When I work, I tend to go “off-grid” for days—almost a week—at a time. My work pattern consists of 12-hour shifts from seven until seven. These times are for both the night shifts (7pm until 7am) and the day shifts (7am until 7pm) on a 10-day repeating cycle:
While I am off, I can be called for overtime, at any time, for any of the day or night shifts that I’m not already rostered. Our resourcing has been cut to a minimum over the years and with people getting covid or taking summer recreation leave, there is a lot of overtime. I am called for multiple shifts during my break. But I try to only accept one.
I’ve often described what I do as 95% routine and 5% panic but with the plant and equipment now ageing into its 50s, that ratio has changed. It’s more like 80% routine and 20% panic.
To be fair, panic isn’t a great way to describe it, either. In those moments when things are going wrong, or you need to respond to certain plant conditions quickly, or safely shut down a unit, the last thing you must be doing is panicking. But it does require extreme concentration and urgency in decision-making. It’s one of the things I like about the job. Situations that require analysis and reflexive responses under pressure are my catnip. Perhaps it is that I enjoy that low-level of anxious arousal, the flutter of my nervous system, and the adrenaline that’s generated when something happens.
All shift long, I make megawatts of electricity. When I finish, I go home, eat a simple meal, and sleep. Between night shifts, I sleep until approximately 4pm. Then I have about an hour and forty-five minutes before I need to leave for work. On zombie day, I sleep til noon-ish; wash work laundry in the afternoon and finish any other small jobs that need doing. After day shift, I do much of the same, only I try to sleep until 5am. If I’m not working overtime, the first day off after my round is decompression day and I don’t like to do anything. But tomorrow I have scheduled some appointments—a medical screening, a beauty salon appointment, and lunch with a friend. The rest of my time off will be spent decluttering the house, discovering what art supplies I have hidden away in storage boxes under beds, and preparing for my mother to visit. It’s been four years since I’ve seen her, and this will be her first trip to our home since I moved here in 2014. Somehow, despite my best efforts to have everything stored in its place, labelled, and easy to access, entropy always wins. It seems that nothing is where I left it.
I have been searching for days for a mantra I listened to relentlessly in 2020 and still cannot find it. YouTube seems to store history. But not all history. I don’t know why. Did I mention my mother is coming to visit?
The day G was anaesthetised and had his brain biopsy, it was almost 9pm. I put on my noise cancelling headphones, played some music at a supposedly calming frequency and went to visit him. I found him in a dark room that was not, in fact, a room, it was more like the centre of a galaxy. Though it was mostly dark. I grabbed his hand, told him he was safe, and asked him where he wanted to go. Everest, he said, and in milliseconds we were rugged up and standing on the top of the world. At which point, I turned to him and said “What are we doing here? You don’t even like the cold!”
It wasn’t the first time I’d had an out of body experience; the first was when I was 12. I was riding my cousin’s pony and jumping a gate, and on my fourth jump, the saddle slipped around as the pony leapt. I know this because I watched it. The girl slid with the saddle off to the left and I watched from behind. I bounced back into my body at the same time I hit the ground, winded, and gasping for breath.
I think of these things when I’m at work. I think about energy. Enthalpy. Entropy.
Did I mention my mother is coming to visit?
I do not understand any of it.
The generator is a magic box. I rotate a turbine using steam power and at the other end of it, electrons are forced down wires through substations into homes to power televisions. Or computers. Or phones.
Did I mention my mother is coming to visit?
I will not get a decompression day this week. So instead, I’m going to try to play some other music–Grae Moore makes music for ADHD brains. I’m not diagnosed. I don’t think I quite meet the criteria. Nor do I quite meet the criteria for autism. Though the main complaints people have made about me tend to sound like some complaints about autistic traits. There is a family history there. Perhaps my masking is just that good. Or perhaps it’s not, hence the complaints.
The 24 hours between the end of our second night shift and the beginning of our first day shift are a blur. You must sleep enough in the morning so that you can function in the afternoon and evening but not sleep so much that you do not sleep that night and therefore cannot function the following day at work. This is why I refer to this 24 hour period as zombie day.
In the last few years, I have expended considerable effort to improve my night-time sleep as a means of managing and maintaining my mental health. I have had years where I’ve slept as little as three hours per night for months on end and the occasional five hours of sleep seemed a blessed miracle.
