Monday, March 30, 2015

What's the big fuss about passing a little stone?

Show and tell: Yep, that's the stone, up close and personal!
After a recent kidney stone attack, several folks asked me what it felt like to pass a stone. Not a big deal, right? After all, it's just a tiny bit of calcium, jarringly mixed with other stuff, often no larger then a few grains of sand. All true, except for one important fact: The tiny stone, on its voyage through the urinary tract, has to make its way through the ureter, an itsy-bitsy tunnel between the kidneys and bladder.

The passage is painful. Very painful! Here's a guide to just how painful it can be.

You know how when you were a kid and you lost your balance while riding your bike, skinning up your knees and elbows? Stung like a sum-bitch, remember? Kidney stones are worse.

You know when you were in college and you and your buddy got blitzed and you were walking back to the dorm and instead of walking around a nearby security fence you decided it would be a good idea to leap over it and you landed on your shoulder and the nurse in the infirmary told you it was dislocated and you had to walk around for a week with your arm in a sling? Bummer! Kidney stones are worse.

You know how you sometimes absentmindedly rip open an envelope and a tiny wedge of paper slits into your finger, drawing a tiny bead of blood? Ouch! Kidney Stones are worse.

You know how you pull yourself out of bed when nature calls in the middle of the night; you stumble off toward the bathroom and, oops, crack your shin against a nearby bureau? Jeez, that smarts! Kidney stones are worse.

You know how when you're pounding a nail into a board and it seems like one good whack and the job will be done; so you let loose with a final wallop and, unfortunately, misjudge the target and hit your thumb? Oh, Nellie! Kidney stones are worse.

You know how you're in the zone, weed-whacking away on a sunny day when the plastic line whips around your ankle for an instant, causing a nasty cut and a neat circle of blood to puddle at your feet? Now that's gotta hurt, right? Kidney stones are worse.

Recall that day when you were atop a 10-foot ladder and you needed to take just one more step to reach that little leaf atop the hedge you were cutting, and the ladder gave way, and you bounced onto a nearby juniper bush before your noggin bounced against the driveway, and you were rushed to the emergency room with scrapes, bruises and a concussion? Oy! Kidney stones are worse.

And if you're of the female persuasion, recall how when in the delivery room you're sweating and pushing away mightily, attempting to get seven pounds of pinkness and hair out of your womb and through the birth canal; and after one last heave and sense of relief -- and pressure -- you hear the bawling of your babe, then hear the doctor exclaim: Surprise, you're having twins!? Kidney stones are worse.

So, the next time you hear of a friend having an attack, you might toy with the idea of smashing your thumb with a hammer or simply banging your head against a nearby wall to share the experience. Who knows, after hearing of your show of solidarity, your friend might be willing to share their pain meds! Then again, probably not.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Love, loss and hope

On a recent gray and dreary day, the lovely Miss Wendy and I thought it a perfect time to visit our neighborhood multiplex cinema. We ended up seeing a horror flick that still has me rattled.

That's all a bit surprising, since I was raised on a jarring mix of films featuring werewolves and vampires; stumbling and bumbling mummies and fantastical blobs; the Frankenstein monster and a wide assortment of aliens. In recent years, I've even sat through some really frightening misadventures featuring flying superheroes, massive explosions and ubiquitous car chases.

Of course all these Hollywood creatures and creations were ephemeral, mostly filled with special effects and comic bogeymen hiding about in the dark.

"Still Alice", meanwhile, is a film that has little to do with make believe monsters and demons. The spooky stuff it offers up is scarily grounded in reality. It tells the story of Alice Howland, a middle-aged professor of linguistics at Columbia University, who is bright and beautiful and, unfortunately, slowly losing her mind to early-onset Alzheimer's disease.

Julianne Moore won the Best Actress Oscar earlier this year for her quietly moving and point-on portrayal of Alice, capturing her intelligence and lust for life that is achingly lost as her mind and memories wither away like a flower wilting in the noon-day sun.

The first hint of something gone terribly wrong in Alice's perfect life -- she's smart and lovely, has a wonderful job and a beautiful family -- is when she ever so slightly stumbles about in search of a word while giving a lecture. Only days later she's losing her way when out on a daily jog, soon enough forgetting the names of friends and family and misplacing her cell phone in the fridge.

In a world turned upside down, Alice finds herself taking baby steps in reverse, losing all the special qualities and unique experiences that had once defined her charmed and special life. Her family watches in quiet horror, trying to figure out how best to continue living in a world now frighteningly askew.

Their choices and decisions, both good and bad, are the stuff of life, an aching reality captured in Alice's slow descent into a mindless hell. Ever so quickly, the third act is upon us, and even quicker yet, it all dissolves to white.

Lydia, Alice's youngest daughter (Kristen Stewart, a jarring blend of anger and defiance, mixed with  love and strength) takes center stage, speaking a jumble of words that, after a time, morph into a lyrical monologue of hope.

I was so taken with the moment that I spent a few minutes on the web and discovered the scene was borrowed from Tony Kushner's "Angels in America": "And the souls of these departed joined hands, clasped ankles and formed a web, a great net of souls ... Nothing's lost forever. In this world, there is a kind of painful progress. Longing for what we've left behind, and dreaming ahead."

Lydia asks Alice if she understands and Alice, staring off in dazed befuddlement, becomes reanimated -- if only for a moment -- and manages to say "love ... it's about love."

It's a somewhat satisfying, if melancholy ending to a sad and melancholy film. It also, at least for me, had the ring of truth.

Five years ago my mother was lost and stumbling along the road that "Still Alice" explores. After a couple of years of steady decline, her last days were spent in a kind of suspended animation -- gone, but still here; mute, dazed and befuddled.

I often stopped by the nursing home where she was living and helped feed her if I was around for lunch or dinner. On one particular day, I managed to get her to eat several spoonfuls of some sort of pureed goo, then handed off the chore to a nearby aide.

As I stood to leave, my mother glanced up at me and, after weeks of silence, managed to say, "I love you."  They were the last words I ever heard her speak.

So I'm thinking Alice had it right; it's about love. I'm also thinking that Lydia got it right when she shared the words of Tony Kushner: "Nothing's lost forever. In this world, there is a kind of painful progress. Longing for what we've left behind, and dreaming ahead."