Alternate timeline

Time, light, and window were one, by Henk Sijgers on Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons
Time, light, and window were one, by Henk Sijgers on Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons

As the year draws to a close, I start to consider how unrecognizable my life is now from the life I had when the calendar was new: I lost a parent, and gained a new address. The magnitude of these changes haunts me on a daily basis, spiritually as well as literally. The house is still filled with boxes and we’re getting new windows installed today.

Back when I was seeing my therapist, M., and trying to get the hang of how to live with the now-permanent sword dangling above my head, she shared with me that one of the things to be negotiated is whether the amorphous timeline of that which you’d hoped to do “someday” might need to be concretized. Given an unknown, but finite, amount of time, what do you do differently?

Some of the things I’ve been hoping to do are longer term projects, but the easiest one to handle in the shorter term was, Travel. J and I and the kids have managed to take some memorable trips in the past few years. With our move this year, though, travel took a backseat to getting settled. At the same time, I’ve been trying to dig in and formalize my translation business. I’ve chosen a name for it and am in the planning stages for a website. The missing piece has been that I’ve been in need of is an opportunity for professional development to help me further my chosen career.

It came where I least expected, in an email last week from a translator friend who lives in Italy. She mentioned in passing a week-long translation course she’d be taking in Florence in a few weeks. Under normal circumstances, a person of indeterminate lifespan might have read this, remarked on it, and moved on. Being who I am now, I couldn’t. There is a lot I have let fall by the wayside or told myself could happen later, but this opportunity, one that had actual dates attached to it, could not. Within hours, I’d secured J’s blessing and used credit card points for a plane ticket and tracked down friends I could stay with. It wasn’t until today, when I finally made contact with the school offering the course in order to confirm my enrollment, that I could finally exhale and consider this opportunity a bona fide one.

And so it is that I will travel, early in the new year, to a place so beloved and familiar to me it feels like a spiritual home. A place I’ve traversed in dreams, and while waiting for brain MRIs to end. I won’t be playing tourist in a typical sense, since I’ll spend five consecutive days in a classroom. In that sense and in a few others it will be just like 1992. Since the 1990s is a temporal place of spiritual refuge for me, I am doubly excited. It is like going backwards at the same time as I move forward careerwise. From a physics standpoint, I guess that simultaneous backward and forward motion means I stay in the same place.

Getting to be here, though, by which I mean alive, and switching up time zones and languages for a little bit, is a gift beyond words.

Young J at 12

twelve, by tup wanders on Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons

Twelve years ago today, I went through what I thought at the time was the experience that would bring me closest to what my own and birth and death would feel like: I gave birth to Young J. It was my first birth, and it was anomalous (I wandered around for a full week ready to deliver but not quite in actual labor, before my OB finally decided, “we need to finish this”). Once labor started, it was very fast indeed: three hours start to end. Because I missed the boat on an epidural, I was lucky to have a very good nurse coach me through it, one who eventually would be one of my midwives when I had Young A.

Today, Young J is taller than some short adults. He is handsome, funny, and smart. Although he has only been playing drums for a year, he shows great promise, and is more engaged by drumming than by any other instrument he has played. He was also a prime motivator during the upheaval of our move this summer. Unlike his younger brother, who is a city boy through and through, Young J had expressed longings for a quieter, more bucolic life since his earliest days. Our visits to family in the suburb we now inhabit were rapturous — he called it “the country.” He enjoys the lack of frequent sirens, having a yard, and being able to ride his bike around the block without supervision or the sense of imminent death.

When he began the year at his new school, Young J was excited about learning French (which wasn’t offered at his old school), and joining the band. While French has been a delight for him (oh, to be a fly on the wall this morning, when his class sang him a bonne anniversaire!), band was an unexpected mountain to be scaled. Young J had to relearn how to read music, something he hadn’t banked on since he chose percussion. But percussion includes bells and xylophone and any number of other instruments whose notes aren’t expressed on the page by x’s. He panicked after the first week or two, especially after one embarrassing day when he was laughed at by the rest of the band for not knowing how to read music. While we were on the road for Rosh Hashanah he decided it was too much stress and that he’d need to drop band. The plan was to have him take a year of private lessons, relearn how to read music, and try again next year for band.

