When Worry is a Terminal Disease

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Considering myself a Dr. Doolittle of sorts, always talking to the animals, I reached out to pet a stray cat sitting quietly outside our barn one evening while doing barn chores.  This is a grayish fluffy cat I see around the barns every few months or so–he doesn’t put in frequent appearances and reminds me of a kitten we raised on this farm a few years back, though his markings are a bit different,  so I know it is not our cat.

We have 6 cats to pet here who claim “us” as their home and family, so there is no lack of fur balls to love.  There are probably that many more who hang out,  now and then,  considering our farm fair game and looking for an occasional free meal.  This cat just seemed to need a reassuring pat at that moment or maybe I needed the reassurance.  Wrong.

I found myself with a cat attached to my wrist by teeth and claws.  It took a bit of an effort to shake him off and he escaped into the night. I then surveyed the damage he inflicted and immediately went to wash my wounds.  They were deep punctures near my wrist joint–not good.  Lucky for me I was up to date on my tetanus booster.

By the next day the wounds were getting inflamed and quite sore.  I know all too well the propensity of cat bites to get badly infected with Pasteurella Multocida, a “bad actor” bacteria that can penetrate deep tissues and bone if not treated with aggressive antibiotics.  After getting 6 opinions from my colleagues at clinic, all of whom stood solemnly shaking their heads at my 12 hour delay in getting medical attention,  I surrendered and called my doctor’s office.  I pleaded for a “no visit” prescription as I was up to my eyeballs in my own patients, and he obliged me.  I picked up the antibiotic prescription during a break, sat in the car ready to swallow the first one and then decided to wait a little longer before starting them, knowing they wallop the gut bacteria and cause pretty nasty side effects.  I wanted to see if my own immune system might just be sufficient.

So the bacterial infection risk was significant and real but I was prepared to deal with it.  For some reason I didn’t really think about the risk of rabies until the middle of the night when all dark and depressing thoughts seem to come real to me.

I don’t know this cat.  I doubt he has an owner and it is highly unlikely he is rabies vaccinated.  My own cats aren’t rabies vaccinated (and neither am I) though if I was a conscientious owner, they would be.  Yes, we have bats in our barns and woods and no, there has not been a rabid bat reported in our area in some time.

But what if this cat were potentially infected with the rabies virus but not yet showing symptoms?  Now my mind started to work overtime as any good neurotic will do.  Last summer a rabid kitten in North Carolina potentially exposed 10 people when it was passed around a softball tournament, no one aware it was ill until it died and was tested.  Lots of people had to have rabies shots as a result.

This cat who had bitten me was long gone–there was no finding him in the vast woods and farmland surrounding us.  He couldn’t be kept in observation for 10 days and watched for symptoms, nor could he be sacrificed to examine his neural tissue for signs of the virus.

I called the health department to ask what their recommendation was in a case like this.  Do they recommend rabies immune globulin injection which should have been done as soon as possible after the bite?   I talked with a nurse who read from a prepared script for neurotic people like me.  Feral cats in our area have not been reported to have rabies nor have skunks or raccoons.  Only local bats have been reported to have rabies but not recently.  This cat would have had to have been bitten by a rabid bat to be rabid.  This was considered a “provoked” attack as I had reached out to pet the cat.  This was not a cat acting unusually other than having wrapped itself around my arm.  No, the Health Dept would not recommend rabies immune globulin in this situation but I was free to contact my own doctor to have it done at my own expense if I wished to have the series of 5 vaccination shots over the next month at a cost of about $3000.   Yes, there would be a degree of uncertainty about this and I’d have to live with that uncertainty but she reassured me this was considered a very low risk incident.

I knew this was exactly what I would be told and I would have counseled any patient with the same words.  Somehow it is always more personal when the risk of being wrong has such dire consequences.  I could see the headlines “Local Doctor Dies From Rabid Cat Bite”.

This is not how I want to be remembered.

