After spending the last ten days in parental purgatory, we got a call yesterday morning. The huge tumor found in my daughter has been fully removed and after being told the odds were 95% that it would be malignant, Mayo has determined that it is benign. We were very lucky. Only 150-200 people are diagnosed with this type of tumor in the U.S. each year. Random. Like the cells that mutate for no damned reason into something that kills. I haven’t slept for more than an hour at a time for days on end, so getting on the internet seems like a questionable choice. But I’m here to say thanks for all the kind wishes.
I found myself writing in second person over the last week. It’s an unusual POV to pick, but second person puts distance between the reality of life and the compulsive desire to write about it. I was unable to have conversation with people. All words led to I’m so scared and inevitable sobbing. So I tried to find ways to write around the margins of this terrible thing that was my reality, this waiting to see if my beloved child was going to be in the fight of her life or if she got to go home to resume being a teenager, a classical violist, a friend, a classmate. Our girl.
So, like any writer, I start with observations.
Many mornings, I drove home at 5am from the hospital. We’d been sleeping there every night, but in the early morning hours, I was the only one awake and restless. The city streets were clear and I rolled the windows down and felt the crosswind, quiet and cool. She wanted me to get her tennis shoes, even though they wouldn’t fit her swollen feet. I knew I probably shouldn’t be on the road, so I forced myself to focus.
The last mile before home, tears started to leak down my face. By the time I reached the driveway, I was heaving and wailing. Too many hours of saying calming things to her. Too many hours of somber conversation with medical professionals. Too many hours of my husband and I in waiting rooms starting sentences with “I don’t know how we…” Trailing off, because we can only afford to be in that moment.
I thought about what other drivers saw on the way back to the hospital. A blotchy-faced middle-aged woman barely driving at the speed limit in her Prius. They couldn’t know that she was barely fending off terror, that she’d spent the previous day waiting through hours of surgery and recovery of her daughter, that she was in shock and despair. How often had I cussed out drivers, thought the worst of them, assumed that they were this or that?
We’re curiously often incapable of empathy until we find ourselves with the child crying on the plane. Until we have that bad day when everything seems to go wrong. Until we lose a pet, get a bad diagnosis, make a wrong turn. We pass each other in grocery stores, shuffle our feet impatiently at the ATM, cast knowing glances at other bystanders. It’s so much easier to be empathetic in theory than in reality.
Blurry-eyed, I dragged myself through the hospital cafeteria, I looked around at all the families, some comforting themselves with gentle inside jokes, others looking haggard and unseeing. Out of context, I know that I would have seen them differently, perhaps with a hint of judgment or irritation that they were too noisy or unfriendly or inattentive to what they were doing. When we are out in public, we do not know each others’ stories by appearance, and sometimes even by actions. We have to have the imagination and empathy to extrapolate a story. A kinder story.
In the days ahead of unraveling and recouping and processing, I hope that I remember this lesson.
It’s the end of the school year and you’re feeling pretty content. Your teenager walked across a stage, receiving honors and awards for her first successful year in high school. She’s getting ready to attend a prestigious summer orchestra camp. You’re proud and excited for her. Your husband is working on replacing the old deck out back. Your own life is trundling along pretty well – the garden is looking good, you’ve submitted work in hopes of being published, you are a training for a 5K. You read the news and get angry, but in your own world, life is pretty damned good.
The Friday before your daughter is supposed to leave for camp, you decide that you better take her to the doctor. There were a couple minor fevers earlier in the week and she’s seemed pretty tired lately. You laugh with her in the car about something silly. The sun is illuminating the day in brilliant greens and blues. You think she just might need some more iron, but other than that, her bags are packed and she’s looking forward to playing her viola with other chamber musicians.
24 hours later, your daughter is in the oncology ward of a children’s hospital, bags of blood pumping into her, a doctor saying that there’s a 95% chance the mass is malignant.
