Not Down Or Out

It could be worse. I might not be laughing.

Category: Living Life to the Fullest

Thank You!

Today is the sixth anniversary of my cancer surgery. I mailed a note to my oncologist yesterday to thank her for first off re-staging me from a stage III to a stage 1 with complications. When you go from having a 45% chance of being here in five years to something more like 80%, it changes your attitude. She was a kind woman, very patient, good at explaining, and she gave me good advice about taking prophylactic steps to keep cancer from returning.

The treatments were tough. I still think about my horrible Christmas in the Hospital when I feared I might die of the infection I got at the end of my six rounds of chemotherapy and weeks of radiation. I am happy that it was not necessary that I also go through the internal radiation the radiologist originally recommended. I think that would have tested even a positive attitude.

I am writing to thank you, too!

I got through the surgery, treatment, and recovery because of family and friends for whom I remain eternally grateful. My mom, my sister Kathy, her husband Jeff, brother Danny, his wife Lisa, nieces Maureen and Lisa, Aunt Joan, cousins Susie, Jerry, Gail, Al, Michael, Alice, Pam, and Courtney were there for me. My sister Kathy came out for a month to take care of me while I recovered from treatment. My brother Danny flew out to take me to chemotherapy. So did Maureen and her now husband Justin. Susie listened to all of the phone calls in which I weighed treatment options and worried about the side effects they brought. Alice and Michael sent me the cool yukele stylings that cannot help but make a person smile. I received the benefit of many calls and hugs, and prayers. And it is not lost on me that many of my family members had already seen our beloved Steve through years of cancer treatments that did not end as well as mine did. Steve was so strong. He made all of us stronger because of how he was such a loving man through trials that I can still only imagine.

Barb was there at the hospital with me after my diagnosis and she was with me on the day I met my oncologist and heard her advice and words of hope that things might not be as bad as I had feared. She took me to chemotherapy treatments and was with me for some of the dark days of treatment. She has earned her place as my best friend forever by sitting beside me and letting me talk through my reactions to some of the life-changing events I experienced. She knows I value her friendship and love her.

I have wonderful friends. Dominique came to see me in the hospital when no one else could. She brought me a toothbrush, toothpaste, and a comb when I was in so much pain that I thought I might die of my infection. It was the first time in days that I felt human. She brought her little machine that applied some kind of bio-feedback to my many scars and burns. She gave me probiotics that helped me recover from the chemotherapy. She was a great source of comfort that life would get better.

I am grateful to Mary who sent me money to have my apartment cleaned while I went through treatment. Like Susie, Alice, Barb, and Dominique, she was one of those rare people who could talk with me about the enormity of a treatment plan that leaves the subject in a scorched earth condition. My oncologist said that there were two types of patients; those who don’t want to hear it and those who want to talk about every aspect of it. We know where I fit in.

Roberta, how many times have you come to my aid with your thoughtful calls, emails, visits, and gifts of good cheer? After you and Mary recently showed up to sort out my apartment after I survived the May 2017 flesh-eating infection, I think it is possible to have both cancer and a flesh-eating infection and still be the luckiest person I know.

Paul and Gladys, you were always dropping me a note or picking up the phone to make a call. Paul, I still remember when you offered me some help with medical bills. That never became necessary, but I still remember thinking what a nice crazy that was. You are a lot of fun at a party! You bring it with you whereever you go.

I am grateful for Sue who came to visit me while I recuperated. She can sit down in a chair and take your mind to a far better place and leave you smiling. Great medicine.

I had some powerful people praying for me. Kathy had her group in Maryland. Kim Marie was on the job in Florida. Joelle did her share of heavy lifting on prayer as did all of my mom’s friends in EGV (Irma, Dee, Maggie, Jack, and Ollie). So did Rick and Karen. Diane, I feel I have known you forever and am so grateful to have leaned on your faith, too. Gladys and her novenas came through for me!

It hurt when the law school for which I worked terminated me for being diagnosed with cancer. But I got a lot of support from people there. I am grateful to Moses for not doing the same. Some of my favoriate students were people I met while going through the tough times of dealing with cancer in my life: Joelle, Millie, Joy, Josh, Tracey, Dayna, Djenane, Brian, Kim (and her mom), Russ, Anne, and Karen, to name just a few. The people at my other school, especially Carrie and Chanita, also were patient and supportive. Their support meant so much to me. That’s a fantastic group of people.

I have to thank the friends I made while going through treatment, too. Rodney, our talks and lunches were a blessed distraction from the every day grind of life. You made me laugh. Chicken and waffles may not be my thing, but we’ll always have chicken with quinoa, the enchiladas and brownie pie at Chilis, and the Greek buffet at Reza’s and the quest for cheap parking to remind us of our long conversations about things that matter.

So many people sent their good will from afar: my Aunt Arlene, friends Coundy, Steve, and Mark. Some of my former students wrote letters to the law school to protest my treatment. I feel so lucky to have so many wonderful people in my life. Lt. Alix even sent me her medal she received for being a Hometown Hero for active military service! Like I did anything to justify that by doing my best to get well. I never even met that brave and wonderful woman. Like heroes do, she would not even acknowledge my gratitude for her service or her undeserved and gracious gift to me.

I “met” lots of people dealing with cancer while I did through blogging. Mike is still alive–I think, but hasn’t been well enough to communicate for a long, long time. I pray for him, his daughter Anna, wife, and family. Laura Lynn died in October of 2016. I cry whenever I think of her incredible personality. We cannot say we ever beat cancer, can we? Not after we see some of the finest people we know succumb to it while young and with so much to live for. I honor the many no longer here and am grateful to see others still online when I return to my blog. Some of the bloggers who kept me going were:
Mike
Laura Lynn
Sheri de Grom
Knot Telling
YAPCab
helensamia
Tammy Carmona
liseybendy
bjsscribbles
oneanna65
Imarieallen
cindy knoke
Ingebird Scott
myeyesareuphere
tonitappcoutts
Dglassme
allbuthomeless
zippyrose
Cancer in my Thirties
banjogrrldiaries
ozhiggins
Puhili
Healing Eyes
doublewhirler
troutledge
beckyjmonroe
shelleydmason
mytholmroydmama
cowboylawyer
kymlucas
Carolyn O’Neal
iGameMom
thinkreadcook
lifesmanylesson
Denise McCroskey
Fierce is the New Pink
hermyleen
hypersensationalism

I could go on, but if it takes a village, I had one, an amazing one. And I remain, thanks to all of you and all of them, doing well!

Walking Through the Pain

In the aftermath of my surgeries I remained in the intensive care unit with the nurses who became my support network and inspiration during treatment and recovery. Because I spent so long in intensive care at a relatively new suburban hospital, I spent the Memorial Day weekend and another weekend in the unit. There were several weekend days when I was the only patient in the unit. I had the experience of spending more than one twelve-hour shift with some of the nurses. On their return from days off, several would stop in to see how I was doing.

I remain very grateful for their excellent care. They fought for me when I lacked the strength to fight for myself. I promised them that I would return to express my gratitude after my discharge, and I did not wait too long to do that. I packed a bag of gifts for them and delivered it one morning. I was not allowed to enter the unit, but one of the nurses, Amy, and the hospital’s chaplain, came out to accept the gift. Amy and the chaplain remembered me. They hugged me and wished me well. I am guessing most people put experiences like mine behind them and do not return. I intend to come back again to let these wonderful nurses know that their work does more than save lives. They give their patients hope, peace, and medicine that does not come from a pharmacy.

Here’s the note I wrote to my nurses:

July 8, 2017 

Greetings to the outstanding nurses and staff in the Holy Cross Germantown Hospital Intensive Care Unit: 

It has now been a little over a month since I was discharged from your care after successful resolution of a flesh-eating infection and treatment for related conditions. I have been busy with home healthcare nurses, my follow-up appointments with Doctors Sailon and Jacobs, and other doctors.

I am happy to report that healing is going well. I have a pinched nerve in my neck for which I am being treated. I am under care for diabetes now, but I am doing well.

There are no words that can sufficiently express my gratitude for the care I received while in your unit. I am dropping off treats today, but they also cannot represent the emotions I feel. Your compassionate care during a time when I might have died and the positive outcome for my health and well-being are gifts I do not take for granted. Thanks to you and the medical professionals at Holy Cross Germantown, I have another chance at life. 

