A Little Night Music

It’s really cold here, nine degrees on Monday night. Our street is a sheet of ice following a relatively warm day on Sunday—above freezing, WOW—when the snow that fell overnight melted and then refroze as temperatures dropped.

photoBut Saturday night, despite more snow, Al and I made it to a concert of Latin chamber music at Clark University performed by the Worcester Chamber Music Society, featuring Argentine guest soloist JP Jofre, a world class artist on the bandoneón, a type of concertina.

There is no better antidote to yet more snow than hearing the tango on the bandoneón.

When we got home, I decided to take a walk around the block. It was snowing gently, and the temperatures were just below freezing, so it felt relatively mild, even for me. The fresh snow coated all the dirty drifts that have narrowed our roads to nearly one way and freshened the landscape, transforming tree boughs to white lace.

I had the street all to myself. It was quiet and peaceful. Ginger would have loved it.

This winter will eventually come to an end. A week from Sunday, March 8, we switch to Daylight Savings Time and it will be lighter in the evening. The snow will melt (maybe by June).

So, to nudge things along and give you a little break from your own winter doldrums, here’s a video of Jofre performing Ástor Piazzolla’s Escualo with the JP Jofre Hard Tango Chamber Band at NYC’s Le Poisson Rouge in September, 2012. Tango, anyone?

Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at livingwithscleroderma.com.

A Dog’s Life

Last week, on Friday the 13th, we lost our wonderful Ginger. At 16 ½, she had outlived the average Golden Retriever by almost five years. But still, her end came too soon.

It all started when Mindi wrote a grade school report about Goldens. After our first dog died in 1998, she was adamant that if we ever got another, it had to be this breed. About a year later, we began our search, and in October of 2000, we learned of a family that was looking to sell a two-year old, pedigreed Golden.

As Al arrived at the owners’ home, he noticed an electric company truck in their drive. It turned out that the family was behind in their utility payments and about to have their power shut off. So he went to the bank, withdrew $200 to pay their bill and got Ginger in exchange. She jumped in his car and never looked back. That afternoon, Al greeted Mindi and Emily after school with Ginger in tow. At first, they thought he was just holding her for another parent. Needless to say, they were ecstatic to learn she was our new pet.

Neglected by her owners, ten pounds underweight, loaded with fleas (we soon discovered), never spayed, she needed a lot of love and attention. She took refuge under the kitchen table, and that’s where we placed her new bed. But she often liked to sleep on the hardwood floor, perhaps because that’s all she knew before coming to us.

At first, Ginger didn’t have quite enough energy to walk all the way around the block. But as she put on weight and gained strength, she gleamed and grinned. And, despite the former owners’ claim that she would swipe the baby’s meal, she never stole food.

In fact, she never stole anything that I can recall. She never climbed on the dining room table to snarf up a pound cake, like my childhood beagle, Snoopy, nor snatched socks and tissues, like our first dog, Sukki. She never snapped at us, only at dogs that got in her space. She only ran away once, chasing after a skunk on a frigid January night. When Al found her and brought her home, she reeked as she galloped around the house. I don’t recall how many baths it took to remove the scent.

Simply put, Ginger was just a love bug. Hugs and ear-scratches and snuggles were her ambrosia. She adored company and was totally oblivious to social cues from anyone who was skittish around dogs. Any resistance to her sweet face just encouraged her to persist until she got a pat on the head.

The squirrels always got away (thank goodness she never brought dead animals to our door), but she loved the woods. She would race back and forth between Al and me as we hiked, making sure we were both there, then wander a ways to sniff and explore. Her fur, such a beautiful russet, always blended with the fall foliage.

For the past five years, after I was laid off and began my consultancy at home, she was my constant companion. By this time in her life, she had mellowed considerably and was content to sleep, curled up under my desk or next to me in my office as I worked. But come 2:30 in the afternoon, somehow her internal clock would always go off and she would rise to nudge me for a walk, often nosing my hands off the keyboard to get me going. A good thing, for both of us. Those walks always cleared my head and gave us quality time together. I even finally taught her how to heel and not chase other dogs that passed us. Who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks?

