Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Good Days and Bad Days

The last seven years, I've been on a fascinating – and, at times, emotionally and physically painful – journey of losing mobility and dealing with chronic pain. Since beginning my process of "becoming bionic" in 2017 (three joint replacements down, two to go), my body often feels whacked from surgeries and meds and going under anesthesia five times within the last year alone. Sometimes, it's difficult to find my true self in the occasionally tangled up energetic mess that is my body-mind-soul connection. 

Suffice it to say, I have my Good Days and my Bad Days. Fortunately the ratio seems to be trending at 10:1, Good to Bad. So hey – no complaints. Unless, of course, it happens to be a Bad Day. 

Today was a Bad Day. 

I was unable to fall asleep last night until, well, 7:30 this morning. Got a whopping three hours, which meant my emotional balance, and thus my outlook on life in general, was in the shitter. Jeff and Clare were both out, and as I lay on the couch crying for no discernible reason (see: Bad Days, above), I contemplated calling my mother and asking her to pick up a pizza for me so I could eat my emotions – despite the fact that I had recently asked her to ignore me if I requested anymore pizzas. (During these past five weeks of non-weight-bearing recovery from my first ankle replacement, Mom has been my PT Appointment Chauffeur, Grocery Shopper, and yes, Pizza Retriever.)

Just as I was about to dial Mom's number, the front door opened and a friend I don't get to spend much time with strolled in unannounced carrying a quart of healthy homemade soup. She breezed into my kitchen as if it were her own and put the soup on the stovetop before riffling through my cupboards and drawers to find a bowl, spoon and napkin. She then delivered a hot nutritious meal to me on the couch. A completely unscheduled, yet perfectly timed, visit. 

She wasn't able to stay long, maybe a half hour max. But in that brief period of time she managed to completely shift the trajectory of my day with her positive energy, some meaningful conversation about learning to live with uncertainty, and yes, her soup. I felt as if I'd been graced with a visit from the Mary Poppins of food for the soul. 

Today, as it turns out, was a Good Day. 

Thanks, Michele.

Michele, aka The Mary Poppins of Food for the Soul

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Me Too

Hard to believe, I know, but at 13 years old I was a fairly shy kid. I had my pals with whom I’d let loose, but it wasn’t uncommon to find me sitting alone at the kitchen counter or in my bedroom doing artwork. Charcoals were my medium, and I loved creating portraits of others from photographs. 

My bedroom was best for privacy, but on Saturday nights I preferred the kitchen because that’s where our one small black and white television was stationed. Art-making and Carol Burnett went well together, I'd found, so if it was a Saturday night and I had the house to myself, that’s where you’d find me. I adored Carol Burnett. Funny and kind-hearted, she was my celebrity idol back then, followed closely by Cher. 

On one such particular evening I was home alone, my siblings each out and about somewhere, as was Mom. Without warning, I heard the clomping of footsteps coming through our rickety back porch and then the backdoor swung open and my older brother and his gaggle of pals tumbled in. Too late to grab my art supplies and dash upstairs to my bedroom, I sat staring at the television, feigning nonchalance. (Did I mention I was shy?)

It seemed obvious that the boys' evening thus far had involved alcohol. They shuffled past me where I sat,  all wearing goofy smiles (on second thought, it might've been weed), muttering "Hey, Little Wilt" as they passed. 

(Yep, Little Wilt, later amended to just Wilt, was my nickname because even back then it appeared I might one day rival Wilt Chamberlain in height. Unfortunately, when the moniker was spontaneously bestowed upon me by the same boys filing through the kitchen that night, I had no idea who Wilt Chamberlain was. I spent days moping because, after looking up "wilt" in the dictionary, I assumed my brother and his friends saw me as a droopy, well, wilted girl.)

The five to seven boys, all 16 at the time, moved into the dining room, where the stereo was immediately turned on, Bruce Springsteen's Born to Run album placed on the turntable. After all, this was Jersey in the '70s. Need I say more? 

No regard was given to the fact that I was watching television a mere twelve feet from the stereo, but as one of four children growing up in a single-parent household, I was used to this. With Mom often away at work or night school, we Wards were among the original latchkey kids, left to figure out social graces – or the lack thereof – on our own. If Mom wasn't home, might made right in our world, whether it regarded who got the last soda in the fridge or who had run of the tiny first floor of our home. 

