Sunday, November 29, 2009

Fall Out

The last time I had short hair, I was five years old and Freddie King had turned me into a boy. We’d been playing on the swing set in the backyard that connected our two properties. It was October and my zip-up corduroy jacket was the russet-red of the oak trees towering overhead.

Our sneakered feet pounded on earth packed hard to a dark shine as we took a running start before taking off, legs out-thrust, toes to the sky. As we flew, Freddie said, “Do you want to be a boy?’

Freddie was only a year older than me, a round little guy with sandy hair and a cowlick, so I’m not sure why I thought he could accomplish something so significant. But maybe at five, I didn’t think it was such a big deal, for I said, “Sure,” without giving it too much thought. I didn’t even ask how he'd do it.

We slowed our swings, heels dragging in the dirt to stop us, then jumped off and marched to his house. I followed him into the kitchen and waited while he dug through a drawer, shoving aside a box of thumbtacks, a bottle of Elmer’s glue, some loose rubber bands, a ruler and a screwdriver. Finally he located a pair of scissors.

Ah. Scissors. What was to be cut? Why wasn’t I alarmed?

For I’d not realized that the key to gender alteration was simply a haircut. So easy.

Freddie attacked my chin-length pageboy, his gaze intent, tongue caught between his teeth. When he was done, he stood back, a smile of satisfaction creasing his cheeks. When I checked my image in the mirror over the bathroom sink, I had to admit, he’d done a good job. I did look like a boy. Sort of waifish and ragged, with a trace of pink scalp showing here, an overlong wisp of hair left there.

When I scampered home and banged open the back door with the proud announcement, “Look, Mom! I’m a boy,” my mother was horrified. She’d been content with a daughter after all. A desperate trip to the barber helped only a little: the only thing that really worked was a total cover-up with a red cowgirl hat. Have to say, in old pictures of that year, I look pretty cocky in that hat.

My nephew Christopher, with his worn jeans, leather vests and boots can carry off a cowboy hat. I’m not sure that I can anymore. So I’ve purchased a wig and two turbans, and my sister Rita’s friend has supplied me with a pile of scarves from her days of chemo-caused baldness. I’m as ready as I can be for the day when a lock of hair twisted idly around my finger comes loose in my hand.

I’ve received a lot of advice about how to handle the hair loss from those around me: “My friend just shaved her head when it started to go. She wanted to show those follicles she was still boss.” Another suggested I cut my hair now and donate it to “Locks for Love.” “Maybe you’ll feel empowered,” she’d said.

I’m just not ready. I don’t want this to happen at all, much less do something before I have to. It’s stupid, I know, this angst over a temporary condition. Such a small thing compared to other losses and risks. But it has been a comfort through the diagnosis, the biopsies, the MRI, Pet scan, echocardiogram, and boob-exchange (forty-three year old friends for slightly bigger, round, vinyl-rippled, somewhat hard, but perky boobs) to look into the mirror and see myself, eyes a little sadder, but face and hair same as always.

A scalp-capped skull instead of my brown hair with its highlights and lowlights framing my face? It’s hard to think about. Hell, a bad hair day is tough on self-confidence.

Other women get this. When their faces fall at the news of my cancer, they almost always ask, “Will you lose your hair?”

At times, when I’ve felt the evidence of my surgery is obvious - the bulge of the drains under my shirt, the pink bracelet – I’ve been aware of meeting the eyes of women I encounter in Shaws or Lupes Drugstore. Every time, I’ve received smiles of such warmth that I’ve thought, “They know… and they’d understand how I feel about my hair.” And, as has happened in almost every conversation since my operation, I believe that if we fell into a chat before the stranger ran off to pick up a child at school, drop off dry cleaning or buy groceries, each would have a story of a friend or mother or sister and breast cancer. So I smile back with sincere warmth as well, because we are in this together. We are all women. We have breasts. This can happen. Depending on the day, I feel like saying, “Have you had a mammogram lately?”

I bought a wig and actually, it’s realistic and becoming. But will it be itchy and hot once I’m bald? Will it stay in its box in my closet because I can’t stand to wear it? Will I be a turban-lady?

So, I’m going to wait for the day when I wake to a hair-littered pillow to play with the scissors. I’ll go to a short shag, then a bob, then a pixie cut. I haven’t had short hair since I was five, but I wore it with a cowgirl’s attitude then.

* * *

The fall-out started when I washed my hair before going to a Conservation Commission meeting. I’d wrapped a navy blue towel in a turban around my hair after stepping out of the shower. As always, I left it up while I brushed my teeth and applied eyeliner and blush. When I shook my hair loose, the towel was coated with silvery strands.
Omigod, omigod, it’s happening. I thought fearfully. And that’s how I felt. I was afraid. I waived the blow dryer and brushing. My hands trembled as I fluffed my still ample tresses with cautious fingers. I selected a shirt mindful of what might better camouflage the situation. Certainly not black. A pale aqua tee shirt? Yes.

At the meeting, every one of my furtive glances at my chest revealed a scatter of hairs. Inconspicuously, I hoped, I gathered them in a nonchalant sweep of my hand and dropped them on the floor. No one’s looking. They’re focused on the meeting, taking notes… I’m sure someone will vacuum in the morning…

After the meeting ended, I went home to my husband, Dave. “It’s happening,” I said. He reached out for a hug and I snuggled in. I felt shaky, but I don’t remember crying.

“I’m cutting it off,” I decided suddenly and ran upstairs. Pulling my hair on top of my head, I tied it in a ponytail and took my scissors out of the cabinet.

“Are you sure you want to do this so soon?” Dave had followed me upstairs and watched my face in the mirror.

“What more do you want, Dave? Look at this!” I raked my fingers across my scalp and held up, accusingly, handfuls of hair.

“Do what makes you feel better,” he said gently.

But he was right. I was rash. I’m glad I didn’t shave my head or go for the pixie cut then. I cut off five inches, but it took two weeks for the majority to fall. The gradual loss made it easier I think, but once it was over, my relief made me realize the anxiety of every combing, every head toss, every shower, every touch of my head to someone else… for I was generous in lavishing hair on others.

Every hug left residue on shoulders. Each kiss risked a little spare hair. On the way to the car the other day, my daughter, Casey, sputtered and snorted, “Pft, pfft, pffft! I must have walked through a spider web!” No. It was not a web. She wiped her lip-glossy mouth and held up a straggly offering of Mom-strands.

We had to laugh.

I hadn’t seen my nephew, Christopher, since my surgery, so his hug on a recent visit was long and loving. When we pulled away from each other, he bore an unkempt fu manchu, my hair, caught in his scruffy beard.

Again, laughter. Sharing, sharing.

For now, for a short while longer, I can pass, although my hair is old-lady thin and wispy. Not my best look. But I took my wig for its maiden voyage yesterday – a brisk walk with my dear friend and walking buddy, Michele, and then dinner at Barcelona with my sister Francie, her husband Matt, and my nephew Campbell. Breezes did not budge it, other restaurant patrons were oblivious, and my loved ones were complimentary. Success. And I felt better.

When I went to the restaurant ladies room and caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror, I smiled. There I was! Not the gaunt, unhappy, almost-bald woman, but me!

An Earth, Wind and Fire song came over the speaker. I eyed my mirror-self and gave her a grin. Then we danced, just a gleeful little body shake, together. Maybe when this is all over, I’ll get me a red cowboy hat.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Bacteria and Bubbles

Once again, I’m in a doctor’s waiting room. This, however, is a far cry from the spacious, trellis and flower muraled room at the breast center. A far cry from the comfy chairs tucked in quiet nooks at the plastic surgeon’s office. A far cry from the bright, windowed drip room at the oncology center. Here at the infectious disease specialist, we patients sit elbow to elbow – with our various diseases – in straight-backed chairs that encircle the room.

A large, low, table strewn with magazines squats before us, its offerings within easy reach of every chair.

Four seats over from me, a heavy blond woman has propped her swollen, scarlet-red leg on a pillow. A cadaverous elderly woman five seats to my left smiles kindly in my direction. The friendly Hispanic woman next to me reveals, after we’ve chatted for twenty minutes or so – breath-to-breath – that she’s “not feeling too good. Kinda achy and flu-ish.”

Great. My smile remains in place, but I excuse myself to go to the ladies room. I’m sure there will be a hefty bottle of anti-bacterial soap in there. An exploratory sniff as I leave the waiting room does not reveal the scent of Purell, although a constant, cleansing mist of the same, wafted through the air system would seem an excellent idea.

After I wash my hands with plenty of foam and hot water, I gingerly re-take my seat, wondering what disease might have occupied this chair before me. Consumption? T.B.? Swine flu?

I select a well-thumbed People magazine and mentally flash on all of those thumbs. I sigh. I will wait a little while before dashing back to the bathroom and the anti-bacterial soap.

Needless to say, I’m not here today doing research. I have an infection myself – a fierce purple redness in the site of my former right breast that started with a fever a week ago. When I asked my sister-in-law Deb, a nurse practitioner, how I might have contracted this, she said, “Bacteria can sneak through any tiny opening in the skin. The chemo has compromised your immune system and you have two foreign bodies in place which are susceptible to attack.” My implants. And they are the cause for worry. I met with Dr. Philipson and Dr. Alton, my surgeons, at the hospital yesterday and they explained that a bacterial film could form on the implant requiring its removal if the infection persisted. After one look at my purplish skin, they sent me upstairs for an immediate intravenous anti-biotic and set up this appointment with the infectious disease specialist.

After a two-hour wait, I meet the doctor. He is boyishly effervescent, swarthy-skinned, smiling and handsome. He examines my flaming skin and prescribes a two-week course of self-administered IV anti-biotics. Yet another fascinating new experience to add to my medical journey.

After a quick session with the anti-bacterial soap and hot water in the rest room, I head home to await the infusion nurse.

Dave, meanwhile, has been out purchasing a squadron of germ-fighting soaps. I grew up with a pediatrician and a mother who believed, rightly I think, that children needed a daily portion of dirt to build immunities. In my current state, however, I am a hand-washing machine. Why, who knows which door knob or encounter at the grocery store, school, or a party initiated this infection? So Dave arrives home from Shaws with an impressive supply of anti-bacterial pump soaps for the kitchen and bathroom sinks, and anti-bacterial Dial soap for the showers. I have individually wrapped, Purell-soaked, towelettes for the car and my pocket-book, as well as a mini-bottle for my desk at school. I am sick at the thought that I could have prevented this infection through hyper-hygiene. Never before has health seemed such a responsibility.

