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Digging Trenches

The rain has returned, so the dirt-floor basement of my 93-year-old house is sodden. While it's always been a bit damp, this past year of incessant rains and thawing snow have increased the likelihood of moisture and mold. The gutters have filled and the downspout pours directly into the foundation as the drain hose keeps getting knocked away - probably from my teenager while feeding his nearby quail. It’s always during the rain storm that I tromp out to put it back, but by then it is too late, so I turn on the basement dehumidifier and heave the heavy bucket of water into a sink that sometimes dumps onto the floor because the pipe is not fastened securely

Today I am feeling better. Today I am finally feeling strong enough to dig the trench for a French drain. I have a pickup truck now to haul the gravel.

For two years the chores have slipped away as I was enslaved to emergencies each time my phone rang. My 90-year-old father’s anxiety, scattered dementia, falls, haircuts, groceries, doctor appointments, surgery, emotional break downs, medication twice a day, blood pressure drops, home care nurses who need my help, hospice, two-week bedside vigil, and then death. Meanwhile my oldest son needed constant reminders, complete with angry arguments, to save money, get to work on his own, do his schoolwork, show up for class, and turn in assignments so that he would graduate high school. I thought I just needed more time to see clients, so that I could continue to pay my mortgage, pay for my son’s trade school, and raise my boys knowing that family is first. I told myself to hold on. You can do this Bettina. You can’t go on vacation yet, but soon. You can’t go on a mountain bike ride with friends or meet at the pub, but it’s ok. You can’t be out of cell service on the weekends, so no camping, long hikes or rides in the woods. Papa and the boys are more important. You would regret not being there for them.

You promised.

I dig my shovel into the muddy ground and am glad the rain has softened it. Two scoops of mud, and as I thrust it back into the ground it pangs sharply, and stops me suddenly, ringing through my shoulders as I hit a root. I trudge to the back yard for the loppers and return to snip away the offending wood that stops me from succeeding at my task. I continue digging. Two more scoops and another sharp pang. This time it is a large rock. I find a small trowel to unearth the object. I am now kneeling in the mud in my tights and I am freezing, not only because I’m anemic, but because the rain is dripping into the raincoat and down my back.

It is clear to me that digging a trench is a metaphor for life. It isn’t as easy as you might think. There is always something stopping you. Just when you think your hard work will reward you with an accomplished task, there is something hard and painful to stop you from succeeding. You have to change trajectory, cease what you’re doing, adjust expectations, come up with a different plan, find another tool, see who’s still with you, and keep going. If you give up because it’s hard, the problem will not be fixed. You will see the people dropping away. You will see who made it through with you.

For two weeks I threw up my hands in surrender from my ICU bed after brain surgery from a spontaneous brain bleed due to a ruptured aneurysm. I thought, girl…here’s your vacation. You wouldn’t take it, so the universe gave it to you. Free food was delivered to my bed. I couldn’t even call papa because the stress was too much and the pain in my head was unbearable. I secretly felt relieved. Plus, my blood pressure was high and I knew that a phone call with him would increase it. Covid restrictions prevented me from having more than one visitor, and I was glad. I was too overwhelmed for anything more, easily overstimulated, and prone to tears. My girlfriend, gratefully a doctor, advocated for me when I couldn't, and drove across the state to be with me between seeing her patients. The docs would gather around my bed in the mornings on rounds like a private audience for my comedy act.

More of my girlfriends took care of papa and kept him apprised of my condition. I went straight to him as soon as I got home. I showed up with bags of groceries and was meeting with home care nurses to begin helping him - and me. The sutures in my head were still oozing. He did not get up when I came in. He greeted me with a stern look and asked why I did not call him or keep in touch with him. I cried. What I did not ask him is why his other daughter, my “sister”, did not come help him. She had called my baby daddy asking if she HAD to come take care of her father. We had not seen her in three years. She sent him letters full of medical advice over problems she did not understand and would call him on most Sundays. On his 89th birthday I messaged her to say that I noticed a difference and that she might want to visit now, while she could still enjoy his company. She told me that she had no plans for a return to North Carolina. She meant it.

A year later I let her know when I moved him into hospice. Every day I sat with him, fed him, massaged him, flipped through old photo albums with him, put AirPods in his ears to play his favorite music, danced, cried, and wrote. I would go home at night to be with my boys and the next morning I would cry because I had to go back. In his last days awake I facilitated a Facebook video messenger call with my sister while she chastised him for not looking at her. He was too weak. The last video call he was unresponsive. She cried and asked him if he was hungry or thirsty. I left the room and asked the social worker to take over. She reminded her of our father’s end of life requests.

The rain pours harder and I slam into another series of roots. It makes me mad. I fiercely clamp the loppers into the dying roots of the redbud tree that has not yet bloomed. I love this tree and every year I climb on the roof to prune what I can reach, saving it for a little bit longer because I want Wyatt to see the blooms hanging in front of his second-floor bedroom windows.

