Not Down Or Out

It could be worse. I might not be laughing.

Category: Living Life to the Fullest

I Miss Sherry

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It was 1992 or 1993, and I was living in Chicago because my dad had passed away, leaving my mom and brother to run a family electrical contracting firm. Danny had passed the contractor’s exam (a feat for one so young), but he still had to complete his electrical union apprenticeship, and I thought I could help run the company until he completed his studies and could devote his full attention to managing the business. I also intended to live with my mom for awhile and help cover some of her living expenses until we could figure out how my dad’s pensions would work.

I left D.C. after eighteen years of living there. My sister Kathy stayed behind. I left many dear friends and a good job. It was a crazy time in my life, a time when things all the time seemed upside down and inside out and I longed for peace. It was a time like what I’m going through now.

One of the people I left behind was a new friend named Sherry. She was as outrageous a person as I have ever met. The first time we met she was my “floater secretary” during my regular secretary’s absence. She was irreverent, disrespectful, hilariously funny, and completely inappropriate. There are times when I think of outrageous things to do or say, but I bite my lip. Sherry had no such filter to keep her from getting into trouble. The first time she made a bad mistake in the workplace, she strode into my office, shut the door, placed her hand on the wall, bent forward and flipped up her skirt. She announced that she was prepared to be spanked for her behavior. In direct contradiction of this behavior, her underwear read “F*CK U.”

I think my mouth fell open. “I am not interested in spanking you,” I said. “Firing you, yes, but spanking an adult is not something I do.” Oh. I can be so prissy that my mom once said she wished I had done something really bad as a kid so I would know you can get past it. I have. Mom just doesn’t know about those mistakes.

Sherry flipped her skirt back down and sat in one of the empty chairs in my office. “Well, I’m not interested in getting fired,” she announced. She raised one eyebrow.

We stared at each other. It was not the first time I had heard of workplace spankings. I managed luxury hotels before I went to law school and saw many surprising things in that line of business. On one occasion, the hotel’s owner summoned me and a coworker to his office and announced that he knew that I and this coworker had circulated an informal newsletter at one of the hotels. He did not care for the gossip included in it. My coworker immediately stepped forward and claimed sole responsibility. The owner shook his head and said, “I recognize Cheryl’s verbiage.”

My coworker offered to let the owner spank her. At that point he laughed hysterically and threw us both out of his office with a stern warning to refrain from further outrageous behavior.

On a later occasion, while I was an attorney, a word processing employee and “floater secretary” mishandled an assignment for me. She worked in a word processing pool and was not someone I knew well. Her supervisor instructed her to go to my office and apologize. She came into my office, shut the door, apologized, and then asked me if I would like to spank her. Deja vu.

I do not think I am the sort of person who ever liked receiving spankings. I strove very hard not to receive them and have no interest in delivering them.

I told the woman’s supervisor what happened. And the word processing employee was not terminated. I have always wondered whether someone else in the law firm was called upon to administer the discipline I could not. You meet unusual people in my profession.

Sherry was assigned to work for someone else after she worked for me. He was a powerful partner in the firm. While she worked for him, he traveled to Alaska on business. In those days, there were no laptops available to take on business trips. We did not have cell phones. There was no such thing as an unlimited calling plan. Sherry accidentally disconnected the partner while he was on hold. When he called back, he was FURIOUS. And he told her at length what an imbecile she was. Then he asked her, “Have you any idea how expensive it is to make a call from Alaska?”

Her answer? “Hold please, while I call the phone company to find out.” Then she put him on hold.

Even after she lost her job, I kept track of Sherry. We met occasionally for lunch. She told me about her failed marriage to some former hockey player. He was doing time for a crime I cannot recall. I met her son and her even more unspeakably hilarious mom. She brought some boss who seemed not altogether indisposed to spanking to my home to watch a movie and share a pizza. During the movie, Sherry excused herself to visit my bathroom.

Imagine my surprise when I visited my bathroom and found a sink full of shaving cream and hair. While she was in my bathroom, she decided the boss was going to get lucky that night, helped herself to my supplies and shaved her legs in my bathroom sink while the rest of us watched the movie. My mouth still hangs open when I think about it.

I ended up leaving DC to return home to Chicago. We stayed in touch. I think I need a few friends who express personality traits so long suppressed by polite company that I might forget anyone possessed them but for these friends’ company. I need shocking once in awhile.

I have already written in my blog I See Dead People, about Sherry’s death. https://notdownorout.wordpress.com/2013/06/27/i-see-dead-people/. She died in her thirties of a brain aneurysm.

I actually got the news from the woman from the word processing department who also asked me if I wanted to spank her. She was assigned to me as a “floater secretary” for the day and took the call while I was at lunch. She decided not to have the caller leave me a voicemail message. She delivered the news in person as a kindness to me even though I had tattled about the spanking incident.

Sherry’s family wanted me to know that she might have wanted me to be her son’s legal guardian. She had told family members that she had written a will to that effect, but, her cousin thought it might not have been anything as formal as a will. The cousin thought Sherry might have written her wishes on a cocktail napkin and put the napkin in her car’s glove compartment for safekeeping. The cousin said that I was welcome to attend the funeral, but should be ready for a backwoods brawl if I tried to take the child back to Chicago.

I am not a properly maternal person. I teach, so I do enjoy the company of young people. But the people I teach are in college and post-college settings. Children are not my thing. I never stick out my arms to hold people’s babies. I do not pat the seat next to me and say, “Come sit here and I’ll tell you a story.” (In fact, I think other people’s insistence on such access is a problem. It seems inconsistent to put children on their guard against Stranger Danger and then insist they submit to “familiar strangers'” hugs and kisses.) I like adults.

I called an attorney from Tennessee to find out what the ordinary estate rules were for that state. When I spoke to Sherry’s mom, I told her that I had never spoken to Sherry about estate planning, had never agreed to be a guardian for her son, and planned to attend the funeral but had no intention of taking her grandson.

Sherry’s mom was not unfriendly. She welcomed me to come for the funeral but warned me not to listen if the cousin who first contacted me hit me up for money before, during, or after the funeral. “She will tell you that Sherry didn’t have enough money to pay for her own funeral. That’s true enough. But we will find a place that will bury her. Everyone knows you gave Sherry the money to move down here so they figure you have money they could find a use for.”

My mom warned me sternly not to go to the funeral. “You’ll just be asking for trouble.”

I flew down to Tennessee later that week for the funeral. I took a cab to Sherry’s sister’s home. Sherry had two sisters. Both were more unusual than Sherry. They were angry and violent. Sherry told me that she had a fight with one sister and, when Sherry turned her back, her sister lobbed a toaster at the back of Sherry’s head. It caused a concussion. Sherry’s sister had married a violent man and he had overwhelmed her violence with his own.

The other sister was very sick, but a secretary to some powerful DC lawyer. As a result of that relationship, she walked around in the mantle of his power, blistering with vile words anyone who upset her. She never raised a hand against Sherry, but that sister could wound with words and did.

Sherry’s mom was unabashedly funny in the way that the TV show Hee Haw was funny. The words might be simple, but the mind was sharp as a tack. When Sherry was married to the hockey player, mother and daughter visited his family in Canada on Canada Day. The in-laws were a bit pretentious and belabored the fact that Canadian fireworks were going to outshine anything you could see in Tennessee.

On watching the much lauded fireworks display from the in-laws’ lakefront condo, Sherry’s mom was asked to compliment the display. She responded, “I can fart higher–and in more colors!”

The house was a lovely home, but you could tell there were going to be problems as soon as I arrived. The cousin hit me up for a thousand dollars to help pay for the funeral. She told me that the mortician was working on Sherry as a favor and the cemetery was a sort of “potter’s field.” I was given the impression that a thousand dollars was needed or we’d be burying Sherry in a potato sack.

My hostess came down from her bedroom in what can only be described as a cocktail dress. It was black, but cut up and down so I knew at once the color of her underpants and that she wore a garter belt and stockings rather than pantyhose. No bra.

