Saturday, March 12, 2016

Stepping Over Logs

My house is surrounded on three sides by water. On the east there is the DuPage River, on the south there is a branch off the river, which then feeds into a creek that is on the west of us.  I like to walk, especially where there are trees, and all of these bodies of water provide me with great opportunities to do this.  I especially like to go to Knoch Knolls woods because there is a wonderful bridge over the river there.  It is a great place to just stand and think.  For the last few days, and even now, there have been a lot of fallen limbs and logs in the paths where I walk.  Some come from the beginning of Fall and recent storms; some are just from culling the city workers are doing.  In any case they make it hard to walk the path.  Today I stood on the bridge and started thinking a lot about my basement and other things, like those logs.

Last spring there was a ferocious storm here in the town where I live.  So much water fell from the shy in such a short time that the gutters and drains could not keep up.  I have a large drain in my backyard and a small one on the curb in front of my house.  Like all of the playgrounds that turned into lakes, my yards were quickly underwater.  My neighbors and I tried to clear the storm drains but it was no use.  Slowly but surely the water crept up to my house and with it came a lot of mud. Eventually there was so much that it broke into the window wells of my basement, and because of the muck, it also clogged the drains in there as well.  It broke out the interior windows, and that’s when the water started coming into the house.   Both the sump and ejector pumps, which I neglected to maintain, burned out and so there was nothing we could do but hope the rain would stop falling.

Since then we have been working on repairing the basement all summer. A couple of times we got more water in before I could fix or replace the pumps.  It seemed like every time we took two steps forward, and were happy, we got thrown three steps back.  Things are moving along now but there is still work to be done.  

Both of my sons, Ben and Matthew, are now in college.  A long time ago I promised my daughter, Meredith, who is still in high school that when the boys went off I would redo the basement for her and her friends.  After years of crazy boys being down there playing video games and hurling lacrosse balls around, not to mention at times fists, at fragile walls, it was her turn to have the basement to herself.  I should have had that project finished by now but I don’t.  For some reason when I contemplate what needs to be done down there I freeze up.  I don’t know why.  The magnitude is not so huge or the complexity of the project all that hard to fathom.  I just haven’t seemed to be able to get motivated to do it.  I have felt paralyzed.  A friend of mine suggested that maybe it is because doing projects like this are a constant reminder that things that were once easy for me to do are now very hard, if not impossible.  He might be right.  He said, “T.S., you just might have to accept that you will need help and do things differently than you used to.”  That is very hard for me.

One day I was driving Meredith to an appointment and I started asking her questions about what she wanted her basement to look like. I said, “Would you like me to take the ceiling tiles out and maybe go with a more industrial look?  She said, “No, I want a ceiling and I want lights.” I asked, “What about the old futon.”  She said, “It needs a new cover.  You also need to fix the window. It gets cold down there.”  I said, “OK, what about the floor?”  She said, “Area rugs would be nice.” I dropped her off and she hugged me.  “Thank you, Tom. You know I love you.” Since she started talking she has always called me by my first name and I don't care. As long as she doesn't say, “I hate you," Tom," I couldn't give a damn what she calls me. 

When I got home I started thinking.  “Maybe there is a way I can do this.  I just have to figure it out.” I went to take my walk.  Along the way I thought about the logs, how they blocked the path and got into the water and kept it from moving, and I also thought about something else related.  

Not long ago one of our relatives, Karen’s aunt, asked me if I would be willing to talk to a friend of her's, Kris, who had just recently been diagnosed with Parkinson's. Kris was really struggling to adapt to this change in her life. I told Aunt Dottie, of course I would talk to her friend, and so I did.  When I reached Kris we talked about a lot of things: what led to our diagnoses, medications, side effects, etc.  At one point she asked me a question.  “Do you ever freeze up?”  I said, “I don’t often now because of the medicine but still occasionally from time to time.”  I told her the story of what happened when I first froze up because I thought it might help.

I used to work in the Gold Coast of Chicago as a VP of Marketing and Public Relations.  When I was first diagnosed my neurologist told me that walking would be good for me, so every day at lunch I tried to take a walk around the neighborhood.  One day as I was working my way down Michigan Avenue not far from the Hancock Building, for no reason, I just stopped.  I stood on the sidewalk, blinking, staring, and wondering what was happening.  My office was not far from Northwestern University Hospital so there were always a lot of medical people out and about at lunchtime too.  A woman in scrubs came up to me.  “Are you alright, sir?” she asked.  I nodded.  “Do you think you might be having a stroke?”  I shook my head. I said, “No, I’m fine. I just seem to have forgotten how to walk.”  

She got me to sit down on the edge of one of the planters on the street.  I told her that I had Parkinson’s and she smiled.  She asked me, “How long?”  I told her it had been only about a month.  She assured me that I hadn’t been on the medicine long enough and I was still adjusting.   She took me by both hands and pulled me up.  She said, “I’m going to teach you a trick.  If this happens again, just focus on a crack in the sidewalk ahead of you, pretend it is a log and that you have to step over it.  Once you do; then keep going forward.”  She had me do it and she was right.  She gave me a hug and then went on her way.  I wish I had the presence of mind to get that woman’s number so I could thank her.  Kris said to me, “I have heard of that trick too.  I’m glad it works.”

I was recently texting with my good friend, Marko.  He sent me a much needed virtual “man-hug.”  We talked about challenges and obstacles we were both facing.  He told me about how he had to put a beloved dog down and how sad it made his wife.  He also told me about how an old injury was bothering him that he thought he might have to have surgery to repair it.  Despite his pain he asked me how I was doing.  I told him that it was always a journey and that logs sometimes get in your path.  I said, “I think you figure out quickly how to step over logs, which maybe is why God put them there in the first place.” He said, "I think that a good thing for me and a lot of other people to think about."

Today on the bridge I thought more about that.  I thought even more about a message my wife sent to me in the morning.  Karen understands the challenges that I am going through in my life, does her best to not get frustrated when I lash out in anger, but also refuses to coddle me. She is a woman of great faith, especially in me.  Out of love she always pushes me to step over the logs. The message Karen sent me basically said, “Challenges, issues, and problems are all about how you respond to them.”  I married a very smart girl.  After I got home I started sketching out a plan.  I know now exactly what I am going to do with the room for Meredith; what I am going to buy; what I am going fix or hang; what couches I am going to move around, and just how I am going to do it all with some help from friends who have offered it.  It feels good. Tomorrow I'll start working through it all…one log at a time.
Whether you are dealing with a chronic illness or just with the everyday challenges, that we all have to deal with, the message is still the same.  We all need to learn how to step over logs or maybe take a new path if that is what is required.  The important thing is that we don’t allow ourselves to freeze up. We have to keep moving forward in whatever positive direction that means for our lives, even if that means asking for a little or lot of help from our loved ones along the way.
Thomas G.M. Sharpe, April 2013