Wednesday, April 28, 2010

When my fingers do your shopping, you eat a lot of spuds

Since my parents are essentially disabled—my mother's had a stroke, and my dad has dizzy spells after getting hit by a bus a year ago—I do their grocery shopping online at I put in an order in the evening in New York, and it gets delivered the next day in San Francisco, and the cost of having someone pull hundreds of dollars' worth of groceries off the shelves by size and brand and deliver them to my parents' door is $6.95, no tipping allowed. I've been feeling pretty smug about my stroke of genius in locating and carrying out this service. But I've noticed my parents don't seem as enthusiastic—or as grateful—as I thought they'd be. Then, when I was last in San Francisco, I noticed that there were 11—11!— tubs of potato salad in the fridge. Seems my finger slipped on the keyboard. I asked how often such odd quantities appeared in their order, and they claimed not to be able to recall its ever happening before. Perhaps they're more gracious than I give them credit for. We ate potato salad for every meal while I was there and sent tubs home with visitors. And my mother and father kept saying how fortunate it was that we'd ended up with so much and that it was just the right amount after all.

My day in the country

I dreaded the weekend run on my deceased sister-in-law's house to work with her friends on resolving her (int)estate. I feared ghosts and guilt. But it was fun! And funny! And interesting! And not scary!

Since my SIL and I were similar in height (tall!), her best friend had urged me to go through her closet and take what I wanted. That was all the permission I needed. I admired my SIL's taste and envied her seemingly opulent wardrobe. Much to my surprise, most of her clothes were eerily familiar to me. I had either owned them previously and passed them on to her, or had copies of them in my closet in New York since my SIL and I sometimes hit the CP Shades sale together, and her mother bought us the same things for gift occasions. (In fact, my mother-in-law buys me the same plaid flannel nightie every Christmas that she bought me the previous year. Luckily, I like it.) So I ended up taking ... nothing.

After abandoning closet-shopping, I browsed her books and was startled to see that a large proportion were self-help guides to spirituality, healthy relationships, personal money management, a better body. My SIL was a supremely self-confident woman to whom many—though not I—turned for advice, which she sometimes dispensed unsolicited. Her bookshelves told another story: of a lonely, wistful, even insecure seeker. I wish I had seen more of that side when she was alive.

I also spent a bit of time sweeping up the little red bodies of lady bugs, which invade the Pioneer Valley every spring in impressive quantities: actual drifts of them piling up on floors, crackling underfoot. My sense of smell is pretty well shot from a sinus infection last year, but I'm told that in such quantities they exude a strong, unpleasant odor.

Other and I went shopping for groceries at the local health-food store, and as we exited, Other turned to me and said, "I got rubbed!" Not robbed—rubbed. The guy at the register was a toucher who knew Other's sister and reached out to express his sympathy.

On the drive home, Other pointed out that every single family among his sister's circle was dealing with a disaster. Since Other and I often feel we're laboring under some mighty bad karma what with all the sadness and stress that has piled up on us in recent years (I sense incredulity in my friends and co-workers when I recount the latest episode in my life), this was strangely comforting. One of my SIL's friends has just suffered a series of mini-strokes; another is recovering from a major stroke that paralyzed him on one side; another's son had surgery for a brain tumor that resulted in a seizure disorder that makes him unable to work, so he's living in his car on the streets of New Orleans; another's daughter has been selling herself on the streets; another's son has been in rehab; another's son has severe, disabling ADHD; several have had cancer. And those are the ones who are still alive.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Up in the air

I used to hate flying: fear of death. Now, because I'm often flying to or from a catastrophe, I love it. I don't even mind the middle seat. The whole week I was at my parents' house, I looked forward to that ecstatic few hours when I would be free—free mostly of the fear that something would happen that would keep me there.

What with my sister-in-law's unsettled estate generating unexpected expenses, I get panic attacks about opening envelopes with a Massachusetts postmark. With my parents' failing health, I get panic attacks when I see the area code 415 in my caller i.d. And e-mail can bring bad news from both fronts. In the air, free from e-mail, snail mail and voicemail, I am unreachable.

