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Grief, Guest Posts

Time, Touch, and a Whale’s Grief

January 19, 2021
Tahlequah

By Lori Tucker-Sullivan

For weeks in 2018, much of the world was focused on a killer whale, an orca, swimming off the coast of Washington State, with her dead calf across her forehead. It is typical, say those who study whales, for the mother of a dead calf to carry the carcass for a day or two, then drop it to the bottom of the ocean and swim off. But this mother whale wasn’t doing that, and no one understood why. Was it a reaction to the changes in the whales’ habitat, caused in part by water pollution? Did it have to do with a lack of food as a result of overfishing? Or was it a mother’s grief and inability to let go?

There were times when the whale, named Tahlequah, lost her daughter from her forehead, and went diving after her. Down into the ink-black waters of the ocean she dove, nudging her calf back up to the sunlight and air above.

* *  *

My grandmother, Blanche Huskey, was born in a small town in East Tennessee called Tellico. Cherokee settled in the area and named it for the red-hued grass, or tahlequah, that grew in the fields. Tellico is the Anglicized version of the Cherokee name for the town. When I saw that the orca was named Tahlequah by the Lummi Nation tribe that monitors the whale pod, I immediately thought of my mother and grandmother. Descended from both Scottish immigrants and Cherokee, these earlier generations of my family settled into the rust-colored hills of East Tennessee until my parents came north searching: my father for good paying work, my mother for freedom from servitude to her mother’s disability. They migrated, as children do.

* *  *

Last year, I returned my daughter to Chicago for her senior year of college. She had spent four months studying in Italy, and then remained in Chicago for the summer, coming home to Detroit to visit for a week before classes began. She managed school, a job, travel, internships and relationships with ease, despite loss and emotional challenges. She was already looking for a post-school job, one that would probably take her away from home.

An environmental science major, she worries about the damage being done to our planet. We talked about the plight of Tahlequah and she explained that it is but one more indication of significant trouble—a harbinger sounded by a mother in pain. We discuss the understandable reasons for Tahlequah’s behavior: overfishing and ecosystem impact on the Chinook salmon, disruption caused by increased shipping traffic, pollution in the seas. Together, my daughter and I have marched for change, our fingers and voices woven together, our pink hats matching, holding each other as we shouted. Back in Chicago, she marches for environmental causes, for dominion over her body, in support of BLM.

She is my youngest. Her older brother makes his way closer to home. Unknown to them both is the sibling they never met. The middle child. The child lost to miscarriage at fourteen weeks, just as we would have announced their impending arrival to friends and family. The pregnancy was a surprise. It happened when our son was just ten months old. It was a hectic time of home renovations, completing advanced degrees, working high-pressure jobs, and caring for a toddler. Where, in all of that, was there focus enough to remember a daily pill that would prevent us from getting pregnant again too soon?

My husband came from a family of stairsteps—three children so close in age they all came within two years, then two more close behind. He didn’t want that for us. We discussed abortion but couldn’t do it. We had room and resources, after all. We sat on the sofa while our toddler son stacked plastic blocks and decided we’d figure it out. Three weeks later I began to bleed. Two days after that, we were in the doctor’s office, hearing no heartbeat, making plans for a D&C. After the surgery, we spoke of the preganancy one time when, near the holidays, I became despondent, overcome by guilt and grief that had previously felt the size of a pumpkin seed. “I feel sometimes that the baby is still here, somewhere, but I can’t figure out where,” I explained. “There were times when I didn’t want it. How could that be?”

Kevin struggled to understand. “It was for the best,” he said. “It was no one’s fault. We need to let it go.” We waited three more years to get pregnant again.

* *  *

Surprisingly, after losing the calf that had taken seventeen months of gestation, Tahlequah was able to keep up with the rest of her pod as they swam northword from San Juan Island to Vancouver. Holding the calf on her forehead meant Tahlequah had to swim for long periods above water, then dip below, drop the calf, take a breath and find her again, bring her to the surface and begin the cycle anew. As exhausting and heartbreaking as labor itself. Swimming sixty or seventy miles each day, the orca maintained commitments to her larger family, all while bringing along the daughter she couldn’t leave behind.

* *  *

My grandmother Blanche was sent away from Tellico to the Tennessee School for the Blind in Nashville after being blinded as a six-year-old by her older brother, Charlie. A branch slipped from his hands while the two were hanging a tree swing. The branch blinded my grandmother in one eye; infection caused the other eye to lose vision as well. Her eyes were surgically removed and she went off to learn a new life. At the boarding school, where she lived ten months of each year, she flourished, memorizing Shakespeare, learning Latin and trigonometry. She played piano, wrote letters on a typewriter, and took dictation as a stenographer.

She returned to Tellico at age twenty after graduating from the school in a class with nine others. Back home, she helped her mother run a boarding house where she met my grandfather Carlton, a traveling salesman. The two married and lived nearby so Charlie, who never married, could check in when my grandfather was away, which was frequent. Within six years of marriage, my blind grandmother had four children—stairsteps of her own.

Sometimes the family packed up my grandfather’s 1928 Buick and spend a few weeks with his family in Newport, along the North Carolina border. With my grandfather away, I’ve often wondered what it was like for my grandmother to be in strange surroundings with in-laws she barely knew. She was never a trusting person, the school having told her many times that her disability allowed others to take advantage.

My mother and her sister were pressed into service to their mother at a very young age and were never able to be around her without that sense of duty, as though their roles had flipped, the daughters always caring for the mother. As a child, I was never close to my grandmother. I understand more about my grandmother’s childhood now, how difficult it must have been for her to leave her family and live apart from them; how she must have felt a stranger in her own family. I now regard her much differently. But it confused my childhood self and caused me to become defensive because of her treatment of my mother. I wished for her to stand up to my grandmother’s constant, impossible demands. I wished she hadn’t remained silent.

* *  *

After my daughter’s college graduation, I helped her move into a new apartment. I am in awe of her confidence, knowing there were recent times when she was overcome by grief and loss. I remember nights, barely asleep myself, when she would climb into my bed to cry herself to sleep, her hand reaching out to find my shoulder, my hand wiping her tears. “This isn’t fair,” she once said, mostly into her pillow. “You are right,” I responded, stroking her hair.

At thirteen, she lost her father. At fourteen, her best friend committed suicide. On the verge of adulthood, at that precious time when each step forward should bring excitement and promise, my daughter was stopped in her tracks. Together, we huddled under blankets as though adrift in an ocean that neither of us quite understood. I held her close during that time, trying to find the right balance of comfort and security and release. She is armed for life’s realities now, with a deeper understanding of its fragility. I know she loves deeply.

It has now been ten years since my daughter lost her father. My husband Kevin died in my arms when a tumor on his spine suddenly ruptured, pressed against his trachea, and, within minutes, caused him to suffocate. Through an interminable two years of cancer diagnoses and treatments, of long hopeful days followed by longer hopeless nights, death, when it came, was frightening and swift. I knew as I held him that no matter how tightly I clung, no matter how long, nothing in that moment would change and yet everything in my life would be different. As paramedics pulled me away, I understood fully that breaking that bond would create an immeasurable chasm: a terrible demarcation of before and after that I could not abide.

Two years after Kevin’s death, I lost my mother. By then, she was in a nursing home, needing the type of care she had often offered her mother. At Kevin’s funeral, she was already confused. “Isn’t this terrible?” she kept repeating. Near the end, I sat with her, helping her eat. She had suffered several bouts of pneumonia and was weak. I think of her and the role she played as advice-giver to me and Kevin when we first started out. I can’t understand how it is that I am now the advisor, encouraging my daughter to fight for her beliefs, to hold fast to her memories. Accepting that role means accepting this passage of time, this loss of my own role models, of those upon whom I relied to help with decisions.

* *  *

After seventeen days, Tahlequah gave up her baby to the depths of the Pacific. When finally she swam off alone to join her pod, my eyes welled with tears. A combination of happiness that she had survived, but also a deep sorrow for understanding what it is like to give someone up for one last time, to admit that they will take no further breaths, and that you must leave them in this spot, whether earthen ground or ocean water, forever. Knowing of  her only through her acts of mourning, I continued to hold her in my heart. I found strength from her strength. Over the past two years, I’ve visited the website that tracks the pod to check in on her. I imagine that grief-filled memories, like ocean waves, still lap at her skin from time to time.

