All posts by Karen

A New Anthology

Women’s voices matter. We have witnessed this truth again and again in 2017, and it is with pride that I announce the inclusion of “Childbirth 1977” in Inside and Out: Women’s Truths, Women’s Stories.

Seventy-six voices, garnered from 2009 to 2016, weave a rich collection of witnessing, connecting, remembering, waking, recognizing, acting, nurturing, and growing. “These true tales, our sisters’ voices, link us and can lead us forward,” writes Susan F. Schoch, editor.

Susan Witting Albert adds, “But while these stories are grounded in the daily realities of individual lives, they tell us a communal story. . . . At SCN [Story Circle Network], we say that every woman has a hundred stories to tell, and they are all true.”

I am about to witness my first birth. I am twenty; my patient and her husband are eighteen.                 “Childbirth 1977”

Humbled and honored to be part of the tapestry of SCN’s latest book.

All-City Poetry Slam

Update Your Progress

I made my poetry slam debut last week. Sponsored by one of our high school seniors, I smiled “maybe” when she invited me to slam.  Though intrigued, I had written little poetry to date.

Two days before the event, I resurrected a stream-of-consciousness piece from my cell phone. I revised. Rehearsed. Then spoke from my heart.

Update Your Progress: February 8, 2017 at 6:24 AM

Goodreads reminder:

you started reading

The Memory Book

41 days ago

Update your progress

My dad died 34 days ago

is that what you're asking?

dictate words into cell phone

read "time flies" on WaPo

Update your progress

Calls and emails unanswered

Members of Congress ignored

voter suppression et al

he became president

Update your progress

We marched in Helena

10,000 strong

The woman beside me said,

"isn't it nice to be around thinkers?"

Update your progress

I fell on my driveway

wrist to shoulder swallowed whole

old anti-inflammatories

got me through

Update your progress

I returned to the treadmill

to walk and to read

Muslim ban and Cabinet nominees

sabotaged my mind

Update your progress

Page 264

93 more 

my heart bleeds for our country

my father rests in peace 



A Promise

This Promise from a first and second grade multiage class fills me with hope. Their collective words—penned in a public school classroom two miles from my home—demonstrate a culture of collaboration, creativity, and community.

Our Promise

I hope for equity in our cities, state, country, and world. I hope that our United States will be the welcoming country embodied by the Statue of Liberty. I hope that those tasked with reconciling revenue deficits and funding for essential services will embrace this spirit of collaboration. Most of all, I hope that sharing this Promise from thoughtful, kind, courageous six- to eight-year-old leaders will inspire each of us, particularly elected officials, to model their words.

Father’s Day

We lost our Papa in January. In the months that followed, I cocooned myself in his gold and brown sweatshirt, softness and scent comforts on cold winter nights. Colors of Capital High School Bruins, its frayed neck and sleeves evidence of the years Papa spent cheering for his grandchildren.

A special sweatshirt. 2009.
A special sweatshirt. 2009.

On his eighty-ninth birthday, Dad asked, “Do you think I’ll live to be a hundred?” His question earnest, we vowed to have a ninetieth birthday bash if he made it that long.

He didn’t. He died less than six weeks later, five days after breaking his hip. As we surrounded his hospital bed, I was reminded of a family gathering twelve years prior.

Please keep everyone healthy and safe had been my silent plea, Dad foremost in my mind as extended family bid Eric bon voyage. Not yet seventeen, he was headed to Argentina for a yearlong study abroad. I fought tears when Eric said goodbye to Papa, wondering if it would be the last time they would see each other.

Ten days ago, Eric received his MPA from UW’s Evans School of Public Policy and Governance.  Gram with us to celebrate, I felt Papa’s presence, too. And when I saw the photo, I knew.

Papa's presence in a wisp of a rainbow.

Happy Father’s Day, Dad.

Queer is not a bad word.

It was a new word for me. Queer. 1967, age eleven, I sought out my twelve-year-old brother, careful to catch him out of earshot of younger siblings. “What’s a queer?” I asked.

Ssshhh!” He flicked his head toward the adjacent bedroom where our mother was putting away laundry. “Mom will hear you.”

