This is a excerpt from a longer work in progress.
When you’re 54 years old and you haven’t had a physical exam in four years, you need to prepare.
I shouldn’t have waited four years. Not while I had health care coverage and a capacity to pay – never to be taken for granted. And not at my age or with my family history. All my grandparents died before the age of 80, including my mother’s mother from metastasized breast cancer at 55. On my father’s side, it was the heart, my father being the most recent victim in 2015 at 79.
None of this spurred me to schedule an annual medical check-up. Even the one I’d had four years earlier came about only because I’d had a health scare a few months before it. I’d been ignoring a pounding chest, shortness of breath, and sharp stabs in my sternum for a couple of weeks, symptoms women too often dismiss like the strange car noise you tell your husband or significant other about and they don’t believe you until either you reproduce it which you never can or they hear it for themselves and then it becomes something in need of a attention. Once in the emergency room on a Saturday afternoon, everything checked out physically, but I doubled down on therapy sessions. Looking back, I can name the exact stressors happening at that time, unique to the year and months, but those details belong to a different part of this story.
As an adult, I’d waxed and waned in my diligence for taking care of myself, both in terms of medical check ups and more generally and figuratively speaking. I’d never not had health care coverage, I got myself to a gynecologist in Jerusalem when I needed birth control and I submitted to a second round of orthodontic braces in my early twenties when my jaw constantly came unhinged and needed realigning. On the other hand, I also never went for flu shots, wouldn’t get plantar warts removed until it hurt to stand and let plaque accumulate on my bottom front teeth until my closest friends suggested I get them cleaned.
Once married and focused on getting pregnant, I kept a schedule to have healthy babies and be a health-conscious mom, complete with walks to get milkshakes several nights a week. But once I had to transition to routine annual exams, I became lax. I excelled at finding excuses for not having time to pick up the phone to make an appointment and if I had made an appointment, and was asked if I’d like a follow up, I’d say I’ll do it when I get home, then didn’t. I might put “Dentist” “Gynecologist” “Mammogram” “Annual” on a written to-do list or in a digital calendar entry where I’d be sure to see it daily. But I had the power to keep it undone, to favor other to-dos over it or to ignore it. On occasion, even if I’d gotten myself to make the appointment, as the day approached, or on the day itself, I would cancel the appointment and re-schedule. If I incurred a fee, I paid it. Nothing deterred me from putting off checking on how healthy I was or wasn’t.
What percentage of adults with health care coverage put off routine, recommended physicals let alone absorb fees for not cancelling within the 24 hours timeframe – thereby depriving myself (and my kids) of some monthly budget amount and never telling – just going without all to avoid taking time, seeing a doctor or hearing what, exactly, was my state of being?
What finally got me to schedule an annual check-up was the relief and release I felt after the November 2016 elections. While I was miserable like most people I knew about Hillary Clinton’s loss, and Donald Trump’s win, I was more upset about the loss of the candidate I’d managed – a smart energetic young lawyer and mother from a fabulously well-known Ohio political family. I’d come on with just five months left of a 20-month effort but I’d been living off of the feast or famine cycle of electoral races for nearly four years, since I’d run for my small city’s council and then in a primary against an incumbent Ohio state representative. The toxicity of politics, on top of other life changes and questions, took its toll. I was desperate to be rid of that toxicity and I knew that meant not running again.
If there’s one thing immersion in electoral politics allows for, it’s prioritizing others over yourself. The way Donald Trump ran for and now occupies electoral office may not make you think this way about campaigning or governing, and running for office certainly can mirror a self-centered act of vanity. I alone can fix it. But the day to day running to serve the public is about – or should be about – everyone else. My decision to not run for what was going to be an open seat in the Ohio House in 2018 off-ramped me from the electoral treadmill and provided a calm I hadn’t felt, possibly ever. It freed me up, literally and figuratively, to re-examine how I could make an impact in this world, in this life. Answering this question for myself, from myself and by myself wasn’t new. But now it was happening after a year of figuring out what the world felt like without my father’s force in it.
