Drawing courtesy of my awesome friend Julia Durgee
Those Bruises That Will Heal? Well, they did heal. About 6 weeks after the December surgery, for the first time in 6 years, I felt healthy-ish. WHOA!!!!!!!!!!!!! The -ish b/c I have temporary “plumbing” that is not at all normal. But I was no longer sick. No longer on steroids or medications. In those ways, I was the Alicia pre-2004, a “me” I barely remember. I sleep through the night. I sleep more than 4 hours a night. I wake up in the morning and can walk right out the door. I can drink coffee on the go. I can eat breakfast in the car. I can go to a restaurant or a park or a mall or someone’s house and not have to investigate the bathroom situation, a process that involved figuring out: how many there are, how many feet away, instantly doing the math of people-to-bathroom ratio, all the while keeping my fingers crossed that I wouldn’t have to use the adult diaper I had on. That was my life and suddenly it wasn’t. All those milestones listed above were so earth-shattering to me, but I experienced their meaningfulness quietly, for they probably mean nothing to the average person. Eating in the car or leaving your house before 11am? Big deal, Alicia! But really, big deal, Alicia.
It has been liberating to say the least. When I got down to no naps a day, was no longer in surgery pain and had this new life, I took a trip to Philadelphia to work on the photo shoot for our next book, Microcrafts. I went to NYC and met up with various friends by scheduling meals out. I came back to Pittsburgh and lined up volunteer positions in hospitals because over the last year I developed an interest in going back to school for nursing. I want to see what it’s like to be on the other side, the one not in the hospital bed. And then I started looking for jobs…
I knew my year would be chopped up, just like I would be, chunks of time spent either in the hospital or recovering, so it was no use looking for a normal full-time job. Such a thing isn’t exactly my cup of tea anyway. (See various resumes, available upon request ) My dad told me I had a “free pass” this year, that I didn’t have to do anything work-wise, to which I responded, “But I don’t want a free pass.” It would be the first time, in 5+ years that I could actually commit to a job where I had to be there at a certain time, where I had to be *reliable* again. I was itching to be that Alicia again.
Of course, I wanted to get back into teaching or childcare, “professions” I had to devastatingly leave behind after I got sick. I interviewed and took a job as a nanny for an adorable and curious 2-year-old adopted from Nepal, who doesn’t yet talk but understands A LOT. Thirty to forty hours a week for 7 weeks in March and April, 5 minutes from where I lived. I was gratefully back in the land of libraries, playgrounds, changing diapers, holding small hands while crossing streets, tending to booboos and executing sleep-training, aka Alicia Bedtime Bootcamp.
Two-and-a-half months after surgery, I could bounce a 2-year old on my stomach and every time this little one giggly sat on my stomach waiting for that bouncing, I thought, Good God, the steps it took to get here, the years, to be able to do this. Good God. During this time I was also editing Microcrafts and crocheting up a storm…. In May, I traveled with the little one and her mom to South Carolina, where mom directed an opera as part of Spoleto and we all lived for a month. A whole new world of libraries, playgrounds and streets to cross, etc.
For those couple of months, where this one little kid took up so many hours of every day, I was on cloud nine, no matter how exhausting or trying. I was doing exactly what I wanted to be doing. And as I got emails about magazine contributions and writing this or that or making this or that, I shut off my laptop and walked out the door, pushing a stroller and looking forward. Trying to care about this other “career,” but not really caring at all. This is nothing new; I can’t even count the things that I (foolishly?) said no to so that I had more time to bike, go out with friends, take road trips, lay in the grass. On the last day in South Carolina, walking around our waterfront neighborhood at sunset, I said to the little one, “I’m gonna miss holding this little hand in mine” and she kissed our holding hands.
I find myself at a loss for words when trying to describe what these months of taking care of this little person meant. Well, they meant…everything. I felt the same speechlessness when I would visit kids I nannied for years after I had to leave them, deep down sort of knowing that what I mean to say but can’t is, “You are making me want to live.”
I returned to Pittsburgh in June after a Nashville detour and almost immediately started teaching at the Mattress Factory, having created a class for 6-8 year-olds on upcycled art and issues of sustainability. Plastic bag fusing, t-shirt bags, newspaper flower pots, toilet paper roll spool knitting. This last one, spool knitting, was insanely popular with the kids. I couldn’t get them to stop! It’s poignant that it’s a toilet paper + yarn project, no? I fondly remember them asking me, “Can we skip snack so we can keep spool-knitting?” OMG! Too many conversations to recount here, so many hugs goodbye at the end of the class. It made my heart hurt, but in a good way.