His stage whisper so loud, I was certain she heard him, not me. I left, question unanswered.

I had a fallback plan: Julie, our thirteen-year-old neighbor. She would tell me. And she did. I don’t remember her words. Straightforward, they didn’t leave a lasting impression. The shushing did.

I didn’t fault my brother, though. Growing up in the 1960’s, the families I knew didn’t talk about “the birds and the bees.” I added “queers” to the list, and moved on.

Twenty years later, I had my first baby. When I changed Eric’s diaper, I practiced saying “this is your penis” and “this is your scrotum,” determined to say those words as easily as “Head of hair. Forehead bare . . .”

When he was four, I borrowed a kids’ library book to read to him and to one-year-old Colin. It had cartoonish drawings and talked about bodies and making babies, subjects I did not want to be taboo. That same year, Eric traced a panty liner on a piece of paper. He presented his drawing, pride palpable: “I drew a uterus!”

His drawing did look like the knitted uterus I used in my Lamaze classes. I reveled in his artistry, creativity, and in the way the word rolled off his tongue.

Eric and Karen Buley.
Eric and Karen.

Fast forward twenty-five years. I wish I had known to look for LGBTQIA books. That acronym was not in my vocabulary back then, but acceptance, empathy, love, and tolerance were. I have learned that I am an ally. And Eric is queer. He is also a Fulbrighter. A City Year AmeriCorps alum. An Education Pioneer. A TeamChild Board Fellow. And an MPA. A recent graduate of University of Washington, he was nominated to be both a Husky 100 and a Luce Scholar. He is fluent in Spanish; has lived on four continents; and is compassionate, kind, and an inspiration. His sexual orientation does not define him.

On the eve of his seventeenth birthday, Eric left Montana to spend a year in San Miguel de Tucumán, Argentina, as a foreign exchange student. Four days ago, I donned a pair of Argentine earrings he gave me, harnessing his courage as I prepared to embark upon my first solo door-to-door canvassing. His political activism began in high school when he restarted an Amnesty International club for his senior project. My activism, spotty throughout the years, kicked up last summer. In recent weeks, it has been on overdrive.

Montana has a special election coming up May 25. Our lone seat in the House of Representatives was vacated in March. I have been working hard to elect Democrat Rob Quist. He represents Montana values, including equity. His Republican opponent opposed non-discrimination ordinances in Bozeman and Butte. But equity is a Montana value, so both ordinances won easy victories: Bozeman unanimously; Butte 10-2.

At a recent Special Election Action Forum, a speaker shared a conversation she had had with her mother. When she referenced LGBTQ rights, her mom asked, “What does the Q stand for?” then said, “Oh. That’s a word I don’t use.”

Her mom is a Baby Boomer, like me. I didn’t use ‘queer’ growing up, either. I do now.

Last week, while tabling on the University of Montana campus, I talked with another Baby Boomer. He expressed concerns about the candidates. I rattled off Rob Quist’s Montana values: public lands, affordable health care, Medicare and Social Security, public education, Second Amendment Rights. He told me he had been in the healthcare field, so we talked about that.

Then I shared the heart of my story. I told him I had never really campaigned before. I said that Rob Quist believes in equity, and I was fighting for my queer son who cried for two weeks after our November election. The current Republican candidate had fought non-discrimination ordinances, I said. I tried to keep the quiver out of my voice when I added that my fight was to elect a man who believes in equity.

He listened, then said that my son should not have to worry about being treated equitably.  He put his hand on my shoulder, and told me he would vote for Quist “for your son. My wife will, too,” he said.

I thanked him, hoping he realized the depth of my gratitude.

I had another tender conversation when I knocked doors two days later. The man told me he had lost his wife the week before. His words matter of fact, I asked about her. Sixty—my age—she died too young. He told me about her cancer and her medical bills. I told him about my dad, who had passed away three months before, five days after breaking his hip. Eighty-nine, he had a good, long life. We talked about affordable healthcare for all.

I told him I was campaigning because I had a queer son, and because Rob Quist believes in equality.

