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©HelenGregory 2009-present.Do not reproduce in any manner
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New Year’s Eve, we undressed the Christmas tree and packed the decorations away for next December. Time to welcome a new year filled with hope. I put fake daffodils on the table and began the watch for robins and pussy willows.

Mike drove the truck to work in downtown Seattle. I took the old Merc wagon to my job, utilizing the thirty-minute commute to reflect on our lives, our marriage—past, present and future.

These morning talks with myself brought me to accept that some changes since Mike’s accident would likely be permanent—his unceasing shoulder pain, his quick and often explosive temper, his asymptomatic insulin reactions. I, as exhaustively as I tried, would never actually be able to control his diabetes. I could prepare meals and provide emergency care when necessary, but how to force him to remember to eat and pay attention to how much exercise he got, I did not know. The possibility of an insulin reaction invaded my thoughts every minute of every day—an ugly villain, lurking in the shadows of my life. It was as if I had contracted diabetes myself, by marriage.

Thrown into circumstances I never asked for, I had become a major player—provider, planner, private nurse. I would have to learn to live with the consequences, trusting God to send joy when I needed it.

And send He did. Barely a few months into our new year, I got a phone call one evening that would reconnect me with a past love I had almost forgotten.

"Hello?"

"Hello. Helen?"

"Yes."

"This is Pastor Lastly from the Northgate Lutheran Church. I received your name and contact information from the pastor at your previous church in Edmonds."

"Okay," I said with hesitation. What could this pastor want from me—to attend church? To pledge money we didn’t have?

"He told me you had been an organist there, and I’m wondering if you’d consider serving as the same here. We’re without one right now and, as luck would have it, we’ve just finished installing a seven-rank pipe organ."

"A pipe organ?" My heart jumped, having been smitten years before by the matchless resonance of pipe organ music—a love affair my soul would embrace forever. "Yes, I’d consider it . . . but, I’m so out of practice. I haven’t played for church since shortly after Mike and I were married."

"Well, I’m told by your former pastor that you’re familiar with the liturgy, and you’d be welcome to practice here. Would you like to stop by the church one day and try it out?"

"Well, yes. Yes, I would. But I work during the day, so could I meet you there some evening? Or on a Saturday?"

"How about this Saturday? Could you come around ten in the morning?"

"Yes. That would work. I’ll bring some music, if I can find it after all these years."

All these years. The phrase took me back to age sixteen and the small Lutheran Church a mile from our family home in Edmonds. I’d switched from piano to organ lessons about six months earlier, and my mother had volunteered me as alternate organist at the church. After school I would go there to practice the following Sunday’s hymns on the electronic organ and, occasionally, a secular piece of my liking.

"That one’s okay," a voice boomed from the chancel one late afternoon as my fingers manipulated a peppy version of Tumbling Tumbleweeds. I jerked my hands from the keyboard as my eyes took aim at the figure moving down the aisle toward me. It was the pastor.

"Anything more worldly would not be appropriate," he continued, a wide smile crossing his face. "Carry on!" He passed the organ at a brisk clip and exited through the Narthex across from it.

Embarrassed at "being caught," I gathered my music together and shut down the organ. I made sure the church doors were locked before rushing to my folks’ 1953 Chevy to drive home. The sheet music for Slaughter on Tenth Avenue lay hidden in the stack of papers beside me.

"Who was on the phone?" Mike’s question brought me back to the present.

"The pastor from the church at Northgate. They’re looking for an organist, so I agreed to meet him there Saturday morning to take a look."

"Does it pay?"

"No. It’d be volunteer, like the old church. Except, this one just installed a seven-rank pipe organ. I’d like to take a crack at it!"

"Then do it!" Mike was always supportive of my endeavors. My most outspoken fan. My best friend.

By early summer I was spending most Sunday mornings in the organ loft at church and practicing a couple evenings a week in an edifice so empty it gave me the creeps, yet filled my heart with joy.

