I had ambitious plans for my holiday break, which turned out (thanks to a snowstorm) to be more than two weeks out of the office. In my vision, the hectic pace of the fall would be replaced with the more mellow flow of winter. I was planning on taking time to write, to visit friends, and recharge before facing the doldrums of January and February—my least favorite time of year.
As I go through my fifties, I’m reminded over and over, (in case I didn’t get the message the first, tenth, or twenty-first times), that any plans I make are provisional, contingent on whatever new challenges life throws my way. As mid-December approached, I made arrangements to visit my friend Mark, who lives in Jacksonville, Florida. Mark and I have been connected for over 30 years; we’ve seen each other at our best, our worst, and everything in between. Back in 1995, Mark was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, but it was caught early and by the next year he was in remission; soon five, ten, and fifteen years had gone by with no trace of cancer.
A few months ago all that changed, and now my friend is dealing with chemo, radiation, a slew of medications and the side effects that come with them. Fortunately, he has a supportive husband—they’ve been together for almost 25 years—and a network of friends and family in North Florida. And Mark has a network of long-distance friends like me, who keep in touch by phone, email and text, who lend what limited support we can, and try to span the physical distance between us.
Several weeks before my planned trip, my elderly cat, Santosh, got sick, and as departure time approached it was clear that I couldn’t leave my sick cat (alone) to visit my sick friend. Mark understood; he and his husband have two dachshunds—their “babies”—and I made a commitment to reschedule my visit when things (hopefully) calm down.
It was a good thing I stayed in town. One morning about 4 am, I heard Santosh meowing pitifully, as she spit up in my living room. After I saw traces of blood, I called the emergency vet in Woburn, and soon I was on my way, transporting her in the icy dark and eventually racking up a $600 bill for our visit. Still, I was thankful that I was there, and that I hadn’t left my cat-sitter to deal with the crisis.
After that turn of events, Santosh began to get better, and I felt myself relax a bit. I knew that Mark was in good hands, surrounded by friends and family, caught up in their holiday celebrations. And so I started to write, and to settle back into my own life. But just as I began to feel my stomach un-knot, I noticed a bump on my right forearm, a tiny bite that suddenly began to swell up, with a red line streaking up my arm. The next morning I was at urgent care, diagnosed with something called cellulitis. I was told to take it easy, keep my arm elevated, and not scratch the itch, which was easier said than done.
We never did figure out the root cause of my infection, or find the source of those bites, but after a thorough inspection, I was able to rule out bedbugs—another potential crisis averted. Just as life was returning to some semblance of normal, I spoke with my mother, who lives in an independent living center back in Cleveland, Ohio, and noticed she was coughing badly.
Over the course of the next two days, she got worse, even after a trip to the local emergency room, where she got a breathing treatment but little else in the way of help. Finally, after a visit to her primary care doctor, my mother was diagnosed with bronchitis, (she also has asthma), and was given a much-needed inhaler and an antibiotic.
While all this was going on, I was constantly texting my mother’s aide, her social worker, and my two brothers. My stomach congealed back into a permanent knot, and my low back followed, going into spasm after a light workout at the gym. All I could do—all I knew how to do—was to hold on for dear life, to wait for things to shift, to hope that my Mom would finally turn the corner.
Over the course of several days, she did get better—and so did I. Today, as I write this column, the wind is whipping outside, the wind chill well below zero. Yet I’m feeling a sense of gratitude, taking a deep breath, and hoping for a brief vacation—two weeks, a month—before life throws me another curveball.
Judah Leblang is a writer, teacher, and storyteller in Boston. For information on his courses and performances go to www.judahleblang.com
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