Monday, May 18, 2015

Kick Off Your Friday Shoes

     Last Friday, I attended a wedding.  While I had gone to my cousin's nuptials in late October, at the time, I was very immuno-suppresed, and still working my way toward 75% lung function.  I was able to dance, but I was not quite the prime physical specimen that I have since become.  At both weddings, however, beyond just being able to attend and dance, dance, dance, I was able to "show off" my lungs to people who had supported me throughout the transplant and recovery process.  In October, a vast majority of my Mom's side of the family was seeing me for the first time since the surgery.  I got so many hugs, answered so many questions, and used so much hand sanitizer.  At the ceremony and reception, I was the masked man, attending my first crowded indoor activity, always conscious of what I touched, where I put my hands, and who I was next to (little kid, please aim your nose elsewhere).  Once the food was in everyone's bellies, I was I was particularly excited to hit the dance floor with my wife, especially in light of a wedding experience we had last summer, when my lung function and health were approaching their nadir.

     On that beautiful August evening, I did not know I was eight days away from getting "the call."  I was trying to remain as active and healthy as possible, glad to be feeling well enough to join my wife for a night out.  Despite our best efforts, we were running late for the wedding of one of her best friends from work, because it always takes a little longer to look spiffy and leave for a swanky event when you're dragging a 30-foot long tube around the house.  Upon our arrival, all of the handicapped parking was taken, but even if it hadn't been, the walk to where the ceremony was just about to start was fairly long and uphill.  After scanning the seats in the outdoor area where the wedding was minutes away from happening, we realized there was nowhere for us to sit without disrupting a whole bunch of people.  I had noticed a bench that we passed as we walked up, and sat at it more out of a necessity to catch my breath than anything else.  We decided we would just stay there; we wouldn't have the best view, but it was better than standing.  My wife and I settled in, and I adjusted my portable oxygen concentrator so that it was not in the way of any other late arriving guests.  Somehow in our rush, we had failed to notice that our location was directly next to one of the cameras filming the ceremony.  Rather than provide a strong background hum for the wedding video, I made my way inside the building, which, lucky for me, was where the reception was.  I did not see any of the ceremony, but I did get a head start on the delicious appetizers!

     Once the vows were said and rings were exchanged, my wife joined me at our table.  We made small talk with the people we didn't know, learning that two of the young women next to us were teachers from another school district.  With this common ground and questions about my oxygen and health situation, we had plenty to talk about during the dinner.  Replenished by delicious chicken and pasta, the least favorite part of my night was now upon us-- the dancing.  Now, don't get me wrong, I love to dance, and though I may not be as fabulous on the floor as I think I am, my lack of inhibitions more than makes up for any rhythmic inadequacies that occasionally occur.  But, one does not simply dance while on 6 LPM of oxygen.  My wife and I slow danced shortly after the newlyweds shared their first dance together, and it was obvious that returning to the dance floor wasn't in the cards for me that night.  I told my wife it was fine if she stayed out and danced with her newly married colleague and a few other friends from work, while I stayed at the table.  But I was not alone there.  The two gentlemen who had come with the teachers we'd just met sat there with me, not out of solidarity or sympathy, but, rather, out if ignorance.

     I am not shy about having a conversation with someone I just met, but typically I do not admonish the stranger in any way.  I made an exception this time.  After watching these two guys watch their dates dance instead of joining them, I wanted to say something.  I mean, I get it-- some guys don't like to dance.  But any guy who doesn't slow dance with his date when the opportunity arises needs to rethink his choices.  It takes no skill, and it's a uniquely intimate, yet innocent three minute spent with someone you love, or at the very least like.  Heck, you could even slow dance with your mortal enemy-- maybe it'd improve your relationship, I don't know.  Anyway, the battery on my oxygen concentrator was almost in need of a charge, so my wife said she was going to go dance to one more song before we left.  I took this opportunity to tell the two gentlemen, probably five years younger than me, something along the lines of, "I love dancing with my wife, and if I could have done that tonight, I would have.  It's an easy thing to take for granted, because you think the opportunity will always be there.  But you never know what can happen, and I'd hate for you to regret that you didn't make the most of the chance you have to be on the dance floor with your dates."  They mumbled some sort of affirmative reply, and while I'd like to say my little statement touched their hearts and they were dipping their dates in the midst of a saucy tango as I walked out the door, they weren't.  They didn't move.  So it goes.