“Your son is what?” he asked.


“What does that mean?”

“It’s an umbrella term for non-heterosexual,” I said. I told him it was a reclaimed term, not the slur of our youth.

“I did not know that,” he said, words thoughtful and deliberate.

We talked a bit more about his wife’s upcoming celebration of life before saying goodbye.

When I reached the sidewalk, he called, “Tell your son there are people out there who support him.”

“I will,” I replied, voice catching.

Tears threatened as I walked to the next house. His words affirmed what I knew, and gave me resolve. Montana has a single seat in the House of Representatives. I will continue to fight for Montana’s voice to be one of affirmation, safety, and inclusiveness.

I grieve my father. I grieve his beloved country more.

My eighty-nine-year-old father died on January 5, five days after breaking his hip. He was scheduled for surgery January 3–delayed until his body cleared blood thinners—but worsening congestive heart failure declared itself early that morning. “I’ve had a good life,” Dad said, voice breaking after hearing that his body couldn’t tolerate surgery, that we’d keep him comfortable until his reunion with an army of family and friends in heaven.

My mom and I ordered his breakfast, our thoughts shifted from hoping he would make it through surgery without complications to anticipating the logistics of in-home hospice care. When the first of my siblings arrived, Dad told her, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.”

Inducted into the Butte Sports Hall of Fame in 2009 for his teenaged boxing prowess, we didn’t know whether those were fighting words or a reference to heaven. Fighting words, it turned out, when he mentioned his caregiver soon after: “Maria’s going to have a job.”

Dan Antonietti. A fighter until the end.
My dad, Dan Antonietti, wearing his favorite WW II Veteran cap.

The hospitalist switched him to oral morphine, which relieved Dad’s pain without the sedation of IV Dialudid. He had a glorious day: visiting with Mom and six of their eight children, talking and singing on the phone to grandchildren, and visiting with Maria.

A champion of veterans’ rights, he had planned to testify on their behalf twenty-three times at the Montana legislature this session. Now, instead of Mom being chauffeur and copilot as he navigated the Capitol halls with his walker, Dad dictated testimony from his hospital bed for her pinch-hitter appearance. He talked so fast, it took two of us to take notes.

“Madam Chair and all members of the State Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee:

For the record, my name is Catherine Antonietti, wife of Dan Antonietti, who is in the hospital and unable to attend this legislative session. He is a member of Post 1448 in Butte, Montana, which is a mile high and a mile deep and all the people are on the level.”

He grinned, then continued in his own words.

“I was the Legislative Chairman of the Veterans of Foreign Wars at the state and national levels.  I voted yes for all legislative bills for the last sixteen years and I continue to cast my vote for every veteran’s bill held in this legislature. I’m glad to see you all back. Thank you, Madam Chair. You’ve all been a big help and I am proud of all of you.”

I fought back tears at his tender words, thinking how proud I was of him. Laughter followed when he said he wanted a beer, then asked for ice cream instead. We told him he could have both. “Just ice cream,” he said. “The kind I like.”

Two sisters went on a grocery run, returning with a half-gallon of ‘Mocha Me Hoppy’ and beer—just in case. Dad had three servings of ice cream that afternoon and evening. He had a couple of bites the next morning, which turned out to be his final meal. He began a steady decline, transitioning from oral morphine to a continuous IV infusion by the time the hospice nurse and social worker arrived for a family consult the following morning.

They asked if we wanted to go to a conference room. Dad hadn’t talked or opened his eyes since the previous evening, but they reminded us hearing was the last to go. We said we wanted to stay.

The nurse listened to his heart and lungs, then said it might only be hours before he passed. She talked about end-of-life care and offered condolences. The social worker did too, lingering to take contact information for bereavement follow-up—offering thirteen months for any or all.

She suggested one-on-one goodbyes with Dad and, after she left, we exited the room so Mom could go first. All eight of us and one brother-in-law followed. Dad’s brow wrinkled in concentration. He didn’t open his eyes, but he moaned and moved his lips. I felt his words in my heart. He died peacefully eleven hours later.

