Thursday, January 26, 2017

The View From 72

My mother lived to be over 100, my father dead of a heart attack at 58. I am balanced somewhere between the two, 14 years older than my father (which brought strange feelings when I went zooming by his last benchmark), and I am more than twice that many in years from my mother right now. She was three decades older than her youngest son when she died a couple of years ago on Christmas Night.

I can use facts and now something new called “alternative facts” to list why the three of us made it to the ages we did. My father drank too much and smoked all his life, having one of his Kent cigarettes to calm his nerves while walking into the emergency room where he would die a couple of hours later. By the same mixology of real facts, until a couple of years ago, I was following my father’s footsteps and drinking too much and smoking a pack a day.

My mother had an amazing life free from major illnesses. Oh, there was the time at the family camp on the Amite River when my father was rebuilding the rotten back steps, warning her they would be gone, and she stepped out the back door anyway and broke her arm after crashing to the ground. The flu, colds, her teeth pulled early in life. Older, during Jen’s illness, my mother had arrhythmia and a pacemaker was installed after shocking her old tumbling heart back into normal rhythm. Late in life she took a handful of pills morning and evening: one for her heart, one for blood pressure, others for memory and blood-thinning and to keep her bathroom visits regular while clumping down the hall and grunt-sighing. But all those pills and infirmities, spread out over the course of her long years, a century of them, revealed a graph heavier at the end, sure, but plenty of white space for all the good health during the years of putting up with my father and raising three sons.

Despite all my drugs and drink and nicotine and unprotected sex (in the early days), knock on wood, I have followed more at this point along my mother’s trail that I must have blundered along while ignoring any signposts. A tonsillectomy and a few broken bones early on, I have battled the more serious RA and diverticulosis since I was 33 years old, the latter finally catching up with me in a big way. So cruising along, ignoring the healthier route usually, I had my first scary detour two years ago. Mild discomfort for a day and a half and I drove myself to the hospital (not recommended by the experts) and in thirty minutes I was being wheeled down the corridor to the cath lab. The hands of nurses pulling at my shirt, I emerged sometime later with three stents in an artery that had a 99% blockage. Waking after an emergency or suddenly being free of long aggravating pain is like being a goose in the morning in a new world, everything fresh and the clear absence of what came before. I was glad I had more time.

Seven months ago a backdoor check of the plumbing revealed a 6” stricture in my colon, a  crisis, scary, the abdomen pain and discomfort during the previous decades blooming into emergency surgery and again emerging, glad to be alive, thanking young Dr. Cook for saving my life. Now all vanity forever gone, hanging for only moments from a colostomy bag, the first abhorrent thoughts of carrying a bag of shit around at times. It was a worse nightmare coming true. But eventually I traded the dropping away of the horror for being able to watch my granddaughters continuing to discover their world.

Five months in and looking forward to reversal surgery and the pain was back, scary again, enough so even after dealing with severe daily arthritic pain for 40 years, I had to walk the floor during the night. Blockage in the colon again? The pain radiating from stomach to bowels perhaps diverticulitis, or the pain now higher in the chest perhaps the old once-blackened heart sending broken signals from a life made hard? A week in the hospital having chest x-rays and CT scans and blood work and sonograms and urine-checking and eating what passed for a liquid diet: bad Jello, watery grape juice, rancid coffee. Another test, a MCRP (Magnetic Resonance Cholangiopancreatography), and I had a “nasty, diseased gall bladder.” Unsure until the surgery began, it was touchy but the surgeon was able to operate laparoscopically. So only a few more puncture scars joined the foot long scar from the colostomy that insures a t-shirt on the beach to avoid stares at a never ever very firm six-pack.

So here I am, recovering still, from both operations, my daily walk now limited to the end of the driveway, the reversal surgery for the colostomy delayed for now, but the idea (like my mother) that my more severe health tumbles are coming on this far end, and I am still here to enjoy family and friends. And after a long year of nothing, just reading, reading, reading, whether only okay or otherwise, these finger taps left on cyber paper are the first impressions left outside of myself in too long a time, with more to come, I hope, the spark of being driven to open a hardening vein over the keyboard never quite dimming out.

