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September
21
2020

September 20, 2020--Fires, Rain, and Clearing the Undergrowth

It finally rained.

Was it 11 days of smoke? Something like that. Day after day, the world was hazy and brittle, and the air felt poisonous. On Labor Day and immediately after, when that sinister east wind set the Cascades ablaze, it felt like the smallest spark from plugging in a vacuum cleaner or starting up a car could ignite the house or the crackling walnut leaves on the driveway.

Then, thankfully, the temperature dropped and the humidity rose. The resulting fog mixed with smoke was a trial to drive through, but it helped to slow down the existing fires and reduced the danger of more. Still, the air remained harsh and hazardous, and even remaining indoors wasn't enough to protect us from raw throats and coughing.

This past Tuesday, Paul had an important appointment with the neurosurgeon. That morning, I had noticed on the air quality map that among dozens of "hazardous" numbers there was one little green rectangle indicating healthy air quality. It was in the town of Florence, at the coast. So after the appointment we threw our things together, booked a cheap motel, and took off. We used all the lessons we'd learned after the first attempt at this, most notably making sure we were on the ground floor.

So we had a few days of air with oxygen in it, which is a wonderful ingredient that Oregon people won't take for granted for a long time, and then it rained at home with a great thunderstorm--unusual for Oregon--and we came home to a fresh world.

The consultation with the doctor on Tuesday was both encouraging and not. To our relief, she told Paul he can wean himself off the back and neck braces, alternating two hours off and on. She said his head would feel odd and floppy because the muscles in the neck are so unused. That hasn't been true for him, but he's had a bit of trouble with vertigo when he turns his head to one side or the other. He keeps the brace off for a lot longer than the doctor suggested, but I'm quite sure it's fine for him to trust his own comfort level in this.

We're both happy with how much more normal life seems with that bulky apparatus off. For the first time in two months, Paul can hug me and it doesn't feel like I'm hugging a robot with a rigid plastic armor. Also, we took clippers to the dense undergrowth that sprouted inside the neck brace, and that also helped him look and feel more normal.

The unfortunate news from the doctor was that Paul needs surgery on his neck. Apparently he has always had a very narrow channel where the spinal cord passes through the C-5-6-7 vertebrae, so narrow that there's very little spinal fluid, and the bone touches the spinal cord. Spinal fluid acts as a cushion, so this makes him very susceptible to further paralysis if he ever has another whiplash, whether from a fall, car accident or anything else. The surgeon would grind out some of the bone to make a bigger tunnel.

Unfortunately, this probably wouldn't help his arm recover. It would only be a precaution.

Surgery would involve 2-3 days in the hospital and of course another recovery period. I had really hoped to get rid of all our medical equipment and never need it again, so this takes a re-adjusting of the timeline and a refilling of the courage jar.

The doctor thought we should book the surgery this fall, before Christmas, but the therapist thinks Paul should be further along with the use of his arm before surgery inevitably sets him back.

That arm is the one stubborn holdout. The broken bones have all healed, the gash is only a pink scar, and the brain injury seldom shows itself. Paul walks well and hardly ever even uses a cane. But the left arm is still largely useless. It's also persistently swollen, which makes it harder to exercise the parts that have sensation, such as the fingers and wrist. The doctor suspected a blood clot in the upper arm, so we went in for an ultrasound. No blood clot, and no easy answers. Paul continues to elevate, exercise, and massage.

We stake our hopes on God's healing touch and the therapist's insistence that there are tiny twitchings in the bicep that were not there before.

"Life can turn on a dime," someone told me yesterday at a baby shower, possibly quoting Stephen King. So now that our life has turned, we pray about what the new normal should look like. Paul is eager to be productive. This week, he wants to try taking on more housework and outside work so I have more time to write. That sounds like a fine arrangement to me. 

Even though the weeks of forest fires were terrifying, they are a natural phenomenon, says our son Ben, who is due to earn a Ph.D. in forest fire combustion science from Oregon State University next year. Done right, a fire clears out the accumulation of undergrowth and improves the health of the forest. 

Maybe that's a good way to look at this fire that's swept through our lives. Someone asked me yesterday if I'm busy again--or still--with everything I was doing before Paul fell. I laughed and said absolutely not. Paul's fall gave me a guilt-free reason to say No to everything. And now I can carefully choose which plants are going to grow in this forest--so to speak--what I say Yes to, what I want to nurture and keep. And what I don't.

We thank you for all of your prayers in the past two months, and we are awed at what God has done. We would very much appreciate your continued prayers for complete recovery and a clear path before us.

September
14
2020

September 13, 2020--Surviving Crises and Craziness

We would never have chosen to face another crisis before we were recovered from the last one.

Last Monday, after a long dry summer and a stretch of hot weather, a strange, strong wind suddenly kicked up from the east. It turned a few smoldering fires in the Cascade Mountains east of us into enormous infernos that blew westward. Additional fires started in other ways, such as by power lines falling, and these also grew rapidly. Many people in small mountain towns and back roads barely escaped with their lives.

The wind blew the smoke into the Willamette Valley, turning our world a bizarre orange. For days, the fires spread faster than anyone had ever thought possible, and the evacuation zones stretched into areas that we never dreamt would ever be under threat. Paul assured me that the fire coming toward us would be stopped by all the bare plowed fields, but it was still unnerving to see the Level 1 ("Get ready") evacuation zone encompass our church and many friends' homes, all the way to Interstate 5, only 5 miles away.

