Just call me a medical experiment

I went to the doctor’s office the other day, seeking antibiotics to keep a deep cough from becoming even deeper chest congestion. Dr. Mark Mroczko, who practices at Advent Medical Group in the medical building attached to Advocate Eureka Hospital, was his usual cheerful self as he greeted me, listened to my wheezing, and prescribed a round of antibiotics for me. They worked; it’s gone now.

Then, before he left, he asked me a question that I’ve become used to in the past couple of years, since I moved back to Eureka: “Do you mind if our intern listens to your heart valve before you go?”

My mitral valve, destroyed a few years back from a serious infection, was replaced by a mechanical one—and it clicks. Seriously, it clicks…sometimes I can hear it as I’m drifting off to sleep. Dr. M says most medical students never get the opportunity to hear one in person, so I always oblige.

He and I get a kick out of watching the students’ reactions when they first hear it. Their eyes light up and they nod their heads, saying something like, “Yeah! I hear it!” It reminds me of the reaction my friend’s child had at learning to stab green beans with a fork when she was little. She kept exclaiming, “I got one!” each time the fork hits its target.

I can’t help but be caught up in their thrill of discovery. Sometimes, it takes the students a little time and maneuvering of the stethoscope to get it in just the right place to hear it. Dr. M, ever patient and just as thrilled as they are, often shows them the best place to hear it—just below my collarbone and to the left of my heart surgery scar. When they finally find it, he nods right along with them as if he shares their enthusiasm.

I don’t know when it was—or maybe I should say, when I noticed—that my doctors were becoming younger than I. I’ve lived in a number of places and have had a variety of chronic conditions that need continual monitoring and care. That means I’ve had myriad general practitioners and specialists over the years. I tell you, they just keep getting younger.

When I first met Dr. M, which was even before I moved back to town, I thought with some alarm, “This guy doesn’t look old enough to be a doctor!” I haven’t asked him his age, because I refuse to think he might be young enough to be my son.

But his skill and care in managing my varied and sundry health issues has changed my initial assessment of him. When I first came back to live here, I was still recovering from my long, difficult time in the hospital after the heart surgery. I kept ending up in the local hospital for a variety of ailments, not the least of which was gall bladder removal.

He began managing my care, and streamlining my prescriptions and referrals to specialists. He set two goals for us: to keep me out of the hospital and get my blood work to a healthier level.

Somewhere along the line, as he got to know me as well as my ailments, he noted he enjoyed working with me both as a patient and as a person. He started calling me an ‘interesting case.’ I’m sure he means an interesting mixture of conditions, but I couldn’t help but think early on that I’d like to be a bit less interesting.

And I think maybe I am becoming less interesting as we work together on my health issues. At my most recent three-month visit I learned we finally hit both goals: I haven’t had a hospital stay for over a year and the results of my blood work were the best they have been in years.

I know Dr. M will be embarrassed when he gets wind of this article, so if you know him, cut him some slack and don’t rib him too hard.

That goes double for you doctors, his colleagues! Just because I haven’t mentioned you by name doesn’t mean I don’t know of your excellent work. A couple of you—Dr. Hughes and Dr. Jones—have even been consultants on my hospital stays and ER visits. And you know what Eureka is like—we love to talk. Among the common questions around here is, “Who’s your doctor?” It seems people are pretty pleased with their Advocate Med docs.

Eureka is blessed to have outstanding health care right here in town. My experience with the whole staff at the doctors’ office, including nurses, and front office staff have been nothing but positive. I’ve also had excellent care from the specialists that put in hours at the hospital’s clinic. The entire hospital staff—the emergency room, the physical and speech therapy departments, lab technicians, registrars, and the volunteers who staff the front desk—maintain a high level of care, which includes compassion and humor, along with efficiency and knowledge. I’ve yet to meet a cranky one in the bunch!

For that matter, the Eureka and paramedics that took me to the hospital in the middle of the night a few times were impressive. In other words, the spirit of care reaches beyond the hospital and physicians’ office.

Oh sure, we have many of the same frustrations that you’d find in any hospital—longs waits; bureaucratic nightmares regarding insurance; billing snafus; long, scary needles. As, yes I’m sure mistakes have been made and people have had disappointing, even painful experiences, but that happens everywhere, too.