* *  *

In 1931, Blanche and her family spent the winter in Newport with her in-laws, but while my grandfather was on the road, all four of the children—Vivian, my mom Lillian, Carlton Jr, and Marshall—became ill with measles. The doctor was summoned, though nothing could be done. One-by-one, the older children shook off the virus. But Marshall was just an infant and his small body could not fight. And so, early in the morning of February 3rd, as my grandmother held him in her arms, Marshall passed away.

Blanche, however, would not let Marshall go. Perhaps at first she didn’t realize her baby was dead. Within a few hours, her mother-in-law understood and tried to take the child. My grandmother held fast and fought. Without her eyesight, all she had was touch; once this child was removed from her arms, she would never know him again. She would lose her only connection and she couldn’t let that happen. Irrational, perhaps, but any mother would understand. It wasn’t until my grandfather returned some four hours later that my grandmother would be coaxed into letting Marshall go. Even then, she insisted on being the one to wash his body.

Marshall was buried in an unmarked grave in a plot along a two-track road beside a barn. The family couldn’t afford to transport him to Tellico, so he remained in Newport, much to my grandmother’s great pain. To her, it must have seemed she had to keep letting him go, again and again. She would have held him for seventeen days and more if possible, I’m sure.

* *  *

Months after his passing, Kevin’s ashes were spread at the graves of his father, my father, an uncle, along his favorite running path, and among the wildflowers in a memorial garden. A bench with his name inscribed sits adjacent to a stone labyrinth near a river in a park that was a favorite family picnic spot. There is no one place where he has been interred. In each of these separate places, I feel his presence.

When my mother was healthy and active, we once visited her brother Marshall’s grave in Newport—nothing more than a tiny indentation in a field of raspberry brambles. A small, crooked stone the size of a brick marks its place. He is buried next to his father, my grandfather, who contracted Typhoid two years after Marshall died of measles. My mother, by then the only sibling remaining, needed to find this small spot of ground to prove that her father and brother weren’t forgotten. I held her arthritic hand as we hiked the path behind a deserted barn. We took this trip, the two of us, mother and daughter, tracking down family history and gravesites.

* *  *

In the years since Kevin’s death, I have found comfort in books that deal with grief. Many have helped me to feel that my experience is more universal than I sometimes believe. Losing myself in these stories has made me realize that time does not fade memories. Descriptions of illness or treatment shake me back to that place at the University of Michigan where Kevin spent so much time. I hear the sounds, smell the odors, re-live the emotions. I will always be able to conjure those memories of warm sunny moments spent in the hospital courtyard, or the feeling of his hand holding mine as we lay in bed bracing for what was to come after hearing the words “stage four.” It’s all still there, ten years later, this painful muscle memory. I can reach out and touch it as though there’s no distance at all.

Books on grief sit in piles on my bookshelf, pages marked by notecards and colored slips of paper. I’ve underlined many passages in my reading, understanding that commiting memories to the page creates a sense of permanence, both for the writer and the reader. I refer many times to this passage from Meghan O’Rourke’s memoir, The Long Goodbye about her mother’s death from breast cancer and her time of grieving:

“I went to the pond for her. Diving in, I felt for a moment that I was my mother. But I was aware that she was dead; I could feel it in the shadows in the green leaves. This is where the dead live, I thought, in the holes in the leaves where the insects are biting through.”

O’Rourke admits, “After a loss, you have to learn to believe the dead one is dead. It doesn’t come naturally.” I too, have felt that resistance to understanding the loss of my husband and my parents, the growing and moving away of my children, and the child I never held. Like my mother, I too have felt the need for confirmation that they were here, our connections real. Where do the people we cherish go once we put down our memories, or our burdens, or our love? Once we drop that all into the sea?

We want to touch again the life we’ve known and the people we’ve loved, whether those relationships have ended or just changed with time. I have moved on in life, the yearning is not so  strong as it once was. I have a new home, new relationships, new outlooks. And yet, I don’t want my memories, regardless of how painful they may be, to crumble on the ocean floor, abandoned. I don’t want to lose the feel of that touch my grandmother knew not to relinquish.

* *  *

Word has just come that Tahlequah is pregnant again. Drone photos show her wide belly moving through the waters of the Pacific with her pod. Researchers are cautiously optimistic there will be babies given that multiple orcas are pregnant. But sustaining the pregnancy will require plenty of food, which is, two years later, an even more fragile situation. I imagine Tahlequah, slowed by her new girth, feeling this life inside, unfurling old memories. I call my daughter, now part of an environmental start-up and celebrating with her boyfriend the first anniversary of their first date. We talk briefly about Tahlequah and what a new baby orca might mean for a world turned upside down and desperately in need of good news. Despite our times, my daughter tells me she is happy.

As we both move on, me through life and Tahlequah through bright cerulean ocean waters, I send my thoughts to her across the universe—the universe of my mother and grandmother, of my husband and all three of my children; the universe that holds our fears, our grand efforts and our mistakes; the universe that pushes us forward and that cradles the remains of those we’ve lost and have had to leave behind. The universe of possibility and second chances. I send her my thanks, for helping us understand that, in life, and loss, seventeen days is nothing, but holding on is everything.

Lori Tucker-Sullivan is a published writer whose essays have appeared in The Washington Post, Midwestern Gothic, Passages North, The Sun, The Detroit Neighborhood Guidebook, Red State Blues, The Cancer Poetry Project, and others. Her essay, “Detroit, 2015,” which was published in Midwestern Gothic, was nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and selected as a Notable Essay of 2015 in “Best American Essays 2016.” Her book, I Can’t Remember if I Cried: Rock Widows on Life, Love and Legacy, forthcoming from BMG Books in 2021, profiles the widows of rock stars that died young and how they helped her through grief. Lori holds an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Spalding University, and currently teaches writing at Wayne State University in Detroit.

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Friendship, Grief, Guest Posts

Remodeling, Loss and the Kitchen Sink

December 21, 2020
sink

By Devra Lee Fishman

I could tell I confused the Home Depot kitchen designer when I burst into tears.

“Most people are happy to hear they need a new sink when they change out their countertops,” he said.

“I do not want a new kitchen sink,” I said, as I dug around in my handbag for a tissue. “All I want is a new white countertop to replace the forest green one I installed when I remodeled fourteen years ago.”

I have always decorated to my taste with no worry about resale and at the time, I had a taste for forest green. I also had a dear friend being treated for breast cancer.

Leslie and I met on our first day of Syracuse University almost thirty years previous when we were matched as roommates. We clicked immediately, lived together all through college and over the years laughed our way through good and tough times. We were in each other’s wedding and when I didn’t get my dream job and I thought my world was at a dead end, Leslie helped me see the open road. Her bad news came at the same time I was going through a rough break up, yet Leslie consoled me. “Dev, in a lot of ways having a broken heart is worse than having cancer. At least I have treatment options to get me through this.”

When I started the remodel, Leslie had just moved back to upstate New York from Los Angeles. I was looking forward to spending more time with her now that we were both living on the same coast, but she was diagnosed shortly after she unpacked. Her cancer was advanced and advancing. As time went by and her world seemed to only revolve around doctors and treatments, I thought she might enjoy a distraction so I asked her to help design my new kitchen.

I visited every few weeks and brought my architect’s plans. Leslie had a great eye for form and function and there were many decisions to be made about cabinets, hardware, and colors. I valued her opinions and I knew how much she valued having something other than cancer to think about.

After the space planning was done, I sourced the fixtures and appliances locally. The only thing I could not find was the sink. I wanted a deep, double bowl under mount. I knew it had to exist somewhere so the next time I visited Leslie we went sink hunting. She knew of a high-end home goods store that was having a going out of business sale and the thought of snagging a bargain appealed to both of us.

It was mid-August and the temperature was burning into the nineties. Leslie wore a short black and white checked shirtdress, which hung on her like a drop cloth. Even though she was cooler without it, she put on a red baseball cap to cover her chemo-bald head.

