Saturday, March 21, 2015

Saturday Musings, 21 March 2015

Good morning,

Morning's darkness tricked me into thinking that I had not slept.  A glance at the clock revealed the truth:  Seven straight hours of slumber, despite two glasses of wine and a salty dinner.  Call me crazy but a third night of sleep in three months, albeit not sequential, seems like a trend.  I've not had three nights of sleep in as many decades, so I'm going to take this as a sign that I should drink more wine or that the new medicine might be working.

Dark chicory coffee and a brief stretch push my brain to something near functional.  The house still nestles behind closed shades.  The dog sleeps though one eye opens when I pass her bed.  NPR rattles on the radio but not loudly enough for me to follow the stories.  It's Saturday; I do not have to work, though work's worries linger.  The slight ring of tinnitus dances in my brain.  I pay it no mind:  Like my sleeplessness, the ringing in my ears has begun to diminish.  I can tolerate its current level.

The new drug which I'm taking either works or is the world's most successful placebo, and I do not care which truth you pick.  Though I'll probably never walk right, and I still have raging neurological pain, and my cardiac spasms have not abated; nonetheless, I count three nights of more than two hours' sleep at a time.  Three nights.  That might not astound most; but for me, the fact that I typically don't sleep more than two hours in a row and lie awake for hours flavors every waking moment.  Anyone with insomnia understands the staggering contemplation of seven straight hours of sleep.

I am reminded, as I sip my coffee, of a rueful statement that I made yesterday.  I wasn't supposed to live this long, I groaned.  Really:  I wasn't.

And so it is.

On Valentine's Day in 1998, I lay in a bed at St. Luke's Hospital and cast my eyes out a dirty window, the pale winter light falling on me so weakly that my tired eyes did not flinch.  An aide stood by my side with a tray of flavorless food.  I shook my head but she pulled the table towards me and clattered the dishes, shaking her head, lifting lids, letting the food's odors waft into the room.  I closed my eyes.  You weigh next to nothing, the woman admonished.  I glanced at her face and let my eyes flutter shut again.  I knew how much I weighed; I knew what nothing felt like; I knew that how I felt was next to nothing.  I can't breathe, I told her, and she hit the panic button.

A ruffle of activity later, I had a mask pressed to my face with oxygen flowing.  The doctor had been called.  My pulse-oxygen read normal but my respiration read dying.  Nobody understood.  I heard murmured talk of the Psychiatric Unit.  I turned my head back to the window and thought about my six-year-old son.

Late in the afternoon, another aide pushed the door open carrying a staggeringly tall vase of roses.  She set the heavy glass down where the uneaten food had once rested and pulled the card out from its little plastic stick.  I studied the typed words.  Two dozen red roses and a note proclaiming affection from someone whom I barely knew.  I cast the card down beside a little shower of petals that had fallen from the bouquet.

The doctors came then, pushing aside the rolling bedside table with its flowers and the discarded love note.  They re-took all the vital signs that the aides and the nurses had taken during the frenzied activity following my pronouncement.  They read the charts; they looked at each other; they pulled on the wires that monitored my weakly beating heart.  You're not getting better, one observed.  We think your body is just wearing out.  At the rate you are going, you might live six more months, said another.  We just think your body has taken all it can take.  Your lungs are just tired.

I pressed the button to elevate my head.  The men jumped back as I rose toward them.  I pushed the clumps of uncombed hair back away from my face.  Dying? I snapped at them.  Dying?  You think I'm dying?  Wearing out?  That's your diagnosis?  I felt hysteria rise in my throat, the same throat which had been sore for five years without any of the white-coated wonders finding a solution.  Well I'm sorry but I'm the single mother of a six-year-old boy who has nobody  but me to take care of him.  I stopped, chest heaving, tears rising in my eyes.  I'm afraid I can't die, not yet.  I will not die!  So just go back and run some more tests.  Or get another opinion.  But. I. Will. Not. Die.

They filed out as quietly as they had entered.  Night descended on my room.  A nurse came and turned on the soft light above my bed.  She brought me fresh water and  a bowl of soup.  I looked at the pale yellow of the simmering broth.  I thought about my son.  With the nurse standing by, silent, waiting, I lifted the spoon and skimmed the soup, sipping, letting its warmth settle in my frail chest.

A year or so would pass before a knock-down drag-out fight between two doctors would result in a shake-up on my medical team.  When the dust settled my condition began to improve. Joseph Brewer, the first Infectious Disease Wizard to take charge of my condition, diagnosed my decline as hypercoagulability caused by reactivation of the virus which had originally caused my medical condition, back in the 1950s when doctors diagnosed all childhood illnesses as bacterial.  But the odyssey that has led me to the farthest western shores of these United States and the Infectious Disease Clinic at Stanford Medical Center began on that Valentine's Day, when a pulmonologist stood in all his white-clad arrogance and told me that I had six months to live.  And while I rejected his prognosis, I admit, now, here, that I have lived my days since then as though I knew their number and had no need for permanency.

