Friday, September 15, 2017

Lost Dreams

Last night my brother Mark texted me:

I was just thinking. If Dale was still here and was able to open up a business on the islands, it would have been destroyed. That would just be the exclamation point of his business decisions...Just saying.

Our older brother, Dale, whose 64th birthday is next week, will have been dead two years come this October.  At the time of his death, Dale was underwater and delinquent on two mortgages (his residence and a rental property that I have written about before) and owed tens of thousands of dollars on overdue credit accounts, utilities, and my parents. Along the way, he had depleted every retirement account he had—not that he had huge sums in them—presumably feeling the tax hit was worth getting the cash.

It was the sort of debt that at 62 he would never climb out of, what with the real estate market soured and his only real income being hard-earned as a car mechanic.

But Dale had a plan, along with several others. Now whether he or the others or he and the others came up with it is immaterial. The plan was to turn his back on his mountain of debt and the creditors dunning him, and move to St. John Island in the U.S. Virgin Islands to open a bar along with those others. They had found a willing investor and Dale no doubt saw himself living a worry free, cheap Island life.

Ans while our brother had a string of business busts dating back some 30 years, he at least had the right personality for that line of work. Dale was funny, congenial, and a good listener. No wonder he was so angry whenever anyone mentioned the gravity of his situation (Stage 4 metastasized lung cancer). His dream was just right over there, just a plane hop away.

So when I got the text from Mark, I texted back:  Word. The final act of the play.

Mark agreed: Yep, the curtain came down. 

Without looking at a computer, I figured St. John Island was hit hard by Irma. After supper, I went online to find out. Words like "devastated" popped up immediately.

Mark was right. Had our brother made his escape, and assuming he'd been able to pull off the bar dream (and actually keep it a viable business), it would have come to a crashing end with Irma.

All that came to mind was Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman and that magnificent Requiem at the end. What was our older brother but a later version of Willy Loman, chasing a tired dream and coming up short?

In the end, our brother's estate was insolvent and messy. I resented the toll it took my my brother Mark, the executor, who saw it through to the end. It was Mark who got stuck tracking down all the debt, the scant handful of assets (old—not vintage—vehicles, small change in bank accounts, some furniture). Every get-rich plan and every get-rich scheme, because Dale had both, had come to naught.

Over the last several months, I have been thinking about our family trajectory and narratives. Dad came out of harsh Appalachian poverty; my mom came from a working class poor family. It was our dad who broke the poverty cycle by becoming a skilled machinist. And so I scratch my head at my brother, a skilled mechanic in his own right, searching for Easy Street, hoping for a golden ticket when he unwrapped the chocolate bar.

In the end, it didn't make any difference. Dale is almost two years gone and the bar dream died with him, rather than getting flattened on a hurricane-ravaged island. He got out from under his mountain the debt by dying, not by skipping off.

There is nothing funny about the destruction of Hurricane Irma. Nor was there anything funny about the mess my brother left or the fact that he was willing to walk away from the mess without taking responsibility. But as Mark and I went back and forth, he texted me this:

I could picture him thinking, well I got one over on everyone I owe money. In my mind he is saying that as he is hanging onto a flagpole with his feet straight out behind him. 

And that is funny.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Ready Or Not

We played a lot of hide-and-seek when I was a kid. We had a large back yard, and a game at dusk on a summer night could go on for multiple rounds. The great thing about hide-and-seek, whether you are the hider or the seeker, is that moment when the seeker finishes counting and shouts out "Ready or not, HERE I COME!"

Ready or not, here I come. 

I'm back. Back ready to write. Back aiming for a post once a week. I'll see how it goes.

So what changed when I walked away from a weekly post back in July to a spotty silence to now?

I changed.

Some of the change has been physical. When I brought an end to my weekly posts, I was at a very low point. I had spent months and months feeling lousy all the time. I had little or no energy. I had just started a new drug regiment with fairly disastrous effects. My quality of life was mediocre at best and poor all the rest of the time.

As of this week, I just finished eight weeks of the new (to me) treatment. I feel better now than I have felt in a very long time.

REALITY CHECK: Let me temper that good news. (1) Multiple myeloma is incurable. Still. It will be for the remainder of my life. (2) This is the last approved drug currently available that I have not had before. There is nothing else for me to take, other than combinations of things that I have had before with limited results. (3) I feel much better. I also accept that the myeloma is still advancing, albeit slowly (we hope). To paraphrase my favorite medical realist, Dr. Atul Gawande, the myeloma night brigade is still out there on my perimeter, bringing down the defenses.

With those small reality bites stated, let me just say the overall message again. I. Feel. Much. Better.