Eventually, the wind died down and shifted, the temperatures dropped, and the humidity rose, all of which slowed the spread of the fires. Few of them are contained at this point, but at least they are no longer growing at shocking speeds. The toll of homes lost, lives uprooted, and beauty destroyed is overwhelming.

I'll enclose a photo our daughter Emily took. She came downstairs on Tuesday, took one look at Paul, and exclaimed, "It's like a picture of 2020! All he needs is a mask!" I was wearing a mask because of the smoke, since the power was off and the furnace fan wasn't running, so I whipped off my mask and put it on Paul, and Emily got her picture.

It really is like 2020 in one shot.

The smoke is still thick here and will likely remain for a few more days. Because I have asthma, it's dangerous for me to go outside.

This situation showed us yet another way that Paul's fall changed our lives. Before his accident, he would have been the fixer and rescuer in this situation, perhaps whisking me to fresh air in eastern Oregon on the one route that was still open. But he can't drive yet so he could neither fix, rescue, nor whisk. So we've all stayed home. The air inside the house is a bit smoky but far better than outside, and our neighbors, Dan and Martha Krabill, loaned us a wonderful air purifier.

This stage of the healing process is a crazy mix of progress, roadblocks, triumphs, and unknowns. As you can see in the photo, Paul is back to working on his computer, doing the warehouse bookkeeping, and it doesn't give him headaches, confusion, or anxiety, which means the brain injury is healing well. He is becoming adept at food preparation and can carry a gallon of milk and pour it in a glass, cut an apple, and break eggs into a pan with one hand. He plays the piano with one hand, talks to farmers and truck drivers on the phone, empties the dishwasher, and gets in and out of the car quite smoothly.

Also, just that quickly, Paul no longer uses the wheelchair at all and goes up and down steps without any trouble, so we no longer needed that nice ramp out front that our sons had built. Ben and Steven came home on Monday and dismantled it. Just weeks ago, it opened up Paul's world, and we carefully eased him down it for his first visit to the doctor after he came home from the hospital. And before we knew it, its usefulness was over.

His healing is wonderful to watch, despite the unexpected bumps.

I'll also share a shot our daughter Jenny posted on Instagram of a pancake Paul made. She wrote:This morning my dad made me a pancake. The last time he did this was two months ago, to the day: the morning of his accident. Pancakes are his specialty, the thing we always get him to make for big family breakfasts. After his accident, he could barely grasp his own fork, now he's cooking again. Two months ago I didn't know what the future had for us, and believe me, it's been quite the two months. But now I know, at least the future holds pancakes.


So, life has in many subtle, quiet ways returned to normal. In other ways, it definitely hasn't. Paul hasn't returned to any of his three previous jobs (teaching, pastoring, and the seed/feed business). We are praying about whether he should try to take those tasks on again, when he's physically able, or if he's supposed to do something entirely different.

Another not-normal aspect is all the hardware Paul still needs to wear. Sometimes  it takes me back to being a little Amish girl and watching my dad toss a tangle of leather and buckles on the back of the buggy horse, then strap and clip it all into place. When I fit and adjust Paul's back brace, the neck brace, and the sling for his paralyzed left arm, I feel like I'm hitching up my horse.

However, we see the neurologist on Tuesday. They will take x-rays of his broken vertebrae, and we hope the doctor says the braces can come off.

Paul is also going to outpatient therapy once or twice a week. They work on function, strength, and alignment all the way up his left arm and shoulder. Paul feels like he's making progress. We are excited for every muscle twitch and flexing finger.

So it is not for us to determine when crises arrive or how healing will progress. But we can do what each day requires and choose to laugh at the craziness.

Earlier this year, our son Ben had reserved a cabin in the mountains where we could all go camping the first week of September. We didn't know if Paul would be up to such a rigorous experiment, away from the normal amenities.

One thing I've learned is that it's best to do new things incrementally. Baby steps, rather than trying lots of new skills in one swoop. So why not try spending a night in a motel at the coast, rather than making his first venture a trip to the wilds, away from electricity and running water?

Normally on excursions to the coast, I pack the bags. Paul loads the car, drives to the coast, checks in, and carries our things inside.

This time, I packed the bags, loaded the car, did the driving, and checked in. "Oh well, I can rest when we get settled."

We had reserved a room on the third floor since we wanted an ocean view. When I checked in, the proprietor informed me that the elevator was broken. He didn't offer a refund, since we had paid through Priceline. All the other rooms are booked, he said.

I am quite sure that if it had been Paul checking in and not me, that proprietor would have humbly offered some sort of solution, but that is a subject for another day. Some of us make people feel like they're sitting in the principal's office, and some of us don't.

All right then. I hauled our bag, our food, and all of Paul's special equipment up two flights of stairs. He felt terrible about this and desperately wanted to help, so he managed to hook my purse on his cane to carry it upstairs, which is no small accomplishment, as my children will testify.

So it wasn't the most relaxing stay ever, but it was a fun and needed getaway. It was a good low-risk learning experience of what's involved in taking Paul away overnight.

