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All the Pee in China, part 1

I haven’t written any blog posts for a really long time. I’ve had a good excuse. I had to pee.

I mean it. I’ve really had to pee. Multiple sclerosis causes my bladder to be both overactive—so much so that I rarely go ninety minutes without rushing to the bathroom—and under-active—so much so I have to use a catheter to completely empty.

Unrelenting runs to the bathroom have been not so good for my sleep patterns, not so good for my clarity of thought, and not so good for my travel plans. But that didn’t stop me from making travel plans. My son lives and works with his girlfriend, MC, on the other side of the planet. When this adorable couple invited my husband and me to stay with them in Beijing, there was no way we wouldn’t go. I love my son more than all the pee in China.

In the weeks leading up to the trip, every time I announced, “I’m going to China,” I’d feel mildly surprised I wasn’t asked, “How the hell will you manage that?”

Twenty five years of living with MS has made me pretty good at bluffing good health, but even I can’t bluff my way through frequent bathroom runs.

Hadn’t my friends noticed I rarely can get through a whole movie without excusing myself to run to the bathroom? Hadn’t my workshop students noticed me having to take bathroom breaks in the middle of ninety-minute sessions?

My anxiety about my bladder permeated all of my travel preparations. When I switched my language of choice on my Duolingo app from Spanish to Chinese, the first word to pop up on the app consisted two figures: the figure on the left looked to me like a distressed lady crossing her legs because she has to pee, obviously—whereas the  figure on the right had its arms outstretched, blocking the distressed lady’s way. Yes, I have the magical power of turning a language app into an ink blot test.

The distressing ideogram was paired with a sound. My American ears heard the word: “how.”

How, indeed.

I wondered how I was ever going to travel through China—not to mention to China—when I always have to pee?

The flight to China would be an overnighter. On ordinary nights, I get up four to six times to pee. I kept picturing myself seated in the middle of a long row, squeezing past passenger after passenger after passenger, disturbing their sleep—“Excuse me, Excuse me, Excuse me”—every 90 minutes.

And that’s what I could expect if conditions were optimal. 

The sad truth is, I’ve been getting UTIs on a monthly, sometimes bi-monthly basis. For those of you who have never had a UTI: congratulations. UTI stand for urinary tract infection, or Unrelenting Torturing Incontinence. To add agony to the inconvenience, every time you pee with a UTI,  it stings.

Chances of my getting a UTI during a two week trip? Between 50-100%.

Air travel with a UTI? Been there. Agony.

And even if I did make it through the overnight flight, how exactly would I make it through China? Our son wanted us to explore a few cities while we were there.

What would the public restrooms be like in China?

Our son warned us most public restrooms featured squat toilets. He advised us to practice squatting. I practiced. Our son mentioned most facilities were BYOTP—Bring Your Own Toilet Paper.

My husband had to talk me out of packing a roll.

I called my capable mother to air my anxieties. She has answers for everything. Worried about a UTI? Get antibiotics. Worried about having to pee? Get diapers. “They make diapers differently now,” she said. “More comfortable.” More comfortable than the ones she’d pinned on me in 1967? And possibly—ahem—larger?

Gentle reader, I got myself the antibiotics. When I ran out of time to procrastinate further, I drove out of town—out of state—to buy myself adult diapers. For double protection, I picked out overnight pads as well. I reminded myself that astronauts wore diapers. Who looks down on an astronaut? Nobody. Diapers could be seen as elite-wear for the long distance traveler. As I approached the check-out counter, I noticed I was the only customer. The cashier had no one to focus on but me, and those diapers, and those pads. My astronaut justification started to wobble. Wasn’t there some crazy astronaut lady who wore an adult diaper on a cross country drive to avenge a love spurned? Everybody looked down on that astronaut.  I silently reminded myself that I had a longer trip ahead of me, and a better motive: a mother’s love.

As I set the items on the belt, I forced myself to make eye contact as I returned the cashier’s greeting. I hoped the cashier didn’t see a middle aged nervous wreck with MS buying diapers and overnight pads for herself, but rather a high strung, healthy woman performing the duties of middle age—buying pads for herself and diapers for her fragile old mother—a fiction that could only hold with a cashier who has never met my mother, who is generally the most robust woman in any room. The cashier conveyed absolutely zero shock or pity, enabling me to maintain my dignity. So I got through that purchase. How would I get through China?

I’ll tell you. China was nothing like I thought it would be.  Let’s start with the meaning of that first character that popped up on my Duolingo app, the character that sounded like the English word H-O-W. It happened I would meet a friendly native speaker at a Beijing art gallery who would tell me the actual meaning of the word “Hāo.” As you may have guessed, the word has nothing to do with a distressed lady being blocked from accessing the bathroom by an obstinate man with outstretched arms. Hāo, she assured me, means “good.” Hão was also a part of her name.

Was my ink-blot interpretation of the figures in that ideogram something other than an instance of preternatural second sight?

