Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Florence, Italy - A Traveler's Tale, Part 1

I am not a good traveler.

The Duomo, Florence Italy

For years I thought I could become a good traveler, but I haven't improved. Travel stresses me out. At 55 years-old this seems unlikely to change, but I love to see the world and learn about people and cultures and I love to explore cities on foot. I used to cover 20, to over 30, kilometers in a day, which meant 6 hours of walking. Work and family responsibilities brought that to an end almost 20 years ago. Even an hour or two on foot became uncommon, which probably accounts for the extra 30 lbs I now carry on my waist.

I am also not a good sleeper. Unfamiliar noises keep me awake, especially traffic, loud music and sounds of people partying. I envy people who can sleep through anything, but I have to be near death to sleep in those environments, so I am obsessive about finding a quiet place to rest at night, and I never leave home without ear plugs.

Selfie inside Casa del Popolo, Circolo Arci, Florence
Which brings me to Italy: I write this from Casa del Popolo, Circolo Arci, a small cafe / community center in a downtown neighborhood of Florence at 33 Via di San Niccolò.

My wife, Dawn, had miscarriages in 2006 and 2008 after which she started to have pain and difficulty raising her right arm. She was sent for an MRI when physical therapy failed and her pain continued to get worse, and the results were devastating.

At one point the doctors thought that the MRI machine was broken because
the results were unlike anything they had seen before. The diagnosis of Chiari Malformation came only a few months after Dawn's second miscarriage and she was still emotionally drained when she learned that she would need immediate surgery to relieve the pressure on her brain.

Dawn was sent to Johns Hopkins hospital in Baltimore Maryland where a team of 4 surgeons studied her case. She had countless MRI's and other tests, and the surgeons frequently remarked that someone with her MRI results should not be alive much less able to walk, talk and function in society. They confirmed and re-confirmed the test results, and planned to study Dawn for the remainder of her life. The results indicated that she would likely need at least two different brain surgeries, and possibly spinal surgery (this was later deemed too dangerous, and has not been done). The pressure in her skull shutdown fluid flow in the brain, causing the ventricles to expand and forcing fluid down the center of her spinal column to form a large Spinal Syrinx, which forced the nerve tissue towards the bone on the inside of the Vertebral Foramen (the hole in the vertebrae, for the spinal cord).

Dawn was in constant pain in the days leading to surgery and her condition was deteriorating rapidly; she had already lost 80% of the function of her right arm and 50% of the function of her left arm. The first surgery was risky, lasted almost 8 hours, and Dawn had to be woken to consciousness while her brain was exposed.

Physical testing after surgery
We were told to remain near Johns Hopkins Hospital for the initial recovery period, which was expected to take 6 weeks. Dawn's brother, Garth, generously offered a room in his comfortable apartment in Rockville, Maryland, and this proved critical to Dawn's initial recovery.

Dawn had to take several different medications at different intervals, so I started a spreadsheet and set a series of daily alarms so that she wouldn't miss her doses. I had to wake her several times a night for the first few weeks, so I don't think she got more than 1.5 hours sleep at a time. We also had additional support from Dawn's family: her mother and siblings sent food regularly, and they hired a visiting nurse who came for 3-4 hours every afternoon, which gave me a chance to get out for a walk and pick up supplies. Dawn's recovery went well, and after only 5 weeks we were allowed to leave for Kingston, Ontario where she could convalesce in greater comfort.

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My son Phillip's mother, Phyllis, and I separated before Phillip's 3'rd birthday, in 2001. Phyllis initially refused to allow me to see our son but I quickly arranged an emergency temporary access agreement and my lawyer eventually expanded this to allow overnight visits. We also drafted letters to permit both Phyllis and I to travel to the US with Phillip.

Phillip and Dawn in 2005
I met Dawn a little over a year after Phyllis and I separated. Phillip would come with me to visit Dawn in New Jersey, USA, and would talk glowingly about her when he returned to his mother's house. Phyllis thought that Phillip was referring to a male friend named "Don" and was unconcerned until she learned that Dawn was a woman ... and my new girlfriend. This revelation would trigger a vicious and vindictive response that would continue for more than a decade.

