Saturday, February 27, 2010

Parkway Connection

I dial Dave’s cell number, as I do every morning, push the “speaker” button and set the receiver on the bedside table. As the phone rings, I tug the quilts off the bed to fold them.

As he does every morning, Dave answers, “Yo Baby! How you doin?” His voice is muffled by the murmur of the car radio, the whisper of road traffic, and his unpredictable Bluetooth.

“You’re breaking up,” I say as I pull the sheets tight and tuck them in.

“Just a sec,” says my husband. The radio quiets as he turns it down. The road noise is hushed as he closes his window. “How’s that?”

“Good. So where are you?” I thump the pillows and pull up the coverlet.

“Just passing exit 42.”

“Hm. Slow going, I guess.”

“Yeah. I’m zipping along at 10 miles an hour,” he might say. Then perhaps, “Great view. I’m stuck behind a Hummer next to a particularly beat-up carcass.” Or, “Asshole just cut me off. New York plates - big surprise.” Or, “The sunrise is amazing. Gold and rose on the treetops – too beautiful. Can you see it where you are?”

No, I can’t, because I’m making the bed at home while Dave drives the Merritt Parkway south to work.

When he leaves the house each weekday around 7:00 am, I’m still half-asleep. Since I lost my hair in September, I’ve worn to bed a lacy pink nightcap embroidered with rosebuds and vines. To block any light, it’s pulled low on the bridge of my nose. Dave’s parting view of his alluring wife, therefore, is lips, nostrils and a rosebud cap.

He kisses those lips and we both say, “Love you. Drive carefully.” It’s a ritual we take seriously, for if he doesn’t acknowledge the “drive carefully” part, I rouse myself enough to call down the hall, “Honey? Did you hear me? Drive carefully!” Consigning my dearest Dave to the oft-wacko drivers of the southbound commute demands faith and ritualistic blessings.

Usually, I climb from the covers at 7:14 – the digital age allowing a precise time check. On rare occasions, I make it to the window before Dave’s Volvo pulls out and watch as he walks to the car, his computer in one hand, his travel coffee mug with a piece of toast balanced on top in the other. Sometimes, I knock on the glass pane and wave. When I had two boobs, I’d grant him a quick flash and be rewarded with his wide eyes and broad grin. Generally, I give him about fifteen minutes to get on the parkway, then call around 7:30.

Once the bed’s made, I take the phone with me to Tucker’s old room. I lie on the floor to do my exercises, Dave chatting away from the black receiver leaning against the bookshelf while I stretch, count and breathe. Dave reviews road conditions, we relate any dreams of interest, and report on how we slept. Once we’ve covered the preliminaries, we delve into discussions of school issues and intrigues, our kids’ jobs and their significant others, cancer concerns, retirement plans, and - endlessly – my anxieties. What do people do without a partner so patient?

“Where are you now?” I ask periodically.

For a long time, one of the markers for Dave’s progress down the Merritt was a stunted pine that grew in the median strip. It bent this way then that, like a once graceful woman now twisted with age. It was Dave’s favorite tree. Last July, soon after my mastectomy, the tree was cut down. Dave understands; as a Merritt driver he’s conscious of limbs falling, but still, he misses that tree.

These car chats take place every weekday morning, even though we’ve just passed an evening and night together. But when competing with cooking, side-by-side keyboard tapping, a glimpse on the way out to night meetings, or phone call catch-ups with family and friends, presence is fleeting and taken for granted. During morning calls, despite radio crackle and my abs-work-out count, our connection is strong. We focus on each other and listen.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Done... Right?

At this point, I thought there was nothing the oncologist could say that would disturb me. I’m in the final stretch, after all. A month ago, perusing the mail, much less responding to emails, was overwhelming. My to-do list was a reproach on paper, for I had not the energy to visit the attic, much less sift through old paperwork, organize shelves and haul bags of cast-offs to Goodwill. I would make it through my workday and head home exhausted; running errands or attending a meeting afterwards was not a possibility.