No profound lessons here, folks, you are free to move along to the next post. These musings at age 72 are the same as experienced by millions: old age is a tough journey with a payoff kick in the ass like no other. But one of the good things is that most of the useless shit continues dropping away and you are left with more appreciation for the good times, the times the granddaughters do “sleepovers” here like my two daughters did at my mother’s house when growing up. Old age and you do learn the old circle is unbroken, and you learn the circle certainly does grow ever smaller every day. 

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

A Saga of the Golden Years

After some dental surgery and catching shingles and the pain of that—truly as all say the horrible pain like nothing else—and with her history of atrial fibrillation, Dee got so weak yesterday and her pulse was so thready that we decided to call 9-1-1 and have the paramedics take her to the hospital. I was impressed with the fast response. First the shorter firetruck came screaming down Lobdell and turned on to Sevenoaks, followed by the paramedics in their van, followed a bit later by a supervisor (or two, women) in their SUV. All the emergency personnel around the bed, Dee’s 145 heartbeats and then 80 and then 135 and then 150 was cause for real concern. Did an EKG and started an IV and finally lifted her from the bed to the gurney bottom bedsheet and all. She was scared, naturally, and not even necessary to say that. While I was changing shirts and getting my wallet and such so I could go in my car so I would have a ride home, I didn't realize they worked in the driveway in the paramedic van for a half hour to stabilize her heart before they ever started for the hospital. The paramedics and the supervisors in the SUV and me in Pearl Honda all left at the same time. 

From one in the afternoon and for the next eight hours, and since BR General is now a teaching hospital, we saw a total of nine doctors in various stages of being a doctor, from a whip-smart Chinese woman (Lin Wang) studying at Tulane to a supervising doctor of several other doctors. Throughout the day we began to realize how smart our dumbasses finally were since each told us how dangerous things were for a while with her heart. They even had a second IV in her arm in case , as one said, "things went south." Blood work, saline drip for hydration, potassium chloride drip, and finally after all the doctors had listened to the chain of events, dental surgery, shingles, heart I-got-ya-irregular-rhythm, one said with low sodium (strange) and extremely and dangerously low potassium it seemed to be the perfect storm of events. They couldn’t get her heart back in rhythm even after a dosage of her regular heart meds until they gave her a shot of something else that finally did the trick. I mean in five minutes her heart went from the 100's to 60 and the mid-50's, end of the marathon, you can stop running. Naturally with the slower pulse and the drips her color really improved quickly. We had great service until the late afternoon before the evening shift change. Heard they were three nurses short and it took until 9 p.m. for her to be taken to her room. Even as improved as she was she was still hurting from her bad back and the shingles pain and everything else, so when the ice pack leaked and wet her sheets and blankets, we tried not to complain too much since we were in the ER and surely some people were as troubled as Dee had been earlier and maybe some others also fighting to live.

For once we did the smart thing and didn't worry about calling the paramedics. Dee couldn't even get to the bathroom a few steps away without her heart racing and coming close to passing out. Both of us felt like we dodged a very large bullet. They kept her overnight for observation. Since she was stable and I had not eaten and the cats had been out all day and I had not had my heart meds yet, I came on home, exhausted from the emotion of it all.

