So many of my blogs start this way these days, and I am sorry about that. I dislike being repetitive, but I am truly unsure where to start on this one since so much has happened since I last wrote. A lot of this happened almost a year ago and so will be shared in only the vaguest way here, and again, I’m sorry about that as some of this deserves more than a cursory mention.
The last few years have been a bit rough on my family, with so many loved and cherished family members dying with little or no advanced warning. God help us, but my generation is now the oldest remaining in my family, and we had all come to realize that the only time that we bothered to go through the effort to see each other was when there was a death in the family. First my mother, and then followed not long after by her husband. We finally decided that we had had enough of meeting with death in the air and it was time to have a family reunion that did not involve a loss. After much debate, we agreed to gather our family from all over the continent on a lake in Northern California in July. We had no way to know that we would be too late for several that we all adored. . .
First, we lost my niece – my big sisters daughter Sunshine. Sunshine was special to me in so many ways. I was “the baby” in our little family, and so Sunshine was the first person that ever “looked up” to me and maybe found something admirable in me. I adored that little girl and to this day would not hesitate to trade places with her if it were possible to bring her back. I received that call from my sister at about 3AM, and by about 6 AM I was in my truck and headed out driving from Texas to Arizona where the family gathered around my sister.
Only a few short months after that, I received another call. This time, it was my sister-in-law; my brother’s wife. With no warning and no serious illness that we were aware of, my sister-in-law just died on Halloween night. They were handing out candy when she told my brother that she didn’t feel well and was going to go take a nap. He found her dead in bed shortly after. Once again the family gathered with death hanging in the air around us. Just to add a little more pain to the day, my sister’s home burnt to the ground while we were at the funeral.
Also attending that funeral was my Aunt Sandy, the mother of my cousin Scott. Scott was so close to us growing up that we more or less considered ourselves brothers; we were pretty much inseparable and were often into trouble together. I took one look at my aunt and knew instantly that I’d never see her alive again. The vibrant woman that I had grown up with was gone, replaced by a heart breaking thin and frail woman in a wheel chair. I hugged her every chance that I got that day because I knew it would be the last time that I saw her, and I was sadly correct as she died only a month or so later.
So here we were, people that were smart enough to have realized that we needed to plan an event that allowed our family to get together just to enjoy each other and we had been too late. Please don’t bother offering condolences. While I appreciate the compassion that prompts them, they pretty much just open the wound again. I only tell you all of this to put everything into context.
Along about May or June, I started to notice that I was unusually short of breath anytime I did anything at all strenuous, and an ever increasing pain in the center of my chest started to grow to the point where it could no longer be ignored. I mentioned my growing concern to my wife, and being the Army veteran that she is, she assured me it was probably because I had allowed myself to get fat and out of shape, and encouraged me to get up off of my ass and do some exercise. I was pretty sure that this was more than my being out of shape as I’d been out of shape before in my life and it was a totally different feeling, but I still had to agree that it was a reasonable conclusion and so I made an effort to get more physical exercise. Each time, the pain in the center of my chest would get ever worse as I worked up a head of steam, and the pain would only decline when I would stop jogging. I went to the doctor several times, they took several EKG’s and declared me normal at the conclusion of each one. This appeared to bolster my wife’s theory that I was just out of shape and so I’d go home and try to jog again, only to be forced to stop due to the pain. Eventually someone got the bright idea to do a cardiac stress test where they have you work out a bit on a treadmill and then do a fancy type of x-ray that lets them see how your heart is reacting to it. I had been afraid that this would be like taking your car to the mechanic and having it show no signs of the problem you took it there for, and so was oddly pleased when my chest began to hurt almost immediately after I started walking on the treadmill. At the conclusion of the test, the doctor approaches me with an odd smile on his face.
“Well, I’ve got good news and I’ve got bad news.” He says.
“Okay, do tell?”
“The good news is that you are not crazy, and it’s not all in your head. The bad news is that you do have a heart problem.”
“Awesome.” I groaned.