On March 04th of this year, my second Infectious Disease Wizard told me that if he had his way, I would live to be 100.  I once promised my son that I would live to be 103, I told him.  His face beamed.  Better still, he crowed in his delightful Colombian accent.  103!  And what a quality life it shall be, from here on out! he added.  If I have my way!

After last night, with seven straight hours of sleep and feeling (almost) rested, I might just be able to believe him.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

P.S.  This story might seem a little self-absorbed.  But I share it for two reasons. 

 First, because many people who read these Musings have known of my many medical issues over the last decade and a half, and deserve an update as inadequate thanks for their kindnesses to me over the years.  

But, second, I share this because so many people, myself included, have ailments which plague them and doctors that misdiagnose them.  A dozen doctors, maybe more, have told me over the years that "nobody can have the symptoms you describe, they just don't make sense."  Of course not -- to the closed mind.  If you, or someone you love, has ever been told that doctors can't help you, keep asking.  Somebody, somewhere, will have an answer.  The doctor who gave me six months to live called Dr. Brewer a "quack" to his face, over my prone body during one of my hospital admissions.  I fired that doctor and gave myself to Dr. Brewer's care and here I am, still alive. 

 Ironically, that doctor himself died fairly young, a year later.  I take no pleasure from his death nor the painful mourning that his wife and children must have felt.  But I am alive, because Dr. Brewer intervened and tried something novel that the other doctors dismissed as quackery.  And now, at this juncture in my life, I've given myself to the ministrations of another doctor willing to take a chance on me by giving me a drug recently approved for my virus in part because of clinical trials at Stanford.  So never give up; never surrender; and don't let the naysayers rain on your parade.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Saturday Musings, 14 March 2015

Good morning,

Sleep crashed me against the night's rocky shores until close to three this morning, and two hours later the forgotten alarm jarred me back to consciousness.  Were I inclined to blame someone for last night's difficulties, I would place the yoke on my own shoulders.  My friend Brenda took me to dinner last evening.  I ordered wine before she arrived, a rich Pinot Noir which she mirrored in her choice.  I know better.  Red wine cramps spastic muscles and it did no less to me last evening.  Coupled with the jangled nerves from the Chocolate Gateau which I ordered and Brenda kindly shared with me (to spare me the full burden of its after-effects, no doubt), the cramping intensified and I fell asleep late and exhausted.  Light streamed in my window when I awakened, three hours after the radio blared out news from KCUR to interrupt my first thirty minutes of fitful sleep.  I glanced at the clock:  7:45 a.m.  And suddenly, a memory burst forth from the murky depths of my brain, Walter Mitty style.

It happened in 1973.  I was working as a ward secretary at St. Vincent's Psychiatric Hospital.  I had been co-opted to serve as an ECT witness when a third was needed.    I followed the nurse Sister Kenneth Anne and the psychiatrist Dr. Craig to the inner corridor where the treatments took place.  I stared at the back of Dr. Craig's head, with its thinning red hair and growing bald spot. In his rumpled, stained green suit and brown, worn shoes, he looked like Willy Loman, about to take another road trip, looking for sales, just before the deadly turn in the road.

Sister Kenneth Anne stood taller than Dr. Craig by most of the short white veil descending from the crown of her own head, the veil which covered smoothly combed brown hair.  She squared her shoulders when she walked.  Her narrow back kept straight but easy; the full skirt of her working habit swayed slightly against her stockinged calves, a few inches about her impeccably white duty shoes.  From the rear, I admired the way she walked behind Dr. Craig but at her careful pace, not deferential, not subservient, just second.  In my rumpled blue polyester clerk's uniform, I felt that I belonged in Dr. Craig's class -- disheveled, careless, inferior to Sister Kenneth Anne's crisp composure.

The patient had been wheeled to the inner room by the time we arrived.  A male aide stood beside her wheelchair, gazing blankly over her trembling, greying head.  She wore an alarmed look, casting her eyes about the windowless locked room in the back corridor, the corridor which itself had been secured by Sister Kenneth Anne from the inside after we left 3 South's own barred passageway.  She and the aide wore bundles of keys:  His on a black leather  belt which he wore low on his dark blue trousers, hers on a hook hanging from the cloth band spanning the waist of her habit.  Dr. Craig and I shared the patient's helplessness: None of us had keys.  In case of a fire or a sudden need for daylight or air, we would be reliant on our companions' good graces.

