Wednesday, 12 January 2011

A bit of background

For those of you reading the blog who aren't members of my family (and I still can't believe you find this engaging enough to come back, but I'm so grateful you do) I think I need to give you a back story. The only reason I'm doing this is because Mike is about to embark on another series of operations, and it seems so crypic to refer to "The Accident" without any explanation. I don't write about it in my blog because 1) we don't want it to define us just because it affects us and 2) I don't really feel much like talking about it. Not with strangers. But you guys are either my family or my friends now, so it seems relevant.

Anyhoo, this short piece was written in September 2009 for a podcast on the theme of 'Make Do and Mend'. I've simply copied it here for the information (and added a few more details about the accident). Please don't feel obligated to comment, I know you know it was horrible and that you're glad we're better now. We are. And I promise, after this recap post, I will get back to stories about the daily lives of countryfolk, working dogs, and our ineptitude learning experiences.

In June 2008, my husband and I were caught in a terrible explosion. A shed full of pheasant chicks filled with gas from a faulty heater. We were airlifted to Swansea Burns Unit in Wales where we spent a horrible year (coincidentally, also our first year of marriage). Though my injuries healed in a few months, my husband was in a coma having taken the full force of the blast. He had suffered over 80% burns - a huge injury. Doctors carried out skin graft operations every few days; as often as his body could cope with the trauma of surgery.  I lost count after 11 trips to the OR.

When the worst of the wounds were covered, Mike still had weeks of fighting off life-threatening infections with drugs and even dialysis to support his immune system. Mike was thankfully kept comatose through it all, to spare him the pain of his injuries. Even if he survived the surgeries and the infections, he would have much rehabilitation to do. But the doctors' prognosis was pessimistic to say the least. They use a calculation adding the patient's age with the percentage of burns to give the likelihood against survival. 43 years + 80% burns meant Mike had "over 100% chance of mortality" as it was described to me.

Mike continued to survive in spite of the numbers. He went from surviving hour-to-hour, to day-to-day. Mike was brought out of his coma in September. We lived in the Burns Unit until October, then commuted back and forth from Dorset to Wales which we still do now, though our visits are getting less frequent as he gets better.

The injury called his job into jeopardy. He's a gamekeeper and his job is a very physical one. We weren't sure if he would walk again. He persevered and pushed himself so he was back to work only 2 months after coming out of the coma, only one month after re-learning to walk. His hand movements were still limited and I was his constant helper. A few months later, perhaps after too many sick days, I was made redundant from my job. We were facing the worst recession in decades, I was jobless and Mike was in a weakened state. On top of that, our home is tied to his job.

'Making do' became our only option. We cut back on everything - turning the heat off and wearing extra jumpers. I logged wood for our woodburner to keep one room warm enough for Mike for his daily dressing changes. Our horses has their shoes taken off and they were turned away to overwinter pasture, to save on food. We ate wild game which clients or I shot from the estate. We ate our own chickens and eggs. We were still too shellshocked to concentrate on reading, or to talk about what just happened, or the future. I knit Christmas presents, the knitting being my own therapy and the gifts just a small token.

'Making do' started us down a road which has become a major part of our daily life, and which has helped to heal us inside. Being self-sufficient gives you a feeling of independence and control. If you can look after yourself, you will be safe. I needed to feel safe.

I began to remember the skills my mother taught us when we were growing up. She came from a rural home in upstate New York where making do and mending was a necessity and a fact of life. Even after she married and moved and had children of her own, she continued to can tomatoes she grew in the garden, and to make preserves. When our neighbor got too old, she pruned his grape vines for him, in exchange for the grapes. She made grape jelly for us and for him. She sewed all our clothes, taking us to pattern stores to pick out patterns we liked. She helped us adapt them to suit our own sense of style, even into our late teen years. She made every Christmas ornament for our tree including the full set of the 12 days of Christmas and the Nutcracker Suite. She re-upholstered our furniture when it got threadbare, and wallpapered the rooms herself to match.

I was surprised how many skills I remembered. I must have picked them up just by standing with her stirring fruit or sitting with her doing my own needlework, like the simple tapestry apple that took me months to finish. I remembered stitches for hemming, blanket stitches, how to sterilise jars, the recipe for sugar cookies. I remembered that I still wear the same apron now that she wore then - a plain white full apron, with a permanent record of stains. The pots and pans I cook with were hers, and part of my childhood. Spoons, a garlic press, a hand-held can opener. A wooden serving bowl carved by her father is the centrepiece of our table, filled with pinecones and rocks and things I collect on my walks. It is my most prized possession. All of these things have followed me across the Atlantic ocean.

I don't just make do with these objects. They have never outlived their purpose. And they connect me to the knowledge of my past, passed down from my mother. From her mother. They make me feel rooted, they give me a history and bring back pleasant memories. They make me feel safe. When I put on my mother's apron, I can make anything. This year I have made dozens of jars of jam and chutney already, from the hedgerow bounty. I wear it when I'm jointing rabbits for the freezer, or cooking meals for friends.