Now that our finances were stable, Mike renewed his interest in firearms and target-shooting. Occasionally he’d buy a weapon in downtown Seattle during his lunch hour. We joined the Kenmore Gun Club and began attending meetings. He soon made acquaintance with target shooters, and began attending competitions with them. I’d sneak a snack into his shooting case to lessen my worry over his slipping into a reaction. Sometimes we’d travel together to a competition. He’d be on the range, shooting. I’d sit in the truck sketching the scenery or be out walking the dog, but always worrying about his blood sugar level.

One weekend his target practice carried over to the cabin, which we visited less frequently now but treasured all the same. Mike walked the abandoned logging bridge across the river and followed the overgrown road on the other side to a dirt bank. Duchess and I trailed behind. He placed paper targets on the bank, took aim with a pistol and squeezed the trigger. Bang! At the crack of the shot, a cloud of dust burst from the bank. The dog turned tail to bolt back out the overgrown path, dash across the logging bridge and race up the access road, making a sharp left into our property’s driveway. I huffed and puffed some distance behind to find her standing in the bed of the truck—her safety zone.

"Didn’t mean to scare you, Duchess." I gave her a reassuring scratch, then tethered her and returned to the sand bank. Mike had finished shooting. We shared a laugh over the dog’s antics and headed back to the cabin, stopping for a minute on the logging bridge to watch the water cascade over the rocks.

"Look!" I pointed to a spot near the bank of the stream. "There’s a salmon!" Having fished Puget Sound with my parents as a kid, I judged it to be a good six or seven pounder.

Bang! I jumped. The fish’s head exploded. Its body went limp. It began to slide downstream, under the bridge. Instinctively I ran to the end of the logs, skidded down the scruffy bank and stopped the salmon with a stick. By that time Mike was by my side, ankle deep in the crystal stream, his hands around the fish. He picked it up and we continued our jaunt toward the cabin.

"You scared the heck out of me back there," I remarked, a little perturbed by the unexpected gunshot.

"Me too!" He grinned. "I didn’t think I would actually hit it!" He cleaned the fish and packed it into our ice chest to take home the following day.

As darkness approached, we locked some belongings in the truck and retreated to the cabin. Mike lit the Coleman lantern and I fired up the trash burner. When the flying things began to enter, we dropped the window cover, called the dog inside, and hooked the door shut. Dinner was consumed during laughs over the day’s excitement. I washed our few dishes and we retired for the night, Mike in the top bunk, me in the bottom and Duchess on the floor. I turned off the Coleman lantern, which put us into a blackness so dark I had to feel my eyeballs to see if they were open.

"Good night, Mike." I cooed.

"Good night, honey."

"Good night, Duchess." I reached over the edge of my bunk and gave her a scratch. She sighed. We all welcomed sleep.

In the wee hours I woke with a start. Something touched my face. I brushed at it with my hand. Nothing. I repositioned my sleepy bones to return to dreamland.

"What the . . .?" There it was again. A slug? A snail? I reached with my hand and felt a familiar cold nose on my cheek. "Duchess! What are you doing?"

She nudged me again.

"Do you have to go out?"

My answer was the sound of Mike’s groaning in the bunk above. Drat! I had no choice. I crawled out of my sleeping bag into the cold, dark cabin, being careful to not step on the dog. "Stay," I whispered to her.

Shivering in the cold, I felt my way to the counter opposite the bunks, and found the little dish that held a book of matches and a candle. I lit it. Mike groaned louder, shifting around in his upper bunk. "Don’t move!" I ordered while digging into a box of supplies to find the jar of Tang. My whole body shivered—from the scare of the dog poking me, from the chilly cabin air—but above all from knowing that he could die if I didn't succeed; there was no emergency help available. I managed to get water and Tang into a glass and vigorously stirred. I grabbed our little ladder and climbed in the dim candlelight, barely reaching the upper bunk, with a dishtowel over my shoulder and the sugary drink in hand.