There were whispers about the other sister. She had arrived late for the wake, insisted on delivering a long speech about her own health issues and how she should have been the one being buried, and then had passed out, putting an end to the evening’s festivities as everyone had to rush home to tell their family, friends, and neighbors about the “hillbilly” (not my word choice) event. The family had taken the sister to the emergency room to get her checked out and had not gotten “home” until midnight. Everyone was tired.

I was several times told that the family would fight me to the death for Sherry’s son. I was told that the attorney who once got lucky after sharing pizza and a movie at my DC apartment had assured the family that, if Sherry had prepared a will naming me as legal guardian to her son, then “that will would never pass across the desk at a probate court’s offices.” I was asked if I knew the whereabouts of the cocktail napkin.

When it was time to go to the church, Sherry’s mom said she would drive me and the cousin to the church in Sherry’s car. I thought someone else should drive, but the car had a stick shift, and I can only drive an automatic. I got into the backseat because, if I had gotten into the front seat, the temptation to open the car’s glove compartment would have been strong. Sherry’s mom asked her son-in-law for a few pointers. He leaned into the car through the driver’s window. Sherry’s mom got a little excited.

She threw the car into reverse, hit the gas, and all four of us hurtled down a wooded hill until we crashed into a large enough tree. The son-in-law was lucky we didn’t kill him. All of us had mild to moderate whiplash that we decided to ignore.

We continued on to the church. As we drove, we realized that the trunk of Sherry’s car had been damaged. The trunk was stuffed with Sherry’s belongings that had been removed from her apartment so the family could avoid incurring more expense. While we drove, articles of Sherry’s clothing fluttered out of the flapping trunk and blew off into the humid breeze the car stirred up. Other members of the family later reported that a blue bra had slapped against a windshield and someone else had caught a pair of underpants as a keepsake.

At the church, the casket was open and set at the front of the church. Sherry’s sisters had an unhealthy fascination for their sister’s corpse. The sick sister redid Sherry’s makeup and ended up putting the cosmetics back in her purse. The other removed an immense, black hat from Sherry’s head and slapped it on her own head. She declared that she was going to wear it because (1) the brim would be crushed when the casket was closed; and (2) I think, most importantly from her point of view, she looked better in it and it matched her black dress!

Someone had set the church’s organ to play what I would describe as spirituals. When the first notes of The Old Rugged Cross pealed out, it was a rousing rendition a little more appropriate at a revival than a funeral and so loud that many in attendance exclaimed and batted their homemade fans until one of Sherry’s sisters ran up to adjust the volume. She announced that we could all rest assured that Sherry knew we were seeing her off in style. “That music was loud enough to be heard in the far corners of heaven and hell.”

I sat in the row behind the family. I was introduced as the lawyer “who had come to steal Sherry’s baby.” Sherry’s “baby” was about eight or nine years old. He stood up and removed his belt, folded it in half, pushed his fists together and then pulled them apart so the leather of the belt made a loud smacking sound. He called out loudly, “That’s right, now I’ve got the belt.”

He looked up at his supposedly abusive uncle for approval, and I wished that there was a will naming me as his legal guardian. But the boy had a father who would one day get out of prison and come looking for him and Sherry’s family was where she had brought her son when she seemed to have a premonition that her death might be near, and I had no legal standing to protest these people’s claim to the boy because no one had found even a cocktail napkin with my name on it, and I am a lawyer and do not lay claim to others’ children without even a phone conversation to indicate that a person means to have her beloved boy placed in my care. As you might now suspect, this will be a moment I never forget, a road not taken, a cause for regret. I am ashamed to say that I did not even stay in touch to monitor the situation.

People got up to say a few kind words, but they mostly spoke about themselves. One of Sherry’s sisters told us how she was going to keep Sherry’s hat forever because it looked better on her and she felt certain Sherry would agree. The other told us more about her illness and her fears that she would die before her own young child was old enough to remember her. She let it be known that her boss’ law firm would fight me tooth and nail if I tried to take Sherry’s boy back to Chicago with me. The boy cried then and I wondered what Sherry had said or done to make everyone look at me so suspiciously. I hardly knew this boy. I probably had known her for a year or two. It had not been enough time for me to develop any relationship with this boy, given my lack of interest in other people’s children.

The sick sister ended the eulogies by losing her footing. Her husband ran forward to catch her before she could fall and strike her head a second time in as many days. I cannot recall whether I spoke (I always speak) or what I said (if I did speak, I cannot imagine what I could have said to save this sad and crazy memorial). I don’t want to go back and read my journal entry. I remember enough from that strange day.

The pastor delivered his own sermon. I have already written about how Sherry’s recent declaration of her faith in Jesus Christ meant she was already in heaven “with Elvis . . . and Jesus, too.”

It was a long drive to the cemetery. A friend of the family contributed the plot. It was a field of green grass, some of it long enough that you knew no one got around to mowing every week. There were very few headstones and the ones that were there were small and flat. It was the kind of sunny day in summer when the air is so thick with humidity that you wade through it. The cicadas and crickets and every other manner of insect whined in a cadence that rose and fell but never quieted enough to let you form a clear thought. There were flies that pestered. My heels sank in the dirt. The grass was coarse and raspy against my nylon-covered ankles.

We gathered by the grave under a yellow and white canopy, all of us fitting in its shade if not beneath its covering. The hole was dug and you could smell the soil that someone had covered with a length of artificially bright, fake turf. The minister was taking his time as he picked his way from the parking lot. The casket rested on a sling of leather belts. There were children present and they had started to run about the cemetery playing tag.

Sherry’s sister, the one who hit Sherry with the toaster, threw herself down at the very edge of the grave and commenced to cryin’. I am talking about grief that seemed out of proportion to her demeanor. She stretched out onto the fake turf like she meant to climb into that grave, too. But she reached back at one point to straighten her skirt so we saw a little more of her legs and behind than was polite but a little less than would have been downright salacious. The hat never slipped from its perch atop a topknot of careless curls. The woman’s husband bent down, picked her up in his arms and carried her back to their car so prettily. For all the crying, I cannot recall a spilled tear.

The rest of us were frozen by the tableau.

I had arranged for a limousine to pick me up at the cemetery. It was finer than the hearse. It was an odd contrast to the collection of attendees’ cars. When the pastor finished his prayers, I said goodbye to Sherry’s mom and just walked away from the whole mess. I am not usually a coward, but I felt I had been dropped into a hot mess of family stew that was so poisoned that I had to get away from it.

When I got home I still had plenty of troubles and sorrows of my own to address. But I felt like I had briefly wandered onto some movie set. All of the classic signs were there. It was a place in which the observer squirms and thinks, “Oh, don’t go there. Don’t get in the car. Don’t open the door. Please don’t look in that closet. Whatever you do, do not go into the basement. Don’t trust them. For crying out loud, can’t you see the danger here?”

In movies, the person does what no one else would do. She succumbs to a bad case of stupid and for her troubles she is roundly punished. And the rest of us take our lickings with her. We are scared within an inch of our own deaths by the prospect of what will happen to one who has been lured into a danger from which there can be no escape.

I did not tread further. I let the limousine whisk me back to the airport. I caught the last plane to Chicago for the day. I picked up the burdens of my own life–bookkeeping for a failing family business, grief from the loss of a father and then a friend, a crazily demanding job in a place with its fair share of strange people–and I tried not to look back.

In the times during the last two years when things have been upside down and inside out people have told me that, if we could trade our problems for someone else’s, we would still take up our own burdens and carry on.

I think they are right. It’s tempting sometimes to try on someone else’s cares and woes and imagine we could handle them, even handle them better. But our own cares are familiar and we often have years of preparation for handling them.

But, every once in awhile, I think about a place in Tennessee where I watched men lower a casket into a grave in the midst of a tragic stew of family drama and I wonder, if I turned back and opened the door, whether I would find all my worst fears realized or flowers growing despite the tears that would surely fall because I still miss Sherry.

