Hi from Italy! Welcome to Superb+Solid readers (and thanks for the shout-out, Todd)!
It was a week. The longest in memory. Hours with butt planted firmly in classroom chair, cycling between marveling at simply being there, and an almost unshakable sleepiness born of jet lag and mental fatigue and barely dispelled by break room Nespressi. I have pages and pages of notes. They will get reread eventually, in the dark night of the translator’s soul, once I am back home.
It wasn’t all classroom time, of course. There were all the walks to and from school, with quick, surreptitious snapshots of what I was seeing (like the one above), because I still, after all these years, have the obsession with not acting like a tourist.
There were new colleagues to get to know, to share with, to mine for useful information, to commiserate with, to have long heartfelt beer- and wine-fueled talks with. Everyone deserves to have a week like that every decade or so (if that’s your thing — maybe you want a weekly basketball game or book club, instead). I feel absolutely reset and reconnected to my former self, and maybe all it took was a plastic converter to change the voltage, an air ticket, and another language to slip on over my regular clothes.
Coming as it did so early in the calendar year, of course, this week away has also felt like another chance not to completely fuck things up this time around. In part, by refusing to be as hard on myself as the previous sentence would indicate. If you’re lucky, tectonic shifts don’t happen overnight… and I’m right in the middle of one.
As soon as the course had started, it had ended. Yesterday, I had a wonderful reunion with H., my roommate from my time in Florence 27 years ago. I went to her town and spent the day with her and her husband and their darling baby daughter who is learning to walk. C. cried when she first saw me, but eventually got used to me and answered all my questions with her favorite word (“No!”) and we read together and played ball and had some laughs. After lunch, we drove out to walk around the port of Pisa, at the mouth of the Arno, where I learned the Italian word for sailboat masts is actually trees.
Last night, back in Florence, the friends I’m staying with (one of whom I also met in 1992) took me to a birthday party, where I ate and drank wonderful things and started losing my voice from all the talking I was doing and then, past midnight, heard one of the guests sing Brazilian songs so heart-stoppingly beautiful I had to keep my hand by my chest, just in case.
The bad cold that was looming all week has finally descended, so I’m laying low on my last day here. Thank you, Italy, for being the place I always imagine you are when I am far away. I promise to come back soon.
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.
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!
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.
Generally, I wait to post here until I’ve gotten my scan results. (EDITED TO ADD: ALL IS OK!!) But I’m in a new universe as far as scans go, and Dr L (the new Dr P) hasn’t given me an inkling how results will be communicated to me (or if he did, I don’t remember), nor when I will receive them. Are carrier pigeons still in service? Have they been replaced by Harry Potter owls? (I haven’t actually read any HP, but Young J has said something or other about owls.) There is a portal. Maybe they come through the portal? I just want them to be good.
There are things I miss terribly about scan day in New York, and some of them will seem weird when I write them down. I usually had my scans early in the day, which meant I got to join the tide of commuters striding purposefully down my block to the subway. Since I had not been a daily subway commuter in many years, this was always kind of a treat for me. I’d catch a Q train to Union Square or a B to Broadway-Lafayette, transfer to the uptown 6, and then hike up the steep steps at 33rd and Park, anxious to see whether I could catch the crosstown bus over to the hospital. There was always breathlessness involved in this transit, but last November, in fact on this very day, I was going for both my scans while recovering from my fourth pneumonia since 2008. (I told a friend the other day that recurrent pneumonia was my training ground for dealing with melanoma.) I am pretty sure I sprang for a cab from the subway to the hospital last year. A cab all the way from Brooklyn was just too decadent for me.
Once I arrived at NYU Hospital, I’d check in at the desk and get a pager to wait for my turn to actually check in. This was less exciting than getting a pager at a restaurant, because I’m fasting on scan day, so when that pager went off, it did not mean a meal was at hand. I’d rush through my paperwork and get handed a bottle of berry-flavored Readi Cat. It always bothered me that I was given a complete, sealed bottle (never chilled, which I understand makes it slightly more palatable) and also a plastic cup filled to the brim with a starter serving. There was always a shortage of seats and places to put things, and opening the bottle meant putting the cup between my knees while undoing one of those foil seals with a plastic pull tab that never, ever work as intended. My instructions were to drink a cupful every ten minutes. But my own strategy with the Readi Cat was to just slam it down as quickly as possible, because I didn’t see the point of making the experience last longer than necessary.
This morning, after I checked in to the spacious waiting room (no pagers involved), medical assistant Katie came and handed me a Big Gulp-sized Styrofoam cup filled with chartreuse liquid.
