October 17, 2012

A day at Crickhollow Studios...

A day in the life…. I have been thinking about writing one of those posts lately. You’ve seen them, where the studio artist type posts pictures or videos of what they’ve done that day with explanations and “how to” guides. I would cap off the post with lovely photographs of the finished product from the day. I enjoy blogs like that, but I’ve never felt the inspiration to put one together, until today.

My day started out at five this morning. I woke up just before the alarm clock went off, the last time I remember making note of the hour was around three or so. I don’t sleep much. I hit the shower and woke up standing in the lukewarm, half pressured mess the plumbing here provides. I went through the mindless movements of getting ready for a long day, then went out to put my shoes on. My wife was awake and sitting on the edge of the couch wearing the morning death stare waiting for me to get out of the bathroom.

“Good morning darling..” I chimed in the most pleasant voice I could muster, as I walked by her. She hit me with the usual noncommittal daybreak growl, she can’t stand mornings at all. I put my shoes on and headed for the coffee pot as I glanced back and forth between it and the clock on the microwave weighing time versus left over coffee if I made a pot… I decided to wing it without caffeine. I heard the car pulling up outside and called out my goodbyes to her as I went out into the new day…

This was a Wednesday, and Wednesdays mean the cancer treatment center with my brother. He was diagnosed back at the beginning of the year with pancreatic cancer. I’ve been taking him up there for his doctor visits and chemo treatments since some time around March. We go at least once a week, sometimes its more, but that’s rare, thank god. He had an early appointment today so we left at six. The drive to the Winship Cancer Center at Emory in Atlanta is an hour long mindless drone of a thing through Atlanta traffic. I fell into the endless line of talking I always do when I drive, yes.. even when I’m alone I talk when I drive. We were thinking it would be a good visit since the appointments were scheduled early, which would mean we wouldn’t be there all day long. That is always a danger when you go to Winship. The care you get when you are in the presence of the doctors and nurses is pretty good, its just the getting to that point that can be a royal pain in the ass. The scheduling department at Emory is not a well oiled machine. You can be scheduled for blood work at eight in the morning, then for chemo at four in the afternoon, then not get into the infusion center until five or six to start chemo. Those are the bad days. Luckily, my brother is one of those people that follows the edict of  “screw that I’m not waiting around there all day, I’ll go in for blood work at three, if they don’t like it I’ll just go home.” I believe that sort of attitude is In our family’s genetic make up.

We got there around seven thirty, Atlanta traffic being what it is, an hour and a half for an hour long drive isn’t too bad. We sat in the car for a little while then headed in. Blood work only takes a few minutes so we had a while to kill before heading into the hell that is the infusion center. Imagine a waiting room that is standing room only, with a couple of hundred people in various stages of a deathly illness waiting to get into a room the size of a school gymnasium so they can be hooked up to machines that pump poison through their bodies making them sicker in the short term, but better in the long run. You guessed it.. It’s a happy place.

I sat down next to the coffee machine and watched people trying to figure out how to drive it and look cool at the same time. I shared knowing glances with the folks in line that were old pros with this satanic thing they use in the infusion center. The machine, as I’ve come to call it, offers a variety of hot beverages, coffee being the most popular, but it has hot chocolate in it. The drink is god awful stuff, but it’s chocolate so I must have it. When the line is gone I hop up, knowing all too well how to run it, press large, then hot chocolate, then cream as I smile in triumph… only to hear snickering break out all around me. Then I notice, I did everything except for placing the damn cup under the spout. I laughed at myself and my arrogance as I watched the spill grate rapidly fill up while I was blindly grabbing a cup. I don’t mind being comic relief for these people. They deserve any sort of distraction they can get.

