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Los Angeles, California
I am 47 and thriving in Southern California. One day at a time.
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Friday, November 21, 2014

1131 nights (In Praise of The Hospital Bed)

The first time I slept overnight in a hospital bed I was 13 years old.

The walls were coated a hideous shade of pale green, somewhere between pistachio and mint, but without any of the flavor. I sat at a pay phone talking to my mother, who for some reason could not be in two places at once and was at home taking care of my 11-year-old brother. What was up with that? I mean, he’d been a latchkey kid at 9! 

A nurse marched up to me, something suspicious clutched in her hands. I tried to explain to her that despite the hospital gown and raging fever that stained my cheeks a fire-engine truck red, I was otherwise occupied, and could she please come back later? She was having none of me, and with a practiced flick of her wrist, jammed an 8-foot long Q-tip down my throat, despite my gasp of protest. She sealed it in a labeled cylinder and marched away, her arm swinging angrily, my future culturing on the cottony end. I sat in stunned silence; my mother's voice a faraway cry. Shimmering globules dripped off my chin, smearing the end of the receiver with a goopy slime of snot and sadness. Totally worth missing my 8th Grade Science exam.

I returned to the hospital room I shared with three other girls. I curled up in my bed; the day’s scheduled activities had now wound down—the rounds, the procedures, the dispensing of the medications. With the conclusion of visiting hours, the main lights were shut off. An eerie stillness settled in the halls. I dug it. It was a mixture of recess and lockdown. Sure, I was not there of my own free will. I was imprisoned both externally, by those four grody green walls, and internally, by the disease that brought me there—which in my case turned out to be Chronic Kidney Disease. But I was free! Upon my island of blankets and buzzers, I could do whatever I wanted—watch TV, reread the card all my classmates had signed, nibble on Arrowroot cookies and sip warm apple juice—just as long as I didn’t have to sit up. Talk about your teenage wasteland! Tubular!

 In the darkness of my overpopulated room, I watched the girl in the bed next to me. She had one of those small, mysterious boxes that played music. She would listen to it most of the night, leaning it against her tented knees. "Have you heard of The Go-Go’s?" I shook my head silently. "They are so cool," she insisted. "We're supposed to be quiet," I whispered back as she climbed into bed with me. Was she a veteran of the hospital bed? She climbed aboard with ease, leaning back against its pillowy bow, deftly showing me the ropes. With the yank of a lever here and the tuck of a blanket there, she capsized all fear; swaddling my sea legs high aboard our terra firma, safely above the linoleum floor. Silently she placed one of the earphones onto my left ear, extending the plastic headband beneath our chins—stretching it wide like a plastic smile—then affixed the other earphone to her right ear.

She played the track, “Our Lips are Sealed”. We lay side-by-side, not touching, together, the glow of my IV machine fluoresced her young face. We remained that way for a while, taking silent heed of The Go-Go’s haunting refrain.

“There’s a weapon/

we must use/

in our defense/


My patient-in-crime was right. They were cool. And so was she. It didn’t matter to me what she had been admitted for, or even what her name was. Life became really simple. Who needed the stress of my first period, the pressure to get all A’s or the anxiety of returning home to a fatherless life? Not this teenager! Sure, I was attached to an IV drip, but quite frankly, some of those ginormous 80’s accessories were just as hard to pull off.

I’ve learned a lot over 33 years in and out of a hospital bed. It’s pure escape—a personal island over which I prevail. Sure, I usually have to contend with a raging fever [Possible Transplant Rejection], a mysterious undiagnosed malady [E-coli Poisoning, a Ruptured Ovarian Cyst] or face a life-threatening condition [O/D on over 120 Benzodiazepines] in order to qualify for one, but that’s a small price to pay for autonomy. Because once you’re there, you reign supreme, sovereign over the bed and all that surround it. The doctors, the nurses, the chaplains, the administrators, their entire raison d’être is but to serve you. A lifetime commitment to immunosuppressives aside, it’s the greatest gig in town.

My favorite time remains lights-out. God bless the night nurse who can navigate his way around a blood pressure cuff in the pitch black, allowing me to peacefully zone out on a narcotic nightcap of Xanax and Dilaudid, and ignore the world that exists below the metal cradle in which I lie dozing. But just one unmanicured toe upon the linoleum floor will connect me to the reality that lies beyond discharge. Nagging issues like, did I send my kidney transplant into rejection with drug abuse? And, will my husband, who gave it to me, be mad?

Instead, I focus on the fashionably soft mood lighting that glitters throughout the Hills of Beverly or stare glassily at the telegenic images of reality flickering silently from a television set on high. Man, do those Housewives have problems! Where to eat! What to wear! A hospital gown and a TV tray delivered to your door, nay your lap, make life really simple. Just sayin’. And then there’s the fabulousness of the 21st Century hospital bed. This Canadian girl has arrived! Graduated from the Catholic, socialist bed of pulleys and weights to the glamorous Cedars-Sinai bed of bells and whistles. Your feet can be up while your head is down! Too many positions to count. Who said a girl’s electronic best friend was “The Rabbit?”

