Invisible Illness


I was a few minutes early for my appointment and took a seat in the waiting room area. A young man checking out stood at the counter with his back to me. I wondered what he was ‘in for’ and silently surveyed him to see if I could tell. When he turned, he gave me a knowing smile before leaving. As I have come to understand, there is a comradery among those seeking help. The receptionist smiled and told me she’d let my guy know I was waiting. I thanked her and watched as she disappeared down a hallway lined with original artwork. I closed my eyes and tried to relax some before my session; I could hear music from hidden speakers playing a familiar song. “Cold Play” I said aloud. I only know this song because it’s one of my daughter’s favorite. “The Scientist” I say to no one; and wonder if hearing it now, today, is coincidence or providence.
“Hi, are you ready?” my therapist stood before me.
I nodded and followed him to his office space. It was quiet and well lit. There was a desk, a chair and a lounging chair. I knew which one was meant for me and sat down shifting a bit to get comfortable and kicked my shoes off.
“I think I have everything I need.” He took a quick look at his notes and smiled. “The last time you were here, you were telling me about your daughter, how is she doing?”
“Wonderful, amazing; but she complained that the Christmas break was too short.” I watched as he turned to gather a few things from his desk.
He turned back to me, “Ready to start?” I nodded and he switched on his machine. “Now tell me why you are here again.”
“Well, it’s my girl, she has this smile that lights up a room when she enters and her eyes dance about impishly.” I leaned my head back and stared off. “She was Valedictorian of her high school class, received awards for National Honor Society, the President’s Award for Educational Excellence; oh, and The Davidson Fellows Scholarship for harvesting energy.”
“It sounds like she is doing great! So, what is your concern?” he paused writing and looked at me thoughtfully.
“Oh, she is; but it’s me.” my voice trailed off and I winced.
“You miss her.” It was a statement not a question, and he was right.
“I do. I am coping with the distance just fine, it’s just that there is this boy.”
“Humm” he nodded his head in understanding.
“Ok, don’t get me wrong, we didn’t expect her to be celibate or anything, we were just not ready for or expecting this.” A bit too much emphasis sent spittle flying. Thank goodness his head was down.
He paused, looking up at me thoughtfully, “We?” he questioned with a gentle smile.
“Ok, me.” I corrected myself. “I wasn’t ready”. I shifted uncomfortably in my chair. He switched his machine off and waited patiently while I fidgeted.
“Need a break?” he asked kindly.
“No, I’m fine now, let’s continue.”
“Ok, where we left off.” he pointed and clicked on his machine.
“So, we… um… I wasn’t ready and I am really ashamed of how I reacted when she brought this boy to our home.” I sighed deeply.
“Does, ‘this boy’ have a name?” he asked.
“He does… “
“Then you should use it, that’s respectful.” he said in a matter of fact tone.
“David.” I think I spat again. “David.” I said once more in a softer, kinder tone.
He looked at me briefly before turning toward his desk. “Tell me about David.”
“He just showed up one day.”
“Like a stray cat?” he said this flatly, but it made me laugh. When he looked at me I swear I could see that same little imp I saw in my daughter, but perhaps I was just projecting.
“No, she told us she was going out with ‘friends’. That they were going to pick her up. We were ok with that, we know all her friends from high school – Sasha, Dina, Hixxy; I think he’s gay… “
“Does that matter?” he interrupted me.
“No, irrelevant I suppose.” I squirmed a bit. He kept hitting touchy spots. “We hear a car pull up and she squeals and goes flying out of the front door. My husband said, ‘what was that all about?’ so we went to the door and see her in the arms of this boy… “
“David?” he interrupted again.
“Yes, David, and we see her, them, in an embrace on the sidewalk!”
“Scandalous.” he said with a faint grin.
“Look” I said sharply, “We had no idea she was even interested in boys let alone seeing one. It was a shock!”
“A shock?” he stopped and straightened up. “Why would you be shocked? You describe your daughter as a beautiful, vivacious, smart and talented woman; certainly, she has emotions, desires and needs!”
“Whoa, whoa!” this time I interrupted him. “Who said anything about desires and needs?” I was starting to feel clammy.
“Want to take a break?” That’s what I loved about this guy, he knew when to push me just to the edge of my comfort zone and when to back off.
“No, let’s continue” I said taking a deep breath and releasing it slowly. “So, she told us she met David in class; they were both a part of a group project in physics.”
“Ok, he’s smart. And the problem is?” he pressed in some.
“Yes. He’s smart and funny and charming and goal oriented and she adores him…” I know that I sounded disappointed and I hoped that he didn’t pick up on it.
The question hung in the air a bit too long so I blurted out, “He has tattoos. Tattoos all up and down his arms.” he visibly stiffened, our eyes locked and he looked pained. Now I was really uncomfortable, but then his face softened and he began to laugh.
