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Archive for the ‘the real stuff’ Category

breaking sticks, at sundown

My nephew calls out across the graveyard, pleased that he has found a tombstone with a name similar to his. He is seven and has never been in a cemetery before. In wonder, he lightly touches a wind chime placed at the grave of a family friend: “Was this hers?” We explain how people leave tributes.

My mom points out the graves of her parents; her photographer uncle; her best friend and cousin who died before reaching age 50. We smile at the grave of one my father’s party-loving friends; someone has left Bob a full Miller Lite.

It is the first Sunday of fall, and the sun is starting to set. We’d had a large dinner and afterward decided to walk to the cemetery, the only destination in walking distance of my father’s house. It is terrible timing, an insensitive suggestion: in thirty-six hours, my father goes in for a dangerous surgery that could kill him. In the dark humor my family all shares, Dad has titled dinner an end-of-life party. But he was quick to volunteer to stay at home with the toddler when we decided to walk to the graveyard. Gallows humor only goes so far.

I remember a few Memorial Days when I was little, decorating graves here with Mom, but I can’t remember being here with my brothers before, like today. Our town started out small, and Mom has lived here her whole life, so there are many stories to tell about the stones. She tells her grandchildren about the relatives they never met. My nephew promises to visit his mom, and she tells him he won’t have to worry about that for a long time. My mom announces she is partial to cherubs. I threaten to haunt my family if they make a poor font choice for my headstone.

We leave before it gets too dark, ready to go back to Dad’s and eat the cookies Mom usually only makes at Christmas. I ask my nephew how he felt about his first trip to a graveyard, how it made him feel. He stalls: “Ummm…Listen to that! When I step on a stick it makes a cool noise.”

We walk a while in silence except for the exciting popping of a stick under his Crocs. He tells me that his older sister learned that every five seconds, someone is born, and every five seconds, someone dies. He tells me that birth makes him think of his younger sister, and death makes him think of Superpapa: my dad’s dad, dead a year now. (When Superpapa went, my nephew’s practical and very modern question was whether he should delete Superpapa’s Mii character from the Wii system.) I tell my nephew that some people believe in reincarnation, and I explain what that means. We break sticks under our feet. He holds my hand all the way home.

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leaning on towers

I chickened out on posting this on Saturday. Writing about national tragedy scares me: though I’m liberal as it gets, I’m not good at speaking politically, and my analytic abilities reach only to literature and relationships. But to say nothing seems so shallow. The very thoughtful writer (and marvelous person) Patti Digh does a wonderful service to the memories of the 9/11 victims by printing their names. Reading the list, I see the sheer number of people who died. In fighting my automatic reflex to scroll, I consider my tendency to rush, to skim, to always be moving on to what’s next and devaluing the crucial now. See Patti’s work at http://www.37days.com/2010/09/each-one-a-story-a-life-a-family-an-overwhelming-desire-to-live-to-love-to-survive.html. The title of her blog, 37 days, comes from the question “What would you do if you had 37 days to live?” To start, I would speak my mind about what happened 9/11/01, even though I fear my thoughts are unprofound.

I was on time for class that day, an occurrence so rare I almost joked “The world must be ending!” when I got into the classroom. For some reason, I held my tongue. Madonick was the best possible teacher to have just then. He explained the significance to us and kept us calm without bullshitting us. He let us stay with him as long as we needed.

When I finally felt okay to leave the comforts of the English building, I ran into the cutest boy I knew and watched BBC coverage of it at his place. I really wasn’t sure the world wasn’t going to just end that day. I wanted to break out, go crazy, kiss him, but I was too shy even to accept the beer he offered. The world might have been falling apart, but I was still a good girl, and good girls do not drink beer in the afternoon. Good girls do not kiss cutest boys who are not their boyfriends, and they certainly don’t skip their afternoon shift at the media library; good girls believe people need access to LaserDiscs and tape decks, even on the direst of days.

But soon after, I unraveled, and fast. I let what happened on 9/11/01 be the reason for my epic junior year freakout: dumping the boyfriend, dropping out of school, riding a motorcycle, flirting with bulimia, developing and acting on inappropriate crushes, quitting my library job, and making feverish art at odd hours. I became the girl who sure as hell would have kissed the cutest boy, fear (and morality) be damned. For a little while. I did summer school and caught up with my work and my nature: by senior year was all introspection and future-worrying and hanging back.

