B.B. Boudreau

Novelist | Singer

The Lighter Side of Alzheimer’s

Barbara with her mother Marjorie Buls

Barbara with her mother Marjorie Buls

It sounds like an awful title. I’ve thought about writing this for months, wondering who I might offend, who might understand, who would care, wouldn’t care, etc., until I made myself crazy. Writers expose themselves to criticism as soon as the words go down on paper. And we’re almost all insecure to a person, so we simply have to ignore the devil on our left shoulder and listen to the Muse on the right, particularly when writing about controversial subjects – like Alzheimer’s Disease.
And what a disease. Alzheimer’s basically means the brain is being absorbed or lost or eaten. It begins with the destruction of the hippocampus, responsible for storing experiences to long-term memory. This loss of memory is a warning sign and often panics people who think they have Alzheimer’s because they have a hard time remembering things. The difference is that Alzheimer’s is progressive and punishing, and keeps on devouring the brain. In the mid and later stages, emotional upheaval can include paranoia, anger, aggressiveness and depression. Alzheimer’s always ends in death, and there is no cure.
I was recovering from my own major surgery (spinal fusion), or I might’ve noticed my Mom’s decline a bit sooner. I was in constant debilitating pain and afraid to travel, even ten minutes in a car.
The fact that my Mom didn’t tell anybody about her surgery should’ve been the first clue. Around the middle of July during a phone conversation, she mentioned casually that she was going in for an operation on her leg, which had been causing her pain for some time. She didn’t remember what they were doing, just that it was surgery to correct the “pain in her leg.” I asked her for her doctor’s number.
I didn’t even try to hide the shock in my voice when I learned that she was having a hip replacement. The receptionist was very nice and gave me the necessary details, after which I called my mother.
“Mom, they said you’re having a hip replacement,” I said, attempting to hide panicked emotion in my voice.
“Oh, yeah, I guess that’s right.”
“What were you planning to do – drive yourself to the hospital?” Mom drove until she was 88, without an accident on her record.
“I don’t know,” came the answer. Yeah, something was wrong. I still didn’t catch on. Not until after the surgery.
Mom went through a month of rehab in a building that was part of her Independent Living center. The physical therapy was progressing nicely, and her hip seemed to be doing fine. I had conference calls on a regular basis with the therapists and nurses who cared for her, and finally, they dropped the bomb.
“Your Mother can’t live alone any longer.”
Those words landed like soupy cement in a foundation frame. Heavy. With finality. Just what did that mean?
“Why? She seems fine.”
They had run cognitive tests, and concluded that some type of dementia was taking hold. I purchased a ticket and flew to Indiana. Whether it was the universe, God, or just the tightness of my muscles, my back didn’t hurt at all during my entire trip or the visit with its weighty mission. My dad, who was a minister, used to say that God tempers the wind to the shorn lamb.
Within a half hour of seeing Mom, I knew they were right. Her apartment was a mess. Supermarket flyers, bills, greeting cards and tax records were all jumbled in piles on end tables. This woman had written the manual on organization. She ran her neighborhood association for close to twenty years. She systematized photos albums by geography and chronology, made sound financial decisions, wrote clear tabs for files, kept our kindergarten art projects separate and clearly marked. Jumbled piles of unrelated items were a warning sign. I met with the Director of Rehab.
“Your mother is a wanderer (they actually they called her a “flight risk.” Look that one up. It refers to criminal activity. I was quick to correct them). She left rehab twice and went back to her apartment.”
A flicker of a smile had to have crossed my face, but I stayed on focus. Running away from rehab? I was so proud of her.
“She can no longer live alone, and she can’t stay here. We don’t have a secure memory unit in our facility.”
The walls caved in. I’m not sure if I said anything at all. I was so pissed that they had abandoned my mother– and me. The Director handed me a sheet of paper. This and That Assisted Living facilities with Memory Care Units were listed in alphabetical order. She may have made several recommendations. I was staring at a trembling piece of copy paper with my mother’s future address written somewhere.
I left the office and returned to Mom’s apartment, where she was busy leafing through the piles of dissociated junk.
“Hi!” she chirped. “I was wondering where you were. Isn’t it time for happy hour?”
It was time for happy hour.

This is the first in a series called The Lighter Side of Alzheimer’s by B.B. Boudreau. Marjorie Buls, the subject of these accounts, now lives in Harbor Assisted in the memory care unit in Ft. Wayne, IN, where a marvelous staff watches over her.