Gone now the lethargy of those chemo days. I’ve straightened the attic and made that Goodwill run, relishing the pleasure of pounding feet and powerful legs with each dash up the stairs. After a day of work followed by a trip to the dry cleaners and the grocery store, I can’t help but smile when I arrive home, sling my purse over my shoulder, grab a shopping bag in one hand and a full complement of clean shirts in the other, then nudge the car door shut with my hip.

But for my edgy-lesbian butch hairdo, I’m back.

This busy, competent Lea is a much-missed old friend and oh, I welcome her! My chemo treatments ended in November, thank god, and the Herceptin drips, which will continue until August, have no side effects. I feel great and, to all intents and purposes, I am done with this cancer.

So I thought.

During my last visit, Dr. Lawden called me from the infusion room into his office for a consultation. I sat in a beige chair, my IV stand with its bag of fluid tethered to my chest by a thin plastic tube. The doctor asked about neuropathy, or numbness of the hands and feet, which I was delighted to report, was not an issue. “Still active?” he asked as if perhaps, despite his directive that I exercise forty-five minutes a day, I’d opted for indolence. I nodded, masking a mental eye-roll.

We discussed diet and sleep patterns and he checked my fingernails. I haven’t bitten my nails since I was a kid, but another charming chemo manifestation is wavy, peeling nails. Who knew? I find myself gnawing away like some anxious teen and my nails look awful. “Part of post-chemo recuperation,” he said.

With mutual smiles and the closing of a manila file, we wrapped up. I was on my way down the hall, pushing the IV stand before me, when he called, “Lea! Wait! I forgot to discuss the main purpose of our consultation.”

I had no reason to be suspicious.

“We need to talk about hormone therapy once your treatments are over,” he said.

“Hormone therapy?”

“Yes. Chemo is generally followed by a course of Tamoxifen.”

I’d heard of this drug, but it had nothing to do with me. I was done. I thought that after surgery and chemo any cancer that had a chance in hell of causing a problem was banished. I should have learned from all of this, however, that nothing is certain.

I am not one to talk back or question, and certainly not to a doctor, but I’d had enough of bad news and flattened spirits. “No one mentioned further treatments,” I said, my arms crossed defiantly across my chest.

My tone must have given him pause, for he said, “I thought I’d covered it; sorry if I didn’t. You’ve had a lot to absorb. I’m going to research your case some more. Weigh the risks and benefits…”

“Risks?” I cut in.

“Yes, well. As I said, I’m going to study your case and then we’ll review the specifics of maintenance.”

Maintenance? Damn.

Monday, February 1, 2010

A Cat's Life

Our cat, Fuzz, is dying. Five days ago, he started refusing food, even the enticements of well-mashed tuna and the bowls of milk that he’d nibbled and lapped, listlessly, for a few weeks now.

I took him to the vet last month when his usual voracious appetite, the-appetite-that-compelled-us-to-feed-him-separately-from-his-sister-Raven-because-he-was-such-a-pig, had waned. Blood tests indicated kidney failure, so he was put on a diet of special food and anti-biotics. For a while, he loved his new regimen, but that interest faded too.

He is weak and disoriented. The soft gray-striped fur that once swathed a corpulent body hangs loose from his bony spine and haunches. He staggers to his water bowl, compelled by muscle memory perhaps, and sits and stares, without drinking.

Still, he surprises us. Even though we’ve been carrying him up and down stairs to spare him strain, three days ago I had to fetch him from the top of the water heater – a good six feet high. And more recently, after he’d slept for twelve hours straight and we felt sure the end was near, he jumped on our bed in the middle of the night.

When I hold my old friend, I can feel his heart beating beneath my fingers and I am moved to tears at the mysterious force that compels that rhythm, a force beyond health, beyond sustenance.

Sixteen years ago, Fuzz and Raven were born in our house of a lovely, but promiscuous black cat named Melissa. In her youth, she lived free because her owner was constructing a house across the street and the two camped out regularly in an old red barn on the property. Our daughter, Casey, befriended them both, but we cautioned her against loving a cat who regularly crossed a road. The builder, as it turned out, offered Melissa as a gift, but we were a dog family, and our 100-pound malamute, Kody, was unpredictable when it came to cats. Actually, she was predictable and that was the problem.