Mark the time, Sister Kenneth Anne told me.  I glanced at the clock.  7:45 a.m.  I made a careful note in the chart, a sheaf of printed pages held between two metal plates designed to hang in a chart carrel.  Dr. Craig said, The patient seems docile and receptive to treatment, and I dutifully wrote his words beside the time.  The aide and Sister Kenneth Anne lifted the patient from her wheelchair and a little whimper escaped her lips.  I looked at Sister Kenneth Anne; she shook her head just sightly, enough for me to understand that I should not record the patient's utterance.  Then she laid the patient's head on a clean pillow and I saw the woman's eyes close and her mouth begin to move.  I recognized the whispered words:  Hail Mary Full of Grace, the Lord is with thee.  Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.

Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of hour death.  Amen.  I finished the prayer in my head for the woman had fallen into a kind of frightened stupor, eyes open, face rigid, fear stamped on her doughy features.  Her body shrank from the aide's ministrations as he placed the electrodes on the exposed skin of her forehead and on the back of her neck.  Sister Kenneth Anne placed a rubber grip in the woman's mouth and coaxed the jaw to tighten.  Dr. Craig fiddled with some controls and Sister Kenneth Anne said, again, Mark the time.  8:00 a.m.  Dr. Craig flipped a switch and the woman's body went stiff and began to shake.  I looked away.  A second time; a third.  The woman's body lay still.  Sister Kenneth Anne took the bit from her mouth and gently wiped away a bit of spittle.

Mark the time, Sister Kenneth Anne admonished me again.  8:15 a.m.  Dr. Craig turned away from the limp figure on the bed and pushed past me, to the hallway, where he lit a cigarette.  I clutched the chart against my chest and waited while the aide hoisted the motionless body back into the wheelchair.  Sister Kenneth Anne tidied the room.  Sister Kenneth Anne walked out into the hallway and led the procession back to the locked door which divided the darkness of the treatment area from the jarring Fluorescent light of 3 South, the acute ward where Sister Kenneth Anne held reign.  Dr. Craig fell heavily into the chair at the chart carrel and grabbed the chart from my hand, scribbling a few lines.  He considered what he had written, then looked at the head nurse who stood placidly above him.  We've given her 48 treatments, he said lazily.  Is her husband still complaining about her?  Sister Kenneth Anne shrugged.  She did not speak.  Dr. Craig considered for a moment, then wrote something else and heaved himself back to his feet.

Let's give her a few more, he said casually, and then, winking at me, he left the nurse's station.

Sister Kenneth Anne watched him go without uttering even a syllable.  The Dutch door clicked behind him and we heard him cackling to one of the aides working the floor.  Minutes later, the clang of the outer door at the far end of the wing signaled his departure and Sister Kenneth Anne finally moved.  She lifted the small aluminum ashtray from the desk on which he had left it, cigarette butts stubbed into ashes, the whole mess spilling onto the desk's otherwise pristine surface.  She dumped the entire ashtray into the trash can, then used her own handkerchief to whisk away the remaining ashes.

That man is a pig, she said.  Then she went into the little room where the nurses kept their personal belongings, and I sat back down at my station.  Out beyond the window which separated us from the rest of the ward, I could see our morning's patient, slumped, still unmoving, silent, parked in her wheelchair outside of her room.  The rest of the occupants of 3 South skirted around her, unspeaking, unseeing, as they headed to the dining room for breakfast.

As therapy for emotional ills goes, red wine and flourless chocolate cake might well be less permanent than electroshock treatment. But with Brenda's company, and the lovely salmon that I let myself eat at Avenues Bistro last evening, the treats sustained me.  Their aftermath passes with the dawn; and now I drink good, strong coffee.  I think of that woman, whose name eludes me.  I wonder where they all are:  The patient; and the boorish Dr. Craig; and Sister Kenneth Anne, whose placid voice and smooth untroubled brow still linger in my mind, though it was all long ago, and far away, in a building which still stands but has now been converted to affordable housing.  The events in its back corridors must be long forgotten by all but us few who witnessed them; and even we will soon ourselves sink unremembered into the recesses of someone else's mind.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

St. Vincent's Psychiatric Hospital in Normandy, Missouri;
in North St. Louis County, near Jennings, the town of my childhood.
Here is a link to the National Historic Registry Nomination Form
for St. Vincent's Psychiatric Hospital:

For anyone who doesn't recognize the Willy Loman reference:

And, finally, because credit must be given where credit is due:

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Saturday Musings, 7 March 2015

Good morning,

I have returned from my adventures in California.  The week's accumulation of excitement kept my brain dancing far into the night, with the nerves in my legs tapping the time.  Kansas City seems flat and tame after the ocean, after San Francisco, after the shops of Palo Alto and Los Altos.  I listen to the roar of the furnace and shake my head.  It hardly seems like home.