The expression “life turns on a dime” means that in a short, precise turn, one’s life changes course. Overnight, our lives have completely changed. We learn to sleep in chairs. A noisy breath wakens us immediately. We tell our stoic girl that it’s perfectly okay to cry. We cry in loud, noisy outbursts when we get stolen moments alone. We must be stoic, too, nodding understanding as nurses and doctors and radiologists and surgeons explain to us in detail the next thing and the next thing and next thing.
This is my life now. There is nothing else. Everything else is just going through the motions, playacting at writing or housework or social interaction. Shadows of life before. After writing solipsistic essays for many years, I find it difficult to think in terms of “I” at the moment. It’s all “we”, because our little family now moves in the same direction. Shift to the hospital, shift back home, and back to the hospital, like a school of fish streaming in one direction, then the next. All moves coordinated by the next set of labs, the number on the thermometer, the beeping of machines.
My writing skills are put to the test, writing updates to family and friends – calm missives that don’t reflect our primal fears. My introversion takes a back seat to communication. My independence evaporates in coordinating cat feedings with friends, passing off volunteer commitments, and taking offers of help. We call on friends we’ve been out of touch with, hold back relatives who would cause stress, and break down in front of complete strangers.
This is our life now. We turned on a dime. The 5% chance that this is a sprint and not a marathon. The 95% chance that we’re gearing up for a long haul. Numbers – those logical, strict little things now measure hope.
We are lucky. We have good health insurance. We live in a metro area with a lot of medical expertise. We have supportive friends and family. Our daughter is an amazing person who has shown us how to be in the face of calamity. The journey to her wellness is just beginning. Writing about this out loud is a way of keeping me sane – writing is how I process the world, especially when overwhelmed. However, I will be mindful of my daughter’s privacy in the upcoming weeks.
There is a tendency for people to want to give advice at times like these. We have some of the best medical resources in the country and friends who have gone through similar circumstances, so I won’t respond to advice or links or recommendations, especially for coffee enemas. Coffee goes in the mouth hole. Thank you.
I’m writing this in a coffee shop. It might not have been the best day to attempt writing in a public space. I knew that my senses were on an acute bender when I went to the Y to get a workout this morning.
I was overwhelmed by the musty smell that concrete buildings sometimes have on a rainy day. Then I had to switch treadmills because the manual button to change speeds (for interval running) wasn’t responsive enough. Then I noticed the seam of my sock was off and I could feel it with every foot strike. In front of me was the flapping, fleshy face of the president popping up on the nonstop TV screens. My treadmill started making a clickclickclick sound as I increased speed. The woman next to me was wearing some sort of musky perfume that made my stomach uneasy. Sensory overload.
There is, I suppose, a diagnosis that would roll up all my sensitivities into a nice neat package that could be ameloriated/dulled/cured by drugs/meditation/emotional eating. That I’m oversensitive to most drugs is not ironic – just a fact. When I got put under for an endoscopic invasion a few weeks ago, I awoke irritably to two women hollering in my face and shaking me to wake up. I did not want my nap, which was about seven years overdue, interrupted. This caused some concern on their part. I want to yell “See, I told you!” in response to people who have suggested medication might not be a bad thing for me. They’ve also apparently never heard me wax on about how much I enjoyed Percocet – a brief time in my medical history when I loved everyone and everything right up to the moment the prescription ran out.
Acute senses are sometimes a curse. My family thinks so. Life would be slightly better for them if I didn’t enter every room with “What’s that smell?” People would appreciate it, too, if I remembered them by their names instead of their quirks, smells, lisps, twitches. I do my best not to call them by their idiosyncrasies. Because calling someone one-who-picks-at-their-teeth or the-guy-who-smells-of-mothballs is apparently bad form. This heightened awareness and observation isn’t just irritants. It’s lovely eye crinkles that deepen a laugh or smile. It’s the smell of lilacs floating across a yard. It’s the house not blowing up next to us, because I alert the gas company (true story). It’s also likely what makes me a better writer than I would otherwise be.