While my father was still alive, I feared a reaction or felt my efforts were meaningless or futile or simply would have no effect of any value. Doing what had value to me, even me alone, wasn’t – hadn’t been – ever- allowed under a life regime with my father in it. As I came to accept and put behind me how much of my life had been occupied by putting others first – most prominently and without my choice, my father – and what I’d ignored or neglected or failed to develop because of that and those choices, then, slowly, intentionally, methodically, I put myself in the mix.
Under these circumstances, I started to clear out, clean up, schedule and check in. This effort included making medical appointments I’d been putting off and in December 2016, June 2017 was the earliest available date for an annual check up with my internist. I took it, and began to prepare.
With the appointment made, I started to think about what being healthy by the time I had to go might look like. It had taken a couple of years, but I’d accepted the stereotype of shape-shifting middle-aged women. I’d never had a flat stomach and the aging process for females guaranteed that without surgery or lethal illness, I never would. However, following a post-election loss gorging of M&Ms, ice cream and wine, I hated how I looked and felt and knew my energy level and attitude needed the boost. The approaching anniversary of the one-year anniversary of my father’s death – meaning he’d been dead for two years – motivated me to make good on the aspiration that his death could be the change I’d been waiting for.
My oldest son turned me on to a phone app after he’d lost 30 pounds by counting calories. For most of my life, I’d eschewed anything called a “diet” because I associated it so closely with my mother bouncing from one regimen to another, her weight bouncing with her. Her calorie-counting phase involved a palm-sized notebook stowed in a kitchen drawer. She and two of her close female friends made a pact and a plan and lost pounds. I can still picture them posing for “after” photos with smiles and hips. But as my results added up, even with plateaus, birthdays and booze on occasion, I lost 10 percent of my body weight in four months.
The morning of my exam, I calculated my clothing – black leggings, flats with no socks and a paper-thin linen top – into my weight. I stepped on and off the scale before my shower, then again with my lightweight uniform before heading to the appointment. A two-pound difference. Cool.
I’d gained another edge by scheduling the exam for 7:40am, before I’d feel much hunger from the mandatory overnight fast. Even with out-of-state travel and the lure of an airport bar the night before, I stuck to brussel sprouts, salmon and a glass of red wine – 639 calories and within the day’s allowance pumped up by an early morning workout in the hotel and 10,000 steps accumulated between lobbying on Capitol Hill and traversing airport terminals and security lines. I was so ready.
Armed with a clear colonoscopy from a month before (my first ever and cleared for another seven years), a clean mammogram and PAP smear and my weight loss uniform, I drove with confidence to my physical. Even a shlumpy looking middle-aged guy who passed me on my way into the medical building noticed.
“I like your hair,” he said flat-toned voice as we crossed in the hallway in front of a bank of elevators.
“Thanks.” I laughed. It was damp and unstyled, but I couldn’t recall the last time a random stranger complimented me at 7:30am in a medical building or anywhere really but I smiled and reject the kindness. Also a newer habit.
I walked up to the receptionist and checked in. A few minutes later a door opened and the nurse motioned me with her hand to the weigh-in area.
I dropped my pocketbook and a light sweater in the generic chair.
“Please step on the scale.”
I faced the digital read out – no more sliding weights. 121.something. Less than the 122 I’d recorded at home. Good start.
“Please step forward just a bit,” she requested.
I followed her instructions then asked, “What’s it say?”
“Five foot two and a half.”
“Five foot two and a half?”
I was speechless. I was five one. I’d been five one and a half for a long time but not since I’d herniated a disc several years before, and the last time I’d been been five two was in college thirty-odd years before.
“Are you sure?”
“That’s what it says.”