I sure wasn’t going to make a fuss about not getting the Readi Cat I was expecting. The nurse said it was Crystal Light mixed with IV contrast solution. This kind of knocked me off my axis. Did this mean… Readi Cat was not the ONLY way? Is there a conspiracy at NYU to keep scans rooted in bygone tradition? Is Readi Cat really cheaper than Crystal Light? I was nervous that I’d been given the wrong thing, but Katie wasn’t around to ask, so I started drinking. And it wasn’t bad! (Remember, I’ve been fasting since last night.)
Katie showed up right when she said she would, as I was taking my final sips. I was clad in my usual scan day clothes (yoga pants, sports bra, t-shirt) so I didn’t need to put on a gown. Even better than that, I was not made to wait in a gowned waiting area for ages, subject to unwelcome views of men in gowns, dress socks and dress shoes (I have covered this subject here before). I followed Katie to get my IV placed. She took a good long time to find the vein (or maybe it just took a good long time to pop up), but that gave us a chance to chat, and I found out that barium sulfate is not exactly state-of-the-art for CT scans. She actually chuckled when she heard that I’d been given that to drink. My mind was blown!
I followed Katie to the machine, which was ready for me. It was a GE rather than a Siemens, but otherwise it all looked familiar. I knew there would be a moment that wouldn’t be familiar at all, and that was the recorded prompts to breathe and hold my breath. At NYU, those seem to have been locally recorded by some guy from Brooklyn, and they sounded like this:
Breed in, breed out / Breed in, hold ya breath / … Annnd BREED
Today the voice was still male, but much more standard. I didn’t have to breathe out. I didn’t have to BREED. Just in and hold and then breathe again. Furthermore, there were helpful indicators on the machine to demonstrate breathing and holding your breath:
I was out of there in just over an hour. Record time. Under an hour might have saved me some cash in terms of the parking garage, which I’ve decided is the thing I like least about my new scan regimen.
I was definitely in the grip of scanxiety the past few days. I wasn’t the easiest person for J and the boys to live with, and it put me in a pretty gloomy frame of mind when I met with Mom and my brothers last Saturday, to discuss what to write on my father’s headstone. (I mean, yes, J and I should probably shop for funeral plots… but my demise isn’t remotely imminent.) It took a long time to convince myself to get to sleep last night, and I was up at six this morning having Thoughts. One of those was a very belated and perhaps completely dim-witted realization that God was something people came up with so they wouldn’t feel like they were alone while having Thoughts. (Personally, I enjoy being alone with my Thoughts.)
I really missed the subway piece of scan day today. When you have used a particular mode of transportation in the context of life-and-death issues, you do get attached. I got in the car to drive to the facility, but before pulling out of the garage I queued up today’s scan anthem (scanthem?) (Around 6:25 is where Bono becomes aware of a Very Urgent Situation regarding some female fans who must be helped over the barrier in order to dance with him).
My need to listen to this particular song surfaced quite suddenly, out of nowhere I could easily locate– although hearing this Irish band also made me think of my departed melanoma compatriot. The first anniversary of her death was two days ago.
I confess to being one of those people who has jumped on the bandwagon of considering latter-day Bono and U2 to be utterly formulaic and ridiculous. But… this song existed before that bandwagon had ever been constructed. It accompanied my very short drive in the rising sun to my latest appointment with destiny in the precise way I needed it to. Mom was in the waiting room this morning, as a surprise before she headed to work. This is the new Scan Day Paradigm. It isn’t better or worse, it is different. I’ll get used to it.
Post-scan breaking of my fast was different too. My go-to used to be spanakopita and salad at the gyro shop by the hospital. But I walked out of the scan facility this morning at 8:40 a.m., and that didn’t sound appetizing in the least. I could have gone to the new cafe near my house and had an overpriced coffee and some quiche. (I was appropriately attired in athleisure, after all, like most of its patrons.) But something compelled me to come home. J was there, ready with a hug and a kiss and a lovely double cappuccino. I made an egg and some toast and sat by the kitchen window, content as a cat.
Oh: The gift wrap bandage at the end came in NYU purple:
I gave a shout-out in my heart to my old crew: Dr P, Nurse Practitioners K and R, whom I miss so much. And to Bakary, the phlebotomist, of blessed memory.
Four years ago, I launched this blog. I didn’t know where I was going with it, and I didn’t know much except that my life was in grave danger, a near or distant future not assured to me, I was too sick to eat, and I wasn’t in the mood to pray.
But I could write. I have always been able to write. I had no idea of the conditions under which I could write, and I feel as though I discovered them all: I wrote through near-starvation due to colitis brought on by immunotherapy, I wrote through elation at getting better, I wrote through fears of not continuing the treatment that almost killed me, and I wrote through the bewilderment of those two days in April 2015, when I went from my oncologist reporting “No Evidence of Disease” in my lungs, to having nine tumors in my brain, all within the space of twenty-four hours. My entire life since that point has been an attempt to either recapture or recover from the sheer adrenaline rush of those days. From time to time I’ll look up one of those posts and laugh (and cringe).