In addition to being shy, I was also stubborn – too stubborn to simply stand up, collect my belongings and move upstairs. Instead, I sat in the kitchen pretending I was okay with the shift in my surroundings. I wasn't. Yet I stayed in place, staring at a television I could no longer hear. 

The boys mostly kept to the living room and dining room, except to return to the kitchen for more cold beer, which one of them had stocked the refrigerator with upon their arrival. About fifteen, twenty minutes in, the son of one of my former Girl Scout troop leaders came into the kitchen and plopped down on the stool next to mine. He was clearly drunk or high, maybe both.

"Whatcha doing, Little Wilt?" he asked, his face too far in my personal space for comfort. 

"Nothing," I replied. Again, that feigned nonchalance.

Suddenly, and with zero provocation, he grabbed my crotch, hard. As if making a surprising discovery, he exclaimed, "You have a pussy!" 

I smacked his arm away, my face burning, my eyes drilling into the television as if my life depended on it, willing this jerk to go the hell away with every ounce of my being. Just then, another of my brother's friends, Mike, strolled into the kitchen. 

The first boy – let's call him The Pussy-Grabber because hey, if the shoe fits – turned to Mike and said, "Hey, Mike. Look what I just did. I grabbed her pussy!" And then he grabbed me again. And again I smacked him away, this time managing to spit, "Dick!" under my breath at him as I did. 

"You shouldn't do that," Mike admonished his friend. And with that, the moment passed. I gathered up my art supplies from the kitchen counter and stormed upstairs, angry, embarrassed, and ashamed. Ashamed! 

Too embarrassed and ashamed, in fact, to tell anyone – not my brother, not my mother, no one. Except my diary. And rereading that particular entry decades later, I can still feel the palpable anger and disgust, can still recall that sense of powerlessness all over again. 

What the hell was that kid thinking? Where did he get the idea that it was okay to grab a girl's genitals against her will? Certainly not from his mother, whom I, in hindsight, consider one of my girlhood mentors. This is one of those uncomfortable childhood memories that, even with the passing of 42 years, I can't – and won't – turn into a quick joke to be laughed off in hindsight. Because no girl, no woman, no person, should ever have to slap away an uninvited groping hand and swallow her shame like vinegar. 

I look back on my 13-year-old self and want to give that girl a hug, to tell her that she did nothing – NOTHING! – to warrant an older boy, or anyone for that matter, groping her crotch. And now, with the "Me Too" hashtag going viral on social media to bring attention to the sexual assault, abuse and harassment epidemic so ingrained in our culture, it's long past time to say enough is enough. It's long past time to speak up, to share our stories, to teach our daughters – and sons – that they don't have to endure or stay silent about this bullshit. To teach our sons – and daughters – that it is not okay to sexually assault, abuse or harass others.

I wish I could say that was the only Me Too experience I endured, but it was only the first. The next would occur when I was 18 at the hands of my boss, a man 20+ years my senior and, obviously, in the position of power within our working relationship. To say that this experience disgusts me even more than my very first Me Too would be a gross understatement. And I will write about that one too when I am ready. Because, like the young girl I was at 13, the young woman I was at 18 will not be silenced anymore either. 

#MeToo indeed. 
* * *

Postscript: Two things. First, as I edited this story for publication on my blog, I wondered if I should remove the specific detail that might reveal my perpetrator's identity to those friends and acquaintances who were around in my early years (namely, his mother's role as one of my Girl Scout troop leaders), worried that perhaps it would embarrass him if this story traveled across the internet and made its way to his laptop. Because, after all, he was young. And drunk. And let's throw in stupid for good measure. But you know what? No. Not my problem. If you wish not to be embarrassed, ashamed or – better yet – appalled in the future by your behavior in the present then perhaps you should think twice before acting. #neverpissoffafuturewriter

And second, I wondered if, despite the shame he caused my young self, I would forgive him if he picked up the phone or sent me an email to apologize. From having looked at his Facebook page, I see that he has a daughter. Would he forgive an older boy who, hypothetically, groped her against her will at age 13? That one I can't answer. I can only answer for myself. And that answer is yes. Because, after all, he was young. And drunk. And stupid. And we all make mistakes. And I recognize that his offense was not as "unforgivable" as, say, rape.

But believe me when I say, forgiveness does not equate with tolerance or approval. And even with forgiveness, there must still be accountability, if simply to say, "I'm sorry. I acknowledge how wrong my actions were. Please accept my sincere apology." 

