Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Waiting with My Sisters for My Mom

I am grateful I have two sisters to wait with as we sit in the Green Room of Bryn Mawr Hospital.  Francie, the youngest, is intent on her iPad, sliding her fingers over the screen as she surveys a cartoon town, Springfield, home of the Simpsons.  Through a game called “Tapped Out” she has added houses, shrubs, sidewalks, and stores, as well as an amusement park and castle.  “I’m trying to make it as realistic as possible, but I probably overthink it.  I still haven’t put in stop signs.”  I comment that, given her goal of realism, this is a key feature to omit.  “Yeah, but all the cars are parked, so it’s okay.”

Rita, the middle child, in fact and personality as she is quick to point out, is playing solitaire.  There is not an actual card in sight, for she, too, is frowning at an iPad.  I am the oldest daughter and I don’t own an iPad.  I brought my book and Yankee Magazine and have not glanced at either one.  Actually, I am enthralled by Francie’s game.  “I put in all the flowers and vendors: it was a blank field when I started,” she says.  I'd no idea my sister had such city-planner skills. 

“Damn, someone just wrecked my castle,” she grouses and sighs.  “It’s okay.  I can rebuild it. “

Across from us, an old gentleman in heavy orthotic shoes snoozes, chin to chest, his hands clasped across his belly.  His walker is parked at his side.  A stately Asian woman sits alone in the corner, her back erect, her calming deep breaths so forceful as to be audible.  I hope everything works out all right for her and whomever she is here for.

My sisters and I are awaiting word of our mother.  She discovered a lump three weeks ago when we were on vacation.  She is stoic and didn’t want to interrupt or worry us, so by the time we’d all returned from our jaunts and she told us her news, she’d already had the necessary appointments and biopsy.  When the time came to deliver the lines she had practiced, Mom began her spiel with, “Before I say anything, I want you to know that everything is fine and under control.”

At 82, my mother is blessed with a busy schedule, good spirits, and great health… and she rarely, rarely, goes to doctors.  She drives her physician crazy.  “Oh, he wants me to get all kinds of tests, a colonoscopy, things like that, but I just tell him, ‘no thanks.’”  So my sisters and I consider ourselves lucky that she took the steps she did and agreed to this lumpectomy.

We are also lucky that she is a friend of the head of the hospital’s breast cancer department, a surgeon sought after by patients nationwide.   Mom has full confidence in him and to all appearances, has been totally relaxed about this procedure.   In fact, when I arrived from Connecticut last night, she was so chatty and cheery in her welcome that I said, “Clever of you to arrange this reason for us all to get together, Mom.”

The worst part for her, other than the biopsy and diagnosis, was last night’s shower with anti-bacterial soap.  Where I think showers are one of God’s great gifts, Mom is a bath kind of girl.  As she struggled not to slip on the wet tiles of the shower stall, she grumbled, “Never again.” 

So, free of bacteria and squeaky clean, Mom and I met my sisters at the hospital at 6:00 AM this morning.  She was bustled off for prep by a friendly nurse, and when we were guided to her side shortly after, she was dressed in the same blue-diamonds-on-white johnny I’ve worn for colonoscopies and mastectomies alike.  Who is the design genius now reaping big bucks off that pattern, I wonder?

Mom seemed at ease as she rested with one arm crooked behind her head, a pink plastic bracelet encircling her wrist, a needle access ready in the back of her hand.  A flat neon line ran across the screen of a monitor mounted behind her.  She laughed aloud when someone said, “Oops.  Too bad, Mom.  Apparently you’re dead.”

We were introduced to several nurses and the anesthesiologist, each of whom checked Mom’s bracelet and confirmed who she was and what she was in for.  The anesthesiologist observed that, according to his records, Mom had had a tonsillectomy.  “Well, yes, when I was four.  Seems a long time ago to be of any interest now.”   But there again, given her healthy history – and lack of doctors’ appointments – there was nothing else for the poor man to note.  Clearly he felt he had to say something. 

When the surgeon arrived, Mom said to him, “Everyone sends their love.  Can’t possibly remember all the people who told me to pass that along when they heard you were doing my procedure.  So there you are.  You are beloved.” 

He laughed modestly, then told Rita, Francie, and me to plan on about an hour’s wait.  A nurse gave Mom a shiny foil shower cap, which she slipped over her silver-white hair, tucking in a few errant tendrils.  She smiled brightly as we kissed her, and said, “see you soon!”  

It’s been forty-five minutes or so since we left her.  I go to the restroom and when I return, my sisters, in whispered giggles, give me a hard time because my flip-flops, true to their name, flipped and flopped so loudly I woke up the old man in orthotic shoes.  I sit down and study our three sets of painted toes, mushroom brown (Francie), eggplant (me), and neon midnight blue (Rita).  Not so long ago, Mom and Dad would have raised an eyebrow at painted toenails and told us they were tacky.   

