What’s good

World Class Traffic Jam 2, by b k on Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons

April already. Young J observed how quickly the days seem to be flying by. And he’s only twelve. He has no idea.

After a couple of months of work, we are finally getting used to the house not being overrun with workers. Our renovation is finished and the painters did their good work and the house finally feels like it is ours. Well, ours, with boxes. Baby steps.

I sat at my desk this week for the first time in ages to get some long-postponed work done. I was translating an interview with the head of design for a major car company. Unlike the interviews I usually translate for this client, which tend to be with workers or managers on the factory floor speaking about their specific jobs, this guy is giving a big picture overview of how a concept becomes a car. It’s fascinating. I feel fortunate to get to do this work, and can’t believe I get paid too. Also, he said he sketches every day. Puts pencil to paper. Every day. This was a good reminder to me that I should probably do the same if I’m ever going to actually write a book.

April is always a bit triggering for me, since two of my three cancer diagnoses came down this month. I find I can no longer easily access my feelings in the immediate aftermath of my initial diagnosis in 2013, because it seems like a different era of geologic time. My kids were small, I was still young, and I was not yet succumbing to the physical and mental lumpiness of solid middle (emphasis on middle) age. I was pretty freaked out, of course. I do remember taking the call from my dermatologist, Dr. A, around midday, before the kids were back from school. I called J and stood by the front window of our old apartment, probably blinking back tears while looking at the ginkgo tree with its leaves just emerging. It would have been sunny.

Of all the things I resent about melanoma, I’d put fear of the sun near the top of the list. I love the spring and summer. I love a hot, humid day. I love the feeling of sunlight on my skin. No one told me that feeling would prove as dangerous as heroin or smoking, until it was. All the UV protective clothing in the world can’t make me feel better about having to live in fear of the sun for as long as I’ve got. (Although if your new paradigm of swimsuit shopping means picking out new full length swim tights and long sleeved rash guards, you may find you don’t miss the often-humiliating exercise of buying more revealing swimwear.)

My initial diagnosis memory of April was surpassed forever by the 24-hour period in mid-April 2015, where I went from being NED in my lungs to having a brain full of tumors. The blog post I somehow wrote while language-impaired is a source of fascination now — and how lucky I am to be able to write that. In the middle of a translation work marathon yesterday, I paused to remember how worried I was back then. I thought that melanoma was going to permanently steal one of my superpowers, language. I remember lying in bed wide awake at 4 a.m. when the steroids kept me from sleep, chatting in Italian with friends in Europe who were already awake. I was desperate to make my injured brain prove itself still capable of coherent expression in any language. I’m surprised I didn’t blow a gasket. And there I was yesterday spending five hours at my computer translating from Italian, then unwinding for an hour by reading a novel in French. (I should maybe seek out some slightly more brainless pursuits.)

I didn’t mean for this post to get morose. Yes it’s April, but it has now been four years since my last big crisis, and I’m still learning new things every day. I’ll keep this song in rotation this month, of course, because of the mordant humor of the line, “What good was cancer in April? / No good at all.” Thanks for that, Lou, if you’re listening. You couldn’t have known, nor could I when I first heard it, how prescient that lyric would be.

Young A at 9

Leaps & bounds

Today, nine years ago, I had the chance to have a transformative life experience for the second time. J and I went into the hospital one day, and came home the next with a new human: Young A had joined our family.

Birthing Young A was good preparation for the whirlwind it has been to be his parent, because it forced us to put aside the notion that his trajectory would resemble his older brother’s in any way. At times we have forgotten this important truth, and it has come back to bite us. Of course Young A is his own person.

Young A’s early childhood was influenced by my illness. He was three when I was first diagnosed, four and five when I went through my metastases. He’s always ready to cheer my good scan results, but I always wonder how that early experience with having a parent be ill has affected him. I’m glad I’ve been able to come back from that brink, and show him a durable response to treatment.

Following our recent move, our family was somewhat divided, with J and Young J pretty much uniformly positive about it, and with Young A and me feeling a bit less excited and more nostalgic for our old home, our old lives, our old friends. Young J has generally had an easier time adjusting to his new school and routines. I was genuinely worried about Young A and his social life, for a bit.

Then came his birthday. Because half of our home is under construction, and will be for what feels like the foreseeable future (much to Young A’s chagrin), we couldn’t host the sleepover he very much wanted to have. The upheaval in our home also kept us from planning any sort of celebration for his birthday, until it hit us that the day was quickly arriving, and it was a day off school, and we had to at least try to make something happen for him. I asked Young A, with some trepidation, to make a list of kids to invite. I was so pleased when he came up with six names. I was even more pleased when four of those kids were available for a party today, even though we waited until the last possible moment to make our plans.