The very next time I brought Phillip with me to visit Dawn in New Jersey, I returned to a road block at the US border. Phyllis had called US Customs and Immigration and claimed that I had abducted our son. They pulled me aside for questioning, and even though I had a legally signed letter of permission to travel with my son, which included the seal of approval from the Superior Court of Ontario, I was detained at the border every time I traveled to the US for the next year. I was even called inside for questioning when I traveled alone, and I have been fingerprinted perhaps 20 or 30 times now.

That was just the beginning. Nonstop harassment followed, including blocked and frustrated access to my son which required 11 years in family court. Phyllis made threats to me, to Dawn, my mother and extended family. She attempted to take Phillip permanently to Grenada (Phyllis' home country). She refused medical care for Phillip, even for his potentially serious and painful strep throat (although she immediately sought medical attention for herself when she contracted strep throat), and would even go to his school and throw out the lunches that I sent with him. Phillip would watch longingly while other kids ate lunch until one day his teacher asked to meet with me and brought this to my attention. I had no idea that Phillip was going with little or no lunch. It took months of effort by the principal and his teacher to stop Phyllis from sneaking into school to discard Phillip's lunch.

There were far too many bizarre incidents to list in one blog post.

Immediately after separation in 2001 Phyllis claimed that equal parenting "does not fit my definition of the family" and she went through 6 or 8 different lawyers during the first years of custody negotiations. The lawyers would drop her in frustration after a few months. This would contribute to the enormous delays in settling the case. But on November 16, 2005, after 4 1/2 years of court appearances and proposals that were inevitably returned with trivial changes, Judge Robertson said that if Phyllis did not sign an agreement "today," she was going to immediately dictate an agreement that Phyllis would not like. That's how I got joint custody of my son, with 50% access. But it did not end the drama by any means. Phyllis denied access to Phillip within a few weeks of the settlement and would later claim that she was forced to sign the agreement under duress, and that the agreement was therefor invalid.

I paid a lawyer to handle my case during those first years, but I could not concentrate at work and I lost my job, which paid me $95,000 per year in 2004, mere weeks before Dawn and I married. I have been self-employed ever since and when Phyllis repeatedly broke the custody agreement, I self-represented in family court because my income varied from contract to contract, with long periods of no income.

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Phillip and Dawn in 2008, after first brain surgery
Phillip was 10 at the time of Dawn's first brain surgery. He loved hockey at that time and I enrolled him in the Kingston hockey league before we learned about Dawn's diagnosis. I could not take Phillip to hockey since I had to be in Maryland with Dawn, and Phyllis refused to take him even though the arena was only 800 meters from her house. So my mother, who was 76, would drive 2 hours from Ottawa to Kingston, take Phillip to his hockey events, then drive back to Ottawa.

We returned from Maryland to Kingston in November, 2008, after Dawn's first brain surgery. Dawn and Phillip had a very close, loving bond that had grown stronger over the years, so when we got back to Kingston Dawn insisted on coming with me to Phillip's hockey games. Getting there and back was a delicate affair since Dawn was weak, easily tired, had limited use of her arms, and poor balance, and
there was ice and snow on the ground.

Dawn and Phillip, November 2008
However, once Phillip's mother learned that Dawn was going to Phillip's hockey games, she, too, came ... not to watch Phillip, but to intimidate Dawn.

Phyllis had been phoning Dawn at home and verbally abusing her. When Dawn stopped answering the phone, Phyllis would leave long abusive voice messages, often 4 to 8 messages a day, taunting Dawn with her claim that "God was punishing you, that's why you had miscarriages."

Dawn was still devastated by the loss of the babies, which she had endured only a few months before she was diagnosed with Chiari, when Phyllis showed up at Phillip's hockey game for the first time. Phyllis followed Dawn and I out of the arena yelling "get your own child! Phillip is not your son! God is punishing you!" I had to hold Dawn so that she would not fall on the ice in the parking lot, a fall that could kill her at this fragile stage of recovery. So I positioned myself between Phyllis and Dawn as we carefully walked to the car while Phyllis shouted abuses and tried to approach Dawn. I got Dawn safely into the car, having sent Phillip ahead to put his hockey gear in the car. 

