Blood Red Days

            Children aren’t supposed to get sick.  Romanticized images picture little darlings running, jumping, climbing, laughing, living life as freely as a butterfly flitting from flower to flower.  Even in prayer, when most solemn, those cherubic faces glow with rosebud color.  So it should be, forever and ever.

            Unfortunately strange diseases invade, causing any possible varieties of illness.  Most we understand.  Tonsillitis, ear infections, colds, cuts, bruises, and even the occasional broken bone fall into that realm.  Kids are susceptible to germs, primarily because they play with “germy” things, and so we expect them to fall ill. But we pray that those times are few and far between.

            When your four-year-old child’s urine turns the color of burgundy wine, however, the only normal reaction is fear.  So it was for my husband and I when it happened for the first time to our six year old daughter. 

            When it occurred, we tried not to panic so as to not alarm our daughter. What we did do was make phone calls followed by tons of doctors’ visits.   We began with our regular pediatrician who thought the bleeding was caused by a bladder infection. The prescribed dose of antibiotics seemed to work.

But then it happened again. More antibiotics were given. And then the same thing, over and over.

 We were referred to a urologist who was used to treating senior citizens who would willingly allow tubes and prodding. He had no experience with a five-year-old.

Our daughter fought him with the strength of an army, clenching shut her legs and refusing to budge. I didn’t blame her. I thought the doctor a little too interested in seeing what was between my child’s legs.

At my insistence, our pediatrician referred us to a pediatric urologist/oncologist.  Imagine the fears those words triggered. Oncology. Cancer. Curable or not? We didn’t know or understand what was happening or what the doctor would do. How he was going to make the determination as to the diagnosis? The person setting up the appointment offered no reassurance, but because the bleeding continued, we went to his office.

By the time we finally got to see him, months had passed. The color of her urine had deepened to a deep, dark red. It was frightening, not only to us, but to our daughter. Even a small child understands that urine is not supposed to be that color.

            For my daughter’s sake, we put on happy faces, attempting to disguise our deep-seated fears.  When she was out of visual range, we allowed ourselves to cry.  Of course, we prayed.

            There were days when her urine was a healthy golden color and so we tried to convince ourselves that she was cured. That the newest round of antibiotics had worked. We wept with joy and gave thanks to the Lord.  But the space between those times slowly shrunk until it was pretty much guaranteed that we would see red, and only red.

            Even the strongest antibiotics had proved to be ineffective, and so the pediatric urologist ordered x-rays to search for the still unknown cause.

            We went to Alta Bates Hospital in Berkeley, California, one of the finest hospitals in the Bay Area.  For the exam, our daughter was placed on a cold, metal table.  She was given huge quantities of liquid to drink.  The x-ray machine was lowered until it hovered above her lower abdomen.  She was told to urinate, right there on the table, in front of five total strangers.  She couldn’t do it and I didn’t blame her.

            They inserted a tube to allow the urine to flow.  Pictures were taken.  We went home and waited, impatiently, to hear the results.  When they came, we were terrified and confused. Because of the way her bladder was constructed, it was unable to fully close.  Surgery was recommended to insert a tube to narrow the urethra.

            Shortly after the recommendation we drove to Children’s Hospital in Oakland, arriving just as the sun was beginning to peak over the hills.  It was a peaceful scene which helped to somewhat ease our nervousness. It was short-lived, however, for immediately after completing the required paperwork, our daughter was whisked away by an efficient, yet friendly nurse. 

            My husband paced the floor of the waiting room, talking to himself.  I prayed, placing my daughter’s life in God’s capable hands. 

            This operation was a success. Her bladder would now allow her to control the flow of urine. However, during the surgery, the doctor discovered that her ureters did not enter the bladder at the correct angle.  Not only that, but the flaps that prevented urine from moving into the kidneys were missing.  Another operation was planned.

            Despite the negative news, my husband and I eagerly took our little girl home, hoping that at least there might be some reprieve from the tinged urine.  It was not to be.

            Within hours after getting her settled, her urine had turned from a healthy golden hue to a blood red, bone-chilling liquid.  Several phone calls later, another trip to the doctor’s was scheduled.  She was again put on a regimen of antibiotics, hoping to stem off any invasion of germs that might interfere with the next operation.

            Good Friday found us, once again, in the waiting room of Children’s Hospital.   My husband paced while I pretended to read.  Both of us turned our hearts over to the Lord, begging Him to watch over our daughter. 

            In the midst of one of many recitations of the Our Father, I felt a gentle touch on my right cheek.  A calm washed over me, settling in my heart.  I nodded, and whispered, “Thanks.”  My eyes filled with tears of joy, and a smile burst through.  I knew, then and there, that everything would be fine.