I got to New York for the first time three and a half years later. Through some bad planning, I ended up at Ground Zero with a freaking breakfast pastry in my hand. Super American. I was struck by how close together the buildings are there, how many people must have seen. It seemed more spacious on TV. Looking at the site I kept thinking of bodily cavities and the game Operation, and in my head the toy buzzer sounded.

On TV I could own it. I cried every time I saw a fireman. In person it felt like it was not my tragedy; seeing it in the context of the city made me feel like I would be preying on the sadness of the city’s people if I cried. I was a girl from the Midwest. Yes, it changed my country and my course in ways I’ll never fully understand, but on that day, at that absence, I was the foreigner.

This 9/11, I was blessed to spend time with five ebullient lady friends, one of whom lived in New York for many years. I tried to explain this feeling, this mine-but-not-mine oscillation, and she understood.

This friend, let’s call her Veronica, is such a cool girl, the kind my old self would never have approached. I’m happy that I’ve become outgoing in the past few years, confident enough to try befriending someone so new and lucky in the results. Still, hang-back ghost me whispers at me from time to time that I should watch it, that I should reel in the dork, play it safe. Veronica’s mom recently died, and I didn’t feel I knew what Veronica needed or how I could help. But I tried anyway, and maybe that small act was my tribute: being my boldest self, but in only the ways that help people, and to stop playing small. Being present, to honor the fact that I can be.

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The Ticking

My biological clock is a frequent source of teasing from my friends. I have been known to stop midsentence and shout “BAAAAY-beee!” at the appearance of an infant. Even a stint as a daycare teacher did not slow its relentless tick. Thirty 2-year-olds chasing each other around a primary-colored disaster area, waving scissors at each other, diapers brimming, with no one to help me wrangle them but a partially deaf woman whose back was too bad for her to pick them up and whose English was so minimal it actually made things worse to have her there (to this day, I don’t know what “STOP MAKING THE DUST!!” meant and whether the children ceased said dustmaking), and still, my damn ovaries were like “YEAH! Let’s DOOO this.”

I think it’s because of my weird family structure—because my brothers are awesome, I got to know the wonderfulness of a big loud family, but because they are eight and nine years older than I, it was coupled with a big dose of only-child-ish alone time when the boys went off to college. This led me to idealize families the way other little girls dreamed of their wedding day. They dreamed of lacy veils and punishment via taffeta bridesmaid dresses, and I dreamed of a team of rambunctious little mes and Sunday pancake rituals. I was never too sure about the concept of marriage, but as soon as I turned 18, my body somehow got confused and decided my legal status as an adult meant there should be a kid in the equation and reminded me of this constantly.

It’s a frustrating situation sometimes. Any other profession, I could take classes and get an internship and, if I tried hard enough, end up doing what I wanted full time. But getting hired as Mom takes time and patience and—difficult to admit for control-freak Virgo me—the agreement and, er, input of another human being.

When I see a woman walking a dog and a baby at the same time, I feel an unparalleled wave of jealousy. Not that I don’t have a million other lucky things (and not that the walking woman has an untroubled life without perils of her own), but the ticking, it speaks loudly, and it makes me a little loopy, and a little ugly.

I realize I’m not even 29 and that I’ve got plenty of fertile, good years. I realize how lucky I am to have found a dude who is as excited about my someday-babies as I am. But biology and history aside, there is another equally powerful force behind the ticking: I want my mother to know my children.

I never knew my grandma Grace. She died at age 58 after a long illness; I think my mom was 19 at the time. My mom had given up everything to care for her and hated to leave her side.

I’m confident my mom did not believe she herself would live past 58. And because of her belief and because I knew how powerfully the mind can influence the body, I lived afraid of her fifty-ninth birthday. It was a ticking of a different kind, and it was awful.

When she was 58 and a half, on a bright June day, our superstition almost came true. She had a massive heart attack and an emergency bypass operation. The hospital staff said if the surgeon had arrived five minutes later, my mom would have been gone.