You Gotta Ride the Rails, Little Lady

Grandpa Tom

Grandpa Tom

This week I had to cancel plans to visit my sister and friends in Washington, DC because my landlady has decided not to continue leasing my apartment. I have to move and the news has upset me. I know, I kicked cancer, but, seriously!!! I am tired. And I cannot help wondering why I never get the “test” in which you get a million dollars and the heavens watch to see if you will use some of it for charity.

Someone from among my friends suggested that I should have planned a trip to Disney world. She says that, if she kicked cancer, that’s where she would go.

I do not have children. I am not required by the natural law of making children’s dreams come true to visit the place. My family visited Disneyland for our last “family” vacation in about 1972. My sister and I were in high school. Grandpa Tom wanted us to see the West. He was 100% Irish, but he retired in Santa Fe, New Mexico with Grandma Elsie (50% Swedish/50% German) and he “went native.” He adopted the bolo tie. He explored every historical site in the area. He read the history. He had always told us stories of natives living in the western states while the women (sometimes Grandma Elsie all by herself) washed the dishes.

In my grandpa’s stories, the natives were smart and possessed a wonderful sense of humor. I am not sure where he learned his stories, but his father was a railroad engineer (as in a designer of the engine cars). They lived along the railroad tracks in many American cities. Perhaps his father told them. Perhaps he read them. After he moved to New Mexico there was little talk of Ireland. He identified with the native cultures. We think he adapted his “look” to blend in. He even started to refer to the Spanish that claimed the territory and subjected the native population to their rule “bloodless devils.”

He wanted my sister and me to take the train to New Mexico. We traveled by ourselves. Our parents loaded Danny into the backseat of the station wagon and set out by car while Kathy and I shared a two-bed sleeper compartment and dined in the diner car with its linen tablecloths and napkins.

(c) cardcow.com--Hope I don't offend by borrowing this photo.

(c) cardcow.com–Hope I don’t offend by borrowing this photo.

It was a wonderful experience. Having spent several preceding summers under the camp names Kettle and Little Pot at Norwesco, a Girl Scout camp in Wisconsin, with five cots in the tent, this was luxurious. We even had misadventures. We stored our Brownie Hawkeye camera in the tiny cabinet in our sleeper until our porter exclaimed that, “You don’t put your camera in the shoe box.” We were unaware of the fact that he could access shoes from the shoebox when outside of our room so that he could shine them. “Everyone knows you can’t leave your camera in the shoebox.” That was not true until after we rode the train. Grandpa had wanted us to see the world from a train and we learned many things from our experience. One thing that I learned was that a train ride can be marvelous! I loved the many luxuries and the stress-free travel.

Brownie Hawkeye Camera

Brownie Hawkeye Camera

We met up with rest of the family in Santa Fe. After an excellent exploration of the surrounding area, we set off in the station wagon for Arizona and then California. We visited with one of my dad’s friends from the Marine Corps. The two men posed gut-to-gut after deploring the way in which married life had softened them. At the last second one of them sucked it in and made his buddy look bad. I think it might have been my dad. He was a prankster.

We visited my mom’s dear friend who lived near the ocean. Her family seemed unfamiliar with Chicago. The kids kept asking us about Illinois where we “pushed cows and pulled pigs”–whatever that means. The culmination of our trip was a day at Disneyland.

I can remember every detail of the railroad ride to Santa Fe, but the only thing I can remember of Disneyland is Pirates of the Caribbean.

Fast forward about thirty years to the summer I took my niece and her son to Disney world. My plan was to rest in the hotel room. I was exhausted after a difficult project completed while I was sick with an upper respiratory infection. I was hospitalized the evening before my departure. I thought I was having a heart attack, but it turned out that my esophagus was seizing following weeks of coughing. I slept and read novels in the comfort of an air-conditioned room. Lisa and Ryan spent day and night in the park.

I only joined Lisa and Ryan one day. I paid for the lunch with the costumed cartoon figures and wanted to see Ryan’s reaction. I drove to the park and took a little train ride to the correct portion of the park. As I recall, I went to Frontierland. The heat was devastating for me. Then we ate lunch. I took pictures. When lunch was over the kids decided to continue on with their steady pace of rides and meals. I arranged to pick them up later at the park. Lisa asked me if I would mind taking back with me a bunch of souvenirs.

A storm was rolling in off of the ocean. I carried my umbrella, Lisa’s umbrella, a purse, a camera bag, and a bag of toys. At one point it did rain, and I was grateful to be under cover by that time. I joined the line for what I presumed was the little train that would take me back to the park entrance. I waited with lots of other people, but it never occurred to me that we were all waiting in the covered waiting area for anything other than the little choo choo. No one spoke with anticipation of a roller coaster–no one. When we finally entered a building the wood-slatted walls of the building reminded me of the train station. Then I turned a corner and saw the loading area for a roller coaster. It was the California Gold Rush ride.

A costumed employee who looked like Pecos Pete waved me toward the ride. I did not want to get on the ride. I explained my reluctance. I did not want to ride a rollercoaster. I was sick. I did not have anyone with me to share the ride. I was holding too many items to hang onto the handrail.

“There are only two choices,” he said. “Get on the ride or push and shove your way back out of here.”

It was, for me, an impossible choice. I refused to get in.

That’s when Pecos Pete snarled, “You gotta ride the rails, little lady!”

I got in and Pecos Pete locked me in. For the next five minutes or so I screamed as my behind slid from side to side in my seat. It was all I could do to hang onto the items in my arms. I did not have a free hand to stop the relentless motion.

I screamed until I coughed. Then I could not stop coughing.

When I got out of the rollercoaster someone had to grab my hand and drag me out. I looked like I had been dragged through the bushes backwards. A park employee came over and offered to escort me to the train ride when I could not stop coughing even after they got me some water.

The moral of the story is that you take a train when you want a scenic ride in comfort, but you never know when you buy your ticket if you’ll be taking a choo choo or riding the rails with Pecos Pete.

I may not like the fact that I will be moving in the next forty-five or so days, but I can complain all I want and I will still have to ride the rails. The thrills and chills are part of the price of the ticket in life.

I’ll keep you posted on how it turns out.

Taking Off

I had a bad surprise yesterday. My landlady for the last eight years announced I will need to move. My home is owned by her and her brother; and they have made a family decision to have me leave. She did not say it, but it sounds like a family member wants to live here.

I have never wanted to own my own home. I managed luxury hotels when I was in my twenties and had quite enough of property management. I used to enjoy moving, even looked forward to it as an adventure. My last move took a “day”–thanks to two immense moving trucks and five professional movers.

After I heard the news I got into my car and drove for about an hour because I hated the fact that my home was not really mine. The car will be paid off in less than a year–so it felt like mine as I drove in holiday “exodus” traffic.

I found myself wondering again about fate and about our capacity for steering in life. In the last two years my body has been treated for cancer–an ongoing event that has had me feeling alien in my own skin at times. After a gut-wrenching shedding of a massive amount of blood that left splash marks on my walls at home, I had parts of me excised. I have experienced what it feels like to have had nerves cut in surgery and (when the pain of surgery abated) to have no feeling whatsoever in the proximity of my incision. Then I subjected myself to radiation and chemotherapy that killed and damaged countless cells in an effort to root out the really sick ones. I have felt like every part of my body was strange (shedding, peeling, leaking, rushing out of or off of me). I lost much of my hair, eyelashes, and eyebrows. Blood ran from my nose every day for months (as well as from all of my other orifices). My nails bubbled and peeled. Even my own body smells changed for a time and I hated them.

I lost a loved job teaching part time at a law school for having been diagnosed with cancer. I have returned to work there, but nothing is the same except the students and how I feel about them. Just this week I was invited to teach again this fall. The invitation requires me to teach my fourteen classes and attend five (now) mandatory meetings. The list of the five dates of mandatory meetings was accidentally omitted. The invitation tells me that the school reserves the absolute discretion to terminate me at any time for no reason. The invitation omits any mention of compensation. Ordinarily, an offer of employment requires each party to promise something to the other. Here, what is promised to me is nothing. The email invitation laid bare the deal–if I return, I get nothing from the school.