It is well-known that shift work is damaging to your health and this is largely due to the fact that shift workers tend to sleep two to three hours less per sleep than their dayworker counterparts. But I was born to be a shift worker! Sleep has always felt better for me during the day than at night; I feel safer sleeping during the day, therefore I wake less and spend more time in deep and REM sleep (so says my fitness watch). On zombie day, I try to go to sleep earlier than I do after my first night shift, around 7.30am, and only sleep for about four to five hours. Without an alarm, I would sleep all day—a full eight hours plus. And if I get more than six hours on zombie day, I’m ruined for the following day as I will not sleep at all that night.
Historically, I’ve had a difficult time sleeping when alone in a house. This dates back to before my teens. I have needed another person in the house to feel secure, and when alone, I’ve sleep with the lights on. But a couple of weeks ago, G went interstate (north, almost 20 hours to Queensland) to look at apartments and holiday homes. I had to stay and work. This would normally cause significant anxiety, further inhibiting my ability to sleep but I was surprised to find that this time, I enjoyed the time. This is not something I’ve ever experienced before and although I was looking forward to G’s return, the week and a half I had on my own was refreshing.
When I feel safe, I rarely wake to even the loudest of noise. The surrogate dog can bark and bark, the hoons can rev engines and do burnouts at the intersection by our house, the person learning to play the drums next door can bang as loud as they like and none of these things will wake me. But when G required full-time care, and I slept in the room next door so as not to contaminate or infect him, he barely had to whisper my name and I was awake, alert, and ready for action. It is remarkable what the body and brain will do when necessary. Now that he is well, I have reverted to more sound sleeping patterns. But I still wake often in the middle of the night. Research shows that sleeping in a solid single block for eight-ish hours is a relatively recent development and may not be as beneficial as the previous bi-modal sleep pattern.
G, on the other hand, is a very light sleeper. The slightest sound, minutest movement, or beam of light will wake him no matter what stage of sleep he is in. And yet, he still seems to sleep more than me.
Today, I did not go to sleep early. I messed around until about 9am after arriving home at 7.15am. And then slept until 1.30pm. Which isn’t a lot of time but it means I rose later than I normally would so now–at 11.15pm–I’m not tired. G has already gone to bed but I often sleep in my bedroom while I’m on shift so that I don’t wake him when I get up to get ready at 5am. Otherwise, if I do, he will not get back to sleep.
A few months ago, we read a book by Olivia Arezzolo about sleep types called Bear, Lion, or Wolf. I am a wolf, and the only positive thing the book said about wolves is that they are pre-disposed to being great shift workers due to their alertness overnight. G is a bear these days but used to be more of a lion. We are practically opposites.
When he was in hospital, and my stress levels were so high I went to the hospital myself to make sure I wasn’t having a heart attack, I tried everything to sleep. I tried listening to special frequency music, I tried herbal sleep teas, I tried meditations, and I tried night noises. Eventually, I settled on a routine where I listened to a meditation mantra and then played 12 hours of “night noises” like crickets chirping by a crackling fire in the forest. Light rain falling, frogs ribbitting. Anything to calm me down.
There are things I want to say about sleep–about dreams–about the places we go in our subconscious. But it is almost midnight and I need to be up in five hours. So it will have to wait.
Yesterday, I had a video call with a friend in the USA; the same friend who, in 2020, would zoom me daily for a shake session while I was in Melbourne caring for G through his treatment. These days, we frequently end our calls with tarot or oracle readings.
In 2010, two weeks before leaving my then-husband, I had my cards read. Not a coincidence. I keep the scrap of paper that I wrote out from that reading, with the cards and their layout, in a small crate of keepsakes. Perhaps I will revisit that spread this year, now that my understanding of the cards has deepened.
In 2012, I went to a circus-themed costume party as a fortune-teller and conducted card readings for any party guests brave enough to sit opposite me at the table. I began all my readings in the same way; the cards cannot tell you anything you do not already know. Just as I had already known in 2010. Two weeks later, the couple who hosted the housewarming party broke up. And he moved out. Not because of my reading, however, as it turned out, the reading had exposed and brought to light some inconsistencies within the relationship and he was not prepared to continue.
Despite these outcomes, tarot is not a tool for predicting the future. And it did not do so in either of these cases. Instead, it is a means of finding deeper insight and self-awareness. The cards provide prompts to examine specific areas of our lives, patterns of behaviour, or parts of ourselves we keep in the shadows. Sometimes for good reason. The deck my friend used for my reading was The Wild Unknown Archetypes Deck and I drew two cards; The Bridge and The Mask. The Mask was about flipping the usual script; instead of a mask hiding our true nature, what if particular masks reveal more authentic parts of ourselves? But the main card was The Bridge. In summary, The Bridge relates to connection and it came with a short exercise to “go deeper”.