We drove to the store that had a five-foot high neon yellow banner out front advertising its closing sale – everything was marked down. Inside it was Kansas after the tornado with faucets, lights and curtain rods strewn about the shelves. After pacing several aisles we finally spotted a sticker with a picture of my dream sink but did not see any nearby. While I searched for a cart, Leslie enlisted the help of a stock boy and together they found the sink on a high shelf, behind a tangled sculpture of showerheads. The stock boy lifted the sink into the cart, and Leslie and I wheeled it over to check out.  There were four cashiers, each with lines five people deep. Leslie and I chatted while we waited.

“The stock boy, Darryl, is very sweet but he smells like he had a lot of garlic for lunch,” she said. “He’s been working here for three years, putting himself through college and now that the store is closing, he’s nervous about how he’s going to pay for his tuition next year.” She only needed a few minutes to get a life story from a perfect stranger.

“Did you also find out if he has a girlfriend, where he lives and what his mother’s name is?”

“No, didn’t have enough time. He did ask if you were single. Are you interested in cradle robbing? Because he’s up for it.”

“Cradle robbing appeals. Garlic could be the deal breaker,” I cracked.

“Hey, we’re next”, Leslie said. “I’m going to see if I can get you a better deal on your sink.”

“How you going to do that?”

“I’m going to play the cancer card.”

I caught my breath and lowered my voice.  “Don’t you want to save that for something more important than a kitchen sink?” I pointed to the sign on the cash register that said ‘PLEASE DO NOT ASK FOR A BIGGER DISCOUNT’. “I think they mean business,” I said, trying to talk her out of making a scene.

Leslie locked her eyes on mine. “Dev, I have cancer. I don’t save anything for later.”

I nodded my understanding but still tried to make myself as small as possible when Leslie stepped up to the cashier.

“Hi, my friend here is buying this sink and I’m wondering if you would give her another five percent off. After all, we had to climb all over to find it and wrestle it down from the top shelf,” Leslie said.

The clerk looked like she was barely old enough to work. Her voice was rehearsed, but warm. “We have a policy that we can’t give bigger discounts,” she said.

“Do you give bigger discounts for people with cancer,” Leslie asked as she lifted her hat. The entire store seemed to go silent as the nearby customers and cashiers froze waiting for the answer.

The girl took Leslie’s hand and whispered, teary eyed, “I wish I could, but my manager said no discounts to any one under any circumstances or I’ll get fired.”

I interrupted and asked, “We don’t want her to get fired, do we Leslie?” I quickly swiped my credit card and finished the transaction.

Leslie asked, “Can we at least get someone to help us carry this out to the car?” She was going for a victory, no matter how small.

Before the cashier could answer, the store manager and two other men who were in the line next to ours almost collided as they vied to take control of our cart.  The three of them walked us outside and lifted the sink into my car.  Each one of them gave Leslie a hug before going back inside.

Leslie died the following year and I think of her – and our sink buying adventure – every time I walk into my beautiful kitchen. But my forest green countertop was fading and there was a stain from when I did not clean up red wine fast enough. It was time for a new countertop.

The kitchen specialist explained. “When we remove the old countertop, the sink will get damaged.” The finality of the trade-off made me cry more. He pulled out a brochure and said, “We’re having a promotion on new sinks this week. Do you like any of these?”

I wanted to tell him that I bought my sink with my dear now dead friend and that shopping trip was our final crazy caper, but I just sniffled, nodded and pointed to the only double-bowl under mount on the page.

When I got home that day I called my mother for solace.

“Grief is a wicked shape shifter, honey. We never know what will trigger us. This is difficult because it reminds you that Leslie is gone,” she said.

She’s right. My kitchen holds the last memories I have of Leslie and the project we worked on together throughout her fight with cancer. I feel like I am saying goodbye to her all over again and will with each piece of the kitchen that has to be replaced. Just last month the motherboard of my original refrigerator crashed and the appliance was diagnosed beyond repair. I cried then, too.

**

I kept the sink. I had to. I planted it in my backyard and now use it as a container for irises, Leslie’s favorite flowers. I know Leslie would get a kick out of that. But the refrigerator…I had to let it go and I am trying not to resent the new one taking its place. I know Leslie would like that, too.

Devra Fishman is a writer and long-time hospice volunteer. She is currently working on a full-length memoir about the beautiful transformational friendship she shared with my college roommate who died from breast cancer way too soon. Devra’s essays have been published in The Saturday Evening Post, The Manifest-Station and Laura Munson’s summer guest blog series. She lives in Falls Church, Virginia.

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Friendship, Grief, Guest Posts

Hogtied Heart

November 30, 2020

By Laura Zera

When I spun up a blues playlist this morning—T-Bone Walker, Albert Collins, Muddy Waters—I wondered why I’d let months go by since I’d last listened. I know better. If there’s ever a day where my feet aren’t planted or my heart is paining, which has been most days lately, the blues set me straight. Not by taking away the discomfort; by dropping me right into the middle of it.

The first time I heard blues played live I was 21 and too-soon worldly. But I was unprepared for how that particular genre of music could twist its way into soft tissue, seep into cells. I’d traveled from Vancouver, Canada to Phoenix to buy a secondhand Jeep CJ, a realistic hare-brained scheme back then. All it took was a brief meeting with a banker in his mid-20s (I think his name was Kai). “Yeah, I’m a student with a part-time job, but those jeeps are so rust-free. Can you throw in a bit extra to cover travel?”

With six-and-a-half thousand advanced for my mission, I rode Amtrak and stayed at the youth hostel. There I met Glen, an Australian goliath who had to step in for my singular 4×4 test drive when, inexperienced with manual transmissions, I couldn’t make it around the block, thanks to my shaking legs. The vehicle was a Toyota Land Cruiser because my price range turned up nary a Jeep. I switched my search to sports cars.

At the hostel, a German engineer with a beard (so weird for 1990) delighted in explaining Mazda’s rotary engine in extravagant detail and dissuaded me from buying an RX-7. Thorsten also left a note for me with the manager. I can still see myself reading it at the front desk, confused. “It says he’s fallen in love with me.” Her smirk told me that as camp counselor to the young and restless, she’d seen this trouble before.

My partiality was for Nick, a pensive Brit who later came up to Vancouver and explained he hadn’t been himself in Phoenix. In the last part of a spell in Mexico, he visited a river with two other English travelers. They wanted to swim at a waterfall, and, feeling apprehensive, he stayed further downstream. A day later, Mexican authorities called on him to identify their bodies. He got the hell out of there, and when I met him, he’d just called the boys’ parents.

I don’t remember any women from the hostel, which fits perfectly with my dear friend Jill’s one-time remark that I always noticed the men in the room. She was right, of course. It wasn’t until 2018, when I interviewed Jenny Valentish about her book Woman of Substances, that I connected this habit to earlier sexual assaults. Yes. I always notice the men in the room.

At the time, Jill, Welsh by origin, was working illegally as a caregiver to an old Iranian woman on a ranch near San Diego. She caught a Greyhound to Phoenix and together we road-tripped through America in the car I eventually bought: a hot little Datsun 280ZX. Aside from being conned out of fifty bucks in San Francisco by a hustler who promised tickets to a fictitious mega concert and then disappeared, the trip was a smash hit. I dropped Jill in Seattle because she couldn’t cross the border, for reasons different than the circumstances of today.

But back to the music. A group of us from the Phoenix hostel found ourselves at a tiny club called Char’s Has the Blues. I stood for eons in front of the stage, beer in hand, C-PTSD undiagnosed, and felt that music like it was pouring out of me, instead of into me.

I looked up Char’s online today, the first time in 30 years I’ve checked to see if it was still around. A month ago, it was put up for sale, a casualty of COVID.

Jill died from cancer in January.

A kid today with some miles to travel and living to do cannot in good conscience hang out, shopping for well-preserved Jeeps by day and finding their soul at night.

I was in Phoenix for all of five days.

Thank the Lord, we still have the blues.

Laura Zera’s essays have been published by the New York Times, the Washington Post, DAME, Full Grown People, Catapult, and others. She is a mental health advocate for The Stability Network, has completed a book titled Jump: A Memoir About Skating and Survival, and is working on a novel set in South Africa.

