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2023: Writing, Death, and Health

It's hard to believe the holiday season is winding down and it's time for my annual year-end blog post. 2023 certainly proved to be an interesting year with many challenges.

Santa Claus and I, Christmas Eve 1997.

Overall, 2023 was a slower year for writing. In May, my creative nonfiction essay "My Cousin, My Brain, and Chris Farley" was published by Sheepshead Review, the literary journal of the University of Wisconsin at Green Bay. A few months later, it was published a second time by AUIS Literary Journal, headquartered at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani. This marked my first publication in the Middle East. Additionally, the Spanish version of my picture book Mr. Ray's Barbershop was selected for inclusion at the Texas Children's Hospital library. This was my first time having a book available through a library system and I was happy to have finally reached this goal.

In June, I was featured on Ecuadorian Literature, a website that showcases the achievements of Ecuadorian and Ecuadorian-American authors. Unfortunately, June is when my personal life started getting hectic and difficult and my writing became less frequent. My grandmother was admitted to the ER in mid-June and was given three weeks to live. Though she lived until the end of August, it was extremely heartbreaking to witness her deterioration. My grandmother had advanced Alzheimer's and stage IV Multiple Myeloma, which is a rare cancer of the plasma cells. When she died, I thought I would feel a sense of relief, but I did not. I'm still having trouble wrapping my head around the fact that she's no longer alive. A blog post about her is available here.

While my grandmother's health was declining, I managed to write a research article about the kidnapping and execution of my uncle. This article quickly became my most-read blog post of 2023. However, writing such graphic material affected my emotional health, which only worsened after my grandmother died. Then ten days after she died, my husband's aunt died suddenly. She was a beautiful person, inside and out. Her funeral service was so full that there was nowhere to sit by the time my husband and I arrived. She was truly a blessing to everyone around her and we miss her dearly. She was also an incredible cook and baker, but what we miss the most is her sense of humor. Without her, the world feels a little less joyful.

A month later, I lost my beloved Oma Eva. She was 93 and her death, like my husband's aunt, was unexpected. I wrote a blog post about her as well. We were not biologically related, yet I loved her as if she were my own grandmother. In short, I lost two grandmothers and an aunt in six weeks and it was devastating. I realize death is part of life, but when it hits like a domino effect, it creates an environment of utter despair.

Soon after my Oma died, I started having frequent palpitations. Around the same time, my mom noticed a lump on her thyroid. She had a CT scan done and though the results seemed to be nothing to worry about, a biopsy was recommended to rule out cancer. From what her doctor said, the chance of her having thyroid cancer was only five percent. A few weeks later, she had the biopsy done and while we waited for her results in the following days, my palpitations were more pronounced. I assumed anxiety was their cause and did not pay more attention to them.

Two days before Thanksgiving, I accompanied my mom to her post-biopsy appointment. Shockingly, she was diagnosed with papillary thyroid cancer. I clearly remember her doctor repeating, "You will be just fine. This is a good cancer to have." But my mom is a cancer survivor already and hearing that she has cancer again, despite how 'good' it may be, was not what either of us wanted to hear. To cope with the news, I went for a long, six-mile walk once I got home. Though I felt much better after the walk, I had strong palpitations as I got ready for bed.

The next morning, around 10 a.m., I began hyperventilating, which I dismissed as anxiety due to my mom's cancer diagnosis. But the hyperventilating quickly grew stronger. Soon, I could not feel my hands and my feet. Thankfully, my mom was with me and I tried telling her I needed help, but I didn't have a coherent voice. In a split second, I began foaming at the mouth and lost control of my limbs, which resulted in me hitting myself several times. I do not remember too much after this aside from vigorous shaking as if I was being electrocuted and nearly choking from thick foam trapped in my throat. According to my mom, it took 45 minutes for the episode to end.

After the Thanksgiving holiday, I had an appointment with my doctor. He ran extensive bloodwork and neurological tests on me. He also gave me emergency referrals for a CT scan of my head and a neurologist visit. My bloodwork, neurological exams, and CT scan showed normal results, which was good news. My doctor said what I experienced was a psychogenic nonepileptic seizure, which is defined as a seizure caused by extreme distress. He told me not to be alarmed if I did not physically feel like myself for some time and assured me I would recover eventually.

In the weeks following the seizure, my heart rate remained elevated, even during sedentary activities. There was one evening when I was trying to fall asleep and my heart rate shot up to 195 beats per minute. I struggled with remembering tasks, spelling certain words, and listening effectively. For example, one of my favorite YouTubers is Knowing Better and he released a new video the day I had the seizure. Despite many prior attempts, I was not able to fully follow along and understand the video until about ten days ago. Additionally, about two weeks ago, my supervisor asked me for the name of an employee who runs a special program at our workplace. It took me three days to remember the employee's name and this is a co-worker I interact with often. Meanwhile, during my recovery period, two family members were suddenly hospitalized. Fortunately, both of them are doing well now, but this was yet another strife to endure.

While 2023 proved to be the most stressful and difficult year of my life, I want to take a moment to show gratitude for my wonderful friends. As soon as I informed them about my mom's diagnosis and my anxiety-induced seizure, I received relaxation gifts almost immediately. I am surrounded by cozy socks, a heated neck wrap, a custom bracelet, bubble bath bottles, and sweet-scented lotions. The support they have shown is truly unforgettable. Regarding my mom, she is scheduled for surgery and a possible iodine treatment, depending on how the surgery goes. She is going to be fine, which is an incredible relief.

Of course, I must mention my husband, David. Every evening post-seizure, David checked my pulse. If it was high, he would brew me some chamomile tea and bring me refills until my pulse lowered. We have a routine of snuggling for a few minutes every night before bed but during those weeks, David gave me additional affection by hugging me for a longer time or by rubbing my back until I fell asleep. Sometimes a broken heart needs an extra dose of love, which he generously provided for me.

At the beginning of this blog post, I shared a photo from 1997. It was taken at West Oaks Mall in Houston, TX, a mall that is currently in its final days of business. I was only six years old, but I vividly remember the events leading up to the photo because like this year, 1997 was difficult. My cousin was dying from aggressive brain cancer and my parents had separated. They would eventually reconcile, but sadly get divorced some years later. On Christmas Eve 1997, I woke up and frantically told my mom I had forgotten to write Santa a letter and now it was too late to send him one. If I couldn't send Santa a letter, I reasoned, how could we have a good Christmas? My mom did not have a car and my dad was not available for a ride, so she quickly figured out the public transportation system's holiday schedule and had me at the mall to see Santa within two hours. I do not remember what I asked Santa for, but I do remember my mom's effort to give me a normal Christmas, despite the challenges our family faced in 1997.

Recently, I was preparing dinner and listening to music, something I usually do while in the kitchen. The song "All I Want is You" by U2 came on my playlist and I started singing along with the lyrics. While this might not seem like a big deal, it definitely was because being able to remember the lyrics flawlessly meant I had officially recovered. When I told David about this significant moment, he said, "I agree with the song, all I want is you, every single day." My favorite part of the song says: "You say you'll give me eyes in a moon of blindness, a river in a time of dryness, a harbor in the tempest." In 1997, my mom gave me all of these and now, David is doing the same.

I hope 2024 is an easier year than 2023. I aim to write more than I did this year, but most of all, I have learned to take better care of myself and pay closer attention to my physical and emotional health. If I feel like I need to take a break, I will.

Thank you so much for all your support. Happy New Year.

Potomac River, 2018. (c) Darlene P. Campos

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