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.

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.

Twenty Hours After Surgery….

Following currently acceptable medical practice, after a serious surgery I was tossed out of the hospital just twenty hours after being wheeled out of the operating room. This was what I got for being a cooperative patient. (And to that, let me just say: Never Again.)

Overjoyed for a reason to have the catheter removed, I’d gotten up to walk the corridors with the nurse’s help, willingly choosing the “long route”, pushing my IV beside me, just twelve hours after the operation. Pleased to have the IV taken out of my aching hand, I’d cooperatively  slogged down water like the beverage was the latest trendy invention.  I trotted myself to the restroom multiple times (to the horror of the night tech, who hadn’t explained that I wasn’t permitted to do this on my own, without accompaniment).  I ate a small dinner and a big breakfast.  Everything that I was asked to do by the hospital staff, I did, in fact, do.  And my reward for this was to “get” to go home, pain prescription in hand, the following day, to endure possibly the worst night of my life. Undermedicated for pain; unable to walk up the stairwell to sleep in my own bed; barely able to rise from my couch to stumble to the bathroom, I felt as if every inch of my body had been beaten with baseball bats.

Let there be no mistake: hospitals are not fun places. IV alarms ring constantly.  Just when one has fallen into a sound sleep at last, in wheels the night tech, waking the patient to check vitals or administer a dose of some med or another.  People laugh, talk, argue and rush in corridors.  Noisy carts are pushed through halls.  Janitorial staff pop by to empty trashcans.  The sounds of people crying—or crying out in pain—filter through the walls.  One is poked, prodded, examined and stuck with needles.  Tape is pulled from sensitive parts of the body, leaving behind welts and rashes.  Responding to other, more urgent emergencies, no one answers the call bell.

But there are also advantages to lying in that hospital bed, not the least of which is the bed itself, which is adjustable and can be arranged into the best position for the comfort of the individual occupying it or trying to clamber in and out of it. Toilets are only a few steps away—not up a staircase or across the house—and showers are the walk-in variety.  Pain medications can be given by injection or IV, without waiting for the oral med to finally dissolve and work its way into the bloodstream.  But, most important of all, is the opportunity to ask someone knowledgeable, “Is this normal?  Should I be experiencing this?  Will this last?  Has something gone wrong?”

But, as mentioned, the cooperative patient is launched homeward as quickly as possible, to a place where there are no adjustable beds, where bathrooms are a long walk away and the only shower or bed may be up a flight of steps, where pain medications are oral, and where relatives and friends who’ve come to help are just as clueless as the patient. Preparing to leave the hospital that morning, I could not help but laugh when, as I fumbled to button my blouse, the nurse asked, “Do you have help at home?”  I am a divorced woman; I’ve lived alone for years. I wondered for a moment what she would have done had I answered, “No.”

Fortunately for me, family and friends stepped up to the plate, so that for the first two days and nights following surgery I was never left alone for a minute. I ignored the post-operative paperwork which stated that I was not to climb stairs for two weeks after my surgery and clambered, slowly and laboriously, up the stairwell to my shower on just my second day home.  That would certainly have been easier had I still been hospitalized, but the question, “Do you have a ground-floor bathroom?” was definitely never broached.

I suspect now that those unasked or belatedly asked questions were intentional. Negative answers would have meant red tape—a battle with the insurance company to cover another day, or even two, to ensure a safe recovery.  Medical staff are weary of the fight, and so cave to reality rather than the responsibility of protecting patients’ post-surgical health. Out of sight, out of mind, and the well-meant lie is uttered, “You’ll be more comfortable in your own home”.

There may be no place like home, but for the recovering patient, that just isn’t quite true. But the insurance companies and the almighty dollar, rather than common sense and medical safety, rule recovery in the modern health environment.

The Dance at My Daughter’s Wedding

The TV show Gilmore Girls began to run in 2000, and I missed the first few episodes. But I still smilingly  recall the evening I arrived home from some errand or engagement, and found my teenage daughter viewing an early episode.  Intrigued, I sat down with her to watch while she explained the premise of the show to me, and the interactions of the characters; the close mother-daughter relationship. Then she said something to me that I will take to my grave as the loveliest compliment my daughter has ever given me: “I think they’re a little bit like us.”

The force of the compliment struck me then, yes, but even more so later, as I began to watch every episode of the program with her. This was a production which portrayed  a mother and daughter who loved, cared, disagreed, fought, struggled, and laughed with one another. It was a tale of an extended family who made terrible mistakes in their treatment of each other, and yet somehow managed to at least pretend to get along, if not to  resolve their differences.  It was an on-going story about not just family, but friends who were more than family, and who, in the end, continually supported and appreciated one another, even when they disagreed.

“I think they’re a little bit like us.”

No mother could ask for higher praise.

By the end of the series, watching the show together had become a weekly ritual that we rarely missed, along with about half the female population of the United States. We laughed and cried and commiserated with the Lorelai and Rory, and their wacky, loveable, wish-it-were-real town of Stars Hollow.

But there was one thing my daughter and I did that was probably not a habit of many of the other viewers: at the end of each episode, we got up and danced together to the theme song. Laughing and making up steps as we went along, dipping and whirling and twirling,  week after week, we danced.  When she gave me the CD of the music from the show one Christmas, we danced to it again.

We danced. And it struck me once as we did so that, “Someday at your wedding, we need to have a mother-daughter dance!”

Why not? There is always a father-daughter dance on the reception floor.  But why not a mother-daughter dance?  Who, of anyone, but the mother of the bride has been involved in this whole shebang in the first place?  Who, in fact, created this wonderful young woman, this now-beautiful bride, out of the very essence of her own body?  Who more than Mom deserves the acknowledgement of a special moment on the dance floor?

A mother-daughter dance. It should, I realized, comprise a part of every wedding reception.

Dancing with my daughter at her wedding
Dancing with my daughter at her wedding

And so it happened that, at my daughter’s wedding, we danced. She and I, in fact, danced the very first dance, still giggling and whirling, and making up steps as we went along—no, not to the theme song of Gilmore Girls, but to ABBA’s “I Have a Dream”—the beautiful, meaningful words and the Greek-like melody so perfect for the wedding day dance of my daughter, who is one-quarter Greek in ancestry. Abba Dance Blog 1

Abba Dance Blog 2

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