As we reconvened the following morning to discuss funeral plans, Vice President Biden and Congress met to formally count electoral votes. That morning I read factual news, not fake, about fifty-plus ineligible Republican electors—ineligible because they didn’t live in their Congressional Districts, or because as elected officials, they were barred from being “dual office-holders.”

Days earlier, I had contacted numerous senators and representatives, urging them to object to electoral votes because of voter suppression, Russian interference, and because electors’ requests for a briefing on foreign interference had been denied. That morning, I called Montana’s three Members of Congress again, pressing for objections based on this new information.

I felt joyful driving to the mortuary. I imagined Dad and his fellow warriors working the Democratic Caucuses from above, particularly Senator Tester who had known and respected him for his veterans’ advocacy. I sang en route:

Papa Dan, you are the man, you’re up in heaven to take a stand to help change the history of our country. The country you loved and fought hard for, Donald Trump will be no more president-elect of this, our great country. Hallelujah, Hallelujah. Hallelujah, Hallelujah.

I knew my chorus of angels might be hypothetical, but I believed the Democrats would fight for justice. Constituents had urged objections for weeks. President Obama had imposed Russian sanctions. Fifty ineligible electors tipped the scale.

I checked my phone when we broke to look at caskets, certain that Colin Powell’s three electoral votes would multiply and he would be elected President. Premature I knew, because objections, debates, and subsequent votes would take time, but I checked again before we segued to our meeting at the cathedral.

An hour later, I read the devastating truth in a grocery store parking lot: not a single senator objected to the votes.

Dad emboldened me with the motto: “You can’t win if you don’t try.” Numbed by the Senate’s inertia, I didn’t cry until driving one hundred twenty miles the next day to pack for his funeral. Angry tears spilled down my cheeks. I cursed Democratic senators and told them about my dad.

He was a fighter. Not a quitter. His dad died when he was ten. Butte-tough, he was a fourteen-year-old featherweight champion. He would have excelled at other sports, too, but he had to work to help support his family.

He was a WW II Veteran. He enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1945, but was honorably discharged after breaking his back in a car accident. Determined to serve his country, he enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1946 and served in the post-war occupation in Japan.

He was a Blackfeet Nation Indian Chief. Honored for his role in securing programs and funding for the Blackfeet people, he was adopted into the tribe in 1972 and given the name A-pi-na-ko Si–pis-to: “Morning Owl.”

He liked Bernie Sanders. Days before he died, he said to me, “I wanted to vote for Bernie but you said that would be a vote for Trump so I voted for Hillary.” He was heartsick that Hillary won the popular vote but lost the Electoral College.

He loved his country, and was proud of his legacy. Seventeen grandchildren. Five great-grandchildren. He wanted to make their world a better place.

But not one of you Senators put up a fight.

That morning, I talked with a lifelong friend. She said one good thing about Dad’s death was that he would not have to see Trump get inaugurated. We shared our hope that her eighty-six-year-old dad wouldn’t either. After nine months of hospice care, he died peacefully four days later.

On January 21, she, her daughter, and I marched in the Women’s March on Montana, carrying our special angels in our hearts. We toasted them afterward with my mom and sister—reveling in memories of two proud Americans and their lives well lived.

Weeks since we said goodbye to my dad, I miss him. I am grateful, too. Grateful that during his graveside military honors when Mom was presented a medal and the words, “On behalf of the President of the United States . . . ,” Barack Obama was President. I am grateful Dad is not here to watch Trump unravel the country he loved, the country he fought for. Most of all, I am grateful he is pain free and resting in peace. Continue reading “I grieve my father. I grieve his beloved country more.” »

Children should not fear the President.

Children should not fear the President.

My heart ached on election night. I wanted to turn off the television after Trump was declared winner, but didn’t. I forced myself to stay up and listen to his speech. His demeanor and tone were better than I’d seen. He said: “I pledge to every citizen of our land that I will be President for all Americans . . .” As a woman and a mother of a queer son I wanted truth in those words. All became my mantra as I tried to sleep.

