Hook, Line and Sinker

Two years ago I discovered an app for my Kindle that allows me to scroll through a list of free books on the topics of my choice and decide which, if any, are those I’d like to read. Many of these novels are the initial efforts of a brand-new author; others are first books in what is to be a series.  A few are older books that the author chooses to promote in hopes of garnering new readership.

For someone who reads constantly, as I do, this should be (and often is) a great boon. It provides me the opportunity to discover authors whom I’ve never before encountered, and to enjoy reading without the worry and hassle of returning books on time to the library.  I am able to satisfy my voracious reading habits without incurring the national debt to satisfy my addiction.  In theory, then, this app provides me wonderful benefits.

In practice…not so much.

Make no mistake: I use care in selecting the books I download.  After finding a novel listed on the app, I thoroughly investigate it. I glance swiftly through the plot description, deciding if the story even sounds like something that interests me.  This can be tricky, as anyone who wants to select a good book knows.  In any case, I am persnickety. I enjoy light mysteries, but I don’t want too much blood and gore; “thriller” is not, to me, a leisure-time activity.  I’m a nervous person by nature, so I don’t need highly suspenseful novels to provoke an anxiety attack!  I also prefer that my books not be drenched in romance; heaving chests and tight buttocks and kissable lips are irritating, not titillating, and I find the romance-novel style names (Chance, Promise, Lark, Wolfe…) utterly laughable.  Nor do I want blow-by-blow descriptions of the sex act.  In my view, sex is something best done, not described.

Should a novel pass the sniff test in all these areas, I then read both the best review (the gushingly-favorable 5-Star review that was probably written by a family member or best friend) and at least two or more of the worst reviews. Those are usually the deciding factor.  If the poor reviews contain any complaints about the writing—grammar, spelling, punctuation or editing—the book is a no-go. (Disclaimer: Never doubt that I realize my own writing is hardly error-free; of that I’m  all too sadly aware.  But I am not asking a weary public to pay hard-earned money for what I’ve written.)

If a novel that I’m considering passes all my onerous qualifications, I finally take the plunge and download it.

Despite my care in selecting each book, though, I’m often disappointed. And so it is that, all too frequently, I’m reminded of the time my mother had chosen a novel at the library on one of her favorite subjects, the early American settlers.  Using just as careful a selection process as I, she nevertheless found one book to be so bad–so utterly, terribly, reprehensibly, abysmally awful–that the only thing she could possibly do was read some of the more unintentionally-hilarious passages aloud to us kids.  My mother read aloud very well: expressively, and with perfect diction.  Delivered in her faultless and precise voice, the dreadful passages of that appalling book were so unbearably funny that we literally collapsed on the floor, clutching our sides as we laughed until we hurt.

I still laugh just remembering it.  Such a comically cruel thing to do to the minds of young people!  Some of the more painfully bad sentences from that book are burned into my memory to this day.

Too late, Mom and I discovered the words “Vanity Publisher?!” penciled lightly on the flyleaf of that appalling novel. It is notable that the librarians had not erased the words.

In the world of e-books, half the novels today are essentially vanity publishing specimens. Many of these so-called authors should have their keyboards smashed and their fingers broken for the atrocities they commit in the name of literature.  More terrifying yet is the fact that a reading public swallows these works, hook, line, and sinker.

Writing a book is hard work, and those unequipped to undertake the job should not be doing it (and I include myself in that assessment). But if they insist on doing so, those authors should at the very least have the intelligence and grace to haunt the halls of their local college, find some starving graduate student aiming for a Masters in literature, and offer her or him a few paltry bucks to edit their “masterpieces”.

The rest of us might have fewer laughs that way, but we’d sure as hell burns be hitting the “Delete!” button less.

The Cat Who Thinks He Is a Dog

I am owned by a big orange tomcat who somehow missed that memo about cats having staff. He approaches his contact with humans using a very different mindset.  I think perhaps he believes he is a dog.  Although he hasn’t yet learned to wag his tail, he has totally perfected the doglike stance of sitting in front of people and staring up at them adoringly.  Added to this is his propensity for licking.  Fingers, hands, cheeks, noses—he literally rains kisses upon any human who will sit still for his affectionately rough tongue.  When a friend sat in my home crying one day, he climbed up her lap and licked a few tears from her cheeks.  Finding that it wasn’t helping, he began to kiss her nose repeatedly until she finally collapsed into helpless giggles, exclaiming “I think he’s trying to turn off the tap!”

