Saturday, December 31, 2011

The best New Year's Eve party ever

It's no secret that I've been a little bummed lately. General anesthesia plus morphine plus a couple of weeks on a narcotic pain reliever always seems to mess with me somewhat; add to those things a few weeks off work and a lot of mandatory time in the house with my leg encased in ice and elevated, and you can bet I've been a little stir-crazy.

So when I found I'd be spending New Year's Eve alone, I thought, Of course.

Don't get me wrong: Kevin fully deserved to go to Illinois for his family's Christmas celebration, and we both knew I wouldn't be able to make the 10-hour round trip when I can barely stand to remain in one position for five minutes. It wasn't his fault my kids also happened to be out of state visiting their dad. The timing sucked, purely and simply, and I was left alone with the dog.

Some well-meaning friends, upon learning of my loser-on-New-Year's-Eve status, invited me to various gatherings, but I really didn't feel up to it; I still can't walk well, and I tire pretty easily. So, as no one was willing to bring the party to my house, I mentally settled in for an evening of watching the ball drop with Anderson Cooper and Kathy Griffin.

Then came a last-minute invitation -- one I couldn't refuse. And I'm so glad I didn't.

My dear friend Shelly is the parent of two sons; one of them, Jake, is a young adult with Down syndrome. Jake lives in an apartment with two other young men with special needs, and Shelly was planning to hang out at their place New Year's Eve so their caregiver could have some time off.

"You have to go with me," Shelly said. "When you're feeling a little down, there's nothing like these guys to make you feel better. They're a hoot."

I love Jake and welcome any opportunity to see him. And it would be just for a couple of hours; I reasoned that I could do that without watching my knee swell to a size larger than my head. And so, chocolate cake and buffalo chicken dip in hand, I went.

When I arrived, the party was in full swing. Jake and his roommates, Nik and Zach, were playing ping-pong, and the trash-talking was in full force as the guys and Shelly counted to see how many times they could volley over the tiny net without missing. A New Year's Eve special was on in the background; I found out the guys were waiting anxiously to watch their favorites, Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga.

The guys greeted me with hugs and enthusiasm. "Thank you for coming to our party," Zach said again and again, and Nik, the least verbal of the roommates, just smiled and said, "Yeah." Jake gave me a hug and showed me all the Iowa State memorabilia he had received for Christmas.

We shared dip and cake and conversation, and then Shelly and I visited as the guys watched their New Year's special. They blew noisemakers and laughed and talked as their favorites sang on-screen, and once in a while one of them would shout out, "2012!" We played more ping-pong then, with all of them cheering on my good -- and not-so-good -- shots.

As the ball-drop neared, Shelly filled the roommates' glasses with sparkling grape juice, and the guys took cautious sips. "This tastes like the real thing!" Jake, who has never tasted alcohol, said with a laugh.

At 11 p.m., when the ball dropped in New York -- the guys aren't night owls -- there were well-wishes and hugs all around. The guys drank their beverages, laughed at their own antics, and began to prepare to wind down for the night.

It was then that I -- always the worrier, always thinking of the next step -- realized that these guys were totally in the moment. And that was something I envied. Here I was, smiling at them as I worried about whether the just-starting rain would make the roads slick, and about carrying things out to my car with my bum knee. But they were thrilled about the new year, and about being together.

Jake, Nik and Zach are by no means "simple," as my grandmother would have worded it back in the day; each one holds a job, and they help manage their own household. They shop and they cook and they clean, keeping order in their world and keeping tabs on their money so they can enjoy the things they love, such as watching their favorite shows, attending Iowa State games, and taking part in any number of activities around town.

But they're filled with their own joy -- the joy that comes from simply being together and looking forward to doing the things they love. When they thought ahead to the new year, they didn't think ahead to "What's going to happen with this?" and "How am I going to afford that?" They simply luxuriated in the moment.

I learned from that last night, and I hope I have the good sense to keep learning from it. Happy new year, guys. Thanks for inviting me to your party.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Yes, I walk with a cane. Don't stare at me.

I can't tell you how many times I've driven around a parking lot, shaken my head and said to myself, "HOW many handicapped parking spaces could one place need? There aren't this many handicapped people in the whole city."

Well, shame on me. Because I'm handicapped now -- temporarily, anyway -- and I can't find a parking space to save my life. More importantly, I'm so much more aware of how a physical ailment, even a temporary one, impacts not only a person's mobility, but the way others view him or her.

And let me tell you, it's not fun.

A month ago, I had my right knee replaced. My recovery has gone well, but I'll be walking with a cane for another couple of weeks. The looks I've been getting bother me the most; I'm not young, but I'm not elderly, and when I'm in public, people look at me as if they're wondering, "What sort of dreaded disease could she possibly have?" Either that, or they look away.

It's all I can do not to roll up my pant leg, show them my incision and say, "It's not that big a deal -- don't look at me as if I'm sick." But then I stop and think of how often I've been guilty of those same looks.