Most of all, she was a loving, comforting presence. We had our own way of communicating. She would let me know what she needed by pacing to and from the desired object—her water bowl, the back door, the kitchen to remind me it was time for pills (in ricotta cheese, of course), the back door again. Whenever I came home, she would always be there to greet me. And whenever I offered a walk, she was ready to go. On Shabbat afternoons, she would curl up nearby while I napped on the couch, and, sometimes, she could still climb up to cuddle next to me.

A hardy girl, she was beloved by her vet, who called Ginger her favorite Golden and always remarked on how she still had such “pep in her step.” But by last year, she was finally beginning to show her age. Arthritis, thyroid issues, weakened sight, loss of hearing in her right ear, lessened smell, confusion—all took their toll. Two weeks ago, she began to have trouble keeping down any food, and after a blood panel, we learned that her liver was failing. I thought she was rallying with medication and new bland food that she loved, but that was wishful thinking.

On Friday, I was writing at the kitchen table before going to the vet for some more anti-nausea meds. I got up to put on my coat and began telling her I’d be back soon, thinking I had let her back inside from her morning rituals, only to realize she wasn’t there. I called for her and looked all over the house, upstairs, the basement, out back, out front, in a total panic. It was as if she had vanished. Finally I clambered through the deep snow in the back yard, following the path she’d carved for herself in the drifts, and found her, collapsed. She was hemorrhaging. Blood stained the snow by her muzzle.

I stumbled back through the snow to get her a blanket, then called Al in hysterics. Thank goodness he could come home from work, because there was no way I could lift her and my fingers were going painfully numb in the frigid weather. He carried her to the car and we took her to the vet, but we knew it was over. She died, peacefully, in loving hands.

Of all the things I learned from Ginger, here’s what I will remember most: Live each moment fully. Be sure to take a nice, long stretch when you wake up. Ask for what you need. Find the good in everyone. And remember that whatever is troubling you, love is the strongest force in the Universe.

Rest in peace, Ginger. You are forever in our hearts.

Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at livingwithscleroderma.com.

Snow Denying

On behalf of all of us up here in Massachusetts, where the snow never ceases, I have decided that it’s spring. After yet another foot-plus of snow here over an extended weekend storm and predictions of even more snow heading our way on Thursday, plus Arctic temperatures, plus maybe one more storm over the weekend, I think we’re entitled to some delusional thinking.

And so, here are pictures from a couple of weekends ago at the Worcester Art Museum‘s annual Flora in Winter display. Wherever you live, whatever outrageous, frustrating, totally-out-of-your-control circumstances are dogging you, I hope these bring a little warm sunshine to you day. Enjoy!






Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at livingwithscleroderma.com.

Into White

This is quickly turning into a record-breaking winter here in Massachusetts. On Monday, Ground Hog Day, we got another foot-plus of snow on top of our record nearly three feet from last week. And it looks like there’s more to come.

I feel like I’m stuck in an endless loop of snow storms.

It wouldn’t be so bad if I didn’t feel so confined by the mounds of white stuff. I can’t shovel, and I can’t use a snow blower, even if we had one. I simply can’t stay out in the cold that long, and the temperatures are sinking into the single digits, with sub-zero wind-chill.

The (thankfully) warm but dry air in our home is wreaking havoc on my digital ulcers—up to eight on as many fingers. I’ve been on antibiotics for more than two weeks, now, as two messy ulcers slowly clear. Last week, I ordered a shipment of 1500 bandages (that’s 15 boxes of 100 each), but I’m now wondering if they will arrive before I finish my last box, given all the snow and inevitable delays.

All of this prompted me to do some research about long-term weather forecasts. Not that it will make any difference.

