I’m not sure how to tell you the next part of my story.
I need to get us from where we are now–Ron’s and my arrival in Portland, in August 2014–to my first remission nearly a year later, in May 2015. I hope to turn this blog into a book someday. I know that that remission is the point toward which we are now traveling. And I want us to get there soon–I still have a lot to tell you about.
So I’m going to tell this next part in a sweep. A montage. Then I’ll backtrack in the next few posts, dipping into a few points I zoomed past, revisiting the most important moments of the year.
When you’re writing the rough draft of a book, sometimes you have to jump over the tricky parts for the time being. That’s how you keep up your momentum.
So here’s the quick(ish) version of what happened…
The crucial first step to survival in all organisms is habitat selection. If you get to the right place, everything else is likely to be easier. ~ Edward O. Wilson
We arrived at Mom and Lanny’s house late one August night, unloaded our bags and the kitties, and released Kili and Bear in my old bedroom. They emerged, wide-eyed, to sniff their ways around the enormous new building. At the top of the stairs Kili paused, flummoxed by this foreign geological feature. She had only ever traversed stairs in her carrier until now. She peered down the steps uncertainly, then awkwardly took them one at a time in a soft ka-thunk, ka-thunking motion.
In the morning we whipped up a new batch of my special macrobiotic food. We took over a shelf of Mom and Lanny’s fridge, filling it with our mason jars of miso soup and red lentils. For the following several weeks, we would suffer through the tantalizing smells of their nightly meals, their pizza and pasta and pork, while we huddled together eating rice and seaweed and tofu.
We visited a dozen houses with our realtor, elbowing our way into the competitive Portland housing market. Buying a house here was a race: prices had skyrocketed by tens of thousands of dollars in just the last few months. A week after our arrival, a new house was posted in our ideal neighborhood, barely in our price range. We were its first or second visitors. Within hours we had placed an offer; we were homeowners by the next day.
A month later we moved in. It happened that the moving pods were scheduled to arrive on the same day Ron started his new job teaching at a local high school, and since we had few friends in town to help us move, I oversaw two hired men who unloaded our belongings. I tried to help with the smaller items, and not to sound too bourgeois as I instructed the men in where to place the couch. They left. I stood in the living room and surveyed our new home and all the unopened boxes.
This house would become my de facto job for the next year of my life.
The place was charming on the surface. A two-bedroom bungalow in a hilly, tree-y neighborhood, it had a big green yard full of rhododendrons that would bloom in the spring. The house was a jumble of rooms, having apparently blossomed from a one-room cabin into a two-story home with a fireplace, sunroom, and elongated office. Rather than the elegant, open layout of our sunny lakeside apartment, this house had mystery and character. Maybe a bit too much character.
It was lovely outside, but congenitally dark inside. Set into the north-facing slope of a hill, it had very little sky to call its own, and tall trees and bushes obscured the windows. Now that the previous owners were gone, the flaws they had hidden emerged. They had generously left us a lot of furniture, but I opened a nightstand drawer and discovered it to have no bottom. They’d left mountains of paint and trash in the garage, which doubled as the laundry room. The washer had a strange wire poking into the top, and the back was falling off the dryer. In the kitchen, I closed a cabinet door too hard one evening, and a piece of wood trim fell off a wall to expose a gaping, breadbox-sized hole in the drywall. In the guest room, a coil of cable poked nakedly out of another hole in the wall. The shower door was missing its handle. The list went on.
I buckled down with these tasks, enlisting Ron’s help on the weekends. It took several full days to clear the trash from the garage, culminating when, as we were about to move the very last piece of furniture in the far corner, I spotted a black widow spider guarding her egg sac on the back of the piece. We apologized to her and smashed her with a hammer, then squished her husband, then apologized to her unhatched babies and sprayed them with Raid. The black widow’s presence was a testament, I thought, to just how decrepit the garage had been. Hopefully there weren’t any more of her relatives lurking nearby.
We paid a crew of drywallers to finish the garage, our only room for laundry and storage since our house had no basement. I moved our heap of boxes out of the garage, painted the room when the drywallers were done, then moved everything back in, hanging and assembling shelves and organizing and purging our possessions.
It seemed that my book about Dad, and my environmental career, were going to be on hold for a while. This year, my two jobs were ones I hadn’t pictured and didn’t particularly want: Getting myself healthy enough to work again, and learning how to repair a busted-up house.
Each morning Ron set off for his teaching job and left me alone with my macrobiotic food, my persistent fatigue, and my chaotic home. I spent hours literally just standing and staring at each room. I leaned in doorways or against walls, working to envision how to transform these rooms into places I could love.
I Googled how to bring light into a dark house. One weekend we removed the trellis and vine that concealed the front door and kitchen window. On a high-energy day I ruthlessly cut back the tall rhododendrons that also blocked the windows, and light finally began entering the house. We refashioned a tall, dark wooden fence into an open wire fence, bringing more light in from the neighbor’s broad yard uphill from us. I repainted walls bright colors, bought colorful throw pillows, and removed extraneous doors between rooms.
I shopped and shopped. We had a modest income but I had lots of time, so my task was to find the best deals on used furniture I could find. I scoured Craigslist, several Goodwills, two Garage Sale Warehouses, and the gigantic City Liquidators store for furniture that would fit the odd shapes of our rooms. Modern furniture didn’t fit this little house. Twenty-first-century tables and desks and couches were too big for its spaces.
