By nature, I’m that bounce out of bed, irritatingly happy morning person. So when my husband or family see me stagger to the freezer for another icepack, puffy-eyed and hair in disarray, they know I am deep in the migraine hole. It is a hazy landscape filled with the murmur of missed audiobook chapters, toast for nausea, and long hours of zero thought, with my head in a vice.
Severe chronic migraines are the legacy of a case of the mosquito disease Zika gone awry, giving me encephalitis. Now with weather pressure changes, I am curled up in a dark room. Winters in North America are tough.
Yet, as I slowly climb out of a multi-day attack, I feel reborn to the world. My senses return, the cobwebs in my mind slowly dissipate like fog rising off water. I blink like an owlet, gazing around in wonder, rolling wrists and ankles, each creaky joint stiff from lying in bed so long.
Seeking comfort, my hand reaches out for my dog’s rump to lay in a perfect divot on her thigh. She studies me with concerned eyes and a wagging tail. Is it time? She seems to ask with hope brimming in her gaze. “Yes my pup, it’s time.” Tea first, then walk and sniff the wind, listen to music and feel the sun on our faces.
She can sense my energy. A burble, rising like a geyser, the need to burst out into the world after days entangled in a cotton sheet cocoon.
Her full name is Coquita Muneca Flores Mendes (Coco for short.) Our Nicaraguan beach mutt, born under a satellite dish, at a surf spot. She was a gift from the caretaker and perhaps one of the most important gifts I have ever received. I dreamt her to me at the perfect time in my life.
She was two when I fell sick and incredibly smart. After working with a service dog trainer to teach her to alert me when a migraine is pending, she has become my constant companion, my extra limb. Coco is forever nosing me to put down the phone, close the computer and be present in the moment. She is my reminder to get outside and play, to savor moments, and go look at the world with curiosity
Grinning at me with her tongue lolling, we leave the house, walking across our yard to the shorn cornfields, winter smells upon the wind. We follow a farmer’s dirt track and wind our way up a rolling hill. Poking our noses in large burrows of unseen forest creatures, their homes built in tree and rock islands floating in a sea of grass.
With the sun upon my face and arms wide with palms to the sky, I take in the light and clean crisp air, open space to unfurl my heart and mind. I close my eyes, as one of my favorite songs begins to play in my earbuds. I feel blessed to have the ability to travel in my mind through music, especially when challenged by current health circumstances, a pandemic, and an unknown future.
The song is one I listen to almost every day in our heart home of Nicaragua, the chosen country we spend our time in, between work contracts. While my body stands in a field in central Pennsylvania, my mind is instantly standing on our beach.
My heart wrenches, but a wide smile spreads across my face. I imagine my feet in the cool morning sand, the warm tide washing up around my ankles, as my feet sink deeper. I taste the salt on my tongue, the salt and pepper smells of the tropics fill the humid air, a hint of flowers mixed with the smoke of burning cane fields.
I do a slow twirl, and I can see the glassy molten colors of dawn on the sea. A flock of pelicans skim in flight only a meter above the waves, wingtips almost graze the water as they glide so silently, searching for breakfast just below the surface.
I look down once more at the beautiful ripples in the sand at low tide, colorful ribbons of light and shadow. Hidden sand dollars bubble from just beneath, sunken just out of sight from hunting egrets and sandpipers. Artistic patterns cover the beach as the small crabs have excavated balls of sand from their holes, pushed out in spreading swirls to create endless unique designs.
Coco runs gleefully, chasing the small fish stuck in the tide pools, her tail whipping back and forth, triangle ears so erect, her concentration focused. Her dog pack of friends rush down the beach to gather her for a chase of the horses feeding in the neighbors’ field, they run and leap, rolling and tussling as they chase each other back through the shoreline. A perfect symphony of colors and sounds wrap me in the beginning of a new day. Tears run down my cheeks, as my soul longs desperately for the sea.
I open my eyes, somewhat shocked to know we are back standing in the field, winter chill ca-ressing my face. With a deep breath and slow sigh, I acknowledge the heaviness and grief for the fight I will be up against this winter, never knowing when multiple days will be lost in a week. My body feels rather haggard and beat up as the migraine hangover still clings.
Gone are the pain-free summer days filled with exploding energy and a clear mind. Once a year I allow myself a good ugly cry and cling to Coco. This year it was sobbing in a parking lot and then over dinner where my incredible and steadfast husband held my hands, love brimming in his eyes, while he gave me a good old pep talk.
