Friday, October 31, 2008

What would you do?

So three weeks ago, my 82-year-old mother fell and hurt her knee, and she hasn't been able to walk since. She lives with my 85-year-old father in San Francisco, and I live in Manhattan. Several days elapsed before she told me about her fall and subsequent "bed rest." But that's nothing. When she got hit by a bus and broke her arm 10 years ago and when she had a stroke four years ago and when she fractured her pelvis a year ago—each time it took at least two weeks before she was willing to tell me. "I don't want to worry you," she said.

Because she cannot put any weight on her leg, she has had to scoot along on her bottom to get from the convertible couch in her office, where she's been sleeping since her fall, to the toilet. "It's nothing," she said. "Don't get all worked up about it." 

But Dad must be exhausted taking care of you night and day, I protested. "It's fun," she said. 

He sounds a little worn out, I said. "Oh, don't listen to him!" she said.

I told her I wanted to fly out right away so I could oversee her care. "No!" she said.

I wanted to call their best friend, the guy whose name I extracted from them the last time she disappeared into the emergency-care system. "No!" 

I wanted to call her doctor, with whom I have been in occasional touch in the past. "No!" 

I wanted to call a visiting-nurse practice to arrange a home visit. "No!" 

I wanted to call the home-care agency to arrange additional household help to supplement the aide who has been coming two mornings a week since she cracked her pelvis. "No!"

My mother is not demented. My father is not demented. And both are adamant that her wishes be respected. So he has been helping her to the bathroom, shopping and cooking and serving her meals in bed (using her old walker to wheel in her food) or helping her to bump along on her bottom to the dining room. I'm afraid that if I defy their wishes and take ordinary commonsense action, they will not tell me the next time there's an adverse event. So I have been calling every day, getting more and more agitated every time one of them divulges a new detail of how they're managing, and I've been consulting elder-care services and collecting brochures on assisted living and home care so that when I arrive on November 15, a visit that was previously scheduled, we can duke it out.

Finally, yesterday, I got a phone message from my mother's doctor, who had been alerted to the situation by the physical therapist, who had called my mother in alarm because she had missed several appointments (claiming she was "too busy"). Long story short: the doctor persuaded my mother to call 911 to request an ambulance to take her to the emergency room at St. Mary's. Great news! Less great news: the doctor was taking the day off for Halloween (!). I told my parents to bring their cell phone, and said I would also try to keep in touch by calling St. Mary's.

All afternoon and evening I waited to hear from them. I didn't want to intrude if they were being shuffled around for tests. Finally, at about 11 p.m. EST, I started calling: the home phone didn't answer, and the machine didn't pick up; the cell phone was turned off; St. Mary's had no record of her arrival and indeed was full to capacity and had been refusing ambulance drop-offs all day. 

Somewhere in the City by the Bay, an elderly couple, one utterly disabled and the other fairly feeble (heart condition, bad knees), were adrift. Dozens of emergency rooms: Where to begin? Smart idea from my sister-in-law: Call the emergency room of the hospital where my mother had last been treated—California Pacific Medical Center. Eureka!

Turned out her patella was broken and she is scheduled for surgery today. Why didn't she or my father call me to let me know where she was? "There was nothing to tell you," she said. "I told your father not to call you till after the surgery." 

What is wrong with these people?!

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Yada yada yada

Lickspittle—now that's a wonderful word. And I know I'm going to find ways to work it into conversation. That's Other's Dickensian word tonight for that miserable sycophant Charlie Rose. I don't know where Other gets these words, or what causes them to suddenly surface in his vocabulary, but they're a source of great joy—and plagiarism—for me. Another delightful term he began using about five years ago: bloviate. Now you hear it all the time, but five years ago, it was a new word, and he used it first. (And I used it second.)

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Another misspent day

Ever had one of those days when nothing goes right—and it all works out great? Today A and I headed downtown to get a bite to eat at the new Whole Foods and take a guided tour of the sculptures of Battery Park City. Our Plan B, in case of rain, was to see a movie at the BPC multiplex. But we got downtown too late to eat at WF, couldn't find the dearly named Teardrop Park in time for the debarkation of the sculpture walk, forgot all about the movie and ended up winklepicking for hours amid an endless parade of Halloween pixies and parents that wended through the vast atria of the World Financial Center and the Winter Garden. In the quarter-century that A and I have known each other, we've lived in each other's pockets at work, shared childrearing upheavals, taken road trips together, blabbered endlessly about this and that. So I thought I had unearthed everything there was to know about her and her family. But somehow there's always some new vein to mine, and today I struck gold yet again in mesmerizing stories A's mother had told her about her World War I girlhood. So an afternoon of intentions gone awry turned out to yield unplanned pleasures.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Get a room—but don't use mine

Hmm, who's been sitting in my chair? And who's been using my 'puter? And who's been watching my TV? I came into work this morning and noticed that my chair was uncharacteristically turned away from the door, the remote was on my desk instead of on the television (yes, I know, but I work for a media company, so it's a normal piece of office furniture), the channel was set to Fox (which I have never watched) instead of CNN, and the sound was turned up on my 'puter. Is this a money-saving measure—a corporate form of hot-bedding in which swing shifts occupy day timers' work spaces at night?