If I have forgotten anyone in the following list, I apologize for my faulty memory. In my sixteen days in the hospital, I underwent four surgeries and many challenges. But there was always a friendly voice and hand to help me. 

Shak: You were with me during some of the worst hours of my life. I still wake some mornings and recall how, after one of my surgeries, when I was coming out of anesthesia, I saw you standing there looking concerned for me, and it seemed as if you were some kind of squadron leader there to fight for me when I was unable to do it for myself. Bless you, that image is a source of great comfort.

Kwame: You encouraged me to walk and I did it. I still smile when I think of your coaching to face the day’s challenges. My motto in meeting those challenges was, if I have to walk through pain to make it out of here, then I will walk through that door. I did. Thank you for encouraging me when spirits were low.

Sophie: There was a night during my stay when I was afraid and in quite a bit of pain. Your voice of comfort soothed those concerns and still represents for me reassurance that things would be okay if I hung on.

Vivienne: How many times did you crack ice packs for me? I think you singlehandedly saved me from sweating into a pile of jelly with your patience and energy and caring on several nights when I could not seem to find relief.

Melanie: I think of you as the Martha Stewart of Holy Cross Germantown. If you recall, my room ended up being filled with chairs and commodes. I was the Goldilocks of hospital equipment. Some were too big, some too small, and some in need of repair. Most of the time, this equipment would crowd the walls so everyone could pass through and do their work, but, when you were my nurse, you would rearrange and make everything fit better and look better. It felt like it was going to be a good day as soon as you walked in during rounds to say hello and write your name on the board.

Yulie: You cared for me on so many occasions. I would get to the point in which I was exhausted, sweaty, and seemingly oozing with infection and you would come on duty, get me all cleaned up and tuck me back into that horrid bariatric bed, and I finally would sleep. You fought the bed company for me on a night when nothing else was going well and you got me installed into a better bed. I am so grateful that you never gave up in the battle to get me what I needed to recover.

Thinh: I had some tough reactions to some meds and you were there to keep me calm and track down a doctor to handle the matter in the middle of the night. You were there several nights and were so calm and reassuring that I made it past the rough situations. Thank you.

Rachel and Rachael: We were together through one of those nights when my bariatric bed proved to be a disaster. Not only did you persevere in the face of the challenges of keeping me comfortable, but you tackled that bed of torture and tried to get it to work. I also remember that night because of our wonderful talk about taking writing classes in pursuit of a degree and finding it tough to reconcile the writing teacher’s expectations with the reality of how intensive care nurses communicate with patients and others. The two modes of communication are not the same, and finding one challenging does not mean you are not an expert at communication. I learned from you and others in the unit that you have your own effective tools for saying what you need to in stressful circumstances. A soft touch to the face sometimes alerted me to the presence of my nurse without the need for any words. I learned that many of you discuss the outflow of stuff from patients’ bodies like strange foods’ consistencies. It works for you!  

In my package there is a bag with a book about how many schools teach history using books that do not tell the true story of how we treated indigenous populations. I still remember how your little boy was challenged at school for questioning the history books. I applaud your support of him. I can tell you that, as a lawyer, mine is one of many professions, in addition to your own, that value people who take on assumptions and test them. 

Lucy and Patty: Often stepping in to help me navigate in and out of bed. Tracking down a prescription. Helping to figure out what to do with the bariatric bed from hell. Bringing me more ice packs. Checking in on the way in or out of the shift. Thank you!

Holly: My last day I ended up wrapped in warm blankets from head-to-toe. Despite needing dozens of ice packs during my stay, the couple of hours you bundled me in warmth were a great source of comfort. I was about to leave and face recovery largely on my own at home, but I cherish the memory of my warm and fuzzy send-off. I felt ready. Thanks for that.

There are so many people to thank. My memory fails me at times as I try to remember specific days and shifts, but the following nurses and supervisors helped me, sometimes just answering my call button, sometimes for a shift, sometimes waving or cheering me on: Amy, Aurora, Bernadette, Christina, Christianne, Jericho, Julie, Sharon, Veronique, and Wooley. Michelle, you took my blood for glucose testing and were a ray of sunshine with your smile. I know you turn 21 in October. I hope you have that celebration (safe but fun) that we discussed—even if your friends are too young to go along.

I also have included in this package an envelope for Ms. Ermine, the woman who often cleaned my room. Please pass it on to her. I will never forget her many kind words of encouragement and advice. She stood in the hallway the first time I was able to walk that far and she cheered me on. What a fantastic woman she is! I am grateful for the opportunity to meet her during my stay.

Thank you again for all of your skill, talent, compassion, and care. I hope to put the extra time I will have on earth to good work thanks to you.

Hugs,

Cheryl

As my letter indicates, my nurses saw me through some tough times. I will write more about them and some of the challengs they helped me face in future posts. Thanks to them and the rest of my medical team, I was able to walk through my pain and leave the hospital to continue my recovery at home.

 

 

 

That Which Does Not Kill Me, Makes Me Stronger

As I was saying in my last post, the E.R. doctor identified my condition as a flesh-eating infection. It was not MRSA, thank goodness. But it was rare and life threatening. My memories of the first few days of my hospitalization are fuzzy. I was in great pain. I was being examined and tested and new diagnoses were coming in swiftly. I suddenly was diagnosed with diabetes. There was a chicken/egg aspect to it. Had my blood sugar gone out of whack due to the infection or had it been off the charts before the infection and made me more vulnerable to the infection? My blood pressure was climbing. Was this due to the stress I was under or was it a precursor to the infection? It was noted that the infection’s course seemed swift–even swifter than might be expected in the “normal” course of an abnormal condition. The nurses were hanging bags of fluids as fast as they could. I felt like I was one of those balloons at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade. Every inch of my skin seemed to be stretched as taut as it could be stretched.

I was prepped for surgery and do recall giving instructions that my sister had my power of attorney for healthcare purposes. She could make decisions for me if I was unable to make them.

My mom lives with me now. She is 80 years old. She had to move in with my sister and brother-in-law. We were all feeling upended and shaken by the situation. From my hospital bed, I could see a patch of sky that seemed so far away. Family members stood by the window and whispered softly. I handed over all of my belongings to my sister and wondered if we would ever see each other again. No one could say what the surgeons would find.

When the surgical team came for me, I was praying. How many times can we pray for someone to save us? I have decided that we can do it as many times as we need saving. It was icy cold in the operating room. The nurses and anesthesiologist were calm and friendly. They had questions for me. Could I help them transfer me from the transport cart to the operating table? When had I last taken water by mouth? Could I place my left arm just so on a board for that purpose? Did I have sleep apnea? Did I snore?

The temperature in the room felt good on my fevered flesh. I felt the first needle glide into the skin on my arm and I fell asleep.

That was the first of four abdominal surgeries. It was a protracted process to remove the infection. My surgeon was a plastic surgeon. He removed flesh from my right side to the left.  I was not closed up between surgeries. Instead, as I understand it, the opening that went from side to side was lined with cloth. I was bound up tightly and attached to a vacuum that kept drawing out blood and infection from the area. I was reopened as necessary. My wound needed debriding in much the same way as a burn might require it. Infected tissue, dead tissue, and other flesh had to be removed as it was identified.  The drain that was installed on me drew a pinkish jelly from me. I had a catheter. And, on that first night, after my surgery, I was left intubated in case I had to be rushed back to surgery.

My sister was unaware of that fact. She says she understood that I was being taken to the intensive care unit and the tube would be removed. But it was not. My first recollection post-surgery was that I was restrained at the wrists and ankles. I felt the tube in my throat. I panicked. I wanted to speak, but I could not. I was in a room with a sliding glass door, which was left open.

I heard things. I saw things out of the corner of my eye. I won’t trouble you with some of my memories, but they were disturbing. When I did get a nurse’s attention, she said to someone that I was receiving propofol. I could not be aware of my surroundings. I responded by struggling. I then heard someone say I was hysterical. I managed to yank my hand out of one restraint. I threw up fluid from my throat and had the unpleasant experience of having it coat my face and slide up my cheeks to my eyes. I did not understand that I was intubated. I remained panicked and wanted to speak out about things I was experiencing. Instead, I was drugged again to still my struggles.

It was a long night. I understand that my second operation took place in the morning without my awareness of it taking place.

