Life is not a science experiment


A giraffe bends low for water at a game preserve outside Durban, South Africa. “This giraffe impressed me. His knees work better than mine.” — Molly Holsapple

By Molly Holsapple

It’s been 5 years since I retired from a career that I loved but that consumed most of my time and energy.  Since retirement, I have exchanged a daily van ride to Salem for the chance to hone my expertise in using TriMet to explore every part of Portland.  I had found the right balance in life, splitting my time between keeping fit, enjoying my friends, local adventures, being in two book groups, volunteering in two grade schools, and doing just enough consultant work to fund one big trip a year.

In the last year that balance has disappeared and I find myself thinking about a science experiment on expansion and contraction from Mr. Harris’s 4th grade class.  Do you remember the one?

Put a balloon on an empty soda bottle…heat the bottle and the air molecules expand blowing up the balloon…then put the bottle in ice water and the air molecules contract and the balloon reduces in size enough to fit inside the bottle. 

That grade-school experiment could very well define my life during the past year.  Last summer began with a left knee replacement that caused me to spend time in a hospital and rehab facility and has confined me for months at a time in my house.

As someone who is accustomed to independence and variety in her daily life, the physical ordeal of recovering from major surgery meant I was trading in those freedoms for a longer-than-anticipated period of dependence and routine. Being forced to stay indoors as I recuperated was a soul-crushing experience that made me, at times feel very downhearted.

But my international and domestic travels brought out the adventurer in me. And now that a full year has gone by, I am able to see how my life expanded and contracted just like the balloon on the empty soda bottle.


My life deflates to inside the bottle

The doctor’s projections after my June 2016 surgery were that I would go home and with physical therapy I could expect to be back to my old lifestyle in around 6 months.  Those projections became a different reality when as a result of a weaker right leg, I was unable to walk up 5 stairs on the third day in the hospital.

A social worker visited my room to tell me that because I could not climb stairs I could not go home.  I had one day to identify a rehab facility where I would be transferred.  Thank God for basic community knowledge and friends who helped review and screen my options.

No matter what you call it, rehab in a nursing home stinks.  Your life shrinks when you stay most the day in your room, share with changing roommates, eat delivered meals at designated times, bathe on a schedule, and are humbled by having to ask and wait for essential help with basic care or movement.  I was frustrated and angry at having to live here for 2 weeks.  Each day was a lifetime and by day 4, I began to dream about being in prison.  Despite all of that, I stayed positive on the outside, and recall fondly hour-long escapes with friends and creating a tradition of afternoon and evening 7-Up and cranberry juice cocktails with Ruby, my 85-year-old nearly deaf roommate.

molly-my trusty cane

My trusty cane.

When I finally went home, I was physically and intellectually prepared, but in no way ready emotionally for a slow and episodic recovery.  During the next 5 months following rehab, I lived primarily in the small world of my house. Drugs and ice helped with pain, but initially made it impossible to concentrate to read.  No matter how many channels are on TV they dull rather than expand your mind and world.

PT was 2 days a week and progress was slow but visible.  I started regular walks around the block and then a bit further with neighbors and progressed from a walker to a cane. Progress and sometimes the ability to move at all were detoured by falls, infections in my right foot and sometimes the weather. One step forward and two steps back. Despite that I was determined to be ready for adventure.

My life expands beyond the bottle

I wanted to believe that my life would be back to normal by November 2016, so I planned for it to be so. Beginning several months prior to the knee replacement, I was asked to join friends on trips.  Rather than being cautious, I said a resounding “YES” to every opportunity.   I would go on three trips on four continents that got me outdoors and allowed me to get up-close to wild animals and new cultures.

Meg, an Ohio work colleague who knew I loved my 2001 trip to Ireland, invited me to join her and 6 of her lifelong friends there for Thanksgiving week.  I joined online planning, and met my new traveling companions at a bar in the Boston airport.


Molly and friends enjoy a dinner of Irish Stew on Thanksgiving Day in Ireland.

