The Wisdom of Age Project—Hampton Roads, Va. 2013 Documenting Life Stories & How We Get By
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"Mountain Dew & Cigarettes"

by Jo Emanuelson

Job Had It Easy

 ON NICE DAYS, WE CAN SIT OUTSIDE on his red brick patio.  The patio furniture, a couple of wobbly wrought iron tables with matching chairs, were left by the previous home owner.  I had assumed they were his, merely because the cushions on the chairs feature the distinctive red plumeria flowers common in Hawaiian décor, which is where we met nine years ago.  But no, it is just a happy coincidence.  It is a nice place to chat, even with the dog, Duke, barking at the window and the regular car, helicopter, and airplane traffic.  Apparently, even quiet suburbs in Williamsburg are no escape from the rushing world.


 Michael McClaran, “Mac” to his friends, slouches in his chair and soaks up the blessed sunlight.  “It’s supposedly the number one source of vitamin D,” he says one day as we begin.  I would rather be inside, where it is warm and quiet, but the sun is nice and I have a jacket.  Besides, as he enumerates his many health difficulties, it feels rather heartless to insist on my own comfort.  Instead, I settle in for another series of stories and hope that the traffic is lighter today.


Mac is a great subject.  He never needs coaxing to open up.  In fact, I have learned to turn on the tape recorder almost before I sit down to avoid missing any narrative gems.  That nice day, we really began talking about his health.  At 52-years-old, Mac is aged beyond his years.  He walks with a cane, slower than he did just a few months ago.  He seems tired all the time.  Part of this is undoubtedly due to his primary dietary intake of cigarettes and Mountain Dew.  Bearing the larger part of blame are his twenty-seven years in the military.  Since joining the Army in 1987, he has suffered a broken neck, a hiatal hernia, Stage 3 esophagitis, a gallbladder attack, a severed vagus nerve, and major reconstructive surgery on his digestive track, not to mention pneumonia (twice) and injuries related to diving into a bunker.  Such a laundry list of issues makes most of his friends and colleagues wonder just how the hell he is still alive.


Family First

On a different day, I take notes on the setting, only half listening as I jot down the number of chairs and try to figure out just what kind of nut is sitting in the flower pot shaped like a yellow watering can.  I am suddenly reminded of a question I have not asked Mac.  In truth, it does not matter how he survives the day to day struggle, but why he bothers when many others would stop trying.  I ask him, rather bluntly, what gets him up in the morning.  Why does he toil everyday through the pain and depression?  The answer comes readily.  “The determination to make everything right.” I want to interrupt, ask him to clarify, but I remain silent.  I’ve learned to shut up and wait.  “I’ve always had this vision of how I wanted the family to be.  And that’s what gets me up in the morning.  The kids, the grandkids.”  Another pause.  “I hope that at some point, I won’t feel so crappy.”  He chuckles wryly.  “The main thing is the kids.”


Mac has four grown children.  Two are his wife’s from her first marriage.  One is his niece, whom he adopted due to his sister’s substance abuse.  All told, he really only has one biological daughter, but do not try to tell him that.  He insists stubbornly that they are all his kids.  He’s sacrificed much for his family.  They are the reason he rejoined the service.  He had served his two years with the Air Force in the late '70’s and decided he was done with it.  Four years later, he got married and gained two step-children.  His adoption of his niece and his wife’s pregnancy happened nearly at the same time.  The bills had to be paid.  So he bit the bullet, to use a poorly chosen cliché, and joined the Army.


Now, freshly retired, he strives physically and financially to continue to pay those bills.  Part of that struggle involves repeated visits to doctors for testing.  They are trying to figure out how to improve his quality of life.  He hopes one day to be free of the morphine pills that keep him from driving so that he can be independent.  He hates relying on people.


Dr. Gomer Pyle

Most of his medical issues, he says, can be linked back to a surgical procedure in 2005 meant to cure him of Stage-3 esophagitis.  It was supposed to be a simple procedure, one the gastric surgeon insisted he had performed hundreds of times.  Coming out of the anesthetic haze, however, he knew immediately that something was wrong.  He was having difficulty breathing and was told he was having a reaction to the anesthesia and was suffering from nicotine withdrawal, though he had given up smoking months before.  Then he started bloating up at a frightening rate.  “Kimberly [his youngest daughter] said I looked like Charlie Brown with hair.”  After the alarms finally went off, they rushed him to the ICU for testing.  They couldn’t find what was wrong, but Mac refused the exploratory suggested by the doctor.  “You’re not crackin’ into my chest to go fishin’ for where you fucked up,” he said.  Besides, he was due to deploy.  Mac is not the type of soldier to skip out on his duty for a minor health problem, even if they did suspect that the vagus nerve had been sliced.  When his condition improved days later, they reluctantly released him.


It was not until he had his gallbladder removed years later that the doctors discovered the mess his digestive track had become.  Flying back from Afghanistan, Mac experienced a gallbladder attack between San Francisco and Hawaii.  “They got it settled down so it was fine.  This was in May.  In June, they scheduled the surgery to remove the gallbladder.  And it was a good thing they scheduled it when they did because if it had been any later it would have burst inside of me rather than as they were pulling it out,” he says sardonically.  After doctors had insisted that it was the anesthesia and his nicotine withdrawal that was causing his issues, now someone had to admit that the Army gastric surgeon had screwed up his surgery.


