A Touch of Magic for the Holidays

You know how every now and then, a moment in your day… a day in a month… a month in your year… is somehow lit with a magical glow? It can happen unexpectedly in the middle of the mundane — a casual glance out the window while mopping the kitchen floor that takes your breath away with a golden-crowned rainbow, or a spontaneous drive on a damp day that turns into a lifelong memory of a romp in a fairytale playground.

This holiday season was like that. Somehow, everything aligned just perfectly to make a magical, memorable holiday. Aaron’s job has been a bit less demanding for the last couple of months, and he’s had to travel much less. My migraines have been much more under control and less intense than before, and the medication I’ve been using has generally been effective in stopping them — I’ve had maybe five or fewer days in the past month that I had to actually go to bed to vanquish one, and only one or two that affected me for an entire day. Sofia has reached an age where she makes a perfect playmate, able to imitate and adore her brother, and she and Niko have been playing together just delightfully — of course they have tiffs and occasional tantrums, but for the most part, watching them together has brought warmth to my heart.

I feel like we jam-packed this season with memories. The kids saw Santa twice. The first time was at our little town’s local tree-lighting, just over a week after we put up and decorated our own Christmas tree. There were cookies, candy canes, hot chocolate, and photo ops with Santa; someone had brought barrels for warm fires; kids ran around tossing glow sticks, which Niko first took for flying angels; and then, after just about the perfect wait time, the gigantic pine tree lit with multicolored lights from top to bottom. The second time was at Niko’s holiday concert (during which he actually stood in his place with his classmates, and sang the appropriate songs at the appropriate times, with minimal support from his teachers).

Memory-making moments can be tricky to orchestrate, but this year we made one after another in joyful succession. The tree-lighting and Santa encounters were certainly stand-out moments, though I didn’t have a whole lot to do with creating them. But that wasn’t all. We made Niko’s very first gingerbread house, and I managed to arrange it with minimal fuss — I made the dough during lunch one day and let it chill during nap time, then let Niko cut out the gingerbread shapes — I have a set of very convenient house-building cutters —  when he woke up, plus a few people and snowflake shapes. Sofia woke up just in time to cut out a few at the tail end of the session. We baked them off during supper, then the next day I mixed up a quick royal icing during nap and let Niko put the house together and decorate it, with Sofia once more pitching in at the end. Then they decorated their gingerbread people with liberal adornments of candy, Niko’s in a somewhat humanoid fashion, Sofia’s with no limits whatsoever. We admired the finished house for a few days, then ripped into it the day after Christmas.

It was a quiet holiday season, but we did get a visit — two visits, in fact — from family. My aunt, who was visiting family in California, came up for a lovely two days, during which she thoroughly charmed the kids and did as much work around the house as I did myself. And we got a surprise visit from Aaron’s aunt a few days ago, a quick stop during a long layover that turned into a pleasant overnight visit when her standby connecting flight fell through. The holidays don’t feel quite right without some sort of family gathering, so having two visits made the season just that much more special.

Santa, tree lighting, gingerbread houses, decorating the Christmas tree the day after Thanksgiving… treasured memories, to be sure, but I’m pretty sure the weather was responsible for the most exciting moment of the season. On the morning of Christmas Eve, the kids awoke to a magical snowfall. Last winter, our first winter here in our new home, there had been no snow at all; the year before, living in a rental home about twenty miles from here, we’d had snow in February, but none at Christmas. So the sight of that glorious skim of snow covering the lawn brought enormous excitement. We ran through the snow, the kids dug in it with shovels — well, they scraped at it with shovels, as there really wasn’t enough to dig — and we even built a mini snowman together. Then, of course, we went back inside for hot chocolate to warm up, just in time for Sofia to lie down for a morning nap.

Christmas Eve just kept getting better. The snow melted in time to make a drive to a Christmas Eve service at church stress-free, and Niko loved singing songs with us rather than going to Sunday school. Then, back home for barbecue chicken wings that had been simmering all afternoon in the crock pot, and finally the crowning moment — opening a special Christmas Eve box for each child, packed with winter pajamas, a tiny toy, and a baggie each of popcorn and hot chocolate mix. I made popcorn and hot chocolate while the kids put on their new jammies, and then we watched our traditional mini-series episodes of Prep and Landing, a Pixar story about the elves responsible for getting houses ready for Santa’s arrival.