Perhaps I’m at the point in life where rationalization seems a whole lot easier than making a change. I can smell leaves burning a mile away, while simultaneously noticing there are two different species of birds calling back and forth, and that the man going by on his bike, playing “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” out of little speaker, is on his third pass (I ain’t converting, old man). I’ve finally rationalized that it is a gift, although there are days when I wonder how I function. But I do and I live on to write about the things that flood my brain.
The media is framing the 2020 election already. Dinosaurs duking it out (and yes, the President is a Tyrannosaurus Rex. Come on, with those hands, it’s too easy). Biden is a Gallimimus (a dinosaur generically known as a “chicken mimic”). Initially I thought that the only thing that would make the race more exciting would be betting pools on who croaked first. But that wouldn’t be exciting. The runner-ups to the Shitty American contest would be Pence and Sanders. You’d have to go two teams deep to find an unfossilized politician with a slightly original idea who wasn’t handsy or repressed or spitting on himself when he spoke. This is going to be another long year/decade.
I’m all for authenticity and honesty. To a point. Lately I’ve seen conversations floating about the internet regarding how people wash in the shower. This is where I slam my laptop shut in disgust. For two reasons: 1) How you wash in the shower is not any of my damned business. 2) See number one. Most of the time people start these public conversations so they can feel some sense of superiority, goad others into defending themselves, or gain views for exaggerating minutiae into contagious attention. There are things worth talking about because they cause people shame or pain and being brought into the light of day serves to free them. Whether you wash your bits and pieces in a certain order or with a washcloth or loofah is not interesting or elucidating. It does say something about the person who starts that public conversation. I don’t know what, but I’m sure they’ll tell us.
It’s Not Joyce or David Foster Wallace, But Close
I’ll fess up. I’m reading that damned Mueller Report. There are several factors complicating my reading sessions. It’s boring, I’m not a lawyer, and it is not going to change my mind about the current occupant in the White House. Still, I trudge on because neither a sycophantic Attorney General nor a befuddled media are going to “spin” it for me. I’ll see for myself what’s what – and still not know much more than I did before reading this Asshole Odyssey.
P.S. – Remember a while back when I wrote that post about not swearing? Yeah, it didn’t quite take.
I am persistent, but not great at most things in my life. This applies to writing, gardening, running, sleeping (not the no-brainer it used to be). I resist giving up in the face of imperfection. My garden is a rambling, disorganized experiment. I spend hours there, filthy from head to toe, and it still looks like the owners have been on vacation. For months. It’s right in our front yard, where everyone can see, including the man who keeps biking by and yelling at me that I need to mulch. Surprisingly, this is not the same man who bikes by playing hymns down our street. I do live in an interesting neighborhood.
It occurred to me how important it is to love something you’re bad at. I love to run, but I’m not good at it. My face stays red for hours after. I look as graceful as a gazelle if a gazelle were 30 pounds overweight, had knock knees, and clutched its chest every half mile or so. Still, I do it, because it gives me a bizarre kind of joy. And bizarre joy is so much better than regular joy, because it’s all yours and completely inexplicable to others.
Have a Joyful Week!
Over five years ago, I wrote a post about swearing on my blog. I was a proponent for the judicious use of swear words that served as a point of emphasis or humor. These days, when politicians and pundits regularly use profanity, when prime time television is littered with it, the adolescent novelty has worn off. It is no longer serving much purpose, nor does it give me the joy it once did. People eventually ruin everything. I, too, am people, and have definitely ruined swearing for myself.
Perhaps it is that I hear myself in the car or muttering anywhere public and I have begun to sound as trashy as our current politicians. It is a reminder that neither money nor power nor platform is evidence of human decency or compassionate intelligence. Profanity is the least of it, but perhaps a sign post that bad logic, mundane evil, mendacious lies, and atrocious grammar is sure to follow. I’ve begun to conflate them and question if I need to make a change.