I was more afraid during that long night than I was before I went in for surgery. In my hours of sleep or drugged awareness, I was in a black room with a black bird. The bird was huge, far bigger than I was, so not real. She had a small, beady eye the color of a raspberry. Her dark wings also were trimmed with narrow bands of the same color. She was regal in the darkness, but cruel, too. She pecked at my body with a long, narrow, black beak that tore at my flesh. I felt every piercing and called out to God for mercy.

Death seemed preferable to this punishment. I know I begged to be taken from the place in which I found myself. I cannot recall feeling any misgivings about that cry for the release death would represent. I cannot recall thinking of my family or my friends or my students or my work. I remember thinking that death would mean peace and escape from that pain. So . . . I do not think I imagined myself to be in HELL. I was suffering in this world and wanted to depart it.

We do not always get what we want.

After much suffering and even more begging for release, the bird disappeared, the room went dark, and something that looked like a turquoise and gold LP record spun into the room. The turquoise and gold pattern on the record resembled the symbol for yin and yang. There were words where the grooves would be in a record. I could not read them from my vantage point, but I could see the curves and lines of the letters. Then the record started to turn and the words became images and sounds and I saw events that had yet to occur. I saw myself awakening in a hospital bed. I heard my nurse saying she was logging onto the computer beside my bed using a specific password that was the same as the password of the nurse from the preceding shift–except she was going to add a two at the end. I saw myself learning to walk again. I saw myself wearing a hospital gown that was too big and yet managed not to cover me. I saw myself trying to work and finding it tough to focus visually and mentally. Some of the things I saw have not yet happened. But some of them have. I am finding it tough to recall some of what I saw as time goes by. Today I am almost three months from the start of my odyssey.

As the record came to an end a huge voice boomed out into the darkness: “Live more LIFE!”

I think it was God.

I woke up to see a nurse I recalled from what must have been intensive care on the night after my first surgery. In that first blinking assault of light it seemed that she was dressed in a uniform like the one Rosemary Clooney wore when she danced with Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, and Vera-Ellen in White Christmas to the tune, “Hey, I Wish I Was Back in the Army.” Instead of being blue, it was khaki and she had an aviator’s white silk scarf around her neck.  When she moved her shoulders, I could see her wings. She was the yang to the dark bird’s yin.

In another instant I was able to focus and see her as she is–she is a nurse and not a bird. I was awake. I did not feel much like living, but I was alive.

I spent sixteen days in intensive care. I would later meet my infectious disease specialist, a woman of few words, who told me I had been a few hours “from the dustbin.” She told me that nothing made her happy. But my surgeon had made her happy. He made her very happy because he did everything the right way. She said I was lucky because Plan B would have been hospice care until death.

I cannot tell you how many antibiotics she prescribed for me. She ordered repeated blood tests and measured the profusion of infections in my blood. As I understand it, flesh-eating diseases like mine come from “common” infections like strep (usually strep), staph, or e-coli. These infections surround us. They are on our skin. But they seldom inhabit us without being let in, and a healthy immune system usually fights such infections off. In the case of the disease I had, that red spot on my abdomen had been a door left ajar. One of those “ordinary” infections was opportunistic. It crept in and took hold. She never did tell me which infection I had. I have the impression I had more than one. As my medical team continued to work on me there were two more surgeries and a last debriding.

Thanks to the brilliance of my doctors, I was declared infection-free by my surgeon on May 30. The infectious disease doctor concurred and took me off of antibiotics about two days later.

There is more story to tell, and I will tell it here. But for now I will say this: The infectious disease doctor has a working hypothesis that the disease entered at my abdomen where the scar from my hysterectomy was because the flesh there had figuratively become like a sponge and not like a solid. Chemotherapy and radiation might have converted what was fat into what was food for the infection. I had an infection that did not feed on air. It fed on bacteria. And the infected flesh bred bacteria and infection. So, in a way, cancer treatment (that which did not kill me) made me weaker and more vulnerable.

However, my infection spread through fat. It never spread beyond it. Unlike many who have contracted such an infection and were not treated in time, I did not die. Unlike many who have had the infection reach a body organ or a limb, mine did not spread and I will not suffer a permanent disability. I have seen different statistics since I got out of the hospital. Some speculate there are fewer than a thousand cases diagnosed each year. Untreated, the disease is fatal. Due to the difficulties of identifying the disease, I have seen statistics showing as many as 40% of cases end in death and another 40% of cases end with permanent disability. The flesh, tissue, or organs that becomes infected cannot be cured. It has to be removed. I appear to be in the 20% of cases that end well. So the porous fat that made me weaker ended up saving me. Had it not been there for the infection to consume, I might have been a fatality or a casualty of the infection.

That which did not kill me made me strong enough to survive. It appears I will have an opportunity to live more life.

 

 

Fire Drill

Photocredit: depositphotos.com

Photocredit: depositphotos.com

At about 9:37 am yesterday the fire alarm went off in my building. I was already in my ninth floor classroom preparing for my 10 am class. I had to power down my laptop and stow it because I once carried it down six flights and knew that I could not do that again. I tucked in a corner where I hoped it would not be noticed if someone came looking to steal it. Theft and a fire drill in the same day would be too much a bummer.

We have property crime here. We are steps away from public transit. People walk out of the school talking on their brand new smartphones or studying the oh so remarkable tablets I think I should try next. Someone knocks them down and steals their technology like people used to steal wallets and purses. Who carries much money anymore? We have cards for buying more things and we can disable them pretty swiftly (if someone else has a phone to lend us).

Because it was Friday and early the building was not as filled with people as it is at other times of the week. When I entered the stairwell I still did not know if this was a drill or a fire. I did not have to merge into a stream of young people that would move like floodwaters. I was able to grip the handrail with my best hand and walk down one step at a time. I felt the vestiges of the last few years’ physical suffering in every footfall and the painful connection to the handrail.

Darn this whole cancer experience! I am not a fit person, but I can still recall what it felt like to bounce my way down stairs. In fact, during my last fire drill I made it ten flights and I had the cancer still inside me. I performed much better than I did yesterday.

Someone who observed my labored escape said something to a maintenance person who climbed to the fourth floor and told me I could stop. It was only a drill. I still had to walk down another flight because there was no entry to the fourth floor from that stairwell. The door was itself “alarmed.”

Moments later the drill ended and I could take the elevator back up to the ninth floor and begin my class. However, last night I was feeling the effects of the six floor descent. My hands haven’t stopped tingling from neuropathy. My knees were clicking and grinding like bent gears. I took some Advil and went to bed at about 2 pm and stayed there until later in the day when I could hear my cell phone in the next room playing that awful AT&T ringtone set at five instead of vibrate–another false alarm because the voicemail from my mom said, “Don’t bother calling back. I’m seeing you tomorrow.”

Photocredit: wunderground.com

Rainfall in Boulder, CO. Photocredit: wunderground.com

I watched TV. The news was filled with stories of people for whom yesterday was not a drill. There were clips from Colorado’s raging floods. I have never been in a flood. But a great-aunt of mine survived one when she was a young woman. She and her husband were caught in their bedroom as they dressed. The brother who came to warn them had taken their baby to safety. The couple climbed up on bedroom furniture and stood on their tiptoes in cold, black, raging waters for an entire night. The water rose to their necks and, after part of their home broke off and was carried away, their dead farm animals floated in and around them.

My grandpa’s sister survived and lived a little while, but not very long. A year or two later she died of what we would call PTSD. There are things we can survive that we can never quite get over.

photocredit: abcnews.go.com.

photocredit: abcnews.go.com.

On last night’s news there was devastation to be faced at the New Jersey boardwalk that burned on Thursday so soon after it was rebuilt in the last ten months following what the newsman called Super Storm Sandy.

This past week one of my students suffered a fire that swept through part of his apartment building. He has had to look for a home. His belongings were destroyed or damaged. He has to start over just as he starts his second year of law school.

I was a new general manager at a small luxury hotel when someone set his hotel room on fire. I can remember walking down the street from DuPont Circle when my beeper went off, I heard sirens, and arrived in front of my hotel in time to see someone from my staff fling the smoldering mattress from a balcony. It landed on the street with its weird, black and red maw of still sizzling bedding smack in the center.

I had no way of knowing whether that was the worst of it, but I can recall running up the stairs toward the fire. My first thought was that I had a staff that was up there tossing items still burning. I wanted to reassure them that they should get out. I needed to be there with them if I could not convince them to leave. There are horrors that we can face with others–because of others. Disasters are times when strangers help strangers, too. Sometimes escape is not possible unless you first do what you can to help others.