A REASON TO NOT READ REVIEWS

Precision 18 elevation drawingThe other day my husband bought a boat. This is not an unusual occurrence in my house. It was actually expected, since we were without a sailboat, which for us, is like being without a car for most people. We’ve been married 20 years, and in that time, he’s bought 7 or 8 boats, which numbers vary if you count inflatables and other small crafts. Most of these boats have been purchased without my knowledge, but he’s a boat- and car-buying expert, so I don’t stress anymore when he says, “Wait ‘til you see the boat I bought you!” over the phone. And we both know who he bought it for.
This newest one is small – a trailerable 18’ Precision shoal draft centerboard sailboat. A very cute boat – and as it turns out, quite a sailer. We went on a sail yesterday for hours and hours. It was that much fun. We covered every inch of Gloucester Harbor, the outer harbor, inner harbor, even up Smith Cove, which takes some focus. The wind was just perfect for a small sailboat, not too much, but just enough to move us right along. It was just what I needed to recover from the reviews I read the other day before going for that first sail. I scared the shit out of myself. Several reviews on-line cited instances of how easily this boat goes over and immediately turtles. For those who are not familiar with the term, it’s something you never, ever want to experience on purpose. To “turtle” in sailing means that the boat goes completely over with the mast sticking straight down into the water so that the hull looks like a turtle. We have turtled little boats before, seriously little ones that will pop up if stand on the rail and then the centerboard to right the boat. Not a big deal, though everything in the boat gets wet. Which is exactly why dry bags were invented.
My mind went all over the place – isn’t that what happens to writers? Seeing the boat slap down on the water with one mighty gust, then in slow motion, the mast sinking out of sight into the cold green water, lines snaking down to the depths. No life jackets, and the temperature of this north Atlantic water can kill you in minutes. And it’s all over.
So for the shakedown cruise last week it was a bit gusty and I was nervous the whole time, just waiting for the boat to flip on its side and turtle within seconds. Of course it didn’t happen, and afterward, I started thinking about the fact that Al and I are good sailors – heck, we’ve gone something like 10,000 miles, and some of that was really rough – I’ll tell about those at some later date. Our first cruiser Offbeat had a Universal 4-Cylinder gas engine that was barely reliable. Sometimes it would run, and sometimes, it wouldn’t. Sometimes it would just die for no reason. Not a desirable situation, but boy, you sure learn how to sail a boat under those conditions.
After that first shakedown, I went to the Net and read the real stuff about the Precision 18. Turns out it was designed by a naval architect, Jim Taylor, who lives in Marblehead, right around the corner! What a perception changer that was. I was all set for yesterday’s sail, minus the scary reviews, more confident in my own skills and the boat’s potential.
And we had a great sail. When she started to heel (that is sailing jargon for tipping over), I just held my own and let the boat do her stuff. We learned a lot yesterday.
What’s the lesson?
An old lesson, for sure. DON’T BELIEVE EVERYTHING YOU READ.
Reviews are only opinions, and we know everyone has at least one of those. Who knows who was sailing that boat that turtled? It might’ve been a novice sailor. He also had his 84 year-old father-in-law in the boat. Probably just a series of bad choices all around, and so the boat flipped over.
I’m not implying that our boat will never go over. I’m going to try to prevent that, but it could happen, and then, I’ll know what to do, because I’ve done this before.
A review is only marginally useful, because it is simply the opinion of one person, who might’ve just had a bad episode with their spouse which included slamming doors and very loud “conversation.” This counts for all types of reviews, too, not just sailboats.
Here’s part of the first review I got for my novel The Frenchman: “From the beginning of this fantastic novel through to the end, it holds you on the edge of your seat, not letting go…. for anything.”
I was sooooooooo excited. Oh, it’s going to be good, it’s going to be good, as my eyes flew down the page through all the words, then screeched to a halt on this sentence:
It’s too bad Ms. Boudreau couldn’t come up with a better story . . .
What??????? Old Man and the Sea was about an old guy catching a fish, dag nab it! My mind was in a flurry. What does he mean? Isn’t that story good enough? Maybe I should consider changing something, because if he said this in my very first review, what’s coming? Are subsequent reviews going to question my writing abilities and expose my weaknesses? Maybe I should stop while I’m ahead, and all that other drivel that we subject ourselves to because we are human beings.
And guess what? So is the guy who wrote the review. He shall remain anonymous, because I’m still annoyed about that one sentence. It is a good story. So there.
Stay on top of the water, rely on your own confidence. Work hard and keep your eye on the wind and the ball. Life is too short to worry about others’ opinions.

