hope and trepidation

Tomorrow morning, Calvin and I will finally make our way to Maine Medical Center for his endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP) meant primarily to remove at least one gallstone that is stuck in his common bile duct and which probably caused the excruciating waves of pain and elevated pancreatic enzyme that landed him in the emergency room on New Year's Eve. Calvin has likely needed this procedure for weeks if not months, but it has taken this long to get it on the books because—although every radiologist who read Calvin's CT scans and sonograms reported seeing at least one decent-sized gallstone—one of Calvin's providers wasn't convinced. Eventually, the procedure was scheduled, but then Calvin brought Covid home, and we had to postpone the operation a week.

The ERCP is not technically a surgery. It is an endoscopic procedure during which Calvin must undergo general anesthesia. The gastroenterologist—one of only two in Maine who has the skill to perform this operation—will insert a scope through Calvin's mouth into his esophagus to look for ulcers, etc., then go on to remove the problematic gallstone, perhaps having to widen the common bile duct so it passes more easily.

This will be Calvin's fourth time under general anesthesia. In the past, he has faired well, but the risk of dangerous complications is far worse for someone like him who is neurologically compromised and prone to getting pneumonia which, by the way, he was diagnosed with on New Year's Day. The last time Calvin had to have general anesthesia was last April during surgery for the hip he broke at school (a clean break at the base of the femoral head) when his aides let him walk around by himself and attempt to sit in a chair, which he most regrettably though not surprisingly missed (his vision and coordination are not good).

It is hard to put into words how gut-wrenching and nerve-racking it feels to watch your sweet, nonverbal, cognitively impaired child be wheeled down a hallway with a bunch of strangers into an even stranger room (operating rooms are cold, chrome, sterile places) without any understanding of what is about to happen or why, and without mom or dad by his side to comfort him. To say the experience is worrisome is an understatement. It is the cause of great trepidation.

And so, using the gastroenterologist's patient portal, I wrote to the physician who will be performing the ERCP:

"can i stay with calvin until he goes under general anesthesia?"

The doc replied within minutes, "yes. you can stay with him."

I breathed a sigh of (some) relief.

With any luck, the procedure will go off without any hitches, Calvin will make it safely out from under the anesthesia without aspirating or suffering from too much irritability, and we'll be home sometime tomorrow late afternoon or early evening. Hopefully, Calvin will get some immediate relief from the prolonged pain and discomfort that this gallstone has likely caused him and, hopefully, he'll be protected, at least for a while, from the dangerous sometimes lethal effects that gallstones can cause.

Sadly, Michael cannot join us because it has not yet been ten days (hospital protocol) since his Covid diagnosis, and because he'd miss another day of teaching; I urged him into staying behind. Thankfully, one of my besties, Barbara, is going to drive me and Calvin to the hospital in Portland, and another bestie, Matty, will shuttle us back so I can attend to Calvin's needs on the drive home.

Until then, cross your fingers and toes. 

Michael, in white, escorting Calvin as far as allowed before Calvin's hip surgery last April.


reason and being, purpose and meaning

I watch as a boy of five or six falls off of his bicycle. Somewhat remarkably, he lands squarely on his hands; his feet quickly follow. Having escaped injury, he rises and claps triumphantly, then begins to do a goofy, self-styled boogie, which is perfectly annoying to me. The caption on the video reads, "This should be your reaction when life challenges you."

For starters, I'm not a fan of the word, "should." I try not to "should" anyone, including myself. The rest of my cynical response to the video was—like most things—informed by my profoundly disabled, nonverbal, seizure-prone son. Calvin had just come off of a very shitty few weeks which began with back-to-back grand mal seizures, followed by waves of excruciating pain of unknown origin, the likes of which reminded me of Hollywood torture scenes. Ultimately, Calvin landed in the emergency room on New Year's Eve with an agonizing case of viral gastroenteritis and/or a problematic gallstone, which—after reviewing X-rays, a CT scan, and several blood draws taken at ungodly hours—the doctor said had likely caused the aspiration pneumonia in Calvin's left lung. We were released from the ER the following morning, and though I was relieved to be out of there, I didn't feel like dancing a jig; I felt only grateful that it seemed we may have dodged the latest bullet in Calvin's lifelong barrage of them.

Calvin reminds me daily that not everyone is equipped or inclined to celebrate or give ourselves high fives after life's nasty pitfalls, even if we eventually land on our feet. Sometimes, some of us come away from challenge and hardship feeling confusion, guilt, insecurity, anger, angst, resentment, exasperation, despair. My first reaction to the dancing boy was to acknowledge that not everyone is sailing along in life in the first place, or lucky enough to avoid misfortune such as hunger, war, poverty, displacement, abuse, injustice, depression, the death of a child, or one born to a life of profound physical and cognitive limitations and miseries, like Calvin. Call me a Debbie Downer for criticizing what some might consider a harmless, light-hearted video. I mean, I get the gist, and I'm generally an upbeat optimist who sometimes even welcomes challenge, however, I look at certain subjects through a more serious lens than others.

