Sunday evening, we sat on our back deck around an outdoor table and a wedding gift from Aunt Wilma and Uncle Ron 36-plus years ago, a wonky folding table. It was the first in-person gathering in 15 months of KAW Council, our bioregional community, and after a humid, muddy walk together in the wetlands, it was heavenly to to dwell in friendship and a cool breeze, sharing big salads, chocolate-covered almonds, and what we’re learning in the pandemic. When it was my turn, I talked about how much I loved and have learned from Aunt Wilma, one of many vibrant aunts I inherited when I married Ken.
“You’ll need this more than you can imagine,” Wilma and Ron told us when they gave us that folding table along with four sturdy brown metal folding chairs. At 25 years old, I didn’t understand how much we’d use the table, which we’d pull out often for special appearances at Hanukkah parties, Thanksgiving dinners, game nights with friends, graduations or Bat Mitzvah gatherings, and in the aftermaths of big deaths that brought lots of people and casseroles to our home.
It was the first of many life-changing gifts from Wilma. When our first child, Daniel, was born at the Topeka birthing center, he struggled for life and ended up in the local Neonatal Intensive Care Unit for a week. The care he received was helpful at first, then over the top as the doctors treated this 7-pound-plus baby as a premmie, not letting us hold him. In between pumping milk and freaking out, I took solace in the presence of Wilma and Ron, who were visiting at the time as they did regularly to spend weeks to help my in-laws Alice and Gene with the farm and house. We told the NICU staff that Wilma and Ron were my parents so that they could join us in taking turns putting a hand through the isolette opening to comfort Daniel. Wilma was also there in a small room with Alice while I breast-fed Daniel for the first time. The NICU staff said he was too weak and likely couldn’t do it, but Wilma just said, “Pshaw! He’ll be fine.” She was right.
Over the decades this is how it went with Wilma and Ron, who died four years ago. They showed up, they cleaned gutters and washed dishes, they jollied our babies along and read them books, and they talked up a storm with lots of accompanying photos about their latest adventures helping other family members across the country. They lived to serve, without ever employing a holier-than-thou attitude (even if Ron was a retired minister) or ever judging us. Instead, they embodied a truckload of humor, patience, fortitude, common sense, and even a bit of whimsy on occasion.
I remember Wilma leaning toward a 5-year-old Daniel to show him how to pit a cherry while singing with Alice, “Would you like to make a pie, Billy Boy, Billy Boy?”, a variation of the old traditional song. I see her holding one of our babies on her lap at Furr’s Cafeteria and telling me she really wasn’t hungry anyway so that I could eat unfettered. I see her pinning a corsage on Alice’s dress right before Alice and Gene’s 50th anniversary. I see her and Ron at our kids’ bar mitzvahs, laughing, crying, singing, and chanting along with us even though they’re deep dish Methodists. I hear her interrupting Ron to say she only dated him because she felt sorry for him when I asked them how they met, both of them eager to laugh and reminisce, contradict each other and laugh some more.
Through the years, Wilma modeled service with a smile, grace under pressure, and what it looks like to arrive early with lots of photos and stay late until the last floor was swept. Like any proper middle child — she was the middle sister out of five — she was a born peace-maker and exercised tolerance as an extreme sport.
She also gave us, our family, and our community a gift that will go on forever, long after her and our lives are over. Wilma did everything possible to help us save the family land, where we built our home 26 years ago. She and Ron instinctively understood and shared our dream of preserving this land (where her great-parents made a home 150 or so years ago). In her last year of life, she did all they could to support us purchasing the family farm so that we could put it in a conservation easement (preserved for perpetuity). Protecting and continuing to steward this mix of prairie and woodlands has been our lifelong dream, and Wilma made it come true.
The night we fittingly sung Wilma’s praises from the back deck, overlooking a big field leading to forest one direction and prairie we’ve replanted, was also the night Wilma died. She was pushing 97 years, and her daughter Judy tells us she went out after a day or more mouthing the words to old hymns they played her on Youtube. She modeled faith and love even while dying.
For those us still living, there’s the squeaky music of an old folding table that gives me faith. As I was putting it away, after I heard the news of Wilma’s passing, I thought about how I’m going to give my kids folding tables when they get older. After all, you never know what loving presence is going to show up in your life, and you want to make plenty of room for them at the table.
We are living in a world of rain lately, and according to the weather forecast, this is life as we know it into the foreseeable process. It started a week or maybe months ago, yet it’s also not monolithic. Spots of blue sky, small and angular at times, open up in between the humidity and the deluge. Almost-sun almost shows itself, then any hope fades of that big glaring star coming into view.