On the alternate weekends when Phillip was at his mother's house, Phyllis refused to take Phillip to his hockey, so I would pick him up and take him to the games and practices. The weekend after the parking lot incident, Dawn and I took Phillip to his favorite pancake house prior to returning him to his mother's house after his team won their game. This added an hour to the total hockey time, and when we returned Phillip to his mother, Phyllis was furious. We later learned that she had chased Phillip around the house and cornered him in the basement, hitting him repeatedly with a spatula, and that she regularly beat him with the spatula. I called the police, and a full investigation ensued, which included the Children's Aid Society (CAS). The police confirmed the child abuse and also confirmed my earlier complaint that Phyllis was criminally harassing Dawn. But CAS dismissed the incidents as unimportant, and the police concluded that, although Phyllis had indeed committed these crimes, it was "not in the best interest of the child to arrest the mother." Yes, that is exactly what they said, and we would endure Phyllis' various abuses for many more years to come.

Dawn in 2010, after second surgery
Dawn's difficulties would also continue. Merely 10 months after the first brain surgery we learned that she would have to go back to Maryland for the second surgery.

But before leaving for Maryland I learned that Phyllis had contacted the Grenadian Embassy to obtain a passport and Grenadian citizenship for Phillip. She planned to take Phillip to Grenada and not return. Since Grenada is not a signatory of the Hague Convention, there would be no recourse once Phillip was in Grenada (it appears that Phyllis planned this before Phillip was born but serendipity repeatedly foiled her plans, which is a story for another time). I immediately filed an emergency motion to prevent Phillip from leaving Canada. I was self-represented now, but the evidence was clear and the motion was successful. This would mark the beginning of 4 more years in court. We left Kingston for Maryland, and Dawn's second brain surgery, less than an hour after I filed the emergency motion.

The second surgery was much shorter and less risky than the first, but it was still brain surgery and anything could go wrong. Dawn recovered very quickly and wanted to get back to a normal life and back to the job she loved, as Director of Family Care Services for Visiting Nurse Services of New York (VNSNY), Queen's Borough division.

Working on the contract proposal in 2008
When Dawn took the Director's job nearly 20 years before, the budget was $500,000 per year, and the job was poorly paid. It took her about 15 years to grow the group to a budget of $7 million per year. Then, just before the first surgery in 2008, Dawn won a major contract that raised her groups budget to $20 million per year and the new contract took effect just after her second brain surgery. Dawn was finally making good money, 18 years after starting as Director.

However, less than a year later, in 2010, VNSNY fired Dawn.

This came as an enormous shock and Dawn was too upset to deal with it. But I was angry, so I found a lawyer in New York City who worked on contingency of success, and we sued. I prepared the chronological record for the lawyer by interviewing Dawn for details. I had also just won a federal government contract as a database developer for Health Canada, and had to work in Ottawa while we sorted the law suit and other details, like getting rid of the expensive apartment in Hoboken, New Jersey, across the river from Manhattan.

Dawn by the water in Hoboken. Manhattan in distance
Dawn soon moved to Maryland to spend time with her parents and siblings, while I lived between Ottawa (for work) and Kingston (for Phillip). It was an exhausting time, and although my new contract brought in about $10,000 per month, my expenses exceeded even this. A lot of the money was going to Dawn's family business in Maryland, which was also in trouble, so Dawn decided to settle the lawsuit early and used almost all of the proceeds in a failed attempt to keep the business afloat.

My Health Canada contract ended in March 2012 as I was preparing to self-represent in the custody trial for my son, a trial that emerged from the motion to prevent Phyllis from taking Phillip permanently to Grenada. It was an extremely difficult, emotionally taxing time. Dawn and I disagreed on how to respond to the various issues and on how to spend or save some money.

Dawn telling me to put the camera down
The various stresses accumulated to the breaking point and Dawn asked for a divorce in June 2012. It wasn't the first time that Dawn indicated she wanted out of our marriage, but past crises did not go anywhere.