Soon after, the surgeon enters the Green Room. He smiles reassuringly, nods, and indicates that we should follow him to a private adjoining room.  The surgery went perfectly.  He pulls out a pen and lined sheet of paper to draw a sketch of a torso, a breast, and a dotted incision line.  “Once it’s healed, it won’t look much different.  She’s in recovery and Joyce, at the desk, will let you know when you can see her.”  Francie picks up the drawing, folds it, and slips it into her purse.

Back to the Green Room, giddy we go.  The old man has fallen asleep again and the elegant Asian woman is gone.  Last week, Mom had told the three of us to Google “shoe ruins family picture.” “It’s in terrible taste,” Mom had said, “but it’s hysterical.”   We’d never gotten around to it, so now is the time.

Francie types it in on her iPad, scrolls through a few possibilities, and clicks on a likely choice, a group of tan, handsome, happy, twenty-somethings.  In the front row, a blond guy with the look of a surfer stands with legs planted wide, wide enough that the beige pump of the girl behind him appears to dangle, penis-like, between his legs. 

My sisters and I erupt in laughter desperately suppressed so as not to seem inappropriate or bother others.  From there, it’s an easy leap to YouTube videos of pooping dogs ruining family pictures.  Then Francie suggests we hold our breaths to see who can last longest; it’s been just under fifty years since last we held such a contest in our neighbor’s pool.  The seconds pass as we lock eyes and press our respective lips tight.  Rita’s hand goes up first as she inhales deeply, and ultimately, I win.  Not bad for the oldest.

As we’re taking a few breaths to recoup, Joyce comes to fetch us.

Mom is in Room #363.  We leave the green carpeting and sponge-painted geraniums in the Green Room to walk down the corridor under glaring white lights.  A nurse at the desk smiles as we pass, and we check out the numbers of each door along our way.  “363.  Here we are,” says Rita.

Francie knocks on the door and pushes it ajar.  “It’s your girls,” she says as we enter.   



Monday, September 15, 2014

Morning Constitutional

The day was glorious, sunny and warm, perfect for my morning walk.  I’d lathered up in sunscreen, daubed my lips with SPF 15 Chapstick, and donned Lululemon shorts, a camisole, sneakers, and sunglasses.  I grabbed a camera, just in case, my phone, just in case, and a beach button, just in case.  Ready to march.

Stride, stride, stride.  I passed through a shady stretch bordered by thickets draped in garlands of aromatic honeysuckle and multi-flora rose.  Wreathed in their scent and kissed by soft sea breezes, I broke into the sunshine by the tennis courts and saw an old man standing at the intersection. 

With his hands on his hips, he watched the white-clad kids at their lessons as they darted about swinging rackets and chasing balls.  He was tiny, wiry, and tan, clothed in a weathered blue tee-shirt and well-worn khakis.  I thought, do I take the left at the stop sign, miss him and march on, or continue straight and cross his path?  If I slowed to meet him, I knew we would walk together, a meander or shuffle, not the march I’d planned.  And I decided, without deciding - for my feet seemed to chart their own course - to continue straight. 

“World War II Veteran – Navy” was embossed on his faded green cap.  His smile embraced me, so cheerful and pleased to meet a beautiful woman (so he said) along his way.  His eyes reminded me of my Uncle Ding’s, pale blue, clear, and forthright.  As we fell into step, I thanked him for his service and told him that my husband’s father and uncles had served in Italy and North Africa.  He nodded and said, “I was in the Navy.  Didn’t want the Army.  Figured, you go down on a ship, you go down.  Wasn’t as sure of what might happen if the Germans got you.” 

I said, “So, what was the deal then, with all you young men rushing to sign up?  Didn’t know better?  Bravado?  Wanted to fight for the country?”

“Oh, you wanted to fight for the country, no matter your age.  There was this guy I knew.  Big guy.  Only fifteen years old.  Guadalcanal.  Saw all kinds of action before they found out his age and shipped him home.”  He shook his head with a thoughtful smile tinged with amusement, and perhaps pride at the guts and gall of that boy.  “Myself, I was on a destroyer.  Sunk a German sub in the Azores.” 

He waved away my admiration and I tried to picture the young sailor he had been on the deck of that ship. 

He stopped to face me.  “But we don’t learn,” he said sadly. “Korea.  Viet Nam.  Iraq.  Afghanistan.  We had no business entering those fights.  That killing’s been going on for hundreds of years.  The French got involved.  The Russians.  Got their frickin’ butts handed to ‘em.  Sorry…” he said, apologizing for his language.  We were quiet for a while, and then walked on, both of us watching our feet cross the asphalt, one slow step at a time.

“D’you think it’s like the gun thing?” I asked.  “More about money than principle?  Manufacturers of tanks, planes, and weapons keen to keep us in?” 

Again he stopped, and I mused that such pauses served as a little break as well as a point of emphasis.  “Big business runs everything,” he said.  “Runs Congress.  They shouldn’t be allowed more than three terms.  Who’s that guy?  Maybe from Michigan?  Just elected again.  Been in office for forty years or something.”