Paul couldn't carry even the purse back down the two flights of stairs, because his balance is shakier going down. But we learned a lot, and we even laughed about it all.

And that is how you survive crises, unknowns, and all the crazy twists that are out of your control.

As it turned out, the reservation on the cabin was cancelled, we assume because of fire danger. But we have a better idea of what it will require to take Paul camping. 

See? Step by step, skill by skill, choosing to laugh.

August
27
2020

August 26, 2020--Odd Blessings and Productive Tension

On our walk yesterday, Paul said he feels for people who lose the use of part of their body. He never did before, he said, but he does now. He was thinking of the news headlines of a man who was shot and lost the use of his legs because his spinal cord was severed. He feels deeply what this will mean for that man.

I know God doesn't waste pain. Yet when I see good things coming from Paul's accident, I find it a bit disruptive and confusing. How does a person make sense of this?

We've been going on walks together every day--unheard of, in August, right on the tail end of harvest! Paul is taking a break from his duties as a pastor, something I've thought he needed for a long time. And then there's that new depth of empathy.

"You'll have to be careful what you pray for," Paul told me.

"Believe me, I've thought about this!" I said.

Who knows what else God is up to? I think I trust Him, but I pray just a bit more cautiously now.

--
These days, we have lots of appointments. Ortho, neuro, therapy, and a visit to a physiatrist, whose specialty I had never heard of, who was the first to thoroughly evaluate the nerve damage in Paul's left arm and shoulder. While Paul has regained the use of his shoulder, he needs a lot of therapy due to his inability to move his left arm. 

I feel like I've had a crash course in anatomy and physiology since the accident, and I can mention deltoids and triceps like I know what I'm talking about. The biceps and deltoids have the least nerve signals and muscle function, and they're at about 5%.

It takes about twelve weeks for the inflammation to die down, the shock of the injuries to stabilize, and the tissues and bones to heal, the physiatrist said. The cautious estimate is that Paul's numbers at twelve weeks can eventually be quadrupled. So if he has 10% function, it could be coaxed to 40%.

So I wasn't too discouraged about that 5%. Zero would have been another matter, since zero times anything is still zero, as we all remember from math class. But 5% is at least something, and maybe it can eventually keep the arm from being a useless dead weight.

Meanwhile, both casts are finally off the arms, replaced with simple black braces that can easily be removed for showers or therapy. This is a huge improvement. Each wrist still has at least one small break that hasn't fully healed, but he's free to go ahead with therapy and use his hands for small daily tasks.

In other encouraging progress, Paul can use a pen again to sign the endless medical forms, play the piano with his right hand, eat without assistance, snap green beans, and walk up and down steps. He is finished with his walker and walks down the road with a cane and around the house with only his two feet.

I feel the brain injury has almost totally healed. Once in a while Paul has a hard time summarizing what someone told him or remembering what he was going to say, and I sense this is from his injury. But 99% of the time I see no sign of damage, and I can't explain how grateful I am.

--
We had hoped that Paul would be teaching math and English after Labor Day. Unfortunately, many things are uncertain about school and classes due to Covid and other complications, so his future as a teacher is uncertain as well.

He is taking a year's leave of absence from being a pastor.

He is doing the bookkeeping for the seed warehouse but leaving most of the work and decisions to his nephew and other employees.

I am praying, cautiously, for meaningful work for him.

--
I've never liked tension. I want everyone to get along and my schedule to be just full enough but not overloaded. I like obvious decisions and plenty of rest. I don't care for ethical dilemmas and Red Sea experiences, when there are no good options.

But watching Paul recover has given me a different perspective. The human body is made for tension, for movement, for two factors pulling in opposite directions. Those forearms, resting for weeks in casts, atrophied to a skinny, sad, weak version of themselves. The upper arm, without the normal push, pull, and zinging messages from the brain, has wasted away as well. And the left shoulder, robbed of tension and stress, is moving into an odd angle that needs to be corrected with lots of hard work.

I'm sure there's a lesson there for me. Maybe the dichotomy of the strangely-answered prayers and the blessings from tragedy fit into that picture as well. Maybe mystery is good, and contradiction, and trusting when nothing seems to add up or make sense.

Who knows what deltoids and shoulders in my spiritual system are working fine because they are under constant tension?

August
17
2020

August 17, 2020--The Marathon

Now I know why they called it a marathon.

Paul fell almost six weeks ago. That's a long time to be wrapped and splinted and out of commission, but the fact that he regains about one skill a day makes the time go faster.

This week Paul started dictating emails on his iPad, brushing his own teeth, washing his right hand, and walking with a cane. On Friday, he and I went to the library, where he walked inside and checked out two audio books. Then we got ice cream at Dairy Queen and ate it at a park in Harrisburg. The biggest accomplishment was for Paul to get out of the car, step up on a curb, walk to where he was going, and sit on a backless picnic-table bench for fifteen minutes.

This week we also went to the neuro/spine specialist and found out to our disappointment that the back and neck braces need to stay on for another four weeks, at least. The lumbar fracture wasn't a big deal, but the other vertebrae were crushed and cracked enough that you want to make sure they're good and solid before you turn them loose again.

So we wait, and it feels like a very long time. The hardware keeps him from doing so many things he feels well enough to do.