I have two ice orchids. One is a year old and sits on my desk in my home office. It was given to me the night I lost my second campaign against an incumbent Democratic state representative. The first time, in May 2014, I’d lost by less than 500 votes out of more than 12,000 cast. It wasn’t a win but it was an upset. This time, I was crushed by the cross-over voters fleeing their usual pulling of a “D” ballot for Hillary or Bernie and instead, panicked and voting for John Kasich in the hopes of staving off Donald Trump. I couldn’t afford the loss of those Ds from 2014 and the additions I’d gotten from other constituencies couldn’t make up the difference in the vote volume of a presidential election year. My supporters presented me with the orchid at an election night watch party.
The other ice orchid was newer and ornamental, rather than sentimental. I’d bought it to put on a front hall table for people to see when they first enter our home. Otherwise, the foyer is spare.
Ice orchids provide deep green leaves and bright purples or pinks in the flowers when you buy them. They last for a few weeks. Once the blooms fall off, you’re supposed to keep feeding them three ice cubes weekly. Reportedly, blossoms return. I have friends who say so, when I’ve commented on ones in their homes. I’ve always been amazed at how they could get these orchids to bloom multiple times because in several years of having them, I’d yet to have that happen and throw them away, impatient in the waiting to see growth as the plants’ green leaves and stems turned brown despite my efforts – which admittedly became lax.
They weren’t unique in the lack of care I showed them. I’ve never loved getting fresh cut flowers because of the care they require if you want to keep them fresh. And we only have a couple of houseplants, none too healthy looking. Given that I couldn’t care for myself, I saw a parallel.
But for some reason, with these two orchids, both acquired after my father’s death though not in direct connection to it, I made sure they got their weekly ice. And in the last two months, on the one at my desk, from the former campaign, vibrant green thick air roots began to appear at the center of the plant’s stalk, along with new lush leaves. The ornamental one? It too has grown but with a shoot that has blossom buds on it. Both growing unlike any I’ve ever had before.
After the doctor reviewed with me concerns he’d recorded four years earlier, nearly all of which were no longer an issue, I asked him.
“So, what about my height?”
“It’s very rare. It doesn’t happen.” We both laughed.
“Okay but really, what do you think it is?”
“I don’t know.”
How often do you hear a doctor say that? I hadn’t ever heard my internist say it. He ruled out equipment and read out errors, and I knew I’d been standing correctly because the nurse had asked me to move and I’d complied.
“You’re healthier?” he said with a “Who knows?” shrug and slow closing roll of his eyes and tilt of his head.
I’d grown an inch or was registering that I’d grown an inch and my doctor had no explanation to dismiss it. I’d grown accustomed throughout my life to having good, surprising, uniqueness dismissed, my father being the main purveyor of such dismissals. It was true, ever since my father’s death, I’d been trying to emerge into an identity of my own. Was I carrying myself in a way different enough to make me measurably taller? Was this growth evidence of me finally prevailing in that effort? Had the beaten down, beaten back, shutting down of developing into an independent person who challenged so much been reversed by my father’s death and all I’d been doing in its wake? Was this – any of it – for real, after decades of failing to outgrow my father’s imprint on everything I thought about myself and what I was doomed to be? Could I see myself as a woman relieved of the emotional and mental tonnage suffered for decades at the hands of a father who was now dead?
I couldn’t resist thinking: Maybe I’m like the ice orchid in its shutdown phase that, to show it’s not as dormant as you think, sends out air roots and new bud shoots when it’s ready, healthy and watered. Maybe my commitment to give the ice orchids three ice cubes each week, even if nothing had ever happened to any of the dozens I’d ever had before, was analogous to my decision to start self-care now reaping growth others could measure.
I had been compressed, withdrawn, made smaller, but with my father’s death, the contracting could end with no force as constant and needy as his had been, and growth was making an appearance, showing me what I’d nurtured.
Or was it an alternative fact, fake news? Could I believe it? Did it even need to be true to be real or to matter? If it had meaning to me, then that was the value and worth.
Could I achieve being me? Discovering who that was and letting her re-form? Could I finally grow up?
Had a year of standing for Kaddish followed by a year of exploring what it would mean to stand for myself and how you do that, had that helped me grow taller enough to measure it?