Puff (full name, Puffy Socks Dragon, Esquire) is a “porch rescue”. Regal Puff 5Thrown out at the tender age of one year by a despicable owner who moved away and left him to fend for himself, he survived four years on his own in a harsh environment that included the second hottest summer on record in the state of Indiana, and one of the worst snowstorms ever to grace a January landscape.  I honestly don’t know how he did it.  If anything, I attribute Puff’s survival during those harsh four years to his ability to sweet-talk and manipulate strangers into caring for him by worshipping them.

I became aware of Puff’s existence when, as I babysat my then-four-year-old twin great niece and nephew, he began to come visiting. It was they who graced him with his unusual name, deciding that he resembled cats owned by their grandparents (Puff) and great aunt (Socks).  “Dragon” was tacked on as a caveat to their favorite song, Puff the Magic Dragon, while I, feeling that “a little more made no never mind”, added the Esquire (in British form) to indicate his status as a gentleman cat.  In any case, every Wednesday that summer the twins would arrive at my home and we’d head out to the back porch, since they (unlike so many of their counterparts) could not get enough of the great outdoors.  And Puff would hear them and come running. I mean running! At that time, he’d made a den beneath the minibarn of the neighbor whose backyard abutted mine.  I would hear the telltale rattle of lumber that the neighbors kept stored outside the mini-barn, and then Puff would appear, dramatically leaping their stockade fence, Superman-style.  All he lacked was a little red cape.  He would then rush to the twins and twine around and about them as they held and petted him in a mutual display of affection and admiration.

When summer ended and the twins went home, I caved. After an abortive attempt to find Big Orange another home, I brought him inside and commenced the frustrating challenge of introducing him to my already-overcatted household.  “The Girls”—Zoe, Bella and Lilith Cats–did not take kindly to the male interloper in their midst. There followed a number of interesting months, but with patience (and a lot of yelling) Puffy Socks finally became a member of the household.

I would say that I have never regretted it for a moment, but there are times when, looking at the tatters of my formerly favorite curtains, I threaten Puff the Claw with a return to his friendless open-air existence. But then I sit down, and the big old orange guy climbs up my chest and, purring like a little engine, begins to kiss my nose. And I crumble.

As a child, my family always owned dogs. Dachshunds, beagles—we were dog people.  I still adore dogs.  I constantly buy new toys for my daughter’s Husky.

But, I have to admit, a Cat Who Thinks He Is a Dog, while he may not win a blue ribbon in the Dog of the Year contest, places pretty close—especially in my heart.

Happy Father’s Day, Dad, from The Big Puff,
who adores you!

I’m Not (Quite) An Anti-Vaxxer

I’m not an anti-vaxxer. Not precisely. Not quite.  But with all the available information upon brain development in children, and the effect of chemicals upon it, I do tend to wonder why we are exposing young, growing brains to so many doses of rushed-to-market, often ineffective vaccines.  I’ve done enough reading to know that most vaccines contain at least small amounts aluminum, MSG and formaldehyde, and some include thimerosal (a mercury-based preservative) while a few are cultured in cell lines (and thereby contaminated with DNA) originally obtained from legally aborted fetuses and the foreskins of circumcised infants.  I look at these ingredients, and at the recommended vaccine schedule, and  I wonder if we are not giving small children far too many inoculations, far too closely together, and much too soon.

I was raised in an era when the only vaccines given were for smallpox, polio, diphtheria, whooping cough, and tetanus – diseases that were frequently fatal. As a child I suffered through the total misery of chicken pox,  measles, and mumps.    Looming always before us children was the specter of Helen Keller, made blind and deaf from a bout of rubella, or the photos of rows of young polio victims in bulky iron lungs.  Encephalitis following chickenpox was written about in newspaper advice columns. Make no mistake: These illnesses are not benign and are sometimes fatal.