As I flew over the lower Rockies yesterday, memories of other trips flooded through me.  Escape to the East Coast after college graduation; a train trip to Washington during high school; the drive to Santa Fe at the end of a summer of sorrow between my second and third year of law school.  I have often found myself going somewhere, looking for something; anonymity, perhaps -- four strange walls within which to re-invent myself.  I thought about the fatality accident which I saw on the road west of San Jose, and another memory rose to haunt me.

The last week of October 1982, I flew to Montana to rekindle a lost love.  My two-stage route landed me first in Butte, where I waited for a Big Sky puddle-hopper to take me to Helena.

A man wearing a grey leather jacket gestured to me from an open door.  Helena? At first, I thought he had mistaken me for someone and I shook my head.  The lady at the counter said, Yeah, she's going, and they both stared at me, assessing the safety of letting me on a small plane.  I shrugged and shouldered my tote next to my pocketbook and walked over towards the doorway.

The man and I boarded the little plane together.  He turned left to take his place in the co-pilot's seat and I turned right, surveying the eight empty seats.  I heard a voice behind  me and realized that another passenger had come into the plane, a nondescript man wearing beige clothing.  We sat and watched as the pilot came aboard and a cabin crew member.  Everybody buckled themselves into their seats and the engines started.  I stared out the window at the ground, falling away.

We climbed over the mountains and slipped down again in the Helena airport before I could form my own safety worries.  David waited in the otherwise empty building, as the five of us strolled across the blacktop.  We gazed at each other, uncertain, unwilling to let the moment own itself.  Finally I embraced him and felt the hasty return of my offering in the tightening of his arms.

We spent a couple of days exploring Helena, reminding ourselves of our common trend of thought, laughing.  Then he decided we should go to Glacier Park for Halloween, and we packed as much food as we could fit into his small cooler.  He stashed his insulin syringes and vials of medicine in the glovebox.  We headed for the hills.

Halfway up the first tier of mountains above Helena, I saw a row of crosses on a pole beside the row. I had never seen anything like that.  Mystified, I asked what they were.  It marks the spot of a fatal accident, David explained.  The number of crosses is the number of deaths.  I twisted in my seat to stare at the shrine, receding in our wake as we continued forward.  A half-mile later, we passed a caution sign instruction us to slow to 35.  DANGEROUS CURVE.  David laughed and said, Should we believe them? just as we drew alongside a newly planted metal spike with seven crosses, a bouquet of fresh flowers not yet wilted lying at its base.

David stopped on the shoulder and I threw the door outward, unbuckling, sliding from my seat.  I struggled across the rocks of the highway's edge and stopped at the metal figure with its sad display of tiny crosses.  I ran one finger along the two crosses at the top, tracing their contours, following the metal bar to the five arranged below them.  Do you think it was a family, I whispered to David, who stood at my elbow.  His arm slid around my waist, unhesitatingly, holding me, not holding back.  We stood by the side of the road as cars flew by, drivers honking, staring.  The cold Montana wind surrounded us.

We reached Glacier Park by mid-day,   As we approached from the south, we could see into Canada, where a snowstorm danced on the frigid afternoon air.  An hour later, I stood on the edge of St. Mary's Lake trying to discern the outline of the glacier in the murky grey while David gave himself some insulin in the front seat of the car.  I felt small.  I would never feel anything but small, never, not then, not still, as the bleak air of winter settled in the park around me and David gazed on me from inside his car.

I flew back from California over the lower Rockies yesterday.  They lie tame and low, east of Phoenix, a long expanse of friendly hills.  I watched them from a window seat in a crowded Southwest Airlines plane.  The rows of people around me  huddled in jackets with ear phones, iPads, and little bags of peanuts.  I kept my eyes on the mountains until they disappeared in the shadow of the setting sun.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Saturday Musings, 28 February 2015

Good morning,

Another February limps to a close, with a steely blue rising high above my house.  Snow threatens my plans for the day, but offers incentive for me to look forward to my expensive little mini-vacation in California, three days flanking a duo of appointments with the wizardly doctors at Stanford.  Yesterday, I calculated what this little trip costs and gulped as I saw my budget cushion vanish.  But on the third hand, it's oh, so nice to be leaving Missouri as winter finally takes hold.

An exchange of Facebook posts with my friend David Sotkowitz in Boston brings to mind the winter of 1977, when I moved to Massachusetts.  I spent my first nights on David's floor on a make-shift pallet, watching snow fall past the window, cursing my impulsive departure from St. Louis, home, and safety.  I would close my eyes and ask myself, was it really so bad, that you had to come to this frozen place because you had no other options?  I had no answer except that it had seemed that bad, that desolate, that hopeless.