The truth is that I reached the floor and found thick black smoke confined to one short corridor and the fire “out” once the mattress went flying. My adrenaline levels started to drop and my hands trembled as I wondered what I would have done if I had faced flames instead of the somewhat giddy coworkers who greeted me and wanted me to look at how smoke alone had done its worst. The memory always leaves me wondering how those first responders manage to do what they do again and again.

It was only a few months later that my husband and I evacuated our basement apartment in the middle of the night because of a fire in a top floor unit of a neighbor’s attached home. The fire was extinguished with water and the soot-stained walls showed afterward where the water carried the smoke. On that occasion, I was out on the pavement watching, not running back inside to see if I could help.

Photocredit: egyptindependent.com

Photocredit: egyptindependent.com

The news from Syria came with a clip of writhing citizens and white-wrapped corpses. Is this still news to anyone? My guess is that decades from now someone will still be denying that a nation’s leader gassed his citizens in much the same way that some still deny the atrocities committed in countless prior incidents–some of them so immense as to constitute attempts at genocide.

And last night’s news was filled with stories of death. Shootings, accidents, and other tragedies happen every day–decimating families and communities. It is mere days since we marked another anniversary of the terrorists’ attack in NYC on 9/11. Life sometimes forces us to contemplate death on a scale that defies comprehension.

All I had to contend with yesterday was a drill. Sometimes we have to face the real deal. I put on some clothes and went back to unpacking. I’m good.

Worst Case Scenarios

Two Rooms to Go

Two Rooms to Go

I manage fear by imagining the worst case scenario and convincing myself that I can “handle” it. Once I have done this, I do not think about it any further. I am very stubborn about this. If I find myself worrying over the “what ifs,” I get up and enter into an activity and focus on the activity. My tactic has not been working as well as it usually does. I am not happy about this.

Lately I have been as worried about the side-effects of cancer treatment as the return of cancer. All of the packing, move, and unpacking have coincided with the end of summer term and start of fall term at school. There never was a summer vacation. SO many projects are waiting for me and I cannot give them my full attention until I unpack at least one more room. I am down to having made some progress on four rooms. My living room and storage room are a shambles (see photograph taken minutes ago). Ordinarily I would take my mind away from obsessing about my health by working on a project. I used to write a novel every summer (I have several in my desk drawers). I researched my family tree back to the 1400’s one summer. This year my activity has proven inadequate to take my mind off of what ails me because my primary activity has been making things worse.

My ears are ringing. TV would distract me from that, but my TV is piles of boxes away from where I sit. My hands are alive with neuropathy. The left hand tingles the most. I took almost all of my six chemotherapy doses in that hand. My joints rarely bothered me before treatment. Now my knees hurt. When I say they hurt I mean that I sometimes have to use a cane to climb the back stairs. I rock back and forth before getting up from a low chair. It has not been this bad since the last weeks of chemotherapy and radiation. I have what appears to be arthritis in the joint at the base of my left thumb. It has me grabbing things gingerly–always contemplating the possibility I will drop something. Aargh! My doctors want me to get my hernia fixed. It feels like it is a little bigger when I measure it with my eyes or hand. I have to lift with my knees. Oh wait. They are already iffy.  I’ve considered the worst case scenario (that things will go downhill) and now want to move on to activity, but the only activity available is more unpacking, which keeps getting me focused on my health concerns.

I'm so dizzy, my head is spinning. Photocredit: clker.com

I’m so dizzy, my head is spinning. Photocredit: clker.com

 

I work for awhile but then have to stop. There isn’t a comfy chair in the place right now. I climb up into my bed and lie down. Sometimes I take a nap, but it is tough to sleep. Right now my landlord Zen is scraping the wood frame around my big front window. The noise is intermittent but deafening. This started Thursday night at 8:30 p.m. and continued until after 11 p.m. It resumed Saturday night at 11 p.m. and went on until 2 a.m. I could go out and complain, but I am SO tired of conflict. I have considered the worst case scenario and have resolved to hold off a little longer before pursuing it–an argument that could mean I will have to move at the end of my 1 year lease. How long can it take to scrape that big picture window? Surely this is the last day his toil will interfere with mine. When the noise got so loud I could not continue work on this blog I went back to unpacking.

Currently my home is filled with waiting “activity.” There are boxes upon boxes still waiting to be opened, organized, and re-stored. It has become a mindless activity. Yesterday I assembled ten power strips not already employed somewhere in my apartment. Of course, there are three rooms without a single power strip plugged in so they may yet find usefulness. Are power strips like cats and bunnies? Do they reproduce every season regardless of need?

I love office supplies. My dad and I used to enjoy going to office supply shops together. I must miss him even more than I acknowledge. I have a four-drawer vertical file cabinet half-filled with office supplies and there are boxes I have not yet opened. Everything is now moving into space with other like items, but I find myself wondering, what if I cannot recall in what storage bin I assembled all my highlighters? Will I go back to the Staples store and buy even one more? The concern that I will has prompted some worst case scenarios of its own.

I found some items I have no recollection of purchasing, too. Last night I collected several containers of tools and hardware supplies. I can never find a screwdriver when I need one. Somewhere in the storage room I cannot even enter yet, there are two tool boxes. I needed a screwdriver last night and started opening and shutting boxes in search for one. I discovered I have power tools! I thought I had one electric screwdriver, but my brother Danny gave me one as well. Is that too many for a single woman to own? Can I host an evening at my home and invite others to use the tools with me so that all may be happily employed at the same time? Maybe I should choose between them and give one away? Should I keep the one I bought because it has many great features? Or should I keep the one Danny gave me? Because there is something really sweet about my brother imagining there is anything material in the world of which I am in need.

He and his wife Lisa rode their new motorcycle to my home last Sunday. Danny installed my two air conditioning units in windows for me. I was afraid to lift them as I already need to be getting my hernia fixed soon. Lisa stood in awe of the piles and told me she thought I could get a million dollars if I sold all of it. I dismissed the idea at first, but if I sold them for $1 apiece . . . . What might be the worst case scenario for that concern? How many paperclips can I get with $1 million?

Just in time, Zen is taking a break. I think I’ll try resting. Maybe I can manage a short nap before I succumb to the urge to drive to the nearest Staples store for paperclips!

Photocredit:abcteach.com

Photocredit:abcteach.com

Man-handled Pedicure

pedicure chair

Photocredit: uspedicurespa.com (NOT affiliated with the salon discussed herein)

I’ve been getting the occasional pedicure since chemotherapy ended. The Taxol worked my finger and toenails over pretty badly, and I lost the sense of relaxation I once had in tending to my own nails. My nails had all of these strange bubbles that looked like fizzy, orange soda percolated up from the nail bed. There were white and yellow cloudy marks. My nails peeled. And my skin was bone dry. I read about how a pedicure could expose me to infection and read a number of reviews of places before choosing one. The place I chose for my first pedicure was clean and the owner was a breast cancer survivor. It was a very positive experience.

At some point since 2012 the salon was sold. All new chairs and tables were installed. There now appear to be three or four family members working there. A mother and her daughter have handled my pedicures on most occasions. Both are very gentle. I chose to have only clear polish applied so that I could monitor the appearance of my nails. This summer–about 18 months after chemotherapy ended–I appear to have no more cloudiness or marks on my nails. But they are weaker than they once were, prone to peeling unless I keep them polished. I do plenty of polishing between pedicures and apply tea tree oil to my bare nails before polishing them to diminish the possibility of infection.

This week I had my pedicure handled by a male attendant. According to reviews on yelp.com, this is the owner’s son-in-law. I wasn’t sure how I felt about having a male provide this service. It is a personal service. No one else touches my feet. I grew up in a family in which hugging is strange. We sometimes have gone long periods of time between visits without hugging when reunited. It’s not quite a head nod greeting we exchange, but it’s close. I actually had to think awhile about overcoming my aversion to casual contact to have the first pedicure. But I like to think I’m “equal opportunity” when it comes to workplace matters so I made no objection.

The experience was not the same as it has been in the past, and I have since asked several friends who have a long history of having manicures and pedicures and they have not had a male attendant so I don’t yet have a complete handle on what troubled me. Maybe you can help.