But there are two sides to every story; even this one. If parents precisely follow the recommended vaccine schedule, children are given forty-nine doses of fourteen separate vaccines by age six. They will receive sixty-nine doses of sixteen vaccines by age eighteen. One of those vaccines, the HPV vaccine, is so controversial that entire websites are devoted to those whose otherwise-healthy daughters and sons have suffered paralysis or died from the vaccine.

This schedule of standard inoculations recommends the first vaccine, for Hepatitis B, be given within 12 hours of birth – for an STD. Hepatitis B is primarily a blood-borne disease associated with intravenous drug use that involves sharing needles, or unprotected sex with multiple partners. Twelve hours after birth, an infant could only be infected if the mother was herself a carrier – something that can easily be determined by a blood test – or by receiving an infected blood transfusion. Very few newborn infants require an immediate blood transfusion. So if newborns are almost never at risk for Hepatitis B, why are they immediately being given a vaccine – one which, moreover, is implicated in many SIDS deaths? When the bodies of infants who die – die – from the vaccine are autopsied, why is brain swelling always found?

If there were no inherent danger in vaccines, the National Vaccine Injury Compensation program would not exist, and the United States Supreme Court would not have ruled in 2011 that federally licensed and recommended vaccines are “unavoidably unsafe”.

So we are giving our very young children sixty-nine doses of “unavoidably unsafe” inoculations, while at the same time often taking away parental rights to refuse or at least delay such overdosing.

Compounding the question is the undeniable fact that vaccinated individuals still sometimes contract the illness; just a few years ago,  in an epidemic of mumps at Harvard, all of those who fell prey to the disease had been vaccinated. Worse, controversy still seems to swirl around whether those recently vaccinated with live, attenuated vaccines are capable of infecting the unprotected or immunocompromised, much like Typhoid Mary infected those around her. (First, read one web page, written by physicians, scientists or nurses, and you will read that this cannot happen. Next, read another web page, also written by physicians, scientists or nurses — or read even the vaccine enclosures themselves! — and you will read that it can and does happen.)

Looking carefully and thoughtfully at both sides of the question, I simply cannot find it in my heart to argue with parents who, if fortunate enough to be living in a state which still allows them to make what they see as the best choices for their children, either delay inoculations or refuse a few of them outright. Rather than denying other parents that right, if you fully believe in vaccination, you can choose to have your own children vaccinated directly on schedule and so (one hopes) be fully protected.

And if you choose either not to have your children vaccinated, or (as I would choose to do) to receive most inoculations on a greatly extended schedule, or even to refuse a few of them, then you can still feel certain in your deepest heart that you are doing your very best for the children you love.

Soup and Sympathy

Over the years, I’ve made many an effort to assist when friends and family members were going through hospital stays or illness. I’ve rushed to emergency rooms, waited anxiously through surgeries, and made visits to those confined for a long hospital stay. I’ve put together personalized “get well” baskets stuffed with puzzles and videos and tea and snacks.  I’ve cleaned homes and baked pot pies and casseroles and muffins, and brought take-out for lunchtime visits.  I’ve sent get-well cards and checking-up-on-you texts, or shopped for and delivered groceries. I’ve cleaned cat litters, and brought fuzzy, warm socks to a friend suffering icy feet following a surgery.  In perhaps the saddest situation ever, I drove through a heavy snowfall early one morning to assist a friend, immobile with a broken leg, whose pet cat had just died unexpectedly. I brought a blanket and a box, laid the little fellow to rest, and then did my best to comfort her.

Throughout time, all of this has, I suppose, amounted to a considerable effort. Yet, spaced out as the events have occurred – spanning perhaps 40 or more years–it hasn’t seemed to amount to all that much.

So it was with very ill grace that I received the ministrations of family members and friends when the tables were turned I myself became seriously ill and was then incapable of self-care following surgery. These people were giving up their time—sometimes productive working time, as well as their free time—to look after me when I was incapacitated.  And I didn’t deserve it.  Of that I felt sure.

I didn’t deserve the errands they ran for me, the nights they spent looking after me—including the several nights one relative spent just sitting with me, watching endless reruns of Downtown Abbey, as I dealt with the reality of my cancer diagnosis. I certainly wasn’t worthy of all the hours they spent schlepping me to and from appointments and taking notes on everything the doctor was telling us—words that mostly went right over my head, as I sat there in a contained bundle of frantic nerves.