            When the doctor came to us still dressed in his surgical greens, he was smiling. While he was looking inside our daughter’s bladder, he discovered a blood vessel that was weeping, something it was not supposed to do. He cauterized it, forever stopping the flow of blood into her bladder.

            Because of the severity of the operation, however, she had to spend a week in the hospital.  It was scary for us. Imagine how frightening it was for her, spending nights without her parents nearby. Our sons stayed with a relative so that my husband could go to work and I could go to the hospital.

Every day she got stronger and her urine became clearer.  I gave thanks to the Lord for giving my daughter another day of life.

            Those were trying times, for sure.  I had no choice but to rely on my faith, as even the most highly trained, respected pediatric urologist had had no idea what was wrong.

Even years later, I still believe that the Lord stood by, watching, whispering advice in the doctor’s ear.  How else did he find the exposed vessel, the incorrectly seated ureters, the missing flaps, and the enlarged end of the bladder?

            While the likelihood of her bleeding to death had been slim, she could easily have died of kidney failure.  If we had known about this earlier, we could have acted sooner.  For some reason, the Lord kept her alive long enough for medical science to rise to the occasion.

Faith kept me sane.  Faith allowed me to put aside my fears.  Faith was my constant companion. That operation solved the problem which allowed our daughter to grow up into a college graduate, wife and mother.

A Thanksgiving Lesson

            I am not a particularly good cook. In fact, I am a pathetic cook because I have no interest in cooking except for the simple act of putting food on the table. I can usually follow a recipe, but there’s no guarantee that the finished product will look or taste as advertised.

            The problem goes back to my teen years when my mom insisted I learn to cook. She’d make me stand next to her and watch every move she made. It was incredibly boring. I needed to study. If I didn’t earn straight As I’d be punished. My allegiance went to books, so I’d stand next to her with book in hand.

            That meant I wasn’t paying attention. So when I was told to replicate her concoction, I couldn’t. My mom cooked from memory, not from books. Unless she wrote it down, there was no way I could produce the item. When she did record her recipes, she often left out an ingredient or a crucial step.

            One year my family decided that my husband and I should host Thanksgiving dinner. Mike is a good cook, so he took charge of the turkey and gravy, leaving me to handle the rest. I pulled out every cookbook I owned to find recipes for dressing, green beans and pumpkin and mince meat pies. I chose the easiest options.

            Things were in the oven or on the stove when my family arrived. Altogether there were fourteen hungry people crowded into our house. Fortunately we had planned snacks of cheese and crackers for that kept the kids happy and held the adults at bay while they downed mixed drinks.

            There was only about thirty minutes to go before the turkey would be done, the gravy could be made, the potatoes mashed and the green bean casserole put in the oven.

            The adults were getting restless. They had arrived with a preconceived notion of when the meal would be ready and we were not meeting their mental deadline. I was anxious. While everything looked okay, what if my concoctions didn’t meet their approval? My family could be obnoxious when disappointed, so as time ticked by and tempers began to flare, I knew things were going horribly wrong.

            Then the power went out. One moment the stove was working, the next it wasn’t. Was the turkey done? The beans? Potatoes? Everything appeared to be mostly done, but what if it wasn’t? You can eat the side dishes even if they aren’t quite finished, but you can’t serve an undercooked turkey.

            We waited for the power to return, but after thirty minutes it was obvious that it wasn’t happening. My dad and brother offered advice laced with sarcasm, almost as if it was something we had done to switch off the power.

            My husband is a calm, easy-going man. He moved the barbeque into the backyard and lit the coals. When it was ready, he placed the turkey outside. Everything else went into the still-warm oven.

            The troops, however, were impatient, frustrated and hungry. They had allotted only a certain amount of time to be at our home and that time was ending. Either food would be served or they would leave. The options were not politely phrased.

            I hung out in the kitchen pretending that I knew what I was doing and that things were in hand. Mike monitored the turkey, which meant he was outside leaving me inside getting the brunt of the criticism.

            When the turkey was finally done, I was able to breathe a tiny sigh of relief. As he cut and placed meat on a platter, I pulled everything out and got it on the table. He made the gravy and poured it into the bowl.

            Dinner was served. People sat. Grace was said. The food was edible even though most things weren’t hot. Tempers settled. A bit of peace entered the house.

            Just as the last of the dishes were being rinsed off, the power returned.

            People left, some bearing leftovers.

            The meal worked out, but never again would I host a family meal. The stakes were too high and I refused to bear the brunt of their anger when the fault lay not in something I had done, but in the failure of the power to stay on.

            Later on Mike helped me understand that things had worked out despite my nervousness and fears. After all, food had been served. No one left hungry unless by choice.

            That Thanksgiving was over thirty years ago, but it left an indelible mark. Never again, I told myself, would I host a family gathering.