The attendant was polite and spoke excellent English when he greeted me and asked me what services I wanted, but he did not use English again until I was ready to leave and he suggested I wait a little longer for my nails to dry. During the pedicure process, he used hand gestures and spoke in another language to the other two attendants in the shop. The air conditioning was not on and it was 85+ degrees outside. After my feet had been sitting in some warm water awhile, I started sweating. Everyone else in the shop (the three attendants on duty) enjoyed a good laugh after a lively exchange in another language right before the salon owner turned on the air.

Why do people do that? I don’t care whether or not they found my discomfiture amusing as much as I care that they spoke so that I would not understand them. There’s more courtesy in talking in the storeroom than there is in doing this in front of me. I was reminded of an episode of Seinfeld in which Elaine realizes the Korean nail attendants are using the same word to discuss her as to discuss a customer’s dog “princess.” She takes George’s father to translate and opens a new can of worms.

I understand that I may be overly concerned about the possibility that I have been discussed in my presence:

The narcissists or paranoid customers might think that nail technicians are talking about them when they speak to each other in other languages across the room, but they aren’t. Apparently they don’t care to share with each other how lovely your nail beds are or how gross your big toe is. “In general, they mostly gossip about their family and friends and the shows they watched last night,” says [celebrity manicurist Jin Soo] Choi.

http://www.totalbeauty.com/content/gallery/nail-salon-secrets#4.

This attendant did not display the pampering that is part of getting a manicure. He barely had me soak my feet before he got to work. The hot soak in bubbling water is one of the best parts of the experience. He used a rotary tool to file my nails. I found myself wondering how clean it could be when, following his use of it on me, he just plugged it into the wall to recharge and did not place the rotary head into the steamer for cleaning. He did a good job handling my cuticles, but he had me keep both feet on the footrest the whole time. I am accustomed to more soaking between some of the stages of work being done. This helps with exfoliating. He didn’t do much exfoliating. My feet were in pretty good shape to start. It was only a month since my last appointment, and I don’t wear open shoes, which means my skin is not that dry now that chemotherapy is further and further behind me.

The foot massage was minimal. Have you seen the commercial for a spray-on lotion in which the woman in the commercial sprays a stripe of lotion onto her legs and steps into her clothes and runs? That’s only a little less attention than I received. All the time, he’s using these hand motions to communicate. Usually the word “manhandle” implies unnecessary roughness. Here, I use “man-handled” to convey a lack of attention to detail by a particular man.

I came home, stripped the polish and covered my nails in tea tree oil. Then I soaked my feet in a combination of Listerine and vinegar (thanks to a tip from pinterest.com) and used a pumice stone to finish exfoliating my feet.

I hoped the pedicure would counteract some of the punishment my body has taken during the month of packing, moving, and unpacking, but I ended up feeling like I had subjected myself to new suffering. My knees were painful from thirty minutes of sitting with them flat out while he conducted his checklist of activities.

I don’t think this service needs to be performed by a woman, but I don’t think I’ll be giving that shop my business again. I tend to be pretty direct with people when I am unhappy. But I did not speak up during the process. I just kept thinking this was wrecking my effort to pamper myself. I’m not sure why I did not say more. I only know that I grinned and bore it and then skedaddled home to fix things.

Nails are a $6 billion business, according to totalbeauty.com. Manicures were one of the few things I did to pamper myself. Now I have to go check out new places. Bummer. But the suspicion that the rotary tool might not be properly cleaned is reason enough to choose another place. I found this online:

Podiatrist Dr. Robert Spalding, author of “Death by Pedicure,” states that “at this time, an estimated one million unsuspecting clients walk out of their chosen salon with infections — bacterial, viral and fungal.” And no matter which salon you go to, there is always a risk of infection. He claims that in his research “75 percent of salons in the United States are not following their own state protocols for disinfections,” which includes not mixing their disinfectant solutions properly on a daily basis, not soaking their instruments appropriately, and using counterfeit products to reduce costs (for example Windex substituted for Barbicide), says the doctor. And the problem is that there is no way to really “verify an instrument has been properly soaked and sterilized,” without watching the process.

http://www.totalbeauty.com/content/gallery/nail-salon-secrets#2.

I don’t mind having men cut my hair. I’ve had that experience several times in my life. I worked several times with a male trainer at a gym. He was fine. My opthamologist is a man. He crowds right up against me to study what’s going on inside my eyes and behind them, but it is impersonal. I have had many male doctors. But this guy rubbed my feet the wrong way. Is it me? Or have you had a pedicure that killed your buzz?

Unpacking

Photocredit: www.indianajones5.com
Photocredit: http://www.indianajones5.com[/caption%5D

It’s been more than two weeks, and unpacking has a long way to go. I am so physically weary of the process that I now unpack for a day or two and then need a day off. The largest room in the house is my office. I have made headway there. Books fill the bookshelves. A file cabinet is filled with supplies that are in some order. My desk is assembled and has space for me to work. Most of the furniture that will remain in this room is in place. My kitchen table will now become a conference table. I have not yet attached two of its legs so that I can set it in place. A mover handed me some washers and screws during the move. I put them in a “safe” place, but that box has not yet appeared from the rubble that is my storage room. That room still looks like the government storage room at the end of the movie Indiana Jones Raiders of the Lost Ark where the Ark of the Covenant gets filed away.

My bedroom is 90% unpacked. It needs a little organizing. When the movers were unloading they filled my closet with things that should have gone into the store-room closet. I need to move them to make room for what is waiting to go into that closet. Then I can finish that room. Of course, the storage room is filled all the way to the door. The work must wait.

The bathroom is small, so I unpacked it first. It looks pretty good.

The kitchen, living room and storage room are overrun with boxes and shelving units. The movers brought in the boxes first and the shelving units at the end, so I have to move boxes out of the way before I set the shelving units in place and then can store the boxes on shelves.

Sifting through the haphazard collection of a 56-year-old woman’s life in boxes marked no more specifically than Kitchen, Bathroom, Bedroom, Office, and Stuff has convinced me that much of this must now go.

Seals and Crofts
I had no time to weed through stuff before the move. But this time capsule in which I now live feels like a confused jukebox. One minute I am opening a box in which I relive high school. I keep hearing Seals and Crofts singing Summer Breeze and We May Never Pass this Way (Again). I find journals from college in the next box. The soundtrack from those years is very disconcerting and revolves around guys I was dating. Don’t Go Breaking My Heart by Elton John, Weekend in New England by Barry Manilow, and C’est la Vie by Emerson, Lake and Palmer, do battle with countless disco songs. I still have the LPs, cassettes, and CDs. In the next box there are wedding photos from the marriage I hope will finally be annulled this year–today would be my 32nd anniversary. I hear Dan Fogelberg singing Longer, a song sung at our wedding, but our song was Babe by Styx, and he did leave me, so it is the song that lingers longest in my memory as I encounter items I received at the time we wed.

I collect. I have a number of blue and white porcelain items: lamps, vases, pots, figurines, and boxes. I have pink and green Depression glass. I have children’s books, mostly written when my mom was a child. I have thousands of books on various subjects. Long ago I imagined these would be interests I would pass down, but I never had a child who would be saddled with my proclivity for assembling collections.

I suppose I should do my family a favor and get rid of them. After all, I might only live as long as my dad did (59). I may sell them off now. But this is the “wealth” I accumulated in my life and it is difficult to “spend” it when I could live as long as my great grandmother did (99). What I do know is that it takes too much energy now to pack, move, unpack, or even experience all of this again.

I don’t need another thing, except a couch or maybe a chair or two. See how easy it is to keep accumulating. Barb and I were in the store buying moving supplies a couple of weeks ago. She saw me looking at a display and started scolding me not to even look at anything!

Thanks to www.fotosearch.com

Kevin, my former naturopath, once told me that the reason why I collected and could not part with so many things was that I am a Pisces with a south node in Taurus. The Taurus south node was tied to things that provide comfort. It also made me stubborn so that I would not part with them. I don’t know if I believe it is that simple. I think, however, that I might have enough containers to open my own Container store. Maybe life would improve without at least some of them.

Taurus-NASA Public domain photo
(Image of Taurus)
It does not help that I am physically affected by cancer treatments in ways that linger. My knees have had it. The joints were never a problem before my 2011 diagnosis with cancer.  I think it was the chemotherapy that rendered all of them “tricky.” At the end of the day I lie on my back in bed and listen to little clicking sounds every time I adjust my position. The neuropathy in my hands has become more than annoying after weeks of packing and unpacking. I am very conscious of the fact that I have an uncorrected hernia. My mom keeps telling me, “Enjoy this moment. It’s going to get worse!” She’s probably right.