Shortly after two large grocery bags of medications, tubing, alcohol swabs and syringes are deposited on my kitchen counter by an affable, but sweaty, deliveryman, Nurse Nicole arrives. She is pleasant and efficient as she lays out the series of saline flushes, meds and anti-coagulants that I will self-administer. She slides an IV pole to its full height (my own IV pole!) and untangles a five-foot length of tubing studded with clips and dials. Dave joins us with pen and paper in hand and the two of us scribble step-by-step notes as Nicole explains the process.

To start off, she affixes a needle access to the port that was installed in my chest three weeks ago for chemo. A small blue nozzle, or clave, is suspended from the port and I will connect the various meds to that clave for each infusion. As Nicole cautions me to wipe the clave carefully with alcohol between each stage of the process and warns me not to touch this plastic pointy thing to that plastic screw-top thing, my unease grows. Thank God Dave is writing down every step. Thank God I am reasonably agile of mind and fingers. What if I were eighty and alone?

Nicole guides me through saline flushes, a push-medication, and the tricky preparation of the drip IV. Once the drip is underway, I notice bubbles in the IV line. There’d been bubbles in the syringes as well and Nicole had demonstrated how to pull down the plunger and then express, slowly, a few drops of liquid before injecting whatever fluid it might be into my chest, but bubbles remained anyway.

“Don’t worry about them,” Nicole reassures me as I point to the line. “You need, oh, six inches of air before you have a problem.”

“But on T.V…”

“Yes, well, you don’t have to worry.”

“What are the chances I’ll kill myself with bubbles?’

“Not gonna happen,” says Nicole as she packs up supplies, pulls a pen out of her purse and proceeds to sift through pages of paperwork.

Dave and I have our lists and Nicole gives me a typed version as well. Still, I’m nervous about doing this on my own; day after tomorrow, Dave will be back at work. I’ll be alone with my IV pole and drip, scanning for that six inches of air. But the amazing thing is, despite the despair I felt initially about this infection, the possibility of losing the implant, and the discomfort of this needle access on my chest for two weeks….I know I can do it.

I have spent my life worrying about just about everything; I have brooded, Eeyorish, over my lists and obligations. But I have learned something about myself over the past six months – I am more resilient than I’d thought. Cancer, chemo and infection are hard, and yet after the initial reel into darkness with each complication, I bounce back. With Dave, friends and family as buoys, my strength and spirits remain fortified, afloat.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Glad I Had That Mammogram

It’s been a week since my surgery. I feel so good as I strut in for my follow-up appointment with Dr. Philipson that I practically high-five the receptionist. Theresa, the doctor’s nurse, sticks her head out into the hallway and I zip over to give her a hug. I am all smiles and she is warm and calm as always. Maybe she seems a little sedate, in fact, but I write it off as her way.

Dave and I take a seat in the waiting room and I beam at the women who are flipping through magazines, glancing up at the approach of footsteps, fingering the clasp of a pocketbook, each with her own fear and story. In my near-giddy state as one who has made it through surgery and is healing like a champ, I want to assure them that they’ll be fine. That they’re in the best hands possible and that the anesthesia cocktail is a dream. That recuperation hurts a bit, but the medications soften the edge. And that, if their people are anything like mine, they’ll be cared for with unbounded love.

Speaking of my people, Mom and Dad are coming for the weekend. They’ll probably beat us home in fact. Phone assurances have been inadequate; they want to see me for themselves. Like Dave, Mom has said, “I wish I could do this in your place,” but she will see that I don’t need a surrogate; I’m great and she needn’t worry.

When my name is called, Dave and I hop from our seats and saunter down the corridor to Dr. Philipson’s office. I give her a hug too, but her eyes do not reflect my jubilation. We sit across from her and I don’t really follow what she is saying about “micro-invasive cells.” I’m still smiling because the significance does not register. My lymph nodes were clear. The cancer is out. What more is there?

Apparently, the pathology on the breast tissue revealed something else. Cells that could send out seedlings. Cells that require preventative action. “The good news is that a drug, Herceptin, has been made available within the last two years that targets these specific cells,” says Dr. Philipson.

Wait. She’s saying it doesn’t end here. She’s talking about chemo. Scarier than cancer. Chemo.

“You did the right thing in having the double mastectomy,” she concludes. “but I know this is not what you expected. I’m so sorry.”

I am slow to process her words. I think about what might have happened if I’d not had that mammogram. What might have happened if I’d not gone for the double. What might have happened if the medical world had not continued to paw through my breast tissue in some lab somewhere even after removal.

I could have died.

But I don’t feel relieved. I’m thinking about chemo. And I’m thinking about Mom and Dad waiting at home for me to come dancing through the back door, maybe minus a drain or two, to be doted on. Again, I must tell them hard news.

We leave the office and I call my parents by cell phone. I tell them about Herceptin – so new, so specific to my case – and remind them that all of the other good stuff still holds true – early stages and clear lymph nodes and margins.

Mom and Dad rush out of the house as our car pulls up. They are somber, but glad to hold me, to see me. To see that I’m the same, minus a few body parts.

For lunch, we sit on the back porch and pick at a platter of tuna chunks, olive tapenade, roasted peppers, artichoke hearts, cheese and Italian bread. The food tastes fresh and tangy, but it’s hard to sit still. I restrain myself through the meal, then say,” I’ve gotta make a few calls.”

I fly upstairs to call Wendy. She had a double mastectomy two years ago and has been a voice of experience and comfort since I was diagnosed. She did not have chemo herself, but says, “Lea, I know many women who are going through treatments now. We still walk together; they go to work, they feel okay. There’s some fatigue, but they’re not sick. They look great. This is a disappointment, but you’re going to be fine and chemo will make sure of that.”

Okay. Good. Thanks. Breathe. Breathe.

I call Joanne.

Joanne had a double mastectomy thirteen years ago. She did have chemo. And she has a spirit that barrels through that phone line to hug me and lift me up.

“You want this, Lea. Believe me. You don’t want little cells floating around making trouble. Chemo’s so different now. You won’t throw up. I know you won’t. You’ll be tired maybe, and then you’ll be through this and you’ll be fine. You want this.”

I want this. Well, not exactly, but Wendy and Joanne have said the right things and I can breathe again. I am fortified. And I can go back to the porch and tell Dave and my parents what my two friends said and I can say it with cheer and confidence. And they will believe me as I believe Wendy and Joanne.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

More About Love Than Disease

Dave bends over one of four turkey-baster-like bulbs suspended in white cotton sacks from the imposing fifties-style bra that protects my new scarred, but implant-enhanced, breasts. Each rubber globe is attached to a two-foot long drain that snakes from my side. It is Dave’s job to “milk” the tubes and measure whatever fluid has collected. This will be an exciting new phase of our relationship.

Some men might shirk from such a task. Not my husband. A failed chemistry exam his junior year in high school crushed his hopes of being a doctor. He is positively giddy about exercising those untried medical skills.

His eyes are bright behind wire-rimmed glasses as he extracts bulb #1 from its pouch. He has drawn up a chart, to be typed later, with blocks to be filled in with dates, times and fluid amounts. My plastic surgeon is a babe – a babe he’d like to impress – and surely his attention to detail will not go unnoticed. Of course, he wants to take good care of me as well.

As he squeezes the tubing through his thumb and forefinger, I wince, anticipating a tug, but he is very gentle. He holds the bulb, trailing its accompanying drain, up to the light so we can study the level of liquid.

“What do you think?” he asks.

“Um, 32?’

“Maybe it’s closer to 34,” he says, writing down that number on the chart.

This is not an exact science.

He repeats the process three more times. Our heads are bent close together, both of us watching his fingers and the movement of pink fluid through the tube.

I love Dave’s hands. Where both of us show our age in graying hair and lined skin, his hands haven’t changed in the thirty-seven years we’ve been together. They are strong and boyish, olive-skinned, and I have kissed those hands many times in the past few days after they’ve plumped my pillows, placed on my lap a tray of juice and melon garnished with a green sprig of fresh mint, helped me dress, washed my hair.

“I wish I could do this for you,” he has said of the cancer and surgery. “I wish it were happening to me instead.”

I know what he means. I know he hates the fact that he could not protect me. But, oh, I am grateful for the roles Fate has allocated. I can do this. I could not stand to watch Dave or one of our children endangered.

Many people, after asking how I’m doing, will ask, “and what about Dave? Is he okay?”
He has a good game face, and I think it’s sincere for now. My prognosis is excellent and now that I’m home, he can contribute to my well-being. “I can’t have the disease for you, but I can keep the house clean, cook, and take care of you.” He is the best of men.

When we were younger, often he’d wake to the sound of me sniffling into my pillow because I’d brought myself to tears in imagining him lost to some disaster. “How did you kill me off this time?” he’d ask in a voice of kind resignation.

I’d bawl, embarrassed that I’d bothered him, but glad, so glad, to have him with me, alert and well and whole, in our bed. “A car accident,” I’d sob. “The police had just called and I asked Steve to go with me to the hospital.” This happened more times than I care to confess. Dave would always pull me close and nuzzle my hair, kiss my cheeks, and say, “It’s not going to happen. I’m not going anywhere.”

It was as if I were practicing, hoping that if I lived through enough of the calls and funerals in my mental-movies, I’d be able to deal with it better when I had to. I’m not sure what made me stop those sad fantasies. As we got older, perhaps I worried I was putting too dangerous a possibility out to the Universe.

After the bulbs are empty, we go downstairs and Dave sets me up on the back porch. He arranges a backrest of pillows on the wicker loveseat and brings me a glass of ice water with a wedge of lemon on the rim. I write a few thank you notes while he does a crossword puzzle. I read a little. Some friends stop by. After an hour or so, I feel as whiny and petulant as a child needing a nap. It’s all I can do not to cry. I look desperately at Dave and catch his eye. He rises from his chair saying, “Great to see you! Lea needs to head in for a rest now.”

A new phase of our relationship indeed.

After I give good-bye hugs and kisses, Dave walks the guests to their car while I head inside and upstairs. I stop in Casey’s room to fetch her pink bunny from the top of her closet. I’d put him away soon after returning from the hospital in the belief that I didn’t need him anymore. Guess I was wrong. It still hurts to stretch my arms, but I want Pink Bun, so I stretch anyway and then shuffle to my bed clutching the flannel rabbit just like sleepy Casey used to do as a toddler.

Our bedroom is brilliant and aromatic with the colors and scent of countless flowers. Yellow roses, lavender irises, sunflowers, delphinium, lilies, snapdragons. A garish royal blue feather boa is draped over one window – a gift from my friend Gail who demonstrated with a flourish: “When people ask how you’re doing, flip the boa dramatically over your shoulder and say, ‘I feel marvelous!’”

