The surgery

Monday, June 15, came EARLY.  We had to get up at 3:30 to make the hour drive for check-in at 5:30.  Naturally, I hit snooze until 4:15.  I packed almost nothing, responding to Patrick’s concerns over this with my certainty that I would be issued a lovely hospital gown and all necessary toiletries would be provided.  Besides, I had no one to impress.  For a fleeting moment I considered the likelihood that my mother would snap a groggy-eyed photo of me in recovery to post on facebook.  As this couldn’t possibly be any worse than the Christmas morning photos in my pajamas with geyser type hair on half my head and my lips so dry they apparently stayed tucked up onto my gums showcasing my chipmunk teeth, I shrugged it off.

I tip-toed into the kids rooms and gave them fierce hugs and kisses that half-woke them from their dreams and said goodbye.  In the back of my mind were all the random stories you hear of people going in for a routine surgery and dying on the operating room table because their anesthesiologist was a closet coke addict and forgot to turn on the oxygen.  Or similar scenarios.  This surgery was not routine or short and was scheduled to last half the day.

On the drive there, Patrick got coffee.  For himself.  I was not allowed to eat or drink, presumably because if you do die on the operating room table, they want you looking as slender and beautiful as possible.  I was silent for most of the drive, but I can never stay introspective for long and soon Patrick had me laughing.  Somewhere along that drive it occurred to me that although it would be long and torturous for Patrick and my mother to sit and wait for word of how I fared, I would be asleep that whole time.  For me the surgery would be “Oh, I’m feeling groggy,” and then I’d wake up.  That lightened my mood quite a bit.

Check-in was fast and as expected I was issued an amazing Vera Wang-esque hospital gown upon admittance.  I stubbornly demanded underwear and the nurse gave me a pair of white mesh panties new mothers get after delivery.  I secretly loved them.  Before Patrick could join me to wait for the surgeon, I went through the necessary scrubbing of the leg, iv inserted, monitors stuck haphazardly across my chest, and – this is the best – a hose blowing warm air was attached to an opening in my gown.  My hospital gown filled up with air and they covered me with a blanket pulled directly out of a warming oven. As I crossed my arms and waited for Patrick to be ushered in, I noticed the warm air was filling out my normally frail bosom quite nicely.  Patrick noticed too and complimented me on my rack as he entered.  Maybe it was the Oxycodon and Valium they had just given me, but it all seemed not so terrifying at that moment.  We talked about how much food I intended to eat when I woke up and as each new specialist came in to introduce themselves, I would slide in a comment about preferring to wake up with all my limbs still attached.  When my surgeon arrived, I asked her if she’d gotten enough sleep and had all her coffee that morning.  She laughed slightly, but I could tell she was already in the zone and focused on getting this shit done right.  Her demeanor set me at ease.

In my surgeon’s own words, the actual ankle surgery, or osteotomy, is a fairly minimally invasive, straightforward procedure.  With a small number of short incisions in the front and sides of my ankle, she would be able to fit a wire around the existing bone and essentially saw her way through where there used to be a joint, separating my tibia and fibula from the talus bone.  These incisions would then be stitched up and the frame would be affixed using wire that would drill through one side of my limb, through the bone, and come out the other side.  These wires would be inserted in my foot at the top just below my toes, in my heel, and in my leg at counter angles to prevent lateral movement of my limb along the length of the wires.  The ends of the wires would be wound around bolts along the frame and tightened to create a tension-bearing member capable of withstanding the force required to shift my bones without stretching or bending.  External fixation has been around a while, but the Taylor Spatial Frame is a relatively recent invention which utilizes fixation and gradual correction to modify bone.  While my surgery is fairly basic and unexciting for a surgeon who specializes in limb deformities, some of the miracles these contraptions can achieve are nothing short of life-altering and awe-inspiring.

My last memory was in the operating room performing a flawless butt-scoot from the gurney to the operating room table.  I vaguely remember seeing my surgeon’s face, and then I awoke in recovery.  I guess it hurt, I don’t remember it that well as the recovery nurse was quick with the good drugs whenever I started to grimace.  I looked at my leg right away, but there wasacewrappedframen’t much to see as the frame was wrapped in ace bandages top to bottom, completely shielding the carnage beneath.  I asked for a pillow to elevate it and the nurse seemed surprised I could lift my leg without assistance as he tucked a pillow under my ankle.  I’ve read many stories from others who’ve had this surgery and they are unable even to bend their knees or move their leg without manually lifting the frame with it, so I immediately felt lucky for my level of mobility.