Even though I have thousands of adventure stories that turned out badly and could advise what to avoid in life, I have limited my advice to three things: better save for your children’s education, better save as much as you can for retirement, and as imperfect as the people and procedures in health care may still be, don’t hesitate to seek care from someone who knows more than you do. My father died of a heart attack at age 58. At age 69, just some discomfort, I merrily drove myself to the hospital when I was having one. I was lucky. Despite hesitating for a few days with all the potentially deadly signs so visible, Dee was also lucky yesterday. And by loving extension, me also.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

The Language of Colonoscopy

   Let’s talk colonoscopy.
   It’s a language most people don’t speak, especially men.
   Three reasons according to me: the self-consciousness of being naked in front of strangers; the perceptions of possible pain; and the paralyzing fear of what the look-see will reveal, the doctor coming in and saying, “Well, Mr. Cothern, you won’t have to buy any Christmas presents this year.”
   Again, speaking for myself, I feel extremely vulnerable when in the room with two nurses who really could care less what my flabby body looks like and with my doctor standing near and putting on gardening gloves. My penis usually shrinks to the size of a two-chamber unshelled peanut.
   No pain. Something akin to Michael Jackson’s doctor sending me to Never-never Land but with no terminal results, whatever they gave me floated me away so quickly I didn’t have time to even think of any lyric to Sam Cooke’s “You Send Me”—much less count backwards.
   Having two brothers who had prostate cancer, one eventually succumbing to Cancer of the Everything for (perhaps) not learning the language of regular checkups, having had glaucoma and going totally blind in my left eye, having had RA for four decades and diverticulosis to go along with that as a steady and painful companion—not until old age avoiding seeds and such and great spicy foods and cigarettes and alcohol and wild women (I wished as a much younger man)—I did fear what the doctor would find. I feared not being strong enough while losing everything. I had put off getting answers for years. Ignoring my pain and stomach problems meant I didn’t have anything serious. My gastroenterologist did find and removed four pre-cancerous polyps, which was good news, but he also found some scar tissue from the diverticulosis that is blocking some of the lower reaches of The River Bowel and no doubt had been causing a lot of my pain over the years. Still, not really horrible news, and after dealing with the blockade, Christmas shopping (online) is still on my schedule.
   So why this public service post?
   Maybe to get one friend to have any kind of checkup?
   Perhaps. But I know how difficult it is to begin language acquisition so late in life.
   But these few paragraphs also just serve to illustrate that as humans we build up expectations so high that nothing can meet our good wishes. Everything we fear has us dead by morning. Like most things encountered in the boat being rowed upstream, the truth of it all lies somewhere in between.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Birth Day

Everything else on the 27th day of January in 1945 paled (as it should) next to the Russian troops throwing open the gates of Auschwitz-Birkenau while radio stations in this country were playing “Don’t Fence Me In” by Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters. While the troops were finding 468 dead inmates, folks in New York were catching Martha Graham and Dance Company at Jordon Hall performing “Appalachian Spring” at the Saturday matinee. While the troops were liberating 2800 people abandoned by the SS without any provisions to survive, William “Willie” J. Glunk was being born in Astoria, New York, about the time Noah Berry, Jr. was preparing for an opening and run of 504 performances in Up In Central Park at the Century Theatre with book and lyrics by Dorothy Fields. While Lois Ada Comfort was being born in Doniphan, Maryland, Raymond Cothern in Baton Rouge, David Hermes in Baraboo, Wisconsin, while these and countless others were being born, hopefully with joyous cries at new life, the Soviets were inventorying the storage buildings and finding 836,255 women’s coats and dresses, over 368,000 men’s suits, and human hair totaling seven tons. While Oscar Schindler was saving 85 Jews from a train in Brunnlitz that had been locked for a week, in Bound Brook, New Jersey, William Hennessy was being born and would live 67 years to the day, the 27th of January, both his birth and death date.

In Baton Rouge and other places in Louisiana that day, there were no ironic newspaper headlines, only straight-forward reporting during war-weary times and the seemingly necessary one-sided reporting of race. Harold Joseph, Negro, died that Friday in New Orleans Charity Hospital of an abdominal gunshot wound received while resisting arrest during a jewelry store robbery Thursday night. His partner, Robert Guidry, Negro, was also shot while escaping with the goods and was in serious condition. No doubt Patrolmen Jay Sedgebeer and Paul Oestricker were busy filling out reports about Joseph and Guidry refusing to halt while fleeing and how many shots were fired and by whom. Also in New Orleans, Rock P. Scallan was sentenced to 60 days in jail by Judge George Platt for driving a truck while drunk earlier on December 23rd. In Baton Rouge, despite objections from the Louisiana Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the sale would go forward of 22 horses and mules no longer fit for duty at Angola, the state penitentiary. The Society cited a law prohibiting the sale of “debilitated, diseased and lame horses and mules in cities of 10,000 or more.”