Meanwhile, the birds. Meanwhile, the flowers. It’s raining for long stretches and the ground is beyond soggy. A small waterfall has opened up across the slope above our driveway through the gravel to the lower fields. It’s hard to take a step anywhere without sinking. The irises can’t stand up anymore under all this water, sherbet-colored ones collapsing on the purple and yellow ones.
The birds, on the other hand, keep at it, a bouquet of color and motion from the cottonwood to feeder to walnut to ground. A pair of blue grosbeaks. An energetic red-bellied woodpecker hanging with his claws off the edge of the feeder. Two downy woodpeckers head-banging each other in the tree before going back to the feeder. A happy pair of goldfinch. Even a rose-breasted grosbeak for a day or two.
I step outside, onto the relatively not-soggy deck, leaning back under the eaves, a camera hiding in my shirt to keep it from getting wet. Or I step out without a camera and lift my arms to the rain, feeling the drops on my face, knowing I will have to clean off my glasses again once inside. Or I step barefoot onto the wet wood in the dark, the curtain of rain parted for a few minutes, and look out, wondering when I’ll see stars again.
But come morning, the birds again and again, their color more vividly saturated in the blur of air and water, their time right here. It’s more than enough.
When I walked into the Merc Co-op today, I spied Ardys. After talking a little through our masks, she leaned in to bump elbows. “You vaccinated?” I asked. She was, so we flung our arms around each other and held each other tightly, laughing hard and not letting go. It was the dazzlement of my day.
In the last few weeks, I’ve been hugging more than the usual household suspects. On the corner of Massachusetts and 7th streets, between eating a delicious Leeway Franks hot dog and the slice of Ladybird strawberry rhubarb pie, Alice came round the corner. Before I knew it, I was hugging her as if my life depended on it too. When in Arkansas a few weeks ago, I leaned over from the stage where I was giving a poetry reading to hug an old student I hadn’t seen in years, both us near happy hysterics. When I saw my brother-in-law after two years, I hugged him too.
I can’t imagine what it’s been like for those without people or animals in your household to hug (my beloved and dearly departed dog Shay was a great hugger). I know I’ve been extremely lucky to have Ken and every so often Daniel to hug through the pandemic, not to mention Miyako, the cat who hugs in her (and our) sleep. But now, here we are — and if we’re all vaccinated and comfortable enough with the concept of stepping toward another person and throwing our arms around them, and if there’s mutual consent (something I never had to think much about when considering a hug before), the sky’s the limit.
Still, I’m taking it slow, or rather it’s taking me slow because, like all of us, I’m out of the hugging habit. Sometimes I just bump a shoulder into someone. Sometimes I feel strangely shy about suggesting a hug, a little like wondering if I should say, “Hey, want to grab a bite?” Then again, there’s also the possibility of eating together. In restaurants. And not just outside. Then back on the sidewalk, right before heading to our cars, hugging. As if it’s perfectly normal or normally perfect.
In the Star Trek shows and films, someone can yell out, with grave urgency or casual cheer, “Scotty, beam me up” then off they go. But when they land back in the ship after escaping the clutches of attacking lizard-headed creatures or the like, they often have a moment of looking just a little shaken up (except for Spock of course, who is almost always composed).
Every surgery I’ve been through for is akin to being rematerialized in a new place, perhaps in a way that humans might be if they could be transported through particle accelerators without dissolving or exploding in the process. Then again, surgery is like this: you go into a space transporter device made of anesthesia, then you wake up somewhere else changed in big or little ways. I’ve rematerialized over the years in various expeditions without breasts or with a radioactive disk inserted in my eye. Even after the small surgeries, like having scar tissue and a cataract removed last fall, I came to consciousness changed. I think this is true of eye surgeries especially because while eyes are small, what they see if humongous.
A week ago, I did a short stint in the transporter to have my eyelid sewn in a way that would allow me to finally open and keep open my right eye (the muscles were damaged in treatment for an ocular melanoma). It was a short ride in the transporter because, even through I was thankfully very numb during the procedure, the doctor needed me awake enough to open and close my eye repeatedly and keep looking down at my feet, a trick when lying down, but I’ve had a lot of practice with this over the last two years.