Being more self-sufficient has helped us both to mend. As Mike gets better, I find my creativity returning. I've made a wreath for the front door from seed heads and plants in the hedges. I've re-made his old hospital bathrobe into a coat for the dog, to keep her warm on shoot days. This has cleansed the item of its old negative associations and given it a new happier use. I've been making do with fleeces from the Jacob sheep not wanted by the estate, to practice my spinning and increase my stash. I have enough for an aran weight 2-ply for a new jumper now.

And there's a lot we do without because we don't have a choice. But actually - we don't really miss it. We have been given perspective, and a reminder of what's more important to us. Mike and I pick blackberries, which gives us time together (an excellent 'date night' activity!) and fruit for more jelly. We notice more around us. We forget more about what happened, or maybe we can talk a little bit about it and share our fears a little because we're distracted by fruit, or a pair of nesting hobbys, or a prolific and wild tomato harvest in the greenhouse. Every year I promise to grow the tomatoes on neat cordons but when it comes time to prune, I can't bear the thought of losing even one fruiting truss.

Mom sadly died 20 years ago, at the premature age of 42. The same age I'll be this birthday. I'm still unemployed for now but I think it's going to be OK. And Mike is going to be OK. Though he will never be the same, he is making do. He uses a leatherman because his fingers are too stiff for small work. But he thinks maybe he will start tying flies again, he feels like he wants to. He finds it relaxing, like I find knitting. I will start saving the hairs from my rabbits for tying his flies.


Marianne said...

hats off to you. what brave, wonderful people. good luck to Mike with his new operations. will be thinking of him. and you.

Poppy Cottage said...

And all that is just a bit of what makes both of you two of the most amazing and inspirational people I have been lucky enough to meet. You taught me to spin, as I crochet my blanket with the wool from the Poll Dorset Fleece I am so grateful for learning this therapeutic skill, like you with knitting, I find that ‘place’ with spinning. You are a fantastic writer, full of knowledge I could only dream to possess and they way you put it across in your blog makes it an easy and enjoyable read, but full of such valid information.

They say our lives shape us into the people we become, pretty damn good so far Jen.

That is why we come back time and time again.......
Or is it because it pops up when you update your blog and we are just flipping nosey?

Kate said...

Wow. I'm floored. I had no idea the two of you had been through something of that magnitude. I am relieved, retroactively, that you both came through it so well. It must still be such a personal and at times a raw topic for you. It's a tribute to your strength and spirit that you felt you could share it with all of us here at the blog.

Panhandle Jane said...

Good luck to you, and a reference. If you can find it, you might want to read an essay by Alice Walker called "The Blue Bowl." There are many of us out here who have come to care about you and Mike because of your blog.

KD said...

Bravo! Onward!

Eccentric Scorpion said...

Bravo for having come through so much with such a good attitude. My own family apparently decided that after coming through the times where they had to suffer through they were going to put in behind them and forget it. I'm sure they still use life lessons learned but as far as self sufficiency they have no interest. In short, I want to know these things and have no one to teach me so I enjoy your blog immensely. One day I'll have the land to raise my own animals and seeing someone else is able to learn and figure out what the heck to do is reassuring. So thanks very much for that. Would you be interested in posting about your food preservation? I would find that very interesting as well. Thanks and good luck with all you do.

megan said...

I knew I liked you for a reason. (I mean, many of them). Living beside trauma by fending for oneself from the land -
Don't mean to be cryptic about that one, but your post helped me today. Good luck with upcoming surgeries, both of you.

Jamie Cameron said...

Is there a "like" button I could click on? Thank you for letting us know a little more.

Jennifer Montero said...

Marianne - I'll pass on your kind wishes to Mike too, thanks.

PC - Come to the blog because you're nosey, or out of idle curiosity, it's all good. And we EXCHANGED skills: spinning help for knitting help. I need to pass on the 'Sweater Quest' book to you too, if you haven't read it already.

Kate - It's easier to talk about it now, but it took a couple of years. Everyone who reads the blog and comments has done more to get me over the rough patches than I could write about, without sounding like a bad made-for-TV movie.

Jane - Ditto the previous comment. And thanks for pointing me to the Blue Bowl. I thought I'd read everything by Alice Walker. Enjoyed that short story immensely.

KD - Did you mean blundering onward? That I can do...

Eccentric Scorpion - Oh, I have my bad days, when I throw myself a little pity party too. I just spare you guys all the details because I like you.

I'm glad the blog helps you. And, funny you should mention food preservation. That's the number one thing on my to do list this year (meat particularly). Curing, smoking, drying, salting, etc. We'll learn together (alternatively check out Hank At Hunter Angler Gardener Cook and he can tell you all you need to know right now!)