It doesn’t look good for February.

According to meteorologists who follow world-wide weather patterns, at least two factors on the other side of the globe are controlling our snow fall and temperatures here in New England:

  • A pool of warm water that started off around Hawaii three years ago and migrated to the Gulf of Alaska is now gradually shifting into the extreme eastern Pacific. This pumps warm air up into the atmosphere (if I understand this correctly), which then forces arctic air down across Canada and into the U.S.
  • Then there’s the amount of snowfall over Siberia. Apparently, there was a lot more snow cover in that part of the world than normal last October—more than an additional million square kilometers—and that affects the amount of snow we get in this part of the world, right around this time of year.   

There’s a lot more to it than that, but I won’t even attempt to summarize, especially if you don’t share my weather geekiness. Basically, it all comes down to physics, and the fact that our lives and circumstances are much more intertwined around this planet than we realize.

Bottom line: Our average annual snowfall here in Central Massachusetts is 64 inches. We’re now up to 57 inches, just in the past 10 days. And we’re supposed to get more snow on Thursday and again on Sunday to Monday.

A part of me wants to scream and head someplace sunny and mild (assuming I could actually get a flight despite all the snow). But this is New England, and we’re supposed to be hardy. So I will do my best. I will take necessary safety precautions and try to enjoy the journey into white. And I will continue to remind myself that—long range forecasts notwithstanding—the most important lesson from a winter like this is that control is an illusion. The only thing we can manage is the moment we’re living in, one snowflake at a time.

 Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at livingwithscleroderma.com.

Enter Juno

Just when I thought the Farmer’s Almanac was going to be right, after all, predicting less than normal snowfall this year, along comes Winter Storm Juno. As I write on Monday night, we are about to get clobbered by what all the hyped-up TV meteorologists are predicting may be a historic blizzard for the Northeast—rivaling the Blizzard of ‘78.

noreaster-goes-12615The wind-up to this storm has been more nerve-wracking than the actual snow, at least so far. Driving around today, I listened to the new Governor of Massachusetts give his first Big Storm news conference, and all the state officials who reassured us, over and over, that everyone knows what they’re doing and are well-prepared to handle Juno.

N-Star is bringing in electrical crews from as far away as Tennessee to deal with power outages. I received an email from our tree service that customers will get first preference dealing with any downed trees. We managed to get an oil delivery this afternoon before the storm hit, which I insisted on trying to schedule this morning, because it will be incredibly hard to reach the oil spigot under a few feet of snow in frigid temperatures the rest of this week. Around 10:30 this evening, we received a phone message from our city about the state of emergency and travel ban beginning at midnight.

All of this is certainly good. I appreciate having foreknowledge about when the storm will start (it’s been snowing since late afternoon), how long it will last (through Wednesday morning) and how much snow we can expect (anywhere from 18 to 30 inches, according to various reports). At least we can plan a little. Good friends up the street with a generator have offered us a place to stay if the power goes out, a great comfort.

But the reality is, there is no way to know exactly what the storm will bring and how to deal with it until we’re in the heart of it. Which got me to thinking of the parallels between really bad weather and really bad diseases. Too much information about what might happen can only make you incredibly anxious. There’s no way to know how you’ll respond until you’re in the thick of things. And there’s a limit to how much you really want to know about all the scary alternatives, because it doesn’t help you to deal with what actually happens, anyway.

So, I’m trying to keep this in mind as I ride out Juno. I felt a lot better this evening once I knew that both of my very capable adult daughters were safe and sound in their respective homes, at either end of the state, and I heard Al walk in the door. Then I found out he has to go to work Tuesday, as the only social worker covering his hospital, since his colleagues live farther away. But he doesn’t have to rush in the morning, and he may just get there by snowshoe, a much better alternative to driving if the roads get really bad.