Then I was rolled back to the recovery room, sat up, and, with Ken’s help, put on my jacket and scarf. Then we were home, and as all the marvelous magic of the numbing meds wore away, I hurt but mitigated it with some over-the-counter meds. Then it was the next day, and as the week unfolded, I realized having a much more open eye meant I could see a lot more. But it also meant that I was shaken up in new ways, as if some of me was still in one place and the rest was here. During this full landing in one place, I was dizzy, nauseas, disoriented, eye-strained, and wiped out, which turned out not to be a good match for many Zoom coaching sessions while also working in Google Docs (thanks to my coachees who helpfully rescheduled with me for next week).
As I start to come out of this, rematerializing as a two-eyed seeing creature, there’s a lot to grapple with, namely that my right eye — surprise! because I couldn’t see this for so long — seems to be Minnie-Mouse-dilated, likely permanently (but I will find out more about that soon). This explains why this magic and challenged eye sees a much brighter and at times light-blasted world than my left eye. Of course, I’m also legally blind in this eye, which is a strange way of saying I can see with it but in the language of impressionist paintings.
But there’s mainly joy here in Mudville, especially as the nausea relents (thank you, candied ginger and time), of seeing a vaster scope, and when I look in the mirror, seeing both eyes open and learning their new recalibration dance of tracking together. One thing that continually dazzles me is how the eyes can innovate and reset themselves to find new ways to team up, very much like the heart as we go through another $%&#@# learning adventure.
As we find our way to the other side of the transport, all has the potential to wake us up to nuances and vistas of this world. I’m reminded of what Antoine de Saint-Exupéry writes in The Little Prince: “And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” True that, but also, what becomes more visible to the eye can show the heart how to see.
As more of us absorb the wizardry of the vaccine, where we end up might well be up to the whims of an enchanted sorting hat, just like in the Harry Potter books. Although it’s not a choice between Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw, and Slytherin at Hogwart’s School, it’s not like we enter into the great hall of a high school gym or fairgrounds barn with much choice of which vaccine will live in us. The sentient sorting hat of our time is surely up to its pointy tip in overtime, determining whether we move to the Johnson and Johnson high rise or the Pfizer mansion.
So I started doing some research (aka making shit up), and I’m happy to share with you your horoscope for your vaccine house.*
Pfizer: You’re a person who needs to be as sure as possible, so you prefer to align with tried and true tradition and old money even if it was all tested long before current varieties of our time. You’re also quite delicate on occasion and tend to run cold, but nevertheless a strong contender. While most likely able to succeed winningly at all your endeavors, you don’t take to transitions well, particularly if you must endure heated delays of any kind. Your Achilles Heel is body aches. Your favorite color is royal blue, your most memorable meal is ice cream cake followed by espresso stored in dry ice, and your happy place is either the Arctic tundra or at a disco in Rio where the D.J. can’t stop playing Daft Punk songs. Your helper animal is either an illusive giraffe or a well-fed raccoon.
Moderna: You’re willing to be an upstart and take your chances, but you’re a product of nouveau wealth wanting the same security as the old money. You know how to make things happen quickly and how to outwit competitors, but you’re also prone to headaches and long naps more than you would like to admit. You generally like people and make friends at lightning speed. Your favorite color is dollar-bill green, you enjoy a Pina Colada (but not any songs about the drink), and your happy place is at Burning Man right before anyone has set up camp. Your animal, a de-scented skunk, travels with you everywhere you go although she has a mind of her own and often escapes to lurid night clubs instead of helping you transport your precious creations. You also enjoy long autumnal walks in New England, but only when you’re not working, which is never.
Johnson & Johnson: You’re a one-and-done maverick who’s willing to take your chances to get ‘er done quickly and easily. You’re also easy on the eyes. While you come from ancient tradition dating back to clan with names no one can pronounce, you’re not exactly a chip off the old horse even if the donkey is your protector animal. You believe in hard work and family connections, but you’re also practical enough to make a splash with doing things your own way. Your color is blood red, your bar order is either a gin and tonic or a Shirley Temple, and your happy place is at a refurbished tennis court at 6 a.m. in the Hamptons. Your idea of fun entails Lear jet flights back and forth over the U.S. while counting clouds and singing ABBA songs.
Astrazeneca: You have an international flair and a penance for adventure. Some might say you’re not reliable, particularly with younger people, but you’re a dark horse that may surprise us all. You have an amazing propensity to prove people wrong about your intentions although you do like to build followers on social media whenever you have a free moment. With a British father and Swedish mother, you know something about aging royalty, effective compromise, and also how to play multiple card games during hundreds of overcast days. Your color is orange, your favorite meal involves herring on toast, and your happy place is anyplace in Africa with a large urban population. Your animal is a happy puma.