We are also seeing that all the scaffolding and framework that allows the bones to heal keeps the muscles from doing their normal work. Those arms that were used to lots of hard physical work are melting into a much weaker state.  The back and neck muscles will be equally weak when they're no longer supported by plastic and metal.

It will be a long, hard slog to get the muscles back to where they need to be. While we are doing some therapy at home, we find that touching each finger to your thumb or laying your arm on a table and shoving it forward and back all seem a bit pointless when you'd rather be reaching an actual goal like changing screens in the cleaner or shoveling a pile of seed that spilled.

We want him teaching math by the day after Labor Day, whatever it takes. 

This week we terminated with Home Health. I can't say enough good things about that program. Those nurses are probably the most whole-person, whole-situation, whole-picture people in the entire medical system. They took time to teach us every aspect of Paul's care, and never made us feel like they were inspecting and judging when we got confused or didn't get it quite right. All the nurses and therapists made us feel like we have what it takes and we can do this, and that we did it well.

Of course, that one nurse has my vote for life because she gave me permission to take out Paul's stitches.

The kids and I got points for how we cared for him, and Paul got compliments for being such a cooperative and motivated patient.

We formally finished with Home Health because it's time for the less expensive and more intense outpatient therapy, and you can't sign up for that until the in-home part is done. I hope to get those dots all connected tomorrow.

I follow a marathoner on Instagram even though I have zero aspirations of ever running a marathon. This woman, @marathonmom, is a mother of five from Israel who runs in a modest shirt and skirt. I find that combination intriguing. What I've learned from her is that marathons are all about your mental attitude, embracing the obstacles, relying on God, gratitude, pacing yourself, and connecting with others for support. All good lessons for this marathon we're in, I think.

One thing I'm learning is to embrace rather than escape. When I don't get enough sleep and I'm tired of all the details like trying to fit those little batteries in Paul's hearing aids, I just want to be finished with this stage of our lives right now. But what if I embrace it as God's current assignment for me instead of wanting it to be over with quickly?

Because it is no small gift to have clear direction about God's calling for you, today.

Interestingly, I was able to have two little escapes this week for the first time. On Thursday, Phoebe the daughter-in-law stayed with Paul while I reconnected with my writing group. We sat in Pat's sunny courtyard and discussed plots, publishers, and whether Melanie's characters cried too much.  Then two days later, Ben came home and dad-sat while Phoebe, Amy, Emily, and I went to garage sales in Harrisburg.  It was delightful, and I found an old applesauce maker like my mom used to have.

It was easier to get back to the marathon after a fun time away.

Your ongoing prayers are appreciated.

August
10
2020

August 9, 2020

The medical world is fragmented. That's one of many things we've learned in this process.
 
Maybe "unbelievably specialized" is a better term.
 
This is what it looks like: There is a guy at the orthopedist's who puts casts on limbs. That is what he does.  He was supposed to put casts on Paul's arms after the post-surgery splints were removed by the Splint Remover.
 
The Caster was flummoxed by the back brace and the helpless left arm. He didn't seem to have any prior knowledge of this. So he pulled in the Splint Remover to hold the arm while he very expertly wrapped the cast around it.
 
Then there's the therapists. Essentially, the physical therapist works on legs and walking. The occupational therapist works on hands and arms. 
 
Or that's what the chuckling therapist told us on Friday. We wanted him to assess Paul's walking and give us a plan and timeline, moving forward.  We also thought it would be efficient if he evaluated Paul's hand dexterity as well. But no, that's for the OT.
 
I guess that is proof of the incredible complexity of the human body, that you can spend years specializing in one system or appendage. But it gets frustrating sometimes when you have multiple injuries and feel like no one person has a good grasp of how they all interact or what the overall path forward will look like.
 
The person with the best sense of Paul's overall wellbeing is our family doctor. We connected with him last week, so he could catch up on Paul's condition and also check out the swelling in his left hand that we had been unable to get under control.
 
The doctor decided that that expertly-applied cast was too tight, so he had it cut off. Two days later Amy took Paul back to the orthopedist and another slightly looser cast was put on his arm by the Efficient Caster.
 
This week we go to the neurologist and hope to get good news about the breaks in the neck and back and the brain injury.

The medical people are specialized, but for us it's all part of a complicated package, and everything affects everything else.
 
So, back to the PT. I'll call him Bill. He was a new guy, sent out by Home Health. He knew what he was doing and was very nice but he had a distracting giggle and a distinct accent, and he found Paul endlessly amusing.
 
The only information Bill had on Paul was the last PT report from the hospital, so he expected him to be lethargic and weak. Paul was lying on his hospital bed in the living room when Bill arrived.
 
Bill said, cautiously, "Paul? Do you think you're able to get up today?"
 
Paul held his bad arm with his good arm and rolled out of bed and stood up, all in one smooth motion.
 
"OH ho ho! Paul! You stood up! So fast!"
 
We talked about walking. Bill thought we still needed to use the walker outside because with the rigid neck Paul can't look down at his feet to see uneven ground or hazards. But he can start walking without a walker inside. In fact, let's try it now.
 
Paul took off, striding through the kitchen.
 
"Paul! Slow down! Not so fast! Hee hee hee!"
 