They called us back a few minutes after his appointment time had gone by, which is good for Winship, you can wait as long as two hours before they acknowledge your existence. We headed back to the nurse’s station so he could be weighed and sphygmomanometered, then it was on to “Bay B” each bay has six or so seats per side, facing each other, there isn’t much privacy. First you sit there for a while as the nurses run around and take care of other people there, then they come to you and get you ready, they connect all the necessary tubing to you, then they vanish for a while. They claim they are waiting on your blood work to come in from upstairs, but I think they do it for meanness. Once the blood work is in they put your medicine order in, this is the tricky part. The time depends solely on what it is you’re getting. My brother’s last round took about an hour to get ready, then three to four hours to run. He is on his second and final round of chemo, post whipple procedure. (The whipple procedure basically means they put you on an operating table, gut you like a fish, then re-plumb you so you can be all better. Not to pleasant, but if it saves your life, right?) This second round only takes thirty minutes to get ready and thirty minutes to run, so you’re usually only there two or three hours…

I was feeling a bit restless today as we waited on them to get to the point of getting him ready so I told him I had to go to the bathroom. I headed out through the waiting room and shook my head as I looked at the people standing around waiting for a seat and flashed on the sight inside the fusion center of all the empty chairs waiting to be filled. I recalled a nurse telling us on one of our “shut the place down” visits when we got out of there around eight o’clock in the evening, that they were sorely understaffed. I wondered how long you had to work in this profession before you became this jaded to the sight of these people waiting, hoping, and trying not to think about dying. People from the age of four or five to well past eighty with bald heads, sickly, pale, exhausted, wearing masks… it will, and does, rip your heart out. It’s enough to make you old, right quick.

I headed out the door and worked my way over to the parking deck to stand around for a few minutes. I had a smoke as I watched people going in and out, and thought about the irony of sneaking away for a cigarette at the cancer center… I stared up at the sky for a while as I steeled myself to go back in, took a deep breath and went for it. Once I made it into the infusion center I noticed that they had gotten my brother ready for his chemo, things were looking up. I sat down and he said something under his breath and nodded to the seat next to him, I saw then that his oncologist was there with his nurse practitioner. The doctors rarely make a visit to the infusion center so I knew something was up. He was sitting with an elderly lady who I then heard groan loudly. She was sitting in a wheel chair at the foot of her chemo lounge. I could discern from the conversation that this was her first chemo treatment. Her daughter was with her. The lady was complaining of pain. She had been up the entire night before throwing up, and had not stopped all day. They gave her one of the ubiquitous “sick bags” that hang on every wall in the cancer center, next to the “hand sanitizing” stations. She doubled over in pain and moaned loudly, groaning out that her stomach hurt. She began to cry as all human dignity left her. After almost a year of this I still can’t get used to this cry for help. The high pitched wail that gives way to the low guttural sounds as they double over. I stared at the floor and listened as it played down my spine and tried as hard as my soul could manage not to cry for this woman. She was sitting five feet in front of me, begging not to die as a crowd of medical professionals looked on and touched her shoulder. The place my mind goes during this type of thing is to see the faces of all the people I have met since this started that are no longer here, I have no choice. She knew that she was dying, and it scared the hell out of her. I was making it through the scene as they called an ambulance, and an EMT team showed up to help. They told the nurses and doctor that they could get her across the street to the emergency room, but they had no gurney, and the ambulance was about fifteen minutes away on Briarcliff.

It was then that I made eye contact with her daughter. The tired reddened eyes I know so well looked back at me. I felt every bit of her loss of hope. Her despair and helplessness went straight through my soul and burned a permanent impression on the core of my being. She looked at me, blinked a couple of times, and looked away. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath and poured all of the love I could muster out of myself toward her, hoping beyond hope, that whatever god or creative force in the universe would take just a damn second to offer this woman a sliver of  mercy in her pain. I cursed anything that would bring this type of suffering upon a human being. I began to cry slowly and silently. I blinked repeatedly, trying in vain to stop my own eyes from becoming red. My feeling was to run to this woman, to hug her, to hold her, to offer anything, up to and including my own life, to bring her a few seconds of peace, just any… escape.

I took several slow breaths and opened my eyes to stare at the floor as I sat there, feeling useless. The nurse then returned to tell the EMT guys that insurance regulations dictated that she had to wait for the ambulance. The next emotion in line was anger, it always follows such deep sadness, always…  I wanted to get up, push them aside and wheel her in her chair to the elevator, down one level, through the tunnel that goes under the street, and directly into the emergency room that sits at the other end. A trip of probably five or six minutes, instead she had to wait on an ambulance several miles away to get here?