A photograph of a sandy beach, with cobblestones arranged to form “LEA,” is on my bureau. I cried when Hallie gave it to me. So thoughtful, so enduring, my name in stone.

A teddy bear from our neighbors sits in the window, a healing angel from Sharon on my bedside table. I’ve received books, pajamas, meals, pies and brownies. Every day, Dave serves me a plate of daisy-shaped melon and pineapple, remnants of several “Edible Arrangements” from dear friends. A wooden bucket next to my bed is crammed with cards, not only from those I love, but some from my sister’s friends, from Carey’s friends, from relatives I rarely see, from acquaintances I know only from committees and meetings. I have been embraced and buoyed by waves of kindness.

But right now, I feel lonely and sad. I wish Dave were here.

He is downstairs, playing the piano ever-so-softly. Is he playing for fun or a lullaby for me? The song is Tom Waits’ “Serenade,” one of my favorites. I think of this song as the sound track of our lives: it is beautiful and poignant and Dave plays it often. I hold Pink Bun close and sniffle at my good fortune in all the love that surrounds me, and in this dearest of men at the piano.

“Serenade” ends and he shifts to something else. The melody is familiar; what is it? He’s playing it slower than usual, soulful, heart-felt. Ah, it’s The Beatles’ “She Loves You.”

Since my return from the hospital, as Dave has bustled about, joyfully bearing the newest lovely arrangement to my side, vacuuming, or making the bed, I have said, “Honey, do you know how much I love you?” He always says yes, but too often in taking him for granted, I’ve been snappish and dismissive. Does he see beyond that?

The piano is quiet. I hear footsteps on the stairs. As if he’s felt the pull of my loneliness, Dave has come to me. We smile at each other as he enters the room.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Careful, That's My Mother in There

by Guest Writer: Casey Sylvestro

Four or Five martinis? Okay Ben, Dr. Sleep. One cosmo - two tops - and my mother is unfit to operate a stationary bicycle let alone have conversations concerning signing away her life and well-being. And judging by the drowsy droop of her eyelids and the baby sloth smile sliding over her lips, I’d say the 3rd martini effect you described has just kicked in.

Dr. Ben, the anesthesiologist, says the cocktail he has dripping into Mom’s IV will leave her with lowered inhibitions and drug-induced amnesia as well as a sense of peace. A nice improvement over the weepy, nauseous, muscle-tense anxiety she’s been feeling for the past two hours or so. Thank you, Ben.

When Tucker and I first walked into the hospital a couple of hours ago and saw our mom lying on her gurney, she started crying. She looked so teeny under all the blankets, and being skinny anyway, the hospital gowns kind of hung off her narrow shoulders. I didn’t like seeing my mom anxious and scared (after months of being strong and brave) and in pain from the stupid lymph node dye they’d injected into her right boob. I understand that they needed to see what they were removing to test for the possible spread of her breast cancer, but when I peeked through the door and saw my mom lying alone on the MRI table, clutching my Pink Bunny and looking weepy, I couldn’t help wondering why she would be left by herself. Where did that young and somewhat irritatingly perky nurse in the flowery scrubs go? Her company would have been an improvement upon being alone and scared on a chilly table, awaiting needles filled with dye.

After maybe thirty minutes, Mom came shuffling out of the room, confirming that it had not been much fun, and that the site of the injection was still burning. A sweet, older lady nurse arrived with the gurney and helped Mom gingerly lower herself onto it. Mom asked for more heated blankets to combat the shivers she’d started having to coincide with the headache she’d had all morning. We (Dad, Tucker, Mom’s friend, Carey, and I) fell into stride behind the gurney and marched down to Pre-Op.

Mom’s “room” was a little cubicle sectioned off with a flimsy wall and standard
hospital-y looking curtain. All those curtains look the same: that flowery, thin material that you find in doctors’ offices, school infirmaries, and nursing homes. If dentists had cubicle curtains, I bet they’d have them too.

Mom, of course, had to go to the bathroom. The nurse assigned to her (to us) came and escorted her to the ladies. Twiddling thumbs ensued. Hospital humor. Poking at and touching things we probably shouldn’t have; the hospital staff wouldn’t have had any reason to assume Sylvestros shouldn’t be trusted to behave appropriately in any given uncomfortable situation. Anything to lighten the tension, really.

When Mom came back, she looked slightly pinched, and confided that she’d had dry heaves. Luckily, (weirdly) it made her feel better and she settled down into her bed, looking tiny and exhausted, barely flinching when the nurse inserted an IV needle into the back of her left hand. Impressive. We waited for the surgeons and anesthesiologist to come and talk to us and answer any questions we might have.

Dr. Ben, the anesthesiologist, is the person I have been most anxious to meet. I insist that my Aunt Debby, a nurse practitioner, be there so she can look at any paperwork that may have medical language and fire any questions at Ben that Dad, Tucker and I hadn’t come up with. I don’t like having Mom sign a form that states she understands the risk of death from anesthesia, even though Debby assures me that all patients have to sign it before going under. I’ve heard stories about people having routine surgery and, because their anesthesiologist was a bonehead, they never opened their eyes again. I also read Coma last summer, a book about evil doctors purposely comatose-ing their patients. I’m not an elephant, but certain things you never forget. So I’ve been adamant about wanting to meet the man who was going to put my mother to sleep while the surgeons removed the cancer from her body. I wanted him to know that I would be very, very angry if everything did not go 100% textbook with my mother. I wanted to make sure he knew that I know where he works. I would find him. And I wanted him to see my face. And know that THAT face would haunt him if anything happened to my mother.

As it turns out, Ben may be my new favorite person in the whole world. A quick glance at his left hand tells me I can’t dream too far, but his blue eyes, sparkling behind his glasses, are tender, caring and incredibly warm and comforting. He reminds me, looks only, of Miranda’s boyfriend Steve on Sex and the City.

Dad, stroking Mom’s hair the entire time, keeps a running dialogue of medical questions about bodies and drugs and disease. Such a nerd. He catches my gaze as he says to Ben, “I love biology. I would have been a doctor if I hadn’t failed Chemistry.” (Dad would have been the BEST doctor. Talk about an amazing bedside manner.)

Ben’s sense of humor, and his clever way of integrating stories that illustrate how experienced, impassioned and skilled he is into his assurances of how fine my mother will be and what good hands she’s in, has won us all over. I think he likes us, too. He holds eye contact with whichever one of us he’s speaking to and makes sure to answer all of our questions thoroughly and in laymen’s terms. We all understand exactly what he’s telling us.

Well, most of us.

At this point, Mom’s enjoying the effects of her fifth martini. Actually, probably more like her seventh or eighth. The preparation of the operating room is taking longer than expected, so Ben gave her another dose of his fun cocktail. (I want some.) She’s slipping in and out of sleep, the occasional groggy wake-up making us chuckle with her utterances of “Am I drooling?” or “Oh. Why are you still here?” and “Where‘s Ben?” and (my favorite) “Gimme the Bunny.”

I’ve been crouched next to the gurney, holding her hand almost this whole time. The surprisingly firm grasp she has and the intermittent squeezes she gives my fingers makes me ask her if she’s awake, but no answer. Maybe not awake, but I like to think she’s aware and giving me squeezes on purpose.

The two surgeons who will be operating on my mother come in for a brief chat. Both are women. Both gorgeous. The surgeon, Dr. Philipson, who will be performing the double mastectomy, is a sunny, outdoorsy looking blond with a no-nonsense air about her. I find this extraordinarily comforting. I don’t want nonsense either. This is my most precious of people she will be cutting open and I want her to be very sure all the parts go back exactly where they should. I also want her to be certain she gets everything OUT that doesn’t belong inside my mother. So that vibe she’s giving off of “I know exactly what I’m doing, so let’s get the show on the road” is precisely what I would want from the surgeon taking care of my mother.

The plastic surgeon, Dr. Alton, who will be performing my Mom’s reconstruction, looks like she stepped off the pages of a Maxim Magazine. Also blond, hair pulled back into a knot, with pearls and carefully applied makeup, she looks fresh and powdery. Appropriate for a plastic surgeon, I think.

Together they describe what will be done while my mother is under, and assure us that they expect it to be easy and smooth. Nothing about what they describe sounds easy OR smooth, but not being a surgeon, I’m not going to question them.

Both surgeons march away to the operating room, and Ben slides back in place. It is showtime. Mom rouses enough to receive our kisses and hugs good luck (not goodbye). I’d been pretty good up to now, but hugging Mom sets the tears loose I’d held trapped behind my eyes all morning. Tucker’s holding it together, but he has that tight smile that I’ve seen before in not such fun or easy times, and he comes to stand next to me with his arm around my shoulders.

Dad has his summer tan, but I can still see the teary redness of his face as he’s kissing Mom - One. Two. Three. Four times before we watch her wheeled around the corner, and out of sight. She is clutching my Pink Bunny, much, I imagine, the same way I clutched Pink Bunny for comfort when I was two. Pink Bunny brought me comfort for bed; Pink Bunny’s bringing Mom comfort for bed. I never went to bed to have cancer cut out of me though. Hopefully, there’s still enough comforting power left in his love-softened felt and worn satin ears for that big a job.

Jamming his handkerchief into his eyes and puffing out a huge breath, Dad joins me and Tuck in our walk back to the waiting room.

“That was NOT fun.”

No, Dad, it was not.

Walking into the waiting room makes me dissolve into tears. Seeing all those expectant faces: Debby, my uncle Steve, Gram, and our friends Joanie and Carey. Almost everyone’s wearing pink, the Breast Cancer color. Steve’s pink button down shirt, Joanie’s pink button down, Deb’s pink cable knit Polo sweater. Pink bracelets, pink ribbons, Pink Bunny. Everyone settles in for the long wait. Ben said probably three and a half to four hours for the surgery and that no news is good news, so relax in the meantime. Yeah, okay, Ben.

Tucker’s googling on his iPhone, Joanie’s reading the book Mom wrote about our trip to Italy, Dad’s doing crossword puzzles (although I haven’t seen many squares filled in). The waiting room reminds me of an airport gate: rows of chairs, back to back and lining the wall, comfortable enough for short periods of time, but not for a lengthy sit.

Staring into the huge tropical fish tank on the wall, I notice a fat little red fish head down against the back wall. Dead. Honestly, people - this is a hospital waiting room. There shouldn’t even be a dead PLANT around. I comfort myself with the thought that everyone is too busy saving the lives of people, too busy tending to my mother, to worry about cleaning the fish tank.

Not being a stand-around crowd, we gather our bags and venture down to the hospital café after much debate of whether or not to leave the hospital and go get pizza. I’ll be damned if I am leaving my mother here and my sentiments win out.