Christmas Day was calm and surprisingly peaceful, for a day that’s often hectic. We’d been cooking for days ahead, which made our labor for Christmas dinner on the day itself minimal. Aaron made beef Wellington, and the sauce he made took a total of three days’ of work, from making broth, to reducing the stock, to finally making a rich concoction that simply isn’t adequately described by the word gravy. I’d made a pecan tart two days before that far surpassed my expectations, the caramel flavor of the filling and the toastiness of the pecans merging to make a dessert I actually liked (I’m not a fan of pecan pie — as a Canadian, I resent the crunchy nuts that interrupt the smoothness of a butter tart-like treat). We started the morning with a semi-traditional Tannenbaum coffee cake, and while it baked, the kids opened their Christmas stockings. After breakfast, we dug into our gifts, enjoying the kids’ delight at their pair of stick horses and other treats. And then we simply enjoyed the day together, Aaron and I working together to finish dinner preparations, watching Christmas specials, reading stories, and going for a traditional Christmas Day walk. Our day was warm, loving, and joyful in a way even a pesky (and short-lived, to my relief) migraine couldn’t spoil.

I just can’t get over how…perfect…this season was. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, so to speak — for a catastrophe, an illness, a personal struggle, or whatever, to mar the succession of joyful, peaceful days. But, other than a few unpleasant migraines (including the one on Christmas Day and one on New Year’s Day), it’s just been a peaceful, joy-filled holiday season. We’ve had struggles this year, with changes to my mental and physical health making their impact on maintaining our two-acre home and on our family dynamic, but for the past couple of months it’s felt as though things are smoothing out. We’ve been able to enjoy baking, playing, decorating, shopping, and being a family. I’m grateful for this holiday season and for my patient and supportive husband, and I’m excited for the new year and all the ventures we’ve planned.

 God’s Finger

I’ve mentioned it a few times, the Big Hemiplegic Migraine that sent me to the ER in a dramatic sort of full body alert that I’d never before experienced, unable to speak or fully use my right side, barely able to remember how to form words on paper, too weak to walk alone, and very very scared. Those big and obvious symptoms have long faded, and now the extreme versions of other symptoms are starting to recede a bit too, but right now those lesser, non-scary symptoms are still somewhat ramped up and extreme, and a little distracting.

My ADHD brain has taken this distraction and run with it, constantly making analogies to explain and categorize the odd sensations I’ve been experiencing. I’ve cataloged them here for your reading pleasure. I hope you enjoy them more than I do.

Nearly all the time, there’s a gentle vibrating tickle at the back of my neck, trailing down my spine. If you were raised in a church with a leaning toward Pentecostal, Apostolic, Charismatic, or some other such Holy Spirit-led group, or belonged to another fervent religious group, this may be a familiar sensation to you. You’re caught up in the heights of ecstatic praise, and a brother or sister or elder begins shouting out a prophetic message in the exact words of the Scripture you read that morning: there it is, that gentle tickle on the back of your neck. A more mundane setting for this sensation might be a struggling single mom who brings a five-dollar coat for her child to the register at a secondhand store, and happens to slip her hand into the pocket, where she finds…a five-dollar bill. I guarantee she feels a tickle on the back of her neck, a shimmer along her spine. That, dear readers, is the finger of God.

I feel the finger of God a lot these days. It’s a little disconcerting. When I was a teenager, my Aunt Gaye and her sister, my sort-of Aunt Julie, used to run their fingers down our spines (or their knuckles, if they felt like being emphatic) when their daughters and nieces were demonstrating poor posture. I grew to half-expect this from my aunts; one never quite expects God’s finger to hover permanently over one’s spine.

Most days, this tickle intensifies and spreads upwards into my scalp. My hair lifts, and my skin prickles. I can describe this one easily, in terms everyone will understand: spooky stories during a sleepover! Or… that feeling when you know you’re sharing space with a ghost.

About fifteen years ago, when I was a student at a Christian college which was part of a network of communes spread across mostly North America (with a few elsewhere worldwide, too), I was visiting friends at the home of one of the commune’s hosting families (that is, they were commune residents who hosted college students during the school year). It was just us five girls, the high-school-aged daughter of the family and four college girls. We knew we were in the house alone; we’d recently been upstairs, where we were the only ones present, and were now down in the kitchen getting a snack. During a pause in conversation, we heard footsteps. Heavy footsteps, above our heads. Five heads swiveled toward the stairs, then back toward each other. Sherri shook her head; no, she confirmed, no one else was home. We listened in utter silence as the footsteps moved back and forth from room to room. And then. The footsteps came to the top of the stairs. We clearly heard footsteps descending. Vertebrae in five necks crackled as our heads whipped toward the staircase, which was in clear view from the kitchen counter.