To say that I can be a contrarian would be an understatement. This is why, for the first time in my adult life, I’m considering giving up swearing altogether. I’m not all that confident that I would be able to do it, but if public, political, and entertainment conversation is trending in that direction, I feel the compulsion to go the other. It has gotten so much worse since that election three years ago – the need to express frustrations and fears in the form of cursing. I find that I do it most when I feel powerless or anxious. Sometimes it feels like the only thing that carries any venom.
We’re in the age of words, drowning in opinions and reviews and pundits, flooding our brains with unfiltered information, much of it false or hyperbolic. The language itself is mutating through the lens of liars until words are rendered meaningless. Profanities have been baked into the mix, no longer raw or shocking, only slightly jarring.
Language is a beautiful system of communication and the English language, with 171k+ active words, provides us with so many options. The individual alone knows approximately 20-35K words. I’ve begun to think about the words I haven’t used instead of curse words. Like rapscallion instead of douchebag. Or stinkard instead of shithead. Even the North Korean dictator introduced us to a good word – dotard. As a writer, it would behoove me to expand my vocabulary, instead of using old standbys that made me snicker as an adolescent.
While I was down and out with a cold, I re-watched a goofy science fiction series called Farscape. All the cursing was comprised of made up words (frell, yotz, dren, drelk). And it worked. I realized that it was all tone and context that gave the words their meaning, not the choice of the words themselves.
Profanity itself is not an intelligence marker, nor does it seem any longer to be indicative of my working class roots or my stint in the military. There is not a moral argument to be made. Words designated as profane have always been a cultural construct, but it is their suppression that makes them useful for emphasis or humor. Being common renders them essentially ineffective.
It’s time to choose differently. I tend to be judicious in my writing and I prefer no limits, but I definitely need to clean up my conversational skills. My first step will be practicing at home. My cat might finally learn his real name. Then I can level up in public with friends, and the final mastery of the game, driving in metro traffic. I need to look up some better words.
What’s your favorite non-profanity?
I was almost there. The sadness of loss began lifting and dissipating with the arrival of the spring sun. I acted like a grownup and went to the doctor to deal with my health anxieties. Spring break ended and my family returned to their respective daytime activities. The deck was cleared for productive writing, invigorating workouts, and getting my garden planned. It was a glorious five minutes.
I’m writing here, shortly before I render myself unconscious with an ungodly amount of pharmaceuticals. I’m down and out with a head and chest cold which makes me dizzy and susceptible to laughing at my own jokes. It might be that I already hit the Nyquil. Nowhere on the warning label does it say I should not operate a keyboard.
This is life, as they say. They are assholes. It may be life, but in the moment, when my head feels like it has been split open and my voice is a croak interrupted by paroxysms of coughing, it feels like it is not a good life. It will pass they say (they can now shut their pie holes and return to bad faith arguments land).
Surliness is often my go-to place when tired, sick, hungry, breathing. I have made the execrable error of filling my life with positive people – all of whom I must avoid when surly. I like to let my surliness and self-pity run its natural course, without the shame of it could be worse quips being blithely tossed my way. Unnatural stoppage could turn my feral surliness into something worse – a reasonable, circumspect person who always seems like they have their shit together. That would be wholly unnatural for me.
For those of you who regularly read my posts, I am going to be okay. I received my biopsy result in which the doctor was playing fast and loose with the English language. It essentially said You don’t have cancer. Yet. See you next year. Precancerous cells have put me on a watch list. There are some minor lifestyle changes I can make to prevent further damage. And believe me, I’m making them. If you reach a point in your life when people need to regularly shove tiny cameras in your orifices, you make the damn changes.
Much of the joy has been drained from my life – if my life were all about eating delicious food. Which, to be fair, much of it was. Now I must get my jollies from smoothies with raw ginger and greens. No more spicy Mexican, onion-laden Greek, tomato-filled Italian food. I sleep on a wedge pillow, don’t eat three hours before bedtime, drink gallons of water, and stare morosely out the kitchen window, while washing another bowl of lawn clippings for my next meal.