We told him Paul likes to walk outside. On the road.
 
"Oh! Well, that's fine. Just be careful. And work your way up as he can handle it. Maybe fifty feet one day, 75 the next, and so on."
 
"Um, we've been walking to the railroad tracks. It's a good quarter mile."
 
"OH! Oh ho!"
 
I said, "The walker wasn't made for using on the road, so I got bigger wheels for it."
 
Bill nodded, then took a good look at the walker and those fat sporty wheels. That's when he lost it, laughing in great bouncing chuckles. HO HO hee hee hee hee! He had never seen anything like it! Oh ho ho ho!

It was an uplifting visit.
 
Bill gave us a bunch of exercises Paul could do to improve his balance. It seemed more of a formality than anything, as though he had never encountered a situation quite like this, where the bottom half—his specialty--was strong and energetic, and the top half was so broken and handicapped.
 
---
 
In many ways we've worked out a routine. Amy likes to get up early, so she gets Paul up and fixes his breakfast. Later, Emily hangs around in case he needs anything while I do my morning stuff and start laundry and work outside.
 
Thus we tag-team all day, and it seems every day Paul learns to do one more thing on his own, like opening doors or making a phone call.
 
I thought I was finally getting efficient with showers, from preparing the clean pads for the back brace to knowing where to place the towels I would need, so I was doing them without help. Matt and Phoebe had bought me some cow examination gloves at Tractor Supply that keep the arms dry much better than garbage bags. But last night everything went wrong, and I kept bumping or almost dropping the weak arm or not having something at hand that I needed. There were simply too many logistics and moving parts to the whole operation. I ended up overwhelmed and in tears. 
 
Paul is a problem solver and it pains him to cause me this kind of stress. So afterwards he said, essentially, that I'm trying to do it all myself and I really need to delegate portions of the process. Maybe one of the girls can tape the plastic gloves on his arms, one of the boys can get him dressed afterwards, and someone else can oversee getting the braces changed and back in place.
 
That made sense. Somehow I thought the process would get easier with time, but it didn't, and that I would become fast and efficient, but I didn't. 
 
So even a month into the process we are still learning to evaluate, back off, and take another approach. Sometimes we need to designate one person to specialize in one part of the process, and I need to recognize I can't do it all.

In case you wondered, we can't simply tie the weak arm in a sling to keep it out of the way, because that puts too much pressure on the broken neck. Everything is frustratingly interconnected.

---
Today Paul went to church for the first time since his accident. Transporting and transferring went smoothly. He loved being there.
 
We held the service on the concrete slab in what used to be the school play shelter. Paul got sunburned.
 
It is a strange thing to go from being a minister up front at church to being in the back row in a wheelchair. However, as my friend Lois Miller reminded me today,  just two days before his accident, Paul shared at church that he was praying about his future and wondering what God has for him.
 
So he feels like his future is uncertain, but he certainly knows he was supposed to take a break [ha ha] from everything.  So he's taking it, and in some ways it's hard but in others it's a relief.
 
---
We continue to receive cards in the mail. We've received financial gifts that will cover the outpatient treatments and Home Health. Paul thinks he has the skills now to type thank you notes, so that's the next project now that I've sent the hospital bills off to Christian Healthcare Ministries. I wish we could send a pretty note and a big bouquet to everyone who reached out to us, prayed, gave, and encouraged in any way. We are forever indebted. You have no idea how much it all means to us. You were God's messengers to show us that we were not abandoned.

August
5
2020

August 5, 2020 What [probably] Happened

That morning, July 7th, the family was home for a birthday breakfast for Emily. Paul made pancakes.
 
The newlyweds, Matt and Phoebe, planned to leave for Houston within a day, so this was also a farewell for them.
 
We finished breakfast. People left. Paul went to work at our feed and seed business. Harvest was starting soon. There was lots of work to do.
 
This part of the Willamette Valley is the grass seed capital of the world, as our daughter Jenny's employer likes to remind visitors. Farmers grow ryegrass, fescue, orchardgrass, and other grasses, harvesting the seed to eventually be planted in lawns, pastures, and golf courses.
 
At the Wilton Smucker Warehouse, Paul has processed seed for farmers every summer for twenty years. Half a dozen farmers harvest their fields and truck the seed to our warehouse. Paul and his employees run the seed through a big cleaning machine to take out the chaff and weed seeds, then bag it in 50-pound bags.
 
In recent years, Paul has taken on more and more custom work for a local feed mill as well and also become certified to process organic grains. He hired his nephews, first Keith Birky and later his brother Kevin, to help with running the business.
 
Harvest often starts around the Fourth of July. It was delayed a bit this year by cool, rainy weather, but the first seed had already arrived before the 7th. As always, Paul was feeling the pressure to finish getting everything ready for the influx of up to 6 million pounds of seed over only a few weeks.
 
That day, he needed to connect an auger in the newest storage building. He brought in either a forklift or a loader with an extendable boom—the recollections differ here—with five pallets stacked on it. He drove over to the wall and raised the pallets up to maybe 30 inches below the auger connecting box on the wall. Then he set a ladder up against the pallets and got to work.
 
