The Woman in the Moon Face

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Image by Mona El Falaky from Pixabay

A pericarditis poem

Palpitations reverberate her ribs
Tremble. Thump. Squeeze. Tremble. Squeeze.
Staccato rhythms ricochet to her skull
Throbbing. Pulsating.
She awakens

Brain awash in a celestial haze
she levitates with caution
drifting to the vanity mirror
“Good Morning,” she sighs
to the Woman in the Moon Face

Half a year since the voyage began
Launched into orbit by an autoimmune flare
She tried to abort the mission
but there is no dousing
the combustion of chronic illness

Disease incarcerates her heart
Unrelenting gravity constricts her core
Shallow breaths through concrete
Each gasp measured
to preserve oxygen

Countenance circumnavigated by treatment
Her once lean expression
now eclipsed
Medications store plump reserves of blubber
encapsulating like a spacesuit

The image on her home screen taunts
A brighter, joyful time
Two years earlier
thin, carefree, euphoric
flanked by her sons beneath the Grecian sun

Averse to comprehend
this alien reflection
Reluctant to accept
the morphed figure as her own
The morning’s trek has made her weary

She retreats to her bed chamber
and dreams of normalcy

 

Skin Hunger is Real and it Scares me to Death

Will staying out of touch remain our reality?

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Tell me in a world without pity
Do you think what I’m askin’s too much?
I just want something to hold on to
And a little of that human touch
Just a little of that human touch*

There’s a premise that has been disturbing me of late, looming in my hopes for the future like a murky fog: After months in isolation, will we remember how to reconnect? Will we be wary, cowering from physical contact? Can we exist in a world where exchanging hugs or pats on the back become taboo? If so, what will be the repercussions on society’s soul?

Touch has a memory — John Keats

I began writing when I was a recent widow. In my first piece, I attempted to describe how “unprepared I was for the craving of non-sexual intimacy…” How the yearning for simple touch was a physical affliction akin to detox. Each time I witnessed a spontaneous caress between a couple, I withered a little bit more.

Touch is the first sense we experience, fostered from the moment we are born. It is conveyed via the organ that completely envelops us, yet often it is an afterthought — until it is absent. My nephew was born prematurely with numerous health issues. Laden with medical equipment, he looked more cyborg than human. My brother and sister-in-law remained affixed beside his sterile bassinet, pining to soothe him.

Numerous studies have demonstrated the benefits of skin-to-skin contact, particularly in preemies. Also known as kangaroo care, the baby is stripped of garments and cradled in their parent’s bare chest. Stabilizing breathing patterns, regulating sleep and increased cognitive development have been linked to this practice. Benefits to the parents include decreasing stress and increased breast milk production. And so, my brother and his wife anxiously awaited this treasured thirty minutes granted to them each day. This nugget of time more precious than gold.

If one is out of touch with oneself, then one cannot touch others — Anne Morrow Lindberg

The deprivation of human touch has been termed “skin hunger.” Insomnia, anxiety and aggressive behavior have all been linked to the lack of physical contact. According to Psychology Today,

People who feel more affection-deprived: are less happy; more lonely; more likely to experience depression and stress; and, in general, in worse health.

So, what does this mean for those sheltering alone or front liners sequestering themselves from loved ones? Social distancing is now how we demonstrate affection for our fellow man. Stay six feet apart or you may end up six feet under.

When we finally emerge from our quarantine cocoons, will we recall how to interact? Will fear cultivate hesitation? Dr. Anthony Fauci has advised we never shake hands — ever again. Clothing categorized by PPE quotients are sure to appear across our Facebook feeds. Attire labeled with antimicrobial factors may soon be touted in Amazon Lightning Deals. The last episode of Saturday Night Live had a soap opera spoof parodying the perils of dating during an outbreak. Daniel Craig attempts to make out with Kate McKinnon through a large swath of plastic wrap. Are full-body condoms far behind?

The faintest glimmers of “flattening the curve” are on the distant horizon and some have started to contemplate what society will look like once the immediate COVID-19 threat is over. When queried about what our future holds during a recent White House briefing, Dr. Fauci replied:

When we get back to normal, we will go back to the point where we can function as a society. But you’re absolutely right. If you want to get back to pre-coronavirus, that might not ever happen in the sense that the threat is there.

It is said that every time we embrace someone warmly, we gain an extra day of life. So please embrace me now. — Paulo Coelho

I hail from a boisterous Italian family. No hello or goodbye is without an embrace and a kiss on the cheek. Our personas burnished by such affections to glistening patinas. If that is taken away, we might as well be mute.

What will happen to the rush of holding someone’s hand for the first time? Or the intoxicating scent of a newborn nestled against your shoulder? How will our collective psyche be altered without such stimuli? How out of touch can we be and still maintain our sanity?