With a referral letter to the offices of Boston's branch of Adia Task Force, I swathed myself in layer upon layer of wool and rode the T downtown to interview, the letter and a few copies of my sad resume shoved in my pocketbook.  Adia had bought "Task Force" in an effort to compete with Kelly Girls, merging Adia's medical staffing with the clerical divisions of Task Force.  They sent me out on a few jobs:  To Cambridge, to work at IBM -- which lasted right up until I used the word "Xerox" to reference making a copy; to a few small offices, where my Bohemian style seemed to perplex the bosses; and finally, to their own front desk, where I became their receptionist for the duration of my nine months in Massachusetts.

The trolley took me to Boston College, at which I could had access to the student services by virtue of my acceptance for graduate school in the fall.  I trolled the Roommates Wanted advertisements, using their phone to set appointments.  In that way, I found an apartment in Brighton, at 27 South Street, the third roommate with Long-Islander Marian Zagardo and Quincy-ite Melanie Bonfiglioli.  I moved into my borrowed life with only a half-filled suitcase, grateful for the bed in their back bedroom, for the one wooden chair and the shelf in the closet.  The square yellow suitcase had belonged to my Uncle John.  It became my nightstand.

I bought a metal rocker at a junk store and found a lamp at the drug store in Copley Square.  I carried the lamp out of the store, passing beneath the sign overhead which promised MILK BREAD FRIENDS GIFTS DRUGS ETERNAL LIFE.  Each day on my way downtown, I read that sign and wondered, could I really find friends there?  I'd settle for friends over eternal life.  I didn't do drugs, except the prescription kind, which I realized, early on, was what the sign meant.

I hung out with Marian and Melanie and their theatre friends.  We frequented a French restaurant where the gay waiters still caused a stir, which in our group meant the one guy who'd come out of the closet and the one guy still in the closet would flex their muscles and preen when our waiter came to check on us.  We didn't care about anyone's sexuality.  Except for me, everybody in the group just wanted to be seen; I wanted to be seen with them.

We never slept.  We partied all night and dragged ourselves to our day jobs.  My position at Adia Task Force required no thought, only a pleasant demeanor.  I had to answer the phone, Adia Task Force! and transfer the call to the sales rep who handled the caller's needs.  Staff called into the office to get assignments; companies called to get staff.  No variance.  Three reps; three categories of staff; and lunch at the back table with the bookkeeper and the office manager.  I could do the job hung over and usually did.

On Saturdays, I took the trolley lines to their ends and walked through neighborhoods where I knew no one.  I stared into windows and imagined myself at the glossy dining room tables.  I haunted Harvard Square and bought cosmetics at "i Natural".  I read books in muffin shops and sank into park benches and exhausted myself climbing subway stairs.  I had an affair with the guy who had not come out of the closet yet.  I convinced him that we'd still love him if he admitted to being gay.  He wept in my arms and told his parents the next day.  Or so he said.

I can't remember if I gained forty pounds or lost forty pounds. By September, I had done one or the other.  I felt myself falling.  Adia Task Force offered me a job as the night sales rep and I had a panic attack.  My boss spoke to me over the phone in the kindest of tones.  You're depressed, Corinne, she told me.  I think you need to go home.  I called my mother, sobbing incoherently.  She sent help.  I fled back to Saint Louis in my brother Kevin's car.  I brought back my Uncle John's suitcase, the lamp, the metal rocker, and a bag full of make-up that went bad before Christmas.  Having no preservatives, it could not endure the heat of  Indian Summer in the Midwest, far from "i Natural" where it had all been purchased.

In the quiet of my house here in Brookside, I glance over the paragraphs that I've just written and realize these Musings have no point.   My friend Vivian messaged me this morning:  You should be published! and I glibly replied, I am!  I have two blogs!  Yesterday my friend Sandy told me that she admires my ability to bare my soul, to share things that others suppress.  I look back on the seven years in which I've written these musings, the year in which I've had my other blog, and my lifetime of scribbling stories, bad poetry, and little essays in which I struggle to find a point or make one.  I think about those days in Boston; about my first marriage, which hardly seems real except that so much love still lingers on account of it; about the places that I've been,and the people that I've known; and the days which I've squandered looking for something -- gifts, drugs, friends, eternal life.

And then I pour another cup of coffee and think about hitting the delete key, but in the end, the story stands -- nine months reduced to a handful of paragraphs.  When I close my eyes, each day of that nine months comes flooding back to me: a mosaic of meetings, and loneliness, and giddy peals of laughter by drunken actors, and days riding the T, where no one speaks, and the lights flicker on and off as you enter each station and people silently alight.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Saturday, 21 February 2015

Good morning,

An article in the Star announces that the Great Mall of the Great Plains in Olathe will close this fall, presumably a victim of changing consumer habits, the Internet, or its own cumbersome structure, depending on the commentator.  I let the paper fall to the table and think about the only time I have been to the Mall, as far as I can recall.  And I smile.