One Hour on Long Beach

kids on long beachThe two young sisters mimic the twin Thacher Island lighthouses, except that one is taller than the other. The sisters, that is. Today’s major conundrum: “Is the tide coming or going?” I had a head start on the answer – I was here this morning.
“I’m not really a beach person,” taunts my inner voice. But here I am, folding chair, sarong, hat, and a travel mug of, yes, water. It’s 10:30 in the morning.
The tide is coming. The perfect crescent that is Long Beach breaks the waves evenly to its length. Today’s waves are easy, spilling their crests, halfway between breaking and lapping.
Whoever named it Long Beach hit the nail square on. Not that it’s a particularly record-setting long – think of the Jersey shore, hell, the whole coast of Delaware, North Carolina or Florida sport hundreds of miles of beach.
Long Beach looks long. A straight beach simply disappears, but Long Beach curves in a sensual arc from Briar Neck to ¬¬¬¬Cape Hedge, flanked by a parallel seawall on which are perched perfect New England houses. The people down at the north end are not even ant-size; more like gnats.
An ideal day for a sail. The American flag on the blue house at the end of the neck is straight out – gusting to 15 and growing. Too bad we don’t have a sailboat – yet. My husband is looking at a beamy cat. Yikes! What fun that will be. Pretty soon the ocean will start to cap.
One more dip in the water for me will suffice.
I’m not really a beach person. I couldn’t sit here all day. Not unless I had a humongous shade tree or an awning and a Malcolm Gladwell book. Oh, and a jug of gin and tonic. Not all day.
But I’ll be back tomorrow.

Dawn on Rockport Road

350

Sunrise Somewhere

Dawn. The renewal of the earth – every day. A chill in the air draws jackets tighter. A symphony echoes through the neighborhood. Without the disruption of people noise, ocean waves that have finally found the shore sigh with rhythmic breath just down the way. Dawn is absent people noise, and nature takes the stage. A car passes and intrudes indelicately on our front-porch peace. The paper arrives. When did paperboy end and paperman begin?

I mean to arise every morning for this time, but sloth often foils my attempts, and I choose warm sleep alongside my best friend. It almost got me today, but dawn came begging, and now that the coffee is beside me, I celebrate. How can I daily miss this magic? Promises are made for future dawn patrol. We will see.

I hungrily absorb the moment. Soon the people noise will take over, beginning with the distant road. When humans awake, they are loud. Cars zoom by, music accosts us from far-off car stereos, mowers, weed whackers, machines of every kind intrude on the subtle song of nature, and we are off to the races in our frantic attempt to make – money? Undoubtedly that is what we are doing. Someone at some point decided that it takes 8 hours for 5 days to call it a “job.” Almost everyone reports at the same time. So, in about two hours, I will join the cluster of noisy humanoids, each alone in separate cars, burning fuel, burning tempers, burning time as they race to another location to do a job in exchange for money. They will pay their mortgage, their utilities, their therapist, the supermarket and finally once a year, the hotelier. They reserve one week or so to come here to the end of Rockport Road, where every day they drag their chairs and towels to the beach, get miserably sunburned, drink margaritas and daiquiris and call it “vacation.” I know them. They were at the beach yesterday and the day before. They were sitting in their beach chairs, punching Smart phones and tablets, telling the electronic world about their escape from daily life, surrounded by hundreds of others doing precisely the same thing. Some kids were actually playing. Whew.

But right now, they are absent for the miracle. The heat that will drive them into icy ocean water in a few hours is not yet upon us, and I long for a sweater, though it is July. A slight breeze is enough to hunch my shoulders.

The dog licks her paws beside me. She enjoys dawn. Every few minutes, she lifts her head and perks her ears to a distant sound, but only human sound causes this reaction. Curled into a ball, ears on alert, she shifts her weight and listens for the next intrusion into our dawn. The sky lightens with the rise of the sun, and doves mourn the passing of this moment. One car and now two pass. It is the beginning of the human race to make money. Ah, so that is why it is called a race. Soon my coffee will be gone and I will reluctantly join the fray. But for now, I rejoice at the daily renewal of life as it was meant to be lived, one quiet moment at a time.

Opening Day

crocusWhy do we reserve these words for sports?

There are other types of “opening” days—days that come only once a year and then are gone for the next 12 months. Just like sports. No one schedules them, writes them on the calendar or draws up an agenda to make sure all the tasks are finished in time for opening day. This opening day simply comes in perfect time almost to the day every year. That day came this last weekend.