"Drink this, Mike." It was the same old routine—he’d resist and drool, I’d wipe and try again. "Swallow, Mike. Swallow!" Made more difficult than usual in this setting with an unsteady ladder and my arms too short to lift up his head, I had to invoke aid. Dear God, Please let this work. Please bring him out of it.

I persevered for what seemed an eternity. When I thought he’d swallowed enough to help, I descended the ladder and held my watch next to the candle and checked the time.

I found another candle and lit it, then took the extra blanket from my bunk and wrapped it around myself. I stood, barefoot, on the cold plywood floor in the darkest, quietest, scariest night of my life. God, please help me.

Duchess came to my side, brushing my leg with her warm body. I reached down and scratched the top of her head. "Thank you, sweetheart. You’re a good dog!"

Why was I standing there shivering? I stepped to the cold trash burner, stuffed in paper and kindling and a piece of wood, and set a match to it.

When twenty minutes had passed, I climbed the ladder to check on Mike. I shook his shoulder, lightly. "Mike? Are you awake? Are you okay?" I shook his shoulder again.

"Huh? What . . ." He pulled an arm out of his sleeping bag and began scratching the top of his head, as he always did following an insulin reaction.

Thank you God, thank you so much.

"You had a reaction," I said. "Duchess woke me or I wouldn’t have known. Maybe you should get up now and I’ll fix you some eggs."

"Ahhhhh. Okay. Brrrrrrrrr. It’s cold in here!"

"I know. It’ll warm up soon, I started the fire. It’ll be daylight in another hour."

I hooked Duchess to her long lead outside the door. Our Sunday had begun—not the best start, but reasons to be thankful just the same.

We left earlier than usual, deciding during the ferry ride from Kingston to Edmonds that we’d stop by my folks’ house on the way home to show them our unexpected salmon. Mom cooked it to perfection, a fish dinner for four, enjoyed amidst giggles over our crazy fishing story.

Monday came too soon, another workweek to endure. Mike was happy designing roads. Along the way he met a real estate developer that offered him some freelance work doing plat drawings at home. He set up a drafting table and related equipment in our second bedroom, where he already kept his prized target pistols and shooting magazines. We called it his hobby room.

Evenings when he was working on a freelance job at home, I’d be at the church, practicing and trying to build a choir. Between our workweeks, target shooting competitions, church organist obligations, an occasional insulin reaction to handle and trips to the cabin, it became difficult to squeeze in practice time on the organ. We agreed I needed a practice piano at home, so one Saturday morning we went looking. It wouldn’t be the same as playing an organ, but would help me hit the right notes on Sundays.

We came home having signed a contract for a Gulbransen Premier Theatre Organ, complete with full pedal-board, built-in cassette recorder and an additional Leslie speaker. Not knowing if this was right for us to do, or if the contract would be approved, I again called on my faith. Thy will be done, dear God.

I’d say to Mike, "If it’s meant to be, they’ll say yes. If it’s not, then we’ll look for an old piano again."

The organ was delivered the following week, and took up a third of our small living room. I found all the gadgets on it intimidating at first, but in a few weeks I knew enough to enjoy it most every evening after work, and, I could practice secular music at will. As for the benefit to my stress level, we’d joke about it being "cheaper than a therapist."

Though the finance company was less stressful than automobile dealership work, I was growing more and more bored with that job. I didn’t care for skip-tracing, and it really hurt me to accept payments from elderly grandmothers who had cosigned for their deadbeat grandsons. I felt so sorry for them. It would haunt me for days.

Then the Ford store called and wanted me back. They promised a much higher salary and better working conditions, including an assistant whose duties I would direct.

I discussed it with Mike that evening. "They’ll pay me much more, and give me an assistant."

"Sounds good," he said, switching his attention back and forth between me and the television set.

"We could save some money on commuting, too."

"How so?"

"Well, if you could drive us to your work in the mornings, then I could drive our truck back to the Ford store and park free for the day, cheaper than downtown. And, you get off earlier than I do, so if you would take a bus out to the dealership after work then I could drive us back home."