My mom gave me my now life-defining love of words and books. We have the same hands and feet, and the same sense of humor. We are close like they were close. Among our many inside jokes is “We’re getting our hair cut,” a nod to the fact that sometimes, we’re a little too close. It took a long time for us to realize we are two different people. Even when I was in high school, at a checkup when my doctor would tell me to breathe in, she would breathe in too.

Today Mom’s a vibrant 63. The scar on her chest makes her wary of V-neck tops, but in her retirement, her move to a neighborhood full of new friends, and her embracing new hobbies and passions, post-heart-attack Mom is in many ways the most herself I’ve ever seen her.

And she is a wonderful grandma to my brother’s three kids. She talks to them like adults, like she did me, and she teaches Gracie, my niece, about birds and plants and the beautiful world.

And I bet that when she reads the girls fairy tales at the end she whispers to them, like she did to me, “But that’s just a story. No one is coming to save you. You have to save yourself.”

But there’s always a specter of that old fear there: with two chronic medical conditions, she’s far from in perfect health, and having her parents die so young—my grandpa died when Mom was three—made death such a presence in her life, and I can always hear it too.

In the course of an email the other day, Mom said, “I was trying to make room on my bookshelf and I thought about you and books and how you will read all of my bookies to your children. It made me happysad.” I know exactly what she means.

I know I don’t see her enough. It’s hard to balance the knowledge of our limited time together with the pressures of daily life, and a lot of the time the calls of friends and laziness lure me to beer and couch instead of making the two and a half hour round trip to see her. It’s the same undisciplined caving to the present that makes me pick True Blood over the gym.

When I was in high school, I accidentally came across a letter my mom had written to me in the event of her death. I closed it as soon as I realized what it was. I wish I knew what that letter said. I don’t want us to leave anything unspoken.

In the same email of the other day, Mom continued, “It made me happysad. Then I thought…I should write about it, and then…I thought we should do a mother-daughter blog. Two points of view, one haircut.”

To that, I say, Bring it, Mom. There’s space here for you. And, if we believe it, plenty of time.

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with your best breath

My dad has lung cancer.”

Oh, did he smoke?”

This response happens more often than not, and it hurts. Sympathy comes second when you share the news of lung cancer.

Lung cancer isn’t sexy, and it’s a disease for which it’s tempting to blame the victim. But lung cancer is far from the only cancer with links to lifestyle factors. According the National Cancer Institute,

  • “Studies suggest that people whose diet is high in fat have an increased risk of cancers of the colon, uterus, and prostate.”
  • “Lack of physical activity and being overweight are risk factors for cancers of the breast, colon, esophagus, kidney, and uterus.” [1]

We all make choices we know are bad for us (I’m looking at you, Häagen-Dazs, you minx). It’s human nature.

Those who blame the victim see a lifestyle choice leading to a natural conclusion. We see our fathers, mothers, and loved ones gasping for air. We see a light put out too soon.

Searching frantically for any food our loved ones can hold down during chemo to keep up crucial strength. Watching them go bald and shrink, our powerful parents reverting to helpless babies. In these moments, does it help to know that in the swirling cauldron of cancer causes, a lifestyle choice may be to blame for the mutant cells? No. In the moment of agony, what matters is the person, as he is now.

Yes, my dad smoked. He quit seventeen years ago. Luckily, blessedly, he seems to be responding well to radiation and chemo. He is the exception to the rule, and the exception to my worst fears, after watching one of this world’s sassiest, brightest lights—my dear friend’s vibrant young mother—get put out by this heartbreaking disease in May 2008.

No one on this beautiful Earth deserves cancer. Let’s focus our energy on helping today’s smokers quit—supporting them and understanding the very real complexities of addiction—and trying to keep kids from ever starting. A criticism of a cancer victim is a waste of precious breath. And let’s work for a cure for every cancer.

At the very least, please keep in mind that when someone tells you her loved one has lung cancer—and with more than 222,000 new cases expected this year alone[2], sadly you likely will—please don’t ask the smoking question. Please respond with the same sympathy as you would to any other disease. To patients and those who care for them, that sympathy and resistance to stigma means the world.


1. http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/wyntk/cancer/page4

2. http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/types/commoncancers

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