(Sadly, my freedom was short-lived. I got home from San Francisco on Sunday at midnight. Tuesday my father had a fall, banged his head and generated such a bloodbath that the home-care agency called me at work. Somehow I wrassled my father into going to the VA emergency room, where they kept him till Friday. Somehow I failed to wrassle my mother into submission. I ordered full-time home care for her in my father's absence, and she canceled it. I ordered it again. She rebelled. Ach! How can I get any work done when the 'rents won't obey!)

When I was a child, I loved this poem by Robert Louis Stevenson. And it has a bit of the cut-loose feeling I have about flying now:

How do you like to go up in a swing,
Up in the air so blue?
Oh, I do think it the pleasantest thing
Ever a child can do!

Up in the air and over the wall,
Till I can see so wide,
River and trees and cattle and all
Over the countryside--

Till I look down on the garden green,
Down on the roof so brown--
Up in the air I go flying again,
Up in the air and down!

Friday, April 16, 2010

Afternoon with K, who solved a mystery and shared two secrets

Throughout the past week, I’ve been followed by an odor I had identified as skunk. Seemed weird that so many skunks had taken up residence in San Francisco, but there are a lot of parks, and so I thought, Why not? Still, I was surprised to smell skunk today at the Embarcadero, a concrete park between the Ferry Building and the Financial District. “Not skunk,” said my friend K, whom I met for tea and talk. “Powerful new strain of pot.”

K also generously shared two pieces of wisdom distilled from her 28 years of therapy: 1) You cannot control what happens in life, and 2) Enjoy the good moments while they last because they won’t last forever.

The sea lions have returned to Pier 39

Thursday, April 15, 2010

All pissed off and nowhere to go

So I know that whining is frowned upon by virtually everyone the world round. In yogic terms, it indicates attachment and a failure to achieve maitri (loving kindness). But isn’t it ever justified? I’d like to think so, because right now I want to snivel about a few things. Unfortunately, my complaints are so petty and the people provoking them so abject that I’m embarrassed. But of course I’m going to let loose anyway.

*I’m pissed that my sister-in-law neglected to make a will, thus dumping the whole mess on Other (and by extension, me). Yes, I know that the very fact that she had a life-threatening disease made it difficult to undertake the tasks that put her in direct confrontation with death. I’m still pissed.

*I’m pissed that my parents refuse to hire the help they need. What they call independence is actually dependence on their kids. It’s not that I mind lending a hand. But I resent the stress inflicted by their willful teetering on the precipice.

*I’m pissed that my employer has pared not just the fat but also the muscle and bone of my department so that my ridiculous job feels desperate.

*And I’m really pissed that my back aches so ominously and insistently that I cannot dismiss the fear of metastasis—even though I know (but am I sure?) it’s just post-cancer hypochondria.

There, I’ve done it. Do I feel better? Maybe a little. But was there a better way than the path of whine and whimper?

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Good-news Wednesday

The headlines in the mainstream news are disheartening: “Cyclone Kills 85 in East India,” “Iceland Evacuates Hundreds As Volcano Erupts Again,” “Strong Earthquakes in Western China Kill at Least 400.” But picking up the Positive News, delivered yesterday by my off-the-grid brother, is a perk-up call: “A Peacewalker Follows Her Dreams,” “Climate of Cooperation,” “CafĂ© Gives Laptops a Rest,” ”Meditation Teacher Saves 20,000 Bees, “Barefoot Solar Engineers Brighten Lives,” “The Secret Society of Happy People.” You can’t make this stuff up, so it must be true.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

In memoriam

I spent the weekend of JG's death thinking about our relationship, which was not an easy one.

I remember the conversation in which she told me about her cancer. I was incredulous. One of her closest friends, H, had died two years earlier of breast cancer. Then her friend and writing partner, K, was diagnosed with stage iii breast cancer. And about six months after that, I was diagnosed with stage ii breast cancer. The whole world—and everyone in it—seemed to be mutating, and not in a good way.