Lie on the floor, it said, and listen to Bridge Over Troubled Water. So we did. I rolled my teal velvet chair back from the desk and pushed it into the gap between the bookshelf and the filing cabinet. Then, I crouched down beside my desk, squeezed myself into the gap between my bookshelf and the desk, and stretched out on the floor. She hit play and the tinny sound of the song blaring through her iPhone was beamed from her lounge room in California to my office in Victoria through my laptop speakers.
I grew up listening to Simon and Garfunkel. Between the two of them, Dire Straits, and Beethoven, there was rarely anything else on my father’s record player. Or on the tape in the car. So it wasn’t so much that I grew up listening to them by choice as it was I had no say over what played on the radio. I was familiar with Bridge Over Troubled Water. But it has been years since I really listened to the lyrics.
The goals and intentions section under the category of social relationships in my planner is blank. I could speculate at length about what it means but I won’t. Whether it’s the pandemic or age, my tolerance for people, people around me, and especially people near me has diminished over the last few years. Previously the social co-ordinator among my friends, I now just want to stay at home. I want a slower pace of life. I want to move more slowly. I want to take my time. I want ease and flow and peace and stillness. I am going inwards. Growing inwards. Growing more aware of my own desires, my own wants, my own needs. And I am not willing to give them up. This is a deliberate choice I am making. It may be time to set out my goals and intentions for my relationships, my friendships, my everythings. I want to be as intentional about the social connections I build in my life as much as I am about my health, my career, my creativity and my finances.
My eldest stepdaughter turns 25 later this year. In my keepsake crate, I also have a journal from when I was 25. In it, I write that I am having a quarter-life crisis. My first question about that now is, when did I decide I was living until I was 100? My second question is what made me think I was running out of time?
The journal contains a list of things I wanted to achieve. Some of which I have. Many of which I haven’t. And while I’d love to believe that I still have plenty of time, the last few years have shown me that life can change in an instant. It seems, right now, that I may have plenty of time. But life does not offer us these guarantees. I may be–no, am–running out of time. And I have realised, despite this, there is no reason to rush.
Sail on Silver Girl Sail on by Your time has come to shine All your dreams are on their way
Today is decompression day; I’ve worked my normal round (4×12 hour shifts on a night night day day roster) plus an additional day of overtime this last week–for a total of 60 hours from 7pm Tuesday night to 7pm Sunday night. On my first day off after work, I can barely summon the energy to read, much less write. So today’s Music Monday is short and I’ll be back tomorrow.
For those following along at home, today H saw the feline internal medicine specialist. The vet, upon hearing his history regarding the progression of the symptoms as well as listening to several recordings of his breathing at rest, was also concerned that there could be some sort of laryngeal paralysis present (for which I felt validated and vindicated). The vet performed an upper respiratory endoscopy to determine if there were any blockages (growths, cancer, polyps) or paralysis that could be the source of his breathing issues.
Thankfully, his oesophagus, trachea, larynx, and pharynx were ok. No blockages and no paralysis. What wasn’t ok was the back of his nasal passages. He is creating a significant amount of mucus which has been sampled and sent to the lab for testing. Results will take approximately a week as they will culture the sample to see what, if any, viruses or bacteria show up.
He’s woozy tonight and keeps flopping over when he tries to walk but he has eaten, been to the toilet, and is now snuggling in a bed on the floor. He doesn’t know it, but these are the last tests I am going to subject him to for these particular issues. Since they have showed only inflammation, infection, and asthma for which he’s already being treated, there is nothing else to do except perhaps give him some additional medication depending on what the cultured sample shows.
When the only thing that’s sure is this unsteady ground
Listening to certain types of music often gives me the same strange sensation of yearning I have when I look at the stars. As if I belong somewhere else. Or perhaps, rather, am from somewhere else. When I was a child growing up in the church, I believed this was because I belonged in heaven–out there, in the stars somewhere. Now, though, I know it’s because all the elements in my body were forged in the heavens; hydrogen and helium during the big bang, while heavier elements were made by fusion in a star’s core.
My affinity for out there is also a way to dissociate from right here. Right now.
I am trying to remember that, as Rumi says, “You are not a drop in the ocean, you are the entire ocean in a drop.”