            Little did I know that when my mother-in-law died that my husband’s family would decide that we would host a brunch for sixty people. I announced that I would cook nothing. I would take care of paper goods, but that was it. The family would have to prepare every dish and clean up afterwards.

            Guess what? I held to my pronouncement. When cooking was happening, I stayed out of the kitchen. I picked up no dirty dishes, washed not a single thing, refilled no snack bowls and did not monitor the ice chests of drinks. I found myself a quiet place away from the crowds and stayed there for the five hours that people were in my home.

            One failure was sufficient to keep me from ever cooking for a crowd. Even though I had had not control over the power going out, blame was still laid at my feet. If my husband’s family wanted a party, they would have to shoulder the effort. Never again would I shoulder the mantle of responsibility.

            It’s amazing how liberating it is to refuse, to loudly proclaim that I would not be in charge. If only I had applied that motto to other areas in my life, things might have been different. But that’s another story for another time.

Life Lesson

“The gods were pissed off.  That’s all there was to it,” said Grandpa Ellis.  “Once’t your grandma sold off the last blue plate china, all hell broke loose.”

“Why do you say that?” his grandson Stan said.

“Because that summer was broilin’ hot. Nary a cloud passed over head and seldom did we feel so much as a breeze.”

“Come on, Grandpa,” Stan said.  “You know that was right at the beginning of the Dust Bowl years.  It had nothing to do with china.”

After taking a puff of his favorite corncob pipe and blowing a series of well-formed smoke circles, Grandpa said, “That china arrived in a rainstorm.  Just after your Aunt Sara Sue was born.  Your grandma ordered it once’t she had enough egg money saved.”

“You’ve told that story a million times.”

“And you’ve never listened, neither.  If’n you had, you’d understand why the gods got angry.” Grandpa tamped out his pipe, shoved it in its pouch, then walked down the front porch steps..

“I don’t believe all that hocus-pocus stuff.”

“You should, because if you did, you’d pay attention when the gods speak.”

Stan stepped to the rail.  Looking out over the Montana horizon, he caught the almost imperceptible sound of a cowbell, the louder caw of a crow floating overhead, and the distant barking of a dog.

“Do you want to hear the story, or not?” Grandpa called over his shoulder as he headed toward the barn.

“Sure, why not? I’ve got nothing better to do.”

“Complainin’ again? I don’t want to hear another word about the benefits of the Internet,” Grandpa said, “as I’ve heard it all before.  I’ve plenty to do with things the way they are.” He slid open the door and stepped into the comfortable darkness.

Stan picked up a shovel and headed toward his mare’s stall, ready to muck it out. As he scooped out the soiled straw, Grandpa slipped into the oft-repeated story.

“Grandma got that china just afore we stepped into marriage. Some of her cousins stayed back east after graduating from the Indian school. Your grandmother moved back here as soon as she could slip away from them missionaries and rejoined what little was left of the tribe.

“The cousins, hearing that she was marryin’ sent that china packed in a barrel.  Shipped by train. All the way from ‘souri. Grandma, who had taken back her name, Nightingale, thought that blue china was the purtiest stuff she’d ever seen. So she packed it back in the barrel and hoisted it up to the top of her dad’s barn. By then her parents were ranchers, high up in the hills of Montana. Big Sky Country.

“Almost oncet a week Nightingale checked on that china, making sure it was safe.  She’d take out a plate or two, dust ‘em off, hold ‘em up to the light, thank the gods for ‘em, then pack ‘em back away. Until I came along.” Grandpa stroke his stallions’ nose. Joe blew into his hand, then nuzzled his pocket looking for a treat.

“I’m no Indian, as you well know, but I know a thing or two ‘bout Indian ways. I could smoke a pipe real good and knew some of the language. Having done some scouting when I was a youngster, those hills were like my second home. Being just a teenager myself, I was in town when the stagecoach pulled in carrying this beautiful Indian maiden. Although she was dressed like an eastern gal, her high cheekbones and raven-black hair gave her away. Nightingale walked with her head held high and her eyes looking over the roofs. Like a goddess come to earth. I fell in love with her right then and there, and decided to marry her.

“So I followed her up into the hills, far enough away that she was just a speck on the horizon. Well, that makes it sound as if she was by herself, but that’s not it at all. Her folks, what was left of ‘em, greeted the stagecoach with a rickety wagon pulled by two of the most beautiful draft horses known to man. So here I am following her and thinking about touching that hair, when all of a sudden I feel a prickling sensation running up my neck. I turns around, and right next to me was a man with the same cheekbones and hair. He rode next to me all the way to their ranch.

“When we pulled up in front of the house, he indicated that I was to stay in the saddle. Of course I did. The wild-west days were long gone, but you can never be sure up in the hills whose laws are in place.

