Tag Archives: tire swing

delicious ambulando

how many tattoos do you have?

i kind of have 9, but 5 of them really go together to make 1. so 5 total? as of a few weeks ago, i have 11. or 10. or 6. or 7.

for a while i’ve been putting together plans for new tattoos – 2 that make up 1. on april 3rd, i brought it all to denise, my friend and tattoo artist, and she made them happen.

i’ll explain.

in middle school, my buddy robyn and i got pretty obsessed with the early days of saturday night live. we loved dan aykroyd, jane curtin, steve martin, buck henry, candice bergen, bill murray, andy kaufman.

and gilda radner. come one. i wanted to be gilda radner. she was funny and bold and adorable all at the same time.


soon after we discovered gilda, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. i watched her continue to live her life as funny and bold and adorable. she died on may 20th, 1989. i carried her obituary in my wallet for years.

robynlee and kristelee. on the verge of some delicious ambiguity.

robynlee and kristelee. women on the verge of some delicious ambiguity.

after my own medical drama i came upon a quote from her autobiography. “now i’ve learned, the hard way, that some poems don’t rhyme, and some stories don’t have a clear beginning, middle, and end. life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what’s going to happen next. delicious ambiguity.” with that, gilda explained to me how to continue to live my life after it was radically changed by my brain tumor. my recovery wouldn’t have been the same without her.

so for years I’ve been wanting to get a tattoo of that phrase, “delicious ambiguity.” my tattoos are all symmetrical along my midline – balance is a big problem for me in my body, so i guess i’m trying to not make it worse. i thought about where was left for a “delicious ambiguity” tattoo. below my clavicle was a spot that appealed to me. so while i googled clavicle tattoo images, i thought about what could go on the other side.

a clavicle tattoo i liked (ignore the birds)

a clavicle tattoo i liked (ignore the birds)

a few years back, i came upon the term “solvitur ambulando.” it’s latin for “it is solved by walking.” which made me think about the shift in how i think about walking. before my medical drama, i didn’t really walk. i grew up in southern california, so my instinct was to drive everywhere. i spent a lot of time in my car. then in 2009 i lost my ability to walk (and also drive). relearning how to walk took several years, a few great teachers, and a lot of practice.

dennis was my physical therapist during my stay in a phoenix nursing home. he spent a lot of time holding me up by a gait belt, making me look at myself in a mirror to convince my brain that, even though i felt like i was leaning way over to the right, i was in fact standing straight up.

the therapy folks at capri (that's dennis on the right) - they had never seen me stand up on my own

the therapy folks at capri (that’s dennis in the middle) – this was the first time they’d seen me stand up with a walker

anne was my home health physical therapist when i got back to corvallis. she taught me how to get in and out of my wheelchair, crawl around on the floor, and walk around my parents’ pool table as i held on for dear life. she got me back on my feet with a walker, but walking was hard and scary (i envisioned falling through the windows of shops as i walked by).

anne is remembering teaching me how to crawl

anne is remembering teaching me how to crawl

next was brian, the second brian to appear in my life at the exact moment when i desperately needed him.

the first brian

the first brian

brian wilson became my physical therapist after anne. i liked him right away – we laughed a lot (mainly at me) and i had a good time during my appointments. he started me walking with a cane right away – fyi, it’s terrifying to go from two-handed walking to one-handed. after i stopped seeing him in the clinic, we got together a few times for “therapy in the wild.” once we met up on a playground – he had always wanted to put me on a tire swing and turn me the opposite way from my vertigo to see if it would unwind my dizziness. it didn’t – but i was able to get on and off the swing without wiping out, so that was big progress. we played a little wallball with brian’s wife, brittany, and then he put me on a bike and ran around the playground pushing me like he was my dad.

good practice for when his new daughter, shelby, is ready to ride

good practice for when his new daughter, shelby, is ready to ride

to practice walking with a cane, every day i’d try to go for a walk that was a little longer than the day before – the “feeling stronger every day” plan. i remember exactly where i was when i realized that walking had gone from something that scared me to something i enjoyed. at the time, there wasn’t a lot that i enjoyed – generally, the things i did during the day were difficult and required a lot of concentration. but thanks to dennis and anne and brian, i had an outlet. walking became something that i did for fun, and when i had something on my mind. it was free, it didn’t require help, and i could do it wherever i was. i started exploring, and that was a huge part of my psychological return to the world.