Then he got back to school, saw his guidance counselor, and learned that he’d need to change his entire schedule around if he dropped out of band. And he liked all of his other classes. That night, we went to the music store, rented a bells kit, and music boot camp began. There was a quantity of wailing, tears, and gnashing of teeth (some of it ours).

That was September. In mid-November, I went to meet teachers for conferences. I approached the table where the band director was sitting and introduced myself as Young J’s mom. I got to see the band director’s face light up like a 150-watt bulb when I did. Not only had Young J been holding his own, he had risen above and rapidly become one of the most valuable members of the band, which has seventy students in it. His lessons have taught him technical things which he then shares with his section-mates. He doesn’t goof around in the back of the room, like some of the other kids in percussion. And, he identifies so strongly with his section that he’s inviting all of them to his birthday party… even though one of them is a girl.

Young J has been teaching us for quite some time now, but it always thrills me to see what else I learn from him. In spite of all the medical drama I have experienced in the past five years, I still maintain that giving birth was more transformative, in terms of physical and spiritual experience. In my continuing refusal to let cancer have the last word, I don’t even rank it at any level close to the birthing experience. Certainly my illness has changed me in other ways. It has sharpened my sense of irony and outrage, but I don’t have warm fuzzy feelings about it. I don’t even own a sense of pride in how I have dealt with it — I continue to maintain that the cancer patient outsources everything about their disease to professionals, save the way they react to it. (Although therapists can — or should — play a role there.)

Thanks, Young J — for being the one to make an impact on my life that even cancer could not cancel out. I hope I can keep my sneaky fucking disease at bay long enough to see you grown and flown, bringing the light of your smile and the truth of your rhythms to the world. Happy birthday!

Meet the new place

Clover Black School, Halifax County 1, by David Hoffman on Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons

I had my first followup appointment with the new team today, in the new place. The good news is, I didn’t need to drive to Baltimore. The bad news is, everything about the new place was aggravating and made no sense to me.

At NYU, there was very much the sense of “one stop shopping.” When I showed up for a checkup, I’d have my bloodwork done in the same office on the same day, and by the time Dr P or a nurse practitioner came in, they had the blood analyzed already. When I needed to schedule additional appointments or scans, the staff in the office knew exactly when I needed to come in and were ready with a selection of dates for me.

Today was nothing like that. From the morning stress of the drive, to the overpriced parking lot, to having to hike four buildings over at the end of my second appointment in order to get to my car, everything seemed designed to frustrate and confound. The only thing remotely relaxing was the echocardiogram, when I got to lie down and have a pleasant chat about gardening with the tech, and hear my heart reassuringly go about its rhythmic swishing.

How I missed my simple subway commute and my well-traveled pathways and plans for lunch after! I even missed the little cubicle where the phlebotomist worked, because under my new regime, I’ll have to go to an external lab for my blood draws before going for checkups. I left the hospital today with a sheaf of orders for bloodwork to be used from now through next June, and the distinct feeling that none of this should be my problem.

Of course, as Roberto Benigni says, “I am lucky to even be here.” I know very well it could be otherwise. As usual I kept my head down through the long wait in the waiting room. As I told J. later, “There were so many cancer people there.” I seem to always be trying to put distance between myself and “them.” Even after all this time…

I never need to look very far for a reality check. I know someone going through much worse right now, in terms of her treatment and side effects and a general feeling that she isn’t supported. My heart goes out to her. I wish her to get to the stage where I am: able to complain about minor inconveniences, able to distance herself from the truly sick, able to sit in an examining room and talk about the distance between her last flare-up and today not in weeks or months, but years.