From my desk

I’ll tell you what part of me feels younger than ever though. My mind. As I have pondered thousands of reminders of days gone by I could not help but think of what is just around the bend for me. Today it is raining. I sit at my desk that faces a busy street. Cars rush by, their tires making that shushing sound that draws me down an unexplored road. If I got in my car with no itinerary, where would I drive? My current home is mere blocks from Lake Michigan. Today I would drive north along the lakeshore until I could drive no farther. There is nothing that makes me feel happily tied to my world like a shoreline. Perhaps that is my water sign directing me.

There are trees in front of my window. As the rain strikes the leaves and then bounces down to the ground below, my eyes are drawn up to the sky. It is gray with clouds, but a plane passes just to the north, and I think about travel. Where would I be today if free to fly away? I think I would choose to sit in some huge cathedral in Europe to contemplate lives spent on the construction of a single building that could not be completed in one person’s professional lifetime but would still draw in people many, many years after its architect’s death. Imagine using your life to leave such a monument. This must be that Taurus south node at work again.

In the back of the building there are workmen finishing a new deck that makes me think of parties. If I could have the party of my dreams, who would be on that guest list? Ah, that I will keep to myself, except to say that I might need the help of a higher power to assemble everyone whose company I would enjoy even for an hour.

If I disentangle myself from some or all of what now holds me down, will I catch the upsurge of a breeze and fly away? Who can say?

It almost is enough to make me forget that I see Dr. H on Monday for my six-month check-up. Bummer.

What have you hung onto that ought to now wind its way somewhere else so that you can feel free for new adventures as well?

Changed

Living in and out of boxes. Thanks to http://www.clker.com/cliparts/d/2/6/5/1257091961369948851sheikh_tuhin_Packing_and_Moving.

Thanks to http://www.clker.com/cliparts/d/2/6/5/
1257091961369948851sheikh_tuhin_Packing_
and_Moving.

Many things have changed in the last few weeks. I am doing my best to stay focused on what matters and not let myself feel overwhelmed. Some days it has been harder than others.

I had plans for my summer. I have not managed to act on them. I planned a trip to DC to visit my sister and her family. My mom and I were going to head east together and stay ten days. I had to cancel the trip. Mom did not go without me. I was going to reunite in DC with John, an old college friend I had not seen since 1978 or 1979. I have many friends in DC, some of whom were amazing sources of support during cancer treatment, like Mary, Roberta, and Paul. It will have to be some other time.

I was going to start a new independent contractor position handling executive searches of partners and practice groups for large law firms. I spent many hours learning all about the firms and trends. I could not start the searching because of the big task that ate my summer. All that research must sit another week or so. By that time summer will be over. Fall classes start in about nine days.

I planned to clean house. Life has become tougher since cancer. I could see that I needed to house clean, not just with broom and mop but by tossing things. I did get that house clean, but now am in a new, smaller apartment that costs me more money, and it is a mess. I’m not sure when I’ll get back to what used to feel like a mess. I’m taking life one box at a time and dealing with whatever I find there.

I planned to rest. I am very tired. The last semester of school was particularly tiring. I taught some part of twelve different classes in the months from January to July. I wanted to take a few naps. I wanted to sit in the shade somewhere and read a novel. I wanted to continue juicing and work on a few good habits.

Instead, I MOVED. It has left me exhausted. The new apartment is on the first floor of a two-flat. The landlords live upstairs. Things did not go as planned. The new landlords ripped off the decking behind the house as soon as I signed a lease (news to me as the subject did not come up until after I gave them a security deposit agreed to sign a year’s lease). The deck did not get finished until Thursday of this week. During my move I could not use my off-street parking space. I paid for street parking and got a $50 ticket one day for coming out five minutes too late to feed the meter. This home has more front steps than the last one did. I feel each one as I climb and climb dragging stuff I no longer care about into a new place I don’t like.

 

It was not cleaned well before my lease started. It was supposed to be, but was not. So there already has been conflict to resolve. It took five days to get that resolved.

My friend Barb helped with the packing, but there was no time to weed out the unnecessary from the necessary. In the final days of the move I shed plenty of stuff but some of it I wanted. I have so much junk that just got carried along. It feels like I will still be unpacking until my next move.

I hired movers and a cleaning service to get me out of the old apartment. (There went the money saved for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act.) By Tuesday, when I was sitting on an empty can in my old apartment watching Irena clean the old place I had no physical strength left. I could not manage to make one more trip to my car. I just left when the place was clean. As Barb said, “It will have to be enough. Let it go.”

I slept on my mom’s couch all last week. She had my brother’s dog Shamus for the week. It was not restful, but it was better than sleeping in my bed in its new, tiny space. I still have not managed to make that bed and had to discard both my couches because they would not fit in the new place. There was no place to rest in my new place.

My hands tingle all day long. My joints are so painful I dug out my seven remaining, unexpired pain pills, originally taken after surgery, to go to sleep at night. I have had two showers all week. I am too sore to climb into the tub at my mom’s house. I’m not sure how she does it, the sides are so high.

The movers dumped things in my house, sometimes (often) ignoring my color coding of boxes. I already have a pre-surgery hernia that the surgeon did not fix. I have to be careful dragging things around. I have one room that is corner-to-corner filled with boxes. If I need anything in that room I must kiss it goodbye for a long time.

Other stuff has been happening at the same time. In the last days before the move I heard my ex-husband’s application for an annulment from the church was moving forward. The application was welcome. The timing is not so convenient.

I gave up my home phone after AT&T wanted to change it for an 18-block move. Why is that necessary? They could move it to a cell phone–giving me two AT&T cell phones that never get more than two “bars” any place I want to make a call. Why can’t they assign the number to a different landline? Now I have one phone that rarely gets a line. I get messages hours after the calls and have to get in the car and drive to get them.

I kept working, part-time, but it kept me busy. I finished three classes. I held an information session for people wanting to become paralegals. I attended a meeting at which I was trained in responding to an armed shooter in a school setting. That was eye-opening. I gave a presentation on using social media to network for a job. It was well-received, which means that I am still getting requests for help from people two weeks later. I will finish another 12-week class tomorrow. I got out an issue of the biweekly newsletter that I write and edit. I learned that both of my fall classes that start in the next 30 days will have new textbooks. What were the chances?

Thanks to http://www.picturesof.net/_images_300/A_Colorful_ Cartoon_Cubicle_Drone_with_a_Mess_Moving_Boxes_All_Over_Royalty_Free_Clipart_ Picture_100805-171487-856053.

Thanks to http://www.picturesof.net/_images_300/A_Colorful_ Cartoon_Cubicle_Drone_with_a_Mess_Moving_Boxes_
All_Over_Royalty_Free _Clipart_ Picture_
100805-171487-856053.

 

I keep going with a new mantra–Cancer did not kill me. This move is not going to kill me if cancer couldn’t. I am not happy about many of the recent changes in my life, but I am tough and resilient and hopeful that things will work out if I keep working at it. I am tougher inside even if weaker on the outside. I have seen my worst fears draw close and know that most of the rest of this stuff is just stuff. I will handle it in time.

I remain not down or out–but changed. Wish me luck with the unpacking.

Bedside Thoughts………

I am so sad at the thought that Mike’s time with us is winding down. I cannot recall the last time I was so sad, but I pray for him to have it his way–whatever that means. And I’m asking you, even if you do not pray, to send out positive thoughts to a kind person doing his best to lend others a hand in what is for most of us is the toughest challenge in life–dying.

Fun at Funerals

Clip Art

Clip Art

Most of the funerals that I have attended have been sad even when death seemed like a relief for the deceased and his or her family. However, as I wrote in my last post “I Miss Sherry,” sometimes funerals are far from sad. They may even have funny elements that overcome tears. I have attended another funeral that included humorous moments and my mom recently attended one that crossed the line into territory that was ironic, if not funny.

About ten years ago I attended the funeral of the husband of a woman who had taken care of an ailing relative until that relative’s death. I was grateful for her kindness to my relative and remained in contact with her for many years after my relative’s death.

We had nothing in common except for the shared experience of caring for a lovable person until her death. I do not want to be disrespectful of the woman who gave so much loving care to my family member so I will call her Jane for purposes of telling this odd funereal story.