It was opening day of my garden. The crocus is first string. I could trump the crocus by planting an earlier bloomer, but I quite like the flashy purple greeting, orange pistils and stamens stretching out to beckon the hardy spring honey bees that find only crocus in their brave forays.

Last year’s sacrificed leaves crackle between the tines of my rake. They will become the top of the compost pile this year, maybe the middle of the pile next year, and the following year or the next, they will be soil that I shovel out of the bottom of the bin to cycle to the garden. It will have changed color and texture. It was fragile and brown and dry; now it is black, heavy and odorous, smelling of the musk of the earth and its decomposers.

Opening day begins with a rake and ends with a beer. I see dozens of worms wriggling away from the upheaval and the robins trail me like children after ice cream. They have seen me clean the garden on opening day before, and pay no attention to my movements unless I get too close. I won’t know what is under the dead leaves until I flip them with the tines. It might uncover the surprise of almost-spread petals that damage easily, or perhaps just the spear of a shoot poking up from the ground which can endure the gentle strokes of my rake. I know approximately where the crocus are, and hand pick those spots to prevent any unintended damage.

My eyes are constantly scanning, wishing for the heads of the hosta. If I step on the emerging shoots, it can ruin the look of the plant for this season. It is still too early. Only the crocus are allowed to give their show for opening day. The hyacinth and tulips are on deck, waiting for English Bluebells, followed by the snow drops, and then the bloom silently ends and the hosta takes over for the closer. They are beautiful, hardy plants that grace the garden all summer, eventually sending up their odd, spiky purple flowers as if they needed to embellish their beauty further, but the blooms are less than the vegetation which will be triumphant until fall.

The tulips are orange and purple. The orange ones actually bloom yellow and sent me to the phone the first year they emerged. Messelaar Bulb Co. has been importing varieties of bulbs from Holland since World War II. The man chuckles into the mouthpiece and asks me to wait a couple of days. “They will turn orange,” he assures. Bulb humor. He is right. Almost immediately upon opening, little veins of orange creep up the petals and soon, my “yellow” tulips are transformed. Amazing.

Spring was long in coming this year, and winter is hanging on even into May. I think I’m the only one who is happy about this. The heat of summer is too much for me and collapses the flower petals into limp, lifeless vestiges of their former splendor. The forsythia and magnolia are now in full bloom, triggering memories of the first time I came to this town twenty years ago. I wanted to live here for the rest of my life, and so far, that is true. I want many more opening days with my garden, feeling the soil, gazing into the happy faces of my ephemeral friends who visit but once a year.

Crossing the Stream

Just passed the half-way mark. There is a definite sense of going up hill to the middle of the Gulf Stream, then downhill to the finish line. A feeling of awe leaves me numb, unable to do anything else but just BE HERE.
The Stream, as it is known to mariners is a living, breathing animate creature. Its character can shift in an instant from spiritually gentle to deathly frightening, thankfully not at the same time. Those of us who have crossed multiple times have felt both the benevolence and ferocity.
We’re riding on that thick deep blue you can touch. It is akin to sailing through gel, above and below the water. Attuned sailors can sense when they enter, not too far from the Florida coast. A fluid warmth raises straight off the water. Even a brisk morning departure from Biscayne Bay becomes a tropical flight as the Golden Globe of Life ascends to the peak of the ocean stage. The Atlantic endlessness stretches before the bow of the boat, and we are coupled with Earth’s liquid.
Though the wind on this particular day is from the north, it is light. Long, steady 3 – 4’ swells roll from the port quarter and thrust us gently eastward. Otto Pilot is at the wheel and my husband Al is playing Sudoku from the
This is my 11th Gulf Stream crossing. The magic number 11, signifying vision, balance, invention, refinement, congruency, fulfillment, and higher ideals. Encountering the number 11 on a repeated basis indicates a psychic understanding, carries a vibration frequency of balance and male and female equality. Right now with the Sudoku King monitoring Otto Pilot and me sitting on the bow of the cat with the my feet periodically sloshing through the cerulean flow, we are at opposing ends of our sanctuary, in perfect harmony. With a turn of my head, I catch his eye and he smiles the smile of a 4 year-old.
Flying fish hurtle through the air, buzzing into flight as they skip off the wave tops. Miami has slipped under the west horizon, so satisfying. On a dark night, the lights of that monstrosity can be seen from Bimini. Horrible.
Three bottlenose dolphins visited this morning, riding the bow wake with little effort, turning their heads to look up at me with puerile smiles. I whoop and holler, then in reaction they surface to breathe and get a closer look. They are gigantic. My body trembles in response. Their greeting is so purposeful, so organic.
Magic – pure magic. Sensation that cannot be described. It must be felt, experienced with such tactile synergy that it rattles your soul.
The wind shifts to SSW at high noon and gybes the big sail. The Stream flattens in response and soon begins to roll from the south, aided by even a breath of wind. This is the direction choice. The white hulls swoosh and gurgle. No one, not one boat in sight.
The gap between us and our destination is narrowing. We are sliding downhill and I struggle to make it last as long as possible. Our ETA is 4:30 – just in time for Happy Hour and the Kalik Gold that has been awaiting me for 4 years. Verbal communication is not yet allowed. This is supreme happiness. Oh, to bottle that sensation and keep it for a lesser day. Special moments are special due to their fleeting nature. But at our end on this trip is the bravura Bahamian Islands. We are off.