No one was there.

Oh yes, our scalps were prickling.

I feel that way a lot these days. I’m pursued by ghosts.

Some days, the gentle tickle and the prickling scalp intensify still more and spreads into my face and hands and sometimes my toes. It becomes a tingle punctuated with numb spots. Usually it’s merely bothersome, though occasionally, rarely, it’s enough to make my hands clumsy or make eating difficult. It concentrates around my eye sockets, temples, nostrils, mouth. Sometimes my lips, tongue, and roof of my mouth become partly numb. Is this sounding a bit familiar? Yes, indeed. It’s like a visit to the dentist.

I’m a redhead, incidentally. In addition to feeling certain types of pain differently than other people, redheads are also, weirdly, resistant to certain types of pain medication, like the lidocaine dentists use. Often this isn’t too much of an issue, but I remember one horrific incident. Really unpleasant. My childhood dentist, the wild-eyebrowed, kind-eyed, bluntly-spoken Dr. LeCoq, to whom all the commune mothers took their children, was preparing me for an extra-deep filling one day in my late teens. I’d had plenty of fillings before, and had often felt a little pain with drilling (though the good Dr. LeCoq didn’t entirely believe me), but this time was different. This time, I never went entirely numb.

Dr. LeCoq gave me a shot, told me I would soon be able to feel pressure but not pain, demonstrated by tapping my thumbnail, and left the room. He returned the appropriate amount of time later, cheerfully tapping my gum with some metal instrument of torture. “Ow,” I said. “Huh,” he said, “that’s odd,” and gave me another shot. This continued as long as was ethically allowable — at some point I’d had as much lidocaine as I could possibly have, and he simply had to either drill or let me go home. I was almost numb, really, so I told him to drill. Oh, yes. There’s a reason anesthesia is widely used in modern times.

Well. Anyway. That’s not really the point. The point is, my face often feels like that. It feels like my dentist — who felt terrible about the whole thing, by the way — has given me the first ineffective shot of lidocaine, and I haven’t gone entirely numb: I can smile with both sides of my mouth, talk clearly, eat without drooling; but it feels…funny. On those days, I’m in a perpetual visit to the dentist. But no one’s giving me free toothbrushes.

Most days, that’s as bad as it gets. I mean, there are a few days when the facial sensations are amped up to electric fly swatter levels, when I’m nearly convinced that should a fly happen to land on my face, it would be zapped to death. It’s mildly painful. Mildly, as in, there are mild electrical shocks running across my face and sometimes through my hands without stopping. It could be worse. It’s nothing like sciatica, which feels more like the sensation of running full bore into an electric livestock fence, concentrated into one area of back and hip. So, really, it’s mild. Fly swatter… electric fence… meh, I’ll take the fly swatter, thanks.

So there you have it. If you’re a family member, and a friend is asking after me, and you REALLY feel you wish to give them all the details, just remember: finger of God, ghost stories, dentist’s office, electric fly swatter.

I’m fine, by the way — energy is returning bit by bit, to the point that daily life is about back to normal; migraines have receded completely, thanks to preventative medication; I’ve recovered nearly all the normal use of my right hand, only noticing issues if I’m trying to thread a needle or write in a small space; I haven’t had trouble walking in nearly a month. The painful electrical sensation in my face is rare, usually lasting just a short time. I’m thankful that, so far, this is affecting me less than it seems to affect other people who experience hemiplegic migraines. Those symptoms I listed above? Weird; strange; distracting; sometimes amusing. Almost never painful. They don’t interfere with daily activities. So yes, really: I’m okay. 

I’ll just be even more happy when the finger of God lifts for awhile, the ghost goes off to haunt someone else, the dentist gives up and sends me away, and the batteries in the fly swatter give out.

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Thank You, Little Frog

See this little guy?  

 He saved me today. 

Well, he saved me from turning into the dreaded Mean Mom. You see, for quite awhile now — maybe a month? Maybe two? I’ve been sick more and more frequently with migraine after migraine, till there was no real space between the end of one and the beginning of the next. I wasn’t the greatest mom during that time. I’m pretty sure Niko spent more than the maximum recommended two hours per day watching (usually) educational TV or playing (mostly) skill-building games on the iPad. He came to expect to spend large chunks of time inside, in front of a screen, because both the bright light of the hot summer sun and the movement necessary to keep up with both kids outside caused more pain, nausea, and dizziness than I could handle. 