My relationship with JG has not been uncomplicated. Early on, she was warm but distant. The eldest child, she didn’t have a lot of interest in her siblings or their partners. But we were on friendly if not intimate terms, though I blundered often. Once she came to San Francisco while Other and I were living there. I had just cut a friend’s hair and boasted that I had done a great job. So JG decided I should cut her hair. Alas, the result was disastrous—one side way shorter than the other and the whole thing just a mess. I was humiliated, but she was agreeable about it. I know I unintentionally offended her by complimenting her “womanly” figure on that visit. The next time I saw her, she was notably slimmer. When she headed home to Massachusetts, she left behind a beautiful Indian shirt. I coveted it. But in an excess of probity, I returned it to her. She was surprised. She’d never missed it, and I wished I’d kept it.

She was renowned in her world (first English literature, later political economy) as a brilliant thinker and teacher. People gravitated to her. She changed lives. But she scared me a little bit. She had a problem with boundaries: put her face too close to yours in conversation, so that you wanted to back away. I once saw her chase someone completely around the circumference of a room in her unconscious absorption in a conversation that was clearly making him want to flee. She also—and this was none of my business, but of course fascinating to me—stepped over the line sexually: had affairs with a friend’s father, a hostess’s husband, a friend’s boyfriend, another friend’s husband, and so forth. The friends seemed to forgive her. And that behavior seemed in keeping with the sense that the usual rules didn’t apply, that she could take whatever she wanted, without consequences. Oddly, as far as I know, she never had a lesbian affair—although her intense relationships with her friends, plus a short spikey hairdo and a somewhat mannish bearing (though she had a girly side too), prompted much speculation that she was gay.

Once I had children, my relationship with JG deteriorated. Perhaps I offended her by gloating over what she didn’t have (unbeknownst to me then, she pursued fertility enhancement and adoption). Perhaps, in my obsession over my kids, I became a terrible bore. I’m not sure. So, although she grew closer to Other over time, she and I were not friends for a good many years. She said cutting things. And I must have said things that provoked them. I don’t know.

But as my kids got older, she took an interest in them, sought them out, seemed to actually enjoy them. Though she had once intimidated and irritated them, they now loved and respected her.

She was also beloved by her community. She lived in a kind of Beatrice Potter New England world, where people had woodchuck nicknames and old-fashioned village roles—there was a mechanic and a cooperative-grocery-store manager and lots of teachers—and an enviable tradition of Monday-night communal dinners for which a dozen or more people would gather every week. She may not have had a biological family (although she did have a husband for about a decade), but she had a very large and devoted communal family, which stepped in to take care of her when she became ill.

Although my friends were no slouches, and I had a companion accompany me on every major event of my cancer journey, I was astonished by the devotion of JG’s friends, who because of the nature of her illness and her singlehood, were critical to her survival and independence. Early on in her illness, they spent nights with her, performed fairly technical nursing duties, drove her to chemo and radiation and lab tests and doctor consultations, helped her research her options. Cancer is a full-time job—actually two full-time jobs, one for the patient and one for her companions—and JG’s friends were wonderfully supportive. Eventually it became clear that JG’s cancer was actually the equivalent of three full-time jobs, and an actual nurse was hired to fill in the gaps.

JG’s illness and my own occasioned a new intimacy. I made a resolve to love her unconditionally, the way I love my children, and there was a glorious three days when I succeeded. I drove up to Massachusetts to take her to a radiation appointment and ending up staying an extra day because the next volunteer stepped down. I tended JG as thought she was a newborn, getting up several times a night to measure and crush superstrong narcotics and feeding them to her in her “bottle,” the plastic funnel that fit into her feeding tube, then staying up to cuddle her and read her back to sleep. It was exhausting, and I was scheduled for a bilateral mastectomy the following week, so I felt raw and surreal. And it was scary because the drugs were so strong that I was afraid that if I measured them incorrectly, they would kill her. But I did it! I really loved her and cared for her with total solicitude—and she understood and loved me back. But we couldn’t sustain it at that pitch. I withdrew a bit—because I couldn’t actually manage an extra child, which was what it amounted to—and I suspect she felt wistful, maybe even resented the promise posed by that loving interlude followed by my withdrawal.