The last bastion of peace and quiet in life has been home and we will soon be parted, too. I have so many “things” in this apartment. I will have to part with some of them, too, before this is over. Every move I have ever made has involved some shedding. But I have long thought of this place with the living room laid out like my Grandma Elsie’s, its sunny yellow walls, and silver and turquoise bathroom, as a haven. It will be very hard to pack it all up and move.

This coming week I finish three more classes. That will get me down to one online class. I was looking forward to the summer slowdown. I was hoping to write. I have not done reading for pleasure in months. I recently began work for a search firm–as an independent contractor–and hoped I would have the summer to devote to it. I even made plans to go on a short vacation–ten days with family and friends in DC. I will probably have to cancel the vacation. There may not be any time for writing or reading. I will have to juggle to not lose this new opportunity to stretch my wings with the search firm.

That’s what finally did it. That thought is what finally broke me down emotionally yesterday. It is what made me drive back to the apartment so as not to risk others’ lives by driving while in distress–distress that I felt to the roots of the hairs on my head and arms. I haven’t cried for what I have experienced during the last twenty-one months. I have cried through physical pain and suffering but never for having learned I had cancer. I did cry when I heard I lost my job. And I cried yesterday for the loss of my home and my plans and all the lost freedoms. I finally cried for the cancer, too. It was not for very long. It is not like me to cry for things or events. I cry for other people in pain and animals abandoned. But it was another form of shedding that I guess I had to experience because I will stretch my wings.

This entire dreadful, painful, frightening, awful experience has been about peeling away what is nonessential. It has been a wrenching agony since it began and I have hated it even as I marked how things have started to improve. The very foundations of who I am and what I want have been tested, shaken, and stripped away. Soon it will just be me.

I sent my friends in DC a message yesterday to let them know that I might not make it out to see them this summer. I realized as I sent them that message that I have lost family and friends in the last twenty-one months, too. My aunt and uncle died. There were friends who were not strong enough to walk with me through cancer treatment and dropped me. (I am intensely grateful for the many family and friends who did not jump ship.)

I have been very focused on images of birds, but maybe this is the story of a butterfly. Maybe I will take flight after the last of the shedding, peeling, stripping, and leaking of all but the essential me is complete.

I should end this posting there–on a positive note.

But I am NotDownOrOut and part of the essential me has to ask, “What the f*** is going on here?”

I See Dead People

“I see dead people.”

In the past couple of weeks I have not felt well. I don’t think anything is wrong. But I am tired. My body feels heavy and I have vague complaints that I hesitate to articulate because, by comparison with what I have endured in the recent past, they are minor. But I will confess here that the tingling in my hands sometimes drives me crazy. The ringing in my ears means that I have to be asleep to enjoy peace and quiet. I have blemishes every day after never having had them any more frequently than occasionally. I feel like a camel some days. I can carry about six pounds of water by bedtime and have it be gone by morning–not making for sound sleep. I take a water pill that seems to help with this, but yesterday evening one of my feet was like a balloon. (Can you have lymphedema if no lymph nodes were removed?) My blood pressure soars when I am upset, then settles back down to normal. But, when it’s soaring, my head pounds without pain, like when I’m sitting at a light beside a car that shakes the street with its bass notes. My joints seem to get better, then they go back to aching. Today it is my lower back that hurts. My fingernails recovered from chemotherapy months ago, but they are now back to peeling and there are little splashes of orange bubbles like when treatment was ended and my body was still recovering.

I think these are normal aches and pains, but the changes are things that bug me. It’s one thing to want to live to a ripe old age and another thing to do it. I wake up every day feeling so grateful for what has not happened to me that I push aside my complaints. But I find myself returning to the “woe-is-I” attitude from time-to-time. It’s like a torn nail that you cannot leave alone until you have torn it to the quick. Some bloggers talk about the “new normal.” Maybe I just need to accept that this is how it is now.

But today I realized that I am one of those people who cannot let go. I see dead people.

It does not take any particular skill. This afternoon I took a different path to school and passed the building where I worked in the 1990’s when a young coworker fell or jumped from the top of our office building. The description of his death as accidental was probably to ease his parents’ grief, but the building had several walls or barriers around the roof. He had to climb over several of them to fall. He was feeling overextended and tired from too much work. That happens to young professionals in large law firms. I feel tremendous sadness when I think of him because he had confided in me his distress and I had encouraged him to see the practice group leader and get help. Like many young professionals, he received a message that he should hang in there. That evening was when he fell. Someone said he was unrecognizable as a lawyer from our building when discovered on the street below. The suit did not distinguish him. Someone thought one of the city’s homeless men had been struck by a car.

When I see his face, it is in memories. But I recall boyish charm. He was a prodigy of sorts. He graduated from college and law school early. To this day I remember how he looked at a picture of The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/sistine-chapel-ceiling-opens-to-public. I had been there recently and had shown off my travel photos to persons too kind to escape. This colleague saw God and Adam with arms outstretched toward each other and wondered aloud about the space between them. As I recall it, he wondered what it would be like to see them after that touch. He thought Adam would be transformed, unrecognizable. He thought the artist painted what was safe–a man–not one touched by God. I am haunted by those recollections as surely as if his spirit appeared to me. And I wonder what he felt when he touched the hand of God.

I think about my friend from Washington, DC who suddenly got it in her head to move to Tennessee to live near her mom and a sister. My friend had a young son and an ex-husband doing a little time for what I cannot recall. Once she decided to move she was hell bent on getting there as fast as possible. But she had no money or plan for doing it. I sent her a book by overnight express and stuck six one hundred dollar bills in between the pages. She barely made it home in time. Within a month, she had died of an aneurysm in her brain. She saw her son off to school and told her mom she was going to lie down for a nap because her head hurt. Her mom found her several hours later. They said she must have seen it coming because she had gotten up in church on Sunday and declared her faith in Jesus. I think she knew something. We spoke just days before she died about the money I sent her. She was very grateful and wanted to repay me but worried that it would take awhile. I “forgave” the debt because it seemed to bother her, and I was happy that she seemed happy when I said it–almost like her house was in order.

There was nothing funny about her death at such a young age, but I think of her every time I see Elvis because the preacher at her funeral (which had enough drama for the stage and deserves its own posting) remarked that, thanks to her having declared her faith before death, she was already in heaven. And that meant that she had seen the King–yes, Elvis. The preacher mentioned God softly, almost as a footnote, “Jesus, too.”

I think I see the first boy I ever loved when I drive down the street on which we lived way back when. His name was Michael and he was very sweet. We played as part of a neighborhood group, usually in people’s garages because the housing development was brand new and no one had shade trees yet. In our garage we had a cardboard kitchen set, which was “home.” Michael and I were the oldest, so we played the mom and dad. Like lots of kids, we brought to play what we saw at home. My mom muffled laughter one afternoon when Michael stomped into the garage and yelled at me, “Burnt mashed potatoes again! When a man comes home he needs fluffy potatoes on the table!” Talk like that in our house would have meant noodles until November.

Michael died in a motel room in what appears to have been a drug bust that went bad. By that time I lived far away and was no longer in touch with him or his family. But I still see him winding up with his bat when his dad was getting ready to pitch the ball. And he still looks way too young to be so long gone.

Some of the dead people I see are ghosts, too, but I can only lay claim to seeing a very few of them. They were strangers to me so I could not possibly tell you their stories. I can only tell you that when I think back on my life so far I keep wondering about what that young lawyer said about the painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Did Michelangelo paint the scene before Adam touched the hand of God because it is impossible to imagine the scene after the contact? I have the feeling that once Adam touched the Lord he never looked back.

That’s the normal I want to find here on earth. I’m living in that space between Adam’s finger and God’s. Not giving up. Not ready to go. Not quite feeling that my time has run out too soon. I want the sense of mystery and adventure back. I don’t want to malinger when there’s work to be done. And I do believe there is work to be done with this time I have here. So, instead of looking back at people gone–including my pre-cancer self–I’m looking forward, one hand extended, hoping when I do find Him (maybe even before I find Him) that I will be transformed.