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Liz Gave Me the Boot

Brunch with Fake Aunt Liz
When my daughter and I arrived in Los Angeles last Saturday afternoon for college interviews, we drove straight to her Fake Aunt Liz's home in Laguna Beach. (Well, we might've made one quick pitstop at Del Taco so Clare could experience one of her mother's fast food cravings from my LA days.)

The thing about Liz is this: as long as we've been friends (24 years) she's always wanted what she called her "Granny Cottage" – a small, efficient and impeccably furnished dwelling, the complete opposite of her former Berkeley mansion that was something straight out of Architectural Digest.

Her Laguna Beach home is just that: a tiny two-bedroom cottage with an even tinier back patio. Yet the feeling in her home is what I'd call zen elegance. She really has a knack for turning any ordinary house into a stylish home. (I've been the recipient of her "Drunk Shui" talents in several dwellings. A few glasses of a dry Provencal rose, and Liz starts rearranging your furniture, books and knick-knacks, ordering you onto Craigslist to find this or that. Once, she even Drunk Shui-ed our entire living room a week after foot surgery.)

To maintain her Granny Cottage lifestyle, Liz lives like the minimalist she is. If something doesn't get worn in, say, a couple months, she passes it along to someone else. If she doesn't like something she bought, even if it's only a few days old, it too shall be passed along. So when Clare and I arrived and Liz said, "I was cleaning out my closets yesterday," I laughed. Her closets are already as neat and tidy as the non-closet areas of her home. What the hell else was left to clean out?!

"I was cleaning out my closets yesterday and found the boot from my bunion surgeries two years ago." Then she ducked into the guest bedroom and emerged with said boot in hand. "Would this be helpful to you at all?"

I've been the recipient of some of Liz's cast-offs in the past – blouses, yoga pants, etc. – but she's never offered me an orthopedic boot before. Then again, Liz has watched me these past six months as I underwent first an ankle surgery followed by a total left knee replacement followed by a total right knee replacement. She also knows my ankles are next in line for joint replacements, which cannot commence until I've recovered and strengthened myself adequately following the back-to-back knee replacements. And frankly, I'm thrilled my surgeon said as much because the thought of going under the knife one more time this year was a bit daunting.

As much as I'm happy to wait until January to begin the ankle replacement surgeries, I've been limping around in pain due to the lack of cartilage in both ankles. The left one, in particular, is remarkably messed up despite already having had four loose bone bits removed during March's surgery. I've tried braces and shoe inserts and even new orthopedic shoes that are so ugly you just know they have to be good for you, right?

I got the boot
None of them alleviated the severe pain in my left ankle.

"Let's give it a try," I said, hiking my pant legs up and tearing at the velcro straps of my ineffectual ankle braces.

With my crappier ankle completely immobilized by the boot, I stood, my cane in hand. Tentatively, I walked across the room. Then I walked back, this time without the cane. I noticed I was standing straighter, even able to roll through my booted foot as I stepped – a feat that, heretofore, would've brought on stabbing pain and more than a few f-bombs.

I wore Liz's hand-me-down boot the rest of that visit and by the end of four days was thrilled with my ability to walk – almost like a normal person. I brought it back to Boulder with me and have been wearing it ever since. And guess what? Now I can walk anywhere, more or less, without my cane. Just me, my boot and one heavily cushioned Hoka sneaker.

A few days ago I noticed something fairly significant. For the first time in years, I was not in pain while moving through my day. Sure, my new knees still feel alien and stiff and tend to ache by bedtime. But the pain from joints so worn down there was actually a hole in one of my knee bones where there isn't supposed to be a hole? Gone. The pain in my Really Bad Ankle (as opposed to my Moderately Bad Ankle)? Gone. At least while wearing my new favorite boot. And that's good enough for me.

You see, in a word, pain sucks. It makes frustrated sourpusses of the most optimistic among us. It often prevents us from working or traveling or even focusing on anything other than, well, pain. And when that pain comes in the middle of the night, when it wakes us from sleep, it tends to bring dark thoughts: that the pain will never end, that recovery is impossible so what's the point in even trying.

Twice since getting my new knees, I attempted to do the grocery shopping only to abandon ship partway through due to ankle pain. Yet three days ago I went to Whole Foods – the big one – with my new boot and no cane, and made it all the way through the task, including carrying the grocery bags inside once home.