His new doctor, the one who had successfully removed Mac’s gallbladder, put him in the way of one of the top gastric surgeons in the world.  The Army paid for Mac to travel with his wife to Portland for major reconstructive surgery.  It was the least they could do since the Feres Doctrine prevented him from suing for medical malpractice.  After fifteen hours of touch-and-go surgery, the doctor finished fixing “one of the worst jobs he had ever seen.”  Mac says he “had an abscess the size of a grapefruit in my chest” and the doctor said to Mac’s wife, “I don’t know how in the hell his liver got out of place but it was in the wrong place.”  The long and short of it is, the Army doctor had sliced through his vagus nerve during a simple procedure.  Which means he now has to deal with chronic pancreatitis and abnormal blood pressure, among other issues stemming from those conditions.  A severed vagus nerve also “causes my liver to go off, whenever, where ever, same with the kidneys.  Pretty much just really chopped my life expectancy down.  Now it’s just a question of keeping things running long enough, and well enough, that I can have some sort of life and quality of life.”


Hope At Last

He lights another cigarette as he tells me his woes and pours more Mountain Dew from a liter bottle into a twenty-ounce bottle.  I want to chide him for smoking.  In the last hour, I watched him smoke three cigarettes.  But I also heard about how the Army is not going to pay him his last check because of an issue with his Basic Allowance for Housing so the home he shares with his niece/daughter and her husband is being foreclosed on.  He is under a lot of stress.  I should give him a break.  And he says he’s going to quit again.  Any day now.


And he’s having to deal with all of these problems without the help of his wife, Sheila.  She passed away last year from esophageal cancer.  “It was almost like a partnership, where certain aspects of what we were doing in our lives, either one of us had to deal with it because the other one had it.  I find that to be a big vacuum right now.”  Sheila passing was extremely sudden and shocking.  I was in Alabama when it happened.  I heard she was sick and two weeks later she was gone.  Some insensitive person at the financial office tried to tell him that being a widow was the same thing as being divorced.  She might have meant it in regards to the paperwork, but Mac was still incensed.  “I wish it was that easy.  At least she’d still be here.  I think that’s hard for people to understand sometimes.”  He’s doing the best he can without her.


Sitting on his patio, I notice how cracked some of the bricks are, how it is beginning to pull away from the rest of the house.  He has mentioned many home improvement goals for the house, including redoing the patio.  The problem with the patio isn’t the bricks or the house.  It’s that the previous owner screwed up the installation.  Sloppy work means that the whole thing is slowly sinking into the lawn and at some point, it’s going to crack beyond repair.  Still, it clings to the house, like Mac, broken and falling apart himself, clings to the hope that his Private Bill of Relief will be approved.  He wants to choose his doctors.  He wants to live in an adult retirement community.  He does not want to live in a home or be a burden on his children.


“I know what’s coming.”  His mouth tightens, in pain or sadness, I can’t tell.  “The last couple of weeks have really brought that to the forefront.  ‘Cuz, I don’t want the doctors to be right.”  He’s quiet for a moment.  I am surprised and a little embarrassed to see tears in his eyes.  But he chuckles and changes the subject to other problems, like going to the social security office and how his transition to retirement status is going to affect him and his frequent medical emergencies.  Before long, we are back to Army stories and I am back to judging him for his cigarettes and his Mountain Dew.


Mac has been discussing the possibility of a Private Bill of Relief with his Senator.  This is the only way he can get compensation from the government for his medical issues.  He wants $7 million, to cover his medical bills and pay off things like his kids’ homes, which he has been paying the mortgages on.  They think they can get him $2.5 million, which would certainly help.  They even offered him an interview for a job as a retiree-veteran consultant for the Senator’s office in Florida.  It might be the first good luck he’s had in a long period of being maltreated by the Army.  Watching him tell me about this, I marvel just a little at the recuperative power of hope.  His face shines, his chest puffs out, and for a little while all his cares become no more than broken bricks in need of repair.

Mac with daughters several years ago.

Feres Doctrine

In 1950, the Supreme Court ruled that the government is not liable for injuries sustained by active duty military personnel as a result of other members of the armed forces.  It bars service members from suing the U.S. Government for personal injuries incurred in the performance of their duties.  Its original purpose was to prevent military personnel from suing over the type of slap-dash surgery performed by combat surgeons in order to save as many lives as possible.

Vagus Nerve

It is a very important nerve that provides output to various organs in the body as well as conveys sensory information about the state of the body’s organ’s to the central nervous system.  It is responsible for the heart rate, gastrointestinal contraction and relaxation, sweating and some muscles around the mouth.  Severing of the vagus nerve leads to vitamin B12 deficiency, which causes nerve damage, tiredness, dementia, paranoia, and death if left untreated.

Mac with wife, Sheila.

Private Bill of Relief

A private bill is a proposal for a law that would apply to a particular individual, group of individuals, or a corporate entity.  It can afford relief from another law, grant a unique benefit or powers not available under the general law, or relieve someone from legal responsibility for some allegedly wrongful act.