Life, Immobilized

I have a guest blogger today! My sister Amanda was inspired to write about her experience of returning to the office after sixteen months away, and I wanted to share it with you. Enjoy!  

-Em : )

I drove to the office this week to have my laptop fixed, my first time back in over a year. I stood in the hallway where there was once hustle and bustle, and the only word that came to mind was “forlorn.”  As I walked down those abandoned halls, an eerie feeling overtook me.

I look at my reflection in the glass panels that once greeted those that entered and exited the rooms lining the hallway. There is no one on the other side of the glass. Disembodied voices of past occupants bounce off empty room walls. I glance in each room as I continue to my desk. Whiteboards display notes from meetings, details of work to finish — work long since completed from a home office.

I seemed to be in alternate world where time stopped.  I asked myself, maybe even mouthed the words, is this what Chernobyl looked like?  

Streets are empty, not a person to be found. A kettle sits on the stove. Bikes clutter the front lawn tipped over where they landed, at the ready for the next big adventure. Chalkboards display spelling words from the lesson of the day. Clothes hang on the line waiting for people to return from their daily errands and commitments. 

It may seem odd to connect such different events, the COVID 19 pandemic and the Chernobyl disaster. Both were devastating and unforeseen. Both have silent killers lurking, something we can’t smell, see, or taste. Both emptied schools and offices. 

The Chernobyl accident occurred at a nuclear power plant in the Ukraine in 1986.  The explosion in Pripryat resulted in radioactive fallout, laying a blanket of radioactive dust as the contamination plume spread across eastern Europe. Surprisingly, the death toll was relatively low in comparison to the magnitude of the accident, but post exposure-related illnesses are still being documented.    

The COVID 19 pandemic, on the other hand, has resulted in many deaths and continues to plague the world. Post COVID complications are already being documented. 

Both events have commonalities of science, time, and distance. 

The aftermath of Chernobyl is dictated by the very black and white laws of radiation physics, where the only solution is time and distance. The rule is the inverse square law: by doubling your distance from the source of radiation, you are quartering the dose received. With respect to time and radioisotopes, each has a characteristic rate at which it will decay, a half-life. This can range from fractions of a second to a shocking, almost unbelievable number of years. It is a waiting game.

COVID 19 was also dictated by science where the early solution was time and distance.  Allow scientists time to research and develop a vaccine and in the interim, maintain six feet of distance (and other precautionary directives that require human cooperation). As time passed, science has provided a detection method (where I think they swab your brain twice via not one but both nostrils), treatment and the dedicated clinicians that studied science and medicine to treat those suffering, and a vaccine.

In Pripryat, some of those that lived within the evacuated exclusion zone have moved back. Others have made a home elsewhere. Some of us who evacuated office life as we knew it to “shelter in place” are venturing out again. We are still navigating our way through the new normal.

I am linked to each of these events that uprooted and paused life; explicitly to one, implicitly to the other.  I lived through one and I can’t forget the consequences of the other.    

The study and use of radiation specifically in oncology is my life and livelihood.  

I am proud to be a part of a dedicated group of people who have chosen to focus their lives on radiation medicine.  We know all too well the devastation radiation can cause. These topics were part of our clinical education. These topics are part of our current safety discussions. Patient safety is always first and foremost on our minds.

These empty halls I walked, evacuated by a pandemic, these whiteboard discussions I heard when I closed my eyes, these vacant desks where papers lay all center on one topic, the development of software used every day in radiation oncology clinics across the globe. 

-Amanda Lambeth-Meyers

Sister’s Keeper: Coda

One day, Amanda woke up without pain. She didn’t quite trust the feeling, strange as it was. But then it came back the next day, and stayed the next. And she realized that, maybe, this is what wellness feels like. This is what it feels like when your body is your friend.

She took a risk, and the outcome is good. I could not be happier for her.

Wherever you go, there you are, and by “you” I mean your body. When the body hurts, you can’t just unzip it and come back to it later. You can’t just download yourself onto a hard drive and abandon your skin-and-bones bag. (Not yet, anyway.) Your body is you. At times, pain is the price we pay for living in bodies, without ever having asked for the privilege. While tending to my sister, I gained a great deal of compassion for people who feel betrayed by their bodies in one way or another.