Not so fast. Gentle readers, on my journey I would indeed meet an obstinate man who would physically block my way to the bathroom when I was in acute distress and had to pee. But I wouldn’t meet this imposing figure in China. I would meet him in the Toronto Airport.

  • to be continued

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Hard to Swallow

Location: Elephant Walk

Time: Another Monday night after a weekend of mass shootings

My husband and I are in our local Ethiopian/Indian restaurant. The owner is from India, his wife from Ethiopia. We are the only diners.

We’ve been seated at our usual booth. The sky outside is a vibrant post-thunderstorm blue, which reminds my husband of the skies in friendly Hawaii. We are far from friendly Hawaii. We are in Cincinnati, Ohio.

I am not seated on my usual side of the booth, facing outward. I am seated on my husband’s spot, the side facing the television. CNN is reporting on the latest mass shootings in Dayton, OH, and El Paso, Texas. Not Houston and Michigan, Uncle Joe. Not Toledo, President Trump. Dayton. El Paso. Say their names.

Protestors in Dayton are drowning out the meaningless thoughts-and-prayers speech our governor is attempting. “Do something!” The crowd roars. “Do something!”

Anyway.

As we wait for our meal, I mention that our son, who is midway through a two year contract in China, has posted on Instagram that he is not looking forward to returning to the United States.

I confess that I’d considered writing, “Then don’t return. I’d rather you live somewhere safer than somewhere closer.” But I hadn’t. I was too afraid a reply like that would manifest a cosmic comeuppance, in which our son settles somewhere with sounder gun laws (that would be anywhere) and somehow ends up getting shot. I have a lot of spooky superstitions about the power of the words I write. I am fearful they will manifest in some dark fashion. I long ago came to the conclusion that Trump has far too little accountability for the dark manifestations of the hateful words he tweets. And now this.

I am the usual subject switcher in our marital conversations. But everything is flipped tonight, so it’s my husband who switches the subject. He asks me about my morning physical therapy session. I tell him it was quite a workout.

“What did you do?”

“I swallowed. Eighty times.”

He laughs.

“You mean you sat in a room with someone and she watched you swallow eighty times? That sounds boring.”

“Boring? It’s suspenseful. You try five dry swallows in a row.”

My husband is on the other side of the swallow spectrum. If offered a glass of water with his Tylenol, he will invariably turn down the water, and take the Tylenol dry—whereas I seem to require half a glass of water at minimum to get a Tylenol down. He blithely accepts my dry swallow challenge. His first two dry swallows go easily, as we’d expected. The third swallow is an effort. The fourth is a struggle. The fifth swallow is…as painful to watch as CNN.

“That wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be.”

“I tell you, it’s a workout.”

My husband is the reason I’m going to swallow therapy. I’ve gotten in the nasty habit of choking during our meals. When he’d told me he was considering taking a CPR class, I’d told him that my friend M., who also has MS, had managed to improve her swallowing through physical therapy. He was all for my signing up.

His appetizer arrives—five pieces of ayib begomen—which are usually stuffed with collard greens but today, opposite day, the ayib begomen is stuffed with cabbage and mushrooms. He invites me to help myself to a piece.

To qualify for physical therapy. I’d had to drink barium “juice,” eat barium “applesauce” and down a barium “cracker.” It was all very cinematic.  There was a doctor to film the process, a doctor to narrate the process, and a technician to be—I don’t know, be the “gaffer” or “best boy”—one of those roles that are far down on the credits. I, of course, was the star/villain. It was revealed that when I made the motions of swallowing, I was actually stowing quite a bit of residue in my throat. The narrator doctor, the David Attenborough of the whole production, concluded that my tongue was weak.

Ouch.

I’ve never been accused of having a weak tongue before. A sharp tongue, yes. Back in the day. Never a weak tongue.

To make matters more menacing, my tongue was deemed more weak on one side than the other.

Twisted.

I taste today’s version of ayib begoman: I am a big fan of the usual collard green filling, but I appreciate the how the substitute cabbage cuts a subtle counterpoint to umami goodness of the substitute mushrooms.

Thanks to swallow therapy, I am paying attention as I chew this food. I realize my habit would be to stash half of a mouthful in my cheek, like a squirrel, and then swallow the other half. Not this time. I swallow both halves: a nice, forceful swallow. I imagine my therapist saying, “You’ve got this!” Rather than chase the ayib begoman with a demure little sip of water, as is my habit, I swig a big hearty gulp of water. Then I pat myself on the back. Yes, I do that. If I achieve something that requires a little push, I give myself a little pat.

My husband looks at me quizzically.

“My therapist tells me to think of each swallow as a push up. I just did two pushups.”

He says, “Good job. You’re not even talking with your mouth full.”

I share my revelation about my chipmunk habit. “So technically, all these years I’ve been talking to you with my mouth half full.”

It would be terrifying to blame my difficulty swallowing on multiple sclerosis. So I don’t.

If I blame my own bad habits, I can do something.

The proprietor is staring at the protestors on the screen, who are chanting in Dayton, forty-eight miles away.

Do something. Theme of the day.

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