On our way in to the cafe, who should show up but Carey’s son, Malcolm, and his wife, Liz. Last summer, my father was ordained online to marry Malcolm and Liz. As I hug Malcolm, whom I haven’t seen since I was maybe fourteen, and thank him for coming, he shrugs and says, “Well, we love your parents.”

Yeah. Who doesn’t?

Seated at the tables in the café, which to be honest really could be a far cheerier place with a little love (again, probably more important things to worry about in a hospital, but this is where my head goes), there are about a dozen conversations happening at once. Each one has the undertone of “I will talk about anything as long as it takes my attention away from what’s going on in Operating room 2C.”

Lisa and Lauren, my two cousins’ girlfriends, have joined us - both the most wonderful of girls and dearest of friends. They are a nice distraction, as is the food in front of me, until I notice that I have no cell phone service. Panic. Dad gave his cell number to the surgeons in case we needed to be reached. I call this to his attention and he bustles outside to check it. No news, but I am through with Pandini’s Café. Lisa and I grab our bags and head back up to the waiting room. We sit, adjusting ourselves in the oversized, snuggly chairs (Ha. Ha. Ha.) and Lisa eyes me down.

“You looked like you were ready to run out of there,” she says.

Yes, well, I may not be able to do the surgery myself, but I can be close by in case something happens.

It’s been one and a half hours. Maybe two. At least one more hour to go. Every sound of an opening door, every footstep down the hall causes my head to snap up. Mom’s was the last case of the day, so we really have the waiting room, if not the entire floor, to ourselves. Very quiet. Everyone trickles back in from the café and settles in with… whatever. Lisa and Lauren read celebrity gossip magazines. I diligently take notes for, well, this. And honestly, if one more Michael Jackson story comes on the TV, I’m going to throw my chair through it. Come to think of it, I wouldn’t mind throwing chairs around the room anyway. I feel like that might help alleviate the tightly wound ball of anxiety pressing to explode from my stomach.

My mother is a hallway away, stretched out on a table, asleep, while doctors root around inside her. No way do I want to be in there to see that, but I want to be in there to keep holding her hand. To make sure she still has her hold on Pink Bunny. To make sure she knows that she isn’t alone in there and that we’re all here waiting for her to wake up. I know she knows, but I want her to know. I want to be standing at Dr. Philipson’s elbow saying, “Did you get it all? Are you sure? CAREFUL please that is my MOTHER you’re mushing around there.”

I’d like to sit tapping my foot as Dr. Alton begins her reconstruction. “Remember, Mom said a smidge bigger. Are you SURE you understand exactly what she wants? Do you know how to not go huge? (Can you even order small boobs from a plastic surgeon?) And make them perky.” What good is going through all this if you don’t get great boobs after all?

I know these women are skilled surgeons. I know that. But I want them to know that they have my mother in there. And she is not just every other patient they’ve ever had. She is different. She is far more irreplaceable and important than anyone they have ever had on their respective tables. Same to you, Dr. Anesthesiologist Ben. Remember. I will haunt you.

Dr. Philipson walks in, startling all of us. Oh god. It’s way too soon. It’s been like two and a half hours. Dr. Ben had said no news is good news. I know it’s bad. She’s had a reaction to the anesthesia. Her lymph nodes have cancer. I think my heart stops as my friend Amanda’s face flashes through my head; she lost her mom to cancer. My roommate Karis flashes through my head; she lost her mom four years ago. I don’t want to be them. I don’t want to be them. I cannot be them. I am not a girl who can go through life without her mother, her best friend. No, no, no, no!

“Wow, are you all here for Lea? What an important lady!! Everything went smoothly. Dr. Alton is finishing up right now. Lymph nodes are negative.”

I love Dr. Philipson.

The sigh of relief around the room feels like a whoosh of air. My dad starts talking to Dr. Philipson as I cry - I am my mother’s daughter. I choose that moment to look at the fish tank. The chubby red fish is swimming around happily, scooping up stones from the bottom and spitting them out. Apparently, he was on the same sleep schedule as Mom.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Time to Get This Done

My toothbrush clatters into the sink and I fumble to retrieve it. For three days, my legs and feet have been numb and tingly and now my arms and hands feel the same way. Plus, I have a headache and a touch of nausea. I think I have M.S.

I gaze into my own sad eyes in the mirror above the sink and take a deep breath. Stop. Breast cancer today; I’ll worry about multiple sclerosis tomorrow.

But I hope I’m not sick. I won’t tell the doctors. I'm having this surgery today, no matter what.

Downstairs, Dave is nabbing a quick cup of coffee and toast in the kitchen while I get ready to go to the hospital. I hear him closing drawers and fishing around for utensils. The cats are squalling, and he’s talking quietly, so he must be soothing them and getting their breakfast as well. The toaster dings and I can smell the coffee, but I’m not hungry. I’m not allowed to eat even if I wanted to.

I slip off my PJ’s and give my breasts, this familiar body, a last wistful look. I have a moment of panic at the thought that I’ve made the wrong decision. Again, I stop myself. You don’t have a choice. No choice. For some reason, this comforts me. I step into the hot stream of the shower. Teeth clenched against the nausea, I rub my hands together with shampoo and lather up my hair. I won’t be able to shower again for a while.

My body has gone into siege mode. I am yearning for the anesthesiologist who will take the responsibility for my health and my spirits and my family’s spirits from me and let me sleep, unaware, for three hours.

I don’t envy my loved ones that vigil. My husband has told me how weird it will be for him. I have been with him during every other difficult wait – during his brother Steve’s surgery, during his father’s crises. Dave has said, “I’ll be hearing your voice. I’ll be expecting to see you across the room. And you won’t be there.”

Our adult children, Tucker and Casey, have come to be with us for the procedure, but they are still asleep. Dave and I were told that my prep-time at the hospital would be about an hour, so they’ll join us there later. As I towel off and dry my hair, one of the cats weaves into the room and brushes against my leg. He stretches, paws fully extended, in a sunny spot on the rug. I think of the joy of having the kids here, at home, in their beds. I wish this were a normal day, a normal visit.

After I slip into shorts, a tee-shirt, and flip-flops, I re-check the canvas bag of supplies I’m bringing to the hospital. Books, magazines, socks, toiletries and Pink Bunny.

About a week ago, I decided that Casey’s Pink Bunny, a floppy, flannel, tattered rabbit that spent his best years draped over my daughter’s arm from her infancy until she was about eight, would be a comfort to me on this day. I’d thought he might be in a trunk in the attic somewhere, but I found him on the top of her closet; he hadn’t gone too far after all. It made me smile just to see him. I held him to my nose to check for baby Casey scent, but he’d been washed too many times. He was part of her anyway, part of my life as a mother, and I wanted him with me.

It’s time to go.

After stashing my bag in the back of the car, I settle in and buckle up. Dave slides behind the wheel, but then, as usual, darts back into the house. He is gone. Still gone. Still gone. Oh, for god’s sake. Where is he? I get out of the car and march to the back door just as he re-emerges. “I can’t find the directions to the hospital,” he says.

“You just printed them out, “ I manage to bite off.

“I know. They’re on a folded piece of white paper.”

“Is it in your pocket? On the kitchen counter? On the dashboard?”

“No. I’ve looked everywhere.”

“Jeez, Dave. What’s it like to be you?”

“Hard sometimes. “ he says ruefully. “But I think I remember how to get there.”

“Oh, that’s just great.” I’m trying not to snarl because my dearest of men may be suffering more than I am. He has been so brave, never voicing a word of doubt as to the outcome of this surgery. But I know where my mind would be if our positions were reversed and I would be sick with fear at the possibility of losing him. So I am stone silent. Clenching. In annoyance and my efforts not to throw up. My head hurts and the back of my neck has tightened into a rigid bar. Like a junkie, I dream of release and that needle in my hand.

We arrive at the hospital without a glitch. While I sign in and complete paperwork at the reception desk, Dave calls Tucker and Casey to give them our status. He’s still on the phone when a lovely little woman with kind eyes and wispy white hair appears at a side door and calls, “Eleanor?”

I fish my book and Pink Bunny out of my bag. “Right here. And it’s ‘Lea’” I say automatically as I wave at my husband and rise to follow her.

“Wait,” says Dave, his head angled to hold the phone, his eyes desperate at my sudden departure. He reaches for my hand and I walk back to give him a quick peck on top of his head.

“Oh, you’ll see her again before the surgery,” my escort says pleasantly. Once we’ve left the waiting room, she adds, “My name is Louise and I’ll help you get organized. How do you feel?”

I don’t like to think of myself as a whiner, but I run through my lengthy list of afflictions, trying not to sound too obnoxious. I don’t mention my worry about M.S. by name.

“It’s the nerves,” Louise assures me. We turn down a corridor and she directs me into a narrow room lined with lockers and a low bench. She hands me two plastic bags, a pair of gray slippers, a robe and a johnny gown – the same blue diamond pattern on white that I’d worn for my colonoscopy last summer, I note. “Put your clothes in one bag, shoes in the other. The johnny’s worn open to the back. Once you’re dressed, let me know. I’ll be right outside.” She indicates a door to the right and says, “And there’s the loo, if you need it.”

I do.

I’m never one to pass up a toilet if offered, so I sink to the seat for a moment and then turn to my knees. Dry heaves. Yuck. But I feel better.

Louise’s voice comes, muffled, concerned, through the door. “Are you all right? There’s a pull cord on the wall if you need help.”

“I’m okay. I’ll be out in a sec.”

Deep breath. Deep breath. I am okay. I get to my feet, flush the toilet, and wash my hands. I straighten the johnny, pull on the thin robe and open the door.

I grab my book and Pink Bunny from the bench and Louise puts the bags with my clothing and flip flops into one of the lockers then leads me around a corner to the first in a row of glassed off cubicles. “Make yourself comfortable,” she says, settling me into an upholstered blue recliner. She unfolds several heated beige blankets and tucks them around me. After taking my blood pressure and temperature, she says, “A nurse will be here soon. Was that your husband with you?”

To my nod, she says, “I’ll get him for you.”

I’ve been holding on, waiting for her to leave, to indulge in some tears. They break through. “Oh, Dearie,” she says, just like my mom would have.

“I think I need to be alone,” I say. “Just for a bit.”

She leaves me with a gentle look of sympathy and I bury my face in Pink Bunny. What a relief to be here, finally. Sobbing, by myself, in this semi-dark room in my nest of blankets. My public face of two months no longer necessary. Today, I hand it over. Time to get this done.

A nurse with a clipboard comes in shortly with Dave close behind her. He smiles, with relief it seems, and gives me a one-armed hug so as not to block the nurse as she checks the plastic ID bracelet I received at check-in. He stands beside me, a hand on my shoulder as the nurse runs through a list of questions and says, “And you’ve had nothing to eat or drink since midnight?”