During this interim, this stretch of months between surgeries, I pretty much did exactly what I wanted: teaching, childcare, creating, traveling. For years I tried to forget how much I loved having the kind of jobs, that no matter how sleep-deprived, over-caffeinated and sometimes underpaid I was, I was so happy to have. And I knew it at the time. There was no “I took it for granted.” I never did. I loved it even when I was falling over from exhaustion or feeling defeated by challenging kids. And I never imagined doing anything else…until I had to.
I have nonchalantly mentioned and thought about “retiring” from crocheting and all this crafty craziness because I now envision returning to what I once did or doing something entirely different. Closing this chapter of my life…because I can. (And I’m collecting responses to this declaration because man is everyone putting their two cents in!) But when I jokingly said, without any context, to the kids in my museum class that I was thinking of retiring from crocheting, they all said, “Noooooo” and “But you bring such joy to the world…and ideas!” It was cute and heartfelt, especially as they only know a small sliver about what I do/make after I brought in a bag of my crocheted things for them to see. They “get it” though, because they are kids.
I am less than 40 sales away from 2,000 on Etsy, which is absolutely crazy! I just received the advanced copy of Microcrafts and I have multiple book contributions in the works, which I will link to in due time! It’s all so overwhelming and amazing, and feels so far off from the day I sat in bed, sick sick sick so many years ago, with an Intro to Crochet book, a crochet hook, a ball of yarn, and the angry said-out-loud words, “If I’m gonna be twiddling my thumbs indefinitely, I’d better as hell have something to show for it.” Looking back, well, I think I have a little something to show for it.
Amidst all this awesome-ness, I am having to gear up for surgery #2, which will be “as bad as or worse than the 1st,” in the words of my surgeon. Lovely, but I do appreciate the honesty. This one is longer in duration and involves a slightly larger cut in the same place, but nothing can be done laparoscopically. There is actual “prep” for it that is identical to any colonoscopy prep, which means a day of starving, downing a nauseating gallon of laxative solution and getting “cleaned out.” And in my case, there will be a lot of vomiting because I have never been able to do colonoscopy prep without throwing up a ton. The length of hospital stay is about the same (a week) and even though the actual surgery is different from the first, the process of healing (many weeks) and the amount of pain (a lot) is also pretty much the same. Fingers crossed I heal a little faster because I am no longer on steroids! Well, and I’m not half-dead this time around.
My surgeon said the 2nd surgery is harder to face psychologically because you’ve had a stretch of “health.” The 1st surgery? You just want it all to end, whether that means embarking on a road to getting better or getting buried in the ground. I feel that even more now, that last year I was so done to the point of not really caring what happened, an odd calmness because I was tired from so many years of fighting a losing battle. Next week will stand in such sharp contrast to this week, and I’m not going to lie, I’m having trouble facing it. But as usual, I am reading my Nietzsche, Rollo May, Tolstoy and Camus to get through it because my coping mechanism is reading, my medication of choice hardcore philosophy.
I don’t feel so apathetic anymore. I think now I actually feel a bit more angry, having had that taste of what my life used to be like, a heart that was so full and a mind that was so stimulated, because of what I did professionally. And because I know I’m not going to have to bear it forever, I’m now feeling the full weight of the burden that was this disease, the massive amount of sadness, so much of which got internalized and went unexpressed.
During last year’s late summer hospitalization, I tried to be so conscious of having the “right” perspective, a positive attitude: when I’d walk down the hall, my IV pole beside me, I’d stare out the floor-to-ceiling window and force myself to think, “I’m looking forward to being out there” instead of “Goddamnit I’m so mad I’m not out there.” But I felt both. Some days, after taking care of the little one or teaching these kids, I had to remind myself to think “Wow I’m so happy to be doing this again” instead of “God I’m so mad I couldn’t do this for so long.” But again, I felt both.
Over time I have realized that feeling both ends of the emotions spectrum is okay, that it’s inevitable. That this “positive attitude” cannot emerge without me privately going through a lot of suffering and sadness and even having a negative attitude. It is not possible to be flat out “happy” about any of this. I’m not sure how else to articulate it than the self-helpish sounding, “feel the feelings.” Feel them, embrace them, try to understand them, work through them, and move on. There is a Chinese proverb that reads, “You cannot prevent the birds of sadness from passing over your head, but you can prevent their making a nest in your hair.” Amen.