On that winter day in January, while Robert Guidry, Negro, struggled to survive his gunshot wound and the family of his partner prepared for a funeral, while Patton’s Third Army was crossing the Our River and capturing Oberhausen and while the 6th Ranger Battalion and the 6th Army Special Reconnaissance Unit began a rescue behind enemy lines of 500 American, British, and Dutch prisoners-of-war in the Philippines, Onetia Mae Wilson Cothern was 31 years old and giving birth shortly before noon at the Baton Rouge General Hospital, right across Florida Boulevard and two short blocks west of Bernardo Street. Willie Talmadge Cothern was 33 years old and waiting with other expectant fathers for the birth of his child. Willie Von and Wayne Harolyn at ages 12 and 6 were in school, perhaps with vague inklings that the attention they had been receiving was being splintered into unequal time, that the balance of power was shifting under them much like the uneasy alliance among all armies, all families.

Saturday, May 16, 2015


It only seems like slow motion when tumbling to the ground because I’m aware of every step. The first step on Colorado River rocks behind the koi pond’s waterfall, another step on uneven rocks for balance, and the feet are leaden, refusing to lift high enough or quickly for more balancing steps as the momentum of my body pushes forward, aware the tipping point has slipped behind me, the right shoulder crashing into a spiny asparagus fern spreading over more large rocks on the mounded perimeter of the pond. No banging of the head like two friends who died from falling, sudden leaks in the brain. There is slight pain from the thorns of the fern and the middle finger on the right hand throbs from cushioning the impact. Add blood-thinning meds since a heart attack more than a year ago and skinny white legs sticking out of cargo shorts look like someone has been playing mumbly-peg with a sharp knife. Small cuts bleed as if they are more dangerous ones and they do so on through the night.

What’s disconcerting is the tumble happened to a formerly agile guy, one who climbed ladders daily hanging lights in a theatre. It was the inevitability of hitting the ground once the fall started, knowing no instinctive maneuver would be quick enough to avoid the accident. It is like the sudden looseness in the steering or the brake pedal going all the way to the floorboard, the sudden acceptance of a crash into rocks covered by a pondside fern.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Heart Attack Friday

One year ago today . . .

After my father died of a heart attack at the age of 58, I had experienced sympathetic chest pains for months after the funeral. Despite being profoundly scared standing next to my father’s bed, knowing from that experience the symptoms of a failing heart, when my turn came over forty years later, I was not surprised I waited almost a full day before driving myself to the hospital, something the experts say you should never do. Famous last words in many cases, I guess, but the pain was hardly severe, not at all like the pain radiating across my father’s back that had made him sick to his stomach. What I thought while driving to the hospital—stopping at every red light—was getting a cure for the annoying discomfort before the weekend. I had books to read and writing to be done.

It began Thursday evening with discomfort behind the sternum, from stress I thought from financial concerns in retirement and because my wife was ill. Took aspirin and meds for my arthritis and went to bed. Awoke at 4:30 Friday morning—long before daylight—with the same discomfort and knew that was unusual but went back to sleep for a while, always the best way to escape concerns, or the best way to die for that matter, as several people I knew had done, to sleep, perchance to dream before sudden painless nothingness. Inclined as most men are when it comes to doctors and hospital, I put off doing anything, always aware of the discomfort and now some pain on the back of my left bicep—something felt plenty of times from arthritic pain in that shoulder. For short periods of time, the discomfort and bicep pain were joined by slight pain along the jawline and all were with me until early afternoon Friday.

