25 February 2017

Good morning,

With a cup of dairy-free yogurt and a mug of coffee, I settle in front of the computer and think about my week.  I’m a little nauseous from reading the news.  I’ve got a lot to say when I write my political blog later today, but right now I’m just fighting that icky feeling you get from knowing too much about the lamentable state of the world.  Our national outlook carries nothing encouraging:  Cloudy with a chance of return to the dark period of unenlightenment, when intelligence and compassion gather dust and ugliness reigns.  It’s too much to contemplate before breakfast.

I find myself thinking about my father.

One Sunday years ago, a lady at church asked my five-year-old self what my father did.  I answered, He drinks.  I’m sure I didn’t know what it meant.  I had probably heard my mother use it as an excuse for her bruises.  A decade later, cynical at fifteen, I answered the same question with this gem:  “He’s an Irish Catholic alcoholic.”  I didn’t add, who beats his wife and children into submission, but I considered it.

Now at sixty-one, I strain to remember something redemptive about my father.  See?   He wasn’t so bad! He made stuff for his grandchildren, wooden toys and puzzles.  He played with them.  Grandpa Sport, my brother’s son Nick called him.

See?  He gave me his Shell gas card once, as I gathered my bags to drive back to Arkansas in a petulant rage, that Christmas when I visited and couldn’t get a word in edgewise at a sibling dinner party.  You don’t have to leave tonight, he urged.  Yes, I did.  I couldn’t bear staying in St. Louis with the stark reminder of my irrelevance to my brothers and sisters.  So Dad pulled out his wallet, slipped me forty bucks and the credit card, and told me to call him when I got to Jasper.

My last sight of him:  Near-bald head shaking, standing in the cold on the front porch in his shirt sleeves, one hand lifted in a salute to  his baby daughter.

1980, was it? Or 1981? when my brother Frank got married in Minnesota.  A gaggle of Corleys stood in the center of his new wife’s parents’ back yard, strangers all of us, knowing no one, our only common ground being their new son-in-law.  We huddled in a circle, telling inside jokes.  Once in a while, my mother ventured over to our host and hostess to say something friendly.

I wandered into the house, tired, struggling on high heels which I had no business wearing.  Paper-thin and nervous, I left my boyfriend talking with some old lady dressed in a polka-dot dress and sat down on a love-seat in a room that could have been a turn-of-the-century parlor.

A few minutes later, my father found me there.  We both had glasses of wine.  I spared a moment to fear that my dad’s ugly nature would emerge as he drained his glass.  He sat down next to me.  Neither of us spoke at first.  I sipped my wine.

Then my father said, Do you want me to show you how to hold a wine glass?

I suppressed the desire to remind him that I was nearly thirty — well, twenty-five, and had been drinking since high school.  Sure, Pops, I replied instead.  And for the next five minutes, he did just that.  He lifted his own hand, curled the tips of his fingers around the stem, and extended his pinky finger into the air.  I copied him and we raised our glasses in unison, just as the hired photographer came around the corner, lifted his camera and captured the moment.

Somewhere in the basement, in a moldy box, I have a copy of that picture.  Me in my size zero black flower-print dress, with blue eye shadow and black patent stiletto heels.  My dad in a grey suit, with a carnation in his lapel, florid skin, a small nick from a too-close shave just below his chin.

My father said, How’s law school treating you?  We talked for a few minutes about my part-time job on campus.  Early days, I remarked.  He nodded.  What kind of law do you think you’ll practice, he asked.  I replied that I had no idea.  Bleeding-heart liberal, probably, I conceded.  He turned slightly to study my face.  You should do criminal law, that’s where the money is, he advised.  We sat in silence.  The afternoon ebbed and flowed around us.  We finished our wine, and after a while, we rose, to go outside and join the rest of our family on the patio.  But before we exited that funny little room, I hugged my Dad, and thanked him for teaching me how to drink wine from a long-stemmed glass.