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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cancer, Guest Posts, motherhood

Malfunctioned Muliebrity

July 31, 2020
never

By Jessica M Granger

The sights we see and the sounds we hear now have none of the quality of the past.
-Virginia Woolf

I remember feeling guilt the first time I met my daughter. I was told I could never have children and that was true until a medical procedure to treat my endometriosis while I was stationed in Texas left me pregnant by a man I had grown to hate. I decided to keep her, gave him control over my body when I decided to keep the fetus I never thought I would have and refused to give up. I was tentative when they placed my daughter in my arms. Then she opened her eyes as if she knew exactly what was going on and stared up at me with the will of a fighter. I was locked in that aged wisdom she carried in the most beautiful brown eyes I had ever seen.

*

I was headed into Kroger grocery center today and saw a man, anger in his balled fists, his body swelling, his face contorted to fit the fear he was trying to instill in a woman. He stormed away from her as she stood in the middle of the street, palms up in a questioning gesture of his unprecedented eruption, and it made me think of you. I could see myself in her and turned away, huddled deeper into my winter coat, my shoulders caving in toward my center, arms hugging my chest, and I wondered if the approaching car would hit her. Then I realized it didn’t matter.

*

My stepfather is a heavy drinker. He had been drinking at Thanksgiving dinner last year when he thought it was a good platform to inject the recent political campaign into our family discussion. He was reeling from excitement that a man who refused to be politically correct would finally put women in their place. He slammed his fists into the table in a thumping sound that enhanced every syllable of his speech. “I’m sorry, but no woman could pull me from a burning building,” he told me. “Dad, I can pull you from a burning building and I am a woman.” “Well, you’re different. You’re a veteran and you save lives every day,” he shouted, spittle flying from the corner of his mouth. I explained many women are braver and strong than I am, that there are women across the globe just like me, women willing to face danger head on and overcome it. His eyes held mine for a minute when I was done. He lingered in my words as he swayed in the oak dining room chair. When he finally spoke, he said, “You win,” but I don’t feel like I’ve won anything.

*

I think part of why I chose a male heavy career is to prove everyone wrong.

*

One day, on a walk in the cold, bitter nowhere of Eastern Europe, a stranger put his hand on my shoulder, right above the stitched American flag on my Army uniform, and recited a practiced statement I asked my interpreter to translate. He said, “I won’t walk down the street behind a woman.”

*

A woman once told me I could never be a mother and a writer.

*

Without my glasses on, I must lean in close to the mirror and see the real me in clarity. The one who smiles on the outside, who checks every blemish and tells herself it’s going to  be okay, the woman who traces the lines of her aging face back to the beginning of who she once was before the plastic surgery to repair the injuries to her broken nose after a car accident with a friend.

*

It was very early in one of my pregnancies that I discovered a second line accompanying the first, like the world’s most positive equal. I couldn’t wait to tell my husband so we could share the joy we’d been hoping for and anticipating for months, which turned into years, which turned into a crimson swirl as it left my womb to mix with the water of the shower floor a few days later.

*

The Army is a lot like miscarriage.

*

There is hope at the beginning of any pregnancy. There is happiness and love. Your expectations are high and you have dreams for the future. You picture the baby and question whose eyes will grace its face. Then suddenly it’s gone and you’re left to mourn what you never had, the miscarriage process irreversible. You can’t catch the bits of blood clot and reform it into a child, push it back into your vagina as if your life had never come apart in the first place.  Neither can an Army contract.

*

My defenses have morphed into a gilded cage around me that quivers at the proximity of a man.

*

One day, out of nowhere, I decided I’d had enough. Saying “out of nowhere” seemed to appease everyone who felt uncomfortable walking through a home riddled with holes in the drywall, pretending not to listen to the berating, to the words he truly meant when he was drunk. They said maybe I deserved it, the idea alleviating the pressure within them.

*

Being a single mother was a true test of my feministic ideology.

*

My mother allowed my biological father to go free when she petitioned the court to release him from past and future child support payments as she filed for bankruptcy due to her inability to both feed us and pay her bills. The bill collectors would be calling as I entered the house after school. They’d ask for my mom, but I kept telling them she was at work. “She won’t be home until after six o’clock,” I’d say, but they kept calling. I’d unplug the phone when my mom got home. I knew she was tired, because I could see her swollen feet stretching the nylon of her stockings when she’d finally sit on the couch. She would never eat until my brother and I had finished our meals. I remember being so angry with her then, because I imagined she was suffering in some way, but she only said, “I’m free,” when I asked why she did it.

*

I struggle with my obligation to be there for my children and my obligation to leave them at a moment’s notice to be there for my patients.

*

When something goes wrong in brain surgery and they ask me to call one of the guys to fix it.

*

I was stationed at Walter Reed Army Medical Center when I went into labor with my daughter. I was walking the hospital halls, timing my contractions with my ex-husband’s watch. They were three minutes apart. I Googled contractions and read a few articles about them. I called the Nation Naval Medical Center’s maternity ward, where I was supposed to deliver. I told them about my contractions. “Should I come in?” I asked. I was so confused; I had never been in labor before. The lady asked for my pain level, “On a scale from 1 to 10, 1 being no pain, with 10 being excruciating pain, how do you rate your pain?” I stopped walking and turned inward. I could feel my daughter shifting around, her small body rotating low in my pelvis. There was bile rising in my throat and I felt nauseous, but I wasn’t really in any pain. “Maybe a four ma’am,” I said. She laughed at me in a good-natured manner. “Oh sweetie,” she said, “you are definitely not in labor if your pain is a 4.”

*

I hate the person I pretended to be with you.

*

I was six years old when I discovered Santa Claus was the figment of a dream I could never keep. I’d begged my mother for a toy kitchen. My brother and I were dressed in our blue snowman pajamas and eager to get to bed so we could open presents in the morning, but we never actually fell asleep. A few minutes later, alone, my mother began assembling the kitchen for us as we listened under the covers. I was devastated that Santa wasn’t real, but I remember she wanted us to be happy. The next morning I can remember wishing she would be happy too.

*

My drill sergeant had my graduation certificate from basic training in his hands. He looked down at my name, then at me. He asked the crowd who crazy belonged to. The crowd was silent, no one wanted to claim me, and no one understood who I was. As I turned red, my mother caught on and stood proudly. “Jessica, is that you? Are you crazy? I’m crazy’s mom!” she kept repeating as she took her place at my side and accepted my accomplishment on the brittle certificate. It was a day no one would ever forget, September 12, 2001. I was seventeen-years-old. The World Trade Center back home had just been hit by two planes and the buildings collapsed, taking lives and our will to live without the lost with them.

*

I remember the day my daughter Marleigh apologized for the pain I’ve endured. I became upset with myself because she wasn’t supposed to found out. I should have been more discrete, should have lowered the pitch of my late-night sobbing to a dull roar.

*

I took a day off from work to run errands. I went to the courthouse to file for divorce and I had a yearly appointment at my OB-GYN. It was a few days before my 27th birthday. My doctor came in and grabbed my hand, my tiny one being engulfed by his much larger hand. I looked up at him, waited for him to speak. He kept my hand, but rolled a short stool over with his foot and sat in front of me. “How are you feeling?” he asked me. “I’m going through a lot, but I feel better than I have in months.” “How are things at home?” he asked. “I’m doing much better now that I asked my husband to leave,” I said. I knew something was wrong by my doctor’s posture, the way he worked to seem smaller than his 6’7” frame, but I couldn’t get my mouth to form the words to ask. I leaned in toward him, kept eye contact, and lingered in this final moment of reprieve. “We found some irregular cells on your cervix, but they’re not anything we’ve seen before,” he said.

*

The words possible cancer written on the front of my chart.

*

By the time I was sixteen years old, my family was already talking about my children. I knew that I would want them one day, but I also knew I was too young to worry about it. I consoled myself with this to cover the stigmatization of being a Hispanic American woman and a mother. In the end, it took me eight years after having Marleigh to garner the courage to have my son Cameron, because I worried what people would think of me, the breeding machine.

*

Marleigh approached me recently about a problem she was having with a boy in school who was bullying her. I told her the reason he’s messing with her is because deep down he really likes her. I ignored what I’ve lived for repeating what I’ve heard all my life.

*

I teach my children values I don’t believe in.

*

At each delivery they’d ask for my birthing plan when I never took the time to make one. The hospital staff would smile and tell me I was doing great. They’d ask if I wanted to watch my children breech with the use of mirrors. Each time my answer was a resounding no.

