Covid Coping

Just you and me, baby.

As the Covid-19 reins tighten on social distancing, not only is our calendar devoid of events, but our circle of personal contacts has squeezed down to two.  Rich and I better be nice to one another.  We’re all we’ve got.Molly and Rich selfie

I have no illusions that this will last a couple of weeks or so.  I’ve read enough to know it’s going to take months for us to flatten out the curve of infection.  I’m mentally preparing for the long haul.

We’ve already been practicing the sheltering concept for over a week, so I have a taste of this new normal.  This uber-togetherness thing.  And I realize we have an advantage.  It’s called retirement.

I think back on those early days when we first left our jobs.  When we no longer spent all day at work and inflicted our personalities on our coworkers.  Suddenly we were at home full-time, playing in the same sandbox.  We had to learn to jockey around one another.  How to balance time doing things together and time doing our own thing.  I couldn’t help but feel like Rich was looking over my shoulder at times, judging how I spent my time.  It reminded me of when my dad retired.  Mom said the house was never so clean – she was afraid to sit down and look idle.  I admit to my own sideways glances when Rich lounged on the couch.  If nothing else, we learned to hold our tongues.  To loosen up.

Eventually we worked our way into a routine.  We figured out how to co-exist in the same space, all day long, day in, day out.  Thankfully, we also developed our own distinct retirement hobbies – photography and writing.  Pursuits that keep us out of one another’s hair.  Now that we’re confined to the house, I feel grateful that we have that figured out.  But there’s still a hitch.

Our pattern is to exit the house by day, and reunite over dinner.  Rich roams the woods in search of birds to photograph, and I park myself at Amity Coffee pecking away at my keyboard, inching my book along.  While Rich’s outdoor wanderings are currently still a viable option, my daily perch and latte are now off-limits.  The solitude I seek among the cacophony of the busy espresso bar is no more.

Enter the home coffee shop.  With a card table installed in the Bunk Room, I can make my own coffee, pick up my laptop and “go to the coffee shop.”  I close the door and I’m off-site, in my own world, sequestered until I choose to re-emerge.  I think of it as working remotely in reverse.  And it works.

Molly home coffee shop

The final piece in our retirement puzzle is a commitment to getting outside for fresh air and exercise – each at our own time and pace, of course.  Rich calls me “obsessed.”  I don’t argue the fact.  But we’re both out there doing it.  Staying healthy and in shape.

We’re grateful that the powers that be recognize the importance of this.  We’re still out there running, biking and walking in the woods to lose the threat that looms over us, if only temporarily.  It’s enough to keep us sane.  It’s how we will cope in the weeks and months to come.  Just the two of us.

Laughter, the best medicine

I’ve been here before.  I know how silly this is going to make me feel, and it’s already outside my comfort zone.  So what is this TV camera doing here?

My sister, Susie, is a certified Laughter Yoga instructor.  Sure, I attend yoga sessions fairly regularly, but what’s this about laughing?  And how could it possibly have anything to do with yoga?  When she invited me to one of her classes last year, I just had to go.  To find out what it’s all about.

Standing in a circle of adults in the basement of her church, I prepared myself to feel foolish.  Susie and her co-teacher, Jessica, had already prepared us for that.  “The body doesn’t know the difference between real laughter and fake laughter,” they said.  “It has the same beneficial effects on the body.”  Apparently I was going to fake it through this class.

To start, they laid down the guidelines.  Among them, no talking.  (Except for the instructors, of course.)  So in order to introduce ourselves to our fellow participants, we were to turn to each one, stretch out a hand, shake theirs and, well, laugh.  Okay, this seemed pretty weird.  But there was no point in being there if I wasn’t going to buy into it, so I did as I was told.  And laughed.  Then laughed again.  As long as everyone was doing it, it really wasn’t so bad.  It almost began to feel real.

The class progressed, full of good sports willing to play along, follow instructions, and laugh.  We worked our way through warm-ups, laughing, breathing, laughing, chants, laughing, singing, laughing, cheers and laughing.  And it felt good.

So when she invited me back again, I took the bait.  Only I wasn’t counting on that TV camera.  I begin to get the picture when he interviews Susie and Jessica before class starts.  I can hear them touting the health benefits of laughing.  The mental boost it provides.  The origin of Laughter Yoga in India in the 1990s, and its founder Dr. Madan Kataria.

Once we gather in our circle, I try to screen out that cameraman.  I do my best to ignore him moving around behind us, capturing our silliness from all angles.  Blot out thoughts of who might see this on tonight’s evening news.