Steroids fueled a lot of my writing during illness. I have kept the vials of leftovers around, but I’m not crazy enough to use them recreationally, as a means of kicking my writing into high gear. The nonstop writing was the only positive part of steroid insanity. All the rest, the extreme irritability, the sleeplessness, the fact that only fried foods tasted right, the way my face ballooned to the size of a small planet — I don’t wish any of that back.
Four years ago I didn’t know I’d be sitting in a house I owned, a mile away from the house where I grew up, or that I’d be voting in the building that housed my elementary school, and my children would be sleeping in separate rooms at last. I didn’t know we’d have deer occasionally show up on the front lawn, and we’d drop everything to watch them. Four years ago (even one year ago), my father was still here. He was cheering me on. You can find his comments sprinkled liberally through the early posts here, full of praise and encouragement in all caps.
“I am surprised to see / that the ocean is still going on,” writes Anne Sexton in the opening to her marvelous poem, “Letter Written on a While Crossing Long Island Sound.” I haven’t written about that poem here (yet?) but you can hear her read it. (I just listened to it again and held my breath the whole time.) The last two lines are everything.
I am surprised to see I am still here, writing on and on even without the aid of steroids, and even more surprised to find you reading this blog. Thanks. I’m glad you’re here. I’m glad I still am.
Murder has been the order of the day. Last Saturday, eleven of my fellow Jews were gunned down as they prayed. Last week, two elderly black people were shot in a supermarket parking lot, because a white man was not able to get in to a nearby church, but he was able to get a gun and point it at them for looking different than he did.
This is me, circa 1995, angry about a government shutdown. But this image resurfaces these days because I’m still as angry as I look there. About Congress’ continued, protracted failure to enact gun laws that could save my kids from growing up in fear, practicing lockdown drills, being handed lollipops to keep them quiet as a deranged (white, male) shooter stalks them in the hallway.
This, of course, is not to turn a blind eye to the fact that hate is universal. My Facebook memory from last year on this date expresses sorrow over the day’s events. I was horrified to find that I couldn’t even remember which ghastly massacre had occurred until I looked it up. It is obvious that eradicating this type of hate will take more than bulletproof legislation. But we need to start somewhere. I’ll be voting next week. (At my former elementary school.)
Last Saturday night I tossed and turned. It was difficult to get to sleep after the day’s events. When I was finally about to drift off, I suddenly heard my father’s voice. It wasn’t saying anything particularly meaningful. It was just there, in my ear, accompanied by his habitual throat clearing. Maybe he was clearing his throat in order to greet the new souls who were lost that day. It was good to hear his voice again, and it made me sad. (My father spoke English with an accent that I have never been able to replicate, and I’m very good at accents.)
A few weeks ago we were driving by my childhood home, which is a mile from our new house. I had decided I wouldn’t be passing it on a regular basis, since the azalea bushes that lined the walk are now gone, as are most of the trees I knew. On this particular day, there were renovations going on, apparently in the kitchen, which my father had renovated himself. So we got one last look at his handiwork as we drove by that day, and saw the cabinets he had installed heaped in the driveway. (At least the garage he built is still standing.)
We’re working hard to make progress on our new house. Every day brings a new wrinkle or near-calamity. The contractor was here for a walkthrough and noticed a leak sagging the drywall on the living room ceiling. Now we need to retile our shower. This morning, a tree expert walked us through our backyard and demystified our trees for us. Black cherry, mulberry, sassafras, gum. They seem to like to grow in community, so I had assumed they were all the same thing. “Birds must have planted em,” the tree guy said. The one that seems to be leaning precariously towards our neighbor’s fence turns out to be fine. But another tree, a black cherry, needs to come down. We’re trying to decide between using it as firewood or having them split it so that J., who has always dreamed of taking up woodworking, can try to make us a new coffee table.
I tried all my usual self-improvement techniques this month (giving up sugar, taking up running) but now, at the tail end of the month, it has all fallen by the wayside. November has typically been a month where I try to reignite my writing practice, but I’m almost afraid to make any sort of commitment to myself. It would certainly help to pass the time: I have some translation work coming up, but not until the end of November. I will meet my new dermatologist this Friday, the same one who treated my father. I have a CT scan on November 19th, the first in a new location, and then an MRI in December. Today’s date squares with the time when the scanxiety kicks in, and the dread, and the sense that something may not be right.
But it’s also Halloween today, so I should rehearse merriment in advance of taking the kids out tonight. Here’s something to crack a grim little smile at.