Where to start…?

Dawn in my Treehouse feels warm, secure, and surreal. A mile away, wind generators roar with the pulsing beat of helicopter blades from a neighbor’s marijuana field fending off frost. I hear the fridge humming and the coffee pot clicking with heat while sending a fat burbling steaming stream into the glass carafe.

My ears also ring from damage by 427 inch motors howling too close, or the squall of a 4-cylinder diesel engine inches from my head in the confined space beneath the cockpit of the boat. Or maybe from chainsaws while cutting up firewood decades ago. Or rock concerts from decades before that.

Or maybe my ears just echo with waves of compressed time. It’s that kind of morning.

It’s good to be back in the Treehouse. No, it’s not really a treehouse, but the living room on the high second floor is mostly windows that look out into green branches of juniper and pine on a hilltop surrounded by mountains. It feels to me like a treehouse so that’s what I call it. The outside is built of rusting steel, the inside done in golds and yellows and copper. I was cold when I built it a decade ago so I built it warm in fact and in feel.

It’s been almost a year since Irish and I took the boat north to Victoria, spent most of the winter there, then on to Alaska and back. An intense, at times frightening, awe-inspiring, cold, frustrating, rewarding, year. The boat now sits on her buoy, rotating on twice-a-day tides, drawing one and one-half amps an hour from an 800 hour battery bank.

I need to get some solar panels so that I don’t kill the batteries. But to do that I need a place to put the panels, and so I need to build the hard-top, which I’ve designed and redesigned and then redesigned, but to install the hard top I need to move the boom up eight inches, which means I need to get the sail cut …

The coffee pot just beeped three times to tell me it’s done keeping the coffee hot and if I want another cup, I’d better get a move on. That’s a good reminder about being in the moment, this moment, here in the Treehouse.

Alaska was tough on Irish, but she was tougher. She not only had to deal with the fear of being on the boat that tried to kill her last December and took her right eye, but then had to leave the Alaska trip for follow-up medical visits back in Oregon. While she was gone there were two different female crew members on board she had never met and no way to communicate assurances and all that. It was tough. Then the push back to Friday Harbor, almost a thousand miles, to see my daughters off to Japan.

Social Security denied her application for benefits. Parkinson’s, Fibromyalgia, nor the loss of an eye and inability to read did not convince the agency that Irish was disabled. They assert she should continue as a project manager running multi-person teams developing assessment data for America’s students. They understand neither her condition nor her work, or don’t care.

There were times I didn’t think Irish would make it on the boat. When she didn’t seem to remember that she was not supposed to get off the boat while it was moving. When she set the fender too high and we hit the dock — a depth perception problem from having only one eye. When she couldn’t see the log we hit that took out our water speed gauge, the result of seeing through a cloud of what she called her “starlings,” the mass of floaters in her good eye.

She’d been complaining of seeing spots. We had the eye examined in May before leaving, didn’t get many answers but some assurances they would fade with time. The eye was examined again in July when Irish was in Portland for an eye “realignment.” Again, nothing serious.

But Irish was concerned enough when we got back that she moved an appointment set for the end of October up to the middle of September. Good thing. “Cobblestones” at the edge of the retina. Cloudiness around the optic nerve. “So much different than July!” said her doctor, who then referred us to another doctor, who then referred us to a third, all in the same day. Glad we were at Casey Eye Institute where there were many experts.

The chance was only .05 percent that her body would try to reject her good eye after the damage from the fall, but that’s the most likely explanation of what’s going on. They’re going to rule out TB and other diseases that could be the cause of inflammation, but it seems that rejection is most probable. Now she has eye-drops, next week huge doses of systemic steroids, then immune-suppressant drugs probably for a lifetime.

No tears, no panic. We’re both probably in a state of shock. But this could change a few things. We’ll be doing a few calendared events a little sooner. A birthday-present trip to New Orleans may be celebrated a little earlier than planned.

But right now, she can still see and is on a couch not far from this chair. Outside some birds are loudly cheering the 30 pounds of feed I hung in the juniper below the huge windows that let warm sun pour into this room. I’ll ask Irish if I can get her another cup on my way to the coffee pot.


Irish: Pain, and Fear

by Jane Miller

My world exploded on Thursday, but the fuse was ignited on Monday when I was fired from my job. I had more than half expected it, work was a toxic environment at best, but the finality of it was daunting.