Earlier, he had asked his 14-year-old employee, Chavon Baker, to clean out the "pop fridge," an ancient but reliable machine that previous seed-sackers took on themselves to paint purple from head to foot, that keeps a variety of soft drinks cold for sackers and truck drivers.
 
What actually happened to Paul then is a matter of detective work, unreliable memories, and speculation, since he was alone when it happened. While he was in the hospital, his family made a number of treks to the warehouse to look for clues.
 
Judging from the 2-foot-high concrete blocks nearby, his feet would have been 8 feet off the concrete floor. Paul's version of the story was that he finished the job and was coming down the ladder with his hands full of tools, and that's the last he remembers. But when Kevin moved the ladder and forklift, the tools were still lying on the platform.
 
The ladder was still in place after he fell.
 
So, with the extent of injuries, most of us think he fell from the platform.
 
But why? Did he pass out? Apparently not, because he had the presence of mind to try to brace himself with his hands, which broke his wrists.
 
We found a broken board on one of the pallets and thought it might have broken under him, pitching him off, but the board would have been up against the forks, not on the open side, and so probably wouldn't have been hazardous.
 
"This is what happens to men over age 55," numerous doctors and nurses told me later. The pattern is what matters, they implied, and not the particulars.
 
So we don't know why or how, but we certainly know he fell.
 
He must have been lying on the floor near the wall, because that's where his glasses landed, and where a pool of blood formed. And he must have passed out for up to half an hour, because the blood was drying when he was found.
 
He remembers getting to his feet and wanting to call me for help, because I was on speed dial. It was hard, and his hands hurt, he remembers, but he did manage to call me.
 
But I didn't hear him. Our electricity was out for several hours that day, and after doing what I could without power, I decided to take a nap. So I slept through his call and now have an eerie silent 1-minute voicemail on my phone.
 
Around 11:00, Chavon found a strange nickel in the fridge. He decided to ask Paul what to do with it. Kevin said Paul is out in the first bay of the new building.
 
Chavon walked out there but didn't see Paul up on the forklift, so he asked Kevin again, and Kevin was pretty sure Paul was working out where he'd said.
 
So Chavon checked again. This time he saw someone standing there, a horror-movie creature he didn't recognize, with a huge open wound on the top of his head and blood all over his head, including in his eyes, and his beard standing out all bristly and bloody.
 
Finally Chavon realized the shape of the creature's nose looked familiar. It was Paul.
 
He ran to get Kevin. Kevin told him to get a chair, so he did, and they sat Paul on it and called 911.
 
Kevin said later it was the most gruesome sight he'd ever seen, including his experience in butchering pigs. He decided to wait a bit to call me. He didn't want me to see this.
 
Chavon went out near the bridge to direct traffic. The local volunteer squad came a few minutes later.
 
Around 11:30, Kevin called me. Paul got hurt, he said. It seems to be a cut on his head and a broken arm. Kevin kept explaining. I hung up on him and ran.
 
Thinking this would be like Paul's other warehouse injuries, requiring only a trip to the doctor for stitches and maybe a cast, I didn't tell the girls where I was going.
 
When I drove over the bridge, Chavon pointed me to the right building. I found Paul sitting on a backless office chair with his head all bandaged up, his neck in a brace, and his arm in a sling. In the small opening where I could see his face, it was covered in dried blood, and he looked dazed.
 
They loaded him onto a stretcher and into the ambulance and said they're taking him to Riverbend.
 
I don't recall if I asked to go along. Our daughter Amy and our neighbor Simone had showed up. I think Amy drove me home, I'm not sure.

I'm not sure who called Chavon's mom, but she came to pick him up, as he was thoroughly shaken. He waited in the Smucker Pelleting office and the secretary, his cousin's wife, had him sit down because he was white as a sheet. He wasn't sure he could face coming back to work. Later, that evening, his parents brought him back and they looked at the place it had happened and talked it through. It helped.

One of the first things Paul was concerned about in the hospital, once he could think clearly, was how Chavon was doing. I think it was healing for both of them to see each other after Paul came home.
 
Meanwhile, Emily and Jenny had heard the news by the time I came home from the warehouse. I threw a few things together, and Emily took me to the hospital. There, I was the only one allowed inside, and I had to wait in the waiting room for probably 15 minutes before I could go back. I think maybe they were doing a CT scan. Then I was able to join Paul in his busy ER room.
 
I was in the emergency room for hours while Emily wandered around outside, waiting for news.
 
I was still in a complete state of shock, so it was such a relief not to have to make any decisions. Other people took over the situation in very capable fashion.
 
All the emergency bandages were unwrapped, one by one. Those terrible shattered wrists were re-splinted. A doctor sat at Paul's head and calmly stitched, first the underneath layer and then the skin, a fascinating process to watch.
 
Meanwhile, Paul gave orders in a loud, clear voice. He begged the nurses to change his position, as it seemed his legs were restless and cramping, and the neck brace was very uncomfortable.
 
He kept telling me to text Kevin with instructions about where the next loads of seed should go. I took frantic notes, knowing that taking Paul out of commission right now, at the beginning of harvest, was potentially catastrophic for the business, especially since Paul carries reams of information around in his head and no one else knows it.
 
Later, I realized that his insistent instructions might not have been necessary and might have resulted from the blow to his head, because as his confusion and delirium got worse, he obsessed more and more about the warehouse and where each farmer's seed should go. 
 
