The Fragile Spine: The Gardener’s Nemesis

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I’m baaaaack and feeling better than the last time I was here. Who knew that what this girl needed was a quick back surgery?

I certainly didn’t see that one coming!

It all started just after I walked to see my ill friend in my last post. I’d seen my doctor the day before and she’d scheduled an MRI for me. That Friday I went in, had the scan done, and then we waited until Monday. At the worst, I was expecting a cortisone shot or some pain medications and rest. But then she called and told me I needed to see a neurosurgeon. Wha!?! She explained that the scan showed some bulging and other irregularities and she hoped I could get in to see the specialist soon.

I waited through another long weekend. I’d made an appointment for early Monday morning and honestly I was curious about what was going on. By then I was experiencing constant pain, numbness and a pins and needles sensation in my left arm. The pain was making me miserable so I stayed away from blogging. Instead, I worked on the garden even though I was hurting so badly. It kept me busy and I did see some great results. (More on that in another post.) Maybe it wasn’t the wisest decision, but it helped with my worry too.

Dranunculus vulgaris looking lovely this year.

Now, all gardeners know back pain, am I right? It’s just what happens to us after hauling, digging, and sifting through the dirt. The pain is our Badge of Courage. We’re proud of our backs.

My back has been a wreck for a long time and I honestly cannot recall when it all began. What I can say is that it’s been getting worse and worse for the past few years and working outside has been exhausting for me.

The pain begins and I’m simply spent. I retreat indoors in defeat.

The front garden is partially a riot of color right now and I’m sort of in love with it.

Since my relationship with pain is rather complicated I didn’t really know if what I was going through was a problem or not. I blamed my swelling disease. I blamed falling down the stairs. I nursed it as best as I could but I just decided at some point that sometimes my back hurt—a lot.

I found this Magnolia grandiflora ‘Bracken’s Brown Beauty’ bloom in my garden the day of my surgery. It’s my first and I’m a proud Mama.
I also have high pain tolerance and that’s become detrimental, hence, back surgery. This past year I’ve been more regularly declaring my back issues to my doctor and she seemed to agree that as long as I walked and stayed active it would cause less pain. I thought I’d been keeping it honest so-to-speak but I guess I still didn’t describe my experience as accurately as I could have but I didn’t stay silent either. I tried. I honestly tried.
Even when I did these preventative measure though, they didn’t work. Or, I should say, over time they stopped working for me altogether. Things just kept feeling worse.
Lovely Begonia leaf.

Pain is already part of my chronic illness condition. Swelling causes pain. I know that type of pain though and it’s lessened a lot since I was prescribed my new medication several years ago.

The back pain I felt—especially after returning from Italy—was different. I could barely stand up and I just wanted to cry. It was excruciating. Thinking things through, this sort of explained the urgency, but I still didn’t really understand what was wrong with me and how it had happened.

Lovely Bletilla striata about to open.

On Monday the neurosurgeon examined me, then we looked at my scans together. When I saw my spinal cord being pinched by a collapsed spinal canal, I nearly jumped out of my seat. It was clear that my spinal cord wasn’t happy and the herniation caused by the narrowing in the spinal column explained the pinching pain when I moved my head. And of course, the pressure from this was pinching my nerve.

Ok, I got it. So I looked at him and said, “What do we do about it?

Lathyrus sativus azureus. 
Well, I recommend surgery,” he said.
I’d expected a cortisone shot and this far exceeded my expectations. I was surprisingly both shocked and thrilled. Then I wondered how much longer I’d have to wait. I’ve never heard of anyone getting back surgery quickly. I just did not think it was possible.
How soon will this happen?” I asked.
Right away,” he said and we walked down the hall to make the appointment at the front desk.
I was ecstatic when I found out I’d only have to wait 7 more days.
The front garden on the day of surgery. John and I both laughed at the lone orange lily in the boxwood hedge.

Well it’s true, “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.”

I had one week to prepare for 1 month of little to no upper body physical activity. For a gardener in the month of June this isn’t exactly easy when you’re the primary gardener in the household. I’m working hard to recover quickly though. I can begin going on nice walks again soon and I’ll focus on that first.

Many of my garden plans for this summer had to be folded up and put away but I didn’t mind. I’ve never been so desperate to feel better and I was truly at the end of my rope.

Flowers John bought from Quinn in the City Flowers. These were just what I needed during my overnight stay in the hospital.

It’s not completely clear to me when the debilitating pain began, but I suspect that when I fell down the stairs in the front of my house nearly 3 years ago I seriously hurt my back. At the time I was more concerned about my swollen ankle. Weeks later I discovered after the Fling in Seattle I’d broken two fingers too but I continued to believe that my back pain was only temporary and I chose not to have it examined.

The injury lingered and remained consistent throughout the divorce and remarriage. While working as a caregiver, it made my job impossible at times. I ended up quitting because of it.