She continued to cry in pain and to call out how her stomach hurt as her daughter, doctor and EMT team stood there looking down at her. The doctor finally said, “We will get you something for pain.” as he walked away, quickly followed by his assistant. The nurse then appeared with a hypodermic of morphine and gave it to her. She slowly became quiet as she settled into whimpering. Her daughter stepped forward and began stroking her hair. I continued listening as I looked around the room. There was only one other person in the aisle with us, he was quietly reading a book as the chemo pumped through him. I looked at my brother for the first time and he too was staring at the floor. Finally the ambulance team arrived. They took little time assessing her, loaded her on the gurney, then walked out. The nurse appeared next to my brother and happily told him his medicine was ready as she began to get it ready to go. I sat there, trying to gather my thoughts and emotions. I couldn’t seem to make sense out of life at his point….

The thirty minutes of his chemo passed in just a few seconds as I felt anger and sadness fighting for control of my well being. The pump beeped its signal and the nurse came over to disconnect him. I stood up, looked down the aisle to the older gentlemen still reading his book, the eleven empty chairs and the nurses all standing around the computers. “Lets get the hell out of this place.” was all I could say at this point. He walked ahead of me and spoke up as we entered the waiting room, still full of standing, sitting and laying down patients. My brother said, “All these people in here and all those empty chairs in there, it doesn’t make any sense…” I replied with, “Overbooked and understaffed.”

I nearly broke into a run as I made my way to the exit, I couldn’t focus on the signs they have all around the place saying things like compassion, hope, etc… I just had to get out of that house of pain. I was nearly in panic mode when we walked through the door and I felt like I could breathe again. We made our way to the car and left.

Driving through the streets of Atlanta, all I could think about was that just a few miles away from all these people walking around, going about their daily lives as they smiled and talked to each other were hundreds of people fighting for their lives. “It amazes me that life goes on like this with all that pain just a few feet away, hidden from view.”

Normalcy slowly returned as I navigated my way down the interstate toward Newnan. I asked my brother if he was hungry, I had a destination in mind. He said he could eat as I drove toward downtown and a big sloppy cheese burger from Christy’s CafĂ©, I haven’t been there in a while and I needed a fix. I relished the tater tots and huge cheese burger as I slowly ate the life stealing mixture of animal fats deadly carbohydrates, washed down with a sweet tea with so much sugar a stirring spoon would’ve stood in the glass by itself if I let it go. We then walked around the block to the hobby store as he bought a new model, he has a penchant for classic movie monster models. We then left and headed toward home.

Once here I looked over my project sheet, made a few phone calls, answered some emails, and lined up the next work to do. I then went across the road to my brothers place with my two sons and we began to pick our way through a pile of oak limbs, looking for the right length for a hiking stick a customer needs. My brother was in his shop working on a window project he’s doing for his barn. We took the sticks I dug out up to his shop and he cut them for me on his saw. We stood around and talked about useless things few a few minutes then returned home. I organized my new finds, and adjusted the work schedule. Then got about prepping the new pieces for carving. I worked on that until my wife arrived home. Throughout this entire afternoon I could not get the sound of that woman’s cries for help or her daughters eyes out of my mind. Our older son got ready for work and headed out as number two son made preparations for his Wednesday night church trip with his cousin.

Once they had left, my wife broke out the jewelry project she had been thinking of making as I made dinner for us. As I prepared the meal, she put on some loud music, and for just a few minutes I was carried away to a place in time before life attacked me with responsibilities and worries that come naturally with age.

I sat down at the computer as our meal finished cooking. I logged onto a social network, checked email and stared at the screen as the music flowed all around me. I read about who was eating what for dinner, what someone thought about the idiot trying to get elected, how someone was getting their hair did, and who was getting drunk at which bar that night… I turned it off. I looked out of the window wondering whether or not that little old lady I saw this afternoon was still alive. I wondered what her daughter was doing as I watched the trees sway in the breeze, and I hoped that at some point a little peace came into her life soon.

That was my day…