I stand inside the trench as it fills with rain and as I step out, my muck boot is sucked from my foot. I lose my balance and catch it again by putting my socked foot into the cold muddy hole.

Finally the trench is dug. I drive to the gravel yard and on the way there I stop at my girlfriend’s house. I want to drop off the breakfast groceries that I signed up for when I thought I was joining them for a weekend at the beach. I had to cancel because my routine mammogram showed something questionable that needed an ultrasound…and then a biopsy. I also had to provide fecal samples to the lab because my intolerance to blood thinners necessary after the second brain surgery may be causing a GI bleed, resulting in the anemia. Then my period started, bleeding so hard that I lost over a pint of blood. More anemia.

Papa died a year ago February. For a full week of 8-hour days I moved his belongings out of his apartment with the help of friends and planned a funeral. I didn’t want to pay more rent than necessary. My biological mother came form Las Vegas to help me wrap the fragile crystal, china, artifacts and heirlooms. Years ago my sister had written her own name on everything that she wanted. As I listed the remaining items for sale on Marketplace she became angry and told me to photograph every single item so that she could decide what she wanted before I sold anything. She demanded that I split the valuable art with her that she had not already claimed. She instructed me on proper packing techniques so that these items would not break when I drove them to her in Chicago. I could go ahead and keep the crystal vase because it was chipped so it had no value to her. I was happy to take it because for the last year I had filled it every two weeks with fresh flowers for papa after he could no longer drive to the store to get them himself. My parents were antique collectors and had great taste in art. Their things were beautiful. I would have enjoyed having some of it. I stood on a mountain ridge, thanked them for surrounding me with beauty, and I decided to give her everything. He had already given me a few pieces of jewelry that I liked. It was easier to let go of material objects than endure the pain of her relentless emotional beat-downs. I told her it was in storage and gave her a month to come get it, or hire someone to move it to her, because clearly I would do it wrong and could not take that risk. I decided to keep a Dutch painting that they wanted donated to a museum. I told her that my boys would donate it to the museum when they were ready. She told me that my kids weren’t even Dutch and that I didn’t care about papa’s wishes. It was another dig at me for being adopted, while she is their biological child. She wrote the obituary for the Chicago paper, and in it, she referred to herself as their daughter. She referred to me and my children as being adopted. My children were not considered grandchildren. Her actions proved who she was.

After leaving my girlfriend’s house my muddy boot slips off the brake while approaching a stop sign. I catch it just in time to avoid hitting a tinted low-rider cruising across my path in the right-of-way. Instead of hurrying through to avoid a crash, they come to a complete defiant stop in front of me. I scared them, but now they wanted to show me who’s boss. The passenger side window eases down to reveal two young black men with self-righteous glowers. I guess I’m supposed to be intimidated. How dare I make a mistake. What they didn’t know is that I had just accomplished digging a really deep and long trench with many infuriating bumps along the way. I laugh. I cheerfully wave. I blow a kiss. They slowly drive off. I follow them another half-mile through the neighborhood to the section 8 housing where they pull over. I ease by slowly letting them think this little white girl is actually crazier and scarier than them.

Every email and message my sister sent was snarky, sarcastic and mean. I refused to take the bait. I answered with non-emotion and provided her with the information she requested. This did not discourage her. I offered her the ashes so that she could scatter them herself, feeling that my presence would distract her from important personal work. She flipped into a rage and refused. I had an emotionally difficult time opening her emails. I had to brace myself. I would wait to reply until I was calm. I finally told her to communicate through the lawyer and that I would no longer read her messages. She continued the snarky emails. When I wouldn’t immediately answer, she posted on FB and reached out to my friends who would also ignore her.

In the year after my surgery I paid careful attention to any slight changes and had several scans in fear of stroking out or having a bleed. At the year mark, my neurosurgeon went back into my brain with a camera to check on my vascular situation. They strapped me to a table and shoved a camera into my wrist, up into my brain. They warned me not to move. Every snap of the camera was a flash of light and dizziness from the inside. At the end of the procedure, he let me know there was another aneurysm. I could not stop the tears. I wanted to take the news with strength, but I couldn’t. Back in the recovery room Abe crawled into the bed and held me against his chest, petting my hair and telling me how much he loved me. I thought about my boys. How would I tell them. Would I assure my 13-year-old that I would be ok? Or would I assure him that he would be ok without me?

I wrote my will. I gave my girlfriends responsibilities and planned my funeral through a veil of tears. Abe, Wyatt and I piled into the truck and drove 10 hours to the Indiana Dunes to scatter my parents’ ashes in the blowout where they had scattered my grandparents’ ashes. I was afraid that if I didn’t make this surgery that my parents’ final wishes would go undone, leaving their souls in limbo. I promised.

My high school besties joined us. For three days we walked along the windy, snowy beach along Lake Michigan and I drove my boy to see the places I grew up. The pump still stood next to what used to be a tiny cottage with an outhouse and now sported ugly vinyl siding near a development.