The Great Toilet Paper Shortage of 2020 will be recorded in the history books as the first panicked response to the pandemic. Will the next be a run on HAZMAT bunny suits, beekeeper apparel or even fencing uniforms? Always on guard, will each encounter be a duel? Five touches and you’re out.

This is my second bout with touch deprivation. My greatest fear for myself — for society — is that we become calloused. The wounds of confinement scab and scar, smothering our ability to register emotion.

You might need somethin’ to hold on to
When all the answers they don’t amount to much
Somebody that you can just talk to
And a little of that human touch*
*Bruce Springsteen

#COVID-19 #Relationships #HumanNature #MentalHealth #Touch #NewNormal

The Nurse With Kind Eyes

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There are moments in your life that are seared in your recollection. Even though some of the finer details may fade with time, your heart is permanently branded with the memory. This is the story of one of those encounters.

In early 2003, my husband, Matt, underwent a stem cell transplant to eradicate the mutant white blood cells coursing through his veins. AKA – leukemia. For those who are blissfully unaware of the process, let me give provide you with a brief timeline:

  • What you don’t know will hurt you: The presentation of the 150+ page quick-reference guide describing the ins and outs of a transplant.
  • Getting to know you: Test after test after test to prepare the candidate for the procedure; including, but by no means limited to: multiple scans, blood work, full-body measurements, and psychological evaluations.
  • End of the world as you know it:  A combination of total body irradiation and chemotherapy to exterminate the diseased bone marrow. The patient’s native immune system is systematically obliterated.
  • Knowing what’s good for you: Harvesting and transplanting of the donor’s stem cells. In Matt’s case, his sister was the gracious benefactor.
  • Don’t know what hit you: While waiting for the donor cells to graft into the recipient’s immune system, the patient is extremely vulnerable to life-threatening infections. He or she is moved to an isolation room for protection. My story takes place during this precarious time.
  • Knowing whether to laugh or cry: Matt was given a 60 percent chance of not making it through the ordeal. It took eight weeks to see if he would overcome the odds.
Matt - One of his first days in the hospital

Matt – One of his first days in the hospital

During Matt’s entire hospital stay, he was never left alone. I would arrive each morning by 6:30 to catch his doctor on his early rounds. One or both of his parents would come each evening to relieve me and spend the night. The nurses at his facility were some of the best in their field, but with an entire ward of critical patients, they were stretched thin. Our devoted trio strove to pick up some of the slack. There was always someone there to hold Matt’s hand, fetch the vomit bucket, or help him to the bathroom.

The days in isolation were some of the darkest. The patient feels like they are dying (quite frankly, they are) and, at their lowest point, begs you to let them. All traces of their original bone marrow – the production locale of blood cells – have been annihilated. This grueling prep must be completed in order for the donor stem cells to seize control.

It’s the medical equivalent of a hostile takeover.

Blood cell counts are done repeatedly to gauge progress. White blood cell (WBC) counts for healthy individuals typically run from 5,000-10,000. A stem cell transplant patient begins isolation with WBCs in the single digits. Waiting for the new cells to take root and multiply is like trying to make an industrial vat boil using only a birthday candle. Slow and tedious, you are constantly worried the candle might burn itself out before the water even reaches a simmer.

Previously, I would quickly grab a light lunch to eat back in Matt’s room. Outside food, however, was not allowed in the isolation wards. Stubbornly glued to Matt’s bedside during this perilous phase, I was skipping nearly every meal. When this absence of nourishment was combined with my lack of sleep and constant worry, I was in danger of needing my own hospital bed.

Whenever you spend any length of time in a medical facility, it doesn’t take long to know much of the nursing staff on a first-name basis. Most of them will take care of your loved one up to a week at a stretch. There are a few, however, that only appear for a day or two. These fleeting engagements can prevent you from ever learning the names of these particular providers of mercy. Such is the case of the nurse with kind eyes.

She came in one morning, introduced herself (again, can’t recall her name), and tended to Matt. She popped back in each hour just like every other nurse had been doing for the past week. After about hour five, she asked if I was going to lunch. “No,” I replied, “I’m afraid to leave.” The nurse look a little concerned, but nodded as she left. I had been asked that question many a time and thought nothing of it.

An hour or so later, she returned, a small paperback book in her hands. “Go eat. You need your strength,” she instructed. “I’m taking my lunch in here.”

“He won’t be alone.”

She was of Asian descent and her gaze was sympathetic. Beyond that, I am unable to recall her appearance. Nevertheless, I will never forget the effect she had upon me. My mind had been hissing with incessant anxiety. In the short amount of time it took to reach the cafeteria, I was able to settle my fears down to a steady purr. The kind-eyed nurse took on my “burden” for less than an hour, just long enough to rejuvenate my stamina for the weeks and months that lied ahead. Her act of compassion still resonates more than a decade later.


This essay is the second installment in my Bucket List of Gratitude. Check out my inaugural piece to learn more about my goal to recognize the not-so-random acts of kindness that have impacted my life.