I think not.

A few months ago alcohol containers, condoms and other evidence of sexual activity were found in the so-called "privacy room," which is intended for my cubicle-dwelling colleagues to use for naps or closed-door computer use. Turns out someone in maintenance was using the privacy room to entertain his girlfriend. People were scandalized. I, however, was merely amused. Now I'm not so amused. Just feels weird to have someone I don't know intruding on my turf.

I've got my office set up for maximum concealment—my 'puter facing away from the door so no one passing by can see that I'm, well, scribbling in my blog instead of copy-editing articles, my chair facing the door so I can see who's entering, a chair for visitors next to the door so no one need penetrate too deep into the room—and it's a little eerie to think that someone has sat where I'm sitting, looked over my shoulder, so to speak, at my 'puter and watched my TV. I don't have anything to hide, really. But still.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Iggy Poop

Well, poor Iggy. When I picked him up at the vet's on Monday evening, he looked like a tattered scrap of dirty, dull, matted fake fur—diminished, demoralized, deflated. But within a few hours of being home, he began to inflate—his eyes started to shine, his body fluffed out, and he had his coat licked to a spit shine. He's still dancing in and out of the box, dropping turds and slurping away at his naughty bits, but I'm hoping that's just residual irritation from the catheter and not the beginning of a new round of troubles.

It's kind of touching, really, how much this big bully of a cat loves being home—and even weirder, loves me. Either he's grateful to me for saving his life or he's trying to ingratiate himself so I don't take him back to the vet. In any case, he's got a bad case of velcro—can't peel him off of me.

Oh, please, oh, please, oh, not-god, let this be the end of it.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

What price a cat's life?

Perhaps I spoke too soon when I boasted that I was able to switch the channel from the all-cancer-all-the-time station. On Thursday I began training to become a volunteer for an organization that provides support for women diagnosed with breast cancer. I thought I was ready. Now I'm unsure. Of about a dozen women who showed up, at least half had metastatic disease or recurrences, some even after taking Herceptin (my miracle drug). I know it was a skewed population, because several of the women with more advanced disease indicated that they had been personally recruited (whereas I had raised my hand when I saw the training notice in a newsletter). That makes sense since women with direr prognoses have the greatest need for support. But being in the room with all these smart, beautiful, healthy-looking and very sick women freaked me out. I've been coasting along (more or less) on the false assurance that my wholesome lifestyle has locked the door on cancer, but obviously the door can swing open at any time. I have two more training sessions, and I'll attend them. But I'm worried about exacerbating my anxiety level by talking to women with worse diagnoses than mine. I was lucky, but I can't count on the luck lasting. Already I've lost the ability to read. Just can't focus.

Stress is a big issue right now. Iggy's back in the pet hospital with a urinary-tract blockage. I was told he was hours from death when I brought him in yesterday, his bladder the size of a grapefruit. Seventeen-hundred dollars later, he's O.K., but apparently male cats who have an episode of this condition tend to relapse. Other and I are wondering how many relapses we can afford. It seems hardhearted to put a price on a life, even a cat's life—especially since I owe my own life to the hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of treatment I've received over the past three years—but there has to be a limit, no?

Friday, October 17, 2008

I'm just saying

I don't care how much you like moms or how much you like asses, if someone says you have a mom ass, it's not a compliment. And if that person (o.k., Other) acts all innocent and what-did-I-say, that person is just being disingenuous.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Windows are the eyes of the soul

Last weekend for the first time since I was diagnosed with cancer, I washed the windows. In the back, we have industrial-weight 8-foot windows that have to be tipped out of their frames for the outside surfaces to be cleaned, and in the front I have to clamber out onto the fire escape to do the outside surfaces. It's a fairly hair-raising experience, and I haven't felt like taking it on. But three years' worth of city grime had built up a patina that reduced our natural indoor light to a grim murk. Having clean windows feels like taking your sunglasses off after forgetting you had them on. And muscling up to the chore at long last feels like a return to normalcy. Indeed, I realize that whole days go by now when I don't think about cancer much at all. Nights too. Of course, that doesn't mean I don't maintain a high level of anxiety. It just adheres to different issues. Nonetheless it is a relief to be able to turn the channel to a different drama. I was getting a little bored with the cancer channel.