Rabies is one of the worst possible ways to die.  The cases I’ve read about are among the most frightening I’ve ever seen in the medical literature. Not only is it painful and horrific but it puts family and care providers at risk as well.  It also has an unpredictable incubation period of a up to a month or two, even being reported as long as a year after an exposure.  What a long time to wait in uncertainty.  It also has a prodrome of several days of very nonspecific symptoms of headache, fever and general malaise, like any other viral infection before the encephalitis and other bad stuff hits.  I was going to think about it any time I had a little headache or chill.  This was assuredly going to be a real test of my dubious ability to stifle my tendency for 4-dimensional worries.

I decided to live with the low risk uncertainty and forego the vaccination series.  It was a pragmatic decision based on the odds.  My wounds slowly healed without needing antibiotics.  For ten days I watched for my attacker cat whenever I went to the barn, but he didn’t put in an appearance.  I put out extra food and hoped to lure him in.  It would have been just be so nice to see his healthy face and not have to think about this gray cloud hanging over me for the next few months, as I wondered about every stray symptom.  No gray kitty to be seen.

Almost a month has gone by now and he finally showed up last night.  I could have grabbed him and hugged him but I know better now. No more Dr. Doolittle.

He is perfectly fine and now so am I, cured of a terminal case of worry and hypochondria which is not nearly as deadly as rabies but can be debilitating and life shortening none the less.

From now on, I’ll be contented to just “talk to the animals” like any good Dr. Doolittle.  I don’t need to cuddle them.

 

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catlikeobservation
photo by Nate Gibson

In the Echo of Fog Horns

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new year’s eve-
in the echo of fog horns
another voyage starts
–  Keiko Izawa

 

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fogtree

 

I grew up on a small farm located about two miles from a bay in Puget Sound.  When I awoke, I knew it was a foggy morning outside even before looking out my bedroom window.  The fog horns located on coastal buildings and bobbing buoys scattered throughout the inlet would echo mournful moans and groans to warn freighter ships away from the rocky or muddy shallows.   The resonant lowing of the horns carried miles over the surrounding landscape due to countless water particles in the fog transmitting sound waves so effectively.  The louder the foghorn moan heard on our farm, the thicker the mist in the air.  Those horn voices would make me unspeakably sad for reasons I could never articulate.

Embarking on a voyage in blinding foggy conditions, just like starting a new year,  portends both adventure and risk.  Of course I’d prefer to see exactly where I am headed, carefully navigating with precise knowledge,  eventually winding up exactly at my intended destination.  The reality is that the future can be a murky mess.  We cannot see what lies ahead: we navigate by our wits, by our best guess, but particularly by listening for the low-throated warnings coming from the rocky shores and shallows of those who have gone ahead of us.

I am still too easily lost in the fog of my fears – disconnected, afloat and circling aimlessly, searching for a touch point of purpose and direction.  The isolation I sometimes feel may simply be my own self-absorbed state of mind, sucking me in deep until I’m soaked, dripping and shivering from the smothering gray.   If only I might trust the fog horn voices, I could charge into the future undaunted, knowing there are others out there in the pea soup prepared to come alongside me as together we await the sun’s dissipation of the fog.

Now I know, over sixty years into the voyage,  fog does eventually clear so the journey continues on.

Even so, I will keep listening for the resonant voices of wisdom and caution from shore, and at times raise my voice to join in.

Instead of echoing the moans and groans of my childhood mornings, may I sing an anthem of hope and promise.

 

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dogtreefog
photo by Nate Gibson

A Stretching Light

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swantokyo5

 

Did you too see it, drifting, all night, on the black river?
Did you see it in the morning, rising into the silvery air –
An armful of white blossoms,
A perfect commotion of silk and linen as it leaned
into the bondage of its wings; a snowbank, a bank of lilies,
Biting the air with its black beak?
Did you hear it, fluting and whistling
A shrill dark music – like the rain pelting the trees – like a waterfall
Knifing down the black ledges?
And did you see it, finally, just under the clouds –
A white cross Streaming across the sky, its feet
Like black leaves, its wings Like the stretching light of the river?
And did you feel it, in your heart, how it pertained to everything?
And have you too finally figured out what beauty is for?
And have you changed your life?
~Mary Oliver from “Swan”

 

swantokyo6

 

This laboring of ours with all that remains undone,
as if still bound to it,
is like the lumbering gait of the swan.