Standing at the side of the hospital bed, eyes closed, having rubbed my hands together the way we’d often done in yin yoga, I moved my palms towards and then away from each other, allowing the pressure and heat from the friction to grow into a sticky thread between them. In my mind’s eye, I imagined shaping this thread, forming a growing, glowing ball of white light between my palms. As G lay in the ICU, machines beeping and blinking all around him, I created ball after ball of white light and stuffed them into his comatose body. Later, I worried that I hadn’t been able to ask if he minded if I shoved basketball-sized shimmering lights into his organs. What is the requirement for consent to perform magic when someone is dying?
In reality, I don’t believe what I did healed him. That was done by a team of brilliant doctors. But it made me feel better to do it, and isn’t that what matters? I wasn’t hurting anyone. I suppose that is the purpose religion or prayer can serve, too. To make people feel better? I am not religious. Not in any recognised way. I do not subscribe to any of the world religions and while I grew up Christian, neither I, nor the Christians I still know would ever call me that now; the Bible is not the inerrant word of God. There may or may not have been a real, live Jesus. There is no such thing as sin, heaven, or hell; these are all constructs of control. But once, I used to be a fundamentalist. And the problem I now see with fundamentalism is that it does hurt people.
When he came out of the coma, he was awake and alive but not here. Not himself. He was on a train. He was in an ambulance. He was a 60-year-old school teacher from a neighbouring town. He needed a cigarette. God, he needed a cigarette. Hold on, he said, hold on, hold on, hold on as he tried to grab my arm with the only one of his that sort-of worked, his movements slow, stiff and erratic.
“How long has he been teaching?” a nurse asked me.
“He doesn’t,” I said. “He’s never been a teacher. He doesn’t smoke.”
Sentences were coming out of his mouth but they were just a word in front of a word in front of a word. Unrelated. Until he said “I need to learn another language!”
“You learned another language,” I said. “Remember when we went to Paris and I taught you French? Let’s practice!”
“Un,” I said, expecting him to repeat it.
“One,” he replied.
“Deux,” I said, trying to encourage him to repeat the French.
“Two,” he said.
I counted to ten in French as he repeated the English number after me.
“That’s English,” I said, “not French.” And started counting again.
Half way through the second count, I realised he understood. While his sentences made no sense, he knew exactly what was going on.
“Can you understand me?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said.
“Do you know I’m having trouble understanding you?”
The speech pathologist who’d seen him earlier in the day popped her head into his room and asked if she could see me for a minute.
“I’ll be back,” I told him. “Just a few minutes.”
She asked if he’d ever had any issues like this before the coma; struggles to communicate, not making sense, difficulty with speech or memory. No, I said, never. And then I asked the question I didn’t want an answer to. Is this…going to be permanent?
“I don’t know,” she said.
I shook my head. “I don’t know what he’s talking about. He’s not 60, he’s never smoked, he’s not a teacher. None of what he’s saying is true. They’re sentences. But they make no sense.”
She nodded and bit her lip. “Ok,” she said, “thanks. Could you make something for him? When people start to have communication and memory issues like this, we ask their family to make a memory book. Put in info like work, family, life, etc. Sometimes, it helps their memory.”
I left the hospital after dinner and returned to the Leukaemia Foundation where I stayed up until 2am making “The Book of G” from the template the speech pathologist had emailed me. I filled it with info and pictures for the staff to read, and read to him, emailed it to the nurse-in-charge of his ward who printed it and stapled it together. “You can come in today from 9am,” she told me, when I called to check in that morning after shift handover. Covid restrictions were still in effect and hospitals only allowed visitors in very specific circumstances. A patient not being able to communicate was one of those circumstances.
When I arrived at his bedside at 9.05am after presenting at security for screening, temperature checks and confirmation I was allowed to visit, he was no longer a 60-year-old school teacher. He was himself, as if the person he had been yesterday never existed.
For the last four years, I’ve used a beautiful planner made by Magic of I. At the start of it, there is a yearly planning and intention-setting segment covering categories such as inspiration and creativity, work, health, relationships, spiritual, mental, social and wealth. Last week, when goal-setting for this year, I wrote: practise my French on Duolingo for a minimum of 10 minutes per day.