*

I remember the first time I felt around in the dark for you and you weren’t there. I’d had a nightmare and realized it was you.

*

From the time I was full of angst, a defiant teenager, I knew I wanted to donate my organs and save someone even while I was dying. My only condition was that my eyes be left in my body so no one ever had to witness what I had.

*

I called my mom during my cancer testing. I sat in a Sonic parking lot and mustered up the courage to finally press the number programmed on speed dial. My mom was upset that I hadn’t told her sooner, but she’s sensitive, and I went back and forth on waiting to tell her until I knew for sure. If I received a clean bill of health, I would have stressed her for no reason, but I needed her to understand the situation and why I was making certain decisions for the future. “I’m getting married,” I blurted. I was so afraid to tell her, to disappoint her again, because I had already done it so much throughout my life. She scoffed at my outburst and told me I didn’t know what I was doing. I tried to explain myself. “Mom,” I started, “I want to try and have another baby before they have to remove my cervix.” Cervical cancer is a slow progressing cancer, the replicating cells destroying the organ in a lumbering manner. My team of physicians agreed to let it go untreated while I had another baby if the test results came back positive. I called Granger, my best friend at the time, to ask him if he would have a baby with me. “Of course I want to have a baby with you,” he said, “but I want to do it the right way and get married.”

*

Last October, Marleigh’s boxer Loki, passed away after eleven years together. She had lost thirty pounds in six months, the dog’s ribs standing starkly through her brown fur. She began to have seizures, her body locking up as her eyes shifted rapidly when her brain began to depreciate from the pressure of the tumor. I took her to the veterinarian, but she was too old to treat a serious ailment so the veterinarian gave me his best guess. “With her symptoms, it’s most likely a brain tumor,” he said. I went home and called my parents, asked them to help soothe Marleigh in the days after we made the decision to put Loki to sleep. My daughter was devastated to lose her lifelong companion, the dog that cuddled her in bed while I left for work in the middle of the night.

*

The moment one of your children is grieving and you have no idea how to console them because you are already grieving what you once were.

*

I once witnessed my father drag my mother from the bank she worked in all the way to our house down the street. He had one hand fisted tightly in her hair as her skin tore on the concrete of the inner city street, but he kept on going. I sat pressed to the window, but I didn’t try to help her. Her eyes bulged as she begged him to stop, but he never heard her.

*

I am a fatherless daughter.

*

When I was pregnant with Marleigh, the doctors gave me the option to abort her at thirty-two weeks due to abnormalities in her growth. No one could explain what was wrong. Her long bones were being calculated at two percent of a normal child’s, they said she would be a dwarf, but there was no history of it in my family or her father’s. She was killing me from the inside. I had lost thirty-five pounds due to a diagnosis of hyperemesis gravidarum that kept me in and out of the hospital. I was weak, I needed relief. Begged for it and felt selfish afterward. In that moment, when they all sat staring at me in pressed, white coats, with ambiguous expressions on their faces, I remember being at peace with my own death if only she would live. I just wanted it to end.

*

My eyesight is failing.

*

Before I ended that call with my mother, before the results of the biopsy came back as irregular cervical cells, non-malignant, before I knew the struggle with my cervix would follow me as I aged, I knew that what I needed in my life was a stable relationship and that stability was Granger, the person who knew and accepted me more than I accepted myself at times, the person who would never raise his voice to a woman with my past. I told my mom I was sorry I upset her, but she needed me to know she just didn’t understand. “Why don’t you wait for love?” she asked me. “I do love him and he loves me,” I said, “It’s just time I saved me from myself.”

Jessica M Granger holds a bilingual MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Texas El Paso. She is an Army veteran, divemaster, writer, and mother who seeks to understand life by writing about it. Her work can be found in TheNewVerse.News, SHANTIH Journal, The Molotov Cocktail Magazine, As You Were, and Ruminate Magazine, among others. She currently resides in Columbus, Ohio.

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Family, Grief, Guest Posts

Grief, Unfolding

December 5, 2019
gift

By Julia Dennis Car

“Jo, you can’t kill Daddy.”

My mom and her sister stood, broken, at the bedside of their father, my Granddaddy.  The cancer that started in his bladder had taken over his other systems; he “lived” mostly unconscious, thanks to morphine.

Mom couldn’t stand to see Granddaddy in such a way, and I know in her guts she would have done anything to separate him from his pain.  My aunt isn’t fiery like Mom, and she knew Mom had what it took to hold the pillow over Granddaddy’s face. She didn’t kill him; the cancer did, days later.

Now it’s my turn. I’m standing in her corner as she nears the end of her own battle with cancer. In the end, will I will have the same impulse to smother her?

Mom’s diagnosis of Stage IV ovarian carcinosarcoma delivered a sucker punch no one saw coming.  It’s incurable, and only about 25% of women live as long as five years. I imagine her little round body up against the ropes, her healthy tissue pummeled by disease and its treatment. If left untreated, her body’s systems will gradually succumb. They’ve already started.

They took the womb, ovaries, cervix, parts of her intestines, and the surface of her liver. Sewed her up tight.  My first home is gone.

With unbridled optimism, Mom trusted her doctor’s plan of care and faced off against her next enemy.  Chemotherapy. Can you imagine a more difficult choice? Don’t take chemo, and slowly die, or take chemo, and die slowly.

With fingers crossed, I watched Mom take the beating of her life and was lifted up by her light and positivity. After the months-long regimen, a scan found the stuff was no longer “active.” She got some time off for good behavior and slowly regained some strength and vitality.  Our family vowed to embrace each day, focus on the positive.

Mom is a feisty woman, a flaming introvert, but without a demure bone in her body. She’s crass, enjoys dark and twisted humor. Once, while visiting San Francisco, she high-fived a costumed Grim Reaper in a public park then insisted the image be framed on her gravestone.

Days after her diagnosis, Mom hung a set of pink boxing gloves on her front door to prove to the world that she intended to pummel her disease as Ali did Frasier.  In the oncologist’s office, two years into the bout, she laid some wit on the nurses. When they left the room, she told me “When I stop being funny, I’m done.”

She’s still funny, but her cheerfulness is waning.  The insidious fuck is still inside her, having its way with her, never really having gone.  It’s in her liver and her guts, probably other places too. She’s at the end of her second phase of chemotherapy.  The gnarly effects of the disease and the treatment are taking their toll, and she’s so, so tired.

Albert Einstein said, “human beings, vegetables, or cosmic dust —we all dance to a mysterious tune, intoned in the distance by an invisible piper.”  As for my own part in this, I see myself dancing with grief and gratitude.  The maestro taps his baton, and I’m an accordion: bending, twisting, squeezing, breathing.  Some days the notes I play are fear, worry, sadness, regret.

I watch her struggle. And tire. Though outwardly I remain upright—strong in the face of this disease and her pain—the truth is at times there’s no air left in me, and I bend or lean into whatever will hold me up. I cry; wail the sharp notes away.

But soon enough, invisible hands unfold me, pulling and stretching me out as I fill with air.  Soon enough, I can breathe again. It’s not my cancer, but it’s changed me. It has wrung me out and left me raw. And I’m realizing that the painful stuff is a gift.

I’ve had this woman’s hand to hold for more than forty years. With unconditional love. Her illness and mortality have bitch-slapped me into understanding and appreciation.  My mother’s killer screams Wake up!  Don’t you realize the gift you’ve been given?  I do.

You see, in the midst of this pain and uncertainty and fear, beautiful things have happened.  These last two years have been the hardest, and best, of my life. I’ve been helpless, unable to affect change; therefore, I’ve had to let go.  I’ve unfolded. Aware and accepting of mortality—hers, mine—I’ve felt her love more deeply, tried to love her more deeply. I hope she’s felt it.

I’ve made two trips around the sun, and the days were full of love and light, opportunities and misfortunes, laughing and heartbreak. While holding the hand of impermanence, I’ve uncurled my fingers, loosened my grip on fear and insecurity. Wrapped myself in vulnerability.

I hiked for three days on the Appalachian Trail, confident and proud and strong. Crippled with despair, I limped into a therapist’s office, debilitated by depression. Swaddled with love of family and friends, I shaved my head and tattooed my arm and laughed till I cried and sobbed until I was at peace. I’ve said yes to more time by myself and prioritized more time with my family.  I’ve learned to say “no” to things that don’t nourish me. Except ice cream. I always say “yes” to ice cream.