Leaving just 2 weeks after the presidential election, we hoped to escape the constant politics at home.  We headed off intent on enjoying the hills, pubs, castles, people and music of Ireland.  I did it all of that with the exception of the castles, which were not very accessible to a gimp, even with a blue shiny balancing cane. Ireland’s weather is like Portland and the people are just as welcoming.  I especially enjoyed lessons on how to pour the perfect pint of Guinness in the expected 119.5 seconds.


Pour a pint of Guinness in 119.5 seconds? “I did it on the first try! All you need is a teacher with 60 years’ experience,” says Molly.

Contrary to the classic saying about all politics being local, I discovered that in today’s world all politics is international and there is no escaping it. The first two questions in every pub: So you voted for him? What the heck is the Electoral College?

My old college roommate Bobbie and her husband Chris annually spend February as East Coast snowbirds in Fort Myers Beach, Florida.  Joining her seemed perfect. It was a chance to leave Portland’s wet and snowy winter.  More importantly, Bobbie had come at the time of surgery to spend a week with me and I was stuck in the rehab facility instead.  A week of cooking, laughing, wine, short walks and sharing stories in the Flamingo State was the best remedy for my depression at slow progress in healing.

My life inflates yet again

Millie, a lifelong friend and traveling companion, won a week-long photo safari in South Africa at a United Way fundraiser in Alaska.  Even though Africa was not on my bucket list, I jumped at the chance to join her at a game lodge. (View it here.) In the weeks before departure I got shots, bought and learned to use a camera, and packed and unpacked multiple times for what was to become the trip of a lifetime.

I left Portland at 10 am March 31st and we arrived in Durban, South Africa, after more than 40 hours of flying at 7 pm on April 2nd.  Durban is an industrial city of 4 million people on the Indian Ocean coast of Africa. We took our tour leaders’ advice and stayed a couple of days to sleep and acclimate before moving on to the safari. My image of this time is our white faces in a sea of welcoming black ones.

Arriving at the game reserve, we joined a group consisting of 4 other couples hailing from England, Canada and the United States. In each case, someone had purchased the trip as part of a fundraising event so that gave us something in common.  We met Chris, an Afrikaner, who became our weeklong Land Rover driver, experienced tour guide, joke teller, and the answerer of all our ridiculous questions.

I was “glamping” in a game lodge.  The lodge staff, mainly comprised of Zulu people from local tribes, had a genuine interest in all who visited their “home” and would readily engage in conversations about their upbringing, families, life in the bush and the best tasting game meat to sample at nightly buffets. I was impressed that all the people in doing their jobs spoke at least 3 languages fluently.

Every day we moved at a pace that mirrored the animals.  I did not have to worry about walking and falling.  We started each morning with a game drive at 5 am so we could see both the sun and the animals rise.  We would return for breakfast, some activities, a midday rest and be out again at dusk to check the watering holes.  I felt like I was being welcomed into a quiet unexposed world that was momentarily peaceful. Through each day and the week, I was a visitor to the homes of cheetah, lions, elephants, rhinos, hippos, water buffalo, giraffe, zebra, nyala and much more.

(Click on photos to view captions.)

The animals were accustomed to sharing their habitat with Land Rovers and did not react to our human presence.  Yet we were also made aware of danger and the encroaching outside world.  On one day a loud and pesky helicopter was rounding up 200 nyala to move to another reserve to guard against over grazing.   We saw the remains of the wildebeest dinner of the pride of lions we were observing.   We heard that locals who earned $250 a month could earn $65,000 in one evening of poaching tusks and of the estimates that all rhinos would be gone from the continent in a decade or less.

Saying goodbye to the safari, we again spent a day in Durban before flying on to Dubai. Dubai is a city-state that is part of the United Arab Emirates located in southwest Asia.  Since I have a young friend there running a Montessori school, we added a two-day stay in this city of contrasts to our itinerary.  Dubai is the business, advertising and marketing capital of the Middle East. It looks like New York on steroids given the space and new buildings, but take a water taxi across the bay and you are in the 17th century spice, cloth or gold markets.


Molly, left, and Millie cross the harbor in a water taxi with the Dubai skyline in the background.