Jane grew up in a home fraught with anger and tension. When her family was ambivalent toward her, it felt like a relief. She spent some time in foster homes where she was unpaid help around the house. I have the impression that she never felt at peace in any of the places she lived.

This made Jane determined to own a home of her own. She lacked the education to do many jobs that might have brought her goal within easy reach. Caregiving seemed a good fit to her sunny and patient temperament. I hired her to care for my relative five days a week for several hours a day. She handled the evening meal and put my relative to bed at night. Jane made sure my relative was clean and comfortable.

Jane did so much more than that. She brought so much humor to every activity that I sometimes stopped in while she was there to share in the laughter. In her day, my relative was irreverent and often laughing, but the aging process was taking its toll. She was more often unintentionally funny than intentionally so. At times she was quite depressed and claimed she was ready to die. Jane did her best to cheer up her new charge. I still laugh when I recall walking into the room at an inopportune moment and hearing Jane say with no expression in her usually animated voice, “And now it’s time to wash the beaver.” My relative’s ankle was held high in the air–the way a cat might extend its leg while grooming its hindquarters and Jane was about to apply soap and water. My relative’s embarrassed grimace melted into giggles at the sight of my open mouth.

Jane was good company. She talked about herself without airs or humility, as if everyone’s life was as hard as hers. After my relative died, she called me up and said she would not be at the funeral, not because she was moving on easily but because she lived to serve the living and it was someone else’s job to shepherd the dead to their resting places.

She called to invite me to her home, and I felt I could not say no after all of the kindness she had shown someone I loved dearly.

Jane had married a man at least twenty-five years older than she was. In his prime, he was a handsome man with a modest income and boundless patience for a woman with little education and few skills. Their home was partly self-built, partly constructed. The entire front yard was a habitat for artificial creatures made of painted Styrofoam, plastic, wood, and plaster. There were deer and reindeer, castles and birdhouses, welcome signs and whirligigs. The dining room walls were covered with shelves of knickknacks. By knickknacks, I mean to include everything from gifts you collect if you buy a McDonald’s Happy Meal to china figurines. There were plaques with funny sayings. There were LP records, cassette tapes, CDs, and VHS videotapes. Jane and her husband Ed had dogs. I am an attorney and I dress in black nearly all of the time. It only took a moment for me to attract enough fur to the cuffs of my pants to form my own pet. As I took an offered seat I knew that it would take a dry cleaner to rid me of the fur that transferred to the seat of my pants.

The living room was in the part of the house that Jane and Ed had built themselves. If you dropped a pen, it might roll across the floor because one end of the house dipped while the other seemed to have buckled. There was an upright piano that Jane played while the dogs howled in a cacophonous chorus that called for everyone else to clap because a sing-along was not possible in the din.

It was not Christmas time, but the room was filled with expensive moving dolls in winter garb. While we snacked on cheese and crackers, Jane turned on the dolls. Some of them, like the little drummer, played Christmas tunes. Some of them kissed Santa.

Jane smiled at me when I complimented her on the staging. “After the childhood I had, every day is Christmas and I never want to forget that,” she said.

Ed turned out to be an ailing man himself. All day long he waited for Jane to come home and take care of him. He was a big man and it was plain that Jane put her back into getting him up and getting him down and waiting on him with love and consideration.

She insisted that I have a tour of the rest of the house. My heart just about broke when she showed me the tiny tub in which she bathed her husband. There were three beds in their tiny bedroom. There was a double bed for Ed, a cot for Jane, and a twin bed for the dogs.

Everything was broken and she was proud of the fact that these were things she found scavenging others’ curbs on the night before the garbage men would come. She even had a word processor. It was not really a computer. Maybe it was an advanced electric typewriter. Ed was teaching her to write. She was writing her story because she had no children to be retelling it for her and felt the need to leave some record of her life.

She was not entirely selfless. Shortly after I arrived we were joined by a neighbor who let me know that Ed helped keep a roof over Jane’s head and helped her with decision-making. Bob took care of her physical needs.

I will confess that I was a little surprised, but maybe I shouldn’t have been. Jane’s earthy humor came from some place. I came to understand that Bob kept her young even if he was only a little younger than Ed.

Ed seemed oblivious to their neighbor’s intimate relationship with Jane.  I say that because, after a dinner that good manners compelled me to compliment, Ed tried to do a little heavy-handed matchmaking. I beat a hasty retreat when he suggested that the four of us watch Debbie Does Dallas.

Yikes!

Yikes!

I sent Jane Christmas gifts for several years. I once took her to lunch at a dive in the neighborhood. I went to the mass at which she and Ed renewed their wedding vows and met the patchwork community of blood and foster relatives she called family. Bob was there in what I am prepared to swear was the same combination of baseball cap, t-shirt, jeans, and windbreaker as he wore when I first met him. Everyone else present was someone Jane had cared for or a family member of such a person. There were people in wheelchairs and children with braces on their legs. I fit right in because I, too, had experienced this simple woman’s kindness and cared about her.

She was the wealthiest person most of them knew, and you didn’t have to work at it to overhear several try to borrow money from her. Ed handled this with a gallantry I would not have expected. He would struggle to his feet and get an arm around Jane’s shoulders and say very gravely, “I’m sure Jane would love to help you out. My wife has a tender heart for everyone who has helped make so much happiness in her life. Blame me for her not lending you money today. I don’t have long now that the lung cancer has got me. Jane’s going to need the money to bury me.”

He died shortly after they renewed their vows. I took my mom along to the funeral for company and because she had never met Ed, but had certainly learned a lot about Jane.

We had a long drive to the funeral home. The priest who officiated at their renewal of vows came to say a few words over the casket. Ed wore a handsome suit that Jane had bought in a thrift shop in anticipation of the event. She led us to the casket and pet his hand with hers like he could tell she was still at his side. “I took good care of him and he did the same for me,” she said before turning to greet other guests. I cried for her and for him and a little bit for myself, because I have had many gifts in my life but have never been loved like she was. I have never been so conscious of the fact that what matters most in life doesn’t have a price tag.

When it was time to leave for the cemetery, the pallbearers were assembled. Ed was there in his usual windbreaker and baseball cap. He was the only person who dressed for the occasion. The rest of the pallbearers were boys in t-shirts, jeans, and gym shoes. Most needed a bath and a comb.

They escorted Ed’s body in its simple wooden casket out to the hearse. Mom and I walked out to my car where we expected the funeral director to line up cars so we could proceed to the cemetery. It was the same cemetery where my family has plots, but we were quite a distance from it.

Most of the rest of the group, including Jane, were still inside the funeral home when Mom said, “Isn’t that the hearse leaving?”

It was. The hearse took off at about 40 miles per hour without waiting for the mourners to assemble. It left a trail of dust and a couple of skid marks on the pavement as the driver tried to control a crazy turn. We took off after it and did a pretty good job of following until the driver powered through a red light and swung up onto the highway. My brakes squealed as I struggled to stop before a truck could take us out. Some of the pallbearers had managed to follow us. They had no idea where the cemetery was. I led the small caravan of pick-up trucks and RVs to the cemetery. It was about a forty minute drive that required us to make various twists and turns. Several times we had to pull over and wait for someone to catch up.

In the privacy of my car there was plenty of time for Mom and me to discuss the fact that we had never been to a funeral like this one. Usually there are a couple of cars driven by representatives from the funeral home. Everyone has a sticker or two on their cars to warn other drivers that this is a funeral cortege. People turn on their headlights for the same reason. Someone blocks busy intersections to ensure the entire party gets through if a light changes. Ed was about to be buried with much less pomp and ceremony.

When we got to the cemetery there was no sign of the hearse or any other hearse. I drove to the sexton’s office and Mom got out to ask for directions. She was just coming out when one of the pallbearers yelled, “There he is. Don’t let that varmint get away a second time.”

Sure enough, the hearse hurtled past us toward the old section of the cemetery, crossed a busy street without regard to oncoming traffic, and came to a shuddering stop by an open grave.

It was a hot day, but a little breezy. The pallbearers decided to cart Ed’s casket over to the grave so all would be in readiness when the widow showed up. Bob opened his trunk and revealed a cooler of beer. He offered us a bottle. My mom whispered to me, “What time is it? Ten in the morning?”

It was nearly eleven. I also declined his offer.

My mom egged me on to “give the hearse driver a piece of your mind.” I declined because I doubted he would listen. He reclined on the ground beneath a tree and read a newspaper.