Friday, October 10, 2008

You like me, you really like me

Today's online edition of the New York Times has Lisa Belkin blogging under the question "Do You Have a Favorite Child?" And it reminded me of my conversation over dinner last night with my daughter, C, who is home from college for the weekend. She asked, "Who do you think you raised best—me or J [her brother, who is 10 years her senior]"? My immediate answer was that I was too strict with J and too lax with her.

Then she startled me by saying that regardless of how she turned out, she felt Other and I had been good parents for her since she really liked us, whereas most of her friends disliked their 'rents. I know that having your child like you is not the best gauge of parenting. Indeed, it might be the worst gauge—an indicator of wussiness. Maybe it was the food at Veselka's—she had a chicken-cutlet sandwich with latkes and I a spinach salad, and we shared a slice of chocolate and peanut-butter pie, all excellent—that put her in a good mood, but I was gratified to hear that despite all our wrangling over curfews, money, academics, tidiness and everything else, she has at least some fleeting positive feelings about us. I know that at her age I hated my 'rents.

But the question of which child I parented best continues to intrigue me—and did even before she raised it. I was very strict with my son early on—no war toys, no video games, no sugar, no TV, no grade lower than a B (I think the term "control freak" was used behind my back, though in defense, I have to say that J was a very accommodating child, so I didn't have to brutalize him into submission)—but more relaxed than perhaps I should have been when he entered his teens and I was preoccupied with C and allowed him to roam wild with no curfew and no academic oversight. Although he certainly would have resisted interference on our part, he may have felt abandoned, ousted from our hearts by the "fucking moron" (as he called C). There were a couple of incidents that prompted us to clip his wings in his senior year—like the binge vomiting of a friend of his that necessitated the replacement of J's rather expensive extra-long mattress and eventually alerted us that our house was being used as a boozing den while we were at work. Incredibly, we believed J when he said his friend had eaten a "bad burger" at the school picnic. The second time, a few weeks later, when the same friend again passed out while barfing on the brand-new mattress, we called the boy's father to alert him. Astoundingly, however, when J assured us that although the friend "might have had something to drink," he himself was stone sober. We were so gullible. And after a safe passage of time, J gleefully told us how naive we had been and recounted numerous other misadventures that had slipped beneath our radar—all those nights spent at the friend's house had been unchaperoned drugfests, the afternoons spent in extracurricular activities were misspent in decadence, the allowance and lunch money all went for beer. But the kid got A's. How was I to know?

As for C, I tried to impose the noes—no Barbies, no designer clothing, no video games, no sugar, no TV, no grade lower than a B—but was sabotaged by the family of her best friend, who allowed their daughter what seemed to us infinite freedom and unlimited funds. It was difficult to hold the line on curfews if insisting that C be home by midnight, say, when she was 13 meant she would have to abandon the buddy system and come home alone since her friend T had no curfew at all and didn't want to be pinned down by C's. Also difficult to hold the line on expensive taxi rides for the same reason—if we insisted that C take the subway rather than a taxi with T, she would have to come home alone. So in the end we brought up C up like a princess in some ways, according to the ethos of T's family rather than ours. She ended up with $150 hair cuts, $200 jeans, $400 jackets, $500 handbags—and we whined about it, but we paid for them. We're getting better at holding the line now that she's in college and we don't actually have to hold it in person (or see the breach if she disregards it).

So we've been pretty bad parents in many ways—we didn't stick to our guns—but we've ended up with a couple of reasonable kids. Maybe setting the bar unrealistically high meant that when our kids fell short, they were still within range of acceptable behavior. Maybe we failed miserably as parents but our kids had good genetic survival skills. Maybe their well-being has nothing to do with us at all but with the friends they hung out with (even J's drinking buddy and C's high-roller gal pal had redeeming qualities). Maybe the story's not over and our poor parenting will prove ruinous after all.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Yogabatics, yoganastics

My friend B got very annoyed when she discovered that after completing a course of physical therapy not long ago, I had reinjured myself in a recent yoga class. "Why do you do that?" she asked, with what sounded like real anger. By "that," I guess she meant "try too hard" or "take risks."

Good question.