Non-supporters did not share my forced optimism in subsequent days. Then Daniel Brezenoff started a petition asking the Electoral College to make Hillary Clinton president on December 19. I signed. Resignation shifted to hope. Her 2.7 million popular vote lead continues to climb.

Three days after the election I drove one hundred twenty miles to celebrate Veterans Day weekend with my parents. My dad, an eighty-nine-year-old WWII veteran, said, “I wanted to vote for Bernie, but you told me that would be a vote for Trump so I voted for Hillary.” He, Mom, and I shared our disbelief and concerns for our country. I told them about the petition—already three million signers by then—and shared my hope for a just outcome.

I awoke the next morning at three thirty. Unable to sleep, I got up at four and typed stream-of-consciousness ramblings. Then, awake for the day, I spent too many hours reading twitter hashtags: #StillWithHer and #NotMyPresident. I didn’t know then that that morning as my mind spun with ideas for action, a Peace Rally launched in downtown Missoula. A weekly event, I’ve since been to two, and I’ll march in the Missoula Solidarity Alliance Unity March on December 10. Please join me if you can.

My resolve to do something toughened after Steve Bannon was named Senior Adviser. After racist fliers peppered our community. I felt foolish that I’d tried to believe “I’ll be President for all Americans,” despite Trump’s hateful rhetoric and Mike Pence’s opposition to gay rights and same-sex marriage. I explored logistics and costs of blocking off streets or reserving a park for a rally to encourage electors to “flip the vote.” I planned a postcard event instead, facilitated by an offer to share space with Montana Book Festival’s TextCraft at Imagine Nation Brewing on December 4.

Concerned citizens gathered in solidarity after I announced the event at Missoula Rises and at a Peace Rally. While penning our cards, we learned of Standing Rock water protectors’ DAPL victory. Serendipity: affirmation of the power of voices as we exercised our own.

Writing postcards to electors at Imagine Nation Brewing.Book art and postcards and beer at Imagine Nation Brewing.Postcard champions at Imagine Nation Brewing.I’ve been told that hoping the electors will flip the vote is a pipe dream. I disagree. The day after we rallied, Texas elector Christopher Suprun wrote in a New York Times op-ed he would not be voting for Trump. And in the weeks since the election, a plethora of nonpartisan, non-ideological concerns have been raised about a Trump presidency.  

Twenty-nine voices. Five hundred postcards.

Twenty-seven voices. Words without pretense.I have faith that our electors will, like Christopher Suprun, do as they are tasked: vote with conscience to keep a demagogue and foreign influences out of the White House.Children should not fear the President.Children should not fear the President.

Thank You, Montana

Shelly & Karen. August 2016
Shelly & Karen. August 2016

Thank you, Montana, for passing I-182. Thank you for your compassion for my friend Shelly and for the thousands of other Montanans who lost their medical marijuana providers in August. Three days before the election, a woman complimented my “VOTE” button as we waited in line at the Roxy Theater concession counter. “Vote for medical marijuana,” she said.

“I already did,” I replied. “I wrote letters to the editor, too.”

She said she hoped she had read them.

“They were about my friend in hospice care,” I said. “She uses fentanyl patches, but she needs medical marijuana too.”

“My son’s on fentanyl,” she said. She told me he has Crohn’s Disease. He can eat when he uses marijuana but without it, food is a challenge.

“We already passed it,” her friend said. We expressed our collective frustration with the legislative rollback and shared our optimism that Montanans would vote to legalize medical marijuana. Again.

We did. So did Arkansas, Florida, and North Dakota. California, Massachusetts, Nevada, and Maine voted to legalize recreational use for adults twenty-one and older. Though speculation reigns about how a Trump administration will impact the marijuana industry, I believe that legislation will be left up to the states. For Shelly, and for all who need medical marijuana, I don’t want to believe anything less.

We Need Medical Marijuana

My friend Shelly changes her fentanyl patches every two days. It used to be a single patch every three days. Now it’s two patches every other—for a combined 62.5 mcg.  Her story is written between the lines in a Washington Post article that states, “The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned doctors in the spring against prescribing opioids with benzodiazepines, except for patients battling diseases such as cancer.” Like Shell.