Dubai’s population of 1.7 million is 80% emigrants, mostly Indian and Pakistani, and mostly young professionals.  Its commitment to internationalism was evident even at the school we visited, where 3- to 5-year-olds are speaking French, English and Arabic throughout their day. On our short visit, welcoming conversations and inquiries were initiated by both a young woman in western dress at Friday brunch at the Westin and an older woman in a niqab at the spice market.


My life settles down

I am happy to be home and feel more ready to face my continuing recovery.  My goals sound simple: to be pain-free, cane-free, able to carry my own groceries, and have the endurance and balance to walk safely for an hour or more.  Whether I reach these goals or not, I want to remember the best of the lessons learned over this year.

  • Travel has made me feel that I have more in common with others. The world seems smaller, more friendly and safer than I expected.
  • Each animal’s pace is different. My recovery period is certainly more than the 6 months originally predicted. Even it takes me 2 years to get there I must stay focused and find peace with that.  I will find peace even if I have to keep the cane.
  • The normal ups and downs in everyone’s life are so much more than a science experiment. My life will fill to the degree to which I include friends and adventures whether at home or across the world.   I must remember the best of the larger world when I have to stay in the smaller one.
  • Promote the positivity, appreciation and gratitude that were evident in the people I met across the world and in the friends that are part of my everyday life.
  • Never forget how lucky I am to have the stability, resources and opportunity to travel outside my own everyday reality.

I will find balance moving forward.  I have postponed a hoped-for trip to Thailand because I am not ready for jostling crowds in the city.  No matter what, I will keep moving and planning to see the broader world.

Photographs: Molly Holsapple


molly-holsapple 2

Molly Holsapple

Molly Holsapple spent a career and lifetime as an advocate and implementer of quality supports for employment and a full life for persons with disabilities, primarily persons with developmental disabilities.  Now she tries to spend a more balanced life in her neighborhood, community and the world. 

Editor’s note: Molly is a longtime friend, a fellow Northeast Portland resident, and personal training client of my wife, Lori. She is tenacious, passionate, opinionated, well-read and, now, well-traveled.

Tomorrow: Elizabeth Hovde, Luigi is mine



9 thoughts on “Life is not a science experiment

  1. Africa is not on my bucket list either, but your words and pictures make me think maybe it should be. Thank you for sharing the wisdom you’ve gained during this season of recovery. May you be up to full strength soon!

  2. Thanks for taking me on your trip with you. That was fun. I know recuperation isn’t fun. I had a heart bypass a few years ago and didn’t care much for the limits. However, I liked the drugs, they helped me sleep. You actually made me laugh out loud about your care facility and how you were pining for prison. Well, for a person who is limited, you sure get around. I’m glad you have such fun, generous friends who care enough to invite you along. Thanks for the lift!

    • John I am glad I could make you laugh…it is so healthy for all of us. You are right I feel blessed with wonderful friends. I look forward to seeing you again for the VOA party since last year I have counted you among them.

  3. You sound like such a brave person, Molly. Thank you for sharing this. I’ve been fearful my entire life – from being afraid of the dark to “bad guys” to what feels like my own shadow some days. As a result, I’ve never embarked on the adventures like you describe here. Your bravery is inspiring! Thanks for sharing your story. Best wishes on your continued recovery and future adventures.

    • Lynn Not sure I am brave but I am determined. I am adventurous enough to go out to a new place because I have a friend along whose has got my back. I wish for you a friend so you can adventure together.

  4. Ireland and Thailand are on my list! And wow. What a trip and opportunity in Africa.
    A nursing home for recovery is not on my list. I’m sorry for that frustrating time. I got a little teary reading the first part of this piece. I was in a hospital a handful of years ago and unless I showed progress on a certain day after weeks there, I was to be shipped to a nursing home for recovery. I was not aware of the situation, but I know it was a big deal and everyone said that would make recovery much harder.
    I showed the needed brain progress that day and got to go to the preferred medical recovery. I do, however, remember being in that hospital rehab and doing all I could to get to go home — even trying to cheat memory tests by writing myself cheat notes all day to review before the test. (I confessed when complimented about how much progress I made in just one day.) Talk about frustration.
    Heal well!

  5. I overheard comment about the lifestyle pace of the animals. And you determination to re-inflate you personal balloon. Well written

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