Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Valleys and Hilltops

My life could easily be compared to a hike in the mountains.  As a young woman I ADORED hiking in the Utah mountains.  The trails would be steep, uphill, labored breathing, and then suddenly, there was a valley, a lovely portion of the trail when I could trek along with no effort.

This analogy has always closely paralleled my life experience.  I was born severely allergic to pretty much every substance and food in this world.  I had no immune system to speak of.  There were no antihistamines, very few antibiotics.  We had frequent trips to good old Mount Baldy in Southern California.  For whatever reason up there my breathing would clear, stabilize.

Sometimes when I was seriously oxygen starved our neighbors would let me use their oxygen.  Oxygen was very expensive, and Mr. Bench needed it for his Emphysema.   Day or middle of the night they would willing, lovingly, offer me the breath of life.

Many times it was necessary to take me to the ER.  The chronic inflammation of my lungs triggered many bronchial infections.  A hospital was NOT a frightening place to me.  It was a place of sanctuary.  A place where I KNEW that they would give me oxygen.  Sometimes, when I had a really bad infection they would put me in an oxygen tent.  That was so soothing to me, the sound of the oxygen flowing, and my breathing leveling out.  There was no tortured, aching attempts just to draw breath in and out of my tiny body.

My medical expenses kept us in constant medical debt.  My parents constantly juggled and struggled with finances, and living with a child always on the edge of a long slide into death.

Mama told me about one hospital visit.  She was exhausted.  She had spent several nights by my side, watching over me.  I was never left alone in the hospital.  My medical condition was so fragile that Mama was terrified that I would become oxygen starved and die before anyone noticed.

Sleep deprived, worried sick about me, and frazzled from constant medical debt Mama drug her heels as she went into the financial office to make payment arrangements.  She simply could not imagine how they could squeeze one more payment plan into their harshly squeezed budget.

The clerk looked at my list of expenses and said, "Mrs. Cheney do you think you could afford to pay $10.00 a month?"

Mama, the lady who hates to show emotion in front of others broke down and cried.  She simply was overwhelmed with the kindness and understanding that this clerk showed.  $10.00 was worth a lot more in 1958 than it is now, but it still was do-able.

Most people would define this life experience as all hill, labored, tortured climbing.  These experiences were absolutely challenging to me, to my family who are friends, and my friends who are family.  It actually was a constant challenge and struggle.  Was it ALL hard, miserable climbing?

As an infant it was determined that any time I was put in a crib, or swaddled in a blanket tightly  it would trigger an asthma attack.  A few times I was so oxygen starved that my lips, and skin turned blue. 

On one visit to my doctor he wrapped me tightly in a receiving blanket.  Quickly I began to wheeze.  The doctor quickly unwrapped me and said, "If you leave her in a crib or bassinet she could develop a serious asthma attack.  She could become oxygen starved and die.  Or it could cause serious brain damage for her to be oxygen starved.  You need to hold her, all the time.  She can never be laid down...ever!"

Mama and Papa were overwhelmed.  How is it possible to live life while constantly holding a seriously ill baby?  Our Church Family rallied around us with love.  They set up a schedule for around the clock holding of one seriously ill baby, me.

Let's review our facts.  I was desperately ill.  My parents and I faced the almost certain knowledge that I would not live very long.  The Mayo Brother's came to Los Angela.  Mama and Papa took me to be evaluated.  The good brothers looked me over and told Mama and Papa, "Your daughter is the most seriously allergic/sensitive child that we've ever seen." 

Some of the many doctor's that my parents took me to said, "She won't live very long.  Don't get too attached, it will be too hard on you when she dies."  As a Mother I can attest that I simply would not be capable of caring 24/7 for a desperately ill child without becoming bonded, attached with love.

The Mayo brothers gave Mama a list that was three pages long, single spaced, things that she MUST do to keep me alive.  I have a brother 10 years older than I am, and a sister 6 years older than I am.  This "list" of "must do" also impacted them as they were conscripted into assisting my Mama and Papa.

It's all sounding dire and grim don't you think?  Yet you would be wrong.  The daily, nightly battle to keep me oxygenated and alive pulled us together as a family.  It was necessary for us to work together to work through my health challenges. 

I remember fond memories of my brother sitting in our recliner holding me when I was struggling to breath.  I remember him reading to me when I was bed bound.

My sister was not too thrilled initially when I joined the family.  She had the spotlight for six wonderful years and she was loathe to give it up to a sick small sister.  In spite of that she held me, sang to me, and shared an awful version of chicken pox with me.  This form turns the pox water blisters into boils....ever so painful....ever so hard to get rid of!  Yet my beloved sis was loving towards me even when she herself was so sick and miserable.

One day I walked into the kitchen (I was about 3 at the time) and there on the table was the most amazing cake.  It was a lamb, completely with fluffy wool.  (The fluffy was flakes of coconut).  A couple were there to bring the cake.  I did not realize in that brief meet and greet experience that these two beloved people, "The St. Charles," would become my second Mom and Dad.

Mary...she had sons, no daughters.  So she adopted me, and adopted our family.  Mary had a secret life that she did NOT like to share.  Her husband was a mean drunk.  He seemed to be a charming, loving person when he was not drunk.  Mary lived with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde for a very long time.  In spite of these trials (I remember noticing once that she had lots of bruises all over her arms and legs, but didn't understand why) she blessed our lives with laughter, and endless quantities of love.

Mama made certain that my life was not ALL about doctors, ER's, shots, pills, and other medical scenarios.  If I had an appointment that involved tough things like shots, blood tests, or other medical unpleasantries afterwards we went to a cafeteria for lunch, or window shopping, or to the park. 

Papa would come home from work exhausted.  He always made time for me.  I would sit on his lap and comb his hair.  We would have a snack together and he would tell me about his day. 

I knew that our lives were HARD!  We were not in denial, ignoring the hard, and living in a happy bubble.  Aware of the hard we made the conscious choice, over, and over, to THRIVE, not merely to SURVIVE.  Is that even possible?  Is it possible that life can hold great joy, and cherished experiences in the middle of sorrow, and struggle? 

To be clear, I'm not speaking about abnormal sorts of behavior like sadism, or masochism.  It is NEVER healthy to learn to ENJOY either your own pain and sorrow or someone else's.  That is NOT what I'm referring to. 

I'm speaking of becoming aware and grateful for joy and blessing in the middle of rough and challenging.  Blessings such as the friends that became family as they moved forward to serve us.  Feelings of closeness as a family as we pulled together continued to bless our family unit when my health became less critical due to the discovery of modern medicines.

"Thrive, Don't Just Survive," is a book that I am writing.  I will explore the idea of finding joy even in the middle of life's foxholes, and battle fields.  I am selfish in my writing.  After my beloved husband of 27 years passed away at 54, I NEEDED to remember the joy, to carry me through the hardest loss of my life.  So I started writing my book to review and relive memories.  In the process I began to look forward to the future.

I look forward to sharing more stories and ideas about Thriving ESPECIALLY in the hardest of times that life can offer.  I hope that you will also look forward to these stories!


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