“After what felt like an hour, a white-haired elder stepped out on the porch. With just a nod, he indicated that I should come inside. So I did. When I stepped through the doorway, the younger man said I was to smoke to the four gods. I faced each direction in turn, puffed out a perfect circle (thanks goodness I knew how to do that!), nodding in respect as I did, then bowed to the elder, who now sat in an old overstuffed chair in the center of the room. Behind his back stood the woman.

“Well, to shorten the story, he agreed that I could marry the girl if I’d stay on the ranch and help with the work. We married that afternoon without ever sharing one word betwixt us.”

Grandpa picked up a harness that needed polishing. He ran a rag over and over the silver until it shone.

“All went well for the longest time. Nightingale was the best thing that ever had come my way, and she seemed satisfied with me. But times changed. More and more ranches sprung up, and the nearest village became a town. Socializing became part of doing business, and so Nightingale and me had people up to dinner now and then.

“Each time, she climbed up into the barn and got out her blue china, one piece at a time. Holding it like a baby, she carried those pieces to the big house, which was now ours, and set the purtiest table I’d ever seen. Blue china, pewter cups, and hand-me-down silver from my great-aunt who had passed with no relatives but me.

“Then the mayor and his wife came over. That wife had a reputation for a sharp mouth and evil spirit. She took a look at that china and laughed. Not a happy-for-you kind of laugh, but one that said the china was old-fashioned and backwards.”

“What did Grandma do?” Stan asked as he filled a wheelbarrow with the dirty straw.

“She was so embarrassed she ran from the room and wouldn’t come out until the company disappeared over the horizon. Then, without a word, she repacked the china and never got it out until the day she sold it to a traveling salesman.

“Now things had been going great at the ranch. Our horses were the best stock around, and folks lined up to get at one of our fouls. The cattle were prime Texas longhorns, the best to be had. Fat on good grass and alfalfa, they were plump in all the right places. Meat delicious. We were coming up in the world. I had just paid for telephone poles and lines to be run out to the ranch, and was saving for electricity.”

“Wait, you didn’t have electricity all that time?”

“No. But that was okay because only townsfolk had it.”

Stan pushed the wheelbarrow out the door, dumped the straw in a heap, then returned to the barn to find Grandpa mending a bit of an old saddle. “What happened next?’

“Nightingale’s actions ruined everything. No sooner had that salesman pulled off our land than the sun came up as big as a yellow ball. It hung in that sky all day. Day after day that ball came up. No clouds. Not a drop of rain. The hay baked and the cattle suffered. The nearby spring dried up and so I had to haul barrels over to the river and cart water to the ranch.  It got hotter and hotter.

“The ground turned into hard-baked clay. Huge cracks crossed the ground, creating a crazy patchwork pattern of death. I sold off the cattle to anyone that offered a decent price. Got rid of all but two of the horses, too.  Had trouble feeding them.

“Sounds awful,” Stan said as he sat on a bale of hay near Grandpa.

“It was bad. When the winds came up in what should have been fall, dirt blew up in our faces and covered everything. Things were a real mess with no hope of getting better.  I was just trying to hang on to the ranch.  That’s all.

“Finally I’d had it.  I marched up to Nightingale and told her to start praying. To make amends with the gods. To offer whatever she could to make peace. She took up the pipe just like that, blessed the four corners, then fell to her knees and prayed. The gods told her that she had to cut her knee-length hair and weave it through the rafters of the barn.”
“Wow. I remember Grandma’s hair being short.”

“After things got better, she decided to let it grow out. But it never grew from then on. It was a big price to pay, but that afternoon clouds rolled over the horizon and rain fell.  Within hours the well was full, the springs overflowed, and dormant sprung from the ground.  From that day forward, this ranch has prospered.”

Grandpa returned to the porch and refilled his pipe. He took a big puff, then looked out over the horizon. As far as he could see, an undulating wave of grass spread golden in the lazy late afternoon sun. Foals played in the pasture, and longhorns meandered about the open fields. It was a serene scene beyond words.

“So it was the gods fault.”

“Yep,” Grandpa said. “If’n Nightingale had ignored the mayor’s wife, she would still have that china and her long hair. That’s why you have to listen to the gods, Stan.”

“That’s why you want me to study agriculture when I go to the university, right?”

“Nope.  I want you to see what the gods want, because if you don’t listen, the price they may ask later may be huge. Ask and you’ll know. Nightingale and I learned our lesson. Now I want you to learn yours.”

“Can we have dinner now?  I’m starved,” Stan said as he headed into the house.  As he entered the door, he picked up the ceremonial pipe kept on Grandma’s favorite table, lit it, blessed the four directions, then fell to his knees and prayed. He didn’t want the gods to get pissed off at him.