The doc would put a coil in this aneurysm, but if he couldn’t, he would have to reopen my skull to place another clip. Given my history, we didn’t want to risk it rupturing. I mean, how do you walk around knowing it’s there, knowing it could blow at any moment, knowing the first survival was pure luck. He put me on blood thinners in preparation of the procedure. That’s when the blood draws began. I was covered in massive bruises and it was possible he couldn’t do the surgery. But it was ok and he did it. We all breathed a sigh of relief. For three days Abe slept with me in the tiny ICU bed as they drew blood every day and watched my blood pressure. We went home again, unscathed, but left with more emotional scars that bled fear. Weekly blood draws turned into anemia.

The heavy load of gravel has my truck squatted, so I am careful turning corners and give myself plenty of time to brake. I pull into the driveway just as the rain comes harder. I get the wheelbarrow, rake gravel into it from the bed, grateful to be using both arms.

I had a massive rotator cuff repair five months ago. I wore a sling for 8 weeks, began range of motion, increased to bands, and then finally weights. I rode on a stationary bike for cardio to help control my blood pressure until I could ride again. The first time I could chop wood and use a pickaxe, I was overjoyed and felt like a warrior. I walked so much that my bad ankle became so gimped that I could walk no further, and then the opposite knee swelled. Down again.

I tore my shoulder falling from a skateboard just two months after coming home from the first brain surgery. My PTSD prevented me from going back to the hospital. I.Just.Couldn’t. Friends chastised me for being on a skateboard, but I was just trying to pick out what was left of Bettina. Despite the punches that took me down, I needed to live. The night it happened I was with my new boyfriend, his daughter, her friend, walking around the neighborhood with one skateboard between us. I breathed in the mountain night air feeling grateful to be alive and in this moment. I may have had brain surgery, but I was back to loving life with even more intensity and gratitude. My ability to be present was monumental. I was still trying to figure out why I had survived. I was tentatively dipping my toes into the water of life, reintegrating into a family on absolute fire, returning to my friends, and soaking in new love. Everything was raw. The world sparkled like the hue of psilocybin, laced with fear. I had a guardian angel in the form of a beautiful, loyal and caring man. I was reinventing myself in the shadow of Bettina. A six-year-long partner reached out after a year of angry silence because I had nearly died. I gratefully reconnected, picking the diamonds out from a dustpan filled with shame.

Just weeks after coming home a friend asked me, “What have you learned from this?” I was stunned into silence, because I was in the midst of it. It was not over. It had just begun. My brain wasn’t even firing correctly. My frontal lobe had been split open and manipulated. I was prone to hysteria. I was at risk of having a stroke. Coming home was more frightening than waking up from brain surgery. Was it just another nightmare? I laid on my back porch surrounded by love letters from my friends calling me a survivor. A phoenix. I stared at the sun shining onto yet another planted garden that had gone to seed and been enveloped by vines, the fencing pulled away by insistent chickens who enjoyed the remaining tomatoes. There was nothing I could do about it because I couldn’t bend over. I could barely walk without veering into traffic and my heart racing with effort. I had lost a lot of weight but it was all muscle. My bike riding quadriceps were loose and skinny. I had no control over anything in my life. My oldest son’s belligerent behavior was unaffected by nearly losing his mother. His rudeness never skipped a beat. He started yelling at me on my first drive home so I pulled over. Rather than hand the contraband cell phone over to me, he got out. I left him there to walk the three miles off. Instead he called his dad to come get him.

I slowly worked myself back up to strength and began seeing massage clients as soon as I could. I needed to take care of other people. I couldn’t stand my new needy role. I took plenty of time alone to process. I couldn’t talk about what had happened and what it meant for me. I needed normalcy. I was grateful to put my hands on the clients who had become family. It was part of my therapy - mental, physical, and spiritual. The first ride on my road bike allowed my soul to fly along the road, the river flowing alongside of me as it found its way past obstacles. Biz took me on the river with her, and I could feel the water carrying me with peace.

As I look back, I see that I learned to set better boundaries and not spread myself so thin. I learned to let go of people instead of try to prove myself. I learned to breathe. I learned to say no when I was afraid it would be too much. I stopped making promises. When I’m feeling scared or bad about myself, I find somebody who I can help. I shut down and hide when it becomes too much. I quit seeing massage clients. I let myself breathe. I basked in love. I laughed. Every day that I wake up with Wyatt in my house I shower him with love, help him love chickens, wrestle with him, eat with him at our scratched up dining table, and write him secret love notes in a journal that I keep for him to read when I’m gone. Which could be this very afternoon.

I grab the wheelbarrow and as I try to push, I realize that the tire is low on air and I have filled it with more gravel than I can push. This makes me laugh. I shovel a bit back into the truck and careen the wheelbarrow across the cobblestone walk and through the mud. I look into the wide ditch that I have dug on my own, and rather than climb into it, I fill it with gravel and replace the mud.

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Jeff Gilman
Jeff Gilman
Mar 28, 2022

Wow Girl its been a tough couple of years. Glad your still with us to tell the tale. See you on the river soon. 😎

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