Recently, I decided to read through the gospels. I noticed that Jesus taught many lessons and healed many people, but the emotion that often compelled him, according to the four writers, was compassion. Repeatedly, he was moved with compassion for the people who followed him, clamoring for attention, trapped in broken bodies.

By the time my sister went through with surgery, she’d been the beneficiary of many prayers, mine included. But, in all of those prayers, I never asked God to take her pain and give it to me instead. I wouldn’t have asked for diseased joints – gotta draw the line somewhere – but I could have asked to bear part of the burden of pain. I didn’t have the courage for it. Maybe I didn’t have enough compassion. These are the thoughts one thinks while lying on an air mattress waiting for the sun to come up.


In a broken world, we each will need healing many times, until that day of ultimate healing when our wholeness is finally sealed:

“God will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

But for now, when we take care of someone, when we offer some tiny morsel of relief, we add one more patch to the repair of the world, tikkun olam.


I wrote earlier that our care-giving gig was easy because we were reasonably certain Amanda would recover and come out stronger on the other side. Far too many caregivers don’t have the luxury of such assurance. And so I end this series with a prayer for the caregiver:

God, source of all that is good, give comfort and strength to the caregivers of the world.

The mom of a newborn, deprived of sleep and wondering what she’s gotten herself into.

The daughter at the deathbed, all too aware of how this will end, but still offering her hand to steady the dying man on his way.

The dad of a child with needs so special they’re hard to explain, overwhelmed with contingencies and emergencies, with no rest or reprieve in sight.

The woman or man struggling to keep head above water, pulled under by a spouse drowning in despair.

The ones who tend those whose bodies have betrayed them.

The nurses, doctors, and helpers doing their best to repair the world one bandage at a time. Thank you for the revelation of medical science; how lucky we are to be alive right now.

And help us, God, to remember the best bandage is love. Amen.

PS: This is the final entry in a series. If you missed the previous one, find it here. To go back to the first one, click here.

dorothy day

Sister’s Keeper, ix (Well on Her Way)

Hi, Reader – This is Part 9 in a series. If you missed the beginning, hop back to Part 1. As always, thanks for reading!  ~Em

I helped Amanda out over the summer not so I could write about it, but in writing about it I remembered our bond. Over the years, I guess I’d forgotten how fortunate I am to have a sister.

“Having a sister or friend is like sitting at night in a lighted house,” writes Marilynne Robinson in Housekeeping. “Those outside can watch you if they want, but you need not see them.” She’s right, there’s something safe and insular about sisterhood. She’s my very first friend, and our shared forty-plus years mean that the roots run deep and tangled.

Strangers sometimes ask if we’re twins and appear mildly doubtful that we’re not. As I replied to a stranger late one night at Walgreens, “No, but we’re practically the same person.” He probably thought I was a few trombones short of a jazz band, but I was being truthful. There’s no one on the planet more like her than me, and vice versa.

When we were little, Mom had a parenting book called The Strong-Willed Child. I remember scanning the titles on the shelf and wondering, what’s that one about? At some point, I learned it was my mom’s survival guide for managing my sister. Amanda was always fearless and, I suppose, what Dr. Dobson might have called “strong willed.” She was a pistol. She was liable to get a knot jerked in her tail. (Do grandmas still make threats like that?) But it was that strong will that carried her through hard times, recent struggles included. God made her a strong-willed child, and that’s a blessing, because she had to be.

I was not a strong-willed child; I go along to get along. Some other time I’ll write about the basic dishonesty of my compliance. Maybe only siblings can be practically the same person and, at the same time, so dramatically different. In any case, this past summer the main difference was I had the chance to take care of her in the best way I could, and she had to endure it. Maybe she’ll have a chance to return the favor. If not, that’s okay, too.


Once, when we were little, we were playing at a friend’s house—four kids under age five running wild. At some point, Amanda decided to put a paper bag over her head and run wild, until she ran smack into the living room wall. I can still recall the spot where she hit, white paint, sunlit, twelve inches below the light switch. She ended up having to get her forehead stitched up.