 A box of trial plants from Terra Nova Nurseries arrived the day I came home from the hospital. It felt a bit like Christmas.
Ok, so what’s the takeaway?
Honestly, I just want everyone to take care of themselves and to use caution when they’re walking. I might be a klutz, but all it takes is some uneven ground and an unsteady gait. What I’ve also learned from this is that when I fell and broke my tailbone and two vertebrae many years ago, it’s likely I caused light nerve damage in my legs and feet. This is likely how my balance has worsened along with my gait.
This is what a Posterior Cervical Laminectomy looks like a week after surgery.
I’m fully committed now to returning to the gym to improve my life. I can’t keep this up. I don’t want to live like this anymore.
My nurse often sleeps on the job but he’s been with me 24/7 this past week.
There is no nerve pain currently in my left arm and my fingers are no longer numb. I can tip my head back to look at the ceiling and there’s no stabbing pain from the pinched herniation. I’ve been dealing with that sensation for years and I won’t miss it at all.
My view from bed could be worse.

These things take time to heal, and seeds of change must be planted, so as I lie here in bed, I’m just reading gardening and plant books. This is a nice time to reflect on the past and while moving forward to a healthier and brighter future.

I’m so excited.

My life just keeps getting better and better. I’m so thankful. I just cannot say that enough.

St. Expeditus.

A friend of mine returned home for a visit to New Orleans before we knew about the surgery and she didn’t return to Portland until after it had happened. So, she bought me this statue of St. Expeditus while she was there as a souvenir. Seeing as he’s the patron saint of emergencies and expeditious solutions he’s more than welcome to look over my garden and I until I’m well again.

So far, I think he’s doing a great job, don’t you?

Wordless Wednesday: Sunny Times in the Back Garden

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Impatiens tinctoria with Fuchsia ‘Autumnale’.
Mona the Cat under her hammock shade canopy.
Tradescantia pallida ‘Purpurea’. Yes, we can grow it in the ground.
Adiantum peruvianum.
Some of my pole apples (Malus).
Begonia boliviensis.
Clematis heracleifolia. 
Acquired as Graptopetalum paraguayense.
Coleus and Begonia in planters. I grew the Begonia plants from seed I bought last fall on sale.

Planning and Watching the Garden in June

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Unknown Cistus from the neighborhood.
Finally started walking around the neighborhood again. I cannot say enough about how badly chronic back injuries need to be moved. It is amazing how intensely my back can hurt and yet a nice long walk can make it all go away.
Still waiting for the Dracunculus vulgaris to open.

Right now I’d love to show more of my garden but it’s a bit messy yet. Right after this post is posted I will go back out there to weed, trim, and plant away. Finally, I hope to list some more plants on CL too.

Fuchsia procumbens ‘Variegata’.

Still been busy indoors with “life responsibilities” so it is so great to go outside to see little blooms here and there.

Alpine strawberry, (Fragaria vesca.)

Often I stop to munch on things as I walk by since they truly are so tasty. For instance, I am such a lover of alpine strawberries.

The front porch flowerbed.

I think that it’s time for me to begin giving real tours of my actual garden. Next time we’ll be starting with this bed. I show it here a lot since it usually looks ok. I will rearrange it and post pictures after this weekend. Finally, I will be blogging again about playing with some plants.

First bloom of the year on my Begonia boliviensis.
I am really looking forward to talking more about the plants I’ve grown from seed too. This Begonia is a good example of that!

It’s been fun playing with my photos recently too. I do love photography. In addition to reading books about gardening and plants again, I’ve been thinking a lot about photography.

La vita è bella!

Growing On

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Japanese maple (Acer japonica) in my backyard.

I’m still feeling a lot like this seemingly vulnerable leaf on one of my Japanese maples, but as days have passed, and the leaves have all opened up, the leaf no longer sticks out. I’m taking this as a sign. As it lifted up its head to the sun it was enveloped by the support of other leaves around it.

In the garden I am comforted.

Salmonberry (Rubus spectabilis) growing above the Pacific Ocean.

My trip the the Pacific a few weeks ago also had me viewing an understory of nearly nothing by salmonberry bushes and their blooms. I tried for far too long to get a nice shot of their hot pink blossoms but the wind was simply too much. Instead, I did capture this berry.

Morning glory vine (Ipomoea) on a tombstone in Oysterville, WA.

In my photos I also found this lovely rendition of a morning glory vine on a gravestone. I don’t believe I’ve shared it yet. Eternal blooms fascinate me more and more as I age. What flower would I want on my headstone? Why? I am such a plant nerd it’s impossible to choose just one. Besides, in the technological world we live in I’m much more likely to desire something akin to a slideshow. Oh! I am so ashamed at times to be so spoiled by the world around me. We’re lucky I think.