Shit. No one said anything about drinking. I’ve had boatloads of water so I wouldn’t be hungry, but I’m admitting nothing that might postpone this surgery.

“Nope,” I answer definitively.

Official business complete, Louise returns to lead me to a stretcher in a corridor. There is a flurry of yellow snapdragons and bustling cheer, incongruous in that stark setting. It’s Carey, my college roommate and dear friend, sprightly and perfume-scented with her so-short streaked hair and red-lipsticked mouth, eyebrows raised, smile-brilliant, as welcoming and happy as if she were greeting me at a restaurant for lunch.

Except I know how worried she is. Her public face outclasses mine. I’d seen the color drain from her skin when I told her my diagnosis. She has called me every day, after every appointment. “We are in this together,” she has said.

And then my kids are here, both with set, forced, “everything’s going to be fine” smiles, the same smile I’ve worn for a month now myself, and I dissolve, weeping on Pink Bunny.

Like an honor guard, Carey, Tucker, Casey and Dave walk alongside my stretcher as I am wheeled to radiology. They stand back as Gina, dark-eyed, tan and enthusiastic, steps in for Louise and pushes me over the threshold. The door closes slowly on my family, their faces remaining in the diminishing space between the door and the jam mouthing “Good luck! Love you!” until the crack disappears.

“This will burn,” says the doctor administering the dye. “We need to mark the path from which the sentinel node drains.” At least I think he says something like that; even without anesthesia, a fog has taken me. But I feel the burn and it hurts. Tears run down my cheeks and Gina squeezes my hand kindly, but says, “Oh, now. Be brave. No need for that.”

Excuse me, bitch?

Once the dye procedure is finished, I’m wheeled back to the hall. Steve, Deb, Dave’s mom and my friend Joan have joined the others. They line up beside my stretcher with words of love and encouragement. Steve leans over to hug me, then turns away. He had prostate surgery four years ago. This is hard for him; he is right there in my head with me.

I am wheeled somewhere else. I’ve lost track of corridors, cubicles and waiting rooms. The Team – my team – is waiting for me: the surgeon, Dr. Philipson, and the plastic surgeon, Dr. Alton. Strong, competent, blond, beautiful women in blue scrubs and confident smiles. In my mind, their feet are planted squarely, hands fisted on hips, capes flowing behind them. They will take care of me. I know they will.

Off to the side, leaning against a counter, is a guy with blue eyes wearing a shower cap. Only, it’s not a shower cap, he’s in scrubs. “Just waiting my turn,” he says with a grin.

It’s Ben, the anesthesiologist. The man I’ve been waiting for. He sits down beside me, close, face-to-face. And I don’t have to worry anymore.

Friday, September 11, 2009

I Hate To Do This To Them

Mom and Dad already called this morning to sing “Happy Anniversary” to Dave and me. I beamed, teary-eyed, as I always do for their milestone calls, in hearing the smile in Mom’s cheery soprano and the love in Dad’s rumbling bass accompaniment. We just hung up the phone. It’s 11:45 AM. My parents have no way of knowing I’ll be calling back in fifteen minutes, as pre-arranged with my sisters, to tell them the bad news.

I’ve known for certain for about three weeks. I’ve had biopsies and an MRI. I’ve talked to a number of my surgeon’s patients – wonderful women who encouraged me and generously described their experiences. I’ve decided on a double mastectomy, even though only one breast is affected, so I don’t have to do this – or worry about doing this – again. I have a surgery date – July 1. And I have words like “Early stage, non-invasive, inter-ductal cancer.” I wanted to know as much as possible before telling my parents and my children, Tucker and Casey.

My dread of these conversations has clouded each day almost as much as the diagnosis itself. I’ve cherished the fact that my role as the chatty daughter and strong, supportive mother is intact. I’ve marveled before at the success of my public face, but in this case the mask is not a disguise as much as a happy refuge where doctors have not yet weighed in.

I told my two sisters, Rita and Francie, a week ago. I wanted to give them time to absorb the news so they’d be ready, calm and informed, when Mom and Dad found out.

The three of us came up with a plan: Francie and her husband Matt would arrive at Mom and Dad’s just before noon so they’d be there when I called. Rita would be available in the afternoon, so Mom could rehash, as we knew she’d wish to do, later on.

It has not been an easy year for my parents. They’ve lost several lifelong friends and had their own health issues to deal with. I marvel at their stoicism. They mourn these losses, but still, when I call, they answer with exuberance. When I’m older, I want to be that way for my kids. When Tucker and Casey ask, “How’re you doing,” instead of responding with blood pressure numbers or an update on my aching back, I hope I remember to answer, as my parents do, with a good natured, “Fine! And you?”

It’s 11:55. Francie calls on her cell to tell me that she and Matt are pulling up to the house. I wait five minutes so they can park and get in the door before I dial the same number I have dialed since I was ten years old.

Mom answers. “Lea! Hi! Francie and Matt just dropped by.” So happy to have two of her girls checking in at once.

“I know, Mom. Could you ask Dad to get on the line too?”

In prior discussions, Rita felt strongly about this. She thought it would be too scary for Dad to hear only Mom’s half of the conversation; to see her face drop – maybe see her cry – and not know what was happening. He gets everything second hand. Ever since we were kids. He’s always across the room saying “What’s going on?” as Mom gasps into the phone and says, “Heavens, Dearie, how exciting” or “That’s awful!”

Clearly, Mom’s antennae are tingling; I don’t think I’ve ever asked Dad to join her on the phone. “Is everything okay?” she says.

“I’ll tell you all about it, Mom. Everything’s fine. Is Dad on yet?”

“Just a sec. Paul?” She calls, “Pick up the phone. Lea has something to tell us.”

Pounding. My heart. I hate to do this to them.

“Lea? Is that you, beloved child?” says Dad.

I picture the four of them – Mom, Dad, Francie and Matt – waiting in my childhood home to hear what I have to say. I am pretty sure that Mom picked up the phone in the “New Room,” a modest sitting room so named about forty years ago when it was re-decorated, the stucco walls painted pale yellow and the furniture refreshed with blue and green slipcovers. In my mind’s eye, my mother perches in the straight-back wooden chair by the phone, her silvery hair pulled back in a colorful hairband just as she’s worn it since she was a child. My sister, perhaps with one finger twirling a strand of blond hair, watches from a seat on the sofa in front of the window.

In the den, where I imagine Matt and Dad have settled, the shelves that held red leather volumes of the World Book Encyclopedia when I was young are now laden with antique toy cars, boats and tiny figures waiting on an old-fashioned train platform. Across the room is the bar, a wooden dry sink, scarred and scratched where I used to poke at it while chatting on the phone with my best friend, Edie. My father, I feel sure, sits heavily in the red and white striped overstuffed chair in front of the window, his usual spot, while Matt probably sits in the matching loveseat.

“Are you all right?” Mom says.

I take a deep breath and spell it out. Boom, boom, boom. No breaks between words. Facts, dates and reassurance. I don’t cry. Thank god, I don’t cry. In fact, I think I sound pretty chipper.

Dad, whose feelings spill easily into tears, holds it together, asking questions and
saying, “I see. Okay,” at my answers. Eventually, he says, “Courage, Child” and hands the phone abruptly to Matt. Mom is worried and weepy. Both are brave.

Just as I knew they would be.

* * *

Despite her dancer’s posture and athletic strut across the concourse of Grand Central station, Casey’s pale skin and dark-circled eyes convey fatigue. Her tight yoga pants and camisole are black; “Pilates” is written in white across her chest. Her auburn hair is clipped back in a loose knot that bobs when she pauses to cough into the crook of her arm. I can hear her hollow, chesty hack from where Dave and I wait on a stone staircase.

We’d planned all along to take her out to dinner this weekend – and tell her about my cancer – because we knew we’d be in the city for last night’s party. Then, she called a few days ago, her voice plaintive, to say, “I think I have the flu, Mom. My roommate will be away; I’m sad about Zach and I don’t want to be alone. I don’t want you and Dad to catch this, but I want to come home.”

Besides her illness, my girl is still grieving about her break-up with her boyfriend. I wanted her to come home. I love the fact that she still finds comfort with us. Plus, there are few things that anchor me so completely as having my kids home in their beds. But my surgery is in two weeks: I cannot get sick. So I called Debby, my sister-in-law, who’s a skilled nurse practitioner and asked her advice.

“Of course you want Casey home,” she said. “But wash your hands regularly with soap and water. Don’t kiss her on the face and don’t let her kiss you. And don’t hug her.”

My daughter is sick and sad and I can’t hug her? This is going to be hard.

I’m still wondering how to avoid that hug as she joins us with a weak smile. I hold my breath, lean over and brush her cheek with mine. “Hey Sweetie! You feeling any better?” I say.

“A little. I had two pilates clients this morning so I’m kinda wiped.”

Dave gives her a good, big, real hug. “How about some coffee for the ride?” he says. “We have time.”

“That’d be great, Dad.” She grabs her rolling bag and the three of us stroll down a corridor to Oren’s Coffee Shop. Dave goes inside to order and Casey and I wait by the door.

When will I tell her about the cancer? My girl who’s sick and sad? Who needs my comfort, not more sorrow. On the train? Tonight? Now?

Pounding. My heart. I hate to do this to her.

“I’m having a mandatory boob job July 1.” I blurt. I came up with that opening line weeks ago. It opened the door. It sounded harmless. But it told the story.

“Wha… Mom?” Her eyebrows arc as she tilts her head, her eyes puzzled. “A boob job? I don’t get it.”

“I have… a little breast cancer,” I say apologetically. For that is how I feel. So sorry. Sorry that I’ve brought this into her life. Into our lives. I roll out the spiel, watching my daughter’s face tighten from confusion to worry… to tears.

“A little breast cancer? What do you mean “little”? Mom, I can’t look at you and believe this. You’re so healthy. How could this happen?”

I’ve wondered myself, but there’s no answer.

“Everything will be fine, Sweetie. I’ll be fine. It’s just lucky I had that mammogram.”

Dave returns with our coffees. “I told her,” I say. He nods and we turn toward the ramp to walk to our train, but first, I hug her for a long time.

* * *

Tucker has been serious about life and his work since he was very young. While other kids were out playing, he’d be bent over his homework or the computer, absorbed. I’d encourage him to join them. “Come on, Lovin’! Go outside and have fun!”

Without looking up, he’d respond, “I am having fun.”

In college, again, he was wed to his work. I remember once I said, “Tuck, lighten up! This is the time life gives you to be a kid.”

He snorted and said, “Mom. I haven’t been a kid since I was ten.”