When I came home from the hospital and they prepared meals and served me foods, I tried to recall all those pot pies and casseroles and muffins made for others, but I felt like a total fraud, especially as I could barely eat more than a few mouthfuls of their carefully-prepared food. And though I wrote thank-you notes and handed out small gifts to each person who came to my aid, I still felt as if I was running some despicable scam.

Looking at all this through the lens of perspective, I finally understand how dreadfully hard it is for some of us to be the recipient of others’ ministrations.   But that reaction has nothing to do with a lack of gratitude, not at all.  It’s due to a loss of our sense of independence, coupled with a feeling of unworthiness.

Oh, I’m sure there exist those people who bask and glory in the singular attention of others: the work done on their behalf, the care taken of them. In fact, I’ve known such individuals. I’m sure everyone has.  And tending to them has been, frankly, a royal pain in the ass.  But, for most of us, to have to put others to the inconvenience of caring for us is not a situation that we willingly adopt.

When I’m next called upon to bring soup and sympathy to a companion in need, I am going to remember the experience of my own reaction in that same situation; to remember that they are likely squirming under the necessity of having others come to their aid. I’ll remember that as they seem grouchy or ungrateful, or when they appear to wish I’d just get the hell out of their home.  Because I’ve finally walked a mile in their moccasins, and at last I understand the blisters that journey leaves on the (pun intended) soul.

Mindless Headlines

I prefer to read, rather than watch or listen to the news. I click the X at the top of nearly every news video, scrolling to read the story beneath, sometimes punching out to my favorite search engine (NOT Google, but that’s a story for another post) to find further information or explanation and detail.

But to do this, I must suffer the monotonous and apparently endless onslaught of absurd “human interest” stories that populate the sides and bottom of my screen as I attempt to determine what is and is not actually happening in the world.   “Remember her? What she looks like now is insane!” multiple headlines trumpet—insane apparently being a finalist for the Misused Word of the Year. “Local Mom finds solution….” – Mom having somehow transmuted to code for “trustworthy person”.  (Grandmother runs a close second in this ridiculous portrayal.) “Her shocking sex confession…” Oh, for the love of heaven. Nobody is going to be shocked, and who the hell cares, anyway?  “This famous person’s horrible health habit…”  Which is probably something that three-quarters of us do, and while we may consider it less than healthy, it isn’t horrible. “This photo is driving the internet crazy…”  No it isn’t.  Nobody cares, because it’s not even interesting. “His cancer journey” another caption or three or four declare.  Listen, I’ve had cancer and it’s not a journey,  nor a trip, a voyage, or an expedition.  It’s a slowly-unwinding nightmare of tests and surgeries, of tears and emotional anguish, punctuated by bouts unremitting fear.

The English language is full and flavorful, and there are numerous better adjectives, captions, headings and descriptors than those that are so constantly bandied about. It’s a pathetic form of journalism which selects a single simple, mindless word or phrase and lodges upon it for months to years at a time.

No doubt those who write these inane headlines use such repetitive phrasing because they believe it will capture the attention of a populace that, by and large today, does not read. (Either that, or the writers are as cluelessly incapable of composition as their subscribers are of discernment.) In any case, their philosophy seems to be: Hook ‘em quickly and reel ‘em in, and they’ll be sure to punch out to the click bait with all its accompanying inescapable ads.

I think this sloppy attitude does a grave injustice to the reading public, but then, I like to read—not to be read to, not to view.  For much the same reason, I don’t order the accompanying audible stories to my e-books.  I want to read a story—to invest the author’s words with my own subtle interpretation of phrasing and emphasis—not to listen to another’s version.  (I felt much the same way when, as a high school student, I listened to a recording of T.S. Elliot reading his poem, “The Hollow Men”.  It was awful. Simply awful. I much preferred the version of his poem that I heard in my own head.)

