Rethinking life’s interruptions


One of many beautiful trees at Allied Arts Guild in Menlo Park

While driving home from an errand last week, I saw an unusual sight by the sidewalk. A heavily tanned man, wearing navy shorts, a thin tattered tank top, and no footwear, was standing on top of an overturned shopping cart under a medium-sized tree. With bare hands, he held onto a branch with leaves bunched into his fists.

It was an unsettling sight.  My first thought was that he was trying to injure himself. I looked for a rope or something of that sort above him. Nothing.

Yes, I know. I tend to think catastrophically.

Another fleeting thought: maybe he was looking for something in the tree and he couldn’t safely get down. He did look precarious standing on the shopping cart. Did he need someone to help him get down?

People who noticed him stared: driver, pedestrians, me. I could imagine these people asking themselves the same question I had, “What the heck is going on with his guy?”

From what I observed waiting at that stoplight, no one offered help. Within that short amount of time, I got critical of the lack of empathy around me. I thought that if my kids were with me I would stop to help; it would reinforce a hands-on lesson of helping others.  If I see something like this again next time,  I’ll stop. That was my rationalization for ignoring what I saw.

Then it hit me! I was being a hypocrite.  How can I expect others to do something that I wouldn’t do myself? How can I expect a rerun of this situation next time? That man will move on to another place.  Also, I would hesitate to stop if the kids were with me; they would freak out in the backseat and cry just like the time someone tried to jump-start her car with my battery. No one knew how to open my car hood, so after lots of sounds and people stopping by to help, I heard the kids wailing.

Although I was reluctant to do so, I made a U-turn to ask him if he needed help. I was scared, so I stood right next to the opened car door. When I asked him if he needed help, he didn’t look out from the leaves. Instead, he gave me a thumbs up sign and waved.

Next I asked him if he needed anything. He made a money sign with his hand: the okay sign with thumb and index finger making a circle shape. Digging through my purse I found a few dollars. I put it in his hand that wasn’t holding onto the branch.

Overall, it wasn’t a memorable or life-changing encounter.  But I realized something I already knew about myself: I don’t like to deal with life interruptions, even small ones.

There is another side of me that believes detours, surprises, and interruptions make life an adventure. That’s the hopelessly optimistic side of me talking. But the reality is that interruptions to any day, schedule, plans, and life are all inconvenient and sometimes a real pain in the butt.

A few weeks back I was that annoying person who interrupted a stranger’s life at a hospital cafeteria. I was on day 4 or 5 of Ellis’ hospital stay, and I was starting to show signs of wear and tear. Even though I put on clean clothes and makeup, there was no way of hiding the gloom and doom on my face.

During the busy lunch hour. I rushed down to the crowded hospital cafeteria to fill up my coffee cup with extra ice. It was the last thing I needed to do before driving home to rest until I switched shifts with Chris in the evening. In one hand, I carried a plastic comforter bag with laundry. On the other,  I held my cup of coffee and a purse hanging from my shoulder.

With fresh ice in my cup, I turned around to leave.  In that split second,  the side of my plastic blanket bag knocked over a bowl of clam chowder soup on a stranger. He had just poured some soup into the bowl and hadn’t yet secured the contents with a lid.

He was an Asian man probably in his early 30s. He was wearing a nicely pressed red and white plaid shirt,  navy pants,  and brown leather shoes. Not anymore though. From waist down,  he was dripping clam chowder soup.

I interrupted his day big time.  I don’t know what he was doing at the hospital: maybe he was one of the staff at the hospital; maybe he was visiting someone; maybe he was a parent. I will never know. But I will remember him as the Soup Guy.

His response to my clumsiness blew me away.  While wiping the soup off his clothes, he consoled me and told me not to worry; he was ok. It was an unexpected response. This encounter sparked a flood of emotions in me: feeling sorry for almost burning him with soup, anxious about Ellis’ recovery, worried about the impact of this disruption in Elliot’s life, Chris and his well-being in the midst of chaos, mother in law’s health as she held down the fort for us, and feeling burnt out. I broke out into tears catching the stares of people standing by the salad bar.

I interrupted his life that day big time. But he was gracious about it. If he had responded otherwise, it would’ve deepened my guilt and made my experience that much more stressful. Maybe he realized I was one of the many frantic and worried parents in the hospital.

What a lesson I learned in how a stranger’s reaction to an interruption I caused can be handled with immense kindness and understanding. I wanted to adopt that attitude too. I can’t count how many times people have showered me with kindness and love when I least expected it or when I needed it most.

It’s humbling, inspiring, encouraging, and life-giving.







Looking beyond 24 stitches


One week after discharge…back at the hospital for a check-up

Entering the next chapter of our lives…

Ellis was discharged Tuesday afternoon on October 4th after a 9-day stay at the hospital. From the moment she woke up from the anesthesia in the ICU, home was the first thing on her mind. With a raspy voice she told me to get her stroller from the car so she could go home. I told her she needed to get stronger first, get all these lines and tubes removed, and then we could go home. She looked at me and said she was already feeling better, so please tell the nurse to remove her IV lines.

I wish she would have just let herself go and cried like an average four-year old child; instead she would look away holding back her tears mouthing “let’s go home.” The only thing I could do was sympathize with her and tell her I would be scared, sad, and missing home too if I were in her shoes. Those comments made her feel worse, so instead we started thinking about all the new toys we will buy when we go home.

After the surgery, Ellis’ voice became hoarse and developed a loud hacking cough. In the beginning the nurses encouraged the coughing because her body needed to expel gunk that accumulated in her lungs. But when the coughing persisted, the occupational therapist was called.