Any Day Is a Good Day to Remember

Mom, me, and Dad May 1988

Mom, me, and Dad May 1988

I graduated first in my class from law school. It was an accomplishment. I was separated from my husband for two of my three years of law school. There was one semester when my loan had not come through and I did not have the money to register. The dean of the law school called the registrar’s office and said, “Let her register. She’ll find the money.” I found the money. I was driving a broken down car to and from school and often had to get along without it. I stood alone at a bus stop alongside woods and walked up a lonely road to the house I shared with three women and the weird boyfriend of one of them. His name was Burt, and he used to answer the telephone during interview season when big law firms were calling to offer me jobs. Partners at those big firms would ask to speak with me and Burt would say, “The chick’s not here.” Then he would slap the phone down in its cradle. I have no idea what people thought. Burt looked like the sort of person who stops to offer you a lift on a cold and snowy night, and you decide it would be better to risk frostbite by walking alone in the night in the midst of a snowstorm than to accept that offer.

On my graduation day my parents and my sister Kathy and her family were present. My mom had brought me a bouquet of roses. She was remembering when I graduated from high school. I was first in my class then, too. She later felt bad because other parents gave their daughters flowers, and I didn’t have any. I had not noticed. My dad had his camera, and he was going to get a picture of me. But the graduation took place in the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. There was a certain amount of pomp and formality that made a six feet and two inches tall man reluctant to slip from the pew where he was seated to run forward and get that photo as I crossed the stage with my classmates to accept my diploma.

I received a certificate for being first in the class. Dad was not expecting that photo opportunity. When it happened, he got up and strode forward down the center aisle, unimpeded as no one else was up and about. My classmates were very kind. I understand that they gave me a standing ovation. I never saw it. As I came down the steps of the cathedral holding my certificate, my dad was waiting at the bottom of the steps to enfold me in a huge hug. He is the only person I recall seeing.

Grandpa Kayo

Grandpa Kayo

I was born on my Grandpa Kayo’s birthday. He loved that we always celebrated our birthdays together. What a wonderful thing it was to press my cheek against his as we bent our heads forward to blow out a candle on a shared cake at family celebrations. I can still remember the feel of the stubble on his cheek. I can remember how he hugged me and pressed his lips to my forehead. He loved all seven of his grandchildren equally, but I felt special when we were together. He loved to get a kid on either side of him on the couch and wrap his arm around us and kiss the tops of our heads every few minutes.

Grandpa Tom

Grandpa Tom

My Grandpa Tom was a polio survivor who walked with the help of a leg brace and a cane. He used to have a great deal of pain, but the only way you could tell was that he would huff out air as he rose and sat. He was an engineer and an inventor. He was not the warm and fuzzy sort of grandpa that Grandpa Kayo was. But he called us “tootsies” and loved having us visit so he could tell us Indian stories from when the West was being won and his family followed the rails. His dad had been a railway engineer–the kind that designed railways and train equipment, not the kind who drove a train.

When I was a little girl I sometimes felt “math anxiety.” I used to go stay with Grandpa Tom and Grandma Elsie on weekends. He used to help me with my math homework. He prepared extra problems for me and taught me how to answer them. We sat together at his formal dining room table surrounded by framed Currier & Ives prints and Grandma’s homemade antimacassars. He would say–as though this was the most profound thing he had ever handled, “Now, Cheryl, how fast must a train move if it must leave Rock Island at eleven in the morning and travel 175 miles to Chicago in 2-1/2 hours?”

I remember that I once brought to him a word problem. It was one of those problems that started with “There are five houses on the street and a person from a different nationality lives in each house. . . .” After he read the problem aloud, he looked at me and he said, “Who has time for such twaddle? Aren’t they teaching you to read? Why don’t you read what is on the mailboxes if you want to know where the German lives?” Nevertheless, he painstakingly showed me how to chart the facts and figure out whether the German lived in the blue or the red house.

Thanks to him, I used a slide rule and a book of algorithms sometimes. I could not use these tools in school. No one used a slide rule in high school. But he wanted me to know that, once you mastered the basics, there were tools to take you to the big leagues. I got straight A’s in high school in math classes. He was very proud of that.

Kathy and Jeff at Maureen's Wedding 2012

Kathy and Jeff at Maureen’s Wedding 2012

My brother-in-law Jeff is a father to two daughters. He has two grandchildren. He is tough on himself. It makes him impatient sometimes. But you put a crying baby in his lap, and he starts whispering to the child, and tears disappear. There are smiles and coos. He is filled with peace and so are they.

Al, Lisa, and Danny--after Basic Training

Al, Lisa, and Danny–after Basic Training

My brother Danny is a stepdad. People in the family sometimes call him “our Danny.” He is someone so filled with blithe spirit that you want to be close to him and share his jokes and his carefree play. He has shouldered lots of responsibility since our dad died, including becoming a stepfather, but he is always there for family. He is a great stepdad. One of my favorite stories is about how Al, his stepson was out drinking with friends. Al knew better than to drive after drinking, so he called home when the party was over. Danny got in the car and went to pick up Al and his friends. It was late at night and quite a distance, but Danny has always been a good sport. As they drove home in the convertible sports car that Al’s dad gave Al when he was old enough to drive, the guys were rowdy. A police car pulled them over, expecting to find an inebriated driver at the wheel. But, when he walked up, there was my brother in the driver’s seat. His somewhat rakish smile was in evidence as he assured the officer the driver was sober even if the passengers were not. Like my dad before him, my brother believes in a great party.

It is Father’s Day, and I honor all fathers. I have been very lucky. I cannot recall a time when any of the “fathers” in my life have let me down. Every memory is filled with love. And any day is a good day to remember them or by which to remember them.

Walk of Courage

If you have not been reading the blog of Mike Terrell about living with end stage cancer, then you should (See my blog entry about him https://notdownorout.wordpress.com/2013/05/15/facing-the-end/), but I just wanted to shout out that Mike made a turn of the field at a race for life this past week. He used his walker, had the support of some good friends, and summoned the strength that makes him so fine a man, and he did it. He walked that walk! Congratulations, Mike! To read his posting, see: http://miketerrill.wordpress.com/2013/06/10/crossing-the-finish-line/.

I recently saw a poem about running by a young person on the website Teen Ink. It seems appropriate to the occasion:
Running
By SycamoreTreeLand, Alamar Avenue, CA
The author’s comments:

This is a poem I wrote after my first cross country race of my sophomore year of high school. I was disappointed with my time, so I wrote this poem and it was like magic appeared on my doorstep–I felt so much better. It was then that I realized how hard I had tried during the race, no matter what my time was. I guess I actually did know what I was doing during my race–becoming a stronger person outside and within.

This pain is not for me,
I say.
This pain envelops me in nothingness.
The heat traps me in fumes,
Burning like fire,
Killing like a knife
That cuts into the patches of my lungs.

This pain is ready for me,
But I am not ready for it.
This pain is sprinting.
I am wobbling.
It is living
As I am dying –
Falling, then landing
Into what feels like relapse,
But really isn’t.

This pain is a painkiller,
Yet I am unaware of this fact,
For I am only thinking of
What life is like without this pain.
But this pain
Is the pathway to bravery,
Strength, focus.

This pain is my enemy
when spoken of,
But my friend within,
Living deep in my heart
Where the truth is not always clear.

This pain will lead me to the end.
And will bring me back to the beginning again.
Where the cycle repeats itself.

This pain never disappears,
But sometimes releases its grip on me
For just a moment,
When all the cells of my heart
Are focused,
Breathing,
Living
At last.

http://teenink.com/poetry/free_verse/article/135834/Running/.

The poet is a young woman going by the pseudonym Lizzy Halmne. She has a long way to go in life. Mike has a few more years and miles under his belt. His path may be shorter, but will draw on all he has. Both have hearts like lions. Thank you for writing, Lizzy! Way to go, Mike! May both of you fly on fleet feet wherever you are set and ready to go.