It took three hours for a room to open up on the med-surg floor.  Once it did, my experience went downhill.  My surgeon had prescribed Oxycodon, morphine, and Tylenol.  Sadly, this was not helpful and I writhed in agony sobbing until my nurse’s shift ended and she gave bedside passdown to the night nurse.  I interrupted them to demand that someone call my doctor, at which point the nurse said they really didn’t like nurses to do that.  My new night nurse acquiesced and my doctor not only prescribed much heavier pain medication, but also expressed annoyance that she hadn’t been called sooner.  I might have taken the time to look smug if I hadn’t been in so much pain.  Eventually the pain abated, but I hardly recall the rest as I was heavily stoned for the remainder of my stay.  I vaguely recall pushing a button marked pain whenever I would start to feel anything, and in short order soemone would come in and shoot something into my iv, bringing relief in as little as five minutes.  I had to pass a physical therapy test on crutches before they would allow me to leave, and Patrick staying right next to me the whole time for fear I would collapse.  I was so stoned you guys.

I was released Wednesday, just as a migraine hit me and forced me to vomit up all of my meds.  They gave me this Zofran for nausea which sits under your tongue and claims to dissolve like magic.  The reality is that it sits under your tongue and makes you more nauseous as it mixes with your saliva and tastes like glue.  It might be the worst invention ever.

All I remember about going home was laying across the back seat as Patrick swung by to pick up his five-year old daughter and explain that for just this once she would need to ride in the front.  Her eyes got huge and she immediately rallied at the sacrifice.  The next few days are sketchy.  I laughed a lot.  Patrick worried I was too stoned and starting cutting back my medication.  At night he set his alarm for every hour and a half so he could get up and give me more medication, and he tracked every pill and dosage and time in a notebook with a diligence I wish I’d put into my kid’s baby books.

On Friday, I got to see my foot.  Seven metal wires ran through my foot and foot_frame_leftleg holding one side of the frame to the other.  Additionally, four metal rods about a half-inch (Patrick says a centimeter, whatever) in diameter were drilled into the front of my tibia.  In all, I have 18 holes with metal protruding out of them, or 18 pin sites as they are called in the biz.  Another way to look at is 18 entry points for germs to travel straight to my bones.  Infection right now is my primary enemy and my first concern is keeping those pin sites clean.

You can see in the side view photo the adjustable struts connecting the frame along the bottom of my foot to the frame just above my ankle.  There are six of these and starting about ten days out of surgery, I will turn each one to a prescribed number to stretch the soft tissues and Achilles tendon at the back of my ankle, widen my joint space to enable movement, and subsequently rotate my entire foot up to a flat pofoot_frame_topsition.  In the office during this visit, the surgeon noted that one of my struts had gone slack and the number was 3mm longer than it should have been.  She tightened it minimally in the office and directed us to reset it the rest of the way when we got home.  That night, Patrick turned the strut, talking to me the whole time so that I didn’t even realize he was doing it.  No pain.

This should be a breeze.foot_frame_length

Wait…WHA?! WHYYYY?

The sale went like this:

We’re going to put a huge frame around your foot, run wires all the way through your bones attached to the frame on either side, drill a few metal stakes into your shin bone, and leave you like that for about…oh…say half a year.  We’ll put these crazy engineered struts all around it and every day you will turn each strut to a specific number and over time this will force your foot to lift until it is flat, then you just walk around like that for a while until we yank the frame off.  You won’t be able to put weight on it or work or drive and it’s going to hurt- I mean HURT- the whole time.  Sound good?  Here is a snapshot of the device if you’re still considering it…saw

Obviously, I said no.  What a terrible idea!  Who in their right minds would do such a thing to themselves on purpose?  I thanked the doctor for her time, promised to think it over, which of course I had no intention of doing, and went home feeling defeated.

When I retold the story to Patrick, his response was very different.  He couldn’t wait and told me to schedule the surgery as soon as possible.  He began listing off all the things I would be able to do once my foot was flat on the ground- hiking, jogging, bowling, skiing, kite-boarding (I was told after mentioning this aspiration to a coworker that this is quite dangerous)… okay, wind-surfing then, wearing flip-flops, walking in real tennis shoes, standing barefoot, taking a step without agonizing pain… He promised to take care fo me the whole time and do every little thing for me if that’s what it took if only he could see me out of pain at last.