So yeah, like a day later I am in the Austin Heart Hospital with a widget inserted through my wrist that allowed them to snake a device through my veins all of the way from my wrist to my heart where they inserted a heart stent to open a blocked vein. I woke up part way through this process to have the doctor point to a video screen and show me where he was installing the heart stent, and then also show me a branching vein that was mostly closed. He explained that installing stents into the branching vein was a bit more complex and would have to be done in a separate procedure at a later date. You should have seen the look on his face later that evening in my hospital room when I flat out refused to come back in a few days to have the other heart stent installed.
“I’m not sure that you understand the gravity of the situation,” says the surgeon.
“Oh no, I understand it and I thank you for your concern doc, but tomorrow I start my first vacation in over a decade. It’s not just a vacation either; it’s a family reunion that was setup specifically because we were sick of only seeing each other when someone dies! It’s been planned for over a year and I will not miss it, and I do not intend to be the one that dies just days before it takes place.”
So the doc argued with me, my wife argued with me, and I assured them both that they should save their breath because I wasn’t coming back until after my vacation. Eventually everyone calmed down and with a stern warning from the doctor not to exert myself, we headed for home. A day later, and we packed up a rental car and headed out for two weeks of road tripping across the better part of half of the continental United States. Many years ago, we had taken a vacation to visit my family in California and we had made it a point to stop at almost everything of interest between Texas and California. We had thoroughly enjoyed that trip and so we decided to do much the same on this trip. And thus began an epic and whirl-wind journey . . .
The first place of note that we stopped at was the grave of Billy the Kid. Much to my surprise, neither one of my children had any idea who the heck Billy the Kid was, and so they were a tad less than thrilled about it. Still, it was along the way, and so we stopped.
Our next stop was the Painted Desert and Petrified Forest. For those of you that have never heard of it, the Petrified Forest is a large stretch of desert that once was forest, and it is littered with the now fossilized remains of trees. Some of these fossils are the size of pebbles, and some are quite large portions of the original trees. Considering that my son has expressed an interest in becoming a paleontologist, I thought that this would be a really cool experience for him.
Moving on, we stopped at Meteor Crater in Arizona. Everyone in the car started laughing when I played the theme song to “2001: A Space Odyssey” as we were making our way up the long drive to the crater. Space and earth science are both two of my favorite subjects and so I spent a good part of the drive pontificating on and on about how the large hill that we were approaching was not made by your typical geologic event, but by the impact of a meteor. I’m pretty sure that I failed to excite either child. What can I say, it was a tough crowd.
We hadn’t really intended to stop at the Grand Canyon as we figured that it would take too long, and we did have a reunion to get to, but the more I thought about it as we were passing all of the exits for it, the more I just couldn’t bear the thought of taking my children right past one of the biggest wonders of the world and not stopping. Everyone thinks that they have a concept of what the Grand Canyon is, but trust me, you don’t have a clue unless you have seen it. All of the photos and videos in the world just cannot give you a proper sense of the scale of the thing, nor a proper appreciation of it. It’s something that you really must behold with your own senses.
Next, we headed out across Death Valley to Big Pine California and had a bit more adventure along the way than we had anticipated. I really don’t recall a year later the exact route that we took, but I think it was HWY 168 that we took through the mountains and then down into Big Pine. Now the fun came into this when after driving for hours without another car in sight, you find yourself on the top of a HUGE mountain, at midnight, the road turns into dirt, and then becomes an endless series of sharp switchbacks with cliffs on the side. It really becomes interesting when you realize that you are down to less than a quarter of a tank of fuel, haven’t seen a human being or building in three hours, and you are starting to think that you may have screwed up really bad. We did have a moment of levity though when we reached the crest of the mountain. Both children were asleep in the back and so I whispered to my wife that I was going to stop the SUV for a moment, shut it all off, and then just stand outside in the peace and quiet, hundreds of miles from any other human being, their lights, and their noise. For some reason, the thought of one truly quiet moment really appealed to me, so I pulled to the side, turned the car off, stepped out, and closed the door behind me. After a brief moment, the interior lights went out and I prepared to soak in some peace of mind. I was to be disappointed though, because suddenly there was a knocking on the window behind me. I chose to ignore it.