Signs

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

When I was a young adult I read Cheiro’s Language of the Hand, a detailed examination of how to read a palm. http://archive.org/details/cheiroslanguageo00hamo. Once I read it, I read numerous books on the subject. I still recall many of the details of the subject after at least forty years. I never viewed palmistry as sorcery or witchcraft. It is not a tool I use to predict the future any more than I rely upon my doctor’s diagnosis to predict how well I will live or how long I will live. As a result, I see no conflict between religion and reading a palm.

I read my own palm first, and I still have the photocopy of my palm that I used to map out the signs that portended fortune and misfortune. It demonstrates today the truth of one of the lessons of palmistry: you make your own fortune. The dominant hand (in my case, my right hand), has changed numerous times over the past four decades. My left palm has more lines that reflect stress or worry, but the main lines remain remarkably unchanged.

They say that the non-dominant palm reflects the future you are born with while the right hand reflects where you are headed; provided that you remain on your current course.

Left Palm

Left Palm

My left palm is marked by strong, long, and deeply etched lines. What has changed since I was a teen is my marriage line. When I was young, neither palm showed an unhappy marriage in the offing. Today, both palms show a deep line that starts parallel to the base of my little finger and then dips to run down toward my Love Line. There is what is called an “island” at the point where the line dips down–a sign that the one who caused the divorce had problems of his or her own that led to the marriage to its end. While there are some minor breaks in each of those lines on my palms, they carry all the way across to the base of my thumb–the part of the palm that governs passion and lubricity (passion’s lewder sibling). My left palm also shows a very long and strongly marked Life Line.

Right Palm

My right palm shows that I am sometimes plagued by doubt and insecurity. There are more lines that reveal stress. There are grilles and many of the lines are fainter than in the left palm. This is normal. The lines change in part because of the way the dominant hand holds a tool or bears the weight of exertion.

What interests me most is that my Life Line on my right hand has changed in the past two years. When I was a child, it ran long and ended down at the base of my palm. Several years ago I noticed that a branch had formed at what some readers claim is the midpoint of my life. One tine of the fork touched my Fortune Line. The other ended abruptly.

At the current time, the tine of the fork that used to dissipate abruptly has extended deep into my palm, almost to my wrist. It is faint, but it is there.

According to my copy of Cheiro’s book (revised as of 1970), “the germ of disease or weak point in the system must be known to the brain in all its stages of advance and attack, and will, therefore, be registered by the brain on the hand through the nerve-connection between the two . . . .” Cheiro believed the palm predicted the cause and nature of certain diseases, sometimes on the Life Line, sometimes on other parts of the palm.

My right palm shows weakness, but now renewed longevity. Crossing the Life Line are numerous lines that suggest there is stress and challenge, but parallel to the Life Line and closer to the thumb is a faint line some call the “sister line.” The presence of a sister line is regarded by some as favorable. It can represent the power of others to help the subject through dark times, sometimes recovering great vitality.

My point in writing about my palm is not to predict or confirm my future or fortune. I raise the subject because of what others have to say about the subject of palms and because, following treatment for uterine cancer I find myself watching for signs more vigilantly than ever.

I keep countless journals in which I make notes about peculiarities and coincidences. I collect natural wisdom in a file that I study sometimes at night before I go to sleep. I have read countless books and articles and blogs that talk about vitamins, minerals, and herbs.

I have not gotten to the point where I change my behavior without careful consideration. I am not given to act without doing my research and testing my theories against those of others. I am not the type who wears tinfoil atop her head to prevent alien beings from reading her thoughts. But I am paying attention to things I never monitored before.

www.danheller.com (Culkin, Gibson and Breslin from the movie Signs)

http://www.danheller.com (Culkin, Gibson and Breslin from the movie Signs)

In the end, I keep coming back to the notion that we make our own futures. Whether I am responsible for all that befalls me or merely able to take precautions when alerted to matters beyond my control that might threaten me, I am watching the signs now. In the words of Tiffany (played by Jennifer Lawrence) in Silver Linings Playbook, if I’m the one “reading the signs,” things keep looking better all of the time.

If My Dad Had Lived Longer

Marge Lange (godmother), Dad, Grandpa Kayo

Marge Lange (godmother), Dad, Grandpa Kayo

If my dad had lived longer this would be his eighty-first birthday. He died of acute pancreatitis within about 48 hours of the disease’s onset. We were all at the hospital when it happened because I had a premonition of trouble. I was in my office in Washington, D.C. on Friday morning when I felt a strong impulse to call my mom. I do not speak lightly of the strength of that impulse. One minute I was devising a strategy for sidestepping the IRS’s handling of a client’s tax challenge. I stood in front of my office set of the Commerce Clearinghouse Standard Federal Tax Reporter and thumbed through the index for inspiration. Then I heard her voice and she was saying, “Call me.”

It had happened to me once before. I was at work and I heard her voice. I called her right after she had climbed up onto a chair that had wheels so that she could reach something in the pantry. She misjudged her balance, fell from the chair and put her head through the pantry door! I stayed on the line with her until my dad could get home in case she suffered a concussion. As a result, when I heard her voice, I responded.

She told me that my brother Danny was on his way to Dad’s office. Dad was feeling so sick that he could not get home alone. He thought he should go to the hospital, but he wanted it to be the hospital close to home. When Danny got Dad home, they went right to the hospital.

I had spoken to my dad the night before his illness. We had a good talk. He wanted me to move back to Chicago. I was considering doing that. He wanted me to get an annulment of my marriage. I had decided to pursue that. (I still have not gotten that done.) He was happy. But he wanted more. He wanted my sister Kathy to move back to Chicago, too. At that time, Kathy and I were living in Maryland. I was divorced and free to relocate if I could find a good job opportunity. My sister had a husband and two children and a job she enjoyed. I did not think Dad could persuade her to come back to Chicago, but he was a determined man.

When my mom let me know that my dad had a diagnosis and was expected to make a full recovery, I already sensed that it was not going to turn out well. I was so concerned that I left my office as soon as I heard my dad was sick. I took my car to a repair shop and had four new tires put on it. I packed a suitcase and put it in my trunk. But my mom convinced me not to start the drive to Chicago. She was certain that Dad would be okay.

The next day I went to my sister’s house. Kathy and I went to the mall. When we got back, my brother-in-law Jeff had a suitcase for Kathy. He told us to hit the road immediately. He would pack his and their girls’ suitcases and follow us on his own within another hour.

My mom had been at the hospital that morning to visit my dad. He wanted to see Danny. She figured there was time for that later in the day. She went to her job at J.C. Penney. Dad slipped into unconsciousness shortly thereafter.

Kathy and I drove through the night and got to the house at about four in the morning. It was a thirteen hour trip. My mom was up when we got to the house. She could not sleep. We went right to the hospital. Dad was still unconscious. I remember that he looked terrible. He wore glasses. They were not on his face. That was strange. He always wore them, even when he fell asleep in his favorite chair at the house.

He was swollen. I was afraid to touch him because he had painful neuropathy after a terrible case of shingles. He could not bear to use his hands other than for necessary tasks. The doctors told us to speak to him. He might be able to hear us even if he could not respond.

The doctors wanted to open him up but were afraid that general anesthesia would kill him. We agreed to surgery without anesthesia. I have no idea if we did the right thing. The surgeon did not find anything that helped Dad. There was some talk about a gangrene length of bowel, but my dad had that week passed a stress test. His bowel was working on the Thursday before his death. I know. He spoke of it (funny how people start talking about that stuff and cannot seem to recall any longer the time when the topic was considered personal).

After the surgery was over, we crowded around the bed to look him over. He was more swollen. His color was orange, like a bad case of “spray tan.”

The doctors told us that it was a matter of time, but it sounded like the time might be a day rather than hours. My Aunt Joan, my dad’s only sister, came to see her brother one last time. My dad’s friend Jack came for a couple of minutes. We hovered in the corner of Dad’s room and in the waiting area, taking turns sitting with him.

My mom and Kathy headed back to the house for something to eat, maybe a nap. Danny and I stood by at the hospital. As soon as my mom left, Dad’s vitals showed he was crashing. The doctors rushed in and said, “Get your family back here.”

I whispered good-bye and ran for a payphone (this happened in 1992 before cell phones). By the time I came back, Danny was in the hallway. The doctors were in the room trying to revive my dad. It was not possible to save him.

