In the 1960s, my father-in-law Max worked for NASA at the Cape in Florida. He was among a group of talented young engineers who sent the first rockets into orbit with little more than slide rules and gumption. It was the height of the Cold War, Kennedy, Castro and the Bay of Pigs crisis, the era of miniskirts, bullet bras, and sky-high beehive hairdos.
While in boot camp, Max, who hailed from rural Georgia, fell in love with Eleanor, a blue-eyed beauty from Providence, Rhode Island. They overcame the Yankee-Cracker divide, married quickly, and started a family. After my husband Jeff and his sister Lisa were born, Max quit his job to concentrate on getting his Masters in Engineering at the University of Florida.
He was only 29 when he began to experience severe abdominal pain and bleeding. After a series of tests, he was told he had the worst case of ulcerative colitis the doctor had ever seen. His prospects were not good; Max was advised to put his affairs in order. To save his life, he would have to undergo a colostomy and there was a fair chance he would die anyway, leaving Ellie a widow in her twenties with two small children.
The doctor showed Max the black rubber bag he would have to wear for the rest of his life. Max reacted with horror, initially refusing to even consider the surgery. He was young and handsome, in his prime. He spent his weekends swimming and playing in the sand with his lovely wife and children. How could he do those things with a colostomy bag? And how would it alter his relationship with Ellie? Another patient in the same hospital ward as Max, a young, single woman, despaired for the same reasons. Fearing she would never find a husband, never bear children, she refused the surgery and died.
Ellie says it was gut wrenching to see someone she loved in great physical and emotional pain. She talked to Max’s doctor and his favorite nurse Annie, a pretty blonde who cheered him up each day with a dose of morphine and light flirtation. Together they came up with a plan. One morning Annie entered his room with a twinkle in her eye and shut the door behind her. She slinked up to his bed, smiling as she slowly unzipped her skirt. Max remembers staring at her in shock as she shimmied out of her clothes and lifted her slip to expose… a colostomy bag. She worked in that area of the hospital because she had experienced all the same things Max was going through. The next thing Max knew, Ellie slipped into the room as he sat, slack-jawed and perplexed as to how he should react in this unprecedented situation. Mortified, he took a pillow and covered his head while the two women laughed until they cried. Eventually he joined in the laughter, too.
He says that moment was a turning point for him. If a beautiful, funny, sexy and vibrant young woman like Annie could find joy and purpose in her life after a colostomy, who was he to dwell in self-pity? He had the surgery, finished his degree, and returned to NASA where he worked in the Saturn program and met real live astronauts Alan Shepard and John Glenn. Max and Ellie went on to have another daughter Kim, and a set of twins, Christopher and Kristen. They have been married for fifty years.
We went to visit them yesterday at their home in Burgess on the Chesapeake Bay where they retired nearly two decades ago to a smaller house with a dock and a sailboat. Max and his cronies race their “nutshells”… small sailboats they make themselves. Ellie plays mahjong with friends, volunteers at her church’s thrift store, and dotes on her grandchildren.
I had never before heard this wonderful story about Annie and I found it so touching I asked for permission share it on my blog. Writers are observers and storytellers. We must take note of the little nuances and easily overlooked details that others might miss. Human tragedy, everyday triumphs and failures, dramas big and small. By dissecting these things, turning them over in our minds and understanding them fully, we enrich our work.
Human frailty is something we all have in common. I have struggled with my own challenges. In my twenties I suffered debilitating bouts of anxiety and panic attacks. Whether my body chemistry has changed, or I’ve accepted myself enough to let go of the angst, I don’t know, but things are better now. I’d still rather stick my hand in a jar full of spiders than go to a cocktail party, but at least I can go. Wonder of wonders, I can even have a good time. There was a period when I’d have to either get totally sloshed or curl up in a fetal position in the ladies room until the party broke up. Neither choice was very ladylike or dignified. As we age, we discover everyone is screwed up in some way or other and that knowledge helps — at least it helped me. Nobody skates through this life unscathed. We are all a little weird. Our “isms” and peculiarities are what make us interesting. It takes some age and wisdom to see that, I think.
Last week my twelve-year-old son Pierce started middle school. He was terrified. Oy! I still remember the fear, the stomach full of wriggling snakes, the belief that everyone in the entire school was laser focused on the mammoth stress zit I sprouted overnight. I feared I wasn’t wearing the right clothes and nobody would sit with me at lunch. Every night I had that going-to-school-naked-and-forgetting-my-locker-combination dream! Lord have mercy… you couldn’t pay me enough to go through that again!
I have finally begun to appreciate the little things. I no longer live in suspended animation between Now and Then. I’ve stopped worrying about reaching goals, or obsessing about what comes next. Life is such an amazing gift. As corny as it sounds, the simplest things… a sunset, a smile, cuddling up with my husband on the sofa and savoring the moment… these are the things that make life worth living.
And helping others when we can. I thank Max for permitting me to tell his story. He has shared it on an amazing website called inspire.com where sufferers of many diseases and disorders seek advice from people who have dealt with the same issues. In this virtual support group they chronicle their journeys in dialogue that is stark, honest, and poignant. It's worth a visit.
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