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May 31, 2019

“Hey Denise, it’s Dr. M’s nurse.”

“Thank you so much for calling me back.”

“Doctor thinks you need to go to the ER.”

I hung up. I updated my mom, who’d come over to check on me because my family was out of town. I’d sent them on our vacation because a) I wanted them to have fun and didn’t want (once again) to be the vacation party-pooper and b) I thought I just needed rest.

“They want me to go to the ER. I don’t want to go to the ER.”

And you know what? I almost didn’t go.


I’d been at the pool with the kids, a normal August Sunday. As I sat on the lounge chair, legs outstretched and hot sun bearing down, I felt the familiar pain in my right abdomen. Just moments before, I’d thought, Wow, I haven’t felt the pain in several weeks and then WHAM, it hit. That pain comes on languid summer afternoons when the August sun slants at angle that reminds you to soak it up now because even though it’s here now, it’s begun its slow retreat to the other half of the Earth. That pain comes on vacation in the mountains. It comes when you’re standing in the checkout at Target. It comes on Father’s Day when you’re supposed to go to a BBQ celebrating your husband and a dear friend but instead, you send your family into the newly warm June evening without you, downplaying your discomfort but not fooling anyone.

On that August afternoon, after the pain started (again), we left the pool and drove home with windows down, the car full of the scent of chlorine and sunscreen. Abby and I picked up pizza. After we ate, I felt lousy. I blamed my pain on endometriosis and thought the discomfort was my body’s retaliation against the second huge slice of deep dish. At 7pm, I went to bed but sleep eluded me. The pain intensified so I got down on the floor and tried to cat/cow my way through it. Then I tried to sleep on the floor because for some reason I thought a hard floor would make me feel better. WTH. When that didn’t work (shocker), I crawled into the hall, soft light on the carpet fibers, and called for my husband who was still awake. He came up and laid down in the hallway with me. Nothing worked.

The next morning, I stayed in bed, certain I was having an endometriosis flare up/ovarian cyst/stomach flu/medicine reaction. I’d been dealing with pain on my right side FOREVER. About seven years ago, I awoke to pain so crippling that I almost woke my husband to drive me to the ER (and that turned out to be an ovarian cyst rupturing). I’d already logged three surgeries to address these challenges. As our vacation departure grew closer, I diligently rested so I would bounce back and be able to go. It became obvious that wasn’t gonna happen. So, I laid in my tangled sheets and told my kiddos and husband where the things were that they needed to pack. Because I’m the Packer and I’m also the Knower-of-Where-All-Things-Are.

“Mom? MOOOOOOOMMMMMM!?!? Where’s my suitcase?”

“BABE! Where’s my pocket knife?”

And I’d yell from my bed: “Back left corner of your closet.” “Top drawer, in the middle.” I’d add, “Don’t forget the sunscreen. And bug spray. And tooth brushes and snacks for the car and pack some healthy food TOO and healthy means nuts and fruit NOT BAKED POTATO CHIPS.”

On Wednesday, they packed the car and I came downstairs in my jammies to wave them off as they pulled out of the driveway. And then went back to bed.


I now wish I’d gone to the Emergency Room when I couldn’t walk. Or when I couldn’t lift my leg to put pants on. Or when my temperature read 101.3. But, this story doesn’t start with me going when I *now* know I should’ve gone.

The way that story ends is that on that night, after the pool and the late August sun, and after the deep dish pizza, after four days of pain, after my doctor’s nurse called, and after I debated going to the ER, I finally did go. And it wasn’t just a rupturing ovarian cyst, and I didn’t just have the stomach flu and I wasn’t reacting to medicine. My appendix had ruptured on Sunday night and I went to the hospital on Thursday. Appendicitis is treated with immediate surgery. A ruptured appendix? Not so much.

They admitted me. The young resident (how could he be old enough to be a doctor?) informed me that they’d treat me with IV antibiotics for a while, that the protocols had changed and they didn’t always operate. So, into the hospital I went.

I ended up being admitted three different times. When I was discharged the first two times, I was instructed to watch for certain symptoms and to come back to the ER if said symptoms returned. So I’d go home and constantly monitor my body and wonder if I was winning or if the infection was (spoiler alert: the infection was). My three stays all blur together, which may or may not (definitely does) have something to do with the fog of illness and my friend Morphine. (An aside: many many thanks to Freidrich Wilhelm Adam Serturner for discovering morphine in 1805. Freidrich, if you’re listening — GREAT work dude.)