For many years after, a half-inch scar marked the middle of her forehead. In the summer, it stood out white against suntanned skin. Eventually it faded, then disappeared altogether. Early this fall, on the flat landscape of that long-gone scar, I dabbed a cross of peppermint oil.

I had forgotten the faith-healing of my upbringing–mostly–the fierce quoting of scripture as if God was being held to the terms of a contract. It wasn’t deliberate, just pushed to the back corner of my mind with other cobwebby childhood memories. But do you ever completely outgrow the religious tradition you knew early on?

So it’s 9 a.m. on a Thursday morning in September, and I’m at Amanda’s house responding to a desperate text message. She’s home-bound with a cluster headache, and I’ve brought over an essential oil diffuser. When you’ve tried everything modern medicine and old-time religion can offer, might as well fill the room with a cloud of good smells.

As she gets settled under the covers, I plug in the diffuser. But before leaving her to rest, I’m compelled to do one more thing. I pour a small bead of peppermint oil on my thumb. I reach over and mark her forehead with a tiny, cross-shaped smear of oil and say a simple prayer for healing.

Did it work? She was better within a day, so either it ran its course or I should buy a sharp suit and white sweat hankie. God is good, regardless, and I’d argue that one way prayer works is that it makes us humble. It reminds us that some things—maybe most things—are out of our hands. It’s like standing at the edge of the ocean.

It seems, finally, that Amanda has made it to the shore. I admire her courage in confronting pain and doing something about it. I admire her patient endurance, when it would have been tempting to self-destruct or just give up. I respect the character she’s building by trusting deeply in God while working to strengthen her body and mind. And I can see the hope that’s growing in her: it gleams like a white scar, but it’s tougher than a diamond.

Wellness is a big step toward wholeness. And she is well on her way.

Amanda xray

Amanda’s new bionic jaws. Smile!

Sister’s Keeper, vii (Bloody Knuckles)

My sister is independent. If she feels like a trip to the thrift store ten minutes before closing time, she goes. If she wants chips and salsa, she’s dining at Chevy’s as a party of one. Being a patient is hard, especially depending on others to keep track of her medicine and drive her around. It’s not easy to shift to child-like dependence.

I’ve written before about how my brain sometimes confuses my daughter and my little sister. The simple truth is I have an impulse to mother both of them. Although Amanda hasn’t said anything, I think she’s grown sick of me calling her “dear” and “darlin’,” names I call Caroline. But caregiving suits me: I like the challenge of anticipating needs and meeting them. I like that aspect of parenting, too.

In this second phase of 24-hour shifts, I feel guilty leaving Phil and Caroline, leaving my own house in a mess. Sure, they can cope without me, but they don’t think about things like wiping off countertops or trimming overgrown bushes.

The lilac bushes are driving me crazy. Every time I pull into the garage, I fixate on the dead limbs. It’s a low-priority concern in the big scheme of things, but it’s driving me batty.

One evening, I’m ready to go to my sister’s house a bit before my shift officially begins. I decide to trim the lilac bush in those few spare minutes. The dead limbs are near the ground at an awkward angle, and I struggle to get the hacksaw moving back and forth. As my right hand saws and my left hand steadies the dead branch, I watch helplessly as the blade bounces out of the groove straight across my taut knuckles. Blood immediately gushes to the surface. I drop the saw and run to the kitchen sink. As I run cold water over the cut, I deeply regret using a saw in haste.

Caroline brings me a robot-print Band-aid. Considering the stream of blood, a jumbo maxi pad might be more appropriate. I hold a paper towel on my knuckle for several minutes and stick on the robot Band-aid with strips of surgical tape to hold it in place.

When I get to Amanda’s house, she’s out of bed shuffling around in her robe, an unusual sight. She wonders aloud about the mess on her dining room table—crossword puzzles, books, old photos, Pop-tart crumbs—and I’m not really up for explaining that we have to entertain ourselves during these long sojourns.

Unfortunately, I already used up all my patience, my hand is throbbing, and she wants me to peel back the bandage so she can decide if I need stitches. This role reversal irritates me: doesn’t she know I’m the mother? But, of course, I’m not the mother. I’m the big sister, and it’d be smart to get a second opinion on my wound.