Something every girl needs to know.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

 

18 February 2017

Good morning,

I entered a Family Court courtroom yesterday filled with apprehension.  My anxiety arose because of a snippy exchange that I had with one of the attorneys involved in the case which had been entirely due to my using careless language in an e-mail with her.  Admittedly, she had bristled rather intensely in proportion to my statement, but still, I understood her reaction.  I had apologized; however, she had pointedly not forgiven me.

The presence of a judge rotated from across the street in Circuit Court eased my tension.  He greeted me with warmth.  He’s one of my favorites and I instantly felt the chilly air of the courtroom increase in temperature.  The attorney glared at me but the restorative work had already settled into my wonky heart and eased its rhythm.

The judge said, I heard you were wearing a heart monitor, Ms. Corley, and I cautioned that it might occasionally beep.  He asked if I were feeling better and I admitted that I was, thanks to a strong dose of antibiotics.  Then I said, But wait, it’s February 17th, 2017, right? He nodded.  So, nineteen years ago this week, a doctor gave me six months to live.  So I guess you could say that I’m happy to have beaten the odds.

I did not exaggerate.

I can see the doctor’s face so clearly.  The years fall away.  I sit, alone, on the sad side of the desk in his office.  He’s slouched in a large leather chair.  With florid skin, blonde hair, piercing eyes, he’s oozing arrogance and an attempt to charm me.  It’s not personal.  I’ve seen him do it with the nurses and other doctors.  He just does that.  He ropes people into his spell.  It seems to satisfy him.

He repeated his prognosis.  I’d give you maybe six months. Maybe.  He shifted his body inside his tailored lab coat and emphasized the possibility, making clear that it could be six weeks or a day.  Maybe longer.  But.

I felt my eyebrows draw together and my cheek twitch.  But why?  A twinge in my gut foretold the reawakening of a dormant bleeding ulcer.  Why am I sick?  Why am I going to die?

He shrugged.  From what the neuro doc told me, he’s always assumed your body would wear out.  I can’t find a cause for your fatigue, your aphasic episodes, and your breathing issues.  You are not responding to anything we do.  Between us, we think your body has just reached its natural limit.  It can’t keep up like this.  It’s tired.  He looked at me accusingly.  I almost apologized for expecting too much of my body.

But my son, I began.  My law practice.  My mortgage.  My son, Patrick, then just six years old.  No daddy waiting in the wings; I won’t speak ill of his father but suffice it to say, that Auntie Mona or Aunt Penny would be the ones to take my child.  Or one of my siblings — Ann or Frank, possibly.   Joyce, certainly.   Any of those folks would raise him as their own.  Eventually, he might forget his dying mother and the days she spent lying on the couch confused, exhausted, uncertain.

A few days later, another episode sent me to the hospital.  Brief black-outs followed by near-collapses.  In a bed at St. Luke’s Hospital, I listlessly played with the oxygen line that led to the breathing  machine.  Your lungs just can’t do their work any more, said the doctor, shaking his handsome head.  Have you made any arrangements?

Arrangements.  What might those be?  Always lousy with money, ever in debt, never able to work those long lawyer hours that bring a house in the suburbs and a new car every other year.  Not pretty enough for a husband who’d stand by me through thick and thin.  A wobbly walker with a bad attitude towards anything or anyone that threatened her child.  No, I forgot to make arrangements.  I did not live the Cinderella life at either end — I didn’t sweep the hearth with diligence, nor fall into the arms of everlasting happiness.

That was on Valentine’s Day, 1998.  A lawyer in Texas sent roses with a Get Well card.    I dropped the card and it slid to the floor, where no doubt a cleaning person eventually found it and discarded it in her trash barrel.

In the morning, machines beeped and patient attendants rattled bed pans and breakfast trays.  Whichever friend had taken Patrick for the night brought him for a visit.  Later in the week, they released me and I drove myself home.

When did the tide turn?  That March?  The next year?  I don’t remember.    But I lay in another bed in the same hospital and a radiant angel in a lab coat with Joseph BrewerM.D. embroidered on the left breast above a pocketful of pens came into the room and saved me.