My dad was a “King” on his mother’s side. At that time, no King male had lived past 59 years of age. Harry King (my great-grandfather) died before 59. Dr. Edward P. King (my great uncle) died before 59. Even after my dad’s death, the King curse continued. My cousin Steve died before 59. (We are all thankful that my cousin Michael thereafter broke the chain.) My dad was 59 at the time. He had four months to go to turn 60 and break the chain. It’s a funny thing about fate. It probably doesn’t dictate anything, but, until someone breaks the chain, fate seems in control.

I am going to tell you about something else in addition to how my dad died, because death is sometimes just an ending and lots of us know what it is like to lose someone suddenly.

Grandpa Kayo, Grandma Babe, and Dad

Grandpa Kayo, Grandma Babe, and Dad

My dad was the life of the party. He taught my sister and me to dance. He was very good at dancing. I was a kid in the 1960’s. We used to “twist.” It was a blast. I always get tears in my eyes when I think of him dancing with me on my wedding day and then taking my mom into his arms. I married a man who could dance. The marriage did not last, but dancing with my ex-husband is something I still remember fondly.

Dad

Dad

My dad enjoyed a party so much that there were times he went to a party at Norm and Jane’s house across the street and stayed late enough to make them breakfast when they woke in the morning.

Dad and his cousin Mary at a meeting of the Cousin's Club

Dad and his cousin Mary at a meeting of the Cousin’s Club

[Yes, Mary is wearing her earrings in her hair and nose. My dad also mixed a strong drink, as did his cousins.] My dad lived boldly. We had a summer cottage when I was a kid. My dad loved to throw newcomers into the lake during their first visit. One of my cousins knew about this and so stayed inside the house so that he was never close to the water. He also perched on a tiny chair that had belonged to my grandma, thinking he would be safe. My dad filled a huge pot with lake water, dragged it into the house and tossed the water right into his face! Everyone got wet.

One night we were partying at my grandparents’ home and my dad got mad about something and went out for a walk. He did not come back. We were an hour’s drive from home. My mom piled us into the car and we all went out searching for him. When no one could find him, my mom gave up and took us home. Imagine our surprise when we arrived home to find him sleeping on a lawn chair on the driveway. He had wandered up onto the toll road, flagged down a police car, and convinced the police officer to drive him all the way to our house.

When he was about my age, he suffered through an illness that left him in a weakened condition, but he refused to let it get him down. He got into a fight with someone who was big enough and tough enough to wipe the floor with my dad, but my dad would not give in to threat. He said to the guy, “I’m not just going to kick your butt. When I’m done with you, I’m going to kick the butt of every one of your friends.” The other guy growled. My dad knew this was going to get ugly and his Louisville Slugger (always kept in the car in case there was a game (fight)) was in the car and not at hand. My dad said, “I want all my friends to see it. Wait right here while I go get them.” Then he ran away. As he explained it, “I beat him with my superior intellect.”

My dad loved God and country. He convinced many a fallen Catholic in the family to go back to the church. He said the rosary every day as he drove in his car. He stood every time he heard the national anthem–even when we were at home. He was a Republican block captain and always voted–even during the many years when he and my mom would vote and cancel out each other’s votes. He loved the Marine Corps and often put out American flags at our homes.

Dad and Grandma Babe

Dad and Grandma Babe

My dad was a bad boy who thought boys should be boys. He pulled the fire alarm when he was in grade school. He played pranks. He used to follow his slightly older sister Joan when she went out on dates so he could keep an eye on her and her boyfriends. He always had a list of jokes in his pocket. He used to keep an old-fashioned fire extinguisher at the house. He would fill it with water and chase us around spraying us with water long after our little water guns had gone dry.

My dad did not forget his own history. When my brother Danny got into trouble, my dad would wrap his arms around my mom and say, “Boys will be boys.” He would not falter in his belief that a bad boy could turn out to be one hell of a good man. (My brother is a man my dad would be so proud to know.)

Dad, Grandma Babe and Aunt Joan

Dad, Grandma Babe and Aunt Joan

My dad loved my mom. There was fighting in our home. My mom used to darken the house and we would lie in wait for Dad when they were “on the outs.” When he walked in the door, we lobbed Tupperware at him. He would chase us all around the house until everyone was exhausted. Then he would toss my mom over his shoulder and carry her off to their bedroom. We did not understand about “make-up sex” in those days, but we knew as we put ourselves to bed, that everything was okay in our world. I can still remember my dad kissing my mom first thing every time he came home and last thing every time he left.

Mom and Dad on their wedding day in 1956

Mom and Dad on their wedding day in 1956

My dad always said, “It only costs a little more to go first class.” He was a clothes horse. When we went on vacation he had a vacation wardrobe. He wore yellow trousers, red trousers. The man even had Kelly green trousers. He always picked out the best thing. He had the best umbrella, the best rifle, the best fishing pole, the best camera, and the best tools. We did not always have much, but whatever we had was nice. If we could not afford the “best,” then we waited. We worked hard. We saved our money. Then we went out and got it.

My dad used to go on ahead. When we used to go to the mall, my dad always walked well ahead of the rest of us. We would walk slowly, stopping to look at things.  Sometimes we would catch a glimpse of him on another level of the mall or far ahead of us. At the end of our circuit of the building, we would find him sitting on a bench eating an ice cream cone. I think of him that way now, waiting some place down the road for the rest of us to catch up with him, eating an ice cream cone.

If my dad had lived longer, today would have been his birthday. Happy Birthday, Dad.

Catastrophizing

Feeling snowed under.

Feeling snowed under.

Did I mention that next Friday I have an appointment for a gynecological exam and will likely see the “oh-so-very-NOT-nice” physician’s assistant whose examination of me left me upset for weeks? Did I mention that this has me feeling very anxious–as do all doctors’ appointments?

The best part of blogging has been reading the blogs of people whose situation has been worse than mine. I know how that sounds. But the other bloggers’ sharing has given me a perspective on my own experience that I could not have gotten from my own experience if I chewed on it until it was fully consumed and digested–a process that might have taken my whole life.

Until my diagnosis with cancer, I had never had an operation. I had never suffered a serious illness. The most serious medical procedure done on me was the inpatient removal of a mole that was chafed by a bra strap. The most serious pain I had ever experienced was passing a kidney stone at about the age of 20. That experience proved more humorous than serious.

While I was in the emergency room to determine the cause of my pain the doctor decided to perform an internal gynecological exam to rule out some gynecological problem. Following the exam, I continued lying on the table while I waited for results. Then a hospital administrator escorted a university student into my curtained “bay” so that the student could ask me questions about my use of contraceptives for some classroom statistical analysis. I agreed to answer the questions. The administrator helped me sit up. The nurse had not properly secured the end of the table when she took down the stirrups at the conclusion of my exam.

When I sat up, the end of the table fell down and I was catapulted to the floor. I landed on my hands and knees with the hospital gown open from neck to knees. I landed outside of the narrow confines of the curtained bay. There I was, naked and on all fours, in front of everyone, including someone with whom I went to school.

It goes without saying that there were apologies, and many hands reached down to help me rise, and no one laughed. Which seemed amazing to me at the time, because I could not stop laughing! Seriously, the pain from the kidney stone was the worst thing I had ever felt in my physical life. My hands and knees “smarted” in a way that had me thinking about that old adage, “Come over here and I’ll give you something to cry about.” I was blushing the color of a beet until it seemed every inch of my face might explode. And everyone was looking at each other like it might be the end of the world.

It wasn’t. The adage proved to have some relation to fact. There were worse things than the pain I experienced from passing a kidney stone. I could be in even worse pain, naked, on a germy ER floor, in a down facing dog position as others (one of them a fellow student holding a clipboard) tried to get hold of “something” naked, in an non-salacious manner . . . in an effort to help me stand up. Oh, the perspective this gave me helped me accept many of life’s indignities that have followed.