Patrick is very persuasive.  To understand how I got to this place, I think it is important to understand my starting point.  The following images show my right foot in its current disabled position.

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If you are thinking this looks painful, you are correct.

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I wish I’d vacuumed before these were taken, but I digress.

I’ve been like this for over fourteen years.  I do everything on this foot in three inch heels, including hike (although I limit myself to a mile or so as I can’t really stand much longer) and it’s getting really old and making me old.  Every joint hurts now, not just the ankle, and I know I’m limping around on borrowed time.

It’s called the Taylor Spatial Frame.  It’s an external fixator which functions very much like braces to slowly adjust bones over time.  It is often used for leg lengthening or fixation of complex fractures and relies on the medical fun fact that bone can grow at a rate of up to 1mm per day and is the only tissue in the human body which does so without scar tissue.  At the end of a correction with external fixator, the new bone or repaired fracture is as strong and healthy as if it had been there all along.  For my procedure, the ankle joint is chiseled apart where the bones have grown together to recreate the old joint space at the point of articulation and over a period of a month the struts on the frame will stretch the joint apart and rotate my foot until it is positioned at 90 degrees and sits flat with my heel on the ground.  After that, I wait for four months or so while the bone grows back together and condenses.

Of course there are risks.  Six months of pain aside, pins which run straight through my bones are at constant risk of infection which can quickly lead to osteomyelitis- a serious bone infection which caused all of my disfiguring disabilities in the first place.  There is risk that the joint will not grow back together- this is called a non-union.  There is risk the pins through my leg and foot will create fractures in the bone, causing delayed healing.  And there is the ever-present risk that inevitably this will fail and I will face my greatest looming fear: amputation.

The prep work leading up to the surgery put me in a manic state similar to a nesting mother.  And if you consider it… the scenario is very similar.  I will be uncomfortable with limited mobility, unable to wear my current clothing, for over half a year as I wear first the frame, then a cast while the holes from the pins heal.  In the end I will give birth to a new and improved foot which, all things working out as planned, will be far superior to my current situation and I will know a pain-free life again.  I had to arrange an alternative work schedule with my employer as not working for this length of time as a single mother with no support from another parent was not a viable option.  Luckily, I have possibly the best manager on earth.  He advised me to focus on my health and work from home as much as possible.  Check.  I had to modify my vehicle so I would be able to drive since, as aforementioned, I am a mother with children who need to go places and I have a job to get to.  We modified my van with a left foot accelerator pedal and after test driving it once already I can tell you it will do quite nicely.  Check.  I had to prep my bathroom for all the medical supplies I would need, a shower bench, install a shower hose, and find some sot of bench for elevating my foot while peeing.  Check, check, check, and check.  And the clothes.  You can’t fit much over one of these ridiculous looking frames, so I now have an assortment of maxi skirts which serve the dual purpose of both sliding on effortlessly and hiding the lower limb monstrosity.  Check.

The only thing left to contend with was my fear, and for that I relied on Patrick.  We came up with a mantra that fills me with focus and calm: Flip-flops.

The surgery was scheduled for 7am Monday morning, June 15.  On Friday the 12th, I said my farewells to everyone at work, promised to send gnarly photos to those who oddly wanted to see them, promised not to send them to those who begged me not to, and celebrated my last weekend of walking on this foot with a Friday night among friends singing really bad Karaoke.  My mother came over to help, bringing my niece, and after I spent Saturday cleaning house waiting for them to arrive, we had a relaxing Sunday showing my niece around Portland, eating too much good food, gorging ourselves on ice cream from Salt & Straw, pedaling a bicycle surrey down the waterfront past the Gay Pride Festival (best way to take an Idaho nine-year-old to that sort of thing, I think- you get a taste of shock without really damaging her irreparably), and then my kids came over in the evening because Georgia was worried I was scared without her.  I was scared.

Flip-flops.

Scars

I have been told my scars do not define me, but this is false.  My scars are the definition of how I have become me, every last one of them.

