I walked out of the parking garage at work and headed toward the cancer hospital. It was a Saturday morning of the long weekend, and team rounds were scheduled to begin in about fifteen minutes. The parking garage is not my usual one. This one is closer to the hospital, and on weekends, I won’t get a ticket for parking there. When I’m on service in the hospital – two weeks straight as the attending of the oncology inpatient unit and the oncology consult service, 24 hour-per-day call – this small thing feels like a luxury. A few less steps to take to get in to the hospital, a few less steps to take when I’m headed home to my family.
Nestled between my weekend parking garage and the hospital is the nursing home where my dad lived for the last year of his life. I hate that place. When I think back on the trauma I experienced with the loss of my father to dementia, the nursing home plays a starring role in my memories.
I park in that parking garage less than two dozen times per year, only when I’m on service. Usually, on my way to the hospital or back to my car, I find myself holding my breath as I walk by the nursing home. Sometimes I cut through the parking lot, taking care not to trip on the tree roots that have buckled the asphalt. Other times, I give the place a wide berth. Even without stepping foot inside, I can remember the smell of it. If I allow my mind to wander, I can feel the black memories beginning to return, squeezing the breath out of my chest. So I hold my breath, quicken my pace, and think about my team and the patients waiting on me. Go, I tell myself. Walk faster.
This Saturday was different. As I neared the path that cuts through the nursing home parking lot, I realized something was different. A chain-link construction fence blocked the way. I walked several steps more, then stopped. It’s gone, I thought. I turned back and walked back to an opening in the fence to get a closer look. It’s finally gone.
The nursing home had been bulldozed. My ever-expanding hospital bought the property several months ago, and though I’d hoped that one day this would happen, the nursing home remained. Until now. In the bare construction site, near a construction dumpster, only a single large oak tree remained. That oak tree had provided shade over the depressing back patio of the nursing home, where a handful of wheelchair-bound patients sat outside and smoked.
I took a deep breath and felt a wave of relief wash over me. I raised my phone and took a photo. I needed the evidence. I looked down at the photo of the empty lot, smiled to myself, and walked the rest of the way to the cancer hospital.
I’ve looked at that photo several times since then, and I find it reassuring and comforting each time. That awful place has been torn down, and it feels wonderful to have the ugly reminder of a year’s worth of pain and some of the worst memories of my life gone, completely erased.
Alaska came up as a vacation idea last summer, during our day of travel home from Paris. We’d just spent nearly two weeks overseas, the first half in London and the second half in Paris. I was impressed with how well my vacation-averse husband fared during the trip and, feeling optimistic, I suggested that we begin thinking of our next summer vacation. Somewhere else in Europe, maybe? Ireland or Scotland?
“How about we stay in the US next summer?” he said. “We could look into Alaska.”
Knowing my husband as well as I do, I knew that he was imagining how much less expensive a domestic trip would be. I’m not quite sure why he thought Alaska would be less expensive than a European trip, but I chalked it up to the after effects of consuming a small country’s worth of wine, cheese, and pastries over the previous week in Paris.
I took his suggestion and ran with it.
Both of our parents had visited Alaska by cruise, and they all loved their experience. I felt relatively indifferent about an Alaskan cruise, but when I investigated how we could best tour the state, it seemed that a cruise made the most sense. I wanted to see the Inside Passage and Glacier Bay National Park, and the most feasible way of doing so was by ship. I also wanted us to have the flexibility of touring on our own, though, so at the end of the cruise itinerary, we would plan to rent a car and explore on our own.
On July 2nd, we boarded our cruise ship – Holland America’s ms Noordam – at the port in Vancouver and soon departed for a north-bound trip up the Inside Passage, headed for Seward, Alaska.
After a full day of cruising, we awoke on the third morning of the cruise to our first port, Ketchikan. We spent the morning wandering around the town, exploring the shops along Creek Street, and generally wandering aimlessly. It was the 4th of July, and the town prepared for their annual parade, to be held around noon. We had other plans, though. A floatplane awaited us, and with Captain Randy at the helm, our family of four and another young couple were treated to amazing views of the waters and mountains surrounding Ketchikan. We flew through the Misty Fjords National Monument, admiring waterfalls, thick evergreen forests, winding waterways, and scattered islands. We landed on a lake somewhere in the middle of the wilderness and the silence and stillness of the place were incredible.
For the rest of our trip, Oliver talked about his strong need to own a floatplane one day.
Creek Street in Ketchikan
My mother, brother, and me.
In January, I gave myself the gift of trying a barre class. The studio offers one week of unlimited classes free when you first sign up, and after my first class, I immediately signed up for another. After the first week, I’d taken three classes and felt sore in places I didn’t think possible. I remember getting up in the middle of the night to pee and wishing that my bathroom had rails along the walls so that I could hold on as I gingerly eased myself down and then up again, holding my breath with the pain. The soreness reminded me of the existence of so many individual muscles, but I liked knowing they were there. There was potential in that pain.
This morning, I took another barre class. It was my 141st class since the year began. Toward the end of class, during the final stretching period when the lights were dimmed and the music slowed down, I found my thoughts drifting to a place outside that room. I inhaled deeply, exhaled, and brought myself back. I understood again – because I’ve known this all year, but I love when I remember it – what a true gift barre has been and how necessary it has become to me. For a solid hour of class, I have allowed myself to focus only on myself, on remembering to breathe (especially through the pain), on becoming stronger than I was when I walked in the door.
Barre has been therapy for me. I mean that figuratively, of course, but also literally. In January, I was faced with a choice of what to do with two or three spare hours of my time each week. I could either continue seeing the therapist I’d begun seeing while trying to come to terms with my mother’s alcoholism and my brother’s mental illness and drug addiction, or, I could take barre classes. For that first week, I did both – a few barre classes and a therapy session. After that week, I realized that I felt physically better, but also mentally better, after a barre class. After a therapy session, I mostly just cried. The decision was an easy one.