All of this may just go to prove my complete arrogance regarding my own skill in reading, but the simple truth remains: I am a reader. I chose to be informed and entertained by reading.  I find delight and sometimes surprise in a well-turned phrase, and in detail that easily escapes one when merely viewing or listening to a story.  I search carefully in each news story for subtle sarcasm, for overt editorializing, and for contradictory statements.  None of those details are available in the sound bites of a news video.

As for the monotonous scattering of repetitive nouns and adjectives limning so many headlines, they simply insult my intelligence. Sadly, though, with regard to all too many members of the populace, I fear discernment in reading is a fast-fading skill.

Amosandra

My mother grew up in a neighborhood that was well below the poverty line and (in an era in which only poor neighborhoods were so) racially mixed. At the time, the phrase “colored” was in popular use; citizens would not be either “black” or “people of color” or “African American”  for another forty to sixty years.

Because of her family’s financial situation, if she wanted pocket money, Mom had to work. And so it was that, as a very young adolescent, she began babysitting for a “colored” family up the street, watching their infant after school and on Saturdays, so that the lady of the household could go out to work herself, doing washing or ironing for more affluent families.  Years later, Mom would explain to me that it was because of this experience of caring for a black infant that she came to understand that we are all, no matter our color, simply people.  Our “race” is human.

Determined to bequeath that lesson to me, when I was about four years old, my mother sought out and gave me the gift of a black baby doll—an “Amos and Andy Amosandra” doll. The soft rubber doll, perhaps 8 or 10 inches long, was a rich chocolate brown, with painted black hair and eyes.  It was just the right size for cuddling into a little girl’s willing arms.  Amosandra—yes, that’s what my Dad told me to call her after reading it stamped on the back of the doll—was dressed in a little yellow knit cap and jacket, and my Mom made several little cloth diapers for her, triangle-style, gathered with a little gold safety pin.

Amosandra
Amosandra: The Sun Rubber Company Amos and Andy Doll.

Along with Lisa, my much larger white baby doll, Amosandra was laid to rest every evening in the little wooden doll crib that had been passed down to me from Mom’s own childhood.

Years later, when I was in my 50s, my father found Amosandra stored in the attic. Being made of rubber, she had hardened and melted in that unforgiving environment; she was too far gone to be repaired.  But how I wish I had her still, not because of her probable value, but because she was dear to me, and adorable, and because it was through Amosandra that I experienced first-hand the vile cruelty and wrongness of racial prejudice.  It was a lesson that would stay with me my entire life.

Most of the children in the neighborhood where we lived in the little suburb of Beech Grove were older than I by two or three years—not a large gap when one is grown, but an impassable chasm for a little child. Still, occasionally I was invited to play with Connie and Linda, girls who lived in nearby houses.  On that particular day, I recall, they decided we should play on Connie’s front porch, pretending to be moms and neighbors.  Each of us ran home to get a doll or two to be our play children.

I came back with Amosandra and all her accoutrements—diapers, dolly bottles, clothes. We each chose a corner of the porch to be our home, and I busied myself with setting up my area.  But, after a few minutes, I noticed that Linda and Connie were giggling, looking at me over their shoulders and whispering together.  My five-year-old self recognized that something was wrong, but I was totally at a loss to explain it.  Finally one of the girls spoke up, saying, “I guess Becky is a nigger momma!” and they burst out laughing, pointing at Amosandra and sniggering.

I didn’t quite know what “nigger” meant, but I knew from their attitudes that it wasn’t good. I grabbed up my toys and stormed off the porch, hurrying home in tears to tell my mother the whole upsetting story.

She comforted me as I wept and tried to explain. I don’t recall much of that conversation except a sense of bewilderment.  Amosandra was my favorite baby doll, and I loved her.  Why was it wrong that she was brown?  It made no sense.

In giving me Amosandra, my mother taught me a much larger lesson than she had actually planned, for I learned not only what she had intended—that we are all merely human—but the additional cruel lessons that Connie and Linda forced upon me that sad day about the evils of prejudice and bullying.

I never dared bring my beloved Amosandra outside my house again.  Forever after that, she stayed loved and well-cared for but played with only in my bedroom.

But there was one thing that I could do to mend the sad memory of that day, and when I was a young mother, I actually did: When my own daughter was just three,  following the heart of that long-ago lesson, I  gave her a black baby doll.