There were many sad muddled overtures in the past three years: the time I took her to a support group, and she was reprimanded for bringing her coffee tankard (her spit jar) into the meeting room. It got straightened out, but not before she was in tears. The time she told me she felt sorry for my children because I was so invested in them that they had no emotional privacy (I can’t remember her precise words, but they were brutally frank). The time she asked me to give her a yoga class, and (partly because I feared being exposed as an incompetent), I gave her such a short one that it could only have been a disappointment.

I admit it. I dreaded having her come to stay. I hated the spit jar and the way it looked like a coffee mug and made you think about the possibility of drinking its contents and the threat it presented of being knocked over. She had bouts of thrush, and I was scared I would get it too. But mostly I dreaded facing her sorry plight—which was just so damn dispiriting. She faced it, but I couldn’t.

But for my 60th birthday, she wrote me a beautiful loving note that startled me with its genuine lovingness (why didn’t I save it?). She wrote a similarly loving note to her mother on her 91st. Did she know these were last words to us? Regardless, I’m grateful for them. I wonder if it’s harder to lose someone you had an imperfect relationship with than someone with whom you had a perfect one.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Thank god for the Internet

Thank god for the Internet, where you can find checklists of “What to Do When Someone Dies” and instructions on “How to Write an Obituary” and “Plan a Memorial Service,” plus contact information for county probate courts. What did we ever do without it?

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Death watch

This is my sister-in-law’s last day of breath. She was diagnosed with head-and-neck cancer about four years ago. The primary tumor had metastasized and disappeared, so there was no “tumor bed” to excise, and her treatment was intense and painful and ultimately deadly: months of chemotherapy and, in particular, weeks of concurrent radiation seared her upper digestive tract so severely that she lost and never regained the ability to swallow, and the feeding tube that was intended to be temporary became a permanent necessity. The radiation destroyed some salivary glands and damaged the remaining ones, and she was forced to continually cough up and spit out the thick mucus that choked her.

Do you have any idea how awful it is to lose your ability chew and swallow food? To lose the carnal pleasures of “mouthfeel” and “umami” and sweet and sour and salty and bitter? To be forced to rely for nourishment on the grayish contents of a can poured into a plastic tube inserted into your navel? To lose the pretext of almost all social events? To lose your seat at the table, figuratively and literally? To be unable to participate in perhaps the most basic activity that all life forms engage in?

It depressed her, and she went to some lengths to find a solution in medicine to the defect that medicine had caused in saving her life. When it became clear that any solution might result in more damage—loss of speech the foremost risk—she resigned herself to carrying on as best she could and waiting for a breakthrough.

Then she began having trouble breathing. The mucus became so thick and her throat so constricted that she had trouble discharging the phlegm. She had some panicky episodes over the past few months. But a doctor assured her that such incidents were not life threatening.

He was wrong. On a plane from Tucson to Hartford yesterday afternoon, she choked on a mucus plug and stopped breathing. The plane made an emergency landing in Nashville, and she was rushed to the emergency room. By then she had not been breathing for 45 minutes. In the emergency room, doctors were able to restore her pulse and her breathing, but her brain has swelled and she is “nonresponsive.” She is racked by shivering and soaked by sweats as her body struggles to stabilize her temperature. Her blood pressure surges, then plummets. Are these hopeful signs—signs that she will live, and that her body is strong enough to have that life be a meaningful one? Or are they signs of her body’s losing battle, the spasms of shutting down?

A call from K reveals it is the latter. The doctors have made it clear that she is essentially dead, may not survive even till Other arrives in an hour. She has been maintained in this semi-dead state only as a matter of form (or perhaps forms, since I am sure there are many of the paper variety), so that Other can sign off.