One answer is that I find it exhilarating to do the more spectacular—and risky—poses like inversions and arm balances. It thrills me to hang out upside down at 58 years old. I find it uplifting (so to speak) that while I am beginning to deteriorate in many ways—thinning hair, lusterless skin, dimming eyesight, etc.—I continue to defy aging by making progress in the physical practice of yoga. In the three years since my breast cancer was diagnosed, I have mastered challenging new (acrobatic!) asanas and gotten more adept at those I could do previously. It's inspiriting to see myself developing skills at my age. And it's an affirmation that despite the dreadful diagnosis, I'm healthy—flexible, strong, steady.

Another answer is that I feel the pressure of time pressing in on me. I know I won't be able to manage these gymnastic feats forever, and I want to make as much headway as I can, while I can, so that when I begin to slip, I will have longer to slide. I worry that when I am unable to access the physical thrills, yoga will lose some of its allure—and I need yoga.

And perhaps another answer is that my tendency to throw myself into the physical challenges is a defect in my practice. A good yoga teacher counsels students to observe and accept their current state (whereas I am impatient to conquer new territory), to practice on the safe side of their "edge" (whereas I hurl myself over) and to let go of attachments to outcomes (whereas I thrive on accomplishment). So my tendency to compete, even if only against myself, is a failure to accept, a reckless disregard for risk and a clinging to the pleasures of success.

It's a failure I feel like living with at the moment. It feels so great to ... feel so great.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Wiping away the past

My wonderful yoga teacher G used a nice analogy in yesterday's yoga class, which focused on ujai, or victorious, breath, in which you constrict your airway and drag your breath through it audibly, sustaining inhalations and exhalations in equal duration. She said, "Imagine your breath as a windshield wiper, with each pass erasing the breath before it." The object: to stay in the present.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

I shoulda been a vet

It has been quite a while since I've felt the sense of accomplishment I do at this moment. When the vet told me to procure a urine sample from Iggy, my fairly ferocious tom cat, I thought he had to be kidding. Simple, he said, put Saran wrap over the cat litter, and when he pees, suck up the urine with a syringe and squirt it into a specimen bottle.

No way was that going to work.

But it did. It took a while, with Iggy hopping in and out of the box several times, freaked out by the smooth surface, and we were pretty sure he would end up peeing elsewhere. But finally he peed—on the Saran wrap. I schlupped it up with the syringe and schlepped it over to the vet, beaming with pride. Much confusion over charts ensued, since Ziggy, a black Lab, was awaiting his appointment, while Iggy's urine was sitting on the counter.

It was only a little deflating to learn that I had saved myself just $23. I'm not sure I believe it. The vet had told me that if I couldn't procure the specimen myself, he would anesthetize Iggy and insert a catheter to get it. Really? Anesthesia and a catheter for only $23? I've been paying way too much for my own medical care.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Remembrance of aromas past

Six weeks after my cold shut down my sense of smell, I can now detect odors intermittently. My nose was always my strongest sense. I need hearing aids, I wear bifocals, I have the food tastes of a child (salt and sugar—those are my only appetites), and I have peripheral neuropathy so the tips of my fingers and toes are numb. But despite a long history of nasal ailments—a deviated septum, sinus infections, allergies, a scar from a car accident that severed one nostril—my nose was strong until August 15.

Nasal acuity wasn't always a blessing. Indeed, oversensitivity to odors has resulted in a squeamishness I'm ashamed of. When I was a kid I was revolted by the smell of my older brother's freckles—kind of grainy. I could smell my little brother's boogers even when I couldn't see him picking his nose—sort of salty and rancid at the same time. My best friend in junior high had oily hair, and even if she had washed it in the morning, I found it hard to be in the same room with her by evening. My mother's perfume, Madame Rocha, was so arresting that I couldn't concentrate when she wore it. When I went to college, she gave me a bottle. I regifted it. It was too distracting. And although I love my cat Ivy, I can't bear to have her sleep with me because her tongue smells gamey.

But often odors have been a delight. I fell in love with Other partly because of the faint whiff of avocado he gave off—intoxicating. And my kids were sweetly fragrant underneath the baby-powder scent infused in all infant products. It was startling when they entered adolescence and began to exude adult odors—halitosis, b.o., gym foot—but I found those interesting rather than repellant.

So having only occasional use of my nose is something I notice. It's like living in black-and-white with sudden flashes of Technicolor. Today I smelled Iggy's turd in the cat box before I saw it. Not a great odor, but exciting to smell it anyway. Later I smelled the sweet milky coffee scent on my friend A's breath. It was nice—though it felt uncomfortably intimate, so I consciously repressed it. Right this moment I can smell Other's chicken roasting in the oven. And I know that all will be well.