It's 1998 or 1999. My son and his friends are seven or eight.  Dennis decides we need a bizarre pilgrimage.  Over breakfast we debate the options and for some reason, he chooses the Great Mall of the Great Plains.  I cast my eyes his way, pushing all the doubt I can muster into my gaze but he  is impervious.  Patrick, Chris and Maher dance around the dining room, barely able to suppress their glee.  Meanwhile, I clear the table and shake my head.  It's certain to be disastrous, I tell myself.  But I'm a good sport.

We load the boys in the van and Dennis transfers from his electric wheelchair to the driver's seat.  The backseat volume rises as the chatter escalates.  The attraction of the Mall has driven the three of them into a delirium.  I've stopped shaking my head and now I just feel amused.  We head south.

Three turns around the lot land us in a row of handicapped parking spaces.  Dennis approves a space close to the door and we dropped the lift.  The boys climb out, Patrick standing near the van's doors to help Dennis while Chris and Maher scramble to the sidewalk.  I'm at the rear of the little group as we enter the door with a dozen or so other shoppers.

The corridors loom head of us and it's immediately clear that my stamina will fail me before too long but I'm game to try.  Dennis, being motorized, can keep pace with the children but I lag behind the group.  We pass store after store, overwhelmed by the colors and sounds.  We find a coffee kiosk and get drinks for everyone; juice for the boys, a depth charge for Dennis, an Americano for me.  Standard orders.  We continue our quest for entertainment.  We have no genuine need to shop; we're just there for the novelty.

The boys find diversion -- computers, a toy store, books.  Always books.  We make a few purchases on their behalf and keep going, barely a quarter way into the maze.  I'm feeling the pain, now, weariness combined with the slight agitation arising from my intense, unchecked claustrophobia.  I cannot see daylight. I might as well be underground.  My heart beats so loudly that I begin to apologize to strangers in muttered tones.

At the top of a long pitched walkway, I give out.  Dennis says, Here, babe, sit in my lap, and the boys crow.  The thought of Auntie Corinne -- Mom -- tooling through the Mall ensconced in the Gimp-mobile seems to delight them and I realize, suddenly, that I really have no choice. I can insist we leave or take the offer.  I sit, and we start down the ramp, which seems to be taking us from one end of an impossibly long hallway to the other.  The boys scamper ahead.

Then Dennis says into the back of my head, To hell with this tortoise speed, let's go to Warp Drive, and reaches around me to the controls.  Suddenly, we're dodging and darting around walkers on the ramp and the boys have started running.  They squeal, Dennis pushes the joystick, and I hang onto the arms of the chair and try to remember the words to the Hail Mary.  I get as far as full of grace but can't remember anything else so I repeat the first line over and over as we pass startled shoppers with frightened looks, pulling their bags and their children out of our path.  Hail Mary full of grace, Hail Mary full of grace, HAIL MARY FULL OF GRACE.

I see the boys jumping up and down and waving their arms, just around the bend of the walkway, where the railing ends.  I don't think Dennis sees them and I try to speak, but I'm pinned against his chest and there's no air in my lungs.  I'm still praying. My hair whips back, my purse strap breaks, and I clutch my jacket around me thinking, I'm going to die! and then we hit the bump and I go flying.

I land on the cold tile of the floor and the corridor falls silent.  The boys hold themselves completely still as Dennis cruises to a stop and shuts the chair off.  They gaze down at me.  Patrick looks scared; the other boys have blank faces.  I can't see Dennis's expression but I know it will be a mixture of aggravation and wonder, Did we really get this damn chair up to its maximum speed?

I pull my body to a sitting position and I feel Chris and Maher relax, but Patrick still wears a stunned expression.  I'm okay, I tell him, and he helps me stand.  We hover, at the end of the ramp way.  The males stare at me: Dennis, in his electric wheelchair, waiting for forgiveness (which is easier to obtain than permission); Patrick, waiting for confirmation that I'm not injured; and Chris and Maher just waiting for restoration of the equilibrium.

Well  Geez, Dennis, I finally say.  You sure know how to show a girl a good time.

And we laugh.

Just as I do now, thinking about that day, at the Great Mall of the Great Plains, so very long ago.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

P.S.  I am but one of the five people who took the trip to the Mall that day.  Each of the four others might recall this incident differently than I do.  Human memories can be tricky and playful things.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Saturday Musings, 14 February 2015

Good morning,

On a typical Saturday, my Musings consist of an account of a memory, sometimes recent, sometime distant; or of an event in my life or the life of a client or friend.  I have written these Musings since the summer of 2008, when my second husband Dennis had moved out for the final time and my son had gone to Mexico with an international student exchange program.  I found myself living alone for six weeks, and wondered if the hiatus from parental/spousal responsibility might have created a window through which I could step back into the life of a writer.  

I took a chance and I would not have continued had people not read and commented on my weekly offerings.