The toll accumulated on me as well. My Health Canada contract was over, so I had no income, I had just self-defended in US Immigration Court - my green card had been revoked because I was spending too much time in Canada - and my self-represented Custody Trial still loomed ahead, when Dawn announced that she wanted a divorce. I was numb, and at times could not wrap my head around all of these issues.

I felt no energy or desire to talk Dawn out of divorce, or even to talk to anyone about anything. I just felt spent. Dawn and I did not talk for months, and in fact we would go long periods without talking to one another over the following two years.

Dawn's divorce announcement caused a cascade of changes in me. I came to think of myself as single for the remainder of my life, and I came to like the idea. I liked being alone when my son was with his mother, and I liked hanging out just the two of us when Phillip was with me. I spent more time developing my photography and video productions, and I felt a measure of peace. I actually started to forget, or at least not think of much, so when Dawn later reached out to me with a desire to reconcile, I was not open to it. I would help her in anyway I could, but I liked being alone. I needed the time and space. I still need that.

Dawn loves to decorate the Christmas tree
By Christmas 2013 Dawn and I were talking periodically and she wanted to spend the holidays in Kingston with Phillip and me. I was reluctant because it meant we'd have to start talking, mostly about a whole lot of things that couldn't be changed, including things that I haven't the space to mention here. And also because I liked my new found peace and solitude. But I agreed and she did come for a long visit. It was nice, but also difficult at times.

Although any of our lives could suddenly end on any given day, for Dawn it is impossible to forget this universal truth. Her health is uncertain and precarious, and the doctors don't understand why she is even still alive. She feels an urgent need to make the most of her remaining time, and she always loved to travel, so upon her return to Maryland early in 2014, she started planning her next trip.

Dawn wanted to spend 3 months in Italy, and for months I tried to talk her out of it. Given her health I could think of a million ways this could go wrong. But she made arrangements for her apartment in Maryland, for her medications and for her medical-test schedules. She found an apartment in Florence for only $900 per month and an English-speaking doctor nearby. It still seemed very risky and difficult to me, but I could not talk her out of it. Maybe that's why she asked me to join her.

On the plane to Italy, January 2015
Since I turned 55 in December 2014 I was now able to access some of the money from my locked-in RSP, so I agreed to join Dawn for 7 of the 11 weeks she planned to stay in Italy. It is crazy to my mind, but it's part of her "Bucket list," and I hope to capture some of her story on film.

I am also taking this opportunity to start shooting a film on how people find meaning and purpose in a time when "The Big Bang" has become our creation myth. The film will explore how religion adapts to the insights of modern science; insights that place mankind firmly within the universe, as an inseparable part of it's evolution, and not placed on Earth by God, as envisaged in traditional Christianity. Thomas Berry, who was a Catholic Priest, claims that understanding the history of the Universe, as revealed by modern scientific inquiry, is so important that "If you do not know the story, in a sense you do not know yourself; you do not know anything." Berry claims that the Universe is the only self-referential mode of being, while philosopher Alan Watts said that “through our eyes, the universe is perceiving itself."

Grand ideas on a grand scale. But closer to home I think that we learn about ourselves, we perceive ourselves, through the eyes of those closest to us, through our relationships. We reveal and liberate as much as we limit and constrain one another, if we maintain healthy boundaries.

Every relationship is utterly unique, and when it is gone we not only lose a companion and a friend, but a way to act in the world. That particular way that we learned "through their eyes," within the psycho-social space unique to that relationship, fades in time because it has no way to express in the world. Each person, every relationship, is a doorway to the universe. A part of you leaves when they leave, and that door closes. That's what makes the loss so painful. And a part of them stays with you, mostly unnoticed because it has become part of you.

Italy, so rich in culture and history, seems an appropriate place to contemplate these matters.

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Travel energizes Dawn, and though we have been here little more than a week, it seems to be doing her a world of good. She has already remarked that her left arm is swinging a little more freely and, more importantly, she seems happy to be alive.