"Makes sense. Go for it."

"Okay, I’ll do it tomorrow." I didn’t mention that it would mean additional stress relief for me, knowing his driving would not be during what I called his "insulin reaction high-risk hours."

I gave my notice to the finance company and accepted the Ford store’s offer. In two weeks I was back at the title desk. They did hire an assistant for me, a gal who’s desk abutted mine, face to face. No previous automotive experience. Good, I thought, no bad habits to break. But during the first week, I discovered that all she did was argue with me over how to do things and tell me how intelligent she was. How she graduated top of her class. I was not impressed, but I would have given her high marks for being the most unproductive person I ever met.

Within three months the title desk was right back to where it was when I quit before. They let my intelligent assistant go, leaving me once again on my own to process three hundred deals a month. Not wanting to be a "quitter," I endured without complaint. After some months, I realized that my personality had changed—for the worse. I would hear myself snapping at coworkers and sales personnel, and didn’t like myself for it.

It was way too much to handle on top of the other responsibilities in my life, like the afternoon Mike was acting giddy on our drive home from work. By the time I put my purse and jacket away and let Duchess into the house from her outside kennel, I could hear him making a fuss in our bedroom, hollering phrases I couldn’t understand.

I rushed into the room to find him stripped down to his underwear, hurling his body onto the bed and yelling, "I’m coming, Pop. I’m coming!"

When I rounded the bed to try to calm him, he jumped up, forcefully vomiting bits of red cherries onto the wall, down his chest and onto me and the bedding. "Aaaaaaaaaaagh . . ." He flung himself back onto the bed.

I ran to the kitchen, stirred a glass of Tang and hurried back with a hand towel I’d wrung out under the faucet. He pushed me away, not comprehending who I was or that I was there to do. I set the Tang and towel on his nightstand, then ran again to the kitchen and dialed 9-1-1. I got as far as my name, address, and that I needed help with a diabetic into insulin reaction, when I heard him hollering again.

I told the operator to hold on, set the receiver down and darted back to the bedroom. He had vomited more cherries and sat, precariously perched on the edge of bed, with a gun in each hand. I recognized them as his prized .44 Mag revolver and .45 caliber automatic. I knew he kept them loaded.

"I’m coming, Pop." He placed the muzzle of his .45 to his temple.

Slowly I pulled his arm away, remaining purposely calm. "Let me have the guns, Mike."

"Pop! I’m coming!"

"Mike, give me the guns." God, help me please!

"Pop’s here. I have to go."

"No. You’re having an insulin reaction. Now, please, let me have the guns." Cautiously I grabbed the barrels, one in each hand, trying to control their aim. When he released his grip a bit, I pulled them to my chest and ran back to the kitchen. I stopped at the phone, but couldn’t pick up the receiver with my hands full of guns. Where to put them? I couldn’t risk having them confiscated for some reason if the paramedics saw them. Mike was fully authorized to have them, being the proud holder of a Concealed Weapons Permit as well as a Federal Firearms License. I knew how much he prized his collection of firearms and how he’d saved his freelance drafting money to buy them. I thought of his aspiration to become a gunsmith some day.

I had to protect his dream. I had to stash them. I rounded the corner to the laundry area to consider the hiding options there, and chose the empty clothes dryer. Gently I placed them inside, threw a bath towel in on top and shut the door.

Back to the phone and the 9-1-1 dispatcher. "You still there?" I hoped she hadn’t heard anything I’d said in the bedroom.

"Yes," she answered. "I’ve got help on the way. Are you okay?"

"Yes, I think so. I just can’t handle him, he’s too strong. He needs glucose."

"The Aid Unit will be there shortly," she assured me.

"Could you ask them please to turn off the sirens a block or so away? I’m afraid he’ll become more violent if he hears them."

"Yes, I will. They’re only four blocks away now."

"Can I hang up, then?"

"You can, and go let them in."

"Okay. Thank you." I hung up the phone, then thought about how the dog might react to strangers. Especially ones in uniforms.