Mrs. Corley, he chortled.  I saw your name on the admission list and thought, ‘Didn’t I have a patient named Corinne Corley a few years ago?'”  He shook my hand.  You look terrible! he said.  I thanked him with a rueful smile.  What happened to you?

What happened.  Good question.  I began my tale starting with the first collapse, going through the neuro doc’s opinion, the pulmonology tests, the cardiac exams.  Halfway through an account of 1998, Dr. Brewer’s head starting shaking.  He stopped me at “six months to live”.

No, no, no.  His voice held anger.  He sat down beside my bed in the plastic chair provided for my visitors.  He clasped one of my hands in both of his.  You might die but only from not being given the proper treatment, he told me.  You’re not wearing out.  You’re hypercoagulable.

Joe Brewer had been the one to tell me, with lab results to validate his theories, that my condition likely stemmed from a viral encephalitis in infancy.  He took the story of three Corley girls being sick at the same time and everything that had happened to me since, and sent me to the lab for testing.  That had been in 1988, but I had not seen him since his diagnosis of me.  The virus, HHV-6, had just been identified when I first met Joe Brewer.  In the intervening decade, a lot had been learned, he explained.

One fascinating effect of reactivated HHV-6 involved a change in the clotting time of blood.  Patients with reactivated HHV-6 developed a proclivity for fast clotting time, causing a hypercoagulable state.  If untreated, patients did not get adequate oxygen to vital organs — lungs, heart, brain, extremities.  Joe Brewer raised my hand into the light and showed me the flaky skin on my fingertips.  Your toes are like this too, he guessed.  I nodded.  Always.  He flashed a genuinely pleased smile.  And you pass out from time to time?  Yes.  And you can’t breathe?  Yes.

At that moment, the pulmonoligst came into the room.  What’s going on? he snapped.  Joe Brewer stood.  The pulmonologist said, What are you doing with my patient?  Dr. Brewer explained that I had once been his patient and that he had come to visit me.  I lay in my bed, tired, but with a kernel of hope growing in my breast.  The two of them argued for a few minutes.  Dr. Brewer tried to explain his theory.  The pulmonologist wanted nothing to do with it.   His voice grew louder and louder, until a nurse came from the hallway to investigate.  She stood helpless as the doctor on my right practically yelled at the doctor on my left, demanding that he get out of the room.

Finally I had had enough.  You, sir, I said, pointing to the red-faced pulmonologist.  You think I am dying.  I pointed to Joe Brewer.  He thinks he can save me.  Good God, why not let him try?

Because he’s a quack, the doctor snapped.  Dr. Brewer said nothing.

Maybe so, I replied.  But what can it hurt, a little Heparin?  Will it kill me?  According to you, I’m dying anyway.  I’ll take my chances.

He stomped out of the room.  A commotion ensued at the nurse’s desk.  In those days of paperwork without computers, I was discharged from the first doctor’s care and re-admitted as a patient of Dr. Joseph Brewer, infectious disease specialist.  He started me on IV Heparin.  I went home several days later, after getting lessons on pinching skin to administer shots of blood-thinner.  It would be weeks before I could work full-time, but eventually, the pink returned to my cheeks and my breathing eased.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

Except for one note:  That pulmonologist dropped dead of a cardiac arrest several months after the altercation over my hospital bed.  I read his obituary with sorrow.  Two teen-aged sons.  A wife.  A host of loved ones left to mourn him.

And one former patient, alive, wondering whose future had actually been foretold when he looked into the reflective blue of my eyes.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

 

11 February 2017

Good morning,

As I survey my to-do list, the sun inches itself over the line of scraggly trees between the houses to the east of mine.  Day has not fully committed to my neighborhood.  The dog sleeps on the back porch, disinterested in the stuffy house, content to doze in the gentle morning air.