This afternoon after logging into the app for the first time in many years, I noticed a change. Ads. Ugh. And every time I completed a lesson, it launched into an ad to upgrade. I messaged a friend who is a Duolingo aficionado. He has a 1051 day streak. I’m only aiming for 30. My friend is in Brazil at the moment, practicing his Portuguese and Jiu Jitsu. I’m not sure he needs Duolingo when he’s in the thick of it. And yet, every day, he completes his lessons. I asked if the upgrade was worth it, because it said 60% off. But it didn’t say off what. After 15 minutes of the free version, though, the ads became obnoxious. That’s how they get you. So now I’m a super Duolingo user. I’m hoping the cost will compel my commitment. As I perused this new version of the app, I was astonished to discover you can now learn languages such as High Valyrian.
“Didn’t realise we could learn fake languages!” I texted.
“Why do you call it “fake”?” he replied.
“Because it’s not from a real country.”
“Not all languages are from countries…”
“Perhaps I should have said fictional language. That would have been better.”
It prompted a conversation of language. Languages. Fictional, engineered, and invented languages. Semantics. I asked if he had heard of the Pirahã tribe from Brazil, who have no words for colours, numbers, or past or future tense. Some linguists argue that it is the only language that does not subscribe to the theory of Universal Grammar as there is no recursion. Others argue it does contain recursion, albeit, tangentially. The Pirahã have also been described as the happiest people on earth because, without tense, there is no past or future. They live fully in the present. I scrolled through the Duolingo menu for the possible languages you can learn, and while you can learn Esperanto, you cannot learn Pirahã.
It is possible, perhaps likely, that I have PTSD from this time; from the time spent caring for G both while he was in active treatment, and then while he was in rehab and recovery for months afterwards. Because while my patient was (remarkably) ever-patient and compliant, and caring for him was comparatively easy, the anxiety I developed due to the uncertainty of the situation has not dissipated. At any shift of energy or fatigue, any new would-be symptom, my nervous system moves into uncomfortable overdrive. While he cruises along with a “whatever happens, happens” attitude, I remain hypervigilant to any changes in condition, absolutely not living fully in the present; trapped somewhere in the ether between the trauma of the past and anxiety for the future.
The last six months have seen me dedicate my time to pushing all the medical terminology and understanding of PCNSL out of my brain and replacing it with work again. Just before Christmas, I sat my simulator assessment for work and passed. I am now a fully qualified Unit Controller, in charge of a generating unit. When I began my traineeship, within our group was a former ICU nurse, which on the surface, seems like quite the shift. But as I explained to my mother the other week when I passed my test, it is different, but also the same.
Whenever a patient is intubated and ventilated in Australia, they are assigned a private nurse who is with them for 12 hours at a time. G was ventilated and on dialysis for almost two weeks and his nurses monitored the pumps and valves and machines and equipment, as well as all his bodily systems; blood test results, blood pressure, heart rate, and more, to determine what the next course of action would be, what steps may need to be taken. Any fluctuation of conditions requires an immediate response or their patient could die.
My new role involves me monitoring pumps, valves, equipment and systems of both a mechanical and electrical nature to ensure the unit operates efficiently and within set parameters and limits. It’s same same but different.
I think of the electricity I generate as magic. White light. Invisible to the eye and critical to almost everything we love to do on this tiny blue and green ball, spinning around a dying star. I cannot say what happens when we die. I don’t believe we go to Jesus but I don’t know where we go. I used to think we went nowhere but after the last couple of years, I’m not so sure. Cosmic connections or events appear to exist whether we are aware of them or not, whether we respond to them or not, whether we believe in them or not; we do not understand enough about the butterfly effect, quantum entanglement, or the physics of subatomic particles. And until we do, sometimes, it’s just easier to call the things that happen magic.
I am in bed with my poetry and my books. And my cats.
Tonight as I was stacking the dishwasher, I had a strange sensation before an image from the film Nell shot back to me; of a wide-eyed woman, alone in a cabin in the woods.
How nice to live alone in a cabin in the woods.
But a woman, alone in a cabin in the woods, must be a witch.
How nice to be a witch in a cabin in the woods.
At the beginning of my senior year of high school, when I was 16, my parents separated. My mother never re-partnered. And, to this day, I don’t believe she ever even dated. My father. My father, on the other hand. I don’t speak of my father. Or to him.
But my mother.
When my parents separated, my mother was four years younger than I am now. She had two teenage children; me, and my brother, three years younger than me.
In my memory, I assume she was too busy to date. But that can’t be true. Because she danced. Many times a week. In a line, with others. She took up this type of dancing because it did not require a partner. Perhaps, neither did she.