I’ve been in more than one local waiting room conversation in which we all marveled that such a comprehensive medical facility with high quality care exists in this town. We’ve noted, too, that we wouldn’t get the kind of individual attention at a bigger hospital. I can vouch for that, as I’ve spent a lot of time in larger hospitals in recent years.

They have their place—like when one needs more specialized care than can be provided in a smaller facility. But the bigger hospitals have noting on Eureka’s ability to provide the extras, like compassion, kindness, and a sense of community. In Eureka, we not only receive good health care, we are nurtured. I, for one, am grateful we have such a huge treasure in such a small town.

Published as a Frankly Speaking column in the Woodford County Journal on Oct. 25, 2012.

Swinging in the Rain

 The clouds that night were angrily balling into thunderous fists. Flashes of lightning slashed through the cold, damp night, momentarily illuminating the little tree in the front yard, the mailbox by the road, and the row of the neighbor’s evergreens dividing our lawns.

Mom and I were standing on the tiny front porch of our three-bedroom house in the country, taking it all in like a drive-in movie. The roof over the porch gave us little protection against the rain that was now coming in sheets straight at us. We gathered our rain ponchos closer around us as we watched in awe the wonder of a spring storm in the Midwest.

We were practically giddy.
I loved these times with my mother. I always felt closer to her—she felt so far away most of the time. But, when we watched the storms gather, when she pointed out to me the clouds that looked like they were forming into funnels, or on clearer nights, when she took the time to point out the constellations for me, I got caught up in her excitement, and felt impressed by her knowledge.

I also was awed and somewhat alarmed by her bravery in facing the elements, be it nature’s storms or roller coasters at the amusement park.

As often as I witnessed my mother ‘s adventurous spirit, I was continually startled when she stepped outside the box my child’s mind had put her in. Quiet, reserved, wise, talented, all business, emotionless, stern, and distant are words I usually would use to describe her. Words like fun, dare devil, adventuresome, joyous, carefree, irreverent, humorous never came to mind except when we were out on the porch.

I also recall the time, during a particularly rainy day of camping, when she gathered all five of us little ducklings wearing our ever-present rain ponchos. Declaring she was tired of being cooped in a tent all day, she led us to the playground where we all swung and played in the rain with her playing right alongside us.

Then there were the times we went to a campground by Lake Michigan. There a path through a small thicket of woods that led straight to the ragged shore where we would each lean against one of the boulders and let the Great Lake hit us with furious waves, laughing uproariously at every assault of water.

Now at nearly 78, my mom’s spirit seems more and more subdued every year. She says she’s tired of travelling, that she’s seen about everything she wanted to see and done most things she wanted to do, and now it’s time to stay closer to home.

I’m trying to understand this newest stage of my mother’s life, but I fear much of the life that was in her, and expressed itself only on occasion, is dying too young. I’m afraid she’s given up too much too quickly.

Then again, I’m not used to her actually looking and acting her age. And, admittedly, I don’t live in her body or see things through her eyes. But I want to see that spark in her eyes, hear that lilt in her laugh, watch that spirit of adventure come out and play with my spirit of wonder again. I’m not ready to act my age.

My Mind Used to be so Agile

My mind used to be so agile. I could take in complex ideas and break them down into simple concepts. I could hold multiple thoughts in my head at one time—even carry on two or more conversations simultaneously. I was quick with a quip, adept at a clever turn of phrase, and had a vocabulary that ran wide and deep.

I have always loved words. I find them delicious. I savor them on my tongue, like ingredients for a new gourmet recipe I’m in the midst of creating. I’m continually moving them around in my mind, placing them in various combinations until I find the perfect balance between salty and sweet, spicy and cool, creamy and crunchy.

Often I would try them in various combinations out loud in public speeches and sermons, in conversations with friends, when making a point in a group discussion. I would use them to punctuate the stories of my life and the lives of those I encountered. I would write them down in stories, essays and articles for public consumption—hoping the readers would enjoy this new dish I offered as much as I had enjoyed crafting it.

