March 2011

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To the outside eye, little would seem to connect me – politically or in any other fashion – to Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush. But, since moving to my little piece of Cape Cod, I’ve discovered I share an appreciation with these two Republican icons for the spiritual practice of brush clearing. More than, simply, physical exercise or a reason to be outside on a beautiful spring afternoon, I’ve found that whacking away at the acre of bull briar and bittersweet that comprises the back two thirds of my lot makes me happy in a way that seems inconceivable, given the odds of my ever actually completing Sisyphean task I’ve set for myself.

In the last few days of near-spring here on the Cape, I’ve gotten back in touch with just how lost I can get in the simple effort of clearing useless crap out of the back of my lot. I initially discovered the odd joy of reclaiming pathways and trees suffocated by myriad varieties of bethorned, climbing vegetation during my first spring here. Those first few months featured pitched battles against the climbing invasives that were threatening to strangle the life out of trees and shrubs along my two side lot lines. I then began pushing offensively into the back portion of my lot, in an attempt to clear simple paths to the lot’s rear boundary. In the process of hacking though grape and bittersweet vines as thick as a bodybuilder’s bicep, I got to know the beauty of my little piece of acreage in a way I hadn’t anticipated before I’d started the effort.

And, an effort it has been. To those who know Cape Cod only in photographs or, perhaps, through a beachside summer vacation, the landscape here is filled with an almost nauseatingly large supply of mop-headed hydrangeas and huge-hipped beach roses, an adequate number of well-maintained cranberry bogs and, maybe, a poison ivy vine or two. Those of us who live and garden here, though, know the dominant plant life is far less picturesque – it climbs and claws and sucks up sunlight like a collection of photosynthesizing sponges. Most of the nastiest species are as invasive as New York license plates in mid-July. These include bull briar (aka “cat briar”), with thorns that can rip through leather gloves, and bittersweet – yes, its leaves and berries are beautiful in the fall and its younger vines can make lovely wreaths, but when full grown, those same vines wrap like boa constrictors around growing tree trunks. Japanese bush honeysuckle propagates through underground root systems, and provides a foundation for briar and bittersweet to climb to surrounding trees’ lower branches. There also, though are some nasty local plants, including wild grape and black raspberry. However, I’m learning to go after these last two judiciously – their fruit is just too darned good.

To really make any headway against these varied foes requires a big effort in early spring, before warmer weather and plentiful rains give enemy plant life a chance to gain the upper hand. Last year, at this time, I was just too wrapped up in work and Dad’s care to muster the energy needed for a full frontal attack. So, pathways I’d spent the last three years establishing began to disappear. It was so disheartening, I simply stopped crossing over the ancient drainage ditch separating the front third of the property from the wilder majority portion behind it.

Dad’s doing a bit better this springtime. There are some serious concerns about blood pressure and moderate worries about a possible stomach ulcer – along with, of course, continuing kidney and heart issues – and his energy level seems noticeably lower than it was last fall. But at least I’m not dealing with a datebook full of doctors appointments every week, and attempting to ensure the visits of shower aides and physical therapists aren’t overlapping. So, when Friday afternoon’s sunshine proved too enticing to resist, I donned my heavy leather gloves and grabbed my collection of pruners and loppers and began having at it. This afternoon – Sunday – found me similarly armed and protected, as I went after the vines attempting to reclaim an old apple tree I had almost cut free two years ago.

I’ve become more discriminating in my slaughter over the years, so my current efforts require more thought and attention. For example, I’ve learned to leave a certain percentage of raspberry canes to ensure a decent late-July/early-August harvest. And this year I’m experimenting with grape-pruning techniques I learned via YouTube, to see if I can boost my jelly output in September. So, while I still go after bittersweet and briar full-speed, I take more time with my other foes – even the honeysuckle serves a purpose as a support for my newly trimmed grape vines, so I’m pruning it with care.

In addition to my bush clearing, I also spent time this weekend in a training workshop for a pastoral-care program forming at my church. We spent a lot of time talking about spirituality in our time together. As Unitarian Universalists, we don’t have a singlular theology or teachings to draw on, so our spirituality is expressed in many forms. When we participants were asked to think about how we expressed our own spirituality, I found myself drawing a blank, falling back on spending time by the ocean as a somewhat pat, even if true, response. But as I took my time this afternoon examining grape vines to determine appropriate pruning points, and threading them back through interlaced honeysuckle branches in a way that would allow both sunlight and support, and studied the many bittersweet vines choking a struggling willow to determine the lowest and most accessible cutting point, I reconsidered that question. In the simple, yet practiced, effort of clearing away brush, I also was clearing away my own mental detritus. That work required a certain clarity and present-ness that forced away thoughts of systolic and diastolic ratios, and brought me to a point of peace with my body and my surroundings.