At Home with Juno

Our Neighbor's back door

Our Neighbor’s back door

There is a certain magic to being snowed in. It feels helpless and thrilling all at once. There is also a particular emotion that is reserved for those days – those days when you wake up and realize that you aren’t going anywhere. Since childhood, this emotion feels exactly the same, only then it was school, and now, it’s work that is cancelled. I have no idea which is better.
I can get hypnotized by the Weather Channel, watching on the screen what I can see out the window, until I come to and realize how goofed up that is. At least for me, it is difficult to carry on like a normal day and do “normal day” things. The blizzard is a thing of wonder, and deserves to be watched.
As the winds build, it’s a bit scary at first, particularly at night. I hold my breath and listen. Unidentified thumps and bangs occasionally occur, and I try to guess what they might be. You grow accustomed to the gusts, where they’re coming from, how they sound, so that subsequent gusts are merely expected. I’m proud of myself for lashing the smoker and storage cabinet to the deck railings last night.
Clearing the snow at this point in time is nonsensical. The wind will simply fill in the gaps just as fast as you make them. They say the blizzard will last all day long, until nightfall. If the wind slackens a bit, I’ll fire up the snow blower, but not until then. I may not even shower or get dressed. I won’t see anyone all day.
The primitive aspect of weathering a storm brings the ancestors closer. While I am not Native American, I can envision them seated inside the wigwam (in this area), a small fire sending its trace of smoke through a slight hole in the roof. How cozy it must’ve been. People elbow to elbow, there is no doubt, but warm and dry. Even ferocious winds could not penetrate if the structure was sound. And I’m sure, there they would sit through the blizzards, using the time for meticulous bead work or carving of tools or making dolls. They must’ve engaged in particularly important conversation. They must’ve known each other well.
The wind outside shows no sign of abatement. Birds are clinging precariously to the feeders adjacent to the windows. They have been there for hours, since first light. They are as much hiding from the wind as they are eating. The feeders hang in the lee on the southwest side of the house. My visitors are small birds: goldfinches, house finches, nuthatches, chickadees, sparrows, titmice, and once today, a Carolina wren on the suet and a redpoll on the thistle! Their flights in and out are suicide missions, but protected by the eave next to the house, they relax and enjoy a leisurely breakfast. I filled the feeders just before the wind started to blow last night. My bird friends must be fed. They have been huddled together all night in some protected location, puffed up to keep each other warm, and now they are out for breakfast. I will have to fill the feeders before the end of today.
Blizzards feel dangerous. If you went outside and stayed out with no shelter, you could certainly die. It is a weather event that makes us feel vulnerable and small, helpless, mortal. It stirs a certain emotion that has a frenzied air. Even before it begins, it is the talk of the town. People jostle through the supermarket, sweeping the shelves clean of staples and easy-to-cook food. I always wonder if those people are just eating all day, considering what they have bought. The line at Ace Hardware was about 20 customers deep, and not a snow shovel to be found. Did those folks NOT have a shovel before now? I have a snow shovel that my parents owned since the 70s. It’s downstairs waiting for me to dress up and plow my way through the drifts.
Or maybe I’ll just sit here and watch the birds eat.