I became a wordsmith. And, as I’ve been rewarded often for my expertise in this craft, I’ve continued these practices throughout most of my life. I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t in the process of writing something, of developing a new story, or whipping up a new image to present for the reader’s or listener’s palette.

But since the stroke…since the infection that caused the stroke and destroyed my mitral heart valve in December 2008, I’ve lost some of my agility with words. My ability to put words and phrases together has slowed. Just as I lost my ability to walk great distances without the assistance of a cane, I no longer have the energy or the stamina to continually craft stories in my head.

Words don’t come to mind so easily, as often, they don’t roll off my tngue as eloquently. Sometimes, when I try to talk, to make a point, or tell a story, I can’t find the words I’m seeking. When I read out loud, the words trip over my tongue as though I have marbles in my mouth. The words sound garbled to my ears.

I feel self-conscious and become embroiled in shame and the need to apologize for my clumsiness, for the mess I’m making of this craft I once felt so confident about.

In fact, wordsmithing—storytelling, or leading people to laughter, tears, encouraging them to ponder new ideas and see things from a different perspective—this was the one thing I could count on to make me feel good about myself; the one thing at which I excelled. And it was one of the few things for which I was consistently rewarded by others.

It was my identity. Now I don’t know who I am.

To be continued…

Remembering Floyd Sherry

A memorial service was held for long-time Eureka resident Floyd Sherry on June 13, 2012, at Maple Lawn Homes, Eureka.

As I walked into Memorial Hall, I was momentarily stunned by the size of the crowd there for the Floyd Sherry memorial. Stunned, and alarmed that there appeared to be no seats left, that is, but ultimately not surprised. After all, Floyd and his family have made a big impact on those of us who have shared a part of our lives together.

I don’t know how many people here know this, but my dad and Floyd were first cousins. Floyd’s mom and my dad’s dad were brother and sister. It’s just a coincidence that our paths converged for a time when I came here in the 1980s to attend Eureka College, returned in the 90s to work at the Journal and again in the 2000s for health reasons.

We haven’t kept it a secret, but neither of us went around proclaiming it, either. I guess that’s just the way our family is. I mean, we knew we were related, why would we need to announce it?

It was nice to claim a bit of family, a touch of home miles away from my family home in Central Indiana. There is such a thing as a familial short hand that exists when even extended family members talk to each other. We had a shared genealogy, an overlapping history. We knew each other’s ‘folks,’ we were ‘kin.’ I’ve often said the two places you can’t lie about your age—or hide from your past—are family reunions and class reunions.

I’d known Floyd and his family all my life. The Franks extended family get together annually at a Franks/Cobleigh family reunion. (Cobleigh was the family name of Floyd and dad’s great-grandmother Franks.) We also tended to see each other at family funerals.

I got to know the Sherry family better once I lived here. We travelled to reunions and maybe even a funeral or two together. I got to know Floyd and Virginia’s four kids, Sylvia, Diana, Ed and Jim, my second cousins. I even started getting to know the third generation of Sherrys when the grandkids came along. We had some family dinners together and even went to the same church.

I’d had no idea they were so musical until I saw them perform at the church on special occasions and at other local events. Three generations formed the Sherry Family Band. The musical gene must have come from the Sherry side.

When I came back to Eureka in 2009, after a 12-year absence, Floyd was already sick. In the beginning, there was optimism about his recovery, but he experienced some setbacks that made the end seem all too near.

Not that he talked about it, much. That’s a family trait, too. We don’t tend to dwell on ourselves or share personal information. (I’m somewhat of an exception, having shared family stories in this column, my blog, and in sermons. I guess there’s a storyteller in every family.) We try to minimize both our achievements and our difficulties.

Shortly before he died, Floyd stopped by my apartment at Maple Lawn. He had Diana with him. He said something dismissively about the kids thinking they needed to come by more often. He thought it was nice of them to visit but not necessary. I could see in Diana’s eyes that she thought it was. I knew the other kids did, too.

When I asked how he was doing, he said he was feeling as well as could be expected. Said he had lived a good life, and he was ready to go. Upbeat to the end.

When he died in January, Virginia said the family would be planning a memorial service for sometime in the summer. From time to time, when the kids were visiting and came with Virginia to church, I heard about the fun they were having planning the event. And now the time was finally here.