I think it's human nature, when we see someone whose physicality is outside the norm, to think, "Uh-oh. I wonder if whatever is happening to him or her could happen to me." And it could, of course, so we'd just as soon avoid the person altogether.

But that's pretty hurtful, actually, and here's why: I'm in pain. My knee is stiff and swollen. I can't move very well. My activities have been curtailed. I miss my work and my friends. I spend a lot of time in the house, and I'm not an in-the-house person. And for someone to look at me as if there's something wrong with me makes me feel even worse about myself.

The night before Christmas Eve, my husband, Kevin, and I were at Target. I was headed for the restroom and had stopped at the door to figure out how to smoothly navigate my cane and the door handle. Out of the blue, a little boy of about 6 came up to me and demanded, "What's wrong with your leg?"

His mother promptly apologized, but I assured her it was OK. I sat down on a nearby bench and explained that I had had surgery. "Do you want to see my knee?" I asked him. He did, so I rolled up my pants and he looked at my incision and my bandages for a long time. Then he looked at me with big eyes and said, "That looks like it hurts." I said that it did, sometimes, and he said, "That's too bad." And he gave me a sad look, and his mom dragged him away.

And I thought, how awesome. I wish everyone reacted that way. What's better than a little bit of honesty to stop the stares?

In the overall scheme of things, I am dealing with very, very small potatoes. War heroes return home having lost limbs. People lose eyes and ears and breasts and colons. They'll have to deal with the looks a whole lot longer than I will.

So maybe this can be a reminder to me, and to you -- stop staring, but don't look away, either. Look the person in the eye. Smile. And if you're really all that curious, ask.

And the next time you wonder if Des Moines really needs all those handicapped parking spaces, rest assured that it does. In fact, if you see an open one, call me, please, and tell me where it is.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Dear Duggars: Love the ones you're with.

I've blogged about the Duggars -- the Arkansas family with 19 kids -- a few times, so when the announcement came that mom Michelle had miscarried baby No. 20, some people asked how I felt about the news. I decided not to write about my opinions on this latest turn of events, figuring that commenting would be in pretty bad form.

I still think it's pretty bad form, but I'm going to comment anyway, as I don't seem to be disciplined enough to hold my tongue when it comes to the Duggars.

First, let me say this: I send the Duggars my most heartfelt condolences on their loss. Michelle miscarried in the second trimester; she had heard a heartbeat, she had felt movement, and she had no doubt bonded with the child. I would feel for anyone who had delivered a stillborn baby, and, as a mother, I sympathize with what must have been a horrible, wrenching experience.

That said, though -- what were they thinking?

On their television show on the cable channel TLC, the Duggars often have explained that they made a commitment long ago to leave the size of their family up to God. The result: They have 19 kids who range in age from 2 to 23, plus two grandchildren.

Here are some positives about the Duggars: They're debt-free, they support themselves, and they seem like nice, pleasant people. Here, also, are some negatives, in my opinion: They proselytize, they really seem to enjoy the fame that goes along with TV, and the parents don't do their own work.

Anyone who's read my feelings on this topic knows my basic gripe, and that's that Jim-Bob and Michelle Duggar push the raising of the children onto the family's older girls -- "buddies," they're called -- as soon as each baby is 6 months old. The girls don't have many options; they're not allowed to leave home to attend college or to work. The older boys don't attend college, either, but they're set up with businesses that will allow them to make a living, and they sure don't have to take care of any babies. Stereotypical gender roles are alive and well in the Duggar house.

Another gripe is that Michelle seems entirely checked out when it comes to interacting with her kids. While the "sister-moms" do the heavy lifting, Michelle seems to attend a lot of conferences and take a lot of naps. The girls, then, are charged with cooking and cleaning for and chauffeuring enough children to make up more than two baseball teams. And when Michelle does interact with her small children, those interactions seem less than maternal. When something is wrong with one of the toddlers, for example, he or she runs not to Mom or Dad, but to one of the sisters.

My point is this: I don't care if you have 19 kids or 20 kids or 40 kids. But please, please -- if you're going to enjoy all the notoriety gleaned from having a super-size family, don't count on your older kids to raise your younger ones. It's simply not fair.

Also, don't turn the whole thing into a numbers game. Again, I don't know the Duggars and don't intend to judge them, but when you invite TV cameras into your room every week, you open yourselves up to criticism. And what I've seen in the last few episodes tells me that hitting magic No. 20 was a big deal indeed to the Duggars.

Why? Because I daresay that to most people, 20 kids sounds like a bigger deal than 19. Another potential reason: The Gil and Kelly Bates family -- another super-size bunch and frequent guests on the Duggars' show -- are expecting baby No. 19, and I wonder if the Duggars aren't maybe just a tad bit nervous about sharing the limelight.