b & b at t

brian and brittany at tumorfest

brian and brittany decided to move to montana, and i had dinner with them the night before they left. i was still carrying a cane but not using it – it was a marker that let people know that they needed to be careful around me, and brian really wanted me to stop. it was raining that evening, and since my left arm is too wonky to hold an umbrella, i had a choice to make – cane or umbrella. when i walked through the restaurant door, brian noticed right away that i didn’t have my cane, and he made a big deal about it. he realized that i had done a scary thing – his faith in me was the reason that i kept trying new things, kept trying to get rid of things that restricted me. he was the first friend i made who hadn’t known me before my medical drama, which made his faith in me matter even more – he was basing that faith in who i was after, which made me have more faith in myself. i really can’t describe how important he has been in my life.

so instead of trying to describe it, i asked him to write “solvitur ambulando” for my tattoo. it was an opportunity to take my unending gratitude and make it visible.

brian and robyn's drafts for my tattoo

brian and robyn’s drafts for my tattoo

when my buddy emily and i went to the bay area a few years back, i bought lovely california poppies letter-pressed notecards. i love my home state’s flower, and when i thought about these clavicle tattoos, i envisioned the poppies on one side. robyn’s side, since we grew up in california.

letterheadfor the other side, i wanted sweet peas (my favorite flower) in a similar craftsman style. i decided to put brian & the sweet peas under my left clavicle because my left side is the wonky one from my stroke.

i sent denise this drawing as inspiration

i sent denise this drawing as inspiration

i gave some thought to the color of the flowers, and since i love the orange of the poppies, i wanted the sweet peas to also be bright and vivid. i found this picture and knew that it was what i wanted the sweet peas to look like.


i brought all of these ingredients to denise and she combined them and improved them. getting the tattoos took a few hours, but mainly because we were chatting a lot. denise has been and continues to be a big player in my recovery. my tattoos are lovely – exactly what i wanted but so much more beautiful than that. they’re easily concealed, but they also reveal themselves differently depending on the neckline of the shirt i’m wearing. the way denise worked the words in is exquisite (robyn’s response).

morning after

this evening denise is going to touch up some leaves and darken the poppies.

my new tattoos are funny and bold and adorable. and i’m grateful for the people who are all woven together in them.






the woman with two brians

so much of my recovery has been boosted by being in the right place at the right time. which brings me to my two brians. yep, you read that right. not my two brains – the one i have is plenty and doing just fine.

the first brian to appear in my recovery was my nurse brian.

brian threw me a cheesecake party when i left the nursing home.

the first 4 weeks after my surgery are really nonexistent or a blur in my memory. by week 5 i was starting to be more aware of what was going on. i was in 6n, which is the neuroward at st. joseph’s hospital. i had a pretty serious brain injury and was on some pretty serious meds. the memories i have of my time in 6n mainly have to do with brian. he was my nurse – it feels like for all of that 5th week but that seems unlikely now. but he was there when it really counted – 6n that week (must have been early september) was the right place at the right time for me.