Ginger has the best attitude of all of us. She may be 16-and-a-half, but she still loves snow. She must have gone outside at least a half-dozen times this evening, each time returning with more snow on her coat. As far as she’s concerned, it’s just another cold, refreshing night outside. 

According to Roman mythology, Juno was the chief goddess, female counterpart of Jupiter and mother of Mars. She was a goddess of childbirth and worshipped as the guardian angel of women.

If this storm is anything like its namesake, maybe all the warning and hype will be a blessing in disguise, keeping us well-prepared and safe from worse fates. As long as the power stays on, we have heat and Al makes it back and forth to work safely, I will try to sit back, get some writing done and appreciate the wilder side of Mother Nature.

And if things don’t work out so well, I’ll deal with that, too. As I keep reminding myself, I’ve had plenty of practice.

Image Credit: Satellite view of developing Nor’easter off North Carolina’s Outer Banks, January 26, 2015, NASA/NOAA GOES Project.

Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at livingwithscleroderma.com.

Fitness and Starts

It’s official. I’m fit. Well, sort of.

In keeping with my New Year’s resolutions, I decided to shake up my exercise routine, which had dwindled to a Pilates reformer class once a week plus morning stretches, and joined a local health and fitness center last week. As part of my new membership, I took a mini-fitness test, to determine my baseline.

After about a half-hour of various activities, including taking my blood pressure, recording my weight, measuring body fat, testing my strength and flexibility, and walking the treadmill, plus running all the results through a complicated formula, it was determined that I’m in pretty good shape, overall.

Not bad for a 60-year-old woman who’s had scleroderma half her life.

Now for the qualifications. Resting heart rate, aerobic fitness and blood pressure are all in the fit-to-excellent range. This came as a huge relief, because I do face some real challenges if I have to accelerate rapidly from 0 to 60, related to exercise-induced pulmonary hypertension. I’ve had some pretty frightening episodes of running to catch trains over the past couple of years that left me struggling for breath. One of my top priorities is to improve my aerobic fitness as well as determine my limits, so I can make better decisions about when I can push myself and when I can’t.

What I need to work on most, not surprisingly, are building up my strength and improving flexibility. (No, that’s definitely not me in the photo. Just wishful thinking.) And the old body-fat-to-muscle ratio could use some work, too, even though I’m on the thin side. Nothing like menopause to make all your body fat sink into your hips and thighs.

So, now the question is, what exercises to do to get stronger and regain whatever flexibility is possible? With the help of fitness center staff, I went through all the equipment and figured out what my routine should be. The center director, after reading up on scleroderma, reviewed classes with me and made recommendations. The next day, I tried out a group class that was a mix of yoga and Pilates, set to music. Over the weekend, I recovered.

The big advantage of this arrangement is that I can go to the gym whenever I want to work out, and most of the classes I’m interested in are in the late morning—well-suited to my work-at-home arrangement and very appealing in the winter, when going out at night seems overwhelming because of the cold.

The flip-side disadvantage is that I no longer have a set class schedule—so I have to be sure to plan ahead and make an appointment with myself to go exercise.

Despite muscle fatigue and some tender joints by week’s end, I did notice three major plusses:

  • The treadmill workout woke up my brain. I really felt much more clear-headed afterwards.
  • I slept better after I exercised. I’ve always noticed this, but it was quite striking after both days of visiting the gym.
  • I had more spring in my step. This was also surprising.

All encouraging signs, enough to keep motivated as I figure out what I really enjoy the most. As one of my rheumatologists once told me years ago, exercise is essential to my health and well being, but I need to find something I really love, in order to stick with it.

For someone who used to hate gym class in high school, I guess I’m making progress. It’s about time.

Photo Credit: QuinnDombrowski via Compfight cc

Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at livingwithscleroderma.com.

January Blues

Are we there, yet? I mean, springtime. Not even halfway through January, and I’ve had enough, already. I know, I know. Central Massachusetts is not North Dakota or the Yukon or Siberia. My heartfelt sympathies if you live anywhere nearby. But I really, really hate this.