I learned to repair holes in walls, rewire outlets, change locks and install new deadbolts in doors, hang and wire outdoor security lights, hang towel racks, install a garbage disposal, install a cat door leading into the garage, hang window blinds, and build shelves. I came to know half the staff at Home Depot, and some of them knew me by name.
This was the first time I had owned a whole house. Over time, I was becoming aware of the powerful effects of homeownership, at least on me.
It wasn’t a big house, but it was mine. All of it, its charm and its flaws, its needs and its potential, now lay within my domain. Somehow, because the house was mine it felt like a part of me. Its flaws were a part of me, too. The house was my body, my brain. It needed a deep cleanse, wounds mended. I could not fully rest, be fully at peace, until that mending was done. While Ron was content with bare walls, broken appliances, and unopened boxes in corners, I had to make my nest. Never had I understood this about myself until now: My environment matters profoundly to me.
After months of work, I still despaired of ever loving this house. It was much improved, but still dark and cramped. I enjoyed learning new handywoman skills, but I was becoming embittered over the time I was spending just to make it likable. While Ron was advancing his career as a teacher, both my environmental and writing careers had stalled because of this goddamned house.
But it made sense for me to be here at home. Here, I could rest between tasks.
When we first arrived in Portland I was generally weak and often tired, but over time my strength steadily returned. Macrobiotics was continuing to work its magic. I experimented with Virginia Harper’s recipes and discovered the meal that seemed best for me. Because it seemed best, and because I was now used to foregoing the joy that comes with variety, by spring I began eating the same meal over and over, even for breakfast.
- Brown rice
- Steamed kale
- Sesame oil
- Tofu or red lentils
- (With miso soup on the side)
I went to doctor’s appointments. I had many adventures with doctors and naturopaths that I will revisit in future posts.
In December 2014, I landed at last in the office of Dr. L, who is still my doctor today. He became my steady compass. He was the first gastroenterologist who I came to trust over the long term.
Dr. L found me a medicine that seemed to help: Apriso, another form of mesalamine. This was the same mild med that had never worked for me in Madison, but my Madison doctors had given up after a few different versions of mesalamine and had jumped to prednisone. Rather than giving up on mesalamine, Dr. L told me there were several more forms we had not yet tried. Sometimes one form works when another doesn’t. We should try them all first, before moving on to stronger meds–this was the gentlest approach.
By spring 2015, on Apriso and macrobiotics, I was stronger than ever since diagnosis one year earlier. My BMs were still soft and often bloody, but my pain was gone and my energy was largely back.
I began to pick my two careers back up again. In between home repairs, I now scrambled to finish the book about Dad, disappearing into it for a few weeks at a time to do more rounds of edits. Meanwhile, I contacted Portland-area alumni of my graduate school and set up informational interviews. I began having “coffee” (or, in my case, herbal tea) all over downtown Portland with various men and women who explained the scene here. They taught me about Portland’s plethora of environmental agencies, all the important acronyms. I learned how salmon are at the heart of conservation in the Northwest, and about the great influence of the local Native American tribes, and about the recent focus, across all environmental agencies, on racial equity and inclusion. I found the time and energy to volunteer with my local watershed council. I thrilled at becoming a part of things here at last. Little by little, I was digging myself out of my hole.
We did other things, too. When I look back at our 2014-2015 calendar, I’m overwhelmed by all the things we did. Ron found Frisbee teams to join. I took French classes: a triumph, to have a frivolous hobby again, something of my very own, for no purpose other than enjoyment. Learning French was my symbol of hope. I would still travel, someday. I would still be myself.
We had visitors. Three sets of friends stayed in our guestroom, along with Ron’s parents and one of my aunts. We befriended our neighbors. I got back in touch with old friends here in town.
We traveled to the coast, to Seattle, back to Madison for Jeremy and Allie’s wedding, and to Maryland for Christmas with Ron’s parents. We got the hang of traveling with my special diet. The trick was to go straight to the grocery store from the airport, then straight to the kitchen of wherever we’d be staying to cook a big batch of macrobiotic food.
At some point that year, I tried eating sauerkraut. I had never liked its taste–I don’t like sour or pickled food–but after a couple days of eating it I noticed that I craved it. I didn’t even like it, and yet I wanted badly to eat more of it! I could almost feel my gut bacteria begging for it. This, and some lab tests that showed my gut bacteria to be deficient, reminded me that not just macrobiotic food, but also gut bacteria, were probably key to my healing.
I decided to try kefir, a drink I’d heard of but had never tried. At first I pronounced it keh-FEER. (It’s KEE-fur.) It’s a fermented dairy product, and thus excluded from macrobiotics, but I wanted to experiment more with my bacteria. I began drinking kefir around April of 2015. Just a little here and there, a few gulps in the morning or evening. It washed through me like medicine. When I drank it I felt its coolness coating my gut, like the Pepto Bismol commercials from my childhood where the cartoon pink liquid washes down the walls of the stomach. The drink felt soothing, like rain after a drought.
Three weeks after adding kefir to my diet, I began to have normal bowel movements.
It was May, 2015. We were about to embark on our first big road trip since arriving in Portland, a journey south to the redwoods, where we would meet Josh and Kelly from Madison. When we returned home, Ron would spend his summer vacation helping me remodel our kitchen. My job hunting was going well. I’d had several interviews and was bound to land something soon. For months, I’d felt well enough to work again, and now I had achieved my first full remission in the year-and-a-half since my symptoms began.
I was back.