As I wound my way around the compact rows of seats taking up virtually every bit of space in the big hall, Virginia, Floyd’s widow, came up to greet me and made sure I had a program. She handed me the last one left.

I found a seat on the aisle on the right side of the room, and had a pretty good view of the proceedings. There was a long row of chairs to my right, where most of the family sat with their various instruments, waiting their turns to play a piece in tribute to their father, father-in-law, grandfather and uncle.

It was clear the family had put a lot of time, energy and love into this service, which was in two parts—the solemn, sacred service of memorial, and a lighter, more joyful celebration of life.

The first part was a beautiful service. Rev. Jennie Churchman spoke eloquently of a life well-lived through family stories sent to her by Virginia, their children and grandchildren. Son-in-law Mark Phillips read several scriptures and readings, sharing bits of Floyd’s story as he went.
Then there was the music. Exquisite is the first word that comes to mind, followed by haunting, gorgeous, and poignant. The whole crowd sat mesmerized by the traditional sacred tunes, played so lovingly by the Sherry Family Band. It was as if they were giving Floyd and Virginia a personal concert for their ears only, and we were but mere eavesdroppers.

Because Floyd had let it be known that he always wanted a New Orleans style funeral, the second part was more upbeat, even fun. The Sherrys were joined by Bill Anderson, Tony Corpus and Randy Crump, who added drums, trombone and an oboe, if I’m not mistaken, to the mix of brass instruments, violins and piano. I noticed a few other instruments too, played by a niece, a daughter-in law and a granddaughter-in-law—a flute or two, an accordion, and maybe some others.

They began with a processional of “Just a Closer Walk with Thee.” The musical group walked down the center aisle wearing the Sherry Family Band uniforms of black T-shirts and slacks, some of them wearing hats, others carrying umbrellas. They began by playing slowly and solemnly. Then they broke out in a raucous, joyous, and boisterous version of the song. We all felt the solemn atmosphere melt away to one in which laughter was not only OK, but expected, sat back in our chairs to enjoy the concert.

Toward the end of Rev. Jennie’s eulogy, she shared a story about the

Sherry Family Band, which played at every family gathering and vacation they could. It was the last ‘concert’ they had together, and they had played into the night. Exhausted, some of the younger folks wanted to call it quits for the night. Floyd said, “We can’t quit now, we haven’t played “When the Saints Go Marching In!”

“That’s OK,” said one of them, “There’s always next time.” But the next time never came.

So, as you might have guessed, “When the Saints Go Marching In” was the recessional. They played and sang, we sang along, and, donning
their hats and picking up their umbrellas, they marched out still playing it to thunderous applause.

I imagine Floyd was playing and singing and applauding the loudest. Good-bye, Floyd, see you on the other side.

The Cats I have Known

I’ve always been a cat person. I like dogs, well enough, but I like the independence of a cat—its playfulness, its curiosity, the way a cat purrs when contented. I find them vastly entertaining.

My first kitten was Tinkerbelle. He was a boy, but I didn’t know that at the time. After all, I was only 3 or 4 years old. My dad brought him home—a tiny, wrinkled, sad looking kitten that he found wandering around by a creek we used to visit. My mom gave him away after an unfortunate accident involving a little red wagon and the skittish kitten’s neck.

A few years later, when we moved out to the country, we had a series of indoor-outdoor cats—Max, Ichabod, Sam—all of them strays. Then there was Boris, named for Boris Karloff. He was a black cat, part Siamese, and had a reputation for being ferocious.

When we first got him, Boris went with us on one of our summer camping trips. We thought he was too little to leave at home. It turns out, he was efficient at catching his own food. We were absolutely horrified when he caught his first chipmunk and started chewing away on its neck.

We pleaded with Dad to “do something—he’s killing that defenseless little chipmunk!” Dad just shrugged and said, “What did you expect him to do—he’s a cat!” He still chuckles when he recalls the memory.

Boris had graduated to bringing home rabbits as big as he was before long. He’d bang against the back door and stand there with the rabbit’s neck in his teeth. When we refused to let him in, he’d drop the rabbit long enough to meow indignantly, as if to say, “What? I brought it for you! Don’t you want it?”