“Children laugh an average of 400 times a day,” Jessica tells us.  “For adults, it’s 4-7 times daily.”  I believe it.  I know my day often lacks levity.  The wrinkles around my mouth turn down, not up.  I think I need this laughter injection.  Soon I’m shaking hands with my fellow students once again, and laughing.

As we work our way through the progression this time, I finally get the yoga bit.  It’s all in the breathing, the foundation of yoga.  It’s not about poses, it’s about filling our lungs with good air, expelling the old.  Feeding the body with oxygen.  Finding positive energy.

As before, I draw my cues from my fellow participants.  We’re all in this together.  If they’re willing to do this, so am I.  Studiously ignoring that camera, I focus on them instead.  Look into their eyes and find joy in their laughter.  As their laughs escalate, so do mine.  We feed off one another.

Our final exercise brings us onto the floor.  Atop a colorful Indian-looking tapestry with concentric circles, we form our own circle.  Heads in the middle, legs spreading out like spokes, we rest on our backs.  Then laugh.  Tentatively at first, then gaining momentum.  I hear others laughing, and they spur me on.  I hear Susie across the circle from me, her infectious laugh triggering mine.  Memories of her childhood laughter, our innocent youth, her happy giggles.  Me, the serious one, she the jokester.  I let go and a belly laugh ripples through my body.  Later I overhear Susie telling someone, “I was laughing, and then I could hear Molly, my sister, laughing across from me!”

This goes on for many long minutes.  Just as I think I’ve laughed my last, someone else starts up again and the cycle repeats.  By this time it all feels like the real thing.  I’m literally quite worn out by the time Jessica moves us on to the final relaxation phase.

I don’t know these people who have shared this Laughter Yoga hour with me, but we all embrace before parting. And yes, laugh.  At ourselves, at our newfound positive outlook, at life in general.

And sure enough, we’re all on the Fox21 evening news.  I’m proud of Susie, as I watch her speak eloquently in front of the camera, and lead our troupe through the paces.  I cringe only a little when I see myself.  But more importantly, I just may have reached my childhood 400 laughs that afternoon.  And indeed, it was good medicine.

Ski Medicine

It might not have been what the doctor ordered, but it was the best medicine I could take.  I was still coughing and dragging from a bout with the flu when Erik called.  “Would it be all right if I came up tomorrow night to ski the North Shore on Monday?  You’d be welcome to join me.”  Of course it was more than all right!

I tossed and turned all night long.  Was I crazy to spend a whole day skiing when I could barely get off the couch just days before?  I’ve never been one to hold back, nor necessarily listen to reason, so in the dark wee hours of the morning I rose and piled on layers of ski clothes.

As we drove the shoreline the sun rose in a cloudless sky, lifting over Lake Superior and bisecting the radiant band of orange hovering over the cold blue water.  By the time we reached the Sugarbush Trailhead above Tofte, it hung low in the sky sending long sinewy shadows across the trail but doing little to raise the zero degree temperature.  Pristine corduroy lay before my skate skis, crisp deep tracks for Erik’s classic version.  We entered the deep silence of the trail.Molly Sugarbush trails Erik Sugarbush trails

Erik had some serious skiing to do.  His goal was to complete the Picnic Loop and any other bits of trail he could find to ski 40 kilometers.  As a serious contender in the upcoming Birkie Classic race, he relished this extensive training opportunity.  So I waved him off, content to plod along at my own pace.

The cold snow squealed under my skis, glide eluding my fresh wax job, but the extra effort warmed my stiff chilled body.  I didn’t meet another sole for at least an hour and a half, skimming the snow, lost in thought.  Imperceptibly the sun gained strength, my fingers and toes rejoiced, and my skis slipped ever so slightly farther.  Weaving through the woods, uphill and down I lost track of time and distance.  Forgot my recent malady.

Through sheer luck, we finished at nearly the same time.  Flush with excitement over the fantastic conditions, Erik confirmed his 41k distance – to my 20k in the same amount of time!  Over lunch at the Coho Café we traded superlatives about our morning – the deep glistening snow in the woods, the distant lake views, the challenging but fun hills, the joy of skiing.

Erik Molly Coho Cafe

The Northwoods Ski Trail in Silver Bay gave us a leisurely afternoon ski.  Narrow single classic tracks wound through the woods, with snow laden pines slipping past our shoulders and towering overhead.  We skied together over the soft snow, sharing the views and even spotting a marten that scampered up a tree to peer down at us.  A steep uphill got our hearts pumping, and rewarded us with a long smooth downhill.  This wasn’t a workout, it was an experience.