Last week, the Arctic Vortex, or whatever you want to label evil cold weather patterns, sucked all the warmth out of the air. True, we’d been spoiled by unseasonably balmy weather prior to that. But days in the teens and nights in the single digits are not my idea of a good time.

On Thursday, the worst day of all, I decided to brave the cold, regardless, and spend it as planned in Cambridge. This required some strategizing.

I was taking the train to Boston. But Wednesday evening, I realized that neither I nor Al had cash for my ticket, which I had to buy on the train since there is no active ticket counter at our station. I did not want to have to go to the bank on the way, because it was going to be minus-20F windchill and I was not going to try to manipulate the outdoor ATM from my car or leave my car any more than necessary to enter a building. What to do?

Then I remembered my “T” app on my iPhone. Easy-peasy. All I had to do was purchase the MBTA commuter rail ticket and activate it when I got on the train. Just in case we lost Internet service in the morning due to the extreme cold (like I said, I was in high strategy mode), I made my purchase that night. The app came in handy the next morning, too, when I made sure the train was running on time.

My next challenge came Thursday morning. As I confessed last week, I had damaged both Al’s and my car with a back-up mishap that required a new bumper for my Prius and a repaired door on his Civic. My work was completed Wednesday evening. When I went into our garage, I immediately realized:

a) my car reeked of paint fumes; and
b) I had left my car key in the house because Al had driven it back from the body shop.

This required a scramble with the house key, which I managed to drop on the garage floor and struggled to pick up because, well, I can’t easily pick up flat metal objects. So I had to take off my gloves to pry it from the floor. Which made my fingers numb. I said a few choice words.

Once I finally started the car, I knew I was going to have to drive with the window cracked or risk feeling nauseated by the time I got to the train station. On the coldest day of the year. So I cranked up the heat, opened the back passenger window an inch and set forth.

Fortunately, my Prius has a great heater.

For once, I actually got to the train station with enough time to walk to the train without rushing. Ours is a huge, turn-of-the-20th-century station from the grand era of rail travel, so there was no problem waiting indoors instead of on the platform. And, as it turned out, the train pulled in just as I left my car in the open air garage. So I walked through the garage to the station garbed in two layers of sweaters, a wool shawl, wool pants, leg warmers, my heavy down coat, shearling hat, insulated gloves, poofy hood and a warm scarf to hold it all together. I looked ridiculous, but then again, I’m so used to looking ridiculous in weather that most people don’t consider cold that it didn’t really matter. Plus everyone else was bundled head-to-toe, too.

Fortunately, the heaters on the train worked. We pulled out of the station with the car’s front doors stuck open, but a hardy passenger got up from his seat and closed them, since the conductor was nowhere to be seen. I spent the next hour-and-a-half working on a client project on my laptop, very pleased to be riding and not driving in what proved to be horrible traffic, from what I could see on the Mass Pike Extension as we neared Boston.

The worst part of my trip was the walk from the train platform into South Station, bitter cold. Once inside, it was tolerable on the way to the Red Line. My next excursion outdoors—from the Red Line exit to the inside of a Marriott where I waited for my friend to pick me up—left me a bit queasy from breathing frigid air, even through my scarf, but the feeling passed once I got in the building.

Reversing the trip later in the day, I was glad I hadn’t let the bitter weather get the better of me. I relaxed into my seat on the train, noted the horrible traffic westbound on the Pike Extension with smug satisfaction, then returned to working on my novel for the rest of the ride home. My Prius still smelled like paint fumes, even after airing out in the station garage all day, but the heater kicked in quickly enough so that I could crack the window on the short drive to our house and still stay comfortable.

Best of all? When I pulled into our driveway, it was just barely sunset at a quarter to five. The Ice Man may still cometh, but at least the days are getting longer.