The video also reminded me of the countless times people have told me that everything happens for a reason. Though the sentiment is meant to be comforting, I generally respond by disagreeing, then go on to explain my preference for the notion of gleaning great purpose and meaning from life's hardships (a practice which can also be elusive to some) as opposed to there being some mysterious reason baked into every awful thing that happens. If I probe, some folks claim that bad things happen to teach us lessons. I usually respond by telling them I am not worthy of my son's suffering. Others say we can't know the reasons for mishaps and tragedies, but that God has a plan. I'm always left wondering: if there is an omnipotent god with a plan for everything, why does it so often include godawful misery, and how is that not deeply disturbing if not unthinkable? Would an all-powerful god orchestrate every little scrape and bruise I get and/or the immense suffering my son endures? Does God stage and sanction starvation, war, genocide? What kind of god has a reason—and what in God's name could that reason be—for the torture of "his" beloved children at the hands of others, or from excruciating illnesses? And if God isn't responsible for orchestrating horrors such as mass shootings, catastrophic fires, floods and earthquakes, then why doesn't "he" rescue us from suffering? Even we puny humans will do virtually anything in our power to save our children from pain. Why doesn't God? And if there is a reason for everything, what does that say about the notion of free will? Lastly, some people say God is testing us, and my immediate response is to ask: for what purpose? To what end? Is God conducting some test of fidelity, and if so, what deep conceit does that reveal? And what would be the point of testing us, knowing we are impossibly fallible beings?

I've found myself ruminating over the bicycle-boy video and related conversations for weeks, and I'm taken back to my childhood. Despite being raised Catholic, I began doubting the existence of a merciful, omnipotent god when my best friend's two-year-old sister nearly drowned in their nearby swimming pool. I had been outside when I heard the dog barking and the mother discover her baby girl lifeless in the water. I had never heard a grieving human shriek and howl so animalistically. She fished her daughter out of the pool and resuscitated her. The child survived, but was in a coma for at least a week and emerged from it no longer a toddler, having lost every one of her acquired skills. Her recovery, while not utterly complete, took years. I'm surprised her mother survived the ordeal, and I wondered if she felt as if God were punishing her for some petty transgression. It didn't make sense to me that a merciful god would allow any of "his" flock to suffer and grieve so deeply. It all seems so utterly senseless.

In continuing to ponder the theory that everything happens for a reason, I wondered if maybe that reason is merely that we exist. Perhaps it's as plain and simple as that: we exist, and therefore things happen to us. It seems reasonable that all things great and small, as in nature—rain, sunshine, hurricanes, earthquakes, moss growing on trees—just occur without any divine reason. In other words, as the saying goes, shit just happens. It makes sense to me—and frankly is far more comforting than the notion of a god with a secret plan sitting idly by while we are tormented—that our every move isn't governed, decided, judged and orchestrated by a god. And, too, maybe overcoming life's nasty challenges and curveballs isn't always reason for smug celebration, but rather, a time for reflection, gratitude and humility, especially considering so many of our fellow beings, through no fault of their own, live in a world of misery.

Photo by Michael Kolster, August 2021



Nineteen years ago today—six weeks before his due date, two weeks after a sonogram revealed an alarming absence of white matter in his brain, and a week before a scheduled cesarean at Boston's Children's Hospital—Calvin came into the world during an emergency cesarean at Portland's Maine Medical Center—in the middle of an ice storm. I guess that's how he rolls.

Seven weeks passed before we brought Calvin home from the hospital. At the time, Michael's employer did not offer parental leave (oh, how we could still use some) and, while Calvin was in the neonatal intensive care unit fighting to thrive, the college asked Michael to take on an ill colleague's course of classes in addition to his own. Thankfully, for our sake, he said no.
Every evening after work, Michael made the thirty-mile drive to Portland to be with me and Calvin in the hospital before spending the night with me in the nearby Ronald McDonald House where parents of sick children are provided meals, a comfortable place to sleep and, for some, a private place to grieve.
Halfway through those heart-wrenching and difficult first seven weeks, when Calvin became just strong enough to be transported via ambulance, he and I took up residence in our local hospital's labor and delivery ward. Every night for three and a half weeks, Michael brought me a home-cooked meal, which we ate together at a little round table in the corner of the room while Calvin slept. Our friends, Ta and Jerry, and Michelle brought us meals, too.
I hear parents remark, often lamentably, about how quickly their children grow up. I get the sentiment; I feel the fleeting passage of years in my life, too. In some ways, yes, Calvin "grew up" in a blink. But his nearly-imperceptible and in most ways halted progress has had a way of slowing time to a crawl; I mean, I'm still changing diapers after nineteen years; that kind of thing can have the affect of stunting time. But the protracted passage of time has led me to be mindful of every moment of the past eighteen years, and to have felt them deeply—beginning with the tragic sonogram, the fear, the feelings of grief and loss, the hopelessness and uncertainty, the joy and surprise, the frustration and resentment of raising a child like him. I've done and been through some difficult things in life, but nothing compares with this marathon. At the same time, I've felt the most extraordinary love for my nonverbal, legally blind, autistic, enigmatic, impossible child who has virtually been joined at the hip with a me for nineteen years. Suffice to say, it's been a wild ride; I'm exhausted and proud.
Last year, instead of celebrating Calvin's transition into manhood, I began his eighteenth birthday by cradling him in my arms like a baby again, my eyes stinging and welling up after four days of seizure-related worries, woes and sleep deprivation. The world looks blurry through watery eyes and wet lashes, and I thought about how much easier it would be to raise him if it weren't for relentless seizures and drug side effects that make him so irritable at time, and impossibly restless. 

This year, the day began as most do more recently, which was with a long and strong embrace from Calvin, including mutual back rubs, as he stood in his pajamas after I helped him out of bed and before I changed his soaking diaper and onesie and got him dressed for school. It has been nine days since his last seizure having avoided one on the full moon, so we have that to celebrate, too.

At nineteen, my sweet Calvin still cannot utter a word, put on his own socks and shoes, eat independently with a spoon, follow most instructions, turn a door knob, read a book, choose items at the grocery store, calm his body or be by himself. Still, there are moments of joy with my heartbreak kid, who can both exasperate me and melt me into a mess of motherly love. I guess, in that sense, we're no different than any other mother and child.