*The first three vaccines are currently available in the U.S., and obviously there are more vaccine houses around the world to be considered, but my divination skills only go so far.
You just showed up one winter day, nose to nose with our labmatian (lab-dalmatian) Mariah, only the glass of the screen door between you. You were emaciated, sick, and shivering, and we were in a rush to get me to the airport. So Ken and I put you in the minivan, sped off to the humane society, and finding it closed, kept you for a few more hours.
By the time Ken got back to Lawrence, he was already in love with you, but for the sake of making sure someone abandoned and didn’t lose you, we took you to the humane society. There, you were — so wrong! — named Dwayne, and for the next two weeks, which was all we would wait until adopting you, I called everyday from Vermont to ask if any owners surfaced for the dog soon-to-be-formerly known as Dwayne. By the time I got home, the two weeks were up, and we raced to the humane society to bring you to your forever home.
You so weren’t a Dwayne, but since you were called that for a few weeks, we wondered about a name that rhymed with Dwayne. Shane? No, Natalie knew a Shane who was a jerk. Wayne? Cain? None of them fit you. It was Ken’s birthday the day we adopted you, so we left it up to him. He simply shortened Shane to Shay, and that’s all she wrote.
You were a character for the ages from the get-go. Crazy-handsome with long dog fingers and a beautiful mahogany coat because you were a combination chocolate lab and weimaraner (a labaraner, we told people), you were perpetually hungry and extremely crafty about the procurement of food. You could open any cabinet or drawer, and one day I walked into the kitchen to find you had opened the refrigerator and were staring into it, you head tilted to the right as you mused, “What do I feel like eating?” Another time, you were sitting with a big dog smile on you face before the lit stovetop burner, which you had turned on. You would either soon be sauteing an omlette or burning down the house, so we child-proofed everything and even put a lock on the refrigerator.
You would eat anything, and no amount of training made a dent in your constant habit of sidling up to anyone with food, your beautiful brown eyes working greatly to your advantage. One time, to teach you a lesson, Daniel poured sriracha sauce all over a plate of food, put on the floor, and you came bounding over. You ate it in one swoop, then looked up, grinning, asking if there was more. But what’s food is in the eye of the beholder, and you didn’t limit himself to animal or vegetable. You ate, over the early years, half of a pair of Ken’s pants, numerous leather belts, Bill Remmers’ favorite cap, boxes of crayons, eucalyptus-scented candles, and a big handful of coffee beans.
Most of all, you were a Ricola man. You’d do anything for Ricola cough drops, even unzipping hidden compartments in my purse, carefully extracting the cough drops, unwrapping them, and gulping them down with glee. One day I found my purse in the side yard, everything intact, but nearby, there was a stack of Ricola wrappers, and your breath did smell particularly fresh that afternoon.
You were also a wanderer at first, unsure as to whether you could and would stay with us. This wasn’t helped by your ability to open just about any door. Your walkabouts were legendary, sometimes for hours, and once for three days. The only way I found you was to place an ad in the paper after publishing your disappearance every other way I could. I drove almost ten miles to find a kindly older couple had you in their garage until they could find your owner. Somehow, after a year or so, your wandering slowed down, and you circled your wagons around our home although you were vigilant about running a wide circle in the field every night, barking away any would-be predators.
You were stunningly beautiful, the most handsome dog I’ve ever seen, with silky ears you loved us to stroke. In fact, you looked enough like a small brown horse that Daniel, in his college years, would often take you to town to walk about Mass St. because you were such a chick magnet. I’ve witnessed many a time when teenage girls and young women would line up to pet you, marveling at your friendly sleekness and shine. You especially liked when, on Halloween, we put you in your tuxedo outfit with a top hat and bow tie.
What did you love? Everyone. Only once, when someone of ill temperament, approached the house did you snarl. You greeted most people with enthusiasm, and we had to train guests to turn around if you tried to leap up to get face-to-face with them. You rolled on your back to show you were a lover, not a fighter.
What did you hate? Thunderstorms. Extensively. Even a hint of lightning was a PTSD trigger of immense proportion for you, and given that we’re in one of the thunderstorm capitals of the world, this was a hard trauma to navigate. We tried a thunder shirt and CBD oil, but nothing worked except drugging you into oblivion. The day afterwards, you were groggy and sometimes your legs shook when you stood up, but we learned this was a better alternative than you being so terrified for so long, often trying to climb onto my head for comfort. Did I mention that you were 90 pounds?