I was 23 when I first became ill.  It was the oddest thing; one day I just noticed that my foot had been hurting for a while and the almost imperceptible pain now manifested in a very perceptible limp.  I didn’t even know how long it had been hurting when I took myself into the student health clinic, and believed the doctor when he convinced me I had sprained my ankle without any recollection of doing so.  I took some satisfaction from the knowledge that I was right, that it really DID hurt as much as I was making out, when I was admitted to the hospital a week and a half later with a soft tissue infection which had become septic.

The weeks that followed were a series of trials and travails seemingly crafted by fate to test the depths of my nearest and dearest fears.  My leg was dissected down to the bone across my foot in multiple gashes and up the length of my leg from the ball of my foot to my knee.  These gashes were left open to drain the infection and three times a day I lowered my leg into a whirlpool tub of betadine and cringed and screamed while the excised flesh and muscle swirled around in the eddies.  Each surgery seemed to bring back larger gashes and more loose flesh as my surgeons fought to locate and remove all of the necrotic tissue.  At last my fevers stopped spiking and the pain plateaued; the surgeons tried to sew me back up, but my skin had contracted.  In one surgery, they placed rubber bands across a gash with staples on either side to try to stretch the skin closed.  I awoke from that surgery screaming and it was hours before the surgeon found the right pain medication to allow me to sleep.  Inevitably when the incisions would not close, the surgeons resorted to skin grafts which were taken from my rear end with an implement they must have picked up at Pier One in the gourmet cheese slicer aisle.

I was released from the hospital seven surgeries, two near deaths, and four ridiculous complication setbacks after being admitted, and from there I began physical therapy to learn to walk again.  I visited my physical therapist three times a week, and saw my doctor weekly.  During these doctor visits, he would look at the angry red skin graft sites which were not healing, shake his head in confusion, and pull out a pair of scissors and silver nitrate to cut back the inner tissue that was growing out of the weeping wounds and burn the edges to cauterize them.  This pain was so great I could not physically keep my leg from shaking and the nurse would hold me down while I cried and apologized for not having better muscle control.  Two months of this ritual had me walking in short stints with a cane, but in horrendous pain, and I finally saw a different doctor who decided all was not right.  This doctor is the reason I swear by female physicians.  Instead of writing off my tears as feminine mental weakness, she scheduled an emergency MRI; it was this test that likely saved my limb and my life as it was the MRI that found the infection had returned, had eaten every bit of cartilage in my ankle, as well as half my calcaneus (heel bone), and was working on eating my leg bones and most of the remaining bones in my foot.  I was referred to the University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle and left the next day.

The diagnosis was osteomyelitis and the treatment was fairly straightforward – a pic line (which is just a thick tube to carry heavy medications) was inserted into my left forearm to feed the strongest antibiotics my body could handle directly into my central bloodstream.  This would remain for two months and I would deliver IV antibiotics at home three times a day until the infection was cleared.  The next part of the treatment was to cast my foot so that it could not move and risk spreading the infection to the rest of my body.  The rest of the treatment was more complicated.

The prognosis for an ankle which has no cartilage is not very optimistic.  There is no “fix” for this situation.  A total ankle replacement is an option to replace the damaged joint, but as it only lasts a decade or so, it is not an option in a 23-year-old woman, and it isn’t an option for anyone who has live infection crawling through her bones regardless of age.  The next best thing is a fusion – pins or screws hold the ankle in place and the leg bones grow into the ankle bones until there is no more ankle.  Due to the infection, it would be many months before I could consider this option as well.  I remember staring at the corner of the hospital room walls as the doctor gave me my last option and recommended it as the best option to get me mobile and active again: a below-knee amputation.  My mother was standing there and became livid.  Her voice grew strained and she snapped at the doctor that it was certainly too soon to be considering something like that.  I just kept staring at the wall pretending it wasn’t real.

We left Seattle after a week with a box full of IV antibiotics, a tube affixed to my arm, and no real plan beyond finishing all the medication.  Two months later I had the pic-line removed and a week after that, I found out I was pregnant.

This is where the story veers off course.  The pregnancy changed everything.  I couldn’t do anything about reconstructive surgery while I was pregnant, and I just kind of forgot about my foot for a few months.  I wore a walking cast when I walked any great distance, used a cane when it hurt, and wore shoes with heels, even putting lifts in my athletic shoes, as my foot had dropped to a 40 degree angle and without ankle mobility it was stuck like that.  I walked like this, on my toes, gingerly at first as the bone on bone grated and swelled in protest, and in time less gingerly as the joint stopped hurting because the bones grew together on their own.  My pregnant body spread its healthy glow over every nook and cranny of my being as I gained weight, increased my blood supply, and infused myself with healthy nutrients and vitamins.  By the time my son was born, I was in excellent health at an ideal weight- my only issue was a bum ankle.