     At the wedding on Friday, the shoe was on the other foot, or kicked off entirely.  This time, it was the wedding of someone I met through work, whom I first got to know over three years ago during the course of her nine month experience as my student teacher.  That gestation period produced a top-notch educator, a friendship, and a mentorship role which includes a lifetime warranty (a concept I borrowed from one of my graduate school professors).  Kristen was hired the next fall as the only tenth grade English teacher in a school unlike any she'd ever encountered before, and I was happy to help her navigate through her first year of teaching in her own classroom whenever she reached out to me.  Since my illness prevented me from returning to the classroom in the fall of 2013, there was an opening at my school that otherwise would not have been.  Kristen regarded a full-time position at my school as her "dream job," so I gave her advice for the interview and told anyone and everyone in a position of power that they should hire her.  And they did.  Lest I make it seem like they hired her on my recommendation alone, her excellent work as my student teacher  (including filling in for me for several days while I was dealing with a CF related issue) and her experiences with the district's summer school program made her a highly regarded "known quantity."  As she flourished in her first year in the job she'd always wanted, she and her family prayed for me while I was on the waiting list.  When I contacted her with the information that I was going in for the transplant, they kicked those prayers into high gear.  Kristen's family was not the only group that hardly knew me, and yet were beseeching God on my behalf-- as my wife and family spread word by phone and social media that I was going into surgery, hundreds of people in several churches across the state were praying for some guy they'd never met.  Meeting the bride's parents on Friday was not only something I wanted to do because of my connection to their daughter, but also because it would symbolically allow me to thank every person who was, despite not really knowing me, firmly in my corner during the transplant and recovery process.

     My doctor gave me clearance to attend Friday's ceremony and reception without a mask.  Typically three months is the "no more mask" time frame, but all of the large scale indoor activities I have attended since the transplant have been at my son's school or at my own.  And we know kids of all ages are germy.  I've also been trying to kick a staph infection in my right lung for several months, so my pulmonologist was waiting for a "clean" bronchoscopy to give me the no-mask go ahead.  Therefore, Friday's wedding was my first large indoor event with such permission.  This time when I sat right next to one of the cameras filming the ceremony, I happily realized that the sound of a stifled sob would be my only contribution to the background noise, rather than the buzz of a machine converting room air into oxygen.  When I walked up to the beaming mother and father of the bride at the reception, they had no indication of who I was.  Even though I have said all along that I would be willing to wear the mask every time I left the house if that's what will keep me healthy, there was something very satisfying about having no indicator of my health status broadcasting to the other wedding guests "this guy's been sick!"  Unlike the wedding in October, "showing off" my lungs and drastically improved health now involved a layer of surprise.  I had a lovely conversation with Kristen's mom and dad, making it clear to them that, "Hey, it worked!" and, in an emblematic way, to everyone who I'll never meet that supported me with prayer and well-wishes over the past two years.  Coincidentally, two former students who graduated long before I went on leave were in attendance, and they were hesitant at first to approach me, since they didn't quite recognize who I was at first.  I guess that comes with the territory of having gained thirty pounds (of pure muscle, of course) since I last saw either of them.

     Encountering these people-- some who had no idea who I was, some who knew me firsthand, and some who had only heard tales, felt like touching a mirage which had burst into reality.  As much as I was "Evin (Mr.) Green, recipient of a fabulous new pair of lungs," I was also just "any other guy on the dance floor with his wife."  Kristen told me that she and her fantastic new husband thought it was awesome to see us out there.  I would never have been able to fully appreciate being able to dance with my wife alongside them, whether it was in slow circles to the tune "Thinking Out Loud" or letting it all go to the familiar (dare I say classic?) "Ice Ice Baby" without the experience I had last summer.  And that has been one of the most vibrant truths of the pre and post-transplant experience.  You don't really know what life is about until you feel it slowly fading away.  Seeing my friend pledge herself to a new life with the man she was meant to marry helped me reflect on the eleven years of marriage (as of this Friday) that I have been blessed with.  Not unlike a life with CF, every marriage will have days of bliss and moments of utter frustration.  In life, we cannot avoid such moments, but we can commit to handling difficult times in tandem with those who have undertaken the journey with us.  After all, nobody should try to go it alone on the dance floor.

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