Dudlyea brittonii seedlings.

Many of the seeds I was unable to plant last year made it into production this year. Above you’ll see one of my favorites. I cannot wait to see these grow up. They are such beautiful plants.

Unknown Agave I grew from seed.
I guess these little “friends” area telling me that it’s time for the plant to be moved to a larger pot.

It is time to repot older plants I’ve grown from seed. This is a plant that really spoke volumes to me when I looked closely at what it was saying to me. “Plant me. I need more space. If you don’t, I promise to break this planter. It is weak. I am not.” Ok, maybe I’m totally exaggerating.

Me last month pruning the willow arbor while waiting to be picked up to go out for the evening. I can prune in a linen dress. Wow, the things we learn when we wait impatiently…

Being able to climb up onto a ladder to prune was a huge undertaking for me. In the past I would have been too dizzy to do this but not anymore!

Hellebore plant (Helleborus orientalis) pregnant with seeds.

Collecting seeds for my Etsy shop Milton’s Garden Menagerie has started all over too. Even though I am still not 100% about where I’ll be going next in my life, I do know with complete certainty that I want seeds to remain—and plants too!

Cuttings from my Begonia boliviensis I grew from seed. The propagation goes on and on…

Behold! An Artist’s Studio has Grown in the Garden

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For the last month I’ve been working very hard to make this studio possible for a good friend of mine. Years ago when I first moved into this house I’d wanted this space very badly to be a writing studio. After I went through that phase, I’d hoped to clean it out and use it for my Etsy businesses, but like many things in life, it just didn’t quite work out as I’d hoped.

I can say now (with complete certainty) that cleaning out that space taught me a great deal about myself and my divorce. In each and every object I could see and feel a memory or two and I’d find myself taking mental steps backwards, revisiting these memories, going deeper into my former life, and this allowed me to review repeatedly both my own unhappiness and the many arguments which had occurred.
This was an incredible experience to say the least, and in a strange way, I’m very happy it took place.
Mona—the youngest of the 3 black cats—trying her hardest to remain as feral as possible until she can no longer take the wet cold. At that point she’ll move into the basement to remain toasty warm all winter.
The garage/studio is now free of all of those objects and I’m free of their bad memories. The process truly had me working through some intense emotions and for weeks I was physically exhausted by that process. I’m finished with that for now—except for some ongoing trash removal—but otherwise, I’ve found a great deal of closure.

Begonia hemsleyana from Cistus Nursery.

For the first time in months, I finally feel like I’m getting closer to my new life and this is an exciting time for me. I’ve turned the corner and have finally moved past the chaos and am back outside again in the garden.

Rhododendron sinogrande amongst little friends.
I enter there and find that my garden sanctuary is now covered in mysterious autumn mists with a sprinkling of yellow and red leaves that are lifted and spun around by the crisp, sharp winds that punctuate the rays of tilted October sunbeams.

.Aspidistra elatior.

Often these brisk breezes take me completely by surprise—especially when I am somewhere in the shade.

Great creeping Coleus that I hope to overwinter indoors as a houseplant. Why not!

It has always amazed me how differently I feel about the shade at this time of the year. Whereas it was my friend just a few weeks ago, now it’s become the dark alley I don’t want to be caught in for fear of some unknown impending danger. (OK, for me that might just be some foot cramps and purple fingers but those can be at least a tiny bit irritating.)

Hardy Cylamen.

During the last few weeks of summer I allowed myself to fully enjoy my back garden with many friends—both new and old. I’d never done this before and will always remember the late night conversations drinking wine beneath the stars. Like many other gardeners I’d made the space to be lived in, to be enjoyed, to laugh in, and to grow in—that finally happened for me, so now, as I move on (and possibly away from here), I can do so knowing I grew in this place.

That is what is important to me. I grew. They grew. My friends and I all grew together. It may take a village to raise a child, but I think that growing together as a group of individuals makes something much more vibrant and alive—much like a natural ecosystem. We all have our part to play and are necessary to one another.
I grew as a woman and as a person in my garden this year and it’s thanks to the plants I planted which supported us all as people searching out in the dark for meaning and substance.

Lithops. 

Soon I will be posting more about the houseplants as they move indoors again.

As always, I’m returning more and more to my peacock sense of fashion.

Virginia Creeper, (Parthenocissus quinquefolia).

And this peacock gardener is enjoying the riot of autumn colors before they’re gone. Sure, not everyone is a huge fan of Virginia Creeper but it does provide the most amazing fireworks-like finale in the garden.

I often sit out in the cold now with the little cat and she takes it all in with me.

The hummingbirds talk to us, and I am happy to have them since they also look at me through the back window in my music/plant/writing room on the mornings when I sit down to write.

More on my own creative indoor studio next time…

(And yes, more to come on indoor plant labor-i-tories soon!)