I almost cried with relief over this palpable sign of my life returning to me after more than five years of being sidelined: leaving my full-time work, minimal travel, experimentation with countless approaches to healing that didn't heal me, withdrawing from the world, and rarely making plans for fear I'd have to cancel anyway because it might turn out to be a Bad Day thanks to autoimmunity or osteoarthritis or both. In other words, five years of working really hard to maintain a positive outlook when inside I felt anything but.

I can't believe I'm actually writing a story about a freaking orthopedic boot. But truly – this silly, ugly, clunky boot feels like a gift from the gods (assuming the gods are all named Liz). It feels like a preview of better – pain-free! – times to come.

It feels like hope.

Liz and Me. Duh

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * 
Download a PDF of the first 4 chapters of Lauren's memoir, Zuzu's Petals: A True Story of Second Chances, free.  Click here and go to the link below the "Buy the Book" button.  Zuzu's Petals is also available on Kindle and Nook.  Hardcover signed and inscribed copies are available at  www.laurenwardlarsen.com. Happy reading!

Friday, September 1, 2017


I know how lucky I am to have survived a near-fatal pregnancy 17 years ago. I know that most women who go as far over the edge as I did with eclampsia-turned-HELLP-Syndrome don’t make it out of the ICU alive.

The ICU Days: Not my best look.
Six weeks and 203 pints of blood after my ordeal began back in 2000, I was discharged from the hospital – a "miracle" by some standards.

But there was a long-term price to pay for beating the medical odds and that bill came due about seven years ago. During all the internal hemorrhaging a decade earlier, a necrotic process had taken root in my major joints – ankles, knees, hips and shoulders – resulting in difficulty walking, chronic pain and several labrum and meniscus surgeries.

I was also diagnosed with an autoimmune illness similar to Rheumatoid Arthritis and began giving myself weekly injections of low-dose chemotherapy to keep my inflammation levels under control. I ate my vegetables, drank my kale juice, and limited my pizza intake. (I’ve had a lifelong love affair with dough, tomato sauce and mozzarella.)

But I was in denial – deep, deep denial – about the inevitable deterioration of my major joints when it was determined that pretty much all of the cartilage was gone from my shoulders…and then ankles…and then knees (the hips are still working hard to hold their own). I made it bone-on-bone for several more years. I swam. I did a gentle-but-restorative form of yoga known as Kaiut. (Most of the positions are done sitting or lying on the floor, so Kaiut is perfect for me.)

I assured myself that my Kaiut yoga practice would save me from having to undergo the 5-8 joint replacements that my orthopedic surgeon warned me I’d eventually need. He said I’d know when it was time. I bet him ten bucks that I’d avoid all replacements through yoga. He said he hoped I was right.

Turns out I was wrong.

George (L) and Mary (R)
In January of this year, I was finally able to admit that I did, indeed, need to begin the process of replacing my major joints one by one or else face the rest of my life in pain and, most likely, in a wheelchair. I began with the knees, six weeks apart, this past spring. It was as (temporarily) hellish as I had been warned. But I am convinced that all that Kaiut yoga – while it didn’t allow me to avoid joint replacements – did, in hindsight, help me prepare for them. And that was good enough for me.

Five weeks after my second total knee replacement, I received a text from Jeff, the owner of my favorite yoga studio, who is also my favorite Kaiut instructor. He offered to give me a free private lesson if my husband could get me there. (I was still unable to bend my newest knee enough to drive myself.)

We arrived three days later for that session. To say it was amazing would be an understatement. Jeff walked me through a series of poses, all of them lying on the floor with my feet on the wall. I was shocked at how much I could do even with the limitations of surgery. Two days later, I was back in class on a regular basis. 

Returning to Kaiut
The sequence of Kaiut poses changes every two days, so I am never quite sure what each class will entail, let alone how much of it I’ll be able to do. But I love being there anyway if only to soak up all the good yoga vibes.

To get on the floor at the beginning of each class, I stack four bolsters against the back wall, sit on them and then slide the rest of the way down. At the end of class, Jeff and someone else hoist me up to standing by my elbows (my shoulders being too deteriorated to be pulled forward by my hands). If there’s a standing pose or a pose done on all fours, I do Legs Up the Wall instead.

