked out from the hair that had tumbled down around your face. Your tiny half-naked body was completely surrounded by unfamiliar faces. You needed a quick distraction. Something to look at. To play with. Something to occupy your active toddler mind. I grabbed the magic container from my bag.

And I blew bubbles.

On my knees, at your level, I blew hundreds of bubbles for you to watch float around the room. They bumped into you, your dad, the nurses and doctors. Your dad blew them. And you did too. Your contagious and playful smile encouraged every adult to reach out and play along by popping the bubbles that drifted their way. Like a bunch of silly big kids. We would all do just about anything in our power to see you smile and hear your giggles.

Blowing bubbles seems like such a small thing to do. Sometimes it reminds all of us to breathe. Sometimes the bubbles remind us of your innocence. Your transparency. Your fleeting busy minds. Sometimes the bubbles can stop crying. And sometimes bubbles possess this quiet magic to momentarily take you away from the present pain.

I think I’ve watched a million bubbles take flight. And I will gladly watch a million more. If it can help in some small way to  make you less scared, less worried, more playful. And especially if it can make you feel more like a kid and less like a patient.

A Work Dream

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Everybody slept in my house. I snuck into my bed after spying on the brilliant and giant glowing full moon outside of my garage.

Then I had a dream. A work dream.

I was in a room with two girls. We played the board game, “Sorry.” The school aged girl bounced her giggly little toddler sister up and down, on and off of her lap. Her spunky high-ponytailed sister gladly interfered with our game. She grabbed the game pieces and moved them all over the board. Time and time again. I told the older girl how great of a big sister she was. She patiently moved the pieces back each time after her little sister rearranged them.

We played and talked. The little sister playfully pinched me and loved my overreaction. “Owwwww.” It didn’t hurt.

Then, I paused.

I remembered why the big sister, still so little and innocent staring up at me, had come to the hospital.

I needed to tell the big sister something important. Something that was a little hard to say.

I shared with her how I get the chance to work with all sorts of brave kids in the hospital. I told her about some kids that need stitches or others that break their arms and need a cast. I told her that a lot of kids, like her, have to do really hard things in the hospital. Things that hurt or make kids feel uncomfortable. Weird things like peeing in a cup. Or getting a bit of their blood taken from their veins through a tiny tube. She listened intently and nodded as I talked. She paid close attention as she focused her big kind eyes right on mine. 

Then, I exhaled.

I told her that me and my friends that work at the hospital believe that some of the bravest kids we ever meet carry around a kind of hurt that happened but doesn’t show up on the outside of their skin. Hurt that was caused when a grown up did something awful. Things a grown up should never have done. I talked about how it’s really hard and worrisome to carry a secret around. As a grown up and especially as a kid. I talked about how a grown up is supposed to protect, love and take care of kids and keep them safe, not hurt them.

I told her that we were all extremely proud of her for telling that a grown up had hurt her. And then I told her that she was one of the bravest. And I said it with the kind of sincerity that brought tears to my eyes and put a big lump in my throat. The kind that makes it a little hard to talk. I think I said it because I truly meant it. And because it’s true. 

And then I woke up to go to the bathroom.

I looked out the window at the dark after midnight sky. The moon had moved west. It was no longer big, bright and beautiful.

Something had changed since I had fallen asleep.

It seemed sad, angry, frustrated and disappointed. It seemed like it longed to hide underneath a lump of dark grey clouds.

Maybe that was just me.

The dream was too real. If not for the little girl’s beauty and resilience, it would have been a nightmare.

Or the kind of dream you hope to never have again. Ever.