I’ve had four cats in my adult life, all indoor cats, necessitated by my living in apartments, and all strays I adopted in Eureka. There’s a strong network of dog and cat lovers in this community who work hard to find homes for stray animals, most of them on a voluntary basis.

I adopted Chip when I lived here in the 90’s. He’d been abandoned by a family that left him to fend for himself outside. A woman had taken him in, along with many other cats who needed homes. He was beautiful and affectionate, with gorgeous blue eyes. His fur was the color of cream with a butterscotch overlay. I named him Butterscotch Chip, but called him Chip for short because he was a he (I had learned from my earlier error of giving a boy cat a girl’s name.)

I took him with me when I moved to St. Louis. He settled in nicely in my apartment, but I had to give him up when I moved to a place that didn’t allow pets.

More than a decade would pass before I adopted another cat. The places I lived in Washington, DC and Bethany Beach, Delaware weren’t conducive to raising cats. Once I settled again in Eureka, and learned I could have a cat where I live, I began putting the word out in the local cat-fostering network that I was looking for a compatible feline roommate.

I met Juju, the Wonder Cat, in the apartment management office. They had found her wandering in our parking lot, and were anxious to find a home for her. I took one look at her—the tiny kitten with black and white fur and big, bright green eyes—and took her to my apartment. We’ve been roommates ever since.

I named her for something a group of St. Louis women friends and I often say to each other—“sending good juju!” which means positive energy. She’s aptly named, always playful and entertaining. She’s affectionate with me but skittish around other people.

A few months ago, I started looking for a little sister for Juju. I put the word out again through the foster cat mom grapevine. I got in touch with a foster mom for three tiny kittens from the same litter. I was immediately drawn to a willowy little thing with long, scraggly hair the color of honey. I named her Willow.

She was the tiniest kitten I had seen since Tinkerbelle, decades ago. Juju took one look at her and started hissing and batting at her. But Willow, unfazed, just stared back.

Willow was with me only a few days before she became listless and died in my arms. It would be a few months before I was ready to try again at adopting a sister for Juju.

Before I could even put the word out, a friend told me of a kitten that needed a new home. She was an older kitten, not quite a year old, whose caretakers were moving south for the winter and would either have to let her live outside and brave the elements, or take her to a no-kill shelter.

From the moment I met Mattie, the scrawny grey and black tabby with puffs of white under her chin and on three of her paws, I was in love. Similar in temperament to Juju, she’s bolder and more curious. I gave her the formal name of Matilda, the Marvelous, and welcomed her to the family.

Juju and Mattie get along like a lot of sisters I know—fighting one minute, showing affection the next. Each has claimed her own chair in my living room, but sometimes I find them curled up together on one chair or the other.

I enjoy my feline roommates—my family. They bring me joy and keep me entertained with their antics. Sometimes, I’m exasperated or annoyed with them, but isn’t that like all families? Besides, most often, my annoyance turns into a chuckle, a sigh and a shake of the head at the things Juju the Wonder Cat and Matilda the Marvelous come up with to entertain themselves...and me.

*Origianally published as a "Frankly Speaking" column in the Woodford County Journal April 12, 2012.

Mattie Haiku and Juju, too!

Pouncing on her prey,

A fierce, swift Mattie conquers
Evil bottle cap.

Mattie and Juju,
Limbs, tails and chins intertwined,
Dosing in the sun.

Skidding to a halt,
Matilda the Marvelous
Turns and skitters back.

With exuberance,
Mattie fearlessly attacks.
One more chair subdued.

Mose in water glass,
Mattie laps it up quickly,
‘Til I shoo her off.

Mattie tilts her head
Showing me her striped belly,
Purring, ‘pet me, please.’

Eyeing her target,
Mattie bats at Juju’s nose.
The tussle begins.

Personal Haiku

How ‘bout acceptance?
Accepting you as you are?
What would that feel like?

I’m a survivor,
Thriving in the midst of pain,
Finding joy in life.

Communion table:
Where we become one in Christ
All around the world.

Moments of silence,
Far from the world of chaos,
Internal retreat.