“Do tell. And the problem with this is?”
I’m sure the question was rhetorical, but I answered anyway. “Me, I’m the problem. That’s why I’m here!” It felt good to say it, to own it. “My husband said basically the same thing. In fact, we had quite a heated discussion about the subject.”
“About you being judgmental?”
“Ouch!” I jumped a little as he hit another tender spot.
“Sorry, but I had to go there.” he said sweetly.
“I know.” I continued “It’s ok. So yes, my husband told me that I wasn’t giving David a chance; but you know, when you have kids.” I tried to defend myself. “You want the best for them. You want to save them from hurts and disappointments and… “
“Making mistakes?” he finished my sentence, then paused and looked at me. “Edison said that he didn’t make any mistakes when working to create the light bulb, he discovered 10,000 ways not to do it. Your daughter is discovering the ways that make her light shine brightly and you need to step back to give her room for this discovery; which will include some mistakes, but these will be a part of valuable research in her life.” He paused to let that sink in. “Ready to continue?”
I nodded.
“Did you happen to ask David why he chose to get tattoos?”
“I didn’t, but my husband did. David told him that they were ‘outward expressions of the things that were important to him’. He has one tattoo on his forearm of a paper with creases and a coffee stain. There are equations written all over the paper. He said that tattoo was for the time he spent all night cramming for an exam. One is the phases of the moon and another is of a beaker being heated over a Bunsen burner, it’s black and white except for the flame under the beaker, it’s blue. They really are very well done.”
“So, you can appreciate the art?” he asked, then adding, “Do you know who the artist is?”
“No, no I don’t.” I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “To be truthful, I’ve never considered tattoos ‘art’.”
“Narrow minds limit art to canvas.” he said this without malice.
“I am discovering this.” I smiled then continued, “Well, then I received an e-mail from my daughter with an attachment. It simply said, ‘Mom what do you think of this?’”
“What was attached?” he scooted his chair a bit closer.
“A sketch of eleven hearts each with letters in them. There were two rows, six in one row and five in the other and they were all connected.”
“Someone’s name perhaps?” he turned to look at his notes.
“No, the letters didn’t spell anything so I asked her in an e-mail reply, ‘What are you sharing with me?’ “
“Her reply?” he asked while writing.
“Her reply shocked me! ‘A tattoo I’m getting.’ I am sure I swore out loud. I mean, what was she thinking? I just knew that boy… “
“David.” he corrected me.
“Yes, David was going to influence her.” I realized that I was gritting my teeth and had to work to relax.
“Did you talk to her about it?” he reached for a paper from a stack on his desk.
“Not right away. I needed time to process all this and I wanted to talk with my husband about it.”
“Good move.” he mumbled and made additional reassuring noises.
“When she called on the weekend, I thanked her for sharing and asked her to explain the sketch and her thought process.” I stiffened and closed my eyes.
“And she said?” he prompted me.
“She said that it tells her story. The hearts represented love, and inside of the hearts were the symbols for eleven of the elements of the periodic table that were found in our bodies and this speaks to her love of science.”
“And where is she considering placing this tattoo?” he sounded intrigued.
“On the inside of her left bicep; and I quote, ‘On the heart meridian between the Highest Spring and the Cyan Spirit’.” I rolled my eyes for emphasis.
“She broke up with David.” he said, the corners of his mouth turned up and he shook his head knowingly.
“Yes, but according to her, they are still friends.” I rolled my eyes rolled again.
“And you are relieved.” he paused to look at me. “So please explain the transition in your perspective and why you are here?”
“I needed to understand and to be able to let go while still keeping her close.” I was getting very emotional.
“I’m sorry, but we are just about out of time.” He sat back and stretched; then looked at me thoughtfully, turning his head from one side to the other, his brows furrowed in contemplation. “We’ll wrap this up for today, but I think we will need one more session, in about four weeks?” he asked while reaching for one of the folded papers on his desk. They were soft and cool and felt good as he applied them. Then he gently rubbed ointment on my raw skin. “Want to see?” he smiled handing me a hand mirror.
There, on my chest, just to the left of my heart was the black and white image of my daughter. He had captured her 1000-watt smile and the sparkle in her eyes. Her hair was pulled back off her face into a loose bun and around her head was her signature pink bandana with a repeating pattern that was the exact replica of her tattoo; two rows of hearts connected and each displaying symbols of the periodic table. I allowed the emotions that had been building to escape and roll freely down my cheeks. I can’t wait to see my daughter when she comes home for Spring Break, I want to show her that I have been on a discovery of my own and how I’ve realized just how therapeutic art can be!