The Scars We Bear

An acquaintance of mine once confessed that, having begun a relationship after years of being single, she was planning a surgical procedure to remove a noticeable but hidden scar prior to being intimate with her new beau.

Not wishing to offend her, I merely nodded in response to this confession, although I found it hard not to hoot with laughter. I myself had a handful of intimate relationships in the first decade following the demise of my marriage, and at no point did I ever consider it a problem that I have a broad C-Section scar that stretches from hip-to-hip, nor another scar from a breast biopsy that wraps around a nipple. Any male who found my scars off-putting wasn’t someone with whom I needed to be in a relationship, anyway.  I am proud of my scars, including the five new ones from my cancer surgery, which my daughter calls, “Triumphant Scars”.  My stretch marks mean that I proudly bore a wonderful daughter. My scars tell anyone who looks upon them that I am a survivor.

As I see it, the real problem with my acquaintance’s attitude is the predominant and culturally-encouraged belief that we, both men and women, are somehow not good enough (for a relationship, for friendships, for any social interaction) unless we are physically perfect. Encouraged by ads and articles and commercials, by dolls and cartoons, by the glorified unreality of television and movies, we “know” that we are unsuited for love—emotional or physical—unless we have shiny hair, perfectly straight, white teeth, strong muscles and a flat stomach, glowing, blemish-free skin…the list of features we must perfect is painfully endless.  We are instructed in countless ways to reduce or erase our “flaws” and “imperfections”, from that first sentinel wrinkle to baggy knees.  And heaven forbid we age!

I’ve reached that stage of my existence, though, in which “imperfections”, no matter how bravely fought, are inescapable. Wrinkles, sagging flesh, age spots, whitening hair, are simply facts of life, as are slowly softening muscles and deteriorating sight and hearing and strength. And what I have learned from this is that no part of my physical self makes me in any way unacceptable.

In my years on this planet, I have been appreciated, complimented and loved despite a nose that extends like the prow of a ship, teeth that are neither perfectly straight nor white, skin that has never stopped being prone to break-outs, and a tummy that’s always been too round for current cultural perceptions. I’ve had a number of intimate relationships no matter that I bear scars, and no man has ever commented upon them except once, to ask me considerately  if the scar was sensitive.

Every mark, every healed wound, upon my body is a story in its own right; is indicative of my ability, not just to survive, but to thrive—physically, mentally, emotionally. This body that I live in is, therefore, not perfectible, but already perfect.  And anyone who cannot accept that, accept me, precisely as I am is undeserving of being included in my life

A Candle in the Darkness

A few days before I was to have surgery, a close friend asked me to confirm the time that my operation would be starting. She would, she explained, be lighting a candle for me at that moment, and sending me her prayers and love.

I’ve always found that the most terrible moment of any surgery is that short, frightening journey as one is wheeled down corridors into the operating room.   The unutterable sense of loneliness cannot be described to anyone who has not had this experience.  I liken it to the final journey of death.  Friends and family in the pre-op room have hugged and kissed one goodbye, and then one is completely alone, facing an unknown.  No matter how simple the surgery, everyone experiences that nagging dread that they might not awaken from the anesthetic.  Everyone wonders if hands, feet, arms, legs, fingers, toes, will all function afterwards, or be forever paralyzed.  Everyone is aware that sometimes, in surgery, things go wrong.

Only once, as I was being taken to surgery, did the orderly pushing the gurney seek to lighten my sense of trepidation. Had I ever had surgery before, she asked, and when I answered in the affirmative, she patted my shoulder and said, “But it’s always a little scary, isn’t it?”  There are no words to describe how comforting I found her empathetic remark.

Being wheeled to this most recent surgery, I received no such comforting question or concern. I was taken a short distance to the operating room and helped onto the table.  In a surgery just two months prior, a nurse had introduced me quickly to everyone in the operating room, giving me their first names and their function in the surgery, leaving me to wonder fearfully if there would be a quiz afterwards!  This time, however, there was only the quick press of the oxygen mask over my face and the staccato instructions of the anesthesiologist to, “Breathe!  Breathe deeply!”  (Of course, since I am horribly claustrophobic, just having the darned mask pressed onto my face made me do nothing but instinctively hold my breath in complete terror, followed by the rapid-fire, quick, short breaths of a full-blown panic attack.  Perhaps this is a reaction for which anesthesiologists should be schooled in their method of approach.)