And the scars.  They were obtrusive in the beginning, angry and red.  A thick, lumpy line ran up the inside of my calf.  The left cheek of my derriere was marred with two bright red rectangles that mimicked the large stamps one sees on an old-timey trunk shipped from overseas.  After the birth of my son, I also had stretch marks along the back of my thighs and a jagged c-section scar across my lower abdomen.  My collar-bone was speckled with the remnants of where intravenous central lines had been stitched into my skin.  My foot was freckled with the keloid-rimmed skin grafts that patched together my ravaged flesh.  And the limp, no matter what shoes I wore or how I tried to lead with my hips, I could never quite erase the limp.

In the beginning, these scars defined me and made me feel less than those around me.  They dictated what I wore in public, and how I acted.  I could never pretend to be seductive or attractive again, because I knew these scars were buried beneath whatever façade I hid behind.   They demoted me from the leading lady in the realtime drama that was my life to the quirky sidekick who was only around for comedic relief.  Other women were beautiful.  I could now only have character.

My scars made me grateful rather than in love when my boyfriend and father of my child selflessly agreed to marry me.  They made me tolerant of a life bereft of love, empathy, real kindness or consideration.  They made me give up on my dreams of happiness and learn to settle, to put up with a man who took his anger and stress out on me, to shrug my shoulders and remind myself that I didn’t deserve more when my husband forgot my birthday, our anniversary, and Christmas.  My scars made me feel lucky when my husband told me I could go back to school, as long as it didn’t cost him a dime and I found a way to pay for childcare on my own.  My scars made me embarrassed to wear a swimsuit in public, or shorts, or anything that didn’t cover my calves up to my knees so as not to offend others with my less-than-beautiful skin.

I had three children.  I went back to school and graduated with a degree in engineering right after the last one was born.  My mother celebrated my graduation with a barbecue and I received a few gifts, but none from my husband.  I was so lucky he stayed married to me with my misshapen leg and hideous scars.  I began working and found that my scars did not matter as I began to excel professionally as an engineer.   I wore modified tennis shoes when I walked the construction site for twelve-hour days as a field engineer in the summer.  I wore pant suits with heels as I networked with state funding representatives for my company.  I stopped thinking about my scars and I started feeling that perhaps I wasn’t so lucky to have a husband who tolerated me any longer.

I left my husband, moved to Portland, went through the struggles of moving my children with me, through job loss and near starvation, and clawed my way to a position in a corporation with a real future and the ability to support my family single-handedly while paying child support to that tolerant husband who refused to find a job paying taxes.  I filed bankruptcy, I paid off debt, I started saving for retirement and put my life back on track.

I met someone wonderful.  Someone who saw my scars and my limp and dared to call me sexy and beautiful and everything he ever dreamed of.  My foot was getting worse, though.  The toes were curling up as the tendons under my foot contracted over time and surgeries to cut the tendons were only a temporary fix.  I was referred to a surgeon who specializes in limb deformities and she gave me a solution.

A few weeks before the surgery, I sat with Patrick, the love of my life, and discussed my scars.  I talked about getting a tattoo to cover the line going up my leg and he scoffed at the idea.  He said my scars only leave him in awe of what I have been through and what I have accomplished in spite of them.

He said my scars do not define me.

But they do.

My scars today tell the story of a life’s journey from a woman who thought nothing of herself to a woman who learned her real worth.  My struggles and my triumphs are etched on my body.  They speak of pain I have endured, and they speak of survival.  They murmur memories of torturous pain and the persistence to keep living exactly as though nothing was wrong.  They remind me of the early days when I could not walk, of my mother’s cracked voice when the surgeon said amputation, and they remind me of each newborn child laid upon my shoulder to kiss their cheek after they’d been pulled from my belly.

I will have new scars soon, and these scars will define me further.  They will tell the story of my rebirth as my foot is straightened over a period of six months in an external frame affixed to my bones.  I welcome these scars and the new world they will usher in as I am able to walk without pain again.  I look forward to the rest of the story my scars will tell.