The migraines came to a climax three Fridays ago — on Aaron’s birthday, no less — with a trip to the emergency room, my very first. If it hadn’t been so terrifying, it would have been great fun, being wheeled around and zipped down hallways and buzzed through a CT machine. At that point I wasn’t in pain, but I also couldn’t speak, had little strength or dexterity in my right hand, couldn’t write cursive or my usual script/print hybrid, could hardly move my right leg, and couldn’t remember how to navigate steps. My face felt like I’d just visited the dentist, numb and tingly. 

I communicated by writing on a notepad at first, taking long seconds to form each letter, sometimes agonizing in an attempt to remember the correct shape. (The nurse in charge of me, who hit an excellent balance between compassion and good humor, complimented me on taking the time to add the apostrophe to “can’t” despite it’s adding at least a full second to the time it took to write the word.)

 Later I got my phone and used my Notes application to type, which was much faster despite my continuing clumsiness.

It wasn’t a stroke. It was a hemiplegic migraine. They’re rare and debilitating. And scary. 

I got my speech back about four hours after I lost it. By that time I could walk on my own, very very very slowly, and could even, with great triumph, navigate two steps: one up and one down on a step stool. The doctor reluctantly let us go home, since all the tests demonstrated I really was okay. 

I didn’t lose my speech again, and I never got that weak again, but for the next week and a half I had some symptoms every day: tingling and numbness, weakness, difficulty walking. A few times I got a small stroller from the garage to use as a walker just so I could get around at a reasonable pace. I had trouble with forgetting words. Sometimes I couldn’t understand when people spoke to me — I knew they must be speaking English, just as clearly as they had been moments before, but I was as bewildered as if they’d broken out in ancient Aramaic. I continued having difficulty writing, especially struggling to manage my signature. I occasionally had trouble getting food into my mouth, and once I got it there, I sometimes couldn’t remember how to use my lips, tongue, and jaw together to get it off the fork and chew. Every day I was tired, so tired. And then there were the typical migraine symptoms: dizziness, vertigo, nausea, light/motion/noise sensitivity, periodic intense neck and jaw and head pain. 

Oh yes, I was a mess. For the most part, I managed. I had migraine pain most days, but usually only for a few hours; the seemingly endless symptoms I listed above were intermittent and only happened a few at a time. Generally I was just slow and dull, unable to do a whole lot beyond cuddle the kids and provide basic care. Niko, who is not yet five, didn’t really get that I was sick. Mostly, he just understood at first that he was watching more TV than usual. Then he came to expect to have the TV or iPad several times a day. 

Last Wednesday, four days ago now, we saw a neurologist to follow up on the ER visit. He prescribed a daily preventative medicine and a new, safer abortive (migraine-stopping) medicine. 

I’m delighted to say that the preventative medicine is working. I did have one migraine the day after starting it — but it had a distinct starting and ending point. I’ve felt entirely normal since. And poor Niko has been comparatively bereft of screen time. He’s been forced to play with toys, run in the yard, help pick vegetables, draw pictures. 

This morning, after breakfast, I was working on processing some of the zillions of zucchini we’ve harvested. I noted that the day appeared pleasantly sunny. I paused to put Sofie on the potty and lay her down for a nap. Then, with Sofie safely out of the way, I called Niko. “Go play on the porch for awhile.”

“Noooo! I want to watch Dinosaur Train!”

“No,” I said firmly. “It’s a good day for being outside. It’s sunny and not too hot. Come on, I’ll get you some bubbles.”

My TV-deprived son flopped on the floor and continued to whine while I headed out to the porch to get the bubble mix out of the toy box on the porch. 

That’s when I saw this little guy, a small green savior in need of rescue. His skin a shade too dry, his body chillier than was comfortable here on the shady porch, he awaited a helping hand. “Niko!” I called. “Come look!” He rushed out, excited to see whatever mystery I was advertising. The frog brought complete satisfaction. I let Niko be in charge of delivering him to the pond, where he wasted no time frog-kicking his way to a safe hiding place on the far side of the water.  

 
Yes, that little green peeper rescued me today. Having put the frog back into the pond, my son was more than happy to stay outside in the fresh air, blowing bubbles, hanging from the tree, and drawing with chalk. Thanks to a thumb-sized amphibian, I didn’t have to put my foot down and be Mean Mom just to get my screen-habituated son some fresh air. Thank you, green frog.