Photo Credit: Sangudo via Compfight cc

Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at livingwithscleroderma.com.

The Big Bang

Last Tuesday night, I was backing out of our driveway, minding my own business and listening to music, when, WHAM, I hit something. Now I’m a careful driver, and I had checked both directions before moving. It was really dark out. I was not happy.

I pulled over to the side of the road to see what happened. Not only had I hit something—I had hit Al’s Honda Civic. He’d parked on the street, because our eldest was home visiting and her car was in his normal spot to the side of the driveway, but I didn’t see his car when I backed out.

Not only had I hit Al’s car, but I’d dented the passenger door on the driver’s side. Thirty seconds at five miles an hour. Hundreds of dollars of damage. I hurried back into the house to tell him.

To Al’s great credit, he didn’t get upset or angry. He gave me a hug. We went outside to look at the door. It still opened and closed properly. He told me not to worry and to go on to my weaving class. For the next hour-and-a-half, as I wove, all I could think of was that I was determined to make the repairs, regardless of the cost.

Then I got home and took a closer look at my Prius. Not only had I dented Al’s car door, but I had cracked my rear bumper. It’s fiberglass, one piece. More dollars flying out the window. How is it possible to be driving so slowly and do so much damage to two cars?

The day after New Year’s, Al took the cars to a trusted autobody shop and got the estimates. Well, it wasn’t as bad as I expected, but it was bad enough—$750 to repair both. Oh, boy. We decided to go ahead, because I wanted to fix what I’d messed up.

So, for the next couple of weeks, we’ll have one or the other car in the shop. We’ll find the money somehow, the cars will look as if nothing had ever happened, and I will most certainly try not to make that expensive mistake again.

With a few more days’ hindsight, here are my bigger takeaways:

The older I get, the more closely I have to pay attention when driving at night.

I’m very lucky to have such a good husband who doesn’t get mad when I bang up his car.

We’re fortunate to be able to repair both cars, even if it will take a few more months to pay off the credit card.

They’re just cars. They aren’t people. No one was hurt.

Now, if only I could find a body shop that would make me good as new for $750—that would be something.

Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons

Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at livingwithscleroderma.com.


How did it get to be almost 2015, already? Time to retrain myself to write the correct year on checks, once again (yes, I’m one of those people who still writes paper checks). And the correct year when I actually write notes or letters by hand (gasp!). And when I track versions of electronic documents. Or date invoices. Or write the date at the top of a page in my journal.

It’s also time for some New Year’s resolutions. Of course, you can make resolutions to do something better/different any day of the year. But there’s something about revising your habit of how you write the date, an act that filters into so many small daily tasks, that prompts a sense of newness, fresh starts, opportunity for change.

So, here’s my list of healthful resolutions for 2015, half-way through the teens decade of the new millennium:

  1. Enhance my weekly exercise routine. I do stretches every morning and Pilates once a week. But I stopped taking dance classes last summer—mainly because I was getting bored and the class involved a long drive. Time to check out a class closer to home or find something better. But I have to move, more, to keep my joints in shape and stay strong.
  2. Say thank-you to someone for something specific, each day. It’s all too easy to get stuck in all the things that go wrong. Expressing gratitude not only helps me appreciate all the good in my life—it also makes someone else’s day better.
  3. Declutter our home. This is a work in progress, to repair, repurpose or recycle what we don’t need and replace what’s broken and beyond fixing. We really don’t need so much stuff. And I feel better when our space is simplified.
  4. Favor locally grown, organic produce. It’s healthier, and it helps the planet.
  5. Write the first draft of my novel. Yes, I’m getting serious about my fiction. Started a novel in the fall, and my goal is to have a solid draft by this time next year. Investing time in my own art is central to my being—and well-being.
  6. Go/do/see someplace/something new each month. I want to keep growing.
  7. Limit multitasking. I’m really good at this, but it drains my brain. This is Part One of slowing down and focusing on what’s really important.
  8. Limit my to-do list to what I can actually accomplish in a reasonable period of time. This is Part Two.
  9. Spend undistracted quality time with family and friends. Silence the iPhone and put it out of sight. (Yes, Al, you can quote me to myself.)
  10. Give back to my community. I have to be careful with volunteer commitments, not to overextend myself and drain my energy. But I’ve found a pretty good balance between family, work and volunteering at present, and I want to continue as long as I’m able.