This couldn’t have worked in Brooklyn, I kept thinking to myself, as I followed the kids around the indoor trampoline park. Back in Brooklyn, a place like that on a day off school would have been totally overrun with kids. And Young A’s friends would have been booked for weeks already. And yet here we are, living in a new place, and it couldn’t have been easier. Including Young A and Young J, we had six children at the party, easily transported in our two non-minivan vehicles from bouncing to pizza.

What’s more, when, at one moment, highly-strung Young A became upset at another kid’s interpretation of the rules of dodge ball (there basically were no rules), we saw his friends prop him up. They asked what was wrong, they redirected him someplace else, and refused to let his frustration spoil his day.

Seeing what sweet new friends Young A has surrounded himself with did my soul a lot of good. I’m no longer worried about him in the way I had been. He’s clearly making his own path in our new home — and seeing this happen gives me the peace of mind that is so dear to a parent.

One year gone

Pa, when he was very young

My father left us a year ago. He died just past midnight, one day past his 82nd birthday on January 30. This means we will have to clear a double hurdle as the anniversaries approach. And this is, of course, in addition to the fact that his date of death by the Jewish calendar has already passed. On that date, we unveiled his tombstone. We gathered at the cemetery in freezing (but thankfully sunny) air. We spent a few minutes there, tears freezing on our faces. We left stones behind as our calling cards, then repaired to my brother’s house and reminisced out of the elements. We will make further visits once winter recedes.

What remains for me, between now and February 1 is recalling, and trying not to recall, the way things ended for my father — hospital-acquired conditions taking him from bad to worse, conferences with medical professionals becoming ever more dire, and treatment options decreasing to only interventions we knew my father never would have wanted. To confront this anniversary is to remember all of these things, and more — our terrible bedside vigil, the monitors slowing, then ceasing their beeping. There was the drive my mother and I made, away from the hospital in the middle of the night, having left my father’s body to arrive at my parents’ home, every inch of which seemed ready for Pa’s imminent return. I still don’t know how I managed to make that drive. I remember we couldn’t seem to make ourselves go to sleep that night, because sleep seemed too much like an acknowledgment of what had just happened.

There have been many unusual, coincidental encounters with my father’s memory in the past year. When I went to catalog them in order to read them out at the unveiling of his gravestone, I winnowed down the list to seventeen instances. His presence persists, in my mind and in the physical world. I have made my peace with his appearance in the most random places, at the most random times, and in various forms. Twice he has appeared to me in the form of a strip of Velcro attaching itself to my clothes: the first time, at the funeral, and the second, on Father’s Day.

But some reminders of Pa are less random. Nearly every day, I drive past the street where my father pulled over his car for the last time, having experienced a brain hemorrhage while at the wheel. Every time I pass the spot, I marvel at what it must have taken for him to manage it. It’s off a fast road. He would have taken, I think, a left turn, which meant he probably waited for a signal. He then parked the car and got out so someone might see him. This is not the spot where my father began to die. It is the spot where he tried very hard to keep living.

I think about these last moments of my father out in the world, before the medical interventions that made his final two weeks intolerable, and ultimately ended his life. I think about these moments because I think I have experienced something like them: The slow realization that my lung had collapsed the day after my biopsy, and my determined journey by subway and bus to the ER. Or, later on, the morning I was losing my capacity for language, when I went through with a half day of work and a staff meeting and lunch with a friend before finally heading (again by public transportation) to the ER to discover my brain was riddled with tumors.

What these experiences have in common with my father’s, perhaps, is the relative calm with which we contended with them. In the face of near-certainty there was something mortally wrong with us, we each chose to put one foot in front of the other. If you can still walk, and talk semi-coherently, all is not lost. If you can joke about your situation while you’re in the midst of it, nothing can be all that wrong. I didn’t know how closely I held these beliefs before I got cancer, and I wouldn’t dare to say that this way of living is responsible for my survival. (My father, after all, did not survive.)

What it is, maybe, is a way of meeting the world, a way of being in the world. It takes stubbornness, and it takes resilience. My wish is to exhibit both of those traits even when my life is not at risk, because it is so good to have the confidence that comes along with it.

Pa is no longer here for me to talk this over with, and he won’t comment on this post. So, at a year’s distance from losing him, I’m reverse engineering his personality, seeing which components of it migrated to mine, and working out what parts of it I need to keep.

I’ll stop tomorrow

Domani smetto (I’ll stop tomorrow), Firenze, 2019

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.

Alberi al tramonto, Marina di Pisa

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.

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

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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.