In my memory, I assume she never stopped loving my father. Even though she left him. But I know my father; so this can’t be entirely true, either.
In my reality, what is perhaps most true, is that I didn’t think any of these things about my mother. I didn’t think about her or her happiness at all.
When G and I moved back home from the Leukaemia Foundation apartments last year, we had G’s elder daughter over for an outdoor dinner. At one point, the conversation became morbid and I shared the fact that if G dies before me, I do not intend to re-partner. His daughter, still blissful in the first year of new love, was shocked. But won’t you be lonely? she asked with genuine concern.
But I wouldn’t have to take care of anyone except myself. And my schedule and time would be entirely mine.
Perhaps that is why my mother didn’t re-partner. And if that’s the case, I may have more in common with her than I thought.
It is one in the morning on December 29 and I’m sitting quietly in the corner of an emergency vet hospital one and a half hours from home. It’s the closest emergency and specialist centre to me and I’d rather not be here but H, my cat, has deteriorated over the last few days and I cannot just hope for the best.
A few hours ago, G called out to me from another room. “I love you more,” he said, as I was googling respiratory distress and calling the emergency vet for advice. “Yeah?” I shouted back. “But do you love me enough?”
“What do you mean, enough?” he asked, realising our banter had shifted.
“I’m going to take Hunter to the emergency vet,” I said. “You can stay here.”
I heard the familiar crunch of styrofoam as he hauled himself out of the beanbag in the lounge room before coming to the dining table where I sat staring at the computer.
“No, I can’t,” he said. “You know I can’t.”
So at 10.15pm we piled into the car with the cat whose breathing was shallow and rapid, nostrils flaring.
A year ago, I almost succeeded in burning down the house. Not in the Talking Heads way, but rather in the way that I’d spent until near midnight on Christmas Eve cooking and preparing for the following day. After wiping everything down, cleaning the stove top, and placing the wooden chopping board on the stove for the following day’s prep, I stumbled into bed.
A couple of hours later, I woke to a strange, distant beeping sound. Weird, I thought in my sleepy haze, that sounds like a smoke alarm. It took a moment to process as my brain registered the noise; the far-away sound transitioning from a flat battery beep to a genuine, urgent, emergency beep.
Our house had only one smoke detector which, months earlier, had fallen out of the cement sheet ceiling so I’d placed it on top of a bookcase in the family room just down the hall from our bedroom. I moved slowly in the dark, assuming the smoke detector had failed, and felt my way along the bedroom wall to the sliding door before shuffling through a small gap into the hallway.
I opened the door at the end of the hall into the family room and switched on the light. Thick smoke obscured anything more than a few feet in front of me.
The cats, my God, where were the cats?
Edith darted immediately between my legs into the hall that was now beginning to fill with smoke. I ran back to the bedroom, woke G in case we needed to evacuate, and said I had to go find Hunter. I coughed my way through the smoke into the kitchen to attempt to identify where the fire was. But there was no fire. Just thick, heavy smoke in every room. I found H and hurried him into the bedroom where G was up and trying to come out to help. “Go back, go back into the bedroom,” I said. “There is no fire. I have to figure out what is going on.”
I wrapped a wet washcloth around my face to reduce the amount of smoke I was inhaling–we hadn’t yet begun to wear N95 masks so I didn’t have one readily available–and I knew from my workplace fire training that any damp, thick cloth would help filter the smoke. I walked from room to room opening windows, switching on fans and opening doors but could not find the source of the smoke.
Back in the kitchen, standing in front of the stove, I heard the familiar crackle and pop of wood as it heated and burned. Then I looked at the chopping board. I’d used it all day, washed it many times, and it had been waterlogged when I’d left it on top of the clean stove. Now, it was dry and beginning to curl at the edges. I grabbed it with an oven mitt, shoved it into the sink and doused it in water. On the underside was a perfect, charred circle where the hotplate had been slowly scorching it for hours. Eventually, I worked out that as I’d cleaned the stove and wiped the knobs, I must have flicked one ever so slightly into the on position. Just on low. Just enough that it heated the chopping board. The water had kept the board cool enough not to burn but instead, smoke profusely for hours, and now that most of the water had evaporated, it was dry and ready to burst into flames. It took hours to clear the house of smoke and even weeks later, if the air was very still, you could still catch a faint whiff of it.