And in a way, he was right.

So, I knew that my level-headed son would take this news as well as anybody. That he’d listen to the information, process it… and believe it. That last part is important for me now, too. I want to believe the “non-invasive, early stages” stuff, but how do the doctors really know until they get in there?

Anyway, Dave and I had a long-standing plan to visit our son and attend a reading by two authors at a bookstore a few blocks from Tuck’s apartment. When my diagnosis was confirmed, we decided this would be the time to tell him. My poor boy – little knowing that this delightful parental visit would be an ambush.

As always, when we’re about ten minutes from Tucker’s place, we call him on our cell phone to let him know we are close. We arrive just as he is getting off work, about half an hour before the authors’ presentations are due to begin. With near perfect synchronization, he strides into view as we park the car on his street.

“Hey Mom and Dad!” His smile is broad, happy to see us, unsuspecting. I reach up to hug his tall, skinny frame. “Hello, my lovin’.”

“Hey Boy!” says Dave.

Oh this is so weird. The three of us so cheery. So normal. Yet everything has changed.

“We should head over to the bookstore,” I say. “These guys are pretty well-known. It might be crowded.”

As it turns out, it isn’t. We have plenty of time to purchase some drinks and muffins at the snack bar before sliding into the second row of folding metal chairs set up in the back of the store. Almost immediately, Dave makes friends with an older couple sitting in front of us. As they talk about the ease of city life and the convenience of walking everywhere, Tucker peels the paper wrapping off his blueberry muffin and I open a bottle of water.

Pounding. My heart. I hate to do this to him.

When will I tell him? Now? At dinner? Tonight?

I am counting on my boy here. He will take it well.

“Tucker, I might as well just come out with it.”

He turns to me with a bright smile, expectant. Why not? I’m good at this now. There is nothing foreboding in my demeanor or expression. I’ve told enough people that the words roll off my tongue with brisk confidence. I even laugh at the end of the stream of information and say, “Not exactly what we’d planned to do this summer.”

His smile lingers for a moment, an expression leftover when it’s meaning has flown, before his brow furrows and his eyes darken. “Oh my god, Mom. How long have you known? Are you okay? I can’t believe you’re able to laugh about it. ”

“I’ve had a month to think about it, to make some sense of it. And yeah, surprisingly enough, I’m okay. I’ve been lucky all these years. Everyone has hard times; it’s my turn, I guess.”

“I wish you didn’t have to go through this,” says my son as he puts an arm around my shoulder and pulls me close. We remain still and quiet as people file into their seats, as Dave chats with the couple about their travels, as the first speaker shuffles his notes at the podium.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009


I wish the phone would ring.

An odd desire. Yearning for a harsh jangle to jar my solitude would seem a poor choice since it’s rare that I steal time to lie on my bed as I’m doing now. Not reading, not writing, not paying bills, just lying still with my cats.

I could be doing something constructive, like going through a decade’s worth of paperwork on the third floor as I’d planned to do this afternoon. But I don’t want to. I’m frozen next to the phone. Despite the whirr of the fan, the purr of snoozing felines and the soft touch of fur to skin, I’m roiling inside. I’m waiting for Dr. Bolton to call so we can talk about my next step.

All three of the cats are keeping me company. Most days, Raven curls, a shining ebony ball, in the swivel chair upstairs by the computer, but she is on my lap. Her brother, Fuzz, is quiet at my side. Usually, if his sister has a plum spot like this, he lavishes her with a false show of affection, licking and grooming her until she gives up and leaves. Not today. Toby, a gray tiger like his brother, is sleeping against my thigh. Have they gathered here, a little phalanx of comfort, because they sense my sadness?

I am resigned to this cancer. If the biopsy comes out clear, it will be a miracle.

No one knows yet. I haven’t even told Dave about the callback mammogram. Dave cheery and oblivious calms me more than Dave worried, but I must tell him now.

I am sick at the thought of telling Mom and Dad. My mother lost a dear friend to breast cancer fifteen years ago and that’s where her thoughts will run. Dad has been making too many treks of his own to doctors - for platelet and blood transfusions, a hernia operation, and cataract removal. It’s been my joy to be a source of cheer and consolation; I don’t want to add to their worries.

My daughter, Casey, has felt adrift lately. She recently broke up with her boyfriend and many New York shows are closing; it’s hard to find acting jobs. The spring was a time of transition for Tucker as well. It is not a good time for me to have cancer; I need to remain an anchor, steady and strong.

I think I could do this more easily if no one knew. And yet, it’s all I can do not to call my friends and tell them.

Before settling in on my bed with the cats, I studied my face in the bathroom mirror. I pulled my hair back tight and tried to block the frame of brown color with my arm. Not so bad. It might be weird to lose my eyebrows, though. When drawn in on others, they always seem fake, but maybe with eyeliner, my eyes will look okay. With my health at risk (how weird is that?), it’s silly to worry about appearance. But I want to see the woman who has always looked back, not a cancer patient. I want to know I am still the same person.

Raven stretches with content as I caress her. I dab at my nose with a wad of damp tissues. Positive thoughts are critical and I don’t want to jinx myself, but I can’t stop crying.

Casey has a picture of the two of us together on her bureau. We are sitting on a stonewall in the woods in the fall wearing jeans and burgundy sweaters. The sunlight is bright as a benediction on our hair. Without meaning to, I realize I am imagining it on display at my memorial service.

Not good.

I wish the doctor would call.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Not What I Expected

The technician wedging my breast between the two plates of the X-ray machine barely reaches my shoulder. “Why do I get all the tall ones?” she says, laughing. Barbara is matronly and pleasant, the perfect kind of comforting soul to perform “callback” mammograms on anxious women dreading bad news.

After the breast-squishing and the hum of the machine ceases, the two plates open, releasing me. I shrug my arm into the long-sleeved green and white seersucker robe provided by Advanced Radiology and walk over to Barbara’s side of the screen.

The undersized breast that has been such a disappointment to me all my life has ripened a bit with menopause. It looks satisfyingly full on the monitor. It is also flecked with dust. “Not dust,” says Barbara. “Calcifications.”

They look harmless. Hard to believe those flecks might signal cancer.

Barbara tells me that larger calcifications are common as women age. She says that she has some in her breasts, as a matter of fact. “Sometimes,” she adds, “calcifications appear in layers that follow the path of milk ducts. Those usually pose no problem.” The ones on the monitor, on my breast, are small and randomly scattered.

“Well, that should do it,” Barbara says. She escorts me to the coffee room saying she’ll come back shortly with news. “Hopefully, I’ll simply say we need to see you again in six months.”

Two other women garbed in matching seersucker robes barely glance up from their magazines as I take a seat. When I am stymied by the fancy coffee machine, however, both rise to flank me and demonstrate how to place a white plastic “pod” into the well on top. “Don’t forget to put a cup underneath,” says one, an attractive white-haired woman of sixty-five or so.

I survey the boxes of available coffee pods. Hmmm. Hazelnut. Vermont Country Blend. Vanilla. Dark Magic. I settle for the Vermont Country Blend and regret it as soon as my cup starts to fill. Why didn’t I choose “Dark Magic”? What was I thinking? I could use some magic right now.

A nurse in royal blue scrubs appears at the door and says, “Florence? I need to take another picture.” The woman with the white hair puts down her magazine and follows the nurse into the hall.

She looks totally calm. Is her heart pounding like mine?

As I stir two creamers and a sugar packet into my coffee, Barbara returns. “I’ll take you to your dressing room and once you’re ready, Kelly will take you to the doctor.”

No mention of “See you in six months.”

With my right breast still warm from its squeezing and me now very conscious of my right breast and sensing - whether physically or not – pinpricks of what I perceive are calcifications, I pull on my turtleneck and sage green fleece. I slide back the door of the dressing room. Kelly, a cute young blond in that royal blue outfit, is waiting to guide me down the hall.

Dr. Wallace has shoulder length blond hair and bangs. Her name is written in blue script on her white lab coat. Her eyes are kind and moist, as if she were teary. Hers must be a hard job.

“Make yourself comfortable,” she says, gesturing to an overstuffed chair. I sit down. She pulls a rolling chair over from the counter-top desk and sits in front of me. Squarely in front of me. “There are calcifications in your right breast that weren’t there before. Sometimes these mean nothing, but we need to do a biopsy to check them out.”

So reassuring. But I saw those flecks. Random and small. “You’ve seen lots of these films, Dr. Wallace. In your opinion, what do you think?” I say.

She tucks in her lower lip. Her eyes never leave mine. Her skin seems sort of ruddy, as if she’d gotten too much sun over the weekend. “Since you ask, I’ll be honest with you. I think you might have a little cancer.”

I wonder if she threw the “little” in there so it wouldn’t sound so daunting?

I don’t feel weepy. I’m surprised at how well I’m taking this. So I am equally surprised when my question comes out a choked sob. “Why would this happen? I don’t eat meat. I nursed my kids. I have no family history…” I break off.

Dr. Wallace pats my leg. “You need a tissue.” We both look around the office, but don’t see any. “Just a minute. I’ll find some.”

I see her reaching up to a shelf across the hall and then notice a box of Kleenex on the table by my chair. Right next to me. Duh. “I found some,” I call to her.

She returns and takes her seat again. “I know this is hard. You take care of yourself. But you have breasts and ovaries. As women age, sometimes this happens.”

This is not what I expected to hear. None of this. I am an anxious person. I worry about my parents, my kids, the environment, war, animal cruelty and house invasions. But basically, I’ve had faith in my body. I never thought I’d be one of those women in a pink baseball cap or scarf.

Dr. Wallace tells me to call my doctor to get a recommendation for someone to do the biopsy. She asks me to sign a form indicating that she has given me my x-ray films. After I assure her that I’m okay, she leaves me to collect myself. I scribble a few notes. I cry – only a little - and wipe my nose. I puff my lips and blow out a long, rushing, breath. Okay. I’m fine. I can do this.

Kelly is standing in the hall. Her smile is sympathetic, almost apologetic. “Are you okay to drive?”

I nod. But suddenly, I really want to get to the car and cry some more.

Kelly leads me back to the waiting room and I walk through, dry-eyed and smiling so I don’t alarm the women with pounding hearts who are reading Vogue and Connecticut Magazine.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

On the Way Home from the Vet

Dr. Wallace speaks quietly as he examines Fuzz. He turns the gray tiger cat’s head back, lifting a lip to check the teeth for plaque. Raven - my sleek, black, beauty - waits calmly beneath my stroking hand for her turn. As always on these visits to the vet, I am proud of them both. Not many cats would endure so peaceably this probing on a cold steel table.