I win the first round, insisting I’d rather eat toenails than wait all night in the ER.

I lose the next round. That night, as my knuckle throbs, I toss and turn on the air mattress. After a few hours I realize: maybe this is where true empathy begins, not with the big sister ordering the little sister to drink the whole dose, lording it over her because, well, I’m the healthy one and I know best. Maybe real empathy begins here, with my left hand—my pill-crushing hand—useless because every time I grip something, dots of blood seep out of the bandage.

This minor woundedness, nowhere near the scale of hers, opens the door to understanding how it feels to want to do normal things while being thwarted by limitations.

A friend of mine who underwent the same surgery as Amanda answered my questions about her recovery, one of which was, “How long until you felt like a human again?” She knew what I was asking, which was how long it took to get back to normal. But when we’re wounded, in pain, hindered by limitations, that’s when we’re most human.

There’s nothing less human than the illusion of perfection: perfect health, perfect relationships, perfect certainty. Pain, on the other hand, now that’s perfectly human.

Maybe that’s where it begins—a genuine understanding of each other—with acknowledgement of wounds, out there in the open.

And maybe that’s how we meet each other eye to eye, as real humans, frustrated by all manner of guilt and surgery and impatience and lilac bushes.


Sister’s Keeper, vi (Thresholds)

Note: This is Part 6 of a series. Here’s Part 5 if you missed it, or maybe you want to go back to Part 1 to see what the heck this is about.

My palms are red and tender from grinding up pills. I’ve been using a jar gripper, but I still wince with every twist of the pill crusher. Just when I start to feel sorry for myself, Amanda makes a huge improvement. She takes a real shower and puts on actual clothes. Today, she has another follow-up with the surgeon, and she’s anticipating good things.

I drive her out to Chesterfield and bring a crossword puzzle in order to avoid HGTV in the waiting room. I can’t look away. When Amanda greets the receptionist, it’s clear she’s mastered the trick of speaking with her teeth tied together.

She’s in the exam room long enough for me to get engrossed in some low-stakes remodeling suspense. When she comes back out, her teeth are untied, and she’s free to eat mashed potatoes, pudding, or anything pureed. It’s her day of independence from protein shakes.

The next day at our parents’ July Fourth barbecue, Amanda indulges in a feast. She’s got a blender, and she’s not afraid to use it. She savors pureed potato salad and liquefied baked beans. No burgers or brats for her, but she seriously considers blending up a helping of potato chips and dip. Fortunately, she does not. But she’s feeling good, and we’re all amazed at her quick recovery. Let freedom ring.

Amanda happily lets Mom and me off from caregiving duties, except for driving.

On a hot July day, I pick her up for a trip to Walgreens and Schnucks. She’s been feeling good, but her body temperature is all out of whack.

As we step out of Schnucks, the heat blasts us like a furnace. She walks ahead of me, but I opt for the crosswalk like a nerd. From the sidewalk, I unlock the car and notice her collapse into the seat. Meanwhile I’m stuck waiting for a line of cars to pass. When I get to the car, I crank the AC, but she’s already pale and sweaty. By the time we pull into her driveway, it’s clear she needs some rest and a bottle of Gatorade. She insists she’ll be fine.

That night, I can’t fall asleep. Just when I’m getting really frustrated, a text appears: “Can you come over?” Pulling into her driveway, I see the dim lights of her living room through the storm door, and I brace myself for something bad.

Opening the door, I find her curled up on the mat just inside the threshold, sweating and shivering. The left side of her body—arm, shoulder, neck—is immobilized with pain, so much that she can’t get up. I panic and pray at the same time, then google “stroke symptoms” so I know the magic words to say to the 911 dispatcher. But when I scroll through the checklist, Amanda’s symptoms don’t match those of a stroke.

“Jesus, show me what to do,” becomes my mantra.

She doesn’t want to go to the ER again, but she also doesn’t want to die. She doesn’t want to deal with this pain-filled body anymore, the perennial problem of being alive. I try to think fast but spin my tires until finally falling back on my old stand-by: water. I insist that she drink some water, Gatorade, apple juice, Mountain Dew, whatever. She says she’s not dehydrated but placates me with a tiny sip from the straw.