Getting admitted to the emergency room was rapid, dizzying. It became the beginning of the story of how to avoid paperwork and waiting in a room full of sick people. I told the ladies through the round hole in the glass, I know this may sound dramatic, but I need to see if I’m having a heart attack. From the moment of uttering those words until I was on the gurney in an operating room, naked except for a gown, shivering because it was so cold in the room until one of the men put a warmed blanket on me, in that span of an early quick EKG and an emergency room doctor asking if I knew I was in atrial fibrillation and had high blood pressure (no to the first, never ever had the second), from the moment of being on a gurney and racing down a hall while talking on a cell phone to Dee who was too sick to come to the hospital and telling her I was headed to the cath lab, from being amid a gathering heart team and after the cardiologist introducing himself and me sort of echoing my father by asking if the doctor was any good, from that first utterance about checking to see if I was having a heart attack to having a line installed from groin to heart along mysterious pathways and three stents installed in an artery with 99% blockage, in that time, thank you, thank you, thank you, far less than one hour had raced by.

I was never in a great deal of pain, feeling only flushed warmth during the procedure. There was some pain from two IVs, some slight pain from the shaved pubic start of the pathway to the heart. The endless blood gathering always hurt and bruised, but the most pain came from countless sticky contact pads for always awkward and tangled lifelines connected to them. Despite shaving various hairy areas, the worst pain was the removal of two hand-sized sticky pads stuck to chest and all the hairs upon it in case my heart needed some shock therapy. After just one firmly fixed pad was yanked off I was ready to confess all the bad things I had ever done.

There is always a value to serious illness. After my daughter’s battle with encephalitis, it was learning not to sweat the countless and ultimately meaningless small stuff that makes up so much of life. Her illness also brought an appreciation of living in the moment. True of all serious illness, I guess. But I learned something entirely different from having a heart attack.

Dreading it despite knowing it is mostly an infinitesimal part of living, I have always been afraid of the actual act of dying since I was old enough to understand the process. Somehow, lying there on the table before snaking a line up to my heart and installing three stents to save my life, despite knowing I could go into a full-blown attack and die, I felt no great fear, and part of that may have been the speed of the process from when I first spoke to the lady at the ER window. It was a feeling that one of the shoes had dropped, that finally the end process had become visible. Not that I wanted it or welcomed it, but it was a dance with the actual end game that binds all humans most strongly to each other.

I am not sure what the lack of fear during that dance with mortality meant ultimately. Maybe I became a slightly better person. Wife and children would have welcomed that early on. Maybe I appreciated even more the time I had left, a grand gift, enjoying family and watching granddaughters grow into beautifully brilliant young women. But other nagging fears crept in, no doubt to balance my earlier lack of fear when I was having the heart attack, small daily concerns: the blood thinner that immediately created problems; being told not to miss taking another drug because I now had foreign bodies in my artery and the body loves to clot around anything not its own.


A half-century after my father died from his heart attack, two decades after Jennifer’s illness, I was just glad there was another lesson learned from my illness: sometimes you do have to sweat some of the small stuff because some of it can kill you.


Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Holiday Labors

In the old days, fathers were not allowed in the delivery rooms. Admittance for them beyond a series of swinging doors even in the early stages of a wife’s labor was strictly forbidden.

Go, sit in the waiting room, watch the television high up on the wall, we’ll keep you informed of the ritual secret birth and call you when your life has changed in unimaginable ways, when you and your wife are forever marked as blessed by a tiny life you’ll come to love above all else. So go on, pace the halls and lobby of The Woman’s Hospital if you must but never ever go through those swinging doors because you are germ-filled and are only the father.