Before you showed up, we thought of getting a second dog to help Mariah, who was ancient by the time you arrived. You nudged her on and always let her be the alpha canine, walking slowly behind her slow gait. You went out when she went out, came to us for help when she lost control of her bladder or was in pain, and you mourned — sleeping for hours on the couch — after we had her put down. We’re sure your presence gave her another year or so of life. Likewise, we got Moxie, a border collie, a bit over a year ago, and she was your nurse dog, waking up to escort you outside multiple times each night, even when it was sub-zero, then waiting until you were ready to come back so she could herd you to the door.
You were primarily my dog since we were together almost all the time. With me working at home, you took up being my administrative assistant, body guard, escort for any trek — no matter how short — to the bathroom or the car, and co-worker. While I typed on my laptop, you typed in your clickity-click pacing or you lay near me, revising a piece of rawhide while I revised a poem. You were exactly the right height for my right land to land on the top of your soft head as we walked down the hall, and you were always at my side.
We also had many adventurous walks together, often with Anne, who called you Shayby while I called you Shashay. We walked throughout many parts of Lawrence and drove even more miles, the windows wide open for you to feel the wind in your fur while you leaned out to smell the world. I started using what we called a Medieval collar to control you on these walks, but long after you needed any pulling back away from speeding cars, you loved that collar, doing a little Shay dance whenever I picked it up because you knew a walk was on tap.
Somehow and somewhere along the almost decade together of Shayness, you got old. Like most labs and lab mixes, you developed wicked arthritis, your hips aching and your gait slowing. Your muzzle grayed, and over time, you started having some kidney enzyme imbalances, and in the last three or so months, long stretches of dog coughing. It turned out there was a mass, likely a cancerous tumor, at the base of your good-boy heart. You were too old and fragile — likely 15 or so years already — for us to find out more or treat the mass without likely killed you in the process, so we waited.
A dog’s demise is impossible to measure, especially since a dog like you isn’t prone to complain, just walk with more and more difficulty and pain, sleep for longer periods, and take so much longer to eat. Your eyes were glazed over, and not just by cataracts, and your hearing was going too. With the kidney issues, Ken and I became adept at leaping up from any movie we were watching to grab the mop and a towel right away. We put in a long runner of carpet to make it easier for you to navigate from your food bowl to the blue couch, where you spent most of your time.
Of course we tried lots of remedies and medications, long talks with the wonderful Dr. Bayouth, your vet, and with friends. The question of how to know when it’s time is an impossible thing to hold because with dogs, and especially a dog like you, the answer is swimming and drowning in love. You would have stayed as long as we let you. In recent weeks, however, it became painfully clear how hard your life was becoming. Each breath, each step, each awakening each morning became more strained.
“Are you miserable all the time?” I asked you about a week ago. You lifted your head, stared into my eyes, and said with your gorgeous and heartbreaking eyes, “Yes.” I then asked you if you were ready to leave us. Suddenly, you leapt to your feet and did all you could to look alive. Ken and I kept talking to each other and others, trying to discern when was when.
Then Thursday night, your coughing fits (caused by the tumor) escalated until you were coughing continuously all night. You had to go out to pee every few hours for weeks, but now each step hurt, and you were doing all you could to propel yourself forward. You were trying so hard, and you were so tired. At 5 a.m. Friday morning, all of us awake a lot of the night, Ken turned to me and said, “Today is the day.” I stayed awake frozen and scared for you and us.
There’s never a good time. There’s never a right time. Yet we have this privilege and responsibility of sorts with our pets to make a decision to put them out of their pain and exhaustion. We called the vet and set an appointment for 3:30 p.m. Meanwhile, throughout the day, I fed you what you loved most: a whole packet of sustainably-harvested smoked salmon. Chicken tenders. A can of tuna fish. You even, when I left the room, managed to snag a bag of Wheatfields bread off the counter and eat some of it, then collapsed to sleep in the crumbs. Both of our sons and our sister-in-law came over to say goodbye while Ken dug your grave for hours. By the time we left for the vet, you in your Medieval collar and us lifting you — your front half and then your back half — into the car, Daniel took over the shoveling, and we drove to town.
Your death was more loving and gentle than we could have imagined. Dr. Heeb brought great compassion into the room where she, Ken, and I sat on the floor around you, sitting on a plush blanket. She wrapped her arms around you, and you leaned into her as she gave you the first injection to help you relax. No resistance, no fear, no hesitation. As you sunk to the ground, we held you while she did the rest. Then she left us for a few minutes to talk with you, your body still so warm and your presence so palpable, it was impossible to believe you were dead. When she and Ken carried you to the car on a dog stretcher, the whole staff of the Animal Hospital of Lawrence stood and watched us, most of them tearing up as I cried and couldn’t get out the words to thank them.