I suppose I should be grateful that I was scared into better health. I’ve lost some weight, don’t experience heartburn, and will likely be able to avoid a lifelong drug regimen. Although, as soon as I began exercising better habits, I immediately got sick. It leaves a bitter taste in one’s mouth. But that might just be the kale.
Before I started writing this, I had in mind pithy comments to make about current events, reading I’ve been doing, and other random bits of wisdom. I would have sounded erudite and witty, I assure you. But my head is currently full of mucus. It might be better for me to have a lie-down and hope that the cold medicine doesn’t conk me out so soundly that I wet the bed. That’s life.
I started writing a blog post called “What’s Keeping Me Awake, Pt. 2” to follow on the heels of a post about a sleepless night. Last night (since it’s 3 am already), I tossed and turned listening for our sick kitty. The vet is coming today to end our tortoiseshell’s long battle with kidney disease. It’s the first time we’ve been able to say good-bye to a pet at home, but the time between scheduling the appointment and the actual appointment is a vast space. It’s been such a long, sad winter in our home and I’ve had enough of it.
The Green Study will return on April 1, 2019.
Instead of writing what would be a continuing narrative of unhappy posts about dead relatives, dying kitties, and a middle-aged lady’s health anxieties, I’m going to take a break, let things settle a bit, get through today, get through medical testing in the next couple of weeks, get through the last dregs of winter. There is so much immediacy in my life that I’m writing without circumspection and that feels like showing first drafts to my mother. I adore the editor within, but right now she’s too busy googling medical scenarios, feline and human alike, to be of much use.
Since this post will be up for a couple of weeks, I don’t want to leave on such a melancholy note. My aching gratitude for the humans and pets with whom I’ve shared a life is in the form of grief right now, but like the spring that reveals bright green shoots on the trees, it will give way to hopefulness and warm memories. And perhaps writing which will honor those lost during this long-enduring winter.
Until then, I leave behind a smattering of unrelated thoughts.
I’ve been off Twitter for a couple of weeks now and ended some video streaming services. The math of doing fewer enervating activities adds up. I feel better and I’m more focused. I hit a couple of main news sources in the morning and at night and leave the punditry and digital sophistry to others. You never know what you don’t need until you stop using it like you need it. That should be profound, but it just sounds like a bad sentence. My editor is completely checked out.
On the Reading Docket
I’m nearly through a 900 page lit course called The Art of the Short Story. To sum it up, with Flaubert everyone dies, Flannery O’Connor hates humans (not a single likable character), Poe likes convoluted sentences, and the 1800s killed writers at a young age. I learned more than that, while also becoming suspicious of the idea that good literature has to be realistic and miserable. After I get through the stories by Welty, Wharton, and Woolf, I’m going to read some lighter fare – Neil Gaiman’s Trigger Warnings and Christopher Brown’s Tropic of Kansas. Well, lighter than Faulkner and Oates, anyway.
This week I revisited W.S. Merwin’s work The Shadow of Sirius. Merwin, an American poet, passed away a few days ago. There is something striking about the passing of what I call the “gentle poets”. Mary Oliver died earlier this year. It takes a moment to adjust to the quiet pace and the light maneuvering of language. We have become so battered against the rocks of cruel and incurious public discourse that first reactions to gentle poetry is a snickering cynicism – as if nothing matters over 280 characters or 20 second sound bites. To read poetry is a deliberate return to tenderness, a rebuke to the world too enamored of its own edginess.