Dee woke me early Thanksgiving in the still-dark morning and told me she was in labor. No old Dick Van Dyke routine with a cap on the top of the headboard, ready to sit up in bed and put it on in one quick motion, no fumbling for a suitcase that springs open and dumps all the womanly clothing and items needed after becoming a mother. It was simply excitement and a call to the doctor who said he would meet us at the hospital. So eyes puffy from lack of sleep, excited heartbeats felt in our throats, we met the doctor and he said Dee was barely dilated, to go on home and enjoy Thanksgiving. So we mentally put my baseball cap back on the headboard and had breakfast and waited for the Thanksgiving meal at Dee’s mother’s apartment. Miriam had baked the requisite turkey and her usual delicious fare of dressing and squash and butterbeans and cranberries cooked fresh that morning, a late afternoon feast with Dee’s brothers, David and Ricky, rounding out the family.

Once seated and no prayer, my first forkful of food heading toward my mouth, I swear, the first forkful heading up on an arc toward waiting teeth and tongue, and Dee said quietly, My water just broke. My fork clattered down on the plate and catapulted a piece of turkey to the other side of the white linen tablecloth like some invading eat-or-die mongrel hoard launching the only ammunition they had left.

A quick trip home to retrieve the suitcase and we were back at the hospital, me handling the check-in paperwork, Dee in a wheelchair facing the corridor of swinging doors leading to the Labor Room and, ultimately, the Secret Birth Room and special reclining chairs with here’s-one-for-the-boys-in-the-balcony leg stirrups in a wishbone Y. Hurried kisses and reassuring hugs, finally losing sight of Dee through a small window before being exiled in the waiting room.

Dee attempted Natural Child Birth but it was a long hard labor, stretching on into the night and all the next day, so long, in fact, that when they did finally wheel an exhausted Dee into the hallway and finally allowing me back by her side, she put her hand on my face and told me we had a daughter and wondered if worry made a man’s beard grow.

When she went into labor with Jennifer two years later, two weeks after Christmas in January of 1972, Dee remembered the two long days trying to deliver Laurie. She started holding out her arm for a shot as soon as we hit the hospital parking lot—or at least as soon as we cleared the first doors of the hospital. But Jen’s birth came much easier, not nearly the physical ordeal of Laurie’s first appearance on the Cothern stage.

I posted a sign on the door of The Rainy Day Bookstore that we owned, saying the store would be closed for a day or so and giving proud father details on Jennifer’s birth and weight. A reporter for a newspaper from one of the smaller towns around Baton Rouge took a photograph of the birth notice and we were told it had been published, one of those feel good items smaller newspapers seemed particularly fond of trumpeting.

During the time both daughters were born, their historical holiday birthstones included the still raging Vietnam War and the sometimes violent push for racial equality. While the Beatles’ “Come Together” / “Something” was climbing Billboard’s Hot 100 as a two-sided single (and would peak at Number One on Laurie’s birthday of November 29, 1969), The Plain Dealer published shocking photographs of the massacre of Vietnam villagers at My Lai, and in a more subtle approach John Lennon returned his MBE medal to protest his government’s support of the war in Vietnam. Two days after Laurie was born (and something that concerned her father), the first Draft lottery was held in this country since World War II. Three days before Jennifer’s birth on the 13th of January, 1972, a local reporter and anchorman, Bob Johnson, and his cameraman, Henry Baptiste, were covering a rally for a group claiming to be Muslims from outside the state who parked cars in the middle of North Boulevard to protest racial discrimination. The crowd grew, 200 or more strong, deputies arrived, and bottles and bricks flew. Two by three they died, two deputies, three Muslims, and the enraged crowd attacked Johnson and Baptiste as they fled, and it was Baptiste, a black man, who dragged from the scene his co-worker and friend, Johnson, a now comatose white man, who would remain in a coma for almost four decades.

So in all the years down the road, there were celebrations of birthdays while historical events swirled amid the holidays, always making reflections of the season a little deeper, more poignant. The girls grew up so quickly, and in the rush and hassle of living day to day we sometimes blinded ourselves to the simple sentimental facts that no matter the season of discord in the world, loving and sharing and protecting and giving to one another were the best gifts we had to offer.