We brought you to the deep hole in the field, close to where you loved to run and near our home. We sprinkled dog treats into your grave after we lowered you down, wrapped in a fuzzy brown blanket. I dropped in a Ricola, unwrapped, for you while Ken stopped Moxie dog were jumping down to steal your treats. We had a brief Jewish service, the Kaddish (prayer for the dead) and the Shehecheyanu (prayer for the season and time we’re in), plus all of us – Ken, his sister Karen, Daniel and me — saying how much we loved you.
This is a long letter to you, Shay, because I don’t want it end. I don’t want you to be gone. I don’t want your dead lovely body to be buried in the ground just beyond our vegetable garden. When I woke today at 5 a.m., the gulf you left seemed to fill the house. I wouldn’t want you suffering and alive, but it’s also impossible to have you out of pain but dead. As an Olympic medal-winner at second-guessing myself, I’ve circled through the what-ifs dozens of times, always arriving back where I started. But still.
You are one of the great loves of my life. My gratitude is bigger than my grief, but this grief is a big place of seemingly no return. Maybe I’m just having a walkabout myself through this loss, but I also haven’t gone anywhere, and when it comes to loving you, I never will. Thank you, sweet dog. Thank you forever, Shay.
“I’m here for my monogram,” a silver-haired woman told the receptionist. “Yes, your mammogram,” the receptionist answered without missing a beat. Obviously, she had heard such variations before, and this is the way of Scan Land, where many — if not all of us — go every so often to make sure there’s nothing anxious or life-threatening growing, or growing too much, on our insides.
Yesterday, I returned to Scan Land for my quarterly CT scan or MRI to ensure that no micrometastases from my ocular melanoma were taking up residence in my liver or lungs. “How many of these have we done so far?” Ken asked me yesterday as we sat in the waiting room, me sipping the iodine water necessary for my CAT scan. I counted on my fingers: at least nine quarterly scans, and that doesn’t count the dozens of eye ultrasounds (amazing how you can get used to a tiny device moving back and forth on your eyeball) and another kind of scan that entails staring deep into a machine to watch the fires of Mordor.
I’ve made many excursions to Scan Land since 2002 when I was first diagnosed with breast cancer. Because I’m a carrier of the BRCA 1 genetic mutation (which increases risk for breast, ovarian, and other cancers) and because my dad and uncle died of pancreatic cancer, I was going annually for a CAT scan or MRI for years. With the scans related to the more recent cancer, if I could earn frequent flyer miles for all the hours I’ve spent in Scan Land, I could circle the globe.
To be honest, the scans aren’t painful, and because I’ve struggled with tight-spaces anxiety, they sure aren’t boring. But thanks to work with my therapist, meditation, medication, and if it’s a closed MRI, serious drugs, I’ve been able to get through them. That said, I’ve also experienced some of my worst panic attacks lying on a platform going in and out of a machine. I’ll never forget the 45-minute-long PET scan in a traveling scan-mobile parked outside the hospital which I hyperventilated and cried through before slowing my breath enough to see myself wandering a desert for a long night, searching for some sense of peace while reminding myself that this big, bad machine wasn’t going to hurt me.
I’ve worked through a lot of my scan issues, and yesterday, I did my first scan without any medication, and although I started to feel that rushing fight-or-flight sensation in my stomach, I remembered to breathe and listen to the song (Christina Perri’s “A Thousand Years” — even if it’s from a vampire movie) I always play on my ear buds. So now I’m mostly left with the end point for all who visit Scan Land: the results.
No matter what the results are, they are always extraordinary: good (thank heavens!), bad (Oh my God!) or ambiguous (Oh no!). We inhabits of the waiting rooms — before the scan and before the doctor’s visit to tell us the results — aren’t a cheery bunch for the most part, most of us somewhere between scared, hopeful, numb, resigned, sad, distracted, and freaked out. Waiting for the results is often the worst part of wrangling with cancer and other life-smashing illnesses.
Some doctors use the I’ll-call-you-if-it’s-fine-but-you-have-to-come-in-if-it’s-not approach, which makes for a terrifying drive to the doctor’s office, knowing bad news, possibly life-shortening, is about to assault us. Luckily, my oncologist has a better way: I have my scan in the morning, then go to her office at 1 p.m. no matter the results, which gives the worst of my imaginative capacities little time to get too riled up. Still, I usually have a twinge.