Winter Saves our City

The thermometer reads 10 degrees. Ten. There is no denying, it is winter. A nuthatch is clinging to the side of the suet feeder, bashing its thin beak against rock-hard lard. Goldfinches, chickadees and house finches all vie for limited perches on the feeders. When I leave for work, the wooden deck outside creaks and pops its complaints and it occurs to me to complain, but I hold it in.
Winter is simply another snapshot of New England, and certainly the determining dynamic in its unique beauty. A kind of permanent winter (the Ice Age) shaped New England’s topography and rubble-packed character, and also determined why this special place is not now overrun with more people than it can handle.
This here is Gloucester, Home of the Perfect Storm. The most famous little city in Massachusetts. Its name is known far and wide, thanks to the movie, a lot of cool history, and the beautiful scenery that define this place. In the good weather – and we have a lot of it – this place is crawling. People jam themselves in cars for hours and hours, dodging teeming traffic and race to get a spot at the beach. Why not? Gloucester has the most beautiful beaches in the world. Forget White sand and Green water – that permanently sunny location format that you see plastered on travel agency websites. No, no, no! We have cairns of black speckled Rockport granite dripping with sea wrack, maritime forest, dunes with dune grass, and in and among them are the breath-taking beaches that pull so many people north for the temperate season. We curse at out-of-state license plates which always seem to be in front of us because they haven’t learned the Gloucester pull-out and wave-ahead. And it’s temporarily irritating, because we know it’s temporary. One day soon, Labor Day will arrive and we’ll have the town back, at least during the week.
Now, imagine if New England had no winter. Gloucester would have over 100,000 residents – and not just in the summer, but year ‘round. Our roads would be horizontal parking lots. People would leave their cars and simply walk away. Yes, our pavement might be better because we would have no need for salt, but repair would be impossible, except at night. Beaches would never get a break. The artists at the Art Colony would be ecstatic, and then worn thin as people flock year-round to the galleries. Long-time residents would move to Dogtown to escape the throngs. They would run up the line on a daily basis just to free themselves from all the strangers who have decided to live here for life.
Winter, in fact, for most seasonal Gloucester visitors, lasts from Labor Day to Memorial Day. Even better. Labor Day comes, someone up there throws that magic switch and the traffic just turns off. The Gloucester pull-out and wave-ahead is once again in effect and people stop for each other to pass on our slender streets that groaned under the weight of summer traffic. The days tick by and the light wanes, first noticeably and then at small but scary increments, then Daylight Savings gets extinguished and now it’s really dark. And. Winter. Sets. In.
No wonder people above the Arctic Circle own sunlamps. Kids wearing swim goggles and shorts stand together in a circle around a sunlamp nucleus to capture bone-building Vitamin D. It’s not that bad here, but it can make you reach for the Prozac. It’s beneficial at this time to have an obsession with an indoor hobby that demands all of your energy and attention after the sun goes down.
Christmas and New Year’s come at the most opportune time. Just as we are mourning the winter solstice and the shortest day of the year, all of this festive distraction snatches our focus; shopping, cooking, eating, traveling, dealing with family, parties, silver and gold. By the time it’s over, the days are already more than 15 minutes longer. If you keep any kind of schedule at all, you can tell by the second week of January. All you have to do is get through February, the longest month of the year. I don’t care if it’s only 28 days and sometimes 29. It’s the longest month of the year in New England.
Then spring comes, or almost comes, and then goes, and then comes again. It’s wet, miserable, muddy, cold – and the wind! The cursed wind, that relentless, bone-chilling, oh, never mind. It’s not worth the breath, because next on the calendar, we are blessed with the most fabulous reward on the planet. Blooms so vibrant, they melt the snow and ice and push their delicate regalia up to the sunlight, desensitized to the brutal gust of spring. The delicate petals flutter carefree in the frigid wind, unaware that their lives are ephemeral snapshots in the scenery, not to be resurrected for an entire year. Ahhhhh, the vision. Check the date. It’s still winter.
So, until that magical time, keep this is your brain. The harshness of winter saves our beautiful city from a massive influx of Gloucester lovers who would love to live here permanently, but can’t handle the cold or the snow. It’s one of those proverbial blessings in disguise. We’re already halfway through January. Enjoy the brisk air and empty streets. I, for one, will wave you ahead.

Bitten by a tick? Take it seriously

On Friday, October 31 (Halloween, how prophetic) I was bitten by a deer tick in Maine. I discovered the tick on Saturday morning, embedded in my scalp on the top left side. My friend, Jane pulled it out, and threw it down the toilet. First big mistake. Since we had found it within the magic 24-hour period, I really didn’t think much more about it.

We came back to Mass on Saturday night. On Sunday, I felt a little tired, so I just rested and figured I had done too much. Typical for me, so it was no news. On Monday, I felt just too tired to go to work for no reason. That made me a little nervous, so I made a doctor’s appointment. The doctor’s assistant looked at the bite, which had scabbed up by then. I told her the timing of the tick bite and when we had removed it. She said there was only a slim chance that I had been infected, since we got the tick out within a 24-hour period. She recommended that I take a prophylactic antibiotic just to make sure. I asked her if it would be foolish to skip it. I hate to take antibiotics when they’re not necessary.