This is all idle speculation on my part, obviously. But this is not: The Duggars clearly want poor little Jubilee, the deceased baby, to "count" as No. 20. They held a memorial service for her this week during which they passed out photos of the miscarried baby's appendages, and I'm not kidding; I won't link to them, but if you have a sense of the macabre and want to take a look, google them. There's a photo of the 4-ounce baby's discolored feet with a verse about the impact even the smallest baby can have on the world, and there's another shot of the poor little baby's hand, less than fully formed, being held by the hand of her mother. Sad, sad stuff.

I'm sorry, but ... wow. Just wow. I don't see a thing wrong with taking and keeping such photos to view privately, but in my opinion, publicizing them landed way, way outside the bounds of good taste. And to me, it speaks to the fact that something is perhaps a little bit more wrong than I thought it was in Duggarland.

I'm not qualified to offer advice, but that's never stopped me in the past: Please, Michelle and Jim-Bob, pay attention to the children you have. You're over 45, and the odds are pretty darned slim that any baby you have from this point on is going to be born healthy. How about this: Be real parents to the kids you already have. Take your little ones to the park. Shop with your teenagers. Let your kids participate in team sports, and attend their games. Talk -- really talk -- to your children, one on one. In short, do what many, many other parents do; be parents.

You have 19 kids, 18 of whom are healthy as can be and one of whom still needs a great deal of attention from you. Give thanks, Duggars. Accept that the baby-making phase of your life is over, and love the ones you're with.

Friday, December 9, 2011

You want to go where everybody knows your name

I'm not much for the bar scene, but I've always been a fan of the '80s show "Cheers" -- you know the one. It starred Ted Danson, and was about a disparate group of people who found a defacto family in a Boston tavern.

I had surgery several days ago and am in the process of undergoing some pretty challenging physical therapy to get everything back in working order. Three years ago, after undergoing a similar surgery, I chose to rehabilitate my knee at a place called Johnston Physical Therapy. I'm going there again now, and whenever I walk in the door, the "Cheers" theme song runs through my head. The main refrain is: "You want to go where everybody knows your name." And as cheesy as it sounds, that's the kind of place it is.

Never having been an athlete, I had known nothing about physical therapy until my son, Scott, hurt his knee playing hockey several years ago. Someone recommended JPT to us, and off we went; Scott rehabbed there a few times a week, and I learned a lot. But as Scott was 17 at the time and didn't always want his mommy tagging along to rehab, I didn't immerse myself as much as I wanted to in the process and was left to wonder why he was doing certain exercises, why they were taping his knee, and just how critical all this was to his recovery.

When I had my first knee replacement, in 2008, I learned all that and more. Above all, I learned that in a time of impersonal medical mega-practices and hospitals that want to get you out of their beds as quickly as possible, a practice that truly wants to get to know you and determine how to best help you is rare indeed.

Here's what they do that's truly different: They tap into who you are and how you're likely to best accomplish your goals. Andrew, pictured above, is the guy who owns the place, and I've been fortunate enough to have him as my therapist both times now. Early on, he determined that I'm competitive and tend to do better when he dangles some sort of number or distance in front of me. Yesterday, he mentioned the fact that at my last appointment, I hadn't activated my quad muscle as much as he would have liked. Duly challenged, I did what he was asking me to do, and more. Later, I found out that he had made the whole thing up; he simply wanted to see how much better I could do if he made me believe I hadn't done well enough last time.

Well done, Andrew. The result is that I'm achieving the goals he's set for me, and I'm on my way to full mobility in my surgical knee. The really notable thing, though, is that I love going to physical therapy. Again, keep in mind that I'm historically not a person who likes to move any more than I have to, so that's a big deal.

I hold no illusions about being any more special than any other client, so the way I'm treated there is amazing to me; after an absence of three years, I came back to the same group of therapists; a few had been added, but none had left. No turnover in three years; that's remarkable in my book. And the therapists there recalled not only that I had had a knee replaced, but the degree to which I ended up being able to bend that knee after all was said and done.

And here's something I'll always remember: A combination of bad meds and overwhelming pain last time reduced me to tears on a couple of occasions, and I spent two entire therapy sessions crying my way through the stationary bike, exercises and kinesiology. Instead of reacting as any number of people would -- i.e., saying "Get the crazy lady off my table" -- Andrew reassured Kevin and me that me feelings were normal, and that they would pass. And they did.

I have the utmost respect for my orthopedic surgeon, for the anesthesiologists who put me to sleep and woke me up again, and for a few of the nurses who took care of me in the hospital -- the ones who actually knew what my medications were for, didn't forget to give them to me, and managed to lock the bed so I didn't fall (that's a story for later).

But more than anything, I owe my recovery to an unassuming guy named Andrew who has cultivated a staff of truly caring therapists. A sign in the facility's entry way says something about, "People won't care how much you know until they know how much you care." Luckily for me and for other Johnston Physical Therapy patients, that's not just a cliche.