A Letter to the Coach

I made a decision a few weeks ago and I finally followed through on it today.  I decided to take my son off his soccer team.  This was tough for many reasons, not the least of which is that no one- not his father, not the coach, nor any of the other parents on the team- agrees with me.  It can be nerve-wracking to stand up for yourself and do what you feel is right when everyone thinks you are crazy… and when you are a parent, and the people who think you are crazy are other judgey parents, and that THING is soccer?  Nearly impossible.

I did it though, because as scary as the backlash and forthcoming temper tantrums from my ex are, nothing scares me more than the absolute certainty that I’m doing this wrong, this parenting thing.  At 37 years old, I have tossed out everything I used to think I knew.  I have disassembled my perspective on life and I am slowly, carefully, putting it back together with only the pieces I know belong.  Quite honestly I have very few pieces in place.  Maybe that’s all I will ever have as the older I get, the less I realize I know to be truth.  That doesn’t matter.  What matters is that I know- KNOW- that narrowing one’s perspective, limiting one’s opportunities, eliminating choice, and replacing what should matter with what should not is bad.  I know that being kind matters.  I know that family matters.  And I know that it is my job to make sure I don’t lead my children down a path I know won’t lead them to happiness.

My oldest son is a great soccer player.  He is on the premiere team and this means he has practice three nights a week, games every Saturday and Sunday, and this lasts ten months out of the year, the other two months to be replaced with indoor soccer every weekend during the winter.  If for some reason he needs to miss soccer, I have to ask permission from his coach who gives me a lecture on dedication and work ethic.  (I don’t think I need to elaborate on the eye-rolling that ensues when you lecture a working single mother of three with no financial support on the subject of work ethic.)  My son has never taken music lessons.  He isn’t in any clubs or on any other teams.  He has never played anything but soccer his entire life.  Oh, and he’s twelve.

I sent the coach a letter today explaining my decision to take my son off his team.  I’m sharing it here because I want to expand the commentary from a discourse about youth soccer to something a little bit larger: if you are a parent and you are educated, thoughtful, and want what is best for your child to become a happy, healthy adult someday, do what you know to be best for that child.  Everyone has an opinion on how you’re doing it wrong and how to do it better, but your opinion is the only one that matters.  If you find yourself the only dissenter in a mass of parental peer pressure, whatever it is, consider me rooting for you.  And good luck.

My Letter to the Coach:

I am writing to discuss with you my decision to take Matthew out of year round soccer, to explain why this is important to me, and to ask if you will accommodate an alternate schedule for him on your team.

First, Matthew’s father and I have equal split time with Matthew and if he should wish to continue taking Matthew to his practices and games on his weekdays and weekends, I would like to know if you will accommodate him. I will not be taking him to soccer again or allowing him to attend on my days until tryouts for next season begin when I will allow him to join a select team.

As for why I am taking Matthew out of year round soccer, I think this is important to communicate with you as you are a parent and have likely had similar thoughts of your own on what is best for your children.  Matthew has been playing soccer since he was 4 years old.  Up until four years ago, I managed his team and helped his father coach.  He has not been exposed to anything other than soccer in the way of extra-curricular activities.  I reasoned that this was okay because he was gaining so much from soccer- it was healthy, good for his self esteem, and was teaching both to work hard for what he wanted and to be a successful part of a team.  Over the past year, I have found that the lessons my children are learning from soccer are primarily harmful these days and contradictory to my reasons as a parent for exposing him to the sport in the first place.  I feel the importance placed on soccer at such a competitive level in children so young is teaching them a skewed perspective on what really matters in life, that teaching them to win at all costs, to be mean and critical and value a competitive spirit over camaraderie and encouragement is actually very harmful.  I do not agree that soccer practice (or games for that matter) should take precedence over family, health, or education.  I also feel that every child on that team is being forced to miss a large portion of their childhood, to forgo exposure to the vast myriad of experiences expressly available to us only as children, in order to train as though they are Olympians when the reality is that few if any of them will play beyond high school, and all of this misplaced over-exertion is wasted.  I have been harassed by previous coaches for making the decision to keep Matthew home when he was feverish and it was raining, for choosing to take the children Christmas shopping (when your time with your children is limited by joint custody and work, sometimes you have to choose between these things), for missing practice to visit a dying relative in the ICU… I have spent family weekends camping, fishing, and visiting with far away Grandparents without my son there because the coach called the shots instead of me.  And I have watched my son turn into an unlikable ass who yells at his teammates, looks down on others, and has absolutely no idea what actually causes real happiness.