In Sickness and Health

Today, my husband Tom and I celebrate our wedding anniversary. Twenty-five years ago we made promises to each other pledging to honor and cherish one another come what may. And boy did it, sickness and health, riches and poverty, good times and bad; we’ve seen it all. Thinking about everything we’ve experienced through the years made me laugh and wonder if the vows we had taken should have been a little more down to earth, something like this:

“I take thee, as my lawfully wedded spouse and promise to love you through sleepless nights, and bouts with the stomach flu. While choosing curtains and hosting holiday dinners with my extended family. I will abide in faith, remaining respectfully silent while buying a home and making DIY repairs. I will find a way to cherish your opinion even during an election year.”

Of course when I looked up nuptial vows, I did not find anything as pragmatic as the aforementioned. However, what I did find made me tear up, because I realized what I had promised to accept in marriage, I could not accept in myself.

How many of us can stand before a mirror and say,

“I take you to be no other than yourself. Loving what I know of you, trusting what I do not yet know.

I take you, with all your faults and strengths; and I will offer you help when you are in need.

I will respect you and have faith in your love for me through all our years and in all that life may bring, in sickness and in health.”

I know that it is especially difficult for those of us with chronic illnesses to love ourselves, let alone accept that others can, and do love us despite our lingering issues. But, Dear Ones, if we promise to love ourselves the way we would vow to love our partner, we will be taking a step in the right direction!

Imperfect Perfection

Sometimes inspiration can be found in the oddest of places, and some days, at the most inconvenient of times.

The Vernal Equinox is quickly approaching and I am sitting in my craft room making flowers for a friend’s very special occasion. I pour over photo references for color, shape and size. In a word, I want these flowers to be perfect.

It’s nap time at the Double H Cat Ranch and all is quiet, a rare opportunity for productivity, however, something is nagging at me, something my very wise husband Tom said to me when I asked him his opinion on how to make these flowers stand out, how to make them realistic.

“Don’t make them perfect. In nature, things aren’t perfect.”

So simple, so profound, and yet complex in its execution. In essence, Tom was telling that I should take my perfectly shaped flower petals, the ones that I spent hours cutting out and shading; tear them, cut into them, and crumble them to make them look real.



As I did this I watched the petals came alive in beauty and that’s when my productivity came to a screeching halt, the muse of creative writing thumped me on the back of the head and that’s when I heard a little voice screech say…

“Where is your pen, where is the paper, TAKE NOTES!”

I am not prone to easy distraction, I do not have ADD; although, I have become quiet adept at multitasking as physical limitations dictate. Quickly abondoning one activity in favor of another when my body ever so delicately SCREAMS at me to stop. However, when the muse of creative writing pops her lovely head in demanding a few minutes hours of my spare time, I drop everything thing and run to my tablet like a kitty who just heard the crunchy bowl being filled!

This my friends, was one of those times. In mid-cutting, the nap-time clock ticking loudly indicating that my window of peaceful opportunity was closing soon, I stopped flower production to share with you what I learned amid crepe paper, hot glue and flower tape.

Why in the name of all that is beautiful would I expect myself to be perfect when nature isn’t?

Flowers and trees are seiged by disease; insect infestations mar their leaves and petals. Tree trunks are bent and twisted from the storms they have bravely weathered. And yet, they stand, with their beautiful faces looking up into the radiance of the sun drinking in its warmth. Trusting in nature’s timing, the coming Spring that brings more light to each day, showers to cleanse and nourish; a rebirth of imperfection in its most perfect form.

Dear Ones, take a step in the right direction. Follow nature’s example, embrace your beauty, even in what society may deem imperfection.

My love to you all!

Musical Chairs

michelle nicole photography

I live my life in increments. Twenty minutes here, thirty minutes there. Flitting about from one activity to another with all the frenetic energy of a room full of children surrounding a single chair waiting for the music to stop, only to pop up again with a squeal at the sound of a new melody.

I do not have ADD, or ADHD; although at times, I’m sure it appears as such. I have chronic pain stemming from nerve damage and many, many surgeries to stabilize my spine from birth defects that affect my ability to sit or stand for prolonged periods of time. There are however, days, where one would never know my constant struggle to maintain some semblance of normalcy. On the surface, I appear to be your average middle aged wife, mother, grandmother, and stay at home cat mom. A deeper look though, would reveal a string of incomplete projects.

Journals filled with unfinished blog posts and a book manuscript, waiting for brain fog to lift. Boxes of patterns and fabric in need of hours at the cutting table and sewing machine, anticipating the day they are transformed into fashion statements or beautiful costumes. Flower petals cut from paper awaiting for permission to “bloom” and be placed into unique bouquets. Tasks abandoned as a matter of priority, like chairs pulled aside with each new round of music. Every day, a new melody, every day the need to assess my level of pain and energy to prioritize what I need to do verses what I want to do.