Megan - we don't ask questions here, but I'm glad the post helped you too.

Jamie - Your "like" is duly noted, and appreciated.

Poppy Cottage said...

Haven't read it, but would like to.

Did pop over the other day but think you were shooting. Had been to the wool shop in Beaminster. Brought some wool then finished it, lined it and now know what everyone will get for Christmas this year!! And boy do I mean everyone.

Paula said...

Thank you for letting me in, Jen. I feel like we're friends, even though we've never met, but what you write on your blog and mine makes me care about you- both of you. I've often wondered about the accident and it was far worse than I could have imagined. What a thing for both of you to go through as newlyweds. At least now you know that you can't even be blasted apart.

In a sense, you guys are very lucky, not just because you survived, but because you're thriving in spite of what happened. Plus, you went through a very trying time (to say the least) very early on and you're able to lean on your mother for things, even though she's no longer here. A parent's primary job is to see to it that her offspring have everything they need to be able to cope with life, no matter what life has in store. I would say that your mom was very successful in this regard. She gave you real survival skills; not everyone is so lucky.

Do let us know when Mike goes for his procedures so that we can mention him specially in our prayers (yeah, I'm a prayer-sayer; I wouldn't have gotten this far if I hadn't been).

Good luck!

adalyn farm said...

God. Bless. You. Both.

All the best in 2011.

I plan on linking to your post if that's OK.

Harvest Kitchen Sisters said...

Wow I am floored and I feel alittle closer to you all (although I am so far away...). Your story brought tears to my eyes, not so much the accident but they way you correlated your recovery to that of your mother and the healing that can come with living simply off the land. Putting your head down and making the best out of what is out your back door and surviving! Good luck!

Terry Scoville said...

Wow, I am at a loss for words yet my admiration abounds for the two of you. The trade we did now has me picturing you in your mom's apron making the chutney and jam. I have yet to open either as they have just become so much more(after reading this story) than little jars with tasty treats within. A very heart felt thank you and continued success to mike so he can start fly tying and the both of you can live long lives enjoying all the little things that life has to offer. Great writing and thank you for the back story.

Dog Hair in my Coffee said...

I had NO idea. I am just totally astounded that the two of you have been through that. Sad that you had to go through that. Glad that the worst is over, and happy (?)that it has been able to form GOOD parts of you, of your lives together. I was so so touched by the parts about your mom, too. Your whole post today just makes me sad, glad, scared, amazed, - I don't know. I will have to reread it a dozen more times, but let me just say, most of all, I'm really glad both you and Mike are here today. Wow.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing such a personal experience on your blog. I enjoy reading about your life (but mostly about your wonderful dogs!)

Im sorry that you have sad memories of my "home town" but also glad that the hospital were able to help you both with your rehabilitation. I hope the upcoming operations will be as pain free as possible and that Mike recovers quickly

Maria said...

Thank you for sharing this with us Jen. Although you warned us against stating the obvious, I'll risk it, some obvious things are worth restating: your courage and strength (both of you) through all of this is amazing. And may I wish you all the best in the upcoming round of surgeries.

I'm lucky to still have my mother, but regardless the objects which were once hers and she has now passed on to me are treasured, to remind me of her while we are in different countries.

As for your readership - I for one keep coming back to your blog because you're a good writer, you write with humour, and you write about topics which are interesting to me! You won't get rid of us that easily :o)
Yes, the wonders of the internet. We feel like we know each other without meeting.

The Suburban Bushwacker said...

I too hesitated before commenting, but really, I've got to tell you how much I admire your courage in the face of adversity, and how much i've enjoyed reading your writing. keep on keeping on, your fan SBW

Hazel said...

There's not much I can say that hasn't already been said.
Thank you for sharing it. I hope Mike's next set of operations goes okay. Is there anybody to cover for him whilst he's in hospital/recuperating or do you have to be Head Gamekeeper too? I imagine there's quite a high infection risk post op?
Thinking of you both.

Jennifer Montero said...

Thanks to all of you for your kind words and good wishes for Mike's future ops.

Paula - i like the idea that we can't be blasted apart - that made Mike laugh (we're into the gallows humor part of the healing process). And your perspective about parents giving their children survival skills is true, and a comforting thought.

Terry - You get on and eat that chutney, that's what it's for. I'm honored to think it will be accompanying your own hunted goose and duck.

Maria & SBW - I'm so glad you both keep coming back to read on...

Hazel - Underkeeper Pete and I will cover for Mike while he heals. There is a big risk of post op infection particularly with the pheasants / chickens so we try and keep him away from contamination. Easier said than done, Mike's a terrible patient.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your inspiring post and know you are wished only the best. I saw where you had told a mutual friend that she had a credit in Karma, and I think that you and Mike must also have one. Some may think we try to do too much or go to fast at times, but at least we will not have the experience of being shot in the back while running away. Keep pushing, you will get there.