To the New Year
By W. S. Merwin
With what stillness at last
you appear in the valley
your first sunlight reaching down
to touch the tips of a few
high leaves that do not stir
as though they had not noticed
and did not know you at all
then the voice of a dove calls
from far away in itself
to the hush of the morning
so this is the sound of you
here and now whether or not
anyone hears it this is
where we have come with our age
our knowledge such as it is
and our hopes such as they are
invisible before us
untouched and still possible
Considering how the year started and how it is currently proceeding, I’m all for resetting the holiday to align with spring. What did that old Roman god Janus know about the long Minnesota winter, when looking forward and back is just more snow? Spring is when energy rebounds, optimism in the form of daffodils and tulips arise and large rabbits deliver chicken eggs. Humans are weird. This particular human needs a reset on the year. Until that happens, I’m off to get myself sorted.
See You in the New Year!
Of late I’ve had an uncomfortable medical issue related to repeated heartburn. It’s gotten much worse and I have to go to the doctor. But not, of course, until I’ve googled myself into a full anxiety attack. It’s after midnight and I’m tossing and turning and just a little terrified – because so many roads lead to cancer and I’m 51 and I still have a teenager at home and I don’t want to die.
Several years ago, I had an irregular mammogram and I had to go back for another test. It turned out alright, but afterwards, I sat in my car sobbing for a good half hour. The palpable relief that I’d still be around for my kid made me crumble. After researching my latest symptoms, my insides are quaking with fear. My symptoms suggest that whatever I have, I’m about to go on a medical diagnostic journey.
Going to the doctor is like going to the gym. Getting through the door is the hardest part. I’ve been fortunate up to this point in my life to have the luxury of infrequent visits to medical establishments. The downside is that nearly every interaction I have with medical personnel is when something bad is happening. I always leave with a new syndrome or condition, feeling much worse off than when I arrived.
When you have the luxury and fortune of good health and things start to go awry, you realize what a coward you are. I’ve never had a dental cavity – a combination of genetics and compulsive brushing. I imagine the first time I get one, I’ll become the biggest baby ever. Yet I know people who have chronic conditions, who have to line up their medications every day, and who have more replacement parts than original and they are still wildly successful at being human beings.
Here I am, though, so filled with fear and anxiety that I cannot sleep. And I know logically, it will only make things worse if I am tired. How do you find a sense of peace or calm in all of this? How do you let go of the visions of death that dance before you? How do you not tearfully hug your husband and daughter as they go out the door to have their Mondays?
On the outside, I tend to under-react in times of crisis, even as my brain is riddled with anxiety. I imagine tomorrow morning will be like any other day. I will close the door behind my family and begin to count the minutes to calling the doctor’s office. They will ask who my primary physician is and I will mumble “I don’t know”. I have a feeling that by the time diagnosis is over and I’m on some sort of treatment plan, cancer or not, I’ll know my primary physician’s name and a few specialists’ names as well.
It is my nature to distance myself, to stand outside of myself in the middle of fear. It is why I’m writing now. Writing gives my story, with all its unanswered questions, some shape, a measure of control. Or at least the illusion of it. Over the last month, I’ve been reading a lot of the classic short story writers and their bios. Quite a few of them were dead in their 40s, with hundreds of stories written. But they never felt the pride of that. They just did it until the TB or syphilis took them.
In the midst of my fears, not having been published turns out to be the least of them. Sometimes it’s good to have those kind of realizations, when all your priorities suddenly sift away, leaving only the large, important things. For me, it will always be my family.
I’d been feeling depressed over the last month or so – the side effect of a long winter and the loss of my mother-in-law a few months ago. I’d been wallowing in self-pity about my inability to be a prolific writer. Sporadic writer is more like it – whinging on about being a caregiver of sick cats, of having no sense of self beyond the drudgery of laundry and dishes and ferrying people about. And how it felt like such a big deal to allow my brown hair to be sheared off to reveal the silvery gray beneath a few weeks ago. I am a little ashamed about that now. How trivial and superficial my anxieties can be.
Writing this reminds me of the ability I have of finding the upside to things. This fear, this insomnia-ridden anxiety, shoves aside my petty concerns, makes me open my eyes and see what is true. I hope I remember this in the cold light of morning, watching as the clock ticks closer to office hours.