I’ve asked hard questions and confessed hard truths.  Entering their adolescence, my kids broach topics Mom wasn’t comfortable delving into when I was their age:  illness and responsibility and death and sex. I answer with raw honesty. They’ve seen me in tears and I hug them to me and share my pain with them.  I think it’s wrong to pretend it’s not there.   I’m crying because I’m sad.  Yes, she’s slowly going to become sicker and sicker.  We aren’t going to the beach this year so we can spend time with her.  Yes, she’s going to be cremated. I want to be cremated, too. Regarding matters unrelated to Mom’s illness, but highly relevant to their curiosity and social understanding (and a disheartening example of the hyper-sexualized culture kids are growing up in) Yes, orgasm is “a really good feeling when you have sex,” but you can feel it by yourself too.  No, you don’t need to be watching porn.

For many years, I struggled to understand Mom.  She wasn’t blessed with physical gifts like Laila Ali and has never had a green thumb.  On the contrary; her favorite quote is “Sweating is gross and fresh air makes me sick.” She stays inside, reading; I’ve run marathons. She’s quiet; I’m loud. I deep-dive into conversations; she’s more comfortable on the surface.  I lift up furniture and tend to plants and pour my heart out on the page. She’s there, watching all of it. Though she kills all things that conduct photosynthesis, Mom grew a beautiful family; planted roots that spread deep and wide.

Before Mom’s illness jabbed me in the heart, I didn’t value her quiet; rather, I doubted its power.  Mom has shown me that there are more ways to demonstrate strength than with vigor and brawn. She’s shown me that I don’t always have to do something; hers is a quiet persistence of being.

My connection to Mom is primal, deep.  In so many ways my opposite, I feel her pull as the force that keeps me balanced.  Her spiritual tether is met only by the one I share with my own children. She’s been there, ready, even when I didn’t even know I needed her—I hope to be for my kids all she’s been for me.   And these days, when I’m rolling around on the mat in a struggle to make sense of all this, I try to use her own words of wisdom to self-soothe: “When you give birth to a baby, you grow a new heart.”

See, in a macabre way, my grief is a baby.  Mom’s disease birthed this dark pit inside me.  I like to imagine that as I trudge through the progression of her illness (and, ultimately, her death) I’m cultivating space in my heart for my grief and gratitude to live harmoniously.  Like Yin and Yang, there is literally darkness and light in my little heart, all snuggled up tightly together and swirling around.

Maybe that’s what this is all about: vulnerability and strength, terror and comfort, distortion and balance, heartbreak and growth, dying and living. The cyclical, recursive nature of it all.

Allow me my suffering, so that hers may end.  Allow the pain to break me, so that I may put myself back together.  I’ll be stronger where the cracks mend, and softer in the more stubborn places.  Allow me the lessons to be learned in her absence. Allow me to experience her in new ways—ideas, smells, sounds, gestures.  Allow me to grow bigger; big enough to hold my grief and build a life that’s richer and more beautiful. I think I can hold it all.

About a year and a half into this journey, at a concert with my brothers and some dear friends, I passed out cold. Imagine a beach ball that’s been forcefully submerged under water. The pain and worry I’d managed to shove down demanded to surface. An anxiety attack hit like a ton of bricks. As I awoke, my two brothers literally holding me up, I remember my body heaving as I sobbed: “I’m afraid of how much it’s going to hurt.”

The ancient poet Hafiz wrote that “It helps to see the Creator’s kind face / before he rolls up his sleeves, / and starts pumping the bellows / and cleans off his wire brush / and works with his other tools / he eyes you up / knowing how much this is going to hurt / to make you perfect.”

Why are we here? To be made perfect? I don’t know much, but that I was given the gift of consciousness. I believe it’s my job to do the work: to pay attention to the Universe and embrace my place within it. To learn the lessons. That means with open arms I must greet the anguish and the pleasure. I’m willing.

Mom is in the final round of this slugfest. She’s losing stamina in her bob and weave. Soon enough, she’ll receive the final blow, or choose to throw in the towel. I’ll be rocked from my foundation. But I will be ok down here; I am rooted in her. I will remember her.  I will celebrate her. I will talk about her and laugh, curse and cry. Her influence is indelible.

For now, I will sit with her and hold her hand and just be. For the rest of forever, my dust and Mom’s dust will dance; her warm, loving hands guiding me and loving me and leading me as the piper plays on.

Julie Dennis-Carroll is a family-centered West Virginia native who’s called Western North Carolina “home” since 2007. She is a writer by passion, and uses writing as therapy, though she is a speech-language pathologist by training. Julie fills her heart by reading, traveling, and playing in the dirt.

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cancer, Family, Guest Posts

A Walk in the Park

November 20, 2019
bother

By K.C. Pedersen

Six months after my ex-husband died, his brother left a message on my voicemail. He was going to blow my fucking head off, Luke said. While Tim was alive, Luke often showed up unannounced at our remote rural property. He was also apt to appear at the local café/bar and seat himself at my table as I visited with friends. Yet despite Luke’s history of violence, felony convictions, and easy access to guns, I was not particularly panicked. As a counselor, educator, and deputy sheriff, I considered myself skilled at soothing agitated men. I choreographed elaborate scenarios for how I’d rescue my students should a gunman appear in my classroom.

Besides, I’d known Luke since his birth; it was difficult to fear someone you’d first seen in diapers.

“Tim’s bothering me,” Luke’s message said. “If he doesn’t stop, I’m going to blow his fucking head off.”

I called Luke back. “I know about Tim bothering you. He bothers me too. But I thought I should point out that Tim is dead.”

So Luke threatened to blow my head off instead.

“Does he have a gun?” the 911 operator asked. After Tim and I separated, and he took to showing up outside my window in the middle of the night, they asked the same question.

“I have no idea,” I said then. “Should I go out and ask?”

Tim often told me, “There are things about me you’ll never know,” and despite our fourteen years together, I had no idea whether he had guns. Prior to our marriage, he’d been a Buddhist monk, so firearms seemed unlikely, at least to someone as much in denial as I was.

I found out the guns were real the day before Tim’s death. His young daughter told me he visited the shooting range daily to perfect his aim. When he tried to force her to hold one of the guns, she called me, sobbing

“I don’t know if Luke’s armed,” I told the dispatcher. She took my name, and an officer called me back.

“Did you record the message?” he said. “If so, we have a crime.”

“I did,” I said. But when I tried to retrieve Luke’s message, it had disappeared. “I must have messed up somehow,” I said. The officer started the recitation: “no crime has been committed, no witnesses, no blood, get a restraining order.”

“I am a deputy sheriff,” I said. “At your office. Look it up.” For eighteen months, I’d coordinated a drug and alcohol program. “I’m quite familiar with the danger of having one’s head blown off, whether I recorded the call or not. I’d like you to do something now.”

Within the hour, Luke was arrested. The following day, someone called from the prosecutor’s office. Would I be willing to drop the charges? “It’s a lot of paperwork for us,” she said. I requested they proceed. From working in law enforcement over the years, I knew that if charges aren’t brought, the crime never happened. You need a paper trail.

I was glad I insisted, because a few days before Luke threatened me, he’d stopped taking his antipsychotics. When his case went to court, he was let off for thirty days served, with instructions to take his meds. I’m presuming Tim stopped bothering him, although my own nightmares continued for years.

Tim was one of the first American males ordained as a Chinese Buddhist Monk. When I met him, though, he was in an alcohol rehab center. As was I. We were married almost a decade before I knew he’d written a book. He probably realized that if I read it, I would have horrified at how he treated his assistant, because it was the same way he treated me.

Though many Buddhist teachings are about preparing for death, when Tim was diagnosed with cancer early in our marriage, he refused to acknowledge he was going to die. Although his oncologist explained that there was no known cure, he insisted he was going to beat this thing. However, she added, it was a “good cancer.”

“What’s a good cancer?” I asked.

“The average life expectancy is seven years,” she explained.

About six years in, Tim’s symptoms flared, and he volunteered for an experimental protocol, “the McDonalds of bone marrow transplants,” he said.