I come up with a plan: she must drink the apple juice, and if she still feels terrible in thirty minutes, we go to the ER. At this point, she’d agree to anything just to believe that someone is in charge. The plan may be dumb, but there’s a degree of comfort in having one.

Thirty minutes later, she feels pretty bad but decides against the ER, knowing that tomorrow she’ll see the surgeon again. This time, instead of waiting with my HGTV, she wants me in the exam room to vouch for her symptoms, which I do. The nurse is sympathetic but completely unsurprised; muscle spasms are part of the recovery process. The remedy includes heavy-duty muscle relaxers, different pain meds, and—why not?—a dash of Benadryl.

After the appointment, Amanda goes back to bed for a long time. Night and day, light and dark, none of it matters. She bides her time in a medicated state, enduring the process, willing the days into weeks so her body can heal. Mom and I go back to alternating shifts at her house, déjà vu.

We were all amazed on July 4th at the speed of her recovery, eating pureed beans like a champ! We’d begun to think that steady progress was inevitable. This was a setback—or was it just a normal part of healing, one of many thresholds?

Either way, it would take time.

Sister’s Keeper, v (Clumsy Love)

By the time we make it to my sister’s home, it’s dark outside. My house is just a short drive away, and I practically tear up when I think of my bed so close. Amanda shuffles straight to her bed, a Tempur-Pedic to which she has an excessive attachment. When our parents walk in the front door with an overnight bag and an air mattress, I nearly collapse with gratitude.

I lead my mom to the kitchen to explain the countertop array of drugs, ice packs, and Ensure shakes. She sets an alarm on her phone for dosages every three hours, with extra alarms set on the hour from nine to midnight. For the next few weeks, Mom and I alternate 24-hour shifts.

June becomes July in a slow-motion blur.


My mom is a hugger. I’m less of a hugger, but I have adapted to hugging. Mom’s hugs are pleasant but often end with an aggressive, “I love you” squeeze. While I’m sure her dogs enjoy this grand finale squeeze, for me it can cause neck pain. I brace myself for the WWE vise-grip move. It isn’t mean-spirited; it’s just the opposite. But it hurts.

Love can be clumsy.

The next few weeks are both loving and clumsy, with two complete amateurs caring for a highly sensitive patient. Recovery turns out to be a crazy roller coaster ride of good and bad days, an accidental overdose and a super-fun trip to the ER.

Despite the highs and lows, I’m aware that with post-surgery caregiving, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. The expected outcome is good: this does not end in hospice. Even so, the challenge is striking a balance – between what I want and what my sister needs, between honoring my promise to be there after surgery and spending time with Phil and Caroline. Not finding a balance can make love clumsy.


As I drive Amanda to weekly follow-up appointments, I quickly notice that doctors’ waiting rooms have one thing in common: all HGTV, all the time. By the last appointment, I am so utterly fed up with all the house flipping and majestic expanses of shiplap. I’ve come to loathe the couples with their real estate wish lists and high-stakes decisions.

“I want a white kitchen.”

“We need a yard that’s big — but not too big.”

“Sure, the bathroom is nice, but we need a bathtub we can both fit in.”

I talk back at these dingdongs who insist on a two-person bathtub, while people in the waiting room must think I’ve lost my mind.

Which I have.

I really maybe probably have.


Anyway, the blur of summer only appears to be in slo-mo. I sit on Amanda’s deck on a mild, sunny evening and notice the dull roar of cicadas in the trees. I wonder why they’re singing so early. Whenever I hear the first buzz of cicadas, I remember our sweet childhood neighbor Mrs. Wheeler saying the sound means that seven weeks of summer remain. Only seven more weeks. I’m caught between wanting to pause summer and wishing time would fly so my sister could eat solids and feel human again. Time pays no mind to my wishes.

These weeks of crushing up pills and finding the best Ensure flavor and trying to make Amanda laugh despite her numb face call for a certain kind of practice. It’s the practice of putting love into action, sometimes clumsily.

Even love takes practice; even with practice, it can come off clumsy. But clumsy love is no lesser love.

Painted in Waterlogue