I snorted.  “Lots of people favor term limits, but no one in Congress is in a big hurry to vote himself out of a job.”

Our stroll had taken us to the water.  Feathered stalks of elephant grass swayed along the channel to the sea.  Red winged blackbirds sang and swooped low; gulls glided against the blue sky.  A burly unshaven man in mud-splattered workboots and a camo baseball cap was climbing into a truck parked by the side of the road.  He spotted my companion’s WW II insignia and descended to cross the street to us, his smile broad and hand out-stretched.  “Marine Corps.  1970’s.  Thank you for your service.”

“And you for yours.  Viet Nam?”  asked my vet.

“Nope.  Came in at the tail end.”  He touched the brim of his cap, said, “ Have a good day” and left us.

Every day is a good day,” replied the old man.

Certainly, this was a good day, with its scent of honeysuckle, roses, and the sea.  I could hear the whoops and shrieks of children playing at the nearby beach over the rush of surf.  The halo of white sunshine was bright on the sandy road and danced on the water in the channel.  Eras seemed to layer and unfold even as we stood there: the past seen by the clear blue eyes that met mine, my own childhood, and that of my kids in this place, blurring with this moment of sand crunching beneath my sneakers and the sun’s warmth on my skin. 

We stood at a crossroad; his path lay over the bridge, mine, straight along the shore.  I hesitated, willing, ready, wishing, to walk further with him.  A car had stopped and the driver graciously waved us on.  Suddenly, after all that meandering, there was no time to pause.  We had to move.   

“You go,” said the old man.  “I take my time.”  Of course I knew this.  We’d been taking our time together, stopping and talking and stopping and talking.  But I sensed he was ready to part; maybe I’d rushed him even though, to my sense, I had slowed down.

So I waved at him and the waiting driver, and, inexplicably teary, marched away.     


Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Cheered by the Ice Bucket Challenge

How can a shocking rush of icy water help those suffering from Lou Gehrig’s disease?  “At first I thought it was ridiculous,” said my daughter Casey.  “What if people just dump water over their heads and don’t give any money?  But the thing is, they are giving money.”  The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge has swept Facebook, and to some degree the nation, raising $100 million as of today, according to the Forbes website.

Casey and I were driving to her apartment when she described these initial impressions.  Her boyfriend PJ was waiting with a bucket of water and a bag of ice, for my daughter had been challenged and was ready to take up the gauntlet, douse herself, donate, and pass it on. 

When we arrived, Casey ran upstairs to change into a tee shirt and shorts, then returned to the driveway where PJ, my husband, Dave, and I waited.  While the men held up their phones to video, Casey stood with feet planted, a wide grin on her face, and a stainless steel bucket of ice and water in her hands.  Formally, she thanked her friend Amanda for the challenge and passed it on to several of her co-workers before upending the bucket over her head with a triumphant shriek.  Fun to watch; pleased it wasn’t me. One more reason to be glad I’m not on Facebook.

What a crazy idea.  The glee it gives me is reminiscent of that induced in the seventies by the streaking fad.  I remember squeals and laughter shattering the scholarly silence as a troop of naked students with underwear over their heads pranced through the college library.  While no donations were given, it was silly and fun in the midst of somber times of war, the draft, and social upheaval, a gift of goofiness that seemed a momentary release of breath long held.

How I wish we’d learned more in the forty years intervening, but the news continues to be soul-crushing: a young black man shot dead by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., an American journalist beheaded by ISIS terrorists, the mid-East wrenched by brutality and conflict.  One could lose all faith in our ability to cooperate, care, and act with kindness in the wake of these acts and the resulting grief and sense of helplessness.  And then, along comes an opportunity to help sufferers of a terrible disease through this loony challenge from friend to friend, colleague to colleague, and sister to sister. For a few days after Casey’s ice bath, my daughter called and said, “Did you know Francie, Matt, and Campbell challenged you and Dad on Facebook?”

Sigh.  My sister Francie, her husband, and son had taken the challenge and named us as their successors.  Initially we thought we’d just make the donation, but then a friend’s eight-year-old boy, yet another PJ, accepted the challenge himself and passed it on to Dave. That we could not ignore.

So we donned bathing suits, sat side-by-side on a stonewall, and enlisted our almost-four-years-old grand-niece, Ava, to help us.  She waited for the thumbs-up signal from camera-woman Casey and tossed a cup of water on our heads to start us off.  As tradition dictates, we thanked our challengers, and called on our son, Tucker, and nephews, Trevor and Christopher, to carry on.  With muscles tense and teeth gritted, we dumped the ice-filled buckets over our heads, and I couldn’t help but beam, happy to be part of this goofy chain of gift-givers.

I think of Philip Simmons, author of the inspirational book Learning to Fall who passed away from ALS.  I think of my college classmate Ben Brewster, a tall, robust, rower who also died of the disease.  And I think of Lou Gehrig himself.  What would they think of this freezing flurry of glee and giving?  I have to think they’d love it.