The other pallbearers hauled folding chairs from their vehicles and set them up. Folks had picnic baskets and blankets. They started chomping on fried chicken, potato salad, and watermelon. We had quite a wait. Mom and I sat in the car and talked about the scene before us. Someone turned on a car’s radio and there was a festive atmosphere.

In the years since Ed’s death I have read a bit about how our attitudes toward death differ in different parts of American society. I would have had trouble eating in the presence of a dead body roasting in the hot sun, but no one but my mom shared my compunction. Death was a normal part of life and Ed’s closest friends were enjoying a little private time in his company before burying him.

Eventually we got in the right mood because we expressed no surprise when Jane and the priest and the rest of the mourners arrived and Jane scolded the men for beginning without them. They jockeyed for the remains of the picnic while the cemetery staff looked on in amusement. It took some time for us to get to the business of burying Ed. By then it was long past the time when people cried.

Bob smooched Jane’s cheek and wrapped an arm around her waist in casual contemplation of their future. The pallbearers tossed a ball to each other in the middle of the cemetery road. The priest headed home after hugging Jane and wishing her well. Jane thanked everyone for coming then asked a cousin to turn up the music because she had always liked the song that was playing.

I had planned to drop my mom off and proceed to the office, but that seemed out of keeping with the celebration of Ed’s life that his widow, family, and friends had planned. We decided to go out for lunch.

My mom’s other “fun” funeral was the funeral of one of my high school classmates. Rick (names changed in this story, too) died of a heart attack at the age of 50. His parents are my mom’s very good friends. Rick was a difficult man. When I met him in high school, he was a “stoner” who liked to dress in a leather jacket and hat and jeans and boots. He made fun of me for being a “brain.” He studied anthropology and worked “digs” in various parts of North and South America. He may have smoked some stuff that was good for what ailed him but a little mood altering. He taught classes. He bought a piece of rural land on a tree-covered lot and built an underground bunker where he reportedly lived with chickens. I am pretty sure some of this is lore rather than truth because, if it were entirely true, it would all be too strange.

He got a girlfriend pregnant and she had the baby (named Todd), so Rick was a father. But he never paid child support or sought to spend time with his son. The boy’s mother, Haley, was a free spirit in her own right. She tried hard to make things work, then took her boy and went in search of Rick’s “alter-ed ego.” She married an Air Force airman. His name is Joe. He is, by all accounts, a solid and dependable man. They had a baby named Tom.

This did not give Haley the settled and normal life you might imagine. She got involved in some church that decided to do its best to convert Russians to the Christian faith by trading conversion for U.S. citizenship. While her husband was deployed overseas near Iraq or Afghanistan, she arranged to bring three children to the U.S. All were young adults, close to the age of independence. They hoped to achieve U.S. citizenship and economic “independence” in relatively short order in exchange for accepting Jesus Christ as their savior. Haley also hoped they would adapt and move on swiftly.

One proved to have attachment problems. These were demonstrated through various incidents in which the child “acted out”–whatever that means. Haley sent that child to someone in Florida who claimed to be able to work miracles with children with attachment disorders. We never heard about her again. A second child learned English, finished high school, and moved out. Again, I cannot recall ever hearing of him again. The third was a “keeper.” He finished high school and managed to get scholarships and jobs to finance college. He seemed to embrace his new family as well as faith and friends in the U.S.

The adoptive/adopted kids were not the only ones growing up during this timeframe. Todd and his half-brother Tom grew up as well. Rick’s parents worked hard to stay in Todd’s life. They made trips to bases where Haley and Joe were based. They paid for Haley, Joe, Todd, and the rest of the family to visit them. They paid for other things, too. All this time Rick was a missing-in-action dad working out of his bunker in the woods.

On those few occasions when Rick came to town to visit his parents there were problems. He appropriated family heirlooms. He picked fights. When his parents changed the locks on their home, Rick strode around the house yelling for them to let him in like a scene from the story of the Three Little Pigs. He eventually showed up during a visit by Haley, Joe, and Todd. He met his son.

He huffed and he puffed and he blew the house down.

He huffed and he puffed and he blew the house down.

 

No one thought the meeting had made much of an impression on Rick or Todd, but children are unpredictable and so is blood. The boy may have romanticized his “real” father. An intelligent, socially maladapted eccentric sounds like a perfect antidote for a spit-and-shine airman of a stepdad looking for folded corners on a sheet and blankets tucked in so tightly that you could bounce a quarter off the bed during weekly inspections.

Father and son may not have ever met again. I cannot recall hearing of any other meetings. When Todd was about eighteen years old, Rick’s parents got a call from a county sheriff. Their son had not shown up in town for awhile. Someone thought that was odd. An officer drove out to the bunker to see if Rick was around. The officer discovered that Rick had died and been gone for some time.

It was a time for regrets and lots of tears. No matter how difficult the relationship was for them, Rick’s parents grieved over death. Rick’s parents had him cremated and arranged to have his remains buried in a local cemetery where they will one day be laid to rest. The land and bunker where Rick lived had liens against it for unpaid taxes. Rick had not left much. Even the missing heirlooms were gone. I don’t recall hearing he had any chickens left at the time of his death.

Rick’s parents paid for Todd to attend his father’s memorial service. Joe planned a trip that would bring him into town a couple of days later. He would pay his respects and collect Todd. Haley chose not to attend.

Everyone gathered at the cemetery at the appointed time, including my mom. I was not there, so may have the facts a little out of focus. A friendly minister was on hand to lead a small group of about ten people in prayer for Rick. A female relative brought an iPod and some speakers and played some appropriate music. Two cemetery employees stood by to cover the urn with dirt at the conclusion of the brief ceremony.

Rick’s parents said a few words about the son they would miss–had long missed. When the minister concluded the brief ceremony and Rick’s mom was weeping softly for her troubled son, Todd made his move. Snatching the urn from the ground, Todd tucked it beneath his arm like a football and took off with it.

The assembled senior citizens lacked the reflexes necessary to stop it. Todd’s grandparents yelled after him to stop. He yelled over his shoulder that his dad would never want to be buried in anyplace as dumb as a cemetery. Todd didn’t have a car. Everyone scurried to their cars and pursued him. All to no avail.

They have not heard from Todd since the memorial service. They called Haley, but she declined to comment on the matter. Joe, who was scheduled to visit a couple of days later, has not been in touch.

Rick’s parents have talked about what happened. There has been speculation that Todd rented a car and drove to Wisconsin to spread his dad’s ashes in the woods where he lived and died. However, Todd never saw the lot or the bunker and did not grow up in the Midwest. He knows Air Force bases here and overseas. How could he have made it to his father’s last home without help?

Did Haley and Joe assist in the “theft”? We do not know. They are adamantly silent.

Perhaps Todd still has his father’s cremains. If so, his grandparents would be happy if he returned even a portion of them so that they could bury Rick beneath the headstone they had ordered that now marks his death but not his final resting place.

There was talk of filing a complaint with authorities, but that would have been done to find the cremains. No one wanted to create a legal record of Todd’s actions that might mar his future. Who owns the cremains of a person survived by parents and a newly adult child that inherited nothing else from his father? Do the parents have the priority claim because they claimed their son’s body and paid for the cremation? Does the son, as heir, deserve to make the decision?

Rick’s parents feel like they have been deprived of “closure.” Closure is everything in modern times. It is the nearest thing to commercial failure for ending a once successful movie franchise. It is burial that usually gives closure when a child has been lost and the family has waited in vain for his return. We can mourn lost loved ones any place, but a grave offers expressions of grief a locus that the four winds or a box beneath another “lost” relative’s bed cannot.

The memorial service has meant the loss of another family member. Rick’s parents have invested many years in sustaining a relationship with a grandson who has finally forced them to admit that their son is lost to them and will likely never be found. Now he appears to be gone, too.

Rick’s mom has gone for some counseling, but she has given up on understanding what happened.

The two funerals are connected in my mind. We choose our friends but we don’t get to choose our family. Jane had very few comforts in childhood but manages to revere people who were charged with caring for her and let her down. Todd was surrounded by love but chose the one person who kept him at arm’s length when he felt his loyalty torn in two directions. Sometimes death means a quick transition to a new life for a loved one. Sometimes death fails to put a period to the sentence of a difficult life. Both funerals serve as reminders to me that whatever comes my way, I’ll handle it better if I keep my sense of humor.

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