i’ve written recently about how brian helped get bob dole back with the program. that wasn’t all he did. my sense of balance was basically destroyed during the surgeries. it’s improved with a lot of hard work (i feel like i’m faking it), but in those early weeks and months it was pretty much shot. in the hospital i was basically in bed all the time, and i was still crazy-dizzy. on the rare occasions that i did get out of bed, i needed help to sit up on the bed and to stand up. later in the nursing home my mom drew “horizons” and taped them up on the wall so i’d have something to look out when i was standing up, always with someone who had a firm hold on me. eventually my brain learned that when i felt like i was leaning way over to the side i was actually sitting/standing straight up – it took almost a year until i felt safe sitting in armless chairs. but back on 6n all of that was far away. brian made it his goal to get me out of bed and sitting in the big hospital chair. i didn’t want to – whenever i even just sat up i felt like i was on the teacups at disneyland. he swore that i’d just have to sit there for a minute. i finally gave in and let him help me out of bed. i got into the chair and he walked away. in my memory, he waved to me from the door and said he’d be back in an hour or so. i’m sure that there was some serious cursing and that the bird was flying from both hands – but i wasn’t actually angry, i thought it was funny. he played it all just right for me. at that time i was really struggling with trying to bring my personality into focus, and he somehow knew just the right way to do it. how did he know that? i’m forever in his debt for that. i can feel it in my chest while i type this. i was so scared that my personality was lost, but he saw it and gave it back to me. there really isn’t a better gift.

brian likely helped me get into this chair.

another brian story can illustrate how bad things were back then. i was hallucinating a lot (i remember seeing things, and sometimes thinking that my mom and my neurosurgeon were conspiring to kill me by slicing off my head in an mri machine). when i transferred to a nursing home after week 5 in the hospital i was fairly convinced that my buddy brian was someone i made up. we had talked about facebook and i remember him saying that if i sent him a friend request he might approve it. soon after i left the hospital i got a friend request from him. i made my mom read it to me over and over. that and patrick swayze (a story for another time) were major contributions to me actually realizing that the 4 brain surgeries and crazy balance and living in a nursing home were all real things.

a good year or so later i emailed brian about that friend request conversation. he said, “and do you remember what you said next?” i didn’t, so he told me, “you said, ‘uh, you just changed my diaper. i’m pretty sure we’re friends.'” i replied with, “you’re a neuronurse. do you become friends with everyone whose diaper you change? now i feel cheap.” his response was, “the only people who’ve gone from diaper-changing to friends are you and my kids.” see? amazing.

5 months after my first surgery, my neurosurgeons in phoenix looked at my mri and decided that i needed another surgery. so my mom and i packed again and headed to arizona (much more complicated than the first time – i had a lot of meds to manage and was still in a wheelchair most of the time). when i got down there, the surgeon who was going to operate decided that the surgery was more risky than the condition (a collapsed ventricle in my brain).

i'm in the green sweatshirt, waiting for tests to show that i didn't need a 5th brain surgery that week.

so the trip to phoenix was rechristened the recovereunion. the docs wanted me to stick around for some more tests, so instead of heading right back to oregon my mom and i checked out museums (a great place to test out my newfound walker-walking abilities), watched football with my cousin mark and his family, went to the zoo with our old friend pat, made a visit to my nursing home, and went out to dinner with my tumorfest speech therapist, tina, and her family. brian had been planning to visit me in the hospital, but he took me out to lunch instead. it was great to sit and visit with him (in a booth with no armrests!). just felt wonderful.

brian has even given me some very helpful parenting advice since my phoenix days. i had some difficult times with my foster daughter who i adopted, and i reached out to “my forcefield” for help. here’s what brian said: “Sometimes I remind myself of a few thoughts on chaos: Chaos creates opportunities if you can quietly observe it without being consumed by it. The best vantage point is not one of looking in from the outside; it’s best viewed from the ‘eye of the storm’ as it swirls around you. Stay detached and observe.” that has really stayed with me and has helped me get to a healthy place about what happened, and continues to happen.

the other brian is brian, my former physical therapist. i had a physical therapist, dennis when i was in the nursing home – he worked a lot on helping me rewire my brain to know how to tell when i was in a straight line. lots of standing at a railing (with him holding on to my gait belt). my next pt was anne. anne was my home health physical therapist when i got back to oregon. she worked with me in my parents’ house for a few months – she taught me how to crawl, and how to walk with a walker.

brian and his wife brittany at tumorfest 2011

then brian was next. i started seeing him when i was able to get out of my parents’ house. at the time, i was just starting to use a walker. i liked brian right away – like my nurse brian he was able to give me just enough of a hard time, and with kindness and a great sense of humor. i remember that the first time i saw him he asked me what i wasn’t able to do that i missed. i said playing wallball and hiking. he said that he’d have me back doing both of them. at the time i laughed. i was still needing to use my wheelchair a lot of the time – i couldn’t even imagine being able to do either one of those things again.