I still have not had a good cry about having uterine cancer. I am not sure I need to at this point. I was nonplussed when I received the diagnosis. In retrospect, it explained so many things that I had been experiencing such as heavy periods and a late end to menopause. I reacted by trying to put the entire puzzle together. I also had a very fatalistic idea about what it meant to have cancer. I just assumed that my life was over and was trying to figure out what I would need to get done before I died. Making checklists is a hobby. I never did make out that checklist.

The doctors were much more optimistic and they were being extraordinarily negative. Their entire focus at the time seemed to be on my inability to survive surgery because of my blood loss (I needed 8 packs of blood to reach a minimum state of readiness for surgery) and my seemingly poor general health. But one doctor, the head of the internal medicine department, kept coming back to report that I had passed another of his department’s tests. It appeared that I might only have anemia and cancer.

I counted my blessings day and night. I am serious about this. I did not have a book to read. There was nothing I cared to watch on TV, and I had no idea if I was being charged for using it and had no medical insurance. When my sister Kathy flew in from DC she brought me two magazines, a pen, and some paper. I loaned a magazine to my roommate and covered the paper with my scribbled lists of blessings. If my luck had run out, then I wanted to recall that it had been a good run. If the Law of Attraction was at play, then I wanted to be in a positive place to attract good health.

I did not sleep for nearly a week (other than during surgery). The closest I got to it was that micro sleep you sometimes feel happening during a long drive. One minute you are on the turnpike in Indiana and the next minute you are seeing signs for exits to Cleveland and are wondering, “What the hell happened to most of Ohio?” You have been functioning, but not optimally.

I have shed plenty of tears since October 2011. I was devastated to learn that the law school terminated me. Radiation was a nightmare. The week after treatment ended was horrific. To this day I feel like I might have died but for my sister and mom “springing” me from the county hospital. I have never been so afraid or helpless. Recovery from treatment was marginally worse than what I felt while going through six weeks of radiation and chemo. Radiation cystitis had me crying twenty-something times a day in the bathroom until that became such old hat that I just gritted my teeth and endured.

But others’ blogs were like speed markers on the road that let me know I should pace myself on my tendency to manage fear by imagining myself handling the worst case scenario. No one ever knows what will happen next or how she will handle it. And the saddest truth about cancer is that others have handled/are handling much worse than I can imagine on my own. They do manage. Sometimes angrily. Sometimes with frightening resignation. Often with grace, humility, and even humor.

I am covering my mouth with both hands and trying not to cry as I think of what some have shared about their experiences. I know that my odds are good for long-term survival. It was stage one with complicating factors, not the stage three cancer the surgeon first described it to be. It was a slow-growing cancer. There appears to be no evidence that cancer spread or remains. My surgery went very well. I am no longer in daily pain. My other side-effects can be handled.

When I agreed to adjuvant radiation and chemotherapy I did not know that they could one day lead me to another cancer. I was awake, but still in that stage of micro sleep. I just kept driving until I saw signs for Cleveland, one of which is an exit marked Strongsville. I took that exit and have put down some roots. I could spend my days catastrophizing, but that might only make this tougher.

Source unconfirmed

Source unconfirmed

The bloggers who have shared their struggles and victories are daily reminders that I should live in the “now” and not get ahead of myself. Whatever is ahead of me will be handled–ready or not–and handled better if I focus on the present and do not let anxiety rule me.

There was a time when I could laugh at the experience of landing naked and in pain on the ER floor while answering questions about condoms and diaphragms. It’s harder to do that when you’re dealing with cancer. But I still have a sense of humor. And I have been shown by some wonderful people that there are worse situations and that I can face them if I must. Life is worth it until it isn’t. And, even then, there will be hope that life’s ending can be endured.

So, I am every day grateful for the community of bloggers who have so bravely shared their challenges and fears. Without your courage and generosity, I could be wasting my life catastrophizing.

If you have never seen Loretta LaRoche, you should. She is the source of the word “catastrophizing.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ggGoe_y5WqA. In that video she talks about how we can sometimes take our tough challenges and magnify them until we become hopeless. Here is a link to a video of her discussing the Joy of Stress: Party Pants, in which she reminds us to embrace life’s adventures rather than always putting joy off. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_5tOFdSJZJk. Here’s her video on Pessimism vs. Optimism. http://www.youtube.com/watch?NR=1&v=kqE9cuWxdqo&feature=endscreen. She uses humor to help people handle stress. Her message is resilience. I think she may also be reading many of the blogs that I read about living after a cancer diagnosis. She seems to understand that we can keep smiling–sometimes for a moment, sometimes for a day, sometimes longer.

Did I mention that next Friday I have an appointment for a gynecological exam and will likely see the “oh-so-very-NOT-nice” physician’s assistant whose examination of me left me upset for weeks? Did I mention that this has me feeling very anxious–as do all doctors’ appointments? Maybe I’m already feeling better because of the messages of hope in so many other people’s blogs.

Star Trek Into Darkness

No need for spoiler alerts.

I had papers to grade last night, but I decided to see the late showing of the new Star Trek movie Into Darkness. I really enjoyed it and recommend it if you find yourself in a dark place in your life and want to feel good. I’m not going to say anything else about its plot except that it deals with dark subjects.

Most of the previews that preceded the movie were also about dark subjects: sheriffs with drug-abusing daughters (Longmire), Hollywood “fixers” who cover up deaths and wield baseball bats when trouble is afoot but ache to see their kids drawing closer to crime in the form of a much despised father who is just out of jail (Ray Donovan), and more. There were several apocalypse stories, including the world’s takeover by zombies in World War Z (Think of any Lord of the Rings castle attack with recently dead humans in place of–I’m not sure what you call the hordes in a Lord of the Rings movie) and Elysium (about class conflict in a sci-fi setting, by the maker of the really depressing movie about race conflict, District 9).

Even Superman’s new movie Man of Steel had a trailer filled with dark colors and visuals. The “light” subjects included the story of two out-of-work men (the actors playing them also haven’t made a really “feel good” movie in awhile) who intern at Google where they are hazed by the nerds and even take shots to the gonads (am I the only one who sees enough of that on America’s Funniest Home Videos?). Another “feel good” film was about four seniors doing their version of The Hangover, called Last Vegas. It might be okay for my age group, and I love Robert DeNiro in any movie, but, really? Will there be any new stones to turn over in Las Vegas if the men have more money? Can anyone say scantily clad women, gambling, drinking, and aftermath? Will you pay $7.50 or more to see Morgan Freeman dance?

My point is that I was not the only one experiencing dark days. These movies and TV shows have been in production for a long time before they were shown or previewed. People have been feeling the drift into darkness for a long time. I have felt it since 9/11. Perhaps you have felt it even longer.

Terrorism (domestic and foreign), war, genocide, diaspora, recession, world-wide depression, political instability, violence in the streets, burning or collapsing fashion industry factories, global warming, BP’s pollution of the Gulf of Mexico, earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, tornados, hurricanes, collapsing bridges, derailed trains, GMO foods, rising rates of death from cancers, school shootings, movie theater shootings, mosque shootings, bombings, hacking of people’s private information–pick your nightmare. There have been many scourges, and the themes of movies and TV shows reflect that.

I left the theater feeling better anyway. Because fiction sometimes takes us from the dark place. It restores our faith sometimes in our own initiative, our grit and determination, and our caring for (at least some) of our fellow earth denizens.

I cannot claim to have any super powers at all, but in the darkness of a theater, surrounded by the smell of popcorn I can no longer eat, watching the crew of the Starship Enterprise grapple with certain disaster, I get the idea I can handle my own challenges.

I’m not sure I am up to watching The Internship with Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson (opening June 7), but movies aren’t medicine, not yet anyway.

Star Trek Into Darkness
2013 Film
8.3/10-IMDb
87%-Rotten Tomatoes
Star Trek Into Darkness is a 2013 American science fiction action film. It is the twelfth installment in the Star Trek franchise and the sequel to 2009’s Star Trek. Wikipedia
Release date: May 17, 2013 (USA)
Director: J.J. Abrams
Prequel: Star Trek
Production company: Bad Robot Productions
Genres: Action film, Science Fiction, Adventure film

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