Today, sandwiched between my husband and a pal, I heard Jeff give the cue to get on all fours. As I prepared to put my legs up the wall, I began to wonder if I was deluding myself in thinking that I could actually regain full mobility, imagined that I might be headed for a wheelchair regardless of how many joint replacements I get. Almost immediately I heard a very loud, very insistent voice in my head yell, “I REJECT THAT!”

And then I got mad. Mad at my medical circumstances, but madder at my lapse in optimism. And that was the moment I decided to try getting on all fours.

I rolled sideways from the bolster I was sitting on to another bolster as padding for my knees. I wound up diagonally across my mat, my hands on my husband’s mat and my feet on my friend’s mat. The thought of shifting my body and bolster so I was facing forward seemed too difficult, so I stayed put. They didn’t care. They could tell this was something big for me – my first attempt at putting weight on my new knees, now 10 and 16 weeks old. Trembling, I pulled another bolster under my arms and leaned forward, breathing heavily, straining to hold the position, catawampus though it was. My heart raced as if I were sprinting, but I was determined to hold my amended position as long as the others in class were sitting back on their heels.

As soon as Jeff said, “Now come out of the position and stand,” I flopped onto my back as if I’d just finished a marathon, ready to give myself a nice long Legs Up the Wall break. But no sooner did my ass hit the floor than Jeff was over at my side saying, “Nope, I want you standing too, Lauren. You can do this.”


My first three weeks back at yoga class, Jeff had let me do pretty much whatever I wanted, taking breaks as needed and ignoring the poses I couldn’t yet do. Standing poses – I assumed Jeff understood – were off limits given my crappy ankles, but this morning, he decided otherwise. 

I’ve been working with Jeff for just over two years now, so he knows my mobility issues well. He asked my husband to help hoist me to standing and had me – and everyone else in class – move right into a pose facing the wall. That got me breathing even harder, my body having atrophied over the previous three months of recovery and heavy pain medications. At times, I couldn’t even keep my hands on the wall, letting them fall at my side while I leaned against the wall with my head (definitely not part of the pose). When we were finally instructed to release the pose, I was exhausted, but in the best of ways.

I hadn’t strained like that in my 2+ years of having a consistent Kaiut yoga practice, and I have to say IT FELT AWESOME! Not because I had strained, but because I had overcome my own mental block. That one yoga class this morning was more powerful than any of the physical therapy sessions I’ve had to date.

While yoga’s goal is typically inner peace, sometimes the goal should be discovering what you’re capable of by being challenged to go beyond your self-created limitations.

Namaste, Jeff. Namaste!

For any local Boulder folks interested in trying Kaiut yoga, Yoga Loft offers a $30 for 30 days of unlimited classes.
First-timers only. www.yogaloftboulder.com 

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * 
Download a PDF of the first 4 chapters of Lauren's memoir, Zuzu's Petals: A True Story of Second Chances, free.  Click here and go to the link below the "Buy the Book" button.  Zuzu's Petals is also available on Kindle and Nook.  Hardcover signed and inscribed copies are available at  www.laurenwardlarsen.com. Happy reading!

Friday, April 21, 2017

Everyone Needs a Lift Sometimes

Today I bought a lift chair.

I’ve been preparing for my upcoming joint replacement surgeries: one shoulder, two knees and, most likely, a new ankle—all before the year’s end. Jeff and I rearranged the TV room, removing a chair and an end table in order to fit my new used stationary bike (for recovery) and my new used lift chair (for recovery from doing the stationary bike).

I had a lift chair once before, following six weeks in the intensive care unit after Clare’s dramatic and near-fatal birth. It was probably the ugliest chair I’d ever had in my possession, boasting an outdated maroon print the likes of which I’d never choose for normal furniture. But damn, I loved that chair. After awaking from a 14-to-16-hour sleep, I would, with Jeff's help, maneuver from the hospital bed in our bedroom to the living room, where I would park my broken ass in that blessed lift chair for a couple hours until I was exhausted and ready for more sleep. But the funny thing was, no matter how high the lift chair would raise me toward being upright, I still needed Jeff to boost me those last five inches to standing. When we finally got rid of that chair, I felt I had accomplished a feat greater than any of the marathons I’d run in the past. I had graduated from needing a lift, so to speak, fully capable of standing by myself.