I glance out the lilac-framed window at the gravel drive bordered by a split rail fence, an overgrown swamp beyond. It is lovely here; if I were a cat, I’d join Fuzz and Raven in purring. “They’ll do that when they’re nervous as well,” says the doctor. Really? Contentment and anxiety expressed via the same soothing rumble?

After their examinations, the cats slide into their carriers without fuss. I pick up some free samples of cat food, then head out the door and crunch over the gravel to the car. “We’re going on a little field trip before we go home,” I say to the cats. Unmoved, they gaze through the bars of their cages with green, unblinking, eyes.

I take a detour down Orchard Lane, so narrow as to grant only one car passage. Lavender lilacs brush the car as I pass with windows open, breathing in the scent. The rocking chairs on the porch of a roadside farmhouse call for a sit, but no one is home. Slowly I drive past barns and orchards, enjoying this drive through a vestige of the town’s farming history. The dairy industry has collapsed and developers lust over these flat fields where cows used to graze.

As I round the corner and head down Sport Hill Road, horses browse on hay in a muddy pasture. Just down the way, spiked black staves encircle the ancient gravestones of Union Cemetery across the road from a pond encircled by woodlands. A subdivision of twenty ten-bedroom houses is planned for that wooded property. What will the White Lady, the legendary ghost known to drift about the cemetery, make of trundling yellow bulldozers growling and tearing at the earth near her domain?

The cats are quiet as I drive and ruminate.

The town is characterized by stonewalls, spring gardens, colonial homes and woods re-established since the clearing of Connecticut ended, since the water company purchased thousands of acres of land to protect their reservoirs. I turn left on North Park and pass through Maple Row Farm. Rows of balsam and Douglas fir roll away to either side, left to peaceful growth until the Christmas shoppers descend.

I backtrack in order to pick up some eggs. Joe is in the yard, pulling up weeds, serenaded by the gentle clucks of his hens and the occasional crow of a bossy rooster.

“Your daughter was here yesterday,” he tells me, straightening up, weeds hanging limp from his hand. He peers through his spectacles from under a hat worn low on his brow. Mutton chop sideburns cup a face browned by outdoor work.

“She did? We’ll have a good supply then. I saw the empty carton on the counter and Dave had a half dozen eggs boiled and cooling in the sink, so I figured we were out.”

“She bought two dozen.”

“Well, I’ll get a dozen anyway. We’ll eat ‘em.”

The door to Joe’s basement is unlocked. Assorted tools, paint cans, and stacks of newspaper share space with empty egg cartons and a refrigerator. I open the refrigerator door and select a carton marked “$2.00 – Please Return” in red magic marker. I leave the money in a cigar box that holds some change and a few singles. I love this honor system. It makes me sad to remember that, once, someone stole Joe’s egg money.

Joe goes back to his weeding as I turn the car around. I call endearments to the chickens as I pass their cages: the white furry hen that looks more like an animal than fowl, the full-breasted henna brown nester, the soft-cooing quail, the banty roosters. On some days, they are free to peck about, but when I spot a man walking by, straining to control two German shepherds, I’m glad the birds are caged this afternoon.

I drive past the police station, town hall, and library, and then up the hill, where farm fields border the road. The new elementary school, completed less than a year ago, is set back to the left. I’d worried about the effect of the construction on this old road lined with maple-shaded stone walls, but sometimes things work out right. Gambrel barn roofs and a silo house classrooms and an auditorium and, but for the parking lots, it would not be surprising to see cows munching grass in the playing fields.

Fuzz and Raven are silent in their plastic caves on the floor of the car as we draw closer to our house. The two cages are face-to-face so the cats can see each other, and perhaps they are calm because they know the pattern of these rare trips: into the vehicle, onto a cold shiny surface, pricks and prods, the hum of the engine and then, home again.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Feeder Frolic

A little girl in a white frock and oversized bow leapt at a fawn, shrieking, “Come play with me!” With a kick of slender legs and good sense in his choice of playmates, the fawn beat it into the woods. As I sat in my mother’s lap listening to the story, even I could see, though I was no more than six, that this child was doing things all wrong. On every page of the book, the grabby sprite showed no social skills whatsoever: jumping at the frog who jumped away, flying at the bird who wisely flew. By the end of the tale, the child had slumped to a log in lonely despair. Emboldened by her immobility, the forgiving forest creatures crept to her side, the bird perching on her shoulder, the frog harrumphing companionably at her feet. A happy ending of species co-existence.

Such a lovely, simple book for a fifties child like myself. No dying pets, ailing grandparents, or moral quandries - just a happy story about the futility of aggression and the rewards of quiet acceptance. Well, surely that was implied. I think of that little girl often as I sit here on the back porch. As long as I stay still, the bird feeder at the edge of the lawn draws customers looking for a bite.

I am witness, daily, to the reality of pecking order. Titmice and chickadees alight without fanfare on the feeder platform, while bluejays swoop in with self-important squawks; they prefer ground droppings, but seem to enjoy the satisfaction of scaring the little guys away. Doves browse in droves, but give way to just about everyone. In an audible whir of wings and soft coo-chidings, they disperse to surrounding limbs, resigned to waiting for leftovers. Gentle and unassuming, it appears that doves, as innocents often do, occupy the lowest rung.

Squirrels are annoying but entertaining visitors - the clowns of the feeder set. To my near-sighted eyes, they are sinuous grace in silver-gray, twining their way up the pole to hang upside down or sideways. They scold one another, darting in squirrely menace, then play chase in a dizzy circle. The squirrels defer to me, to the turkeys and to today’s formidable guest, but even the crows concede to these goofy gamesters.

From my post as serene spectator, I am ever-learning about feeder sounds and etiquette. A low-throated, melodic cluck and purposeful scuffling of leaves signals the turkeys’ approach. Tiny heads jerk on ungainly necks as they stop in to decide, on a routine basis, that they don’t much like seeds, then strut off, back to the woods. A new sound, a swoosh and thrum, jolts me to attention. A red-tailed hawk, unsuccessful in his salvo, settles his wings as he swings momentarily on a hastily selected, ill-suited twig of a branch, then takes to the sky in a thrust of powerful wings.

During the spare winter months, four deer joined the gang at the feeders. Dave would whistle as he left the house carrying his heavy white seed bucket and the animals would appear, cautiously, at woods’ edge. As soon as he retreated, they strode into the yard, nosing the feeders to release showers of seeds, sometimes rising on hind legs for a better angle. As much as we never tired of seeing them, it was sad that they were so desperate.

The chickadees, too, were made bold by hunger. Dave and I would stand by the feeders with arms outstretched, palms cupped around mounds of seeds. We could hear the flutter of wings through the trees and the echoed call – chickadee-dee-dee-dee. The black-capped birds flew in from every side and perched in the branches about us, trembling as they drummed up nerve. Eventually, one brave soul would start the rush, and they would zip to our fingers, land with a tickling touch of tiny claws, grab a seed and go.

It’s a whole new scene now that it’s May. Doves, cowbirds, jays and cardinals check each other out with flirtatious pursuits and awkward grapplings. If I were a bird, seeking a mate from those assembled, I’d flip a feather at that lusty gray mockingbird. Man, that boy can croon!

Unlike the befrocked, bow-tied waif in Come Play with Me, I seek to remain invisible up here on the porch. I doubt I’ll be nuzzled by a fawn or win a frog’s bulge-eyed admiration, but the animals seem to trust me enough to come close, and that is blessing enough.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Not So Clever After All

“Where do babies come from?” All parents dread that question. Dave and I, however, had thought we’d been oh-so-clever in avoiding it by conveying the essentials to our son Tucker with the help of a cooperative guinea pig (a real one) and appropriate TV viewing.

From the time Tucker was two, Sunday night was “bug night,” our family’s name for channel Thirteen’s show “Nature.” Through the talents of PBS videographers, Tuck had witnessed any number of mating rituals and births. Calmly and honestly, Dave and I answered every question our little boy asked. It was easy when the subject matter was zebras and elk. While he developed an irrational fear about deer shedding their antlers and could not even look at a picture of a deer without tears, Tucker was relaxed regarding reproduction.

A brief confusion arose when we acquired a pregnant guinea pig. At the time of purchase, we had no idea that Scratchy was female, much less pregnant. We thought she was simply putting on weight until we began to feel the babies moving inside her.

It was a wonderful, small miracle, actually, affording an unexpected experience in animal families as well as an opportunity for further sex education. Tucker wondered, wisely, “How can she have babies without a daddy?”

Dave explained that Scratchy must have mated while she was still living at the pet store. He re-visited the facts of anatomy and process and Tucker was satisfied, comfortable with his knowledge.

What good parents! We congratulated ourselves on brilliantly sparing ourselves and our son embarrassing pre-teen discussions about sex. Initiation to the topic did not go as smoothly for our daughter, Casey.

She was only five when she returned from a playdate, tearful and anxious.

“What is it, sweetie? What’s wrong?“ I asked.

“I. Can’t. Talk. About. It,” she managed to blurt, shaking, between sobs.

She fled to her room and closed the door. I could hear her weeping piteously.

I knew the friends with whom she’d spent the day and so had no major concerns about my daughter’s well-being, but what might have caused such distress?

I entered her room and found her prone on the bed. Her long brown hair clung in sodden wisps to her flushed, tear-wet cheeks. I rubbed her back and murmured soothing words. Finally she wailed, “Courtney told me how babies are made! I’d finally decided that I wanted a baby even though it would hurt, but I’m not going to do what she said!”

Oh dear. What could I say? It’s not too bad once you get used to it? Someday you’ll like it? No. Clearly that was the wrong tack. I stuck to hugs and a vague “It’s okay, precious” kind of approach.

Over the next three days, Casey’s crying bouts lessened, but her concerns did not. “I don’t want to think of my pretty mommy doing that. What if I decide I do want a baby, but no one loves me enough to do that?” It was heart-wrenching to witness her loss of innocence, to see her struggle for acceptance of this, to her, gruesome fact of life.

Tucker, meanwhile, was neither moved nor curious about Casey’s tears. She was a bit of a crybaby in those days and for a time, he didn’t notice anything all that unusual. Eventually though, days had passed and still his little sister was morose.

“What’s the matter with Casey?” he said, finally.

I felt no qualms in responding. Tucker already had all the answers.

“One of Casey’s friends told her about mating,” I said.

“Oh.” He nodded, satisfied. But only briefly. He looked at me, his brow furrowed, eyes puzzled. “But why’s she so upset?”

“She doesn’t like to think about Mommy and Daddy doing it.”

His eyes grew wide. I did not see it coming. He said, “You mean humans do it too?!”