But, despite my claustrophobia, my lonely distress and anxiety, the image of my friend’s candle, burning brightly for me, shone in my consciousness. I found myself focusing on it during that brief journey to the operating room.  The image calmed me, reassuring me that I was not truly alone; that the prayers and concern of others were surrounding me.  A memory swam up into my consciousness, a poem I had written years earlier, and I found myself reciting the lines like a mantra as I was carried into the coma-like sleep of anesthesia:

Just a light left burning for me
in my window of darkest pain;
just safe harbor, refuge, retreat
sheltered sanctuary from rain.

Just a kind hand, steadying me
when I stumble a rocky path;
just a heart’s strong, balancing beat
when I settle my face at last

to the shoulder, stable and sure
of a long-cherished friend who shares
light embrace, encircling me
in the knowledge that one soul cares.

Weeks afterwards, my friend told me that the candle she lit had burned throughout my three-hour operation (which had, of course, begun later than actually scheduled). Despite guttering a few times, the candle had continued burning until a call from the phone tree assured her that I was out of surgery and doing well.

But, in my mind, that candle is still burning, guiding me through the darkness, lighting my path with the beacon of caring and friendship.

The Great Battle of the Shower Curtain

A few years ago I expressed (for the second time) a laconic interest in buying a gun and learning to shoot. My brother, who had done firearms training for a good portion of his career in law enforcement, was not letting me off the hook this time.  He bought me the gun, ammunition, and countless other accoutrements, gave me two hours of personal instruction using his standard gun-safety course, and then took me to the range and taught me to shoot the darned thing with reasonable accuracy.

I took the gun safety training to heart and immediately purchased a fingerprint touch gun safe to store the weapon securely beside my bed. And later that year I had good reason to put all my training to use as someone attempted to break in my front door in the small hours of the morning.  Standing in my entryway in approved stance, phone beside me where I had called for help, I rehearsed every minute of my instruction in my head as I pointed the weapon and shouted, “I’ve called 911!  I have a gun!  I will shoot you!”.  As determined by the police who arrived a few minutes later, my intruder turned out to be nothing more than my drunken sot of a neighbor, yanking and pulling at my security door, as he tried to gain entry into what he believed was his own home.  Nevertheless, rattled as I was, I knew I was very glad I had the gun to handle the situation.

The gun has come out of the safe on a few other occasions, as well, most notably the light of early morning when a squirrel, having discovered the cache of pine cones for my fireplace stored in a copper tub on my porch, again rattled the front security door. When I crept up, gun at ready, and flung the main door open, the startled little fellow scampered off to the tree in the front yard, leaving behind the cache of acorns he’d been burying in the tub.  I’m sure we were both equally upset.

But nothing will ever equal the Great Battle of the Shower Curtain.

I was roused from a (rare) sound sleep, startled awake by an inexplicable noise. As I thought to myself, “Did I really hear that?” I realized that the three cats who were sharing the bed with me were all poised in approved “Cat At Alert” stance, one of them even perched like a meerkat sentry.  I quickly removed my gun from the safe and crept carefully to the balcony rail outside my bedroom door, where the landing overlooked the cathedral ceiling.

From that space, with faint exterior light spilling from the stairwell clerestory window, I could look down on the French doors at the back of my lower floor. They were undisturbed, the glass unbroken, the curtains in place.

Swiftly I slapped on the light from the switch at the head of the stairwell and rushed down, gun still at ready, to the spot in the entryway where I could see both my front door and the door to the garage. Both were closed, locked, undisturbed; the “screamer” alarm on the garage door certainly had not been activated.

Still stealthy, I crept further down the stairwell and swung rapidly around the corner to the kitchen. No one was there; nor was anyone in the half-bath.  I flung open the coat closet, in case someone had darted within.  Nope.  No burglars hiding in the closet.

Ah ha! I thought.  They’ve gotten the door up and they’re out there in my garage.  With a dramatic flourish, I threw open the door to the garage, pointing the gun. No dice. The main garage door was down, the car undisturbed.  Bewildered, I closed the door and switched off the screamer before it could begin its klaxon.

