It seems like common sense to attempt to improve a distressing situation.
Sometimes this can be relatively straightforward:

You put on an outfit, and realize immediately that you are too bloated to comfortably fit into it, so you take it off and put on something else (preferably from your selection of clothes with an elastic waist, grateful that this selection is expanding in sync with the expansion of your mid-section).

Or you agree to go out for tea with someone you found on one of the 25 online dating sites to which you subscribe. You realize, 5 minutes into the date, that it would be preferable to be at home doing your laundry or balancing your checkbook, rather than sitting through this tea-time tedium. So you offer some polite explanation, and you excuse yourself, wishing them well on their dating journey.
(It seems to be online dating etiquette to “wish someone well on their journey” when you have no interest in them. Having been the recipient of this phrase more times than I’d like to admit, I’m not proud to be incorporating it into my own communication. But I suppose it’s nicer than saying “I feel absolutely no inclination to have you in my life for even one more moment”.)

Realistically, there is not always such a clear solution to a problematic circumstance.
(Admittedly, body image and searching for love are not actually simple or straightforward arenas at all, but they were the first examples that popped into my mind. Seemed like a reasonable moment to try the whole “First thought -Best thought” thing. My apologies. Moving forward, I’ll try the “Ignore the first thought – Go for the next thought” thing.)

And the whole concept of “leaving well enough alone” is a bit of a conundrum. It’s based on the wisdom of hindsight.
You can’t really know if you were already “well enough” until you have taken some action to improve your wellness, and then you can compare.

Apparently, my foresight has not caught up with my hindsight.

Take, for example, my mouth.
One ordinary day, some years ago, I decided to have a new mouth guard made, to reduce the damage being done by the grinding I apparently do while I sleep. (In contrast to my serene, centered countenance during waking hours, the constant agitated motion of my jaw when slumbering suggests, without subtlety,  a dramatic disturbance beneath that peaceful persona. Hmm…)
So I consulted with an orthodontist, who thought it might be a good idea to consider invisible braces, which would not only work as a night guard, but would have the added bonus of straightening out my teeth. I hadn’t really thought of my teeth as being hideously crooked, but it sounded like a reasonable “2 birds with 1 stone” sort of suggestion.
(Please excuse the bird stoning reference., and note that I am opposed to animal cruelty. Apparently, in Italy they say “to catch two pigeons with one bean” – a much nicer phrase. Here in America, however, we reserve our beans for soups and stews, not for catching pigeons.)

He referred me to a dentist, recommending that I have a check-up to take care of any other possible issues before proceeding with making these appliances. (I’m always amused by the notion of having appliances in my mouth. It makes me dream of having a miniature hot water dispenser installed. Or maybe a very small Cuisinart).

And so began a tale too twisted to tell here in any detail, but I will say that I never did get around to having braces. What did, in fact, occur is that I followed the dentist’s suggestion to see a periodontist for a scaling, during which a filling was placed. When I immediately started having intermittent sharp pain, I was referred to an endodontist, who directed me to have a root canal.

This would have been the quintessential “leave well enough alone”/stop the cameras/hold the horses moment – but I missed it in my bull-headed, Taurus-natured determination to resolve whatever had gone wrong.

I had the root canal done, which led to unremitting indescribable pain, another root canal on the other side of my mouth which also did not heal correctly, and endless consultations with every conceivable genre of oral medicine and dentistry. The whole adventure culminated in an inability to chew solid food for 3 years, a surgical extraction, and countless ongoing attempts at filling in the gap in my mouth where functionally chewing teeth are supposed to be.
(Having become quite intimate with my Vitamix, I briefly considered creating my own culinary company, “Gourmet Puree: Cuisine for the Dentally Challenged”. If you are reading this, and you have entrepreneurial expertise, feel free to contact me. I really no longer have an interest in this business, but lately I am in great need of contact.)

Looking back, some intermittent pain would not have been so bad…

Or take the housing situation.
I lived in the same apartment for 16 years. During the last 8 of those years, I developed what is known as Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS), a form of environmental illness that basically takes over your life, reducing it to a very small speck of space in which you can actually breathe.
This condition crept up on me, rather insidiously. At first, I noticed that I was having strong reactions to things like new carpeting, painting, cigarette smoke, and cleaning chemicals. Eventually, the whole world started to assault me with its fragrances and smells at every turn, as if someone turned up my olfactory system 1000 times higher than it should be, giving me a sort of nasal superpower. (If I had a choice of superpowers, I really would have preferred flying, or the ability to complete your tax forms in 3 minutes.) And then came the running list of other symptoms: fever, headache, nausea, raw throat, dizziness, congestion, rashes, cognitive impairment, crying spells, and an arbitrary assortment of physical, emotional, and mental reactions , including the instant impulse to bludgeon and kill people who have fragrance on their clothes, skin, or hair. (Be advised – should we ever meet at a book-signing.)