Northwoods Ski Trails Erik Molly Northwoods Trails Molly Northwoods Trails

A full day, sharing a mutual love of skiing, chatting in the car, just being together.  One-on-one time with one of my adult children is a precious gift.  This one also delivered a hearty dose of healing.  Goodbye flu, I think I skied it out of my system.  And Erik?  He opted for another 15k on the Lester Trails when we returned, topping off his mileage above 60k.  We both got the medicine we needed.

Turning the Corner

“I’m not ready to declare victory, but I’m winning some battles.”

As rapidly as Rich declined into sightlessness, his ascent back into the world is a meteoric rise.  Thanks to modern medicine, each day brings progress.  Every venture outside breeds success.  The botox treatment that generally requires a week to take effect has been delivering mounting victories each successive day.

That magic formula is restoring a lot more than sight.

I feel like I am coming up from underground.  The past few months have been consumed by this drama, bringing isolation as well as despair.  Dealing with the realities of Rich’s condition was all consuming.  A single focus, particularly for him, but dribbling over into my existence.  Life on hold.

This week is like re-emerging in the spring and rediscovering the outside world.  As Rich begins to push his boundaries again, so do I.  He is able to go for walks in the woods.  I can return to my writing, believing he will be safe.  He takes the car keys and ventures over to Superior to spot two snowy owls with his own eyes.  I treat myself to a movie with a friend. He meets a fellow birder for a morning in the Bog.  I hunker down in the coffee shop with my laptop.  Every small step feels like liberty.

How well I remember my days in the hospital, after delivering each of our three babies.  The insulating environment of that sterile room, devoid of external influence, the absence of outside news.  All that mattered was the precious new life that lay in my arms.  The miracle that depended on me.  That slept, fed, cried and squirmed as I looked on.  The world beyond my room did not exist.

At times this fall, our house felt the same way.  Our lives – and our fears – were confined within its boundaries.

Hoeg HArbor winter

But we were never really alone.  The outpouring of support, the check-ins to see how we were doing, the offers for rides, and most of all the prayers for answers carried us through.  I am humbled by the show of love and comfort we have received.  The blessings of true friendship.  I thank each and every one of you for being there for us.

Rich may be cautious in his optimism, but the mood in that house has lifted.  In contrast to a few days ago, his spirit is soaring.  And I’m riding that high.  I just know we are turning the corner.

Life Rearranged

I’m off kilter. I’ve been thrown off balance. My norm is rapidly unwinding, and I don’t understand the new norm much less the future.

My strong, independent husband, Rich, has suddenly been robbed of his outdoor vision, and his world is dissolving with it.  He who lives for birding, photography and just tramping through the wilderness can no longer do any of this.  Driving is out of the question.  “I feel like a prisoner in my own house.”  The couch is his “happy place.”  There he can see, and feels safe.

Rich’s bird photography often takes him deep into the woods

I try to think back on the progression of this condition. It is astounding to realize that it manifested itself well over a year ago, in rapid blinking, more than normal. I didn’t see it. Rich didn’t feel it. But others noticed, and now comment on it.

Rich managed to cope with his degrading eyesight long enough for it to grow dire. Without knowing what it was or feeling (or perhaps acknowledging to himself) the progression of this condition, it continued, steadily curtailing his sight. His coping masked the advancement. Hid the impending decline. The suddenness came when nature tipped the balance. He could no longer compensate. He could no longer deny it.

Even so, it is hard to conceive of the gap in his capabilities between bicycle touring in Norway in August – which he managed, if with great difficulty – and today. The difference between being able to gut it out, and being paralyzed with fear. Shut down by sheer anxiety. Not being able to see at all.

The lightning speed of this life change is bewildering. If I am feeling ungrounded, what must Rich be experiencing? I can name many words. Depression. Frustration. Stress. Fear. Dread. Anxiety. A deep sense of loss. It is only slowly that I realize the depth of these feelings, and just how debilitating they are.

It’s just before Christmas and we walk down the block with Carl and Chelsea and their two children. A bagel walk, normally a fun outing. Rich walks ahead but seems to be faltering. I move up and grab his hand. His strong grip expresses his fear. He chokes back tears, confesses he is fighting off a panic attack. My fiercely self-reliant husband has been reduced to a dependent, sightless invalid I no longer recognize. Even though he did almost this same walk solo yesterday, today I wonder if he will make it. “It’s so much harder with people,” he says. “It shows me that I can’t interact with everyone. I have to concentrate 100% on staying on the sidewalk.” He manages the walk there and back. Says that holding my hand helped. That it enabled him to stave off the panic. On the way home, I can tell he’s reaching his limit. A simple walk does him in.