Diagnosed one year ago with a pancreatic neuroendocrine tumor, Shelly’s in a club she never asked to join. Cancer her entry ticket, she can fill her prescriptions without question. But when she uses morphine and Dilaudid and lorazepam for breakthrough pain and anxiety, “All I can do is sleep,” she says. “That’s not living.”

Her medical marijuana card used to offer an alternative. “Mentally, physically, spiritually, psychologically . . . with the pot, I am living.” Though Shell has been receiving in-home hospice care since spring, she’s been able to make memories with her family: taking road trips to Yellowstone National Park and to Colorado; going camping; canning peaches; and enjoying movie nights, family dinners, and an outing to MontanaFair.

Montana voters approved an initiative to legalize medical marijuana in 2004. In 2011, the Montana Legislature passed SB 423 to repeal the 2004 Montana Marijuana Act and replace it with new regulations. Appeals and court hearings followed, but ultimately the Montana Supreme Court ruled that the law to limit providers to only three patients would go into effect August 31, 2016—the day before Shelly’s fifty-ninth birthday.

Shelly & Karen August 2016
Shelly Hert and Karen Buley 2016

Unable to afford to stay in business, her providers were forced to close their doors. I met them in early August when I took Shell to the pot shop. I was impressed with their professionalism, knowledge, concern for Shelly, and array of products. Her providers applauded testing, taxation, and regulations, but were frustrated with Montana’s forthcoming legislation to limit access. Since 2004, registered medical marijuana Montanans have been treated for cancer, chronic pain, multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s disease, epilepsy, and more. But when the law changed on August 31, Shell and 11, 849 other registered cardholders lost their providers.

Pharmaceutical billionaire John Kapoor described his late wife’s cancer struggles in a recent Forbes article:  “I saw what she had to go through, and I can tell you, pain is such a misunderstood thing for cancer patients.” Following her death he developed Subsys, a fentanyl spray for under the tongue administration to provide rapid relief for breakthrough cancer pain.

But in 2014 the NYT described off-label Subsys use, higher sales rep commissions for selling higher doses, and company plans to seek approval for broader use. The article quoted Dr. Lewis S. Nelson, a medical toxicologist at the New York University School of Medicine: “If you’re waiting to die, you should die in comfort and dignity. It’s very different than if you’re attempting to have a functional life, because these drugs are relatively incompatible with having a functional life.”

Shell is receiving hospice care, but she is not waiting to die. She recently danced at her daughter’s wedding, and is looking forward to another family celebration in the coming days. She had stocked up on enough pot “to last through September” but now it’s October and she doesn’t have a provider.

I talked to her two days ago. She sounded rough. She asked if we could talk the following day; she had a call in to her hospice nurse to increase her fentanyl patches. She didn’t want to load up on morphine or Dilaudid—they exacerbate her opioid induced constipation (OIC), despite stool softeners and Milk of Magnesia. She’d been rationing her marijuana lozenges because she didn’t want to run out. Montanans voted in 2004 for more humane treatment.

We will get the opportunity again this November with I-182, a ballot initiative that would, among other things, repeal the three-patient limit. Eight other states will vote on marijuana initiatives this fall: three on medical marijuana; five on recreational use. Twenty-five states (including Montana), the District of Columbia, Guam, and Puerto Rico have passed marijuana legislation.

A 2015 Gallup poll found that 58% of Americans support legal marijuana. A study by economist Darin F. Ullman reported that medical-related absenteeism declined after the legalization of medical marijuana, and, according to CBS News, “it estimated that the overall impact of the legal marijuana industry on the U.S. economy for 2016 would be as much as $17.2 billion.” Cannabis remains illegal under federal law, though the DEA acknowledges, “No death from overdose of marijuana has been reported.”

Not so for opioids. In 2014, there were more than 14,000 U. S. deaths involving prescription opioids. Articles pepper the news about our nation’s opioid epidemic and its devastating societal and economic effects, and Forbes tells us that even though the FDA approves Subsys solely for cancer patients, its continued off-label use has resulted in antikickback statute violations and an accidental death.