But certain details of my 22 hospital days are indelible. I still remember the crisp curve of the yellow face mask my nurse brought to try to dampen the stench of one roommate’s in-bed diarrhea. I remember my nurse Marc’s man bun and bright, warm smile (and how if I asked nicely, he’d bring me the “good” blankets which were actually big enough to fit the hospital bed). I remember making one nurse laugh when I made a bad pun, and then laughing because he laughed and then almost crying because laughing really, really hurt. I remember the strong, brown arms of Jackie who’d caught me when I fainted because I’d stood up too quickly, and the equally strong urgency in her voice as I came to, as she called for help.

I remember my roommate during my last stay, an 85-year-old woman who was sharp as a tack but whose round eyes held the innocence that seems to return as age and years take their toll. Her chest puffed in pride as she introduced me to her hard-working son, and her eyes filled with tears when told me of her husband’s death twenty years prior. She often forgot that I couldn’t eat, and when her food arrived, she’d thoughtfully recommend items from the hospital menu and what I should order (warm apple crisp and chicken pot pie at the top of the list). I remember the grey of my skin in the bathroom mirror, under the harsh fluorescent lights. I remember learning how to distinguish the sound of different footsteps — the harried herd of the attending physicians and their residents; the softer pad of the nurses. I remember the joy I felt when the faces that came around the curtain were my daughter, my son, my husband, my mom, my dearest friends, a flower delivery. I remember learning that people had organized a food train for my family, and gave many thanks to the women who made it happen. I remember being simultaneously grateful and sad that I couldn’t do it myself.

After many many hours of Fixer Upper (I feel like Chip and Joanna Gaines are now old friends because they entertained and kept me company every day), countless warm blankets, wonderful kindnesses from countless friends, CT scans, conversations with Infectious Disease Specialists, angel nurses, frustrating nurses (including one who pain-shamed me), grouchy phlebotomists and those who took blood in a way that felt like a gossamer-winged butterfly had landed on my arm, I became the Norm of the 5th floor of the hospital. I developed the type of friendships with some of the nurses that are only possible in these odd, alter-universe days in the hospital. When I’d return after several weeks, we’d greet each other with broad smiles and tight hugs. After IVs falling out and bright red trails of blood on my arm, and my veins going on strike which required 2 AM visits from crash nurses who scattered my bed with needles and alcohol pads and gauze to find a compliant vein, after days of not being allowed to eat and then just as many not being able to eat, when the leaves burned orange, yellow and red and that August day at the pool was a faint memory, I finally had surgery. My surgeon took what was left of my obliterated appendix, and the festering infection and six inches of my colon because of what was later described to me as “a nasty mess”.


During my yoga teacher training, we discussed that moment in yoga class where as a student, we feel like we have nothing left. The sweat is dripping and our muscles are aching and shaking and we feel like we.must.surrender. One of my all-time favorite people and fellow yogi, Jess, said that when she gets to that point, she softens a bit and says to herself: STAY. Keep breathing and see what happens.


Laying in the hospital bed, I breathed deeply. In through my nose, out through my nose. My breath, Ujjayi Pranama, was the only way I could access my yoga. And I quickly realized that what I was doing, there in my little room in my uncomfortable hospital gown, hooked up to an IV machine that beeped all the time, with a roommate four feet away, was actually the purest form of yoga there is. I was practicing yoga off my mat, during a time when I was shaking and all I wanted to do.was.surrender and all I could do was try to soften, and stay. And breathe.


Between August and October, I was a shell of myself. I’d leave the hospital bed and go home to my own bed. A walk down the hall required a rest before I could return to bed. I guess the infection from the rupture was the only thing my body could handle. Finally, I started feeling better. I started practicing the physical asanas of yoga again, moving slowly since really, slow is the only speed with staples in your stomach. By the time Christmas rolled around, I felt more and more like myself. I felt more vibrant. By February, I was working and teaching yoga and then…that pain returned again. I started to decline. Hernias were discussed. CT Scans were ordered. Turned out that this time, it WAS an ovarian cyst. Actually, two of them. They were described as “mean and nasty”. At this point I’m quite tired of hearing the word nasty to describe the war zone that is my lower right abdomen.


“Let’s get you an ultrasound, and see how big those cysts are”. I lay back on the crinkly paper, which is so thin I wonder how it’s really a barrier to anything. The room now dark, the ultrasound technician and I chat.

“This will be warm”, she says as she puts the wand to my belly. I think of the times I did this when pregnant with the kids. Those were WAY more interesting, seeing the growing life within — an arm, a forming hand, a heart beat that sounds like it’s underwater — than some damn ovarian cyst.