“What does that mean?”

“A walk in the park.” He handed me the document that authorized the treatment. I was chilled to the bone.

“Nobody’s survived this,” I said. “Not even the beagles they tested it on. The longest even a dog lasted was eleven months. If you do nothing, who knows how long you might live?”

One seeks to understand unhappiness or grief in various ways. Tim’s parents found sanctuary in the Mother Church, as Tim called the Catholic faith in which he was raised. For ten years, monk’s robes provided sanctuary for Tim. But his alcoholism lurked just outside the monastery gates. One afternoon, he stopped into a tavern and ended up roaring drunk. Ashamed, he left the monastery and found work as an orderly at a managed care facility. On what was intended to be a one-night stand with the night nurse, he conceived a child.

That’s what he told me, anyway. When I met him, he was still in inpatient rehab and still married to that nurse. After he died, I found passionate love poems he and the child’s mother exchanged early on. Whatever flame they had, though, did not last. As co-dependent partners do, I devoted myself to analyzing my husband. Through the Enneagram, for example: Tim was a One. Per the Enneagram, he could be a great leader. Or he could be a despot. My delusion was such that when his oncologist told us his cancer was incurable, I wrote in my journal that I would find a way to save him.

Tim’s parents lived an hour’s drive down Hood Canal from us, and in the early years, his young daughter and I accompanied him to holiday gatherings there. Each time, halfway there, Tim would go into a rage. “You don’t really want to go,” he might accuse us. Or he might scold his daughter because she didn’t finish her homework. Eventually, in the death throes of our marriage, I refused to go. Tim went alone, and on the way back, just as when he fled the monastery, he stopped in at one tavern, and then the next. When he finally arrived home, he apologized for his relapse and vowed it wouldn’t happen again. But of course it did, and eventually I asked him to leave.

Tim’s ex-wife told me that the teaching brother Tim most trusted had molested him, but he never shared that with me. Instead, he repeatedly hinted that the teaching nuns and monks in the Catholic schools he attended from kindergarten until he was kicked out, had “done things.” He described inappropriate contact, but said it happened to a friend. He recounted physical abuse and beatings, but these anecdotes always implied he deserved it. The only part he did say, telling the same story again and again, was that he managed to get himself kicked out by hiding a bomb in the nuns’ car. And then he always laughed hysterically.

I listened to his stories until I stopped listening, and that is my loss. As reports of priestly abuse proliferated in the press, including at the schools he attended, I felt guilty. Surely, if I had pried forth Tim’s secrets, I could have healed him. Placing smoke bombs in the nuns’ car was his only cry for help, and in its way, it worked.

But to me, Tim’s descriptions of his father throwing shoes as his young son as he stood against a wall or dressing in a bear costume to scare him for leaving his bedroom at night seemed worse. I had little doubt that if young Tim had tried to say anything, his parents would have suggested he burn in hell. Even as he lay dying, helpless at last, they had him, a Buddhist, anointed with last rites.

During Tim’s final weeks of life, his daughter seized my hand. “No more blonde,” she said. I glanced at her. That week, her hair was the color of eggplant.

“What are you talking about, no more blonde? This is my natural color.”

“Not anymore it’s not.” She narrowed her eyes. The child I’d met at four, scared and mousy, had transformed into a striking beauty. “Brown, I think. Dark brown.”

After Tim and I separated, I dated a younger man, although we too soon split up. “Our love-making makes me insane,” he texted me. “I can’t do this without a traditional committed relationship. I feel empty and lost.” When I called to tell him Tim was dead, he wept. “Why are you crying?” I asked. “Not for him,” the young man said. “For you. For how much he destroyed you.”

“You don’t ever have to be afraid again,” my friend Carla said. Still, I sobbed and screamed.

“You abandoned a dying man,” my father said.

Eleven months after the McDonalds of bone marrow transplants, Tim died. Two weeks later, I landed flat in the New Year, widowed yet not widowed, with dark brown hair. I inhaled the scent of seaweed and salt from the bay outside what had been our dream home. I exhaled in cries like the call of the loons that gathered just offshore. The first day one pair arrived. The next day five pairs paddled in a loose cluster. By the end of the week, dozens of the arched spotted backs trolled up and down, up and down, on their quest for the Pacific herring that spawn here.

And startlingly, Tim’s walk in the park had killed him, and I was free. I walked with my dog in Northwest fog and rain, and to keep from shaking to pieces, I filled the bathtub with as much hot water as I could bear—a lot—and sat for hours. Water embraced me. Water was my solace. I descended into the tunnel of winter, days that rarely saw light, only changed from one kind of darkness to another. What about death, I wondered. What about suicide? Maybe I should just commit suicide slowly, one breath at a time. From the time of Tim’s diagnosis, I felt he wanted me to throw myself upon his funeral pyre. “When people grow ill,” his ex-wife said, “They become more of what they are. Nice people become nicer. Mean people get meaner.” M.F.K. Fisher says as we age, we revert to whatever we were like at birth and as toddlers. The final day of his life, in the ICU, Tim’s body bloated, and his skin stretched as far as skin can stretch, and it seemed he were drowning in his own fluids. Blood oozed from every pore.

My hands and arms went numb. Pens, notebooks, cups and forks dropped from my hands and crashed to the floor. “Definitely MS,” his ex-wife told me. “No doubt about it. You’ll be immobilized by the end of the year.” She seemed pretty excited by the idea. The symptoms worsened. I’d hold a cup of coffee to my lips, and then the cup would fall and shatter, the coffee scalding my chest. At other times, my hands balled up into tight fists, and I had to manually unlock them.

Just as I lacked a handbook for navigating Tim’s cancer, when I became a stepparent at thirty, I was equally clueless. Before Tim’s cancer was diagnosed and he was pronounced infertile, I pored through books on every stage of pregnancy, birth, and the developmental phases of a child’s life. When I became a stepparent, the pickings were sparse. Several books asserted never to allow the child to call me “Mom.” This would confuse everyone. My stepdaughter concocted elaborate stories about how I was actually her real mom. “Are you sure you were never pregnant?” she once asked. “Maybe when you were in rehab?” When I said I was sure, she said, “Maybe your mother had another baby she forgot about?”

As for cancer, the patient fought the courageous battle. And he never died. He passed.

After Tim died, his daughter asked repeatedly, “What are we to each other now?” She told me that everyone asked why she bothered to speak with me at all. As when she was little and asked to call me Mom, I remained obtuse.

“I am here for you no matter what,” I said. But I wasn’t. We were both on our own, stumbling through the forest without light or path, gauging where we were by the space between the trees.

K.C. Pedersen holds an M.A. in fiction writing and literature, studying with Annie Dillard as thesis chair. Stories and essays appear in numerous journals and have been nominated for Pushcarts, Best American Essays, and other awards. “Getting a Life-Coming of Age with Killers” was selected as notable by Hilton Als and Robert Atwan for Best American Essays 2018. Pedersen lives above a saltwater fjord in Washington State.

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Guest Posts, parenting

Toby’s Questions

January 28, 2019
toby

By Ruth Arnold

Last night, my 13 year old son came in my room looking sad, a little sunburned in the face and worried. He had that need-to-cry look so I said, “If you need to cry, I’m here. We can talk while you cry or I can wait”. He said with tears, “I just need to cry a little so I can talk.” I was in my bed watching tv with my dog and also feeling somewhat nervous about an upcoming event that I was fairly sure was the source of his needing to “cry a little”.

In two weeks, I am going in for a full hysterectomy. I am told via ultrasound examination and gynecological review that I have dermoid cysts on my left ovary. Dermoid basically means yucky stuff but not cancer. I am a breast cancer survivor so it’s very hard for me to separate the matters as the same hospital for this surgery was where I got my radiation treatments for my cancer. So, my fear is here. My brain knows it is irrational but my emotions tell me that that is the cancer place where you go at 6:00 a.m. every day wearing a wig so that you can make it to work on time on the other side of town, stay alive and not scare your students with a bald head.