The Musings began as Saturday morning posts to the Small Firm Internet Group, a list-serve of the Missouri Bar Association.  Until recently, I still posted the Musings to SFIG and I will post this entry there as well.   I had many kind readers and commentators among my colleagues on SFIG. More recently, I have just posted a link to the Musings in an e-mail to SFIG, at the same time sending the link to a group of friends and sending it out to Twitter and Facebook.

I also blog on another 'spot.  In January of 2014, two months after my mother-in-law Joanna MacLaughlin passed away, I began a quest in her honor to live complaint-free.  I had also just quit using prescription narcotics after 45 years, a coincidence of timing that might have shown a lack of foresight on my part.  It has been a challenging undertaking, and that first year bled into a second twelve-month period.  I have learned some incredible truths since January 2014, not the least of which I came to know because I spent hours in the presence of my father-in-law, Jabez J. MacLaughlin, during his last months.  To have been a daughter to Jay and Joanna stands among the greatest gifts that God has given me, along with being mother to my son, stepmother to four wonderful human beings, matriculating as a member of an unshakably loyal family-by-choice, and having experienced the love of a few who would not want to be singled out for accolade here but who enriched my life immeasurably.

Yesterday I received a Valentine from Josh Birch, a 22-year-old man who has autism.  Josh, with my friend and his teacher Jenny Rosen, walks our dog every day.  The three of us went for ice cream yesterday at the local Baskin-Robbin.  The clerk knew Josh; he is a regular at various establishments in Brookside, from the drug store to Price Chopper where he likes to have a chicken dinner from the deli for lunch every weekday of his life.  Josh stands six-seven, thin and rangy, with bright blue eyes and a lovely shock of blond hair.  His smile radiates as he enters a room.  After he gave me the Valentine he had made for me, he encircled my considerably shorter and smaller body with his two long arms and said, "I love you Corinne".

Indeed:  I felt loved.

And so it is love about which I find myself musing today -- not because it is Valentine's Day, though perhaps something of this Hallmark Holiday sets me ruminating.  Rather, I find myself musing about love because the village that has welcomed me as a lifetime citizen bestows such joy on me that I cannot avoid feeling loved.  Residents of this village span the globe, from Hawaii to Massachusetts, Arkansas to England, California to Illinois, Minnesota to Louisiana. I've never filed a change of address although at times, I have skipped family gatherings from petulance or anger, in sadness or despair.  No act of mine has ever proven unforgivable.  The members of my family-by-choice, some of whom are biologically related to me, seem to endure any remission, omission, or injury that I inflict.

Indeed:  I am loved.

On Valentine's Day in 1998, a doctor stood over me in a hospital bed and bluntly told me that he estimated my life expectancy to be six months.  He could not say why I would inevitably die within that time.  His best guess? That my respiratory system had finally worn out and could no longer sustain the burden of breathing.

Less than a year later, that doctor and another of like-mind loomed over me as I lay in a hospital bed, arguing with Joseph Brewer, an Infectious Disease doctor who thought he knew what ailed me.  The two physicians intent on allowing me to languish stood on my right; Dr. Brewer on my left.  Ashen, bloated from steroids, weak, I lay under a thin blanket listening, finally blurting in a trembling voice: "Stop!  Stop it!  You -- you two -- you think I am going to die?  You are fired!  You, Dr. Brewer, you think you can  save me?  I choose life!  You're hired!"

Sventeen years have gone by since the initial prognosis on that lonely February 14th.  The doctor who made that prognosis has died.  Joe Brewer proved to be correct. I ailed not from collapsing lungs but from hypercoagulability related to my viral condition. He put me on blood thinners, and I recovered.  In more recent years, new symptoms related to the virus have plagued me, but I learned a valuable lesson and sought meaningful help.  Now I have come under the care of an I.D. doctor at Stanford Medical Center, who conducted the clinical trials which resulted in the use of Valcyte, a drug created to treat HIV, for people with my precise virus.  After seventy days on Valcyte, on the 17th anniversary of my having been given six months to live, I find that I might just survive.  Possibly: Even thrive.

And:  I. Am. Loved.

Happy Valentine's Day, Everyone.  My wish for each of you is that you, too, realize that you are loved.  By someone; somewhere; and probably by many people in  many places.  That realization should sustain you through any dark, embittered hours that might haunt you.  The knowledge that you are loved should also enable you yourself to love -- without reservation, without fear, and without expectation of any return other than the sheer pleasure of the experience.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

My son gave me two God's Eyes, a sweet card, and a little pot for Valentine's Day in 1998.  Some one, probably Katrina Taggart or Mona Chebaro, brought him to the hospital to give it to me.  The little red card says, "I hope you like what I was able to give you".  I did, indeed; the gift inspired me and still sits on the window sill in my breakfast nook.