And then our dying—releasing ourselves
from the very ground on which we stood—
is like the way he hesitantly lowers himself

into the water. It gently receives him,
and, gladly yielding, flows back beneath him,
as wave follows wave,
while he, now wholly serene and sure,
with regal composure,
allows himself to glide.
~Rainer Maria Rilke, “The Swan”

 

And could it be that I too,
awkward and lumbering through my days
may glide and soar when afloat or aloft.Could it be there is beauty hidden away and within
until I change how I look at life,
how I move in the air that I’m given to breathe
and how I am stretched by the Light that illuminates me?
swantokyo4
But now they drift on the still water,   
Mysterious, beautiful;   
Among what rushes will they build,
By what lake’s edge or pool
Delight men’s eyes when I awake some day   
To find they have flown away?
~William Butler Years from “The Wild Swans at Coole”
swansong

God Was Here: Visited

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Annunciation by Bartolome Esteban Perez Murillo

 

…we should not try to escape a sense of awe, almost a sense of fright, at what God has done. . . . Nothing can alter the fact that we live on a visited planet. We shall be celebrating no beautiful myth, no lovely piece of traditional folklore, but a solemn fact. God has been here once historically, but, as millions will testify, he will come again with the same silence and the same devastating humility into any human heart ready to receive him.
~J.B. Phillips  from Watch for the Light

 

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Angels Announcing the Birth of Christ by Govert Flinck

 

I want to be like Mary, awed yet accepting, as the angel interrupts her daily routine with an incredible announcement.

I want to be like the shepherds, silenced and aghast, flattened with so much fear that I need to be reminded “do not be afraid.”

I want to be like Joseph whose life is never to be the same again, as my self-sufficiency and sense of “how things should be” is shot through and leaking dry.

Only then my heart will be ready to receive this visitor.  Only then.

 

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The Dream of Saint Joseph by Anton Raphael Mengs, 1773

1. This is the truth sent from above,
The truth of God, the God of love;
Therefore don’t turn me from your door,
But hearken all both rich and poor.

2. The first thing which I do relate,
Is That God did man create
The next thing which to you I tell,
Woman was made with man to dwell.

3. Then after this was God’s own choice
To place them both in Paradise,
There to remain from evil free
Except they eat of such a tree.

4. But they did eat, which was a sin,
And thus their ruin did begin —
Ruin’d themselves, both you and me,
And all of their posterity.

5. Thus we were as heirs to endless woes,
Till God the Lord did interpose
And so a promise soon did run
That He would redeem us by His Son.
~the Herefordshire Carol

Collected by E. M. Williams from 
Mr. W. Jenkins, Kings Pyon, Herefordshire, July, 1909. Music Noted by R. Vaughan William

 

 

 

Among the Hunted

ahmama

 

wwudeer2

 

My first time ever
seated next to my mother
in a movie theater, just
a skinny four year old girl
practically folded up in half
by a large padded chair
whose seat won’t stay down,
bursting with anticipation
to see Disney’s Bambi.

Enthralled with so much color,
motion,  music, songs and fun
characters, I am wholly lost
in a new world of animated
reality when suddenly
Bambi’s mother looks up,
alarmed,  from eating
a new clump of spring grass
growing in the snow.

My heart leaps
with worry.
She tells him
to run
for the thicket,
the safest place where
she has always
kept him warm
next to her.

She follows behind,
tells him to run faster,
not to look back,
don’t ever look back.

Then the gun shot
hits my belly too.

My stomach twists
as he cries out
for his mother,
pleading for her.
I know in my heart
she is lost forever,
sacrificed for his sake.

I sob as my mother
reaches out to me,
telling me not to look.
I bury my face
inside her hug,
knowing Bambi
is cold and alone
with no mother
at all.

My mama took me home
before the end.
I could not bear to watch
the rest of the movie 
for years.

Those cries
still echo
in my ears
every time someone hunts and shoots
to kill the innocent.