But at the time, frantically taking notes made me feel like I was doing my little part to keep my whole universe from falling to pieces. Jake Anderson's Tetraploid in the far building. Got it. Darrell's orchardgrass in the first bin.
 
After some time in the ER, a new doctor came in to talk to me. In serious tones, he listed Paul's injuries, one by one, each like heavy pieces of concrete dropped on my own head. 
 
A head wound that exposed 4 cm of skull, skull fracture, back broken in three places, both wrists shattered, and three small bleeds on the brain.

He "should" have been dead. Or a quadriplegic.
 
God have mercy.
 
Being all alone to hear that news and to experience the week that followed may turn out to be the biggest challenge of my life.
 
It's good I didn't know then what would show up in days to come—a spinal cord injury making his left arm useless, broken ribs, muscle injuries, broken sinuses, and reactions to anesthesia and narcotics that made him delirious.
 
"He will get better," they said, there in the ER, "but you have to think of it as a marathon. It will take a very long time."
 
I texted the kids. Emily went home. I followed Paul's bed up to his room on the sixth floor.
 
Our marathon had begun.
 

August
3
2020

August 2, 2020--Waiting

As I said before, Paul has made lots of progress.

He can eat by himself now, grasping that fork, scooping the food, and bringing it to his mouth like a normal person. There's something very dignity-restoring in no longer needing to be fed by someone else.

He can also lift a cup of water and drink from the straw.

The doctors had told us he has to stay off of screens of all kinds because those flickering pixels are terrible for a brain injury. We've been really strict with that, but this week I decided half an hour a day of email and warehouse spreadsheets would be ok. So far we haven't seen any results like agitation, confusion, or trouble sleeping.

Paul and I went on a walk down the road the past four evenings, once it cooled off outside. Each night, we go one telephone pole further. Soon we'll go all the way to the railroad tracks. He still needs to use a walker with raised arms to support his forearms. We had adapted a normal walker, the kind that's designed for little grandmas inching their way down a nursing home hallway.

Let's just say Paul's legs are still strong and well, and he wasn't inching anywhere. More like yarding. As his nephew Kevin's wife Brenda said, "Paul will be the First Person Ever to wear out the wheels on his walker."

Also, those nursing home walkers aren't designed for back roads. The first night we went down Substation Drive, a camper at cousin Darrell's new campground several hundred yards away, across the creek, heard an insane rattling that turned out to be that poor walker.

So I went online and ordered replacement wheels. "All-terrain, off-road," the description said. They were huge in comparison, and far more sporty and masculine. Ben and Matt worked on installing them. It should have been an easy job, pushing a spring-loaded little button to slide the originals off and the new ones on. But apparently the new ones were in metric measurements and the old ones weren't, making everything a millimeter or two off and requiring a trip to the warehouse toolroom to grind the holes a bit bigger so the spring-loaded button would pop through.

Last night we went on a walk with the new wheels in place. They rolled along the road like nobody's business, and the process was much more smooth and quiet. The paparazzi have been lurking when we go walking, and last night one was hiding behind a blackberry bush. (See photo)

Now we enter a troubling phase of recovery.

We've been cutting down on pain medications every few days, to where Paul takes less than a quarter of the doses he took when he first came home.

He is getting a lot stronger and more flexible, and can almost get out of bed by himself.

Most notably, his former energy and enthusiasm levels are returning. Both of these, in normal times, were off the charts.

But we are forced to WAIT. He is still stymied by the broken bones and all the hardware of casts and braces, and by that bum arm that drops and dangles helplessly if not carried and cradled.

Much of the occupational therapy has to wait until the bones in the wrists are healed. We have no idea if the spinal cord will heal and function will return to the left arm. We don't know how long the neck brace will need to stay in place.

I have been trying to think of meaningful things Paul could do. He's listened to hours of audiobooks and news podcasts. He wheels around in his wheelchair, pushing with his feet, back and forth through the house, reminding me of the wicked that Isaiah speaks of who are like the troubled sea, when it cannot rest, whose waters cast up mire and dirt. He goes on walks in the cool of the day, always with a spotter beside him.

So he needs meaningful work that he can do with his head or his feet. Except because of the neck brace, he can't look down to see what his feet are doing. That, of course, leaves only his head.

We have very much appreciated all the visitors. I know it's not work, exactly, but conversation is a valuable way to pass the time.

More than anything, Paul likes to solve problems. Maybe what we need is a steady stream of people coming by to ask for advice. If you're local and need to talk through a decision or dilemma, feel free to come by and sit on the porch and tell Uncle Paul all about it.

In fact, Paul and I both, independently of each other, decided that maybe he could have a future career or ministry as an education consultant. With all the uncertainty about schools opening, surely there are lots of people who would like to talk through this decision with someone knowledgeable.  The kids told us that the new big thing is "pods," where several families pool their resources and children to form a little school. Uncle Paul would be a great resource for pod parents and tutors, especially if they're considering the ACE curriculum.

Just so you know.

Please message me at dorcassmucker@gmail.com or 541-520-8510 if you'd like to come by or have other ideas of creative and meaningful work he could do. You're welcome to come visit just to visit. You don't have to ask for advice!