The way that story ends? Sigh. Well, after missing our family spring break trip to Florida, getting a long term sub for my yoga class, undoing everything that I’d committed to, and hours laying on the couch or in bed, I’m now recovering from a total hysterectomy. Endometriosis had taken over my remaining ovary and implanted throughout my abdomen. I felt pretty resilient and even upbeat after my appendixpalooza stint. But this turn? Not so much.

I’m mad. I’m tired of my own narrative, yet here I am, stuck somewhere in the middle of this story. I’m tired of not being able to DO things. I’m tired of being tired. I’m tired of feeling guilty and flaky and having to say, “I know I committed to this thing (my volunteer work, my paid work, my LIFE, my kid’s concerts) but sorry, ONCE AGAIN I’m not going to be able to be there”. I’m tired of resting. I’m tired of “not being able to because I’m too tired”. I’m tired of trying to do and then accidentally doing too much and ending up back the doctor. I miss yoga, so so much. I miss exercise and how it helps me manage my mental health. I’m at the point when people ask how I am, I’m embarrassed by the honest answer, so I just say “fine”. Even these words, even writing them, even the thought of sharing them feels self-indulgent and whiny and heavy, casting shadows into my days. The last year and a half has knocked me on my ass. Each thing on its own was hard — really hard — but the layering of them has put me in this funky, sad place that I’m finding it hard to see past.


The word essay has different meanings, but the one I like the most is to try. “Trial, attempt, endeavor.” When I think of an essay as an attempt, it takes the edge off of the pressure I feel to write one. Even poetry, in which I dabble, graciously has the word TRY embedded (poe-TRY).

Yoga, too, extends this grace. Yoga PRACTICE. Not Yoga Perfection. Not Yoga Workout. Not Yoga It’s-Gonna-Be-Better-Each-Time-You-Show-Up. Yoga. Practice. It allows us to show up, uncertain of the outcome, and then realize that we are SO ATTACHED TO THE OUTCOME and then it allows us to soften as we face our humaness. We show up, carrying all our burdens. And yoga shows up, too. It allows us to and it allows us to surrender, folding into child’s pose. It allows us to breathe through a yellow hospital mask pretending that it will cut the stench of shit. It allows us to stay. I think STAY and PRACTICE and TRY must be cousins–strong, steady helpers that remind us that while life is damn hard, we can, as Glennon says, Do Hard Things.

For now, I have no choice but to StayTryPractice, breathing and eating peanut butter M&Ms by the handful and working hard to not be annoyed because, you know, medical menopause + no exercise + anxiety + depression = SOMETIMES WANTING TO PUNCH SOMETHING. Or cry. Or both. I’ve often found it easier to talk about dark times after the light has started to shine again. But this time, I’m writing from the shadows because I believe there’s catharsis in sharing from the middle of a story, when the lessons in all of this are just nascent twinkles on the future’s horizon. I’m writing from the space of hot tears and not-knowing and sitting with all of this. Waving to you from the middle, wiping chocolate from my face and trying to not rush but so wanting it to be over. Repeating what has become a mantra, StayTryPractice. StayTryPractice.

Stay. Try. Practice.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Amy Schmuck permalink
    May 31, 2019 11:24 am

    Wow, Denise. You amaze me. Thank you for sharing this extra gritty time of yours. Praying for your “stay try practice” to bring you around a new sun lit corner very soon. I’m really glad you are still here after all that muck! Your story is going to stick with me for a long time. Peace!!

  2. Vicki permalink
    May 31, 2019 12:10 pm

    Thank you for sharing your story. I can relate to a certain extent because of intestinal issues no one seemed to be able to diagnose. I feel good for weeks and then something happens to knock me to my knees. A few days, a week, and back to “normal” until the next time. It IS tiresome and depressing. I am sending healing prayers to you. I want you to feel your best and I hope you are well on your way to recovery. Love and peace.

  3. lemead permalink
    May 31, 2019 1:25 pm

    Oh, my dear. I am so sorry. I am sending you so much love and wishing there was more I could do.

  4. Nathan AM Smith permalink
    May 31, 2019 3:31 pm

    Thank you for sharing this.

  5. Mary Martin permalink
    May 31, 2019 8:41 pm

    Oh Sweetheart… we send you so much love and wishes for a etter tomorrow…MANY better tomorrows. Love to you always, Mary & Bill

  6. June 3, 2019 8:11 am

    Look at you making beauty out of something like this! You are a wonder. Thank you!

  7. June 12, 2019 2:55 pm

    Oh my goodness, Denise. You’ve been through so much. I’m glad you shared it here with your beautiful, heartfelt words. Am cheering you on for full recovery and health from over here in Minnesota.

Give me your grit.

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