In the end, I ended up walking out without the antibiotic. Second big mistake.

Tuesday through Thursday, I felt fine and went to work as usual. Then, there was Friday. I felt great. I even went for a swim before work. About 11:00 a.m., I felt pain on the left side of my neck. There was a knot about the size of a ping pong ball, and it hurt—a lot. I dismissed it as a muscle pull from the swimming. By the afternoon, the pain had crawled up the left side of my scalp. Now I was starting to feel a little “funny.” Finally, by 3:30 p.m., I decided this was too much, told one of my bosses and headed home. It’s over an hour to home, and by the time I reached Danvers, about 4:30, I had started shaking badly.

I reached the front desk of Mass General and told them I needed care. I guess the look on my face was enough. The attendant called a wheelchair and they took me to urgent care. My hand was shaking so severely I could barely sign the registration paper. I told the doctor on call my tick story, and he prescribed Doxycycline for three weeks. My temperature was 99.7˚. They actually tried to get me to stay, but I insisted on going home. I made it fine, after a quick visit to the drive-through at the CVS. I always thought a drive-through pharmacy was silly until that night. I was exhausted and having a little trouble walking, still shaking like a hypothermia victim. My temperature was 102.9 ˚. I took the antibiotic and figured the worst was behind me.

Saturday morning, my face had begun to swell. I took my temperature, which was now down a bit to 101 ˚.  As the day advanced, the swelling worsened until I resembled the before photos on weight-loss ads. My glasses started making dents in my temples and above my ears. I had to take them off. The pain was becoming really intense. In the afternoon, my temperature spiked at 102.5 ˚.

I was starting to worry. I was alone. My husband was in NJ taking our boat south for the winter. He had had his own set of nightmares with the trip including a bent rudder post and damage to the keel from a miscalculation at an inlet, so running home to take care of me wasn’t an option. I was watching every movie of any value I could find on TV simply to avoid daytime drivel, but I sure wasn’t bored. Tolerating a smashing headache and scalp sensitivity was enough to keep me occupied. Thankfully, I was able to sleep at night. My head was so tender that it was difficult to lie down on the softest pillow.

Sunday, the temperature on my oral thermometer had dropped a bit to a mere 101 ˚. It was replaced by pain sharp enough to have been caused by a commercial vice. All in my head. Very, very pleasant. I dragged myself from the sofa to the kitchen, tried to appease my poor dog who was trying to keep me company, but kept begging to go outside and sneak away for her own walk.

I showered for the first time since the symptoms started and found it difficult to wash my hair, my scalp was so sensitive. Then the brush. Oh, boy. I left my hair uncombed. I had no need to look good for anyone, and no amount of grooming would have improved my appearance. About halfway from my eyebrows to my hair, a perfect hat line ringed my forehead. Above the hat line, my scalp was Pepto-Bismol pink. Nice color. I was ready for Mardi Gras. The swelling was starting to make me a monster. That day was filled with more movies. I finally turned to Xfinity for a little variety. Do you know they play the same movies again and again and again every couple of days? Aren’t there enough movies to switch ‘em out every once in a while?

Then the stabbing electric shocks began. In various places in my body and without warning, sharp pains hit my skin or muscles, but only for a second, thank goodness. I started to wonder how long this train ride was going to last.

Once again, to bed. It took me about five minutes to get my head down on the pillow.

Monday, I woke up on damp, sticky sheets, my mind full of wicked dreams that included weird relationships with people I haven’t seen in twenty years, leaden legs when I needed to escape whatever I was escaping from, ladders and corridors to empty rooms, etc. etc. Good Morning?

Finally, finally my temperature had dropped to almost normal, so I earned a bit of energy from the relief. Just enough energy to jump a bit when I looked in the mirror. My left eye was almost swollen shut. I had a lump on my cheekbone that made me think of all the boxing matches that used to show on Wide World of Sports. I called the doctor. I wanted to make sure that the swelling would stop at some point in time, and not take my brain with it.

The doctor assured me that if my brain was swelling, I would have a dreadful headache. Well, I was in pain, but I guess it was my scalp that was hurting, not the inside of my head. There was nothing else I could do but wait and take my antibiotics. Lucky me. Perhaps if I had taken those first prophylactic antibiotics, I wouldn’t now be on them for three weeks. Doc said that was okay, but she would be sure to tell future patients of my experience to get those first antibiotics in them. Wish I had known.