Shell called yesterday after sending this email:

Email from Shell 10/7/16

Shelly needs her fentanyl patches, but she also needs medical marijuana. If you live in a state that will be voting on a marijuana initiative this November, I urge you to please vote FOR legalization. Legalize. Regulate. Test. Tax. Enable Shelly, and others like her, to live the functional lives they deserve.


My appendix ruptured three hundred fifty miles from home. That was not the plan. The plan was to spend two nights with my dear friend Shelly. Catch up. Reminisce. Write her obituary. On the cusp of her fifty-ninth birthday, Shell’s receiving in-home hospice care for a pancreatic neuroendocrine tumor.

Midnight before we said “goodnight,” we spent nine glorious hours looking at photo albums, talking, laughing, and crying. My pain started soon after. I searched “appendicitis”  and “acupressure abdominal pain” on my phone, grateful my pain was low and midline, not the right lower quadrant pain with rebound tenderness I remembered from my nursing school days and February of my boys’ eighth grade years—when appendicitis struck twice.

I worked the acupressure points on my shins and belly to no avail. The vomiting started at two-thirty. Shelly’s daughter Michelle drove me to an urgent care center that morning. “Food poisoning,” the doctor diagnosed. He said my pain wasn’t in the triangular area suspect for appendicitis, but if my symptoms got worse I could return for blood work and a scan. “How does that sound?” he asked.

“Sounds good,” I said.

My cousin Theresa picked me up. I waited in the car while she filled my prescription and bought ginger ale and sports drinks, then I took a dissolvable anti-nausea tablet en route to Shell’s to get my things. A hurried goodbye followed with a promise to return.

Seven hours later I was in the emergency room—at a different facility than that morning. Hours after Theresa delivered me to her home, her twenty-one-year-old son broke his pelvis in a motocross accident. He was in ER with his dad, awaiting admission. Theresa came home to pack an overnight bag and shuttle me to an ER. Made sense to go where she would be spending the night: between ICU, my room, and a waiting room as it turned out.

Ruptured appendix” was the diagnosis twenty-two hours after my pain began. I asked the surgeon if she thought it ruptured when I vomited in the ER waiting room and my pain shot from 7 to 10. To 15, had that been an option on the pain scale. She said appendixes often rupture at the onset in adults. Said too that adults’ pain can start midline and then migrate to the right. My pain was low, not around the navel like I’d read online. She said she’d try to remove my appendix laparoscopically but might have to open me up. I said I hoped she wouldn’t have to.

She didn’t. Rich bused over and drove me home thirty-seven hours after surgery. My drain came out two days later. That night I was again an ER admit, this time with vomiting, chills, and fever. “High-grade bowel obstruction and two pelvic abscesses” were my diagnoses: a ticket to a nasogastric tube, a laparotomy, and a weeklong hospital stay. Four times in five days I had to present my insurance card, grateful at each point for the Affordable Care Act and our insurance plan through Montana’s health insurance exchange.

Sunrise from St. Patrick Hospital room 513. May 2016
Sunrise from St. Patrick Hospital room 513
Mount Jumbo and Mount Sentinel from hospital window
Room with a view: Mount Jumbo and Mount Sentinel from 513

Would my outcome have been different had the urgent care doctor ordered blood work and a scan? Maybe. Had the first surgeon opened me up? Perhaps. “Probably” says my nurse friend Marj. In hindsight, both might have been better options but at the time, I was relieved by each assessment. Throughout my two hospitalizations and recovery periods, thoughts of Shelly—her courage, strength, and grace—put my journey into perspective. My surgeries were detours—the saddest part being I didn’t get to say “goodbye and good luck” to graduating seniors—but they paled compared to Shelly’s pancreatic cancer. To Matt’s broken pelvis. He’s recovering well from trauma surgery, but the abrupt ending to his motocross career was hard.

I know life is unpredictable. And every day’s a gift. So I changed my oil, filled my gas tank, and took another road trip. Shell and I had some writing to do.

Shelly & Karen. August 2016
Shelly & Karen. August 2016