Here is my Valentine from Josh Birch.
I love you too, Josh.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Saturday Musings, 07 February 2015

Good morning,

Last evening a fluttering bird beat its wings against my rib cage.  With my palms pressed to my chest, I moved my neck in a feeble attempt to imitate the motion that should help calm the rapid beating of my afflicted heart.  Of course I have "SVT", annoying though not fatal; and of course, I have a type of SVT that cannot be fixed, located in a place in my heart that cannot easily be reached, even if a doctor's ministration could remedy the problem.  For another problem I have nitro-glycerin, but this little bird-dance inside my heart cannot be remedied.  I wait it out and fall asleep to its erratic rhythm.

I dream of my mother, but the unfolding is less a dream than a cherished memory.  We walk down the street of my childhood, McLaran Avenue in Jennings, Missouri.  Mother wears her hair in curlers held by plastic picks, with a bandanna tied around her small head.  Her olive, blotched skin shows keenly in the evening light, but I cannot discern her liquid brown eyes behind her glasses.  I see her smile and know its light gleams upward.

As we walk, I set the pace.  My legs falter but her bearing has an enviable sureness.  She lets me lead, though; and so we stroll rather than stride.  We do not speak at first, but I feel my mother waiting.  I have come to visit her because something troubles me.  I live in the city, near my college, in a small apartment.  I drive a little MG and I have parked it outside of the house.  She met me in the yard, embraced me, and said, Let's walk.  And so we are walking.

Fall surrounds us.  The neighborhood's trees shake their finery in the breeze which has not yet settled to sleep.  The light still plays to the west, as we crest the hill near the public elementary school where my siblings and I played as children.  The wide expanse of the school's hilly yard has not yet turned brown but the leaves which have begun to fall from surrounding maples skitter across the blacktop where the teachers park.

Mother and I stop at the stairs on the south side of the building.  I lean against the yellow brick of the retaining wall and Mother settles on a step beside me.  A few moments pass.  I know she has chosen to give me whatever time I need, whatever space it takes.  At the house my father will be doing the dishes.  I can picture him standing at the sink, gazing out the window at the neighbor's house.  He knows his youngest daughter must be troubled, because Mother has told him, Let me talk  to her, and left him to worry.  He'll pause with a dish in his hand and the water running, lost in blame, lost in shame, lost in a fog of worry about whether what he's done to us might be causing me to be less than able in my dealings with the world.

But I won't know about his castigation of himself for many years, and on that night, the night which I envision so vividly it might be a movie, my troubles don't seem to have anything to do with my father.

As the darkness gathers around my mother and me, I feel tears trickle down my cheeks.  Their saltiness reaches my lips and falls to the brick.  Mother stands, then, and puts her arms around me.  She remains silent.  I start to speak but cannot.  Eventually, a long shudder roils through me, and my mother knows that I have come through the worst of my grief.

I tell her of my terrible loneliness; of my differences; of my feelings of isolation.  We sit on a bench on Sunbury Avenue, facing the houses which flank the street across from the school.  We can see families through the picture windows.  In one house, I babysat during high school in exchange for piano lessons.  The children whom I watched must be in high school, I think, as my mother pats my hand.  She still has not spoken other than a few murmured words between my sobbed confessions.  But there is nothing for her to say, and she knows it.

Because I am different:  I walk funny; I have a weird health condition that no one will understand for several decades; my hair is heavy, long and curly in an era when whip-straight was the fashion.  I'm clumsy, and clingy, and smart.  Smart women won't be truly appreciated until the 1990s, some fifteen years later.  As for clumsy and clingy, they'll never be in fashion and I can only hope to outgrow them.  Mother knows this.  She listens.  I talk.

Eventually, I run out of words.  We stand and begin the walk home, north for a half-block then east, back down Kinamore, across McLaran, down our steps. My father sits in a metal lawn chair on the front porch, smoking.  He has turned on the porch light, which I spied halfway down the hill.  My heart feels lighter.  My father says, there's cake, and my mother raises her eyebrows in my direction.  We go into the house and my mother says, Do you want to stay here tonight? and I think, yes, yes, tonight and forever.  

I smile at them both, as my mother brews a cup of tea, and my father slices the cake.  Guess what the secret ingredient is, my father says, as he always says when he has baked a cake.  And then I laugh, and suddenly, I am awake.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

The Missouri Mugwump™

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I've been many things in my life: A child, a daughter, a friend; a wife, a mother, a lawyer and a pet-owner. I've given my best to many things and my worst to a few. I live in Brookside, in an airplane bungalow. I'm an eternal optimist and a sometime-poet. If I ever got a poem published in The New Yorker, I would die a happy woman. I'm a proud supporter of the Arts in Kansas City. I vote Democrat, fly the American flag, cry at Hallmark commercials, and recycle.