So tomorrow is Tuesday, eleven days after the tick bite, four days after the start of my symptoms, a week and one day after I could’ve taken those damn prophylactic antibiotics. Let’s hope the swelling will come down a bit, and I might just take a Benadryl before bed. I might get back to work on Wednesday, but if I still look like George Foreman after a loss, I might search for more good movies on Xfinity.

So, here’s the lesson(s), if you haven’t got it already.

  • If you have the occasion to provide a deer tick with lunch, remove it with very thin tweezers, not your fingers. If you do this, you might run the risk of pumping the tick saliva under your skin. Not sure if this happened in my case, but I won’t do that again. Also, save the tick. It can be tested for the Lyme bacteria.
  • Most importantly, after a tick bite, take the antibiotic your doctor prescribes. It’s a course of two pills. Two, instead of 42, which is what I’ve got now. Also, you can save yourself the worry, excruciating pain, searing temperatures, missed work, and ugly swollen face that I have been through.

These ticks are nothing to mess with. Yeah, humans are about a trillion times bigger than a deer tick, but they can bring you to your knees, and when you hit the dirt, it will hurt, because you’ve got joint pain like a rheumatoid arthritis victim. In fact, that’s how the doctors in Lyme, Connecticut first diagnosed this awful disease in the 70s. The name of the little devil is Borrelia burgdorferi. A bacteria that will knock you down. Untreated Lyme disease has terrible implications, including neurological disorders, paralysis, crippling joint and muscular pain, migraines, light or sound sensitivity, cognitive impairment, nausea, fatigue, and even heart or breathing issues.

So believe it, prevent it, and for heaven’s sake, take the damn prophylactic. I certainly would’ve skipped this rodeo ride for two pills.

Next Stop, Winter

Autumn (or Fall, as we always called it) is the most dichotomous season of the year. The magic slant of the sun glances through a canopy of flames clinging still to slender twigs, unwilling to surrender such short lives. Efficient factories, leaves are. They spend their entire existence – seven months at best – orienting to the sun’s rays like automated solar panels, chloroplasts chugging away, millions of little generators making food for its host, who will have to stand in the bitter cold New England winter until the benevolent winds of spring blow again.

The proverbial calm before the storm. That is what fall brings. We revel in the fall, go outside, walk around in nature; parks, beaches, trails, anything to draw in the sumptuous warmth and beauty of our earth before the world around us freezes stiff and white.

I love the fall. It is my favorite time of year. I love driving, walking, running, anything outside. The time of year to spend as much time as possible outside, because we all know what is coming. That is the catch. It is SO good and at the same time, SO bad. It is the harbinger of dark, long nights, slick sidewalks, snow blowers, boots, ice scrapers, and white-knuckle commutes. No matter who we are, to some extent, we dislike winter.

It isn’t winter, not yet. We’re still hoping, each day, that it goes as long as possible. We see snow fall on The Weather Channel in Montana and catch our breath. We know it’s coming. It’s just a matter of time.

But for the moment, the weather is As Beautiful As It Ever Gets. It’s cool and crisp in the mornings, and shirt-sleeve warm at mid-day. Warm enough, in fact to go swimming, because the water is at its warmest.

Drink in every day that is Autumn. Take a bit of time outside, even if it is only to breathe and listen to the change that is happening in nature right now. Fight the temptation to let the fear of impending winter overtake your thoughts. There will be plenty of time to prepare for indoor activities to pass the time.

I’ve got an idea. Let’s make a pledge to enjoy winter. Let’s decide to love winter. Even if you’re not a winter recreationist, stand outside for a moment every day – inhale the bracing bite of the air, the hush of frosted trees, the exotic lacy silhouette of naked branches punctuated with snow. Snow, which is really just winter rain which promises to sustain our New England life through a punishing summer of hot, relentless sun. Though peoples for centuries learned to fear and hate the winter, we have the luxury of loving winter. We’re warm and protected in our homes, our cars, our techno clothing that gets better every year. Plan lots of indoor “shoved to the side” projects ignored for months – write them down, purge your world, make yourself proud. Those who live in year-round warmth don’t know the privilege of lots of dark, indoor time to complete undone, latent projects.

Plan dinners with good friends on a regular basis to love the winter. Serve comfort foods: beef stew, chili, meat pie, chowder – anything that will allow us to love the winter and embrace our opportunity to enjoy this part of our year – the part that everyone, especially tourists – fear and avoid. Embrace this challenging time of the year with gusto. It will enlarge your world and make the winter time pass in magical sequences of scenery.