Then again, scans have saved my life more than once. A mammogram caught my breast cancer early enough that I could survive it. A constellation of eye and other scans led me to treatment in June of 2019 that so far (and continuing for many years to come, I hope, I hope, I hope) saved me. Yesterday was another clear scan, and once again I’m overwhelmingly grateful for my short trek in and out of this big donut-hole-shaped machine.
I remember years ago at my oncologist’s office seeing two women — one middle-aged and one older, a mother and daughter — walk in the door clutching each other and sobbing. They were sure they were there for bad news, and it was hard for them to answer the receptionist’s questions as she checked them in. Eventually, they were called back to meet with the doctor as was I. When I was checking out, they were too, and this time they were crying for a different reason. They had gotten good news, and they were so overcome with relief and joy that they couldn’t stop weeping. I had gotten good results too that day, a good day in Scan Land for us all.
“The world will never be the same,” Ken told me right after Goody Garfield’s burial service. “We were witness to one of a kind, and that’s true of everyone, but not to the same level.” Anyone who knew and loved Goody — and if you knew him, how could you not love him? — would agree. There was something about Goody that filled any conversation with marvel, humor, delight, no small stash of wisdom, and no end of winding and illuminating stories.
When I ran into Goody at the Lawrence Jewish Community Congregation, like just about all of us, he treated me — sometimes while holding my face in both his hands — with wonder and adoration. On birthdays, he would email me show tunes with revised lyrics, like “What a day this has been/ What a carin’ mood has swept in/ Why it’s almost like falling in love.” He sent sweet missives to Ken if he saw an article on prairie plants or poetry to me mused about his latest thoughts and delights while he drank coffee in what he called the wee hours.
To say Goody was exuberant about life doesn’t begin to name his dazzling smile. When he entered a room, we might as well have blasted “76 Trombones” from the rafters. But his way of seeing and being with us was also poignantly intimate. Likewise, Shirley — his partner in crime for so many decades — also carries a depth and a glow at once. Together, they shone with enthusiasm, tenderness, wit, and they knew their way around a good story to get at some out-of-the-way but essential meaning.
If Goody was weather, he would be a windy, sunny, warm April day that charmed all the lilacs and lily-of-the-valley into maximum blooming and made strangers fall in love. No wonder then that we buried Goody in driving cold rain, the wind cutting right through our jackets, the storm soaking through our clothes. Even standing under the awning over the burial site where Shirley and their three loving children — Michael, David, and Debbie — sat near their daughter-in-law and grandson, the weather of heartbreak stormed through. The big hole in the ground mirrored the hole in our hearts.
“Goody was an inspiration. Inspiration means the spirit that he placed in other people. He wasn’t an inspiration because of what he taught; he was an inspiration because of who he was. To my mind, that’s the greatest thing you can say about anyone. ….he brings people to the good,” Rabbi Mark Levin, who led the graveside service, told us. From his bounding and boundless humor (on his Facebook page, he says he’s a retired point guard from the University of Kansas, where he was a life-changing professor of Social Welfare for years) to his fixed attention on what matters in life, he modeled inspiration as well as love.
Maya Angelou writes, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Although I hold tight to what Goody said and did, my life — as well as many of our lives — is changed by how he made me feel so loved and so alive. Although his memory is already a blessing, may it always continue to be.
“This is probably the last time we’ll be able to do this,” we nervously joked with each other a year ago. We were friends, gathered at Haskell Indian Nations University to see and hear Louise Erdrich, one of our most beloved writers. Erdrich had never been to Lawrence or Haskell, the only intertribal university in our country, and she rarely did public readings at all, so that this was happening at all was somewhat miraculous. While it was a first for this spectacular novelist, it was a last for hundreds of people clumping together in a big public place, even exchanging easy hugs.
I’m thinking today about the joke/no joke moment. I didn’t believe a year ago that this — a real pandemic landed squarely here and everywhere else in the world — would actually happen or that it would last more than a few weeks or months. Surely it would be over by April or July or definitely October. Of course the lockdowns would halt it from spreading. The masks I was rushing to make or buy from others sewing them would make a difference as would sanitizing the fuck out of everything that came in the door, from the mail to the avocados.
But what did I know? “Not much,” life tell us often. I went from counting weeks to counting months, and now I get it that it will be years before we’re out of the Covid woods. I couldn’t have imagined that close to 5,000 Kansans, over 500,000 Americans, and over 2.5 million people worldwide would die from this, all of them beloved by children or siblings, friends or partners, communities or families. There’s also millions who survived Covid but now are swimming through life with permanent damage to their hearts or lungs as well as asthma, migraines, and a host of strange symptoms. We’re just beginning to see more of the iceberg of this horrendous disease, including how it can twist into new mutations.