My new lift chair is, thankfully, not as ugly as the first one. And, being used, I found it on Craigslist for a mere $50. Which is about 1/10th of what I would’ve spent if I’d bought it new. My husband and I were set to pick it up yesterday, but the seller got busy with something else and said he had to cancel. Then my husband left town for a weeklong business trip early this morning, so the seller offered to deliver the chair to my home all the way from its current location 45 minutes away. At first, I was thrilled because these things are heavy as hell and I’m not exactly in lift-chair-lifting shape (see: joint replacements, above), and I really, REALLY wanted to get my in-home recovery area set up well in advance of my first joint replacement surgery on May 9th.

I thought about the seller’s offer to bring the chair right to my home. And then I thought about a new client of mine, a real go-getter of a woman whose only hint of past trauma is the substantial scar peeking out from her neckline. Twenty-four years ago, my client tried selling her car on Craigslist and wound up with a serial killer—a literal serial killer—coming to her home, purportedly to check out the car. At night. In the rain. My client sustained a broken neck and multiple stab wounds before a neighbor heard her screaming and called 911. (My client’s attacker was later caught and charged with the deaths of several other young women and is now serving life in prison.)

So let’s just say I was a bit nervous about having a stranger deliver a used chair to my home. I tried reading into the seller’s text messages. His two young daughters were mentioned. His mother was mentioned. His work and class schedules were mentioned.  All details that indicated he wasn’t a serial killer. Then again, anyone can lie in a text, right?

But I really wanted that chair, wanted to cross one more item off my pre-surgery to-do list. So I said I’d be delighted to have him deliver it. And then I made sure someone was here with me. And I kept RuPaul home from doggie daycare—not that poodles are known for their prowess as bodyguards, but I figured it couldn’t hurt to have a (not so) menacing dog in my presence.

The seller—Jay—arrived this afternoon with the lift chair in the back of his run-down pickup truck. He walked with a limp, but was strong enough to handle the chair with the help of a neighbor of mine. And then, as I am wont to do, I started asking him questions about his need for the chair. What can I say? I believe everyone has a story and I was curious about his. In other words, I’m nosey.

At 30 years old, Jay began experiencing searing pain in one of his hips. He reported the pain to a doctor, who recommended an MRI. But Jay had no health insurance and couldn’t afford the MRI, so his doctor loaded him up with opioid prescriptions and sent him on his way.

More of Jay’s joints began to deteriorate and his level of pain continued to increase, as did his dependency on the pain medications. When he realized he had a problem with addiction, he worked hard to get off the meds before turning to alcohol for escape.

“Alcohol ruined my life,” he said, humbly. No whining, just a deep sadness within his voice.

“When Obamacare came along, I was finally able to get the surgeries I needed,” Jay said. To date, he has had total joint replacements in both shoulders, both knees and both hips. He still has deep pain in his hips, and his ankles are shot too. I asked if ankle replacements were coming.

“No,” he said, somewhat resigned. “The next stop for me is a wheelchair.”

Jay is only 34 years old. My heart broke when he told me this.

I paid Jay twice the price he was asking for the chair, thanking him profusely for delivering it.

And now, I’m sitting in Jay’s chair—my new used lift chair—with a greater appreciation for the hardships that so many people face, day in, day out, often with no sign of relief on the horizon. Ordinary people with extraordinary challenges. 

Despite the surgery-palooza that I'm in the midst of (1 down, 4 to go), I'm feeling pretty darn grateful about my own situation, about the people in my life who have offered support as I continue my own journey back to mobility and a less painful daily existence. 

And I’m hopeful that one day I can offer assistance to people like Jay, people who are struggling with their own medical burdens. 

Because everyone needs a lift sometimes.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

I've Been Zeked!

In the fifth grade, a new girl moved to my hometown of Wenonah, New Jersey. She was tall, like me. She was goofy, like me. She had a pool, unlike me. We were instant BFFs.

Throughout middle school and high school, Mischelle—whose name was misspelled her entire life until she decided to go by “Shelly,”—and I became fairly inseparable. Except, like, that time I told her I’d be over in ten minutes to pick her up for the mall and I completely spaced and went without her. (My mother ended up driving her there when she learned from Shelly that I’d forgotten her.)

After graduating from my MBA program back in (cough, cough, mumble, mumble), I decided to spend the summer before my job started traveling the country to visit friends. I met up with Shelly and her fiancĂ©, Matt, at her parents’ home in Wenonah. After a few days there, we caravanned in two cars to Shelly and Matt’s apartment in Durham, North Carolina. At one point during the drive, Shelly and Matt pulled off the road even though we’d just had a rest stop. I pulled off too and asked them what was up. 