“Daddy . . .” says my daughter, knocking on the window again. I hear my wife shushing her and trying to quietly explain that she needs to be silent for a moment, but of course there isn’t another sound for hundreds of miles so this is all very loud and more than a little annoying given that it is ruining the very purpose of my stopping. Still, in a moment the quiet begins to settle and my heart rate slows, and I anticipate the first truly quiet moment that I have had since I was a teenager . . . Nope. With all of the subtlety of a freight train, the peace is utterly destroyed when the car horn starts to blow over and over, with the lights flashing in sync. Apparently my wife had locked the door when I got out, and when my daughter tried to open the damned thing, it set off the alarm. I’ve gotta admit that I was absolutely furious for a good five minutes, but ultimately we all laughed like hell at the absurdity of the thing. Now fully awake, adrenaline coursing through my veins, we made our way down the scary scary dirt road switch backs into Big Pine.
By now we had been on the road for something like three days, and so we were a little less than bright eyed and bushy tailed the next morning when we headed out to Yosemite. Yosemite was an absolutely incredible thing to experience. I cannot do it justice with words, and certainly cannot compete with others who have already tried to do so, so I will pretty much leave it at that. Absolutely incredible place to visit and drive through, and I strongly advise you to check it out if you ever have the chance. After many more hours of driving, we at last found ourselves at the lake in Northern California that we had all agreed upon for the reunion.
The whole concept of the reunion had been to get together without a death being the focal point, but of course that was out the window as we lost three cherished members of our family mere months before. We still tried to make the most of it though, and tried not to dwell on those that were missing. All in all, we spent a very pleasant week there and I was glad that my younger children were finally getting the chance to meet people from my side of the family. The bad news is that the grueling schedule of the prior week began to take its toll on me and I grew tired pretty quickly every day. I don’t advise getting heart stents installed and then heading out the next day on a cross country road trip. It grew awkward a couple of times when I had to beg off early, because I had made it a point to not tell anyone about my heart problems as I thought that my sister had had quite enough on her plate lately and didn’t need the worry.
I had let my sister know that seeing the giant redwoods was on my bucket list of things to do before I died, and so I was delighted to find that a trip had been planned for everyone to go for a hike through them. Oh. My. God. Seeing these huge and ancient trees was one of the most awe inspiring things that I have ever done. I’m sure that it’s a personal preference thing based upon opinion, but I think I’d even place seeing them above seeing the Grand Canyon. It’s almost a religious experience to see something that huge and that old that is still living.
After about a week hanging out at the lake with my extended family, we headed for home – via Salmon Idaho. . .
My wifes mother had suffered a serious stroke a couple of years ago and wasn’t doing so hot, so we were making it a point to visit her as it was a somewhat feasible thing to do on our road trip. Things didn’t go as well as one might have hoped though, as her mom ended up having to be taken to the hospital that night by ambulance. We stayed a day or two, visiting her off and on in the hospital. It was a bit awkward though, as the stroke had left her unable to speak. At last the day came when we had no choice and had to head back home as the children would have to go back to school and I had to get my ass back to get some more heart stents installed. We had intended to pass through Yellowstone on the way home, but my mother-in-law being in the hospital, combined with my own exhaustion pretty much ruled that out. The remainder of the drive home was no frills, no landmarks, and only stopping to get a good nights sleep in hotels. My mother-in-law died a couple of weeks after we got home . . .
This time they had to install the heart stents through a large vein in my groin, and yes, this was just about as much fun as you might imagine. They ended up having to install four more heart stents, and due to a few relatively minor complications, I ended up spending three days in the hospital recovering. When it finally came time to start the checking out process, I received a visit from quite a few people of differing specialties. One of them was in their rehab program and she handed me an arm load of material and strongly advised me to join their program. It turns out that it requires three visits a week to exercise while they monitor your heart, and so I declined. When she politely objected, I had to explain that I travel for my living and would have to quite in order to participate in a program that required me to be there three times a week. I wasn’t terribly surprised when she implied that I might need to evaluate my priorities – work or life? I assured her of two relevant things:
1 – If I lost my job, I wouldn’t be able to afford the rehab anyway