going to my physical therapy appointment was always thrilling. the folks in the office were so kind and encouraging, and brian always had interesting and challenging things for me to do. he taught me how to one-hand walk – for those of you who haven’t had to do it, the switch from two-hand walking (with a walker) to one-hand walking is unimaginably scary. but brian got me there. even to no-hand walking, but that comes later.

on my way to physical therapy early in my one-hand walking days. this is not the correct way to wear a gait belt.

i’ve learned that the match with a physical therapist is important. and once you’ve found the right match and developed trust (physical therapists – this is important! give your client/patient things to do that they can be successful with.), having an “i’ll try anything” attitude will take you far.

i think that sometimes brian had me try things for his own amusement. and why not? i was known to do the same thing when i was teaching elementary school. one day he told me to get up on the trampoline. i’ll try anything, so i got on it. this is one of those little kid ones with the bar to hold onto. i started jumping. it was an incredible feeling. i don’t think i can describe it. elation. it was one of the greatest feelings i’ve ever felt. now, as good as brian is, i don’t think that he put me up there to make me feel elated. i think he probably though that something funny would happen, and he was right. as i was jumping up there, feeling elated, i started to laugh hysterically. jumping and laughing like a toddler. i looked around the physical therapy office and saw that everyone had stopped what they were doing to stare at me. which made me laugh even more. when brian came over and said that it was time to try something else, i really wanted to punch him. i was just having pure fun. now, if someone had recorded it, it would have gone viral.

after maybe 9 months of therapy, brian had helped me get to a place where i didn’t need to go to PT anymore. i was excited, and bummed too. brian and i had gotten to be friends by then, and he suggested that we get together sometimes as friends and do what i called “physical therapy in the wild” – like once he met me at my old gym and helped me figure out how to safely use the equipment there so that i could start going back there to get exercise.

but my favorite physical therapy in the wild was the saturday when we met up at a school playground. brian’s wife brittany came along. brian finally got to put me on a tire swing. my vertigo makes everything spin to the right, and for a while brian had wanted to see what would happen if i spun to the left – would it unwind me? so i got on the tire swing and he spun me. nothing happened other than me being able to get off the swing and walk to whatever was next – not bad for a woman who couldn’t even be in the same room with a moving ceiling fan months earlier. as an elementary school teacher i’ve spent a lot of time playing playground games, and the three of us played a few. horse, four square, and even wallball just like brian had promised.

brian even took me for a wobbly but successful spin.

brian has managed to be a friend who also happens to have an expertise in something helpful to me. an example is a few months ago when i posted on facebook that i had walked 2.5 miles without my cane touching the ground. a stream of people offered congratulations and encouragement. brian piped in with something about my cane being a security blanket and that i should try going for a walk without it. i said that i would if he and brittany would come with me. we made plans to walk that weekend, and the two of them joined my grandmother and i for our traditional sunday $2 early bird breakfast special at the dive bar down my street. i left my cane at home. it was amazing to be out without it. after that successful caneless walk, i still carry a cane because it’s a marker that people need to be careful around me. but i almost never need to use it, so i carry it in my wonky left hand which leaves my right hand open to do amazing things like carry a beverage or an umbrella. and all because brian saw an opportunity to challenge me and took it.

this spring when i was able to move into a more accessible apartment downtown, i asked my friends for help loading and unloading my furniture and boxes. brian and brittany came early, brought their truck, and stayed until i was all squared away. and they smiled and laughed and chatted with my other friends who came to help. today brian and brittany are moving from corvallis to montana. and i’m honored that they invited me to have a meal and a drink with them on their last night in town. i’ll miss having both around, but i’m excited about this new step for them.

brian made good on his hiking promise, too.

in so many ways my life would have been different without these two men. they both have spots my permanent thanksgiving card list. i’m so thankful that i was in the right place at the right time so that i get to know these folks, and i’m just genuinely glad to call them my friends.