Over the next 24 hours, Hunter’s breathing became loud and scratchy. The day after Christmas is known as Boxing Day, here. Boxing Day is a Public Holiday in Australia, and I called my vet, expecting an answering machine message that would advise me of their holiday opening hours. Instead, a person answered. And although there was only half an hour until closing time, they could fit H in. Did I want to bring him down? It’s a Public Holiday, though, they said, and an emergency appointment. Was I ok with both the extra charges? Yes, sure, I said. Whatever he needs.
I took H to the vet for raspy breathing and suspected smoke inhalation. One of his eyebrows was singed off and I guessed he had jumped up onto the counter to investigate, inhaling lungfuls of the heavy smoke. He’d always had a slight snore but in the 24 hours after the smoke event, his snore escalated to something else.
When I arrived and they listened to his chest, they wanted to perform an x-ray; a procedure which would require the vet and a nurse to stay back past closing time. Would I be ok with additional charges? Yes, sure, I said. Whatever he needs.
When I first adopted H, I used to smoke–inside–and although I quit many years ago, I have been paranoid ever since that I’ve given him lung cancer, in much the same way that I am sure I gave G blood cancer.
Nine hundred dollars later, we went home. Just monitor him, they said, and see if it settles down.
It didn’t settle down, so for the last 12 months, he’s had various treatments and investigations including blood tests, a specialist cardiology appointment and ultrasound of his heart, antibiotics, steroids and other medication. The final consensus has been “asthma” for which he has been prescribed an inhaler but I (not a vet) disagree with the consensus. Yes, he had been coughing. And the inhaler has eliminated the coughing. But there are other things, too. A loss of his higher register voice over a period of years. A new struggle to swallow and a choking/gagging noise when he eats. Vomiting. The high-pitched stridor in his throat as he inhales, that only I can hear when he rests his neck on my ear as we are laying down watching TV. At the vet, he is too stressed, too anxious, and too growly for them to hear what I hear.
Instead, those additional symptoms point to some type of laryngeal paralysis which is getting worse. He is booked in with the internal medicine specialist on January 18 for a scope in his nose and throat to identify any potential blockages. But the last few days of heat at 35 degrees Celsius saw his breathing rate double from 30 breaths per minute to 60 and to become more laboured. His breaths have been shallow or gasping and neither his steroid inhaler nor the emergency Ventolin salbutamol has helped.
G thinks I have hypochondria by proxy with the cat. And while I do have severe health anxiety and some of it may be transferred, I know there is something very wrong with his respiratory system and if he suffocates at home through my lack of action when a vet visit could have saved him, I will never forgive myself. H has outlasted all my relationships to date; at almost 12 years old, he has been with me through several heartbreaks, interstate moves, and has not faltered in his devotion to me from the very first moment I opened the cage door at the pet shop and he climbed into the crook of my neck. G is catching him in the longevity stakes, of course, and will eventually overtake him but I had intended to have H around for at least another five years before he breaks my heart.
As I wait, a man brings his elderly German Shepherd in. I catch snippets of his explanation to the nurse who is triaging the late-night attendees. Christmas Day, a whole roast chicken. Vomiting. Restless. Won’t sit down/lie down. Strange because. Osteoarthritis. I know that cooked chicken bones are terrible for dogs’ tummies and begin to worry for this dog that looks like the one I’m minding for 12 months. They take the man and his German Shepherd through to the back. Hunter has been under observation for almost two hours and no-one has come to give me any news. An hour later, the man comes out from the rooms in the back without his German Shepherd. I can hear him at the reception desk. He is sniffling. Crying. He makes a phone call I can’t hear. And I know then, that he won’t be taking his dog home. I begin to panic that I may not be taking Hunter home, either.
There is no sadder place than an emergency vet at two am in the holidays, except, perhaps for a hospital. And I’ve seen my share of those, too.
Another couple of hours pass, and they call me into the room. They ask why I brought H in tonight, and I explain the history of his breathing and investigative testing over the last 12 months, his current treatment, and the deterioration over the past three days.
“I can’t find anything wrong with him now,” the vet says. “His respiratory rate is normal, he is not in any distress–except perhaps some anxiety at being here–and all his other vital signs are good.”
This should be good news. Instead, I am only convinced that everyone except me is missing something while also knowing this is only going to further G’s belief that I’m making up symptoms the cat does not have.
We drive home, or rather, G drives us home and we fall into bed as the clock ticks over to five am.