As 2014 draws to a close, my thanks to all of you who read this blog, to those who have shared your thoughts and feelings, and to all who care to understand what it means to live with a complex disease like scleroderma. My best wishes for a healthy, fulfilling, joyful and prosperous New Year!

Photo Credit: JoePhilipson via Compfight cc

Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at livingwithscleroderma.com.


The Right Tools

My dad had a saying: “Any problem can be solved if you have the right tools.” He was something of a tool geek. In the basement of our home, hanging on a pegboard over his workbench, he had every kind of tool imaginable: crescent wrenches, socket wrenches and pipe wrenches, neatly arranged from small to large; flathead and Phillips head screw drivers; a carpenter’s hammer, tack hammer, ball peen hammer, rubber mallet; an electric hand drill with a full set of wood and dry-wall bits; rulers for every task.

Then there were his electronics bench, with its oscilloscope, soldering iron and various pliers; the table saw, with a variety of sharp-toothed steel discs hanging nearby; the drill press; the radial saw. Wooden shelving he’d built was filled with nuts, bolts, screws and nails in baby food jars, each labeled and ordered by size and type. And that’s just the short list.

I found it fascinating. I was his little helper, handing him the right transistor to build his latest Heathkit or the proper socket wrench to adjust his tractor snow-blower.

I learned a lot about how to make things (and how to get out of his way when he inevitably made a mistake and started cussing) and a deep respect for the value and care of good tools. Although my hands don’t work well enough to be able to build my own bookcases or tables or chests of drawers, I understand what’s required and how to envision the project and its implementation.

I also learned an approach to problem solving that has carried me a long way in dealing with scleroderma. Just because my hands don’t work properly doesn’t mean I can’t do what I need to do. I just need to figure out a different approach. And, sometimes, get the right tools.

Dad died five years ago, this past week, on the fifth night of Hanukkah. And so it was exceptionally fitting that in the mail on Saturday, a large box arrived from my Virginia brother-in-law, with a Hanukkah gift—a tool I’d been needing for years.

Saul had visited us in October. While he was here, he noticed I was having trouble opening cans. It’s ridiculous, really. I know I’ve needed an electric can-opener for years, but just never got around to buying one.

Sure enough, when we opened the box, inside was a sleek, black-and-chrome electric can-opener with an easy-lift handle. I tried it out Sunday night. Voila! No more sore fingers from struggling with a manual can-opener, ergonomic design notwithstanding. The can of plum tomatoes turned quickly and quietly, the lid came off easily, and there was no messy blade to clean.

It’s amazing how this device has instantly made my life easier. Especially when I have intransigent ulcers, as I do right now, opening cans has become quite an ordeal. If my fingers slip, it’s extraordinarily painful. Sometimes I’ll turn the manual crank all the way around the can, only to have to repeat because the blade didn’t cut all the way through the metal lid. There have been many times I’ve had to use rubber gloves or a towel for extra padding on the handle, to be able to manipulate the can-opener. Sometimes I just can’t open the can at all, and I have to wait for Al to be available to help.

Why it took my brother-in-law’s thoughtful gesture to turn this around, I’m not sure. Sometimes you just get so immersed in the way you’ve always done something that it’s hard to muster the energy or awareness to fix it.

So, I repeat, in Dad’s memory: Any problem can be solved if you have the right tools. And I’ll add this caveat: It helps if you’re paying attention. Thank you, Saul.

Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at livingwithscleroderma.com.