“I’m just scared a little bit”. I said, “Me too but not because I won’t get through this. I’ve had that kind of scare before and this isn’t that”. Continue Reading…

cancer, Guest Posts, The Hard Stuff

An Irreverent Cancer Primer—Help Can Be a Four-Letter Word

January 10, 2019
cancer

By Mara Buck

“Nothing succeeds like excess.” Oscar Wilde
“Less is more.” Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
“Nobody survives like a smart-ass.” Mara Buck

Life is a combination of infinite causes and incalculable effects, each effect becoming the compilation and accumulation of its own unique history, yet stubbornly we continue to seek out the potential “easy-way-out-one-size-fits-all” solution. Unfortunately this seldom works—or works for long. We humans are tribal, invariably depending on the collective wisdom of the tribe to care for us, but no single answer proves the best answer for everyone.

There are no easy answers for dealing with cancer either—no rules. Cancer is as individualistic as the person whose cells are multiplying out of control, as distinctive as a smile across a luncheon table, as personal as a phone call in the night, as alienating as a closing door. Continue Reading…

beauty, cancer, Guest Posts

Accessorizing

July 11, 2018
chemo

By Annarose F. Steinke

At first the jewelry takes me by surprise: chandelier earrings, layered necklaces, sequined infinity scarves that have no business in a room where store-brand cans of pineapple and orange juice are the only drinks served. A big show is made of giving these things ample space on tiny end tables alongside Dixie cups of Tylenol. Companions are ordered to remember these silver hooks and spirals once the session ends, and in the meantime, to keep an eye on the table should the items’ owners need to use the toilet. Simply standing up while making sure to lift the arm so that the wrist retains the IV and the IV stays attached to the machine that must be wheeled into the bathroom while managing the door lock with the free hand, all while the first dizzy spell begins (no, thank you, I can manage) is such an all-consuming task that asking after your Alex and Ani bangles set in that moment is out of the question.

I used to wonder why they won’t leave these things at home, but now I know why all of it must be worn, even if only in the lobby. I recognize the sigh from the woman two seats down as she uncoils ropes of translucent orange beads from her neck: it matches my tone when telling the scheduling coordinator to hold as I shake out receipts and crumbs and broken pens from three different purses when I could just as easily store the Medical Record Number card in my wallet with my driver’s license and the other items anchoring my everyday. Now I understand that “fighting cancer” does not mean doing certain tasks with gusto but refusing to grant others the time and care they’re supposed to deserve.

As for me, I wear my great-grandmother’s rose gold chain, its sharp rectangles falling just below my collarbone and exactly where a chest port would be if I needed one. My grandmother’s accompanying note reads “I want you to wear her things. NOW!” and I honor her demand. Wearing this chain, I grasp the concept of a “statement” necklace: this piece states that I’m not here long enough for a chest port, this searing jab to my wrist is truly a perk of this good-kind lymphoma, and the nurse is visibly annoyed at the extra work so my demeanor had better be accomodating since my small veins are not. Continue Reading…

cancer, Guest Posts

Humane Treatment

December 11, 2017
humane

By Kimberly Maier

It’s either a cruel or humane twist of fate that I would end up with a sexy oncologist, I can’t decide which. He’s a fancy big-shot internist from the Mayo Clinic who moved to Oregon because he likes the outdoors or something. He has this absurdly charming strip of silver in the part of his hair. His voice is square, clinical. His mind seems to wander off while he’s talking, probably because he repeats the same boring death script to his patients every day. “The Oxaliplatin does tend to cause nausea, but I’ll prescribe something to alleviate that.” There’s a slight accent that I can’t place. He employs a strange downward intonation at the end of his questions.

He half-sits behind me, causing the sheet on the exam table to crinkle before tearing a v-shape in the paper between us. When I feel his breath on my neck my thoughts instantly liquify, spinning around the way soapy water in a coffee pot does when you rinse it. I clear my throat then open my bathrobe. At 26 years of age I am by far the youngest patient in the clinic and the only one who wears a robe, slippers and pajamas to each treatment. I can’t tell if everyone stares at me because of what I’m wearing or because I’m younger than the other patients by about 40 years.

The sexy oncologist puts his fingers in my armpits to see if my lymph nodes are swollen. They’re not. Continue Reading…

cancer, depression, Guest Posts

Where Are All The Silver Linings?

June 30, 2017

CW: This essay discusses depression and suicide. If you or someone you know needs helps now, you should immediately call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or call 911.

By Melissa McAllister

Even before cancer, I was intimately acquainted with depression and anxiety.  We shared more than one dance together.  We fight.  We makeup.  We fight.  We breakup.  That’s just the way it’s always been.  On and Off.  I managed this relationship with an assortment of tricks.  There are the therapists I would purge all my thoughts and feelings onto weekly.  There is the pharmacy where I routinely picked up the latest antidepressant and anti anxiety pills I was prescribed.  Sometimes they even tossed  in a mood stabilizer or an antipsychotic for good measure.  And then there was the doctor who I checked in with on a regular basis to make certain all was going as planned.

As a person so prone to depression and anxiety, believe me when I tell you – keeping that many appointments and having that many interactions in order to procure those tiny little things that are going to hopefully help you feel better is fucking hard to do.  If you suffer from depression and/or anxiety, you know exactly what I mean.  But I managed, mostly. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, Health, The Body

Why We Must Remain Vigilant: An Affordable Care Act Story

April 3, 2017
vigilant

By Jenny Giering

For me, the repeal of the Affordable Care Act is a life and death issue.

I used to define myself in various ways: a musician, a mother, a wife, a yoga devotee, a cook. Some friends (and my husband) called me the Energizer Bunny. Now: I am the poster child for Universal Health care.

The day I got my breast cancer diagnosis, I was in the process of re-certifying through the Massachusetts Health Connector (Massachusetts’ version of the state health insurance exchanges) for the following calendar year. My local Navigator, a local public health official trained to help with the application process, told me about Massachusetts’ Breast and Cervical Cancer Treatment Program, a Medicaid initiative designed to cover middle and low-income women through their treatments. We were relieved to discover I qualified. Our two children were simultaneously enrolled in MassHealth (Massachusetts’ Medicaid program) and their care became free as well. This was what saved our family from financial ruin. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, The Body

Topography of a Scar

March 15, 2017
biopsy

By Krista Varela Posell

For four years, I’ve had a wound that won’t heal. A lesion is the technical term, according to Google.

It’s a dark spot on my right forearm, smaller than a dime. It could be just a mole. That’s what it looks like anyway.

But every few months, the skin around the spot will get dry and bubble up, almost like a blister. I try not to pick at it, but I can’t help it. Each time I do, I hope that there will finally be a pale white scar underneath so that I can just forget about it and go on with my life. Instead, picking at it just opens up another wound, like a door that leads to another door in some kind of eternal dream. There’s no bleeding, but the new skin underneath is sensitive, a deep rose color, and the spot scabs over. Then eventually the thin scab falls off, but the small dark spot is still there. Moles don’t do that, do they?

I don’t remember exactly when it started. I just remember looking down at my arm one day, perhaps it was in the car or in the shower, and I thought, that spot has been there a while. Weeks? Months maybe?

***

Soon after, I went to a dermatologist. Dr. Google had scared me enough into getting checked out. The doctor told me to stop picking at it and gave me a steroid cream to put on it. Come back if it doesn’t work, he said.

It didn’t work. The small dark spot still lingered, and the skin kept blistering. Continue Reading…

cancer, Guest Posts

Marked

February 24, 2017
tattoo

By Jude Walsh

I was nine when I saw my first tattoo. It was July in northeastern Pennsylvania and the first week of Saint Aloysius’ annual two-week church summer bazar. I was with my dad in the beer garden, a lattice work section decorated with swags of plastic greenery and potted plastic plants, located just a few steps away from the food tent. It was sheltered by a large tarp and had long counters set much higher than normal booths because their sole purpose was a place to rest your elbows while you stood while having a beer or two or three or ten.  This section was for drinkers but in the early 1960’s there was no problem with a little girl being there with her dad.

The art I spied was on a man who in my memory had big arms, what I now might call bulging biceps but then just thought of as big arms. It was deep blue and in the shape of an anchor. I could not stop looking at it.  Dad noticed me staring and said, “That’s a navy anchor.” I knew it was an anchor and now I knew it was a navy anchor. What I did not know was how it got on his skin.

“Who drew it there?”

My dad laughed out loud, “It’s not drawn on his arm, that’s a tattoo.” Continue Reading…