At 8.30 am my alarm goes off. I have a doctor’s appointment at 9.40 am. I’ve had three and a half hours’ sleep and am starting to feel the effects of the covid booster that I had the afternoon before. I cannot tell if my headache is from the vaccine or lack of sleep. If the buzzing in my body is the vaccine or lack of sleep. If the nausea is the vaccine or lack of sleep. But I am starting to feel like death.
I go to the doctor and forget why I made the appointment so I end up discussing the headaches which are coming more frequently now than ever before. They could be hormonal, I say. Or they could be stress related. I list all of the reasons I could be experiencing frequent headaches but I never mention brain cancer. And neither does she. Where are the headaches located? she asks, and I motion across my forehead. At the front? she confirms. Yes. And do they get worse if you tip your head forward? Yes, I say. I can then get a shooting pain behind my eyes that takes a minute or two to recede when I lift my head again.
“Aspirin,” she says. “I’m going to give you a specific dose of aspirin to take every day for a week. I think they are tension headaches. Come back next week.”
I ask her to reprint my referral to the gastroenterologist that I’ve misplaced so that I can have my low iron levels investigated. And I check that I do not need a referral for a mammogram, that I can just book in through the breast screening program. Then, I go home to bed.
By lunchtime, I cannot sleep any more but feel awful. G feels wretched, too. And we are not sure if it’s from staying up all night or the vaccine. Or both. He says he feels hot, but when we take his temperature, it is normal. Several hours later, when I start to feel chilled, though I wouldn’t say feverish, I take my own temperature: 37.8 degrees Celsius, a mild fever. I take two Tylenol, have a warm shower, and go to bed.
Christmas has been a difficult time for me for 27 years and I ponder whether it is my own anxiety that ensures I add more traumatic events to the list each Christmas. Is it my attitude to this time of year that makes it more challenging, or is it the subconscious memory of terrible events that determine my attitude? For years, I worked on Christmas to avoid it altogether. Two nights ago, I took H to the emergency vet, believing he may be close to death. Today, he has been chasing the other cat around the house the same as he always does. Did I imagine it? Was his breathing really problematic or was it simply my fear that made it appear so? Will I believe anyone telling me there is nothing wrong with him or will I always think they are wrong? Are H’s perceived breathing problems a metaphor for my life? Perhaps, I am choking. And all we can do is keep breathing.
This world of words and pictures and music is a strange one. Everything I say here is true. Has always been true. And yet, it can never be the whole truth. I cannot write every thought I have, describe every interaction, post every photo or memory. That is to say, it is not a complete picture of my life. Only what I choose to share. But does that mean that what I don’t share can never be known? I’m not so sure. Quantum entanglement, while only in the initial stages of scientific exploration and understanding, possibly, probably shares more information and secrets than we will ever know.
Today, I feel better. There is no headache (a miracle) although I’ve not yet taken any aspirin. And there is no strange buzzing in my body. No nausea and no fever. I am lying on the couch as I type this, the clock ticking over to one am on December 31. The laptop is propped on a pillow on my thighs, H is lying on his side on my stomach, his breathing noisy but not distressed. His body rises and falls with my breath; he stretches, pushes his paws against my face, turns over and relaxes again.
G says this music is boring. Running errands on the weekend, and listening to this album, he asked if we could change it–put something on that wouldn’t put him to sleep. I could not explain how multi-layered the lyrics were to me, how it was anything but boring. I didn’t change the album.
On Sunday, he went for the first bike ride outside since his illness. Before cancer, he used to cycle hundreds of kilometres per week. Ride for hours at a time. Race. The cancer (PCNSL) attached itself to his cerebellum; the part of the brain that is responsible for coordination, balance, language, attention, your nervous system. Damage to it can make it difficult to judge distances, spatial orientation, and can inhibit motor skills and speech. His balance was ok while he was on the bike, he reported, but he did fall off when he tried to stop.
In the first year after treatment, tapering off the steroids caused many of the typical adrenal problems associated with withdrawal; severe fatigue, weakness, body aches, and loss of appetite. The rehab program provided by the occupational therapist of approximately a half hour a day of both muscular resistance exercises and balance exercises left him exhausted. But in this last year, his endurance, stamina and exercise habits have increased. He’s been riding the bike trainer almost every day, walking every other day, and has been more diligent with his balance training. More of that will be required if he wants to remain upright on the bike. I worry that he will break his other hip, or something else, if he falls.
There are so many ways our bodies can betray us. And so many forms of recovery. It seems, we are all recovering from something. So here I am, thinking about our bodies. And what they mean for our salvation.
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