"Duchess! Come."

She did. I grabbed a milk bone and opened the back door. One glimpse of the treat and she bounded to her kennel as trained, turning to face me just inside. I gave her the bone and latched the door closed. With one less thing to worry about, I hurried back to the house.

The Aid Unit men were knocking on the door when I got there—three paramedics with a police officer behind. I led the way to the bedroom, explaining, "He’s in an insulin reaction. I can’t handle him, he’s too strong. He needs intravenous glucose. Do you have . . ."

"Yes, we’ll take care of that. What’s his name?"

"Mike."

"Hello, Mike!" They stepped past me into our tiny bedroom with their bundles of equipment. Mike lay motionless and quiet now, staring at the ceiling, eyes glazed.

"How you doing, Buddy?" He took hold of Mike’s hand while the second one copped a drop of blood from a finger, and left the room to proceed with a glucose test. I needed no explanation. I stepped around the policeman looking in from the doorway and stood in the bedroom. Paramedic one continued talking to Mike while checking his pupils and blood pressure. "I can tell you ate cherries today," he quipped, but Mike remained silent. The third one, who had already inserted an IV catheter into Mike’s arm, now stood ready with a glucose syringe. He grinned. Paramedic two returned from the kitchen and announced, "It’s less than thirty. Go ahead."

Paramedic number three injected the glucose. As if choreographed in advance, we all checked our watches, then shared a laugh and the tension eased.

"Does he have these often?"

"Yes. Once a week or so." I felt the need to explain more. "He doesn’t sense them coming on. One doctor called him a brittle diabetic."

"Does he carry a candy bar or something for emergencies?"

"I try to make sure he does, but he doesn’t seem to care much about it." My irritation showed, yet I was deeply concerned.

Mike stirred, looking around at our faces.

We all checked our watches again. Mine showed about twelve minutes since the injection.

"Mike? Know who I am?" I asked, leaning over so he could see me.

"Yeah . . ."

"These are paramedics. You had a bad reaction, and they pulled you out of it."

"Oh." His voice was weak. "Thank you." He eyed each one, and sat up with a little assist from the nearest paramedic, then scratched the top of his head. "I’ve got a headache."

"I’ll bet you do!" The paramedic replied, then turned to me. "Can you get some good food into him now?"

"Yes, of course. Thank you so much." I’d be forever in their debt. "This is the quickest I’ve ever seen him come around."

"It’s common when glucose is injected, goes right into the blood stream, much faster than from the stomach." He finished packing up his aid kit and headed for the front door. The others followed.

"Thank you all, so much."

"You’re quite welcome. Good luck to you folks."

I closed the door behind them and went back to the bedroom.

Mike had found the damp hand towel and was scrubbing at the gooey cherry bits on his chest. "Maybe I should take a shower."

"Maybe you should. I’ll fix some dinner while you’re in there."

"Okay. I’m sorry, honey."

"Me too, but let’s move on. It’s getting late."

Mike showered and dressed. I let the dog in and filled her dish with Gravy Train, then fixed our dinner. We ate, talking about the weather, the news, the work day tomorrow. He headed for the bedroom while I dealt with dinner leftovers and dishes.

Within minutes he came bursting into the kitchen, a look of panic on his face. "Did the paramedics dig through my night stand? I’m missing two handguns. Call the cops!"

"Oh . . . No!" I grabbed a towel to wipe the dishwater from my hands. "Don’t panic. They’re in the clothes dryer. I had to wrestle them away from you during the reaction."

"You what?"

"I took them. You were going to shoot yourself in the head." I walked to the dryer and picked them out.

"Ah . . . jeez."

I held the guns out to him. "See why I worry about your blood sugar?"

"I’m sorry, honey." He took them. "Thank you."

"You’re welcome." I was sorry too. I went back to the dishes, Mike to his room.

Later I moved the cherry-spotted bedspread to the laundry hamper and we called it a day.

Tomorrow would have to be better.


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