But something else has come into sharp relief through this year: just about everyone I know has spent a lot more time contemplating and savoring what matters in their lives. I have bunches of friends who walk the nearby wetlands daily, delighting in and learning about the life cycles of great blue herons and songs of red-winged blackbirds. Being home just about all the time alone or with a spouse or child brings — for the good and the bad — our relationships into new and acute focus. Not getting in the car so much or ever on the plane to flit here and there means a lot more rest is at hand, a good counterbalance at times (although not always enough) for pandemic anxiety and grief.
On a more personal level, I’m learning how much slowing down to be where I am is essential for my health and sanity. Each day, I step outside to the deck and try to take in the sky and weather of this moment. Back inside, I look at this quote from Louise Erdrich, framed and signed — a lovely gift from my friend Harriet when I was newly diagnosed with my last cancer — and nod in recognition:
“Life will break you. Nobody can protect you from that, and being alone won’t either, for solitude will also break you with its yearning. You have to love. You have to feel. It is the reason you are here on earth. You have to risk your heart. You are here to be swallowed up. And when it happens that you are broken, or betrayed, or left, or hurt, or death brushes too near, let yourself sit by an apple tree and listen to the apples falling all around you in heaps, wasting their sweetness. Tell yourself that you tasted as many as you could.”
Tonight, a year to the date I saw Erdrich, I’m going to a reading of a another writer I love but never heard in-person before: Anne Lamott. But I’ll be doing that — along with hundreds more across the country — through my computer screen. Life will and does break us, but yes, there are all these apples and sweetness right here too.
P.S. Thanks to the Raven Bookstore for helping bring Louise Erdrich to Lawrence a year ago. Thanks for Watermark Bookstore for being part of the virtual Anne Lamott reading tonight.
Last night, I found that my tinnitus buzzes and hums in the key of G. How did I find this? By singing in key with the tinnitus while pressing piano keys.
Making music out of misfortune is sometimes the order of the day, especially when I’m encased in a cocoon of hearing the workings of my own brain. That’s somewhat what tinnitus is, according to this succinct and brilliant video with Marc Fagelson, who says, “Experiencing tinnitus is like eavesdropping on your brain talking to itself although it may not be a conversation you want to hear.”
Then again, those of us (something like one in seven) with tinnitus don’t have much of a choice. How I got here wasn’t exactly by choice either, but rather a Rube Goldberg (no relation, just resonance) contraption of events. Over the last six months I’ve been immersed in the sport of extreme dentistry because the radiation treatment for my ocular melanoma wreaked havoc on my teeth. With upwards of 20 cavities, including many under caps, I’ve had close to 20 visits to the dentist, oral surgeon and endodontist. Almost all included drilling in various pitches, and yes, it turns out dental drilling can cause or worsen tinnitus (no, earplugs won’t help because the drilling is happening inside the head)
I’ve been running my own science experiment in my brain, and after each dental visit, someone turns the volume up on what was once a barely detectable buzz-hum-sing-roaring, sometimes so much that it wakes me up at night. So what’s a gal to do? Take to the internet and research the hell out of this of course, but I’ve also been telling people, which brings me a lot of stories of how people all around me have been living with tinnitus and other hearing quirks and limitations. There’s no cure, but there’s ways to make friends with this condition, which for me mainly takes the form of not storying this up with terms like “cancer’s collateral damage,” but instead telling myself tinnitus isn’t really unpleasant, and it’s more akin to be wrapped in multiple blankets of white noise. Sometimes it’s even soothing.
I’ve also recommitted to my wiggly meditation practice, changing my 5-minutes-of-meditation-when-I-feel-like-it to 18 minutes a day no matter what. While sitting quietly is a sure way to hear the loudest ocean of tinnitus engulfing me, it also gives me time to just be with it without thrashing against the walls of no such thing as pure silence. I also play music a lot, which helps somewhat mask tinnitus, and last night I stumbled upon singing along with it, then taking to the piano where I found it lived in the key of G. I then read today about how making and being in sounds that correlate to the same pitch is a practice called energetic masking.
So here I am, living life in the key of G, the letter that begins my maiden name of Goldberg but also goodness, google, God, guess, goobsmacked, Gaia, granola, gratitude, Gandalf, giving, grief, giraffe, grass, gravy, and grace. It’s not such bad company — and hey, a lot of these G’s are the very stuff of life — even if it’s sometimes a loud party of its own strange music.
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