I will continue to encourage him in soccer, but I intend to move him to Select next year as it has been made clear to me that balance in one’s life is not an option on a Premiere team.  I hope you will understand my decision even if you do not agree with it and I wish the team the very best for the remainder of the season.

Best Regards,

Marie Sorbel

One Thing Right

It is one thing to know right from wrong, I have found, and another thing entirely to put that knowledge into practical application.  I suspect that deep down even the most horrible among us knows how to behave appropriately at all times, but something greater than that knowledge takes hold and we act very often in direct contradiction to how we know we ought.

Never is this phenomenon more prevalent than when an “ex” is involved.  And never is it more detrimental and inevitably regretful than when there are children with that ex.  I’m surprised by the rhetoric so many separating parents can recite by rote memory- “I just want what’s best for the children, we never fight in front of the kids,”- and the stark contrast that is usually the reality.  The same parents who love their children use them, grill them, brainwash them, withhold them, and manipulate them as they suffer through a divorce in an effort to inflict pain on the other parent.  I’ve seen it constantly and I am excessively grateful that for all my difficulties through my divorce, I never felt my children were part of the battlefield.  I was asked the other day how I managed to maintain my sanity through the split and remain above the drama that drives so many couples insane.  While I don’t feel a great deal of secret wisdom was at play, I am able to at least impart the basic tenets of reasonable, sane human decency which dictated overall the manner of my separation and current coparenting arrangement.

  1. Don’t make money more important than your children.  Child custody laws are strange sometimes.  A law entitling the custodial parent to more child support makes sense on the surface as the parent providing more care for the child needs to be reimbursed for that care by the other parent.  Unfortunately, a law designed to ensure enough financial support for child-rearing can easily be utilized by a greedy parent to increase child support simply by demanding the majority of the parenting time.  In fact, in nearly every custody discussion I have viewed in the past few years, this has been the case.  Given that virtually every study on the issue unanimously agrees that equal time with both parents both offsets the harmful emotional effects of a divorce on a child and fosters the important child-parent attachment essential for healthy development, there has to be a pretty compelling reason for one parent to want to deprive their child any amount of time with the other.  In the first-hand custody battles I’ve watched recently, none of the parents were abusive, none of them were drug addicts, no children were in harm in one household or the other… one parent was simply denying the other parent equal time for their own benefit.  Too often- that benefit is money.  Yes, you may be able to avoid paying child support by limiting how much time the other parent sees the child, but if those are really your priorities- WHAT THE FUCK?!
  2. Don’t carry your baggage forever.  When first you part ways with the other parent of your children, you will likely feel a myriad of emotions, few of which are sane or beneficial to continue to feel for the long haul.  You may feel anger and resentment over how things ended, you may feel hope that you will eventually reconcile, and you may feel jealousy if the other parent has found a new partner or begun dating.  The actions we take when we allow our unsettled emotions to dictate our path are very seldom wise actions.  These emotions are the things which lead you to stalk people you don’t know on Facebook to see who your spouse is dating now, or hack into his email account to sift through all of his private match.com correspondence.  Sadly, these emotions can also lead you to use your child as a weapon to inflict pain or elicit remorse from your spouse.  While behaving irrationally is wrong and will end poorly, behaving irrationally and using a child to do so is reprehensible and can cause irreparable harm.  As insane as your situation makes you feel inside, take a deep breath, accept that this shit is just what it is, and let it go.  If you find yourself behaving in a manner which is obviously the result of resentful or jealous feelings- stop.  Just don’t.
  3. Remember you are creating a real life human being.  So you fucked up the marriage part of your life.  C’est la vie.  Maybe you try again someday, maybe you collect cats instead, maybe you find a nice cave and live out your old age weaving stocking caps out of ivy and carving pictures into rocks.  I don’t know or even really care.  What you don’t get to do is stop parenting.  It is your job to give that kid the best chance at becoming a happy, healthy adult who contributes to this world in a positive manner.  It is your FUCKING JOB.  I don’t care how mad you get at that kid’s father- the best thing for a child is to love and respect BOTH parents throughout their development, and it is your job to foster that because this is no longer about you.  The upbringing of that child has nothing to do with who cheated on who, who felt neglected, who yelled too much, blah, blah, blah.   Speak well of that other parent.  Encourage your children to love you both equally.  Put your selfish ulterior motives and underlying issues aside and do your job.
  4. Grow up.  You can whine to your girlfriends as much as you want about how you accidentally married the worst human being on the planet, entirely unbeknownst to you until approximately 5 years, a white picket fence, and 1.5 children in, but it’s highly unlikely that this is the case.  More likely, you married someone who just wasn’t a good fit for your personality in the long term and things just didn’t work out despite the fact that you are both relatively good people.  While it may be tough when you are disagreeing over massively important contentious issues like who gets that piano your mother-in-law clearly gave to you, it is important to remember that this is just another human being you are dealing with who hurts, fears, regrets, and also wants to be happy someday.  It takes a very mature person to embrace empathy and forgiveness in order to replace some of the inevitable vitriol with kindness or, at minimum, civility.  Be that person. Be better than you want to be because it is good for your soul.  Have something to be proud of when you look back on one of the most difficult times of your life.