So, we are less than four weeks post-fall and he is healthy and pain-free enough to be bored. That astonishing fact is due to the mercy of God and your prayers.

Now, you can pray that during this period of waiting, bones would knit back together, the brain injury would fully heal, and all the good and unseen work that God began in us would be completed and effective.

July
28
2020

July 28, 2020--The Joy of Progress

You wouldn't believe the preparation for Paul's first venture post-fall.

First, the guys finished the ramp enough so it was usable, and we took Paul down in his wheelchair for a practice run. Nothing went careening out of control, so, so far so good. I pulled the car over and we practiced putting him inside.

I packed my purse with granola bars, water, and a few magazines.

Then I gave Paul a shower, all by myself, with Matt on call. Once again, water sprayed everywhere, bars of soap slipped out of reach under the shower bench, and Paul was endlessly patient. But I used only six towels. Matt helped me switch out the pads for the back and neck brace. The whole process took an hour, start to finish. I decided if I ever write a song about caregiving, it'll have to include a few lines like "It takes an hour, to take a shower, woh hoh hoh. . ."

The reason for all this preparation was that Paul had an appointment with the orthopedist today to see how his wrists were doing, now that surgery is almost three weeks behind us. It was our first venture out into the big world since he fell.

Emily went with us, and it all went surprisingly well. We went to the Slocum building in Eugene, which is the orthopedic center of the area, so casts and crutches are a common sight. However, the guys who worked on him remarked that they don't often see such a tremendous collection of injuries in one person.

Paul's right arm is healing very well, so they replaced the bulky post-surgery wrappings with a sleek black brace that can be removed for washing. Oh happy day. His fingers are much freer to move around, and he is enjoying his opposable thumb. 

The left arm had two rows of stitches to remove--one at the front of the wrist where the plate was put in, and one at the side of the arm where the bone had protruded. The area is still "very broken," the doctor said, and I was sure it still looked floppy when he handled it. So that was put into a regular cast.

Despite the fact that the left arm still needs four weeks in a cast, at least they're not talking about doing surgery again.

It all felt like a huge step forward. We stopped at McDonalds to celebrate.

Another step forward was that someone from Blackstone Construction came this afternoon and pressed down the gravel in the driveway to make it easier to navigate in a wheelchair or walker.

Then, Hurds in Harrisburg finished the metal strips, and Matt screwed them onto the joints in the ramp.

I felt like doors were opening everywhere. I eased Paul down the new ramp in his wheelchair and rolled him across the newly-flattened gravel and off down the road. The sun was setting in a purple and pink sky, and the air smelled of harvest.

It felt like we had waited a long time for this.

Later, Emily took him on his evening walk and they marched down the new ramp and back up. Paul had Emily adjust the height of the legs on the walker to make it less likely that he'll pitch forward.

We're going to have to make some rules about what he can do and how far he can go, I can see that now.

For someone who sees Paul for the first time, it can be shocking to see him struggle to scratch his ear or hold a fork to eat.

For his family, each day brings delightful accomplishments and exciting signs of healing.

We are so grateful for every prayer on his behalf.

---
Last week we didn't have the nurse come to the house because Paul was progressing well and we had figured out a good regimen of pain meds.  However, on Friday I suddenly became aware that it was high time the stitches in his head came out. The skin was starting to grow in around a few of them.

I messaged our nurse, wondering if she could come out on Saturday to take care of the stitches. Now the truth is, I very badly wanted to take those stitches out myself, but I was afraid to ask. Protocols and rules, you know. But I asked anyhow.

Absolutely, you can take them out, she said.

O frabjous day, calloo callay.

I read an article on the subject, watched a YouTube video, and boiled my instruments. I laid the freshly boiled seam ripper and tweezers on a clean towel on a tray and sanitized the head wound. Then I had Paul lie back on the hospital bed while I sat behind him, near his head,  like the doctor in the ER had done when he stitched him up.

Steven showed up and loaned me his medical scissors, even though he was dubious about me doing this. 

Carefully, I tweezed, snipped, and pulled. I knew there had been 30 stitches. One by one, I removed 29. I think there's still one more embedded in a big scab that I'm trying to soak loose and remove.

It was all way too much fun. My sister Margaret thinks we girls inherited a knack for nursing from our mom, who took a mail-order course in Practical Nursing when she was young and worked in home care. The only one who pursued a degree in nursing was Rebecca, my older sister, who is now a hospice nurse in Chicago. But we all enjoy poking, diagnosing, and bandaging.

--
Paul has slept well at night for over a week. This is also good news.

When life brings a tragic event, it feels like there's nothing but bad news and dire reports coming at you. You are the pinata, slammed by sticks coming from every direction.

For days, you're jumpy in every conversation, bracing yourself. What horrible news is next, what broken thing on a xray on a doctor's screen, what unknowns and unfixables and unthinkables?

When the tide finally turns, the dread turns to joy. Every bit of progress and every accomplishment turn to a delight that an onlooker would consider odd and out of proportion. Really? He pushed against your hand with his left arm? He got in and out of the car? You really think that's THAT amazing? He picked up a card with his own finger and thumb, and read it? Okaaay?

YES!!! He DID!!!!!!!

It really is that amazing.

" . .  weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning." Psalm 30:5