But, after a lengthy and cautious period of adjustment, the two animals made their peace and Melissa moved in with us. Soon thereafter, we noticed she’d gained weight. About the same time, we saw a handsome, rakish, lady’s man of a tiger cat hanging around the barn. Now that she was ours, Melissa’s days of outdoor roaming were over, but evidently she and the tiger had shared some good times. Our new cat was pregnant.

We loved to hold her as her belly grew, feeling the flutter-kicks of tiny kittens – new life! - beneath the rapid beat of their mother’s heart.

Our children, Tucker and Casey, were at school when Melissa announced it was Time. She wove about my legs, yowling, until I followed her to the spot she’d chosen on the third floor, a gap between the wall and an unused toilet in an unused bathroom, far from Kody’s keen nose. I gathered a large sturdy box and a wad of towels, fashioned a soft nest, and then dashed to the car to pick up the kids so they could witness the birth.

And so, we were there from the beginning when Fuzz, Raven, and their two siblings joined us in this world. Toby and Cow Pie found homes with my mother-in-law and a friend. Raven – ebony black like her mother, and Fuzz – a miniature of his wandering gray-striped father – stayed with us.

Even as the tiniest kitten, Fuzz established himself as the alpha male. He shoved his litter-mates aside while nursing and grew fat and brassy. There was no question that we would keep this adorable fluffy cat with his long white whiskers. Raven, meanwhile, was the runt; she would have died if we hadn’t held her brothers at bay to give her a chance at the milk. She is sleek, beautiful and elegant now, but as a baby she was scrawny and we suspected she might have brain damage.

Meanwhile, Kody seemed to sense that something new and alluring had taken up residence; she spent a lot of time sniffing at the door to the third floor stairs. But we were careful that the babies remained safe, away from the dog.

At least, most of us were.

It was Dave who introduced Fuzz to Kody. The cat was but a handful, and my husband was cuddling him when our malamute entered the room. Holding the cat cupped close in his hands, Dave allowed the dog a sniff and a peek. That was all it took and Kody grabbed the kitten by the head and tossed him in the air. Dave suspected his own days at the house were numbered as he reached out, terrified, to catch the baby as it fell.

But Fuzz was purring, unharmed.

An odd friendship formed with that first encounter. The two animals would nap snuggled together when not enjoying their favorite game, a re-enactment of their meeting, called “Kill the Cat.” As visitors watched, horrified, Kody would take Fuzz’s head in her mouth and swing him about on the floor… and Fuzz loved it.

As Kody neared her end, at the age of fifteen, the two cats kept her company, curled by her side on a royal blue dog bed. Dave snapped a picture of the three old friends together the day before Kody died, but the camera jammed. We assumed the picture was lost.

Weeks after Kody’s death, we picked up a packet of pictures at the camera store. As she flipped through the shots, Casey gasped and said, “Look Mom, they’re kissing you!” Somehow the lost photograph had survived, superimposed on another picture of me with two friends. Ghostly images of Fuzz and Kody flank me and appear to be kissing my cheeks. A loving good-bye from the Other Side.

While many cats are aloof, Fuzz is companionable and responsive. If a welcoming lap is available, he takes it. If a body is curled, cozy, for a snooze, he snuggles into the crook of an arm or the curve of a knee. If one of us is sick or sad, he can sense it, and arrives to offer warmth and comfort.

Of course, he and his sister leave us presents as well. Recently, I picked up a tuft of shredded beige yarn kneaded by cat claws from my grandmother’s hooked rug. I transferred it to my other hand and reached for another loose cluster on the floor. I was inches from the nondescript scrap of brown when I noticed the eyes. Two eyes staring at me, mid-scrap.

It was a mouse scalp with eyes. This is not the type of gift that I like, beloved cats.

Melissa passed away years ago, hit by a car when she slipped out a basement door mistakenly left ajar during a furnace cleaning. Tucker and Casey have grown up and left home. For awhile now, Fuzz and Raven have been the kids we come home to, but Fuzz is leaving soon.