After some swallow tests and observations, the therapist said that Ellis was having difficulty swallowing clear liquids, which I learned is called dysphagia. One of her laryngeal nerves may have gotten nipped or still be swollen from the breathing tube used during surgery. Since she could get pneumonia if liquid enters her lungs, all her drinks had to be thickened to honey consistency from a food thickener gel. When I first saw it, it reminded me of the consistency of hand sanitizer.

The gel makes her liquids thick and gooey. It changes the smell and texture of her water, and just looking at it makes her angry and frustrated. I’ve cleaned up many overturned cups and bore the wrath of her anger. She constantly asks for “regular water” and cries when I explain that this special water is important for her health and that I am not willfully denying her of it. I’m not sure how much she understands, but it makes me sad to know that she is missing out on that refreshing feeling when you drink a cold cup of water. It seems like a basic thing to be able to drink liquids and not have a problem with it. But I’m painfully learning that none of these body functions can be taken for granted.

(note: My explanation is derived from my understanding of various conversations I’ve had with therapists and nurses who came to explain Ellis’ condition. I’m learning, so to speak, on the job. Please understand if something is off. If you have an easier way of explaining these complex functions, please share it with me!)

This is the second time she’s had this vocal cord issue. She had this happen right after her first heart surgery as a newborn. Her cry was hoarse and strained similar to her voice now. It healed on its own after three months. I’m hoping for the same outcome. In the meantime, we will meet with occupational therapy and ears, nose, and throat (ENT) specialists to find out more.

Till it heals, thicken those liquids.


Thickened water/ honey consistency

In all, my fear leading up to this experience was greater than the actual days we spent at the hospital. On several occasions I would hold back my tears when I saw Ellis crying because she wanted to go home or when seeing her little legs tremble whenever needles were involved. Other times I couldn’t allow myself to turn inward or to let down my guard; if I did, I’d become useless to Ellis during her recovery.

Many concerned friends have asked me how I’m doing – not about just general things but about me, personally. My pre-recorded answer was “good” or “I’m doing ok.” But that question made me think more introspectively long after the conversation was over. How was I doing with this medical disruption in our lives? How were we coping with the anxiety and exhaustion? How was Elliot coping with all the changes in his daily life? To get to those answers, I needed to mine through layers of emotions.

When I felt scared, restless, or depressed, the drill sergeant in me came out telling me to stick it out and to stop whining. I became harsh towards myself, minimized the difficulty of my experience, and assumed that everyone else in my situation would be doing a better job than me. I smiled and shrugged off emotions during the day. But all the suppressing didn’t make the insecure feelings disappear; my dreams told me otherwise.

Some of my dreams turned into nightmares. My irrational thoughts, fears I couldn’t articulate, my nervous state – these were all playing out in my dreams. I was in danger or threatened with danger: a cloud of bees chasing me; my teeth falling out; living in a glass house with trees falling around me; swimming in dark water, climbing through rocks, ice, cliffs; and scariest of all, running from a dark moving glob that tried to grab me. The last one actually made me cry out for help in my sleep; Elliot woke up from the sound crying and got mad at me for scaring him like that. He had no idea what I was running away from…

Currently I’m trying to figure out life that doesn’t revolve around a future surgery date. There will be new challenges as we navigate heart health and life together with a chronic medical condition. For a few months, she will get frequent blood draws for an anticoagulant medication she’s taking. We’ve gone several times and it doesn’t seem to get better. Her arms are bruised up from wrist to elbow, and the lab technician finds it hard to find a good vein. Today, she had a collapsed vein during the first draw (whatever that means), and Ellis got so nervous on the second poke that she threw up all over herself.

I’m relieved Elliot didn’t join us for this appointment. He doesn’t even like to hear or say the word “blood,” so I can imagine how he’ll go nuts too. The next few months should be interesting as the kids and I incorporate these lab visits into our daily homeschooling lives. I’m not sure how to make these visits educational without getting traumatized, but I will have to integrate some lessons about blood, health, and occupations, etc. with these guys. I’ll have some false starts or it may flop altogether, but the process of planning and exploring together should be fun.

My hope is that I can look back years later and remember these special times: times when we were unexpectedly refreshed with new hope, opportunities, joy, friendships, surprises, detours, blessings, and rest. They will be great reminders of how God worked miracles, directly and indirectly, in myriad ways.

Four days after discharge, she had 24 of her chest stitches removed. There’s no doubt that she’ll have a remaining scar, but the site of her stitches is healing beautifully. I never thought I would use that word to describe stitches. But the surgeon or resident who did the final sewing took much care and precision. It wasn’t obvious at first when it appeared red, raw, swollen, roughly sewn with blue thread tied off at each end. Now that the stitches are out, the skin is healing over the symmetrical and tight scar.

These doctors have serious sewing skills in addition to the surgical magic that they do in the operating room. Then, there is the other magic that happens outside the operating room. In the intensive care unit and recovery floor, there are those doctors, nurses, and other specialists who diligently work to keep the scar healing beautifully.

Their workmanship is great! But I can’t help thinking how much greater is God’s workmanship in creating the complex yet harmonious system of the human body and giving people the potential and capacity to do awesome things in all kinds of different ways.

Psalm 138:14
“Thank you for making me so wonderfully complex! Your workmanship is marvelous – how well I know it.”

As for Ellis, she reminds me of the popular saying you find on wall art these days. Googling it, I found that it’s a quote from Shakespeare. It fits her perfectly: “And though she be but little, she is fierce.”

Pretty soon… Ellis will be ready to leap over mountains in her life!