Inexplicably I find myself thinking about a seven-year-old boy named Brian who died in 1974.

On a warm September day in my first semester of college, my mother threw me out of the house.  Oh, I’m sure if she were here to defend herself, she’d cast it in a weaker light.  “If you’re not home by 5:00, don’t come home at all,” she growled into the phone.

So I didn’t.

I crashed that night in the apartment from which Young World Development planned its fundraisers.  The next day I missed my 8:00 lecture but got to my work-study job in the Office of Financial Aid close to my scheduled shift.

I found my boss and cried on her shoulder for a half an hour.  By noon she had adjusted my aid package to give me a dorm room and talked the Student Housing Office into cooperating.  My wailing painted my parents as heartless.  I cringed only a little and in secret, so Terri couldn’t see.  I shamelessly marginalized the truth in favor of the pity factor.

Terri and I became closer after that.  A plump clever woman, maybe a decade older than I, Terri had a gorgeous husband, deep dimples, and a Masters in educational administration.  She ran the office in the frequent absence of her boss who had great political aspirations and very little practical experience.  Terri rarely complained that he had the better parking place and higher salary.  Women still accepted such realities back then.  The feminist movement had not yet impacted Jesuit education.

Terri also had a little brother named Brian.

Terri never called Brian her “half-brother” though he had been born of a second marriage after her parents’ divorce.  Brian had the same dimples as his big sister, under straight light-brown hair cut in that classic little-boy style.  You could picture his bright red cheeks above a baseball jersey, the bill of his hat shading the gleaming eyes and the broad smile.  Brian had an indefinable quality about him that rendered anyone nearby hopelessly cheerful.  He showed nonstop enthusiasm for Cardinal baseball, trucks, frogs, and his beloved sister.

When they found bruising on Brian’s legs, the entire family went into a tailspin.  The doctors at Cardinal Glennon Hospital broke the news to the family and Terri missed work for a week straight.  Leukemia.

A few months into the ordeal, Brian had to have a spinal tap.  Terri came to work with red-rimmed eyes the next day.  They missed.  Those bastards missed, she whispered.  That goddamn needle hit something vital.  Now he has to spend the rest of his life paralyzed.  She put her head down on the desk.  The rest of his life, she repeated.  All four or five months of it.

A week or so before Brian died, some famous person came around the hospital with toys for the patients.  He sat on the edge of Brian’s bed while Brian unwrapped the gift allocated to him.  Brian’s eyes glowed.  Though he couldn’t move his legs, he could still tear at the paper, and it fell in shreds around him as the visitor lifted the toy to given Brian a better look.

Oh thank you so much! Brian exclaimed, as quoted the next day by his sister to her gathered staff.  He ran a finger around the contours of the helicopter, with its glistening silver blades.  He touched the remote control, watching the blades whirl, laughing at the sound of the tiny motor.

Then his eyes grew soft.  His hands fell back to the cover.  He looked again at the visitor and said, There’s a lot of sick kids here, sir.  I think you should give this to one of them.  It will make them so happy.  And I won’t need this where I’m going.

We fell silent as Terri reached the end of her account.  Someone hugged her.  The rest of us stood helplessly around her desk while Terri cried.  He’s so brave, she told us.  So so brave.  We nodded but no one spoke.  Nothing remained to be said.

Brian died a few weeks later and we all went to his service.  The church groaned under the weight of thousands of yellow flowers, reputedly Brian’s favorite color.  The family clustered at the front, arms around each other, listening to the priest talk about letting little children come unto Jesus.  I saw Terri close her eyes and shake her head a little.  I’m not sure she bought that line but it seemed to give Brian’s parents a little comfort.

Four decades later I pad around the house in my robe, with a bottle of Augmentin, a handful of Vitaman C, a package of Ricola, and my Northwestern mug full of hot coffee.  I try to shake the weariness from  my shoulders.  It seems as though I’ve been tired for my entire life.  I start to complain, but then for some reason, I remember Brian.  I smile, and I carry on.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley