Sunday, January 22, 2012

Blog for Choice 2012

My sister is probably my best friend. We were not close growing up. In fact, we did not like each other very much when we were kids. The six year gap in our ages may account for some of our problems. We also have very different personalities. She's always been very social and easy-going with people. I've always been more comfortable around books and ideas. She was always a rebel and a bad girl. I was the good girl in the family - going to school, rarely defying our parents. We clashed. We argued. Neither of us thought much of the other. This - our relationship -  all changed when she became a mother, and we became as close as two sisters can be.

In 1995, when my sister was 22 and I was 28, my sister came to me and asked for help. This was something she didn't ever really do because, as I've said, we didn't get along. It was a big deal for either of us to ask help from the other.

She came to me and said, "I need help. I think I'm pregnant. I guess I know I'm pregnant. I need help."

I answered, "Pregnant? Are you insane? You can't even bring yourself to wake up at a reasonable time in the morning and hold down a job - there's no way you're can be responsible for a baby. You're a baby, yourself. You seriously have to consider an abortion."

To my surprise she said, "I know. I agree. I think I want an abortion, but I'm scared to even find out about it. You're good at finding things out. Can you find out where I can get one, how much it costs, what I have to do? Please help me out. I wouldn't ask if it weren't important."

I promised to get her the information that day, saying to myself, "She's not even enough of a grownup to find out the damned phone number for Planned Parenthood, so there's no way she can even consider being a parent."

The next day, my sister came home from her visit to Planned Parenthood and sat down with me and our mother. Our mother was great about speaking openly about these issues. She was pro-choice and believed women needed to know about their options. She raised us to know about these things: sex, birth control, abortion rights. She raised us to know that having an abortion was absolutely a choice, and absolutely a choice that was acceptable. In her early 40s, she'd had her own pregnancy scare. Her days of having babies were long over. It turned out that she wasn't pregnant but, when she thought she might be, she'd been completely honest with me: her plan was to abort the pregnancy. She hadn't planned on having children past the age of 30. She'd taken precautions. If she was pregnant, it was because her birth control had failed.  She was already a grandmother (by my older sister) and this was no time to start over with motherhood. Most importantly: she just didn't want another baby. As it turned out, our mother hadn't been pregnant that time, but it had meant a lot to me that she'd been so frank about the situation.

When my sister sat us down, she explained to us that she'd been to Planned Parenthood, talked about her options, discussed the situation with the father of her unborn baby, and decided that abortion was just not for her. She couldn't do it, but she felt sure she could be a good parent. Her boyfriend was on board 100%, and actually very excited about the idea of being a father.  She'd made her choice, and we had to accept it. That's what we did.  In my head, I switched from thinking about this stupid mistake my sister had made, to thinking, "There will be a baby here in 7 or 8 months, and that baby is my niece or nephew. She's made her choice and the best thing I can do - the only thing I can do - is accept and support it."

In a flash, my sister made changes in her life. She set up house with her boyfriend. She became immersed in the business of keeping healthy and planning for parenthood. Her social life ceased to be her priority as she began nesting.

In my heart, I started to really look forward to the idea of a new baby. I love babies. My whole family loves babies. We tend to gather around a new baby and treat him like a king. It's the one area where we all agree: babies are amazing - a treasure. A few weeks after my sister had made her big announcement, I was walking home from work and saw a lovely, little hand-made baby hat in a store window. It looked like the top of a tomato, with an erect tassel for the stem. It was made of soft, merino wool - perfect for a newborn's delicate skin. I bought it and brought it home to my sister, casually dropping it on the table, where she sat reading a book about pregnancy and exercise. She looked up and asked, "What's this?"

I answered, "It's for your baby."

"You bought a present for my baby?" she asked, incredulously. "You don't even like me."

"Your baby is going to be my nephew. I like him. Of course I got him a present." I said.

Everything changed between us at that moment. The idea of that new baby changed me as much as it changed my sister. I warmed up to her. She warmed up to me. We started behaving like friends, instead of enemies. We started to feel for one another the way sisters should feel, if they're really lucky. It's really amazing what the idea of a new baby can do to  and for people.

When my nephew, Derrick, was born, I was among the first to rush to the hospital to hold him. He was beautiful. I fell in love at first sight. My sister and her boyfriend asked if I would be his godmother. Yes, they knew I was gay, and that the Catholic church didn't technically allow homosexuals to baptize babies, but they didn't care what the church said - I was their first and only choice...the person they wanted to entrust with the care of their precious baby should anything happen to them. I promise you this really happened, and that I haven't lifted it from a Lifetime movie.

I am so glad my sister had her baby. He was a wonderful baby. He's now a wonderful young man. I couldn't love him more if her were my own son. I've told him many times, over the years, that one of the reasons he's special to me is that he brought me and my sister together, when it seemed nothing would. In so many ways, he worked miracles.

So, I'm glad my sister made the choice to have her baby. But I'm so damned glad she had the choice to make, and that it wasn't made for her. When she made the decision to go to term with this pregnancy, it was an informed choice, and she made it, in part, after talking to Planned Parenthood about her many options. In retrospect, I'm glad she didn't opt for an abortion, but I thank God that abortion was an option for her....that she didn't feel trapped....that our mother and grandmother believed in speaking openly and non-judgmentally about choice. Every woman has the right to make these choices for and about her own body, about her own health, about her own future, for herself.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Moment Of Happiness

I've had a hell of month. In late December, I had a serious health scare...what should have been a routine nose bleed turned into this major production. Blood shooting out of my nose and mouth like an open faucet. Gag reflex going into effect. Struggles for air. Phone calls to nurses. 24 hours of steady bleeding, racing heart, fear, anxiety, no sleep, dread.

I live alone. It occurred to me, "What if I die like a pool of my own blood? It could take days for anyone to miss me. I'd be found on my bloody carpet, half dressed, my already decomposing body covered in dried blood and vomit. People would see that my bathroom needs a cleaning, that lots of the socks and underwear in my dresser have holes in them, that my fridge has nothing in it but a frozen pizza, three jars of mustard, and a bag of wilted lettuce. That I was watching a Law & Order marathon when death came to take me away. How pathetic."

The events that set me on this course of thinking also set me on a course to a doctor, to find out why the hell my nose had bled for 24 hrs straight. My HMO assigned me to an incredibly dreamy ENT. 25, maybe 26. Drop-dead gorgeous. Charming. Soft-spoken. For whatever reason, she talked to me as if I were a precious, scared baby, instead of a 44 year old woman with a NY accent. My nose was fine, she told me - just dry. I should stop scratching it, rubbing it, picking at it, and blowing it. All things I'm guilty of.  It's itchy, it's dry, I have a lifelong history of sinus pressure and congestion. I mess with my nose a lot. I couldn't do that, anymore, Dr. Dreamy informed me. Oh, and one more thing, my blood pressure was dangerously high. I needed to see my primary doctor ASAP, and I should consider doing 30 minutes of exercise a day, five days a week. That got my attention.  I mean, it really got my attention. So much so that, instead of catching the bus directly home, I walked the first 35 blocks of the trip to get in a little cardio. Surviving 24 hours of bleeding would really suck if the whole thing ended with me dying on some city bus from a heart attack triggered by high blood pressure.

I got a call from my primary doc a few days later. He's awesome. He noted that we hadn't seen each other in ages, and suggested we seize the day and make it a full physical, complete with blood work. Sounded good to me. I fasted after 9 pm (after, I admit, a dinner that was insanely carb-heavy) and arrived at his office the next morning. A nurse tried to take my blood pressure and failed three times. I kept telling her I believed the cuff was faulty, and that she was pinching my arm. She ignored me and kept trying. Finally, she gave up with the words, "This cuff must be broken. I won't pinch you anymore. Let's see what the doctor can do." I went in to the doc. Dr Huang is really sweet. Youngish...maybe 35. Very bright. Very thoughtful. A good listener. He pulled out his old, reliable manual blood pressure meter, put the cuff on me and talked small talk while he took my pressure. It wasn't bad. Only two points higher than it should be for someone my age and weight. He told me to work on diet and exercise, because there didn't seem to be a point in prescribing meds for two points that he was confident I could lower through lifestyle. I liked that. I liked that he didn't rush to meds. I liked that he showed confidence in me to do the right thing. He listened to my heart and lungs and said they sounded clear and strong. We talked about a few things - stuff I've been meaning to get to. Sleep apnea. A referral for a grief counselor.  When we were done, he sent me off to the lab for blood work.

My HMO has a great member website. I can email my doc, make appointments, order meds...all online. The site also makes lab results available to patients in real time. My first lab results came back that night. My overall cholesterol level is great. 162. A 25 yr old would kill for that. Sodium, white and red blood cells, triglycerides, hemoglobin...all perfect.  My vitamin D was way down, but the doc told me to expect that, and that he'd arrange for supplements.

Life can change so suddenly.

The last result to come back was glucose. 217. I know this is high. Very high. Especially for a fasting level. I froze up. My body filled with panic. Diabetes. I know this disease. I ought to. I've never lived without it as a part of my life. My grandmother had it long before I was born. My grandfather developed it. My other grandmother developed it. My mother had it. Some of her 8 siblings had or have it. I have cousins who live with it. At least two of my great grandparents had it. I didn't want it. Yet, I can't say as I was surprised by my blood glucose level. Not only do I have an incredibly strong genetic predisposition, but I'm fat and inactive. I eat too much meat, pasta and cheese, and not enough greens. I was not shocked, but I was scared.

That was a little less than a month ago. Since then, my life has changed drastically. No, that's too passive. Since then, I've made drastic changes in my life. How and what I eat has changed. My sleep patterns have changed. My activity level has changed. As much of a cliche as it might be, this came as a wake-up call. Dr Huang is lovely..we've had some nice talks on the phone, and he's been incredibly encouraging and positive. He's talked about how useless it is to regret past behavior or blame one's self for this sort of thing, and how much better it is to seize the day and give one's self credit for affecting positive change, a little at a time. He's talked about how my condition had been caught early and how the second fasting test he ordered, just a week after the first, already showed improvement due to steps I'd taken on my own to get healthier. He's talked about how my family history of diabetes may give me an edge other people don't have, because I know the disease, I've lived among it, I know it's possible to live with it.

My mother died at 65. She was diabetic. Her diabetes led to kidney failure and blindness and, almost certainly added to the heart disease that eventually killed her long before she should have left us. This is scary. My mother, though, had a lifelong respiratory illness, and degenerative bone disease. These conditions kept her from being able to do many of the things people with diabetes need to do to remain healthy and strong, and prevent organ damage and side effects. In many ways, she never had a chance. I don't have respiratory or bone disease. I do have access to a gym that I've been going to 5-6 days a week for the last month or so. I do have the luxury of shopping and cooking only for myself, and not for a whole family. I do have excellent health insurance.  I also have my late grandmother to think of: she died in 1991, when she was 81. She'd had diabetes for about 35 years, but only become insulin dependent during the last five years of her life. She never went blind. Never developed neuropathy. Never developed kidney disease. She didn't have half the resources or knowledge that I have, but she kicked this disease to a little corner, took control of her life, lived it to the fullest, and died at a ripe, old age. I have her blood coursing through my veins. I have her DNA. I'd like to think I have her spirit, or at least a touch of it.

This morning, after a killer 45 minute cardio workout, I treated myself to a soak in the jacuzzi. It's a really nice, in-ground jacuzzi. Big enough for 15 people or so. Like a tiny swimming pool. It's set among trees that attract hummingbirds and sparrows. One can lay back, look up at the blue sky, and feel the hot jets, as hummingbirds zip past. Really lovely. As is often the case, I had it to myself. As I lay back, listening to the birdsong, it occurred to me: I felt happy. Really happy. Physically and emotionally stronger than I've been in 18 months. Not in the least bit lonely or sad. Not scared. Invigorated by my workout. Cheerful about the birds zipping around. Proud of myself for  not only eating sensibly, but learning to really enjoy the challenge. Deeply satisfied to be wearing a bathing suit that was too snug just a month ago.  This life - it's a damned good one.

Happiness. It's crept up on me.

© 2012 Lana M. Nieves
Limited Licensing: I, the copyright holder of this work, hereby publish it under the Creative Commons Attribution license, granting distribution of my copyrighted work without making changes, with mandatory attribution to Lana M. Nieves and for non-commercial purposes only. - Lana M. Nieves