A force of beauty
Pierces ugly, angry veils
Covering her life

Ah, self-acceptance!
Loving yourself warts and all—
The key to progress.

It takes the community

A proverb from the Nigerian Igbo culture states, “It takes the community to raise a child.” Dan McCoy’s upbringing and rise to success in his chosen vocation as a writer for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart is evidence of that truism.

From his birth, Dan was surrounded by a community of love and support. His family, his church, his teachers and coaches, and his friends combined to form his community. He went on to attend college in Indiana, forming a similar community there. And now, he’s developed a community of support in New York.

Each of us learns to function within a community, although not all of them are as healthy or as nurturing as Dan’s. Some of us succeed despite our dysfunctional upbringing. Others never seem to take advantage of the opportunities they’re given, despite having a supportive community. Dan succeeded, in large part, because of his community. But his suvvess is also due to his tenacity—he refused to give up when hit with roadblocks; he kept showing up.

I’ve known Dan most of his life, and I count myself as a small part of his community. I babysat him when he was a child, and I was in college, taking classes from his dad. When he was in high school, I was among his church youth group sponsors and in the audience as he performed in musicals. I hired him for one of his first paying jobs—as editorial cartoonist at the Woodford County Journal. I’ve always been a fan.

And as I talked to various people for the story featured in this week’s Journal, I heard from more people in his community. Person after person said they had always seen his talents at writing and drawing, his ability to make people laugh, and a spark that drove Dan to face challenges head on.

As Dan’s mother, Ginny, recalls, “Dan was like every child in that he wasn't perfect, but he was a joy. He started out with two big brothers who read to him and talked to him constantly, so it was inevitable that he turned out to be highly verbal.”

Big brothers, Robert, 13 years older, and John, 10 years older, started reading to Dan literally from his birth. Childhood trips were usually visits to grandparents in Indiana or vacations in Michigan for fishing and communing with nature.

From a very young age, Dan began expressing himself through his art. It was how he would pass the time in church, on long car rides and at grown up meetings his parents attended.

“He drew comics all the time and developed full length illustrated stories,” says Ginny. “Often the people sitting behind us at church would want to see the comic after the service was over.”

Dan had a built-in audience who paid attention to his talents and achievements—a ready-made fan club cheering him on. He noted in his interview that Eureka is a good place to be raised—a warm, safe environment in which to learn, grow and thrive.

Eureka does do a good job of nurturing its young. We give them opportunities to shine on stage, on the athletic field, in the classroom and many more arenas. Many of our young people thrive in such an environment.

But we lose some kids, too. They fall through the cracks we inadvertently make when we don’t pay attention to a child’s talents and energies. The flip side of a strong, loving and encouraging community can be one that is cold, unforgiving and judging.

A person who grows up on these streets not only has to keep up their reputation, achieve their own goals, and overcome the obstacles to ‘make something of themselves,’ she must also live up to—or live down—her parents’ reputations, achieve her grandparents goals, and overcome obstacles created long before her birth.

We as a community need to work on this tendency to remember each mistake made and hold future generations accountable for them. We need to treat each new child as the uniquely made individual they are and give them chance after chance after chance to get it right…and love them anyway if they never do.

But I digress. We’re not talking here about when we fail to nurture a child into the world with all our love and encouragement journeying with him. We are here to celebrate yet another success! Dan has taken on the world—at least the world of comedy writing—and hit it big!

Still humble by nature, Dan expressed his lingering self-doubt as we ended the interview and were saying goodbye. He looked at me and said, “I hope (the people of Eureka) don’t think I’m stomping all over their values.” I don’t recall just what I said then, but I don’t think my words were very reassuring.

It was only later, as I was writing the story, that I thought of an appropriate answer to his concern. Those who know Dan well won’t think he’s left behind all he’s learned from having grown up here. Quite the opposite—he’s one among many ambassadors from Eureka Ill, spreading the spirit of community across the country and to other parts of the world.

This post first appeared  as  a Frankly Speaking column in the Woodford County Jorunal, January 26, 2012.

Easter Prayer 2005

National City Christian Church Rev. Arlene Franks O God of life, God of love and laughter…we, your Easter people greet you thi...