My apartment was like an MCS obstacle course. My bedroom was directly above the laundry vents, with the smell of detergents and dryer sheets managing to come through the windows that I did not dare open. Every time my upstairs neighbor took a shower, my nose and mouth were filled with their shampoo and soap fumes coming through my shower vent. I could not use the forced air heat or cooling for similar reasons – It would pump neighbors’ perfumes and sprays into my home. Numerous floods and leaks over the years created what I believed to be an unresolved mold problem. And my next door neighbors sprayed so much Febreeze and other assorted air fresheners that I had to cover myself up in a raincoat, hat, scarf and face mask (an outfit not recommended for appearing sane to others), hold my breath, and run whenever I needed to enter or exit the building.

It seemed like “well enough” was a bit lacking in the “well” department. And so began a ten-month search for a more environmentally friendly apartment, which finally led me to sign a lease on a place that appeared to be an improvement.
I moved in and soon discovered I was mistaken. A myriad of surprises (referred to by my friend as the Plagues) have arisen in the new apartment, including but not limited to: an infestation on all the windows of hundreds of gnats that manage to come inside even when the windows are closed, rotted window frames with billions of specks of paint, wood, and debris that fly directly into my eyes whenever I do try to open a window, locks that stick and doorknobs that loosen and fall off, both of which prevent me from entering or exiting the apartment, giant roaches, and overwhelming smells that come from behind the gunked up radiators, where the paint and wall areas are all peeled and growing God knows what kinds of moldy murky mess.
To avoid the radiator smell in my new bedroom, I am sleeping on the living room floor.
From this perspective, the old place looks pretty good. Who knew?

And now there is my Mother.
When she went to the ER that one fateful night, and was ready to be sent home while we awaited the test results regarding the fluid found in her lungs, my sister and I agreed to have her discharged to a rehab facility. At home, she had not been moving around, walking, getting fresh air, or interacting with other people for years. We wanted her to at least have physical therapy to strengthen her muscles, and at best to be interacting with, and taken care of appropriately, by people able to do so (in other words, not my Dad).

When she briefly came alive, we felt assured that we had done the right thing. For a couple of golden weeks, my mother was walking, talking, laughing, and sharing about how much she enjoyed her lunchtime conversations with the lovely women at her dining hall table.
She sounded like a giddy little girl – delighted to have made new friends, and proud of her daily accomplishments in physical therapy. This was a woman I had not heard from in decades. It was like she was given a new lease on life.

And then we were given the news that her life would be cut short in the very near future, due to an inoperable lung tumor. We were advised to give her a procedure that would drain the fluid from her lungs, another procedure to establish a chemical barrier to prevent fluid from returning, and  a series of radiation treatments aimed at shrinking the tumor.
My sister and I, sharing the role of her medical power of attorney, said “yes” to these things. Seemed like the right thing to do.
And my mother has been deteriorating week by week – First the endless cough, then the refusal of food, then the complete loss of muscle strength and motion, then the frozen staring into space, then the appearance of delirium and/or dementia.
Now there are no more reports of happy lunchtime chats. Now she is confused most of the time, and too tired and weak to even leave her room to go to the dining hall. Now she tends to choke on food if not extremely careful. Now she begs my Dad to stay and spend the night with her – and often calls out for him after he has gone, with a forlorn repetition of “Arn?, Arn?, Arn?” (which is exactly what she did at home, where he did not hear or respond, so this is not so different except that he’s actually not there).

Who can say what would have happened if she would simply have returned home from that first hospitalization? Who can say if we should have just let her live out the remainder of her life in a familiar (if not exactly functional) environment, with a committed (if not exactly conscious or capable) husband by her side?

There were doctors who were certain that we should just let her die; that we had no business sending her for treatment; that she only had a couple of months left to live and should be allowed to do so without forcing any lengthening of life; that putting her on hospice care was the only ethical thing to do. They scolded my sister and me, shaming us for imposing interventions on such a sick woman.                                                               After re-centering, in the face of these emotional attacks, I recognized that they were speaking from their own wounds, their own family histories and losses. I believe they did not mean to overstep their bounds, or to be dictatorial. They just got lost in their own blind spots, and reacted, as I too have been known to do on a regular basis. It always helps when I remember to see myself in the person in front of me, and to invoke compassion. (Then again, it can be quite satisfying to fantasize their violent demise.)

These doctors never actually spoke with my mother about her own wishes, her own fears, her own value of living this life as long as possible. We did. And we honored her need to keep on fighting.

And it’s just not neat or tidy or clear or simple or straightforward.
Hindsight is not relevant here. We get no do-overs. We only get this one chance as a family to journey together through the final chapter of her life.

I am grateful that we are doing it as lovingly, kindly, and persistently as possible.

And I am surrendering to the reality that we can’t improve every distressing situation.

And I’m really glad I’m wearing elastic pants.

One thought on “hindsight”

  1. oh boy. I really like seeing this other side of you…..reading what goes through your mind…..I am sorry about the MCS….is it getting better or worse? I suppose I will find out as I read. thank you.

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