I’ve been looking at success all wrong. It’s not about the high-powered career, running 5-miles a day, popping out babies or traveling the world. I’ll take Chronic Illness any day. Don’t underestimate the power, the self-control and the sheer stamina it takes to lie day in and day out in a hospital bed. That’s success! Working at least one, if not two diseases. Btw, alcoholism really works in a pinch. (I know. I know. How’d I get so lucky?) Sure, the violent and ceaseless throws of detox may be uncomfortable (unbearable), but if that’s what it takes to stay the course of self-actualization, I’m in. Stay with me here. Detox is also an untapped form of cardio, depending upon your level of commitment. Pills? Booze? Pills and booze? Pills and booze and anorexia? It’s always a win-win. You are dehydrated from the start, and then finish strongly with a superior set of abs after hurling for hours.

And romance? Forget Valentine’s Day. There’s surprising romance to be found at the end of a hospital bed. Who needs The Little Blue Box when there’s a pink bedpan handy? There is nothing more romantic than your husband of 19 years visually combing through (if you ignore the worried look in his eye), the gobby strands of your bile for undissolved medications. Feel your heart expand, even as your abs contract, and witness true love. Don’t think about the hour-long drive home he has to make, his sleepless night ahead, his burdensome day at work and the return trip to Cedars-Sinai he will make after hastily gobbling down a Subway sandwich in the car. Listen instead to his voice as together with the elderly Filipino nurse, they scour your bedpan, steaming with fresh bile. Listen to his murmured offerings of love, “That’s definitely a Cell-Cept”, “No, that’s too big to be a Cyclosporine”, then turn and lie fetal in your hospital bed, satisfied. You have it made in the shade.

You think your husband giving you a kidney is romantic, just wait until you do everything in your power to destroy it.

He climbs into bed next to you and spoons his body around yours, adjusting the curled ends of the bed to cocoon you both, until you are ready to metamorphose and embrace what lies beneath; a world where illness does not have to conquer all. I was 42 years old when my toe finally touched down. When my unslippered feet finally hit the linoleum floor.

It’s been 1131 nights since I last slept in a hospital bed.

I hope I never sleep in one again.


Monday, November 3, 2014

Wahlter White: A parable (L'odeur de la méth)

My basset hound’s paws smell like corn chips.

I bury my nose in between the cracks of Wahlter’s prehistoric-looking paws and go deep. I suppose when you break it down, it’s kinda gross. Those paws have been everywhere. They’ve walked through sand and shit and they’ve been licked with a tongue that’s been places no man can go. But, I jam my nose between his toes and breathe in the scent of nutty, verboten carbs like white pasta, or fresh-bread rising in the oven, the prickles on his puffy, suede-like pads scraping my skin and I’m hooked.

He came with the name Wahlter. The shelter added the “h”, we added the “White.” Officially, his full name is Wahlter White McIntyre. I’m not so much of a feminist that my dog needs to have a hyphenated last name. Please. Then it would be Wahlter White Ivanans-McIntyre. And that’s just not fair.

At VidCon 2014, my husband and I sat with Wahlter in “The Pet Collective” booth—a couple of 40-somethings lost at sea in an ocean of social media exhibits—under the delusion we’d be drawing attention to the rescue organization where we’d adopted him, but quickly realizing he was a cute and fuzzy ploy to draw in the Tween-set to sign up for the “Pet Collective’s” You Tube-type channel. Collect members, acquire sponsors, and you too can film cute videos of kittens and puppies all day long and make a living! Clearly, I’ve been barking up the wrong tree. Does anyone dig ditches anymore? I’m guessing “I’ve Been Working On the Railroad” will not be found on any “Gen Y” iPod Playlist. (Or is the younger generation considered Gen “Z”?).

Wahlter sat in the middle of the booth, ears hanging low, a furry statue of calm, unfazed by the sudden Phil Spector-esque Wall of Sound rolling through the cavernous hall. I recognized that wave of teenage-dream screams! I looked up to see a shock of lavender hair—peaked like the hard, mountainous nipple of a meringue—bob through the crowd. A pulsating throng of Tweens surged after the vibrant bouffant.

“Who was that?” I asked one of the unimpressed “Collectives”.

“Tyler Oakley”, he drawled, bored, all of 25.