We navigate the medical world, seeking answers.  Dry eye repeatedly comes up, but doesn’t explain enough.  Finally, a specialist in the Cities nails the diagnosis: Blepharospasm.  In short, there is a neurological miscommunication between Rich’s eyelids and his brain, causing impulses that tell his eyelids to slam shut.  He cannot will them open.  It is triggered by dry eye, light sensitivity, stress, cold and other factors rampant in our Duluth winter – hence his problems outdoors.  His corrected vision is perfect.  It’s just that he can’t open his eyes.  He’s not blind, but he can’t see.  Having answers is great relief, but due to the holidays and insurance requirements, treatment is weeks away.  The wait is excruciating.

I can’t help but feel survivor’s remorse – guilt as I trot out of the house to go skiing, a passion of his.  Guilt over being able to enjoy the Christmas lights he can’t see.  Extreme guilt over wanting to be able to control my own life, which is inextricably woven into his.

There are so many ways to trip up.  I can’t find something that is in plain sight, and thoughtlessly utter, “I must be blind.”  Complaints about the car only remind him that he can’t drive.  Even mentioning the weather is a trap.  He’s stuck indoors.

Our lives are both transformed.  Our collective future is unknown.  Plans become moot, what was once routine is fuzzy.  But we’ve also grown closer.  We are far more in tune with one another, more thoughtful, more appreciative.  Yesterday’s arguments and irritations melt into frivolous trifles.  We’ve had to throw aside selfish wants for life’s realities.  Compromise becomes easier, as does putting the other person first.  We touch more often, reach out for one another readily, hungry for connection.  A burning need to feel the love.

At long last, Rich has his first treatment – Botox injections along his eyebrows to deaden the nerves and stop the spasms.  It is typically effective in over 90% of such cases.  We are told it will be seven days before it takes effect.  So the waiting resumes, but this time with hope.  That makes a huge difference.  This could rearrange our lives yet again.

Rain and Shine

Four kids ages 1 to 9.  Two parents.  Two grandparents.  Three generations in one small retirement home.

What to do when it rains on your weekend plans?  Go out anyway!  The key is to work with the weather, not bemoan it.

Inspired by Anne Marie Gorham, of Lake Superior Beach Glass (who happens to be the daughter of my best friend in Jr and Sr High School), we headed out to Burlington Bay Beach in Two Harbors.  “The best time to find beach glass is when it’s raining,” grandson Ben informed me.  He’d seen enough of Anne’s videos in pelting rain to know.

And sure enough, he was right!  We forgot all about the raindrops while scouring the beach for those glistening shards.  It didn’t matter that most were tiny white specimens.  The mere fact that they were plentiful kept us peering, bending, picking and looking for more.  I admit to feeling giddy each time I plucked one from the rocks.  We scored some turquoise, green and one cobalt blue piece too.

Looking for beach glass 1 Looking for beach glass 2

We had visions of hiking on the North Shore in the brilliant fall foliage.  Instead, we decided to check out the raging torrents at Gooseberry Falls.  All that rainwater swelled the river beyond its banks, plummeting down to the lake with a thunderous roar.  Something tells me the kids found it more entertaining than fall colors.

Kennedys at Gooseberry Falls Ben at Gooseberry Falls

Passing the remainder of the day playing games, it was hard to imagine the rain would ever stop.  But Sunday morning dawned crisp and clear.  Seizing the moment, we started at The Deeps, where we inspected the new footbridge, then made our way to the Lester Park Playground.  There we stumbled on a Park and Rec “Pop-up” event.  The collection of lawn games and outdoor activities soon lured the kids away from the playground to try the offerings.

Mya and the Pop Up Park sign

Kennedy boys playing soccer in the Pop Up Park Mya tightrope walking in Pop Up park Mya playing Jenga in Pop Up Park

Karen was still intent on getting in that hike.  “I don’t want to go for a walk,” the kids wailed.  But as soon as we reached the COGGS Hawk Ridge Trail, the oldest two kids were off and running.  “This is so cool!”  They loved the advanced structures created for the most adventurous of mountain bikers, scrambling over the steep rock formations.  Lakeside spread out below us, a collage of yellows and greens, while leaves of every color carpeted the path.  Reining them in was impossible.  Their energy contagious.

Ben Mya on COGGS trailBen Mya on trailBen Mya overlooking cityIt’s hard to say which was better, playing in the rain or the sunshine.  I just know I’d do it all over again in a heartbeat.

 

A Little Girl’s Prayer

I guess I’m not the only one moved to tears by finding Karen’s song.  It was heartwarming to know that I was able to convey the emotion of that experience well enough to invoke it in my readers.

Several of you have asked to listen to the recording.  I have added it to the original post, but here it is for your listening pleasure.  For those of you who get my posts by email, click here to listen to the recording.

Did you cry too?