“Weird noise in the back of the car,” Shelly said. “I’m guessing Dad is behind this.”

Sure enough, when we opened their hatchback and unzipped one of their larger suitcases, there was a wind-up alarm clock nestled into their dirty clothes, still making a muffled clanging noise. And next to the clock was this little gem—the head of Zeke, a homemade ragdoll Shelly’s grandmother had sewn back when Shelly was still Mischelle. Time had not been kind to Zeke and he was missing his felt hat, one eye and entire body. 

“What the hell?” I said, as Shelly and Matt laughed.

“We’ve been Zeked!” Shelly exclaimed. 

She then gave me the background on this odd little doll head, telling me how Zeke had lost bits of himself over the years until one day he was nothing more than a bald one-eyed head. As kids, Shelly or one of her two sisters would often discover Zeke’s head tucked into their coat pockets—a favorite prank of their parents, who hoped to give their daughters a bit of levity on their walk to school.

I spent a week or so with Shelly and Matt in North Carolina, doing long training runs for my first marathon and lounging by the apartment complex’s pool all day while they were at work. We got into the routine of “Zeking” each other. I floated Zeke on a Tupperware lid in their toilet and shut the lid. The next morning, I awoke after they were already gone, but I found Zeke in the toe of one of my running shoes. Shortly after we went to bed one evening, I heard laughter from their bedroom. Clearly, they had just discovered Zeke tacked to the ceiling over their bed.

When I left Shelly and Matt’s to drive to New York for my new job, I stole Zeke. (Wouldn’t you?) When Shelly called me a few days later to accuse me of theft, I had my story ready. I told her I had put Zeke in an empty bag of Goldfish crackers on top of the refrigerator as my farewell Zeking. Neither could find the bag (because I’d already thrown it out), so they assumed they’d accidentally tossed it. Sadly, Zeke was gone for good. So they thought. 
Shelly and Matt’s wedding was scheduled for several months later. In speaking about the details with her a few weeks before the big event, she mentioned that they would be honeymooning in Aruba, but given the mischievous tendencies of Matt’s friends, they weren’t telling anyone where they would be staying.  

I expressed concern about no one knowing their whereabouts and promised to keep it a secret if she told me, that I’d feel better knowing that at least one of us knew where to find them in the unlikely event of an emergency. Shelly acquiesced and gave me the name of the resort. 

The day Shelly and Matt left for Aruba, I was giddy with joy over the devious plan I had hatched with the staff at their hotel. I had FedEx-ed a small box to the concierge so she could have it waiting in their room upon arrival. Zeke was tucked safely inside and the lid of the box was inscribed with a little rhyme: 

                          You tried to keep it a secret, 
                          But the locale of your honeymoon leaked.
                          Then a mysterious box arrives in your room.
                          Hey, honeymooners—you've been Zeked!

Remember, this was pre-email-and-texting days, and international telephone rates were high, so I wasn't surprised when I didn't hear from Shelly that day (though in hindsight, I'm sure she'd been dying to call me given the sheer awesomeness of this particular Zeking). Unbeknownst to me, she had her own plans.  When Shelly and Matt returned home, I phoned her immediately. 

"Well?!" I said, exasperated. 

"Well, what?" she replied, giving an Oscar-worthy performance of feigned ignorance.

When I asked her to detail every moment upon arriving at the hotel, she told me they had reserved a nice suite, but when they opened the door to their room the smell of cigarettes was so overpowering, they shut the door and demanded different accommodations. They never even set foot inside their original room according to her. I was crestfallen. And Shelly had me completely fooled. Now it was I who thought Zeke was lost for good. 

Two months later, my boyfriend decided it was time I met his parents. We both flew to Albuquerque, where we rented a car and drove to his folks’ home in Los Alamos, arriving after midnight. His mother had waited up for us and after an introductory hug, she immediately guided me to the Christmas tree to admire it. Ok, a tad weird, but what the hell. I admired the tree. But one compliment wasn’t enough apparently, and she insisted I continue to take in the tree’s beauty, her hands on my shoulders as if to hold me in place. I complied. And then--I screamed. 

Right in front of me, in a glistening hand-blown bulb, was Zeke, staring out at me through his glass confines. Shelly's dad had taken up glass blowing and she had obviously decided to put his talents to good use. Well done, Shelly. Well. Done. 