I asked my children the other day if they were happy.  They told me yes, all of them, even happier than when we lived in Spokane and their father and I were together. They see us both an equal amount of time, they love us both, and they are happy.

For all our failures, at least we got this one thing right.

The High Road

Divorce.

The dissolution of a marriage between two people. The end of a union which two adults have determined to be insufferable. A very private choice which can only ever be fully understood by the two individuals who were personally living the married life that resulted in so much unhappiness.

One of the things I found most jarring upon choosing to end my marriage was how many more people than TWO are actually involved in a divorce. People you don’t think to run your decisions by when you set out on the journey. People who didn’t have to live through the marriage itself. Family, friends, mutual acquaintances, relative strangers… People who didn’t give a rat’s ass about supporting the sufferers during the marriage, yet immediately feel the entire event is public property when it ends and appear entitled to an opinion on its every aspect. These people often take longer to adjust to your divorce than you do, and have more difficulty behaving with general empathy and courtesy until they’ve adjusted. They are often outraged when they didn’t even see it coming (because why aren’t you keeping the general public apprised of your every marital issue?!) and quick to take sides with whoever will tell their side first and loudest.

I don’t deal with this much anymore. I cut the people out of my life who didn’t make room for compassion and forgiveness. It was a long road weeding out the busy-bodies and judgmental skin-deep acquaintances who always had more than two cents to share, but now I can feel content that the only meddling left is from former in-laws, and it’s at least done behind my back where I can’t see or hear it.

Instead, I now find myself an outside observer to a divorce and this strange phenomenon of the real life he said-she said game. The advice I give when asked- to take the high road, stay above the bullshit, and just let it all go- is difficult to follow. Because not everybody takes the high road, and when you are a victim of someone else’s low road, you find your friends taking sides, and not yours… because you haven’t shared all of the dark, filthy gossip that led you to where you are now. You never told anyone your wife was sleeping around, or that she used the children as pawns, that she won’t let you be with your child half the time because she wants more child support despite her trust fund and an income three times what you make. You don’t complain to them that she erupted in a jealous rage after you finally started dating and has since been using every avenue possible to ruin your new relationship- secretly reading all of your texts and emails multiple times a day, sleeping with your friends in an attempt to make you jealous, refusing to let you take anything from your marriage but the shirt on your back, and even moving your son’s mother into her home and instigating a second custody battle. And so your friends have taken sides and, although they claim they are still your friends and don’t want to choose, they show no sympathy for you when you prefer not to be around your wife and her new fling-slash-attempt-to-get-a-jealous-reaction-out-of-you. They treat you as though you are over-reacting about the pain and cannot understand why you have to make everything so difficult when they just want it all back the way it was.

For a while now, I have thought that perhaps my initial advice to you was wrong- that perhaps it is best to just get it all out in the open… her infidelities and cruelties, the years of misery, the conniving and manipulation and mind-boggling selfishness and greed…

But I am brought back around by a single truth- your real friends do not need to know any of your dark secrets to remain compassionate and considerate. They don’t need to hate her in order to forgive you for failing at wedlock. They don’t need to know who is to blame. They have character and a moral conscience and a heart. They won’t abandon you because her tales are better spun and they won’t bend an ear to the jealous rantings of a woman scorned. People of character like this might be rare, but they exist and those are the only friends worth keeping.

So take the high road, and say farewell to those who will not travel it with you. In the end, you will be happy, and that was your only real goal all along.