“Tyler Who?” I asked, suddenly feeling very old upon learning Oakley has over 3 million Twitter followers. But what does he do? In my day, teen idols played music. Now teen gods are like Ramen noodle packs. Just add Twitter. Kim Kardashian is only famous because her mother promoted her sex tape and now they have a clothing line at Sears. She has nearly 25 million followers on Twitter. Maybe I’d have a line of perfumes or unstylish clothes, too and not be lying on the floor of the Anaheim Convention Center, volunteering with my dog in the middle of the day if I had a parent hyphenate (mother-manager-reality TV star-media whore) like Kris Jenner. But then I would miss this. I dug my face into Wahlter’s belly. Unconcerned with my embarrassingly defective ability to tweet these thoughts into cyber space, Wahlter had rolled over onto his back and splayed his legs, displaying his adorably deflated balls and fuzzy little penis for all the world to see. I raised my head up and called out to The Tweens, “Come and meet Wahlter White!”

The Tweens shuffled over, dwarfed by the enormous plastic conference passes that hung awkwardly around their necks reminding me of the way medical students wear their stethoscopes, ill fitting, as if they have not quite grown into them—which they haven’t.

During the many, many times I’ve been hospitalized, medical students would cluster around the foot of my bed, slyly staring at me like children through museum exhibit glass, aloof, yet intrigued by the bedridden woman with kidney failure. They’d bulldoze me with questions, prompted by their supervising physician and try and diagnose me. I could barely respond. All I wanted to do was vomit into a bedpan. Or onto their shoes. But, oh, the evil flicker of glee I felt when they would misdiagnose this kidney transplant patient feverishly writhing in the throes of detox or acute rejection. “Not so easy playing God, eh?” I would smirk inwardly. Fuck their degrees. I can’t take a doctor seriously until they have at least one line on their face. They would leave and I would wait for the sweet relief of a hypodermic to take me away. Or the close second was when the service dog made its rounds and I could bury my nose into its neck. Clammy, warm. I could feel the blood pulsating beneath its musty fur. Life.

But the Tweens’ were pimply and fresh, flushed pink with hormones and their whipped-cream loaded, Starbucks’ caffeinated sugar rush. Their eyes, already sparking with overstimulation, would roll knowingly when I introduced Wahlter. “His name is Wahlter White?” they would cry, delighted, recognizing the name of the lead character on AMC’s wildly popular series, “Breaking Bad”. Why are today’s youth watching a television series about a chemistry teacher turned meth kingpin? Where are the parents? When I was 12 we were addicted to trading stationery. But the Tweens did not just stare at Wahlter through the proverbial museum glass. They got down on their hands and knees with me to greet the exhibit’s star. They would Facebook/Instagram/Tweet photos together with Wahlter and I watched their faces plump wide with smiles. Teen angst dispelled with the gentle rub and a stroke of my boy’s belly. (OK. And a Smart Phone.) A maternal glow spread inside my chest. All was not lost.

No, I never experienced the joy of childbirth, the rearing of a child. No kids for me, because of the whole kidney-transplant-high-risk-pregnancy thing (She says glibly.). They (Who is “they” anyway?) say God is too big for us to understand, that there’s a reason for everything. I search. I try to find Meaning in it all. I’ve even went to church for a while. I attended the Hollywood Presbyterian service held on Sunday mornings in a warehouse painted black. It throbbed with House music on Saturday night then exalted Christian rock on Sunday mornings, testifying under the purifying light of a disco ball. I would sit in the back row, skeptical, sometimes cringing, not sure what to make of it all. ”God is good,” they would chant. “All. The. Time.” My friend, M., clean off crystal meth, would sit even further back, casually observing from a back wall by the restrooms, which probably served as a shrewd vantage point for hitting on the club’s Unsuspecting Wallflowers or Over Glossing Hotties the night before. I waved my fingers in M.’s face and spookily chanted “crystalll…” I was trying to evoke to the fond memory of the 4 of us—together with my husband and his wife—tearing up the Tennessee countryside searching for the fast food chain “Krystal”. There we could score, satisfying our late-night cravings with an enormous, grease-stained paper bag stuffed with square-cut, American cheese-slathered sliders. M. thought I was reminding him of his junkie past.

He had once told me he missed everything about crystal meth, the chase, the score, the smell. What did meth smell like I wondered? Did it smell like its ingredients? Like the cold medicine (or battery acid, or drain cleaner, or lantern fuel?) they cooked? I didn’t understand his obsession at the time, as I was still successfully performing my tightrope act of pill popping, having not yet fallen into the netted abyss below. M. is now divorced from my friend and lives back in Los Angeles. He is addicted to crack and never sees his two sons, my two godsons.

Dog is God spelled backwards. “They” like to find this significant, like when the Led Zeppelin records were played backwards in the 70’s, and deep satanic meaning was found in the warbled lyrics. I think about this, as I kneel on the floor of the Convention Hall, and gaze up into the blinding fluorescent lights. I bury my nose into Wahlter’s paw and I’m transported. I don’t hear the screams of the Tweens, their inexhaustible chatter streaming through Cyber Space. I don’t crave the candy, the carbs, my children. The tightness in my chest unclenches, a restrictive band that has lost all elasticity. I sniff, therefore I am. I come back for more. And I wonder what meth smells like.