It took me years to bring myself to smash the bulb, freeing Zeke from his glass prison, but as they say in show-biz: the Zeke must go on! (or something like that). And what better time to do so than the occasion of Shelly’s first pregnancy. 

I was living in Los Angeles by then and had a good pal who worked in character licensing at Disney (read: had access to more Disney-character crap than should be legal). I bummed a half dozen miniature Winnie-the Pooh stuffed animals from her, as Shelly had already told me the baby's nursery would be decorated in Pooh motif. I then savagely cut off the face of one of the mini-Poohs, inserting Zeke in the gaping hole and stitching him in place, in effect creating a sort of FrankenPooh—cuddly body, creepy face. I stacked the Poohs in a tight box, three facing up, three facing down. FrankenPooh was facing down. I giftwrapped the box and mailed it to Shelly’s parents’ home, where she and Matt would be spending the holidays. Then, I waited. 

Unable to sleep for long stretches at that point in her pregnancy, Shelly woke up early on Christmas morning and sat in the living room killing time until the rest of the family got around. She scanned the gifts under the tree and found mine. Seeing no harm in opening a non-family gift without the rest of the gang present, she opened the package. And then--she screamed. Suffice it to say, the rest of the family was now wide awake as well. 

Um, thanks for the hat?
As the Zekings increased over the years, so too did the level of creativity involved. Zeke had been stowed inside a thick book entitled, appropriately, Zeke (the pages within having been carved out to fit his head), sewn onto a hat that was presented to me at a class reunion, and even baked into cranberry bread (a feat which required constantly pushing his head back to the bottom of the bread pan with a fork throughout the baking process, as it kept rising to the surface). 

Not even a death in the family was reason enough to put the Zeke-centric shenanigans on hold. Shortly after Shelly left town following my step-dad's memorial service, I found Zeke lurking in my refrigerator. 

Perhaps the greatest Zekecomplishment came to fruition the day Jeff and I picked up the developed photos from the thirty or so disposable cameras we’d left on the tables at our wedding reception—again, we’re talking pre-smart-phone-camera days. 

Aside from the 40 or so throw-away pictures of the ground and the sky that my four-year-old nephew had taken, there were loads of nice shots of our friends and family members. 

We flipped through hundreds of photos until we got to them—the photos of various wedding guests, each holding or kissing or cuddling Zeke. One of Zeke at the hors d’oeuvres table. One of Zeke at the urinal in the restroom. Even one of Zeke hovering over Jeff’s and my heads as we cut the nontraditional wedding pie!  

I still have no idea how Shelly pulled that one off, bringing Zeke to my own wedding without my knowledge. I'm perhaps even more impressed that none of my friends ruined the surprise. I tend to hang out with people who are as incapable of keeping a secret as I am. Bravo!

Me and Shelly's Mini-Me, Mary
When Shelly’s second child stayed with us last summer during a post-college road trip, I accused her of having Zeke with her, as surely her mother had put her up to something and we’d find him in the cupboards or dirty laundry when she left. 

I was on high alert for days after she departed, certain I’d discover him hiding in the next drawer I opened. But Zeke never materialized. 

Recently, I was thrilled to learn that Shelly and Matt themselves would be visiting. 

They showed up for a couple days last week, a stopover on a road trip from Utah back to North Carolina. I threatened Shelly that Zeke had better not be in her luggage. She swore he wasn’t with her. And she was telling the truth. Sort of.

Two days after she and Matt left, a box arrived in the mail. It was addressed to me, though now that the dog has a monthly subscription to Bark Box, he believes every package that shows up is for him. 

I tend to do a lot of online shopping, so boxes arriving are commonplace. I opened it thinking it contained vitamins or books, two things I order online with regularity. Nope. It was a red water bottle, the type I don’t use. I wondered if Amazon had made an error. I handed the bottle to my daughter, figuring she could have it. She unscrewed the lid and then--she screamed. (Are you seeing a pattern here?) Tucked inside the bottle was, of course, Zeke. 

And so the burden of Zeking Shelly rests at my feet once more, and I take this responsibility with great pleasure. Ideas? Send ‘em my way! 

And down the road, when my body is old and giving out, I will likely request an open-casket viewing at my own funeral...just to give my childhood BFF the opportunity to pull off the ultimate Zeking: tucking a creepy little doll head into my cold dead hands. I mean, come on—what are friends for, right? 

Zeke Buddies for Life