Now, my own children are grown,
my mom is gone from this earth,
I can even keep the seat from folding
me up in a movie theater.

I return Sunday after Sunday
to the killing fields of the church pew
knowing mothers and fathers
sons and daughters
grandmothers and grandfathers
sisters and brothers
and babies were hunted down
inside the supposed safety
of the sanctuary,
taken from the warmth of the human thicket
where we hold each other close.

Their cries echo in my ears
where there is no longer innocence.

 

wwudeer1

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A Deep Fear of Emptiness

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Wheels of baled hay bask in October sun:
Gold circles strewn across the sloping field,
They seem arranged as if each one
Has found its place; together they appeal
To some glimpsed order in my mind
Preceding my chance pausing here —
A randomness that also seems designed.
Gold circles strewn across the sloping field
Evoke a silence deep as my deep fear
Of emptiness; I feel the scene requires
A listener who can respond with words, yet who
Prolongs the silence that I still desire,
Relieved as clacking crows come flashing through,
Whose blackness shows chance radiance of fire.
Yet stillness in the field remains for everyone:
Wheels of baled hay bask in October sun.
~Robert Pack “Baled Hay” from Rounding it Out: A Cycle of Sonnetelles (1999).

 

mayfieldbales

 

marshmallows51116

 

Each day I am called to see and listen,
to open fully to all that is around me.
From the simple stillness of the fields
surrounding our farm,
to the weeping of those who sit with me
day after day
in their deep fear of emptiness,
their struggle with whether to try to live
or give up and die.

Their deep fear of emptiness renders me silent;
I struggle to respond with words
that might offer up a healing balm
assuring them even in the darkest time
hope lies waiting, wrapped and baled,
radiant as fire,
ready to spill out fragrant,
to bear us silently to a new morning,
to a stillness borne of grace.

 

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centralroadoct

The Shadow’s the Thing

myohmy

 

Be comforted; the world is very old,
  And generations pass, as they have passed,
  A troop of shadows moving with the sun;
Thousands of times has the old tale been told;
  The world belongs to those who come the last,
  They will find hope and strength as we have done.
~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow “A Shadow”

 

 

sunriseshadow

 

The shadow’s the thing. 
If I no longer see shadows as “dark marks,” 
as do the newly sighted,
then I see them as making some sort of sense of the light.
They give the light distance;
they put it in its place.
They inform my eyes of my location here, here O Israel,
here in the world’s flawed sculpture,
here in the flickering shade of the nothingness
between me and the light.
~Annie Dillard from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

 

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A shadow is hard to seize by the throat and dash to the ground.
~Victor Hugo from Les Miserables

 

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In faith there is enough light for those who want to believe and enough shadows to blind those who don’t.
~Blaise Pascal

 

These days I find myself seeking safety hiding in the shadows under a rock where lukewarm moderates tend to congregate.

Extremist views predominate simply for the sake of differentiating one’s political turf from the opposition.  There is no discussion of compromise, negotiation or collaboration as that would be perceived as a sign of weakness.  Instead it is “my way or the wrong way.”

I’m ready to say “no way,” as both sides are intolerably intolerant of the other.

The chasm is most gaping in any discussion of faith issues.  Religion and politics have become angry neighbors constantly arguing over how high to build the fence between them, what it should be made out of, what color it should be, should there be peek holes, should it be electrified with barbed wire to prevent moving back and forth, should there be a gate with or without a lock and who pays for the labor.   In a country founded on the principle of freedom of religion, there are more and more who believe our forefathers’ blood was shed for freedom from religion.

Give us the right to believe in nothing whatsoever or give us death. Perhaps both actually go together.

And so it goes.  We bring out the worst in our leadership as facts are distorted, the truth is stretched or completely abandoned, unseemly pandering abounds and curried favors are served for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Enough already.

In the midst of this morass, we who want to believe still choose to believe.

There is just enough Light for those who seek it.  No need to remain blinded in the shadowlands of unbelief.

I’ll come out from under my rock if you do.

In fact…I think I just did.

 

morninglightoctober