A new day dawned, I pulled up my big girl pants and very quickly counted all the blessings in my life, with the new motto of two words. Just try.
With that thought, we continue our walk as a red-tailed hawk leaps silently from a branch above. We study her flight path, as she glides out to circle over the field. I wonder what she sees with her luminous sharp eyes, what she hears creeping in the grass below?
Coco snuffles in holes and tears by me at top speed, with a stick she throws excitedly in the air. She wears her bright orange vest, as deer hunting rifle season is in full swing. It matches the or-ange wool hat of mine, to make sure we are seen from hidden tree stands in the bordering woods.
As we return home, I play catch up on life. Laundry and house cleaning, working on a writing project and the steps to return to online coaching work. I realize creativity and patience will be needed to somehow execute these with the challenges of this current reality.
I have begun a practice of “fluid discipline.” A list of things to get done in a day, week, or month, sits on my table to peck away at, when possible. Today, however, there is a deep need within me to play hooky from it all and go fly fishing.
With gear quickly thrown in the truck, Coco assumes her co-pilot position in the front seat. As thoughts roll by with the passing landscape, I reflect on how much our current life is a vast change from our ice and rock climbing days of living in the Canadian Rockies. After beating up my body in both work and play, I sought new ways to get outside, with fewer injuries.
Our first year in Pennsylvania, Coco and I were exploring a hiking trail near a beautiful stream. Two gentlemen sat behind their vehicles in the parking lot, chatting in camp chairs while sipping a morning coffee. After assembling their fly fishing gear, they split up to their own secret pools on the water. When we returned to my truck a few hours later, they were back in their chairs sporting wide grins and a beer in hand. I thought to myself, when I retire, this will be my sport.
Very quickly that changed to, why wait? My body pleaded for a new activity that would lead me into the outdoors, to explore new terrain and water, without the expense of hurting my body.
Pulling up the truck to my first choice of river access, we find the parking lot empty. Giving Coco a scratch and the stay command, she curls up in a sunbeam on the front seat, as she casts me a rather unimpressed look. Fishing is her favorite sport, but at this particular spot she will scare the fish away with her energetic minnow hunting on the edge of the stream.
Setting up my gear is intentionally slow, as I smirk to myself chanting my fishing mantra. Take your time, tie good knots, crimp your hooks, breathe. An impish grin spreads across my face as I pull on waders and boots, what I call my fun pants, as they remind me of being a kid, pulling on a snowsuit to roll around in a fresh snowfall. Wading into the stream brings equally calm and anticipation.
A landscape shimmers with possibility and the gifts of nature. A doe stares from between the trees on the far shore, flicking her tail, before silently vanishing into the woods. An eagle circles high above in the searing blue sky as tiny midges flit in sunbeams, a hint of how I may entice the sleek shadowy creatures below. I sing to the fish, send prayers down the river to my friends across the sea, it is river meditation at its finest.
Yet as any angler knows, the zen moments on a river are finite. It is a roller coaster of emotions mixed with the exasperation of tangled lines, of sneaky trees that snag line and fly, and the utter frustration of seeing fish appear just below the surface and the lack of the correct fly or knowledge to land it.
All my vexation is worth it in the glorious moment it all comes together. To set the hook, let it play, and bring it close enough to scoop the most beautiful fish in the world into my net. With wet hands, I quickly take out the hook to admire its stunning colors. Each fish so incredibly unique in color and pattern. From sunset-colored streaked sides to leopard spots, or skin swathed in orange and green. What a gift to watch it powerfully swim back into the shadows, immediately hidden by its perfectly shaded body.
Anyone within hearing distance will know when I have landed a fish, my loud hooting and happy dance on the river is inevitable.
Content with a day outside, Coco and I make our way home smelling of the wild and water. I ponder the gifts that an illness or injury can bring. The inevitable life balance of light and dark, of struggle and peace.
For this effervescent woman, I am forced to rest my body. To make the absolute most of my days when not in bed. To have deep empathy for others dealing with their own struggle, and feeling so blessed with a warm house, bed, supportive husband, and furry companion. Such deep gratitude fills my heart for the love of friends and family.
We arrive home for a quiet dinner with my husband and some cards. This simple day leaves me content, full of prayers for clear skies, and with patience and diligence we will find a cure sometime in the future.
For now, I can dream of beautiful trout, the sun on the water, the quiet forest, and birds soaring above in a wide and open sky.