Of course, as such moments are, this one was short-lived. Soon enough, I was caught up in dinner drama, watching the clock to parse out the minutes required to fill Dad’s weekly pill box, the minutes required to get dinner from counter to grill to table, and doing the subtraction to see just how much time I’d have to myself for the blessed sacrament of gimlet and Vanity Fair indulgence.

I don’t know if I’ll ever succeed in my efforts to create a clear path, perhaps even one wide and clear enough for a mountain bike, through to the school and bike path that abut my property’s rear boundary. But, to an extent, it doesn’t matter, because the work, itself, can be so satisfying. With this last weekend’s concentration on spirituality, I see the experience of that work – the stepping back, observing, moving with deliberate action instead of reaction – as something to model in all the other hours when I’m not surrounded by nature’s furious bounty.


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The last five or six months have felt a little like an intermission. From late summer, through the fall and early winter, Dad has really been doing pretty well. In the fall, he even made it back to St. Louis on his own for a small family gathering. Over the past month or so, however, his walking has seemed slower, he’s seemed less steady transitioning from the sofa to standing, and now some medical issues appear to be creeping in that have me thinking of the lights the ushers flash in a theater lobby as a play is set to resume. It’s like I’m being ushered back to my seat so Dad’s drama can continue to unfold.

First, last month, came the visit to the skin doctor, for a look at three different lesions on Dad’s face. His primary care physician (PCP) had been tracking them for several months and had tried freezing one of them off in his office, but it returned within the month. The skin doctor took one look and said they needed to come off. Yes, it’s reasonable to ask, why deal with skin cancers on an 89-year-old, but the problem is they all fall within the area he shaves. And they bleed easily, even when he’s just drying his face on a towel – his towel can look like it’s been used as a tourniquet at a car-accident scene on his shower days. Fortunately, I was there to ask about anesthesia – “We can use general or a local,” the doctor said. “Well, he’s got kidney disease, so I think a general could be an issue – would you be checking with his kidney doctor?” I asked. “He’s got kidney disease? Is that in the notes? Oh, yeah, here it is. Well, I guess we’ll use a local, then.”

Next came the near-disaster as Dad pulled out of the driveway a couple weeks ago, which I wrote about in my last post. Watching that occur in almost exactly the same spot where my dog was hit and killed last summer had me shaking for an hour afterward. The driving-evaluation appointment at the rehab center is next week. As I noted in my last post, I’m not sure whether either possible outcome will give me any peace.

Through all this I’ve been having growing concerns about Dad’s stomach. He’s on a blood thinner to minimize the risk of clots that could develop around the stent he had placed in one of his legs last year. Blood thinners can be very hard on your stomach, and Dad already has a history of ulcers – in fact, a bleeding ulcer was part of what landed him in the hospital in St. Louis, just prior to me moving him out here with me. He was initially on two different stomach medicines, but one had to be withdrawn at the concern of the kidney doctor a couple months ago. Of course, my father is not someone who would adjust his diet to help manage this situation, and I started noting that he was belching a lot. Then, about a month ago, he mentioned he had had a bad stomach the night before and had had to get up to throw up. It happened again two weeks later. Plus, he’d gone through a bottle of Pepcid in a month. I called his PCP’s office, and they had him come in as a walk-in. We got sent home with an order for prescription-strength Pepcid (he’s now taking the equivalent of four “Max” strength Pepcids everyday, on top of his other stomach med), along with a test kit to check for blood in the stool. Last week, that test result came back positive, and we got a referral to specialist number 7, the gastroenterologist.

Again, it was a good thing I was here to run interference when the office of this latest team member called. That doctor wanted to take Dad in directly for a colonoscopy, without any kind of consult first. Having had my first experience with that wonderful exam this past fall, I know just how, um, draining the preparation can be. Really awful pictures started running through my head of Dad attempting to keep up with the repeated, urgent bathroom calls – the guy who, on his best days, can barely keep himself from toppling over as he gets up from the sofa. Then I began thinking about the strain the process could put on his kidneys. While the scheduler had me on hold while she checked dates, I began to panic a bit. When she came back on, I told her I wanted to check with his PCP before setting a date.

It turns out the PCP had intended there to be a consult before any procedure – the GI doc was just working on rote procedure: blood in stool = colonoscopy. The nurse from the PCP’s office told me that he was also concerned about a possible medical impact. So, now there will be blood tests, an appointment with the PCP and another with the kidney doctor before Dad sees the GI doc, and that visit will be a consult, not a colon exam.

Which all adds up to blood tests, three different doctor appointments, skin surgery and a driving evaluation in the next three weeks. And, by the way, I’m completely underwater with work. Yes, I think I see an usher attempting to flag me down… the performance must be starting up again.