Defeated and confused, I was slowly wending my way back upstairs when I remembered that the attic space of our three conjoined condo units was accessible to every unit. I dashed into the spare bedroom and flung open the closet door where the attic entrance reposed.  But the attic door was still encased in the unbroken bubble wrap that I’d taped in place to prevent drafts.

Now completely bewildered, I tottered slowly out of the room, finger now carefully removed from the trigger, gun dangling loosely from my fingertips.  What the hell was the noise that I—and the cats—had heard?

By this time, considering the past moments of stress, I needed the bathroom rather badly. Sighing, with dragging steps, I faltered my way into my main bathroom and switched on the lights.

And it was there I discovered that the springform curtain rod which held the shower curtain in place had unsprung itself and crashed  from the wall, loudly hitting the side of the tub in the process.

I am happy to report that I did not shoot the shower curtain.

The Name of My Death

On January 17, 2018, I was diagnosed with uterine cancer. What followed was a pilgrimage into the heart of darkness, punctuated by bouts of unremitting fear, yet with, occasionally, a glimpse of the light of hope.  Woven in and about all this troubling passage was the heartening knowledge of a luminescent web of prayer and invocation, much of it bequeathed me by total strangers, buoying me up at my worst moments.

I have nothing but admiration for those who deal with this unbearable disease while working, or while raising a family. I had neither of those considerations to weigh upon me, something for which I am limitlessly grateful, for I know I would not have done well with either responsibility while enduring my dark night of the soul.  And while a young family to be looked after, or a career to tend to,  might have helped to keep me centered, I very much fear I could not have done justice to either while enduring my diagnosis and treatment. I recognize now that those who do so are genuine marvels: they are true superwomen and men.

But as I review the months of my confrontation with this most evil of diseases, what I most recognize now is how unprepared I was for the way in which everything—every tiny and  insignificant detail of daily living—becomes “before cancer” and “after cancer”.  Everything.  The simplest acts, the most common thoughts or behavior, come to be labeled “Prior” and “Following”.

Writing letters one day to two relatives who do not do e-mail, I realized that the stationary I was using, which I’d won in a family bingo game at Christmas, was from Before my diagnosis. I never suspected, I thought as I penned the news to my relatives, that I would be writing such dreadful news on that pretty flowered paper.

Attending the family Chinese New Year/Two Birthdays party in February, it struck me that these party plans had been made Prior. Watching a TV rerun was “first seen pre-cancer”.  Checking my scheduled blog posts became notable as “written before” and “written after”.

Before, prior, was a time of innocence, comparable to early childhood.  After, Following was a visit to the nether regions of hell.

In much the same way now, I date and file in my mind everything as “during cancer” and “cancer-free”. Turning the page on the paper calendar that hangs upon my refrigerator, I was forcibly struck by the fact that, for the first time in 2018, I was starting a month without the knowledge that I had cancer.  I had been through two surgeries, countless tests, and dozens of appointments.  I was cancer-free.  I had a 90% chance of remaining in that desirable state, having only one risk factor for recurrence.  I was, in fact, and perhaps only for the moment, one of the very fortunate few.

In life Before, cancer was a vague and troubling possibility, one which had brought sorrow to me many times, as I watched friends and family succumb to the evil. It was a fate  which I hoped to escape, but to which I gave, if you will, lip service only.

In life After, every simple ache, every pain, is now a terrifying reality. Is my aching knee simply an aging joint—or a metastasis?  Will I have to endure a recall on this year’s mammogram?  Is my breathlessness just my usual asthma, or something more serious?

Years ago, a coworker’s told me of her husband’s diagnosis of a serious but unrepairable heart disorder that could, probably would, eventually kill him. “It’s like living with death on the doorstep,” she told me in terror.

I took her hand and replied, “My dear, we all live with death on our doorstep. For  your husband, the true difference is that he knows Death’s name.”

For a brief moment, I knew the possible name of the Death who lives on my doorstep.   And while I know that each of us is terminal—that nobody is getting out of Dodge alive—I genuinely hope that the name of my Death will never be cancer.