Recently, I apologized to my husband for a nap, something becoming more of a routine than a thing of spontaneity. He was very kind and understanding stating that he knows I’m “not normal”. I bristled at his sweet statement, but deep inside, I know he is right. That day, I chose my “chair” carefully; I attend a fitness class to stretch and strengthen muscles. It took every bit of energy I had and once the music stopped, I found the nearest BarcaLounger, plopping into it, welcoming as many cats as would fit to join me!

It has become quite a process; but through patient practice I am achieving balance, allowing myself the freedom to choose which chair I want and learning the cues that my music is about to stop.

Angels Among Us

Angels. The Bible tells us they are created beings who have a definite hierarchy and hold very important jobs in heaven. Some believe that we are issued winged guardians on the day of our birth, provided to guide and protect us throughout our lives; others say when our loved ones pass on they become angels, still others speculate that angels are actually aliens. There are many beliefs about these beings, and despite our varied speculations, I feel that we can all concur that there are times in our lives when we encounter someone who breeches the realm of coincidence; someone who reiterates, almost verbatim, our most private meditations and makes us wonder if we have just had an encounter with an angel incarnate.

My husband Tom and I were sitting in the lab waiting for my name to be called for blood work when a gregarious man of color entered the lab and greeted the receptionist, in French.

“Comment allez-vous?”  (How are you all?)

The receptionist smiled politely, asked him to sign in and have a seat, which he did one chair down from Tom and me. I tried to ask his name with my limited knowledge of French and realized immediately that I used the incorrect verbiage; but in retrospect, perhaps not.

“Qui est-ce que c’est?”  (Who is it?)

The man did not answer me but began to tell us how he had learned French in high school while living in West Africa. I heard his accent now and had to lean over Tom to hear as he exclaimed what a glorious day it was, a day to be grateful for all things. 

“Just to open your eyes is a gift. Each day we may face challenges, but God didn’t say it would be a bed of roses. He said he would bear with us, help us. If God, who created me, is helping me how can I do better than that?”  The hair on my arms was standing up and I was listening intently.

I am facing a new challenge. I was in the lab for additional blood work after my ANA (anti-nuclear antibody) was positive, an indication of an autoimmune disease, specifically, Systemic Lupus Erythematosus. I was having a difficult time praying about this, words it seemed, escaped me. The most I could utter (after an expletive) was “Seriously?!” and “Just whatever!”

“We need to do more than just attend church, we must read the Bible, allow it to become part of us or we become a part of the world and sin.”

Since moving to North Carolina five months ago, Tom and I have been attending Sunday services at a local church faithfully and have participated in other church events; but I have not been diligent about reading the scriptures and have been wondering if just attending church was enough to sustain me. Goose flesh crawled up my spine, I could see Tom was getting uncomfortable too, but this man had my attention.

He must have noticed Tom fidgeting. “I am sorry to sound preachy, but I must share!”His face lit into a huge smile.

In an attempt to change the subject, Tom asked if he had family. “I have a wife and 2 children; a son who is 26 living in Baltimore, doing very well for himself and a 16 year old daughter.”  My spine was tingling now! Tom and I were both born and raised in Baltimore; huh, what a coincidence? 

Then he pulled out his cell phone. “My daughter and my wife like Facebook. I sent this to them today.” he began reading his post to us. “It is of the Lord’s mercies that we are not consumed, because his compassions, fail not. They are new every morning; great is thy faithfulness.” (Lamentations 3:22-23)

I was almost in tears. You see, that very morning as I was getting ready for my appointment, I was quietly signing the old hymn, Great is they Faithfulness, written by Thomas Chisholm and inspired by the scripture our new friend had just shared with us. 

Again our friend reiterated, “I must share because you do not know who you will meet and how they might need encouragement… “

I stopped him in mid-sentence, “I know why you had to share. You were sent here, to this place today, just for me, for us.”

Now HE was leaning in across the open chair, his smile broad and eyes shimmering.“Tell me!” he said with enthusiasm.

“I’m here for blood work because I have… “

“Some health challenges.” Tom interrupted. At that, the phlebotomist called my name. We rose, and the man with us. “Janet Hartlove”, I extended my hand introducing myself.

“I am called Antony.”  He shook my hand. “God bless you!”  He may have stated his last name, but I don’t recall, and I’m not sure that it mattered. The message he had delivered was received loud and clear. No matter what the blood work revealed, I was going to be ok, because God is faithful, each and every day!

Great is Thy faithfulness, O God my Father

There is no shadow of turning with Thee

Thou changest not, Thy compassions, they fail not

As Thou hast been, Thou forever will be…

Great is Thy faithfulness

Great is Thy faithfulness

Morning by morning new mercies I see

All I have needed Thy hand hath provided

Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me…