Erik was determined to keep my spirits up though, and we set off on a walkabout. Being in Victoria with him, being on the boat with him, just being with him made me irrepressibly happy. I was afraid, though, what this change in employment and finances would bring to our relationship. My voice shook as I nervously asked him if he could still date an unemployed miscreant who couldn’t hold down a job. I had learned long ago that there were perils to asking a question to which one did not know the answer.

Four days later, I fell while stepping from one side of the boat to the other.

Erik remembers the sound, and for that I am sorry. His expression changes when he remembers.

I remember the pain. I lost myself as it enveloped me. I screamed and the pain was excruciating. “ERIK!” I begged him to make the pain go away, even as I knew he couldn’t. I begged God to make it stop. But it didn’t. I lost words and could only say “Oh” as I rocked back and forth, trying to comfort myself.

Erik described the logistics and the sequence of events. How the paramedics found the boat because of the flashing Christmas lights. What he did not know, though, was that when the paramedics went to work on me, asking questions, completing their triage, I heard one of them catch his breath and say, “Is that her cheekbone?”

One of them gently palpitated the back of my neck, and when I said that it hurt (such varying degrees and kinds of pain I was experiencing) I remembered my neck surgery – a discectomy and fusion at C4-5 and C5-6. The paramedics insisted on putting me in a cervical collar. It was made for someone larger than me, and threatened to choke me, but I was too close to unconsciousness to care.

I don’t remember how I left the boat. As I piece together the events, I realize I must have walked off with the help of the paramedics. There I was, with what ended up being a crushed nose, shattered cheek, my right orbit broken in pieces too numerous to count, a ruptured eye, and a depressive skull fracture … walking off the boat.

As I was put on the gurney, my only thought, though, was knowing where Erik was. As long as he was with me, as long as I could hear his voice, I knew I would live. Being essentially blind, I needed to hear his strength through the sound of his voice and the touch of his warm fingers. If I lost that, I was afraid that I would crawl inside myself and never be able to come out.

The pain had the power to drive me to ground, and Erik was the only anchor in a too-dark world.

I was triaged at one hospital, then transferred with lights and sirens to the Royal Jubilee hospital, which had an ophthalmological surgery unit. A new voice entered my world as Dr. Taylor explained the extent of damage and the low probability of either saving my eye or my sight. I finally had enough pain meds in my system so I could breathe, and I knew Erik was with me, but I clung to his voice as they wheeled me to the OR.

Call my family,” I asked Erik. “But after surgery.”

Surgery on my eye lasted three-and-a-half hours. It had basically exploded and was torn more than half way around. I’d lost the iris, and there was so much blood an ultrasound couldn’t locate any retina left. I spent the next three days in recovery. The surgeons didn’t try to repair my crushed face, leaving that for later.

Erik made appointments for me with the best doctors back in Oregon as soon as I could travel. He organized air travel so there would be wheelchairs waiting every step of the way. He rarely left my side, sleeping on the couch in my hospital room, waking with me every two hours when nurses came in to apply medication. On Sunday, the day before we left, he made me walk around the hospital ward.

Still, I was terrified by the question I had asked about whether he could love me when I had lost my job. Now, how could he love an unemployed miscreant with one blind eye? How would we do this? How could I sail? Erik was the first to point out that I became seasick in rough seas, that I was afraid when the boat heeled over too far. How would I be now? We had started to work on the deficits that came with Parkinson’s, but this …

This was a deficit I didn’t know we could overcome. Erik had had this dream for twenty years – sailing, Fiji, trans-Pacific crossings – but his dream had not included a partner with such failings. But I didn’t ask. I couldn’t ask.

We arrived in Oregon four days after my fall and saw a doctor at the Casey Eye Institute the next day. We set up appointments to have another ultrasound, made plans to repair the bones in my face, and began ultimate plans to try to save my eye. Little did we know it would all be for naught.

Two weeks after the fall we were sitting in the retinologist’s office, going over the ultrasound that had just been taken, being told of the poor prognosis of seeing even light and dark, the medical hazards involved in keeping a blind eye, and the recommendation of surgery to remove the eye completely. It was difficult to breathe.

We needed a break, we needed to eat, talk, hold hands. Decide what to do.

I was now an unemployed miscreant with one prosthetic eye. Good grief. How was this going to fit in with Fiji? This wasn’t how it was supposed to be.

This time, though, we didn’t mention the boat. We didn’t mention sailing. We just talked about what would be best for my health and for us. I told him I loved him, which I do all the time. He told me he loved me, too.