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The U-Haul Is Running

June, 2004

Mom says good-bye with three kisses. It is continental. It is a talisman. It is a loving, but strict rule. A kiss on one cheek, then the other, then back to the first. An audible smack: Mwah, mwah, mwah. If there is some postponement of departure, she gives a hug, but no more kisses. She would never say it would be bad luck, but that’s the unspoken truth.

Last weekend, Dave and I joined Mom, Dad, my sister Francie, and her husband Matt in Vermont to close down the house that had been my parents’ Green Mountain State getaway for over thirty years. The disbursement of furniture and collectibles had been a gradual process since December, and now the U-Haul stood waiting in the drive for the last load.

I hadn’t thought this would be particularly painful. In recent years, due to busy schedules, we hadn’t come north very often. Just in case, though, on the way up on Friday, I ran through a mental slide show of memories: sledding with little Tucker and Casey on the hill behind the house as our malamute Kody danced about nipping our boots, snow-shoeing with Dave to Magic Mountain for a glass of hot mulled wine, post-Christmas gatherings around a tiny tree, and late night woods walks by the light of a nineteenth century lantern.

The seven-hour drive from Pennsylvania had come to be too much for my parents. In addition, almost every visit to their eighteenth century house was distinguished by furnace failure, plumbing glitches or leaks. The mouse infestation didn’t help, but it wasn’t ranked high among the negatives either. Brushing pillows, pot holders and beds clear of mouse leavings were simply customary rituals upon arrival for a stay. The occasional unseen scurry across the old floorboards while drifting off to sleep was expected. In fact, we had reason to admire the industry of those mice, as they demonstrated a perseverance and ingenuity that astonished even my two mouse-phobic sisters.

When Kody was young, her food of choice was Purina Dog Chow nuggets. One morning, Mom was up first as usual, making coffee and eggs, and caring for the visiting grand-kids and grand-dog. She fetched the Purina, surprised that the bag was so light - and even more surprised to find it empty. A search of the kitchen revealed a waist-high drawer by the sink full of nuggets. The mind reels at the image of a mouse bucket-brigade stretching the length of the kitchen, passing nuggets down the line and somehow maneuvering each chunk into that closed drawer. For all their ability to startle unnervingly, those mice were mini-miracles. As I said, the mice were part of life in the house, not part of the problem.

In all likelihood, Mom and Dad would have continued to battle the rebellious furnace and unreliable plumbing if it hadn’t been for the long drive up. Last winter’s trip was the final straw. Mom was at the wheel as they approached Manchester when she “tried to kill me,” according to my father. The road was slick with ice and the car went into a 360 spin. Mom has said she prayed to to her parents, my Byeo and Poppy, to hold any oncoming cars at the crest of the hill. Had other vehicles been involved, it would have been a fatal accident. My heavenly grandparents were vigilant, however, and Mom and Dad emerged terrified, but safe.

That scare solidified my parents’ thoughts about selling and the house was placed on the market.

As we hauled the remaining chairs and bureaus from the upstairs bedrooms, we closed the door of each empty room behind us. Tucker and Casey’s room with its red and blue plaid bedspreads and ever-so-sixties jungle print quilts. Now empty. Door closed. Done. Our room overlooking the sweep of the yard graced by gray-lichened prows of glacial drop. Empty. Door closed. Done. The bathroom with its impossibly tiny shower and Mom’s pencilled note above the toilet: “Nothing goes down this john but toilet paper! No Kleenex, paper towels or Tampax.. This is a country plumbing situation!” Empty. Door closed. Done.

Dad was having a hard time. Red-eyed and drawn, he went from task to task stopping periodically in each beloved room where fresh tears would flow. To our sympathetic pats and clucks, he would grouse, “Humph! I look around and there’s nothing but work to be done! The house needs painting, there’s two dead trees... I’m only relieved.” With a dismissive wave, he’d lumber off to another pile awaiting sifting.

When Dave and I bought our house in Connecticut, Mom had warned, “A house is not a life. It’s the shell of a life.” But just as the snail would not last long without its portable shelter, our lives are inextricably connected to the roof and walls around us. As Matt and Dave rolled up the fraying braided rug in the Florida room, they uncovered five gold foil letters stuck crookedly to the floor. “C-A-S-E-Y.” How old had my little girl been when she left her mark? Now she is twenty-one, a college student, living in Massachusetts.

Mom deliberately chose Johnny Seesaw’s Restaurant for dinner Friday night as we’d never been there so it held no memories for us. Both Mom and Francie took me aside as we walked into the restaurant to whisper, “No toasts!” Dad and I are the family toastmeisters, but it is rare that we make it through our sentimental tirades without getting teary.

“But I’ll just raise my glass...”

“No - It would be too hard and Dad would dissolve.”

Dinner was jolly and the food delicious, but I felt the absence of that toast. It seemed a disservice to the house and I worried that Dad would think me remiss. Later, once Mom and Dad were snug in bed, I leaned in to give Dad a goodnight kiss, explaining my forced silence in the toast department. He burst into tears.

I guess Mom and Francie were right.

There were no weepy skies for Saturday’s departure; the house beamed in a sunshine bath. Purple irises and fragrant day lilies nodded beneath the windows overlooking the yard. Dave and I dug some up and wrapped them in damp newspaper, hoping they’d take in our garden. We have hostas from Aunty Cam’s house at #3 Stratfield in Worcester and we’d love to have a living memory of Thompsonberg Road as well.

The lawn ressembled a tag sale as chairs, rugs, tables and benches were parcelled out near the cars and truck. Gradually, those items dwindled as we stowed them away for the drive south.

Matt grimaced as he hauled an over-sized glass cask encased in basket weave to my car. “Whoa, I think you’ll be taking some of those mice with you.”

“What do you mean?”

“Take a whiff...”

“Oh my God.”

“Yeah. A few must have crawled in and died.”

“Ugh - Can you shake them out?”

No luck.

Of course, Dave wanted to commemorate the occasion with photographs. Mom and Dad posed gamely before the house, each holding a broom or shovel, “American Gothic” - Ingersoll style. Dad’s smile was a grimace, just holding on.

The U-Haul was running. It was time to go.

We did a final walk-through, patting the walls, wishing the house well, wishing happiness for the new owners. They’d told Mom and Dad of their plans for a renovated kitchen and new master bath, but other than that, they love the house and respect its antiquity. My parents are pleased: they’ve done their job in furnishing the house with caring stewards. It helps.

We went outside and Mom locked the door. Empty. Closed. Done.

Mom’s cheery bustle had carried her through the packing, but her face crumpled as we gave the house our final tribute. There were hugs all round as we were heading in different directions. Mom gave her three kisses - Mwah! Mwah! Mwah! The U-Haul pulled out first with Dad red-faced and weepy at the wheel. One by one, the rest of us followed, a subdued four-car caravan.

“Good bye house!”

Good bye...

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Lady Bugs, Inch Worms and Mice, Oh My!

For the most part, you could not pay me enough to live in a brand new house. Those level-straight floors, counters that fit snug-tight and Anderson windows, thick as an astigmatic’s glasses, don’t appeal to me. Where is the character? Where is the history?

In our house, the massive beams that form the sills are splinter-rough and bear the slashes of the axes that hewed them. After two hundred and twenty years, they continue to do yeoman duty. It doesn’t require even close inspection, however, to detect the dusty residue left by hungry borers or the rot caused by centuries of rain. One would think this a concern, and perhaps it should be, but a builder friend checked out the house for us. He tested the sills by jabbing a key deep into the unnervingly pliant wood. After he withdrew it, he wiped the key clean of saw dust on his jeans and said, “Look at that. I can drive my key its full length into this beam, but you’ve still got more solid wood at the core than the width of the timbers they use in new construction. Those old builders knew what they were doing.”

I keep reminding myself of those comforting words, particularly when the yawning fissures and holes in this old house grant passage to an assemblage of creatures I’d just as soon stay outdoors.

This has been an exceptionally cold winter and I don’t begrudge anyone shelter. Even the mice that laugh at our cats would be welcome if only they’d refrain from leaving turds in the utensil drawer. As unnerving as it is to pull out the garbage pail under the sink and have a doe-eyed, Disney-eared, little guy leap at me, I could live with that. Seriously. Not so long ago, a mouse pursued by our cats around the edges of the den as Dave and I watched TV would have prompted me to shriek like a lunatic. Now, I lift my feet and urge Dave to do something, but there is no hysteria in my voice.

While mystified as to how the mice attain such a lofty and seemingly uninviting destination, I have even tolerated their leavings in the potholder drawer which is next to the stove, four feet off the kitchen floor. But when I took placemats from the sideboard in the dining room in February and discovered nibblings and turds even there, I was creeped out. Visions of running, tumbling hordes, reminiscent of those pictured in documentaries of the bubonic plague era, sent shivers pimpling my skin. It was “eewww” territory, definitely.

That’s not all. I love this house, but what is it with all the lady bugs? I have always thought lady bugs charming and highly desirable visitors. Some people import them to populate their yards - they must prey on bad bugs or something. They are the subject of cartoons, quaint watercolors, and painted handbags - always cheery in their rotund redness and perky spots. But in winter, they materialize, in prodigious numbers, on the walls and windows of our house. They crawl over one another, falling in showers from window shades and curtains. I would never have imagined recoiling from the ever- friendly lady bug, but ewww!

Sadly, anyone who reads this will give our house wide berth from now on, but there is yet another unwanted pest that has made free to join us. Gleefully tormenting us in two incarnations, sort of a chicken and egg kind of thing, we are beset by moths in the summer time. (Please note, pretty much every season is covered.) In different circumstances, I have been known to capture a moth in gently cupped hands to release it outdoors to freedom. That has changed in recent years as these dusty butterfly cousins erupt from cupboards and even from the guaranteed air-tight (moth-tight!) Tupperware flour cannisters. What is the deal? Luckily they seem more interested in the kitchen cupboards than the closets upstairs, so our woolens have been spared so far.

I am knocking on wood as I write that.

The moths are mildly annoying, but it is their delightful offspring that trigger the ew-meter. Dave calls them “maggots;” I insist on the far less repulsive “inchworm.” I picture Danny Kaye singing, “Inchworm, inchworm, measuring the marigold...” But I’m not kidding myself, it’s unnerving to see them on the ceiling, making their way along the shelves, curled under the lip of those Tupperware containers. I swear, we are not disgusting people - why the invasion?

I have, in fact, discovered that most of these intruders seem to have arrived in sealed bags of rice or beans. It’s small comfort because now every boxed product is suspect, the contents scrutinized for movement or dried carcasses while being poured into boiling water.

I guess these are just part of country living and I believe the trade-offs are worth it, but I can’t help a shudder as I scan the kitchen ceiling, tissue in hand, performing a maggot-purging ceremony.