But feeling better physically is not the sole impetus to my coming back to blog. The bigger factor—bigger by far—is that I have finally realized once and for all what I'd been paying lip service to for a long time. In order to write, I have to write.

Well, duh.

If I went back through this blog, I would find numerous posts in which I would plaintively write something very much like this: "oh, I want to write, I need to make time to write, I need to honor time in which to write, blah, blah, blah, blah." And after whining about my not writing, I would go right on not writing. Oh. I'd write here and there, but only in the cracks of my life. Even the simple rule of "write 30 minutes a day no matter what" didn't stick.

So what has changed in me? Lots of things. A very good friend just died of stomach cancer. He gave me a model of how to die with grace and love and peace. The last nine months or so of his life, he reached out and savored life, not filling a bucket list, but tasting the world one final time, knowing it was all winding down. 

Losing Doug earlier this week was one change. 

Another change is an internal sea change. Maybe it was getting so low and so sick before the new drug regimen. Maybe it is knowing that this is the last drug and I cannot rely on there being another when this one stops working. Maybe it was seeing my family this summer and seeing Ramona as a different child from the other Ramonas she was previously. I don't know. But I recently realized that I am more acutely aware pf the passage of time—personal, seasonal, generational—than before. (And I was no slouch before.) And I am more aware of the physical world than before, almost intensely so. Dew on the grass, the deep red sunflowers opening, a cold white moon high in the sky: they all stop me in my tracks these days.

As I already said, I am aiming for a post a week. I'll not do inches again, although Anne Lamott's words remain fixed in my head. I don't know where my pen will lead me.

As for carving out time, my phone alarm is set to go off after 30 minutes. I am sitting in the living room penning this out in longhand. 30 minutes is my minimum bar. I'm free to write longer, of course, but going forward I am committed to 30 minutes daily be with with pen and paper or keyboard and screen.

I have been writing poetry all summer. I'm getting my column back on track at The Myeloma Beacon. I'm ready to return to my three-quarters done MG novel.

I'm ready to write.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

The Best Book of the Summer

Last week, Warren received an email at the Symphony office asking surreptitiously whether I was feeling okay. The sender had not seen any posts from me recently and was worried that perhaps I had taken a turn from the worst. 

This morning I received a call from longtime friends Dick and Milly. Dick came right out of the gate fast: he reads my monthly column in The Myeloma Beacon (and perhaps this one too) and was concerned that I wasn't doing well because he hadn't seen anything from me recently. After I had assured him I am fine, really, he said "good!" and passed the phone over to his wife.

August was a grab bag: treatment, zucchini bread (24 or 30 loaves to date), school mediations (yes, we have started already), poetry, a benefit concert, tomatoes, and most of a solar eclipse (although not as much as Ramona got to see in Vancouver, Washington). Threaded throughout it all has been books—so many that I cannot recall most of them except in snatches. Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay (highly recommended), $2.00 A Day (which I am reading for the second time), a splendid new biography of Henry Thoreau by Laura Dassow Walls just in time for the bicentennial of his birth, some memoirs (always a favorite genre). 

And then, thanks to a glowing review that piqued my interest, I found and read what is clearly The. Best. Book. Of. The. Summer. 

The book is Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children's Literature as an Adult, by Bruce Handy. 

Handy is only two years younger than I am, which means we share some common touchstones in both our reading and our childhood/adolescent experiences. That made his book fun to read, even if, unlike Handy, I did not discover the Narnia books until Ben was young. But it is the sheer love of reading and the love of children's literature that snared me immediately. That Handy references many books that I (a) love, (b) read to my children, and (c) still read from time to time sealed the deal.

Handy writes with humor, an occasional snarky comment or two, and great insight as to why some books work and some books don't. He makes no pretensions about this being a comprehensive look at children's literature; this is his personal stroll through his favorite library, and he brings the reader along for the walk.

Handy starts with Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown and ends with E. B. White's Charlotte's Web, which he rightfully concludes was one of the finest books ever written. I still have a copy of the White and so can turn to it, but his homage to Brown was so on point that I almost drove to a store to buy a replacement copy. I won't tell you what other titles and authors he works his way through (although the title and the cover should give you a hint as to at least one of them): read it yourself.

I will add that I picked it up this past Wednesday evening, reluctantly set it aside to get some sleep, read some more while the oatmeal cooked Thursday morning, and then finished it off with great satisfaction (and not a little anguish because it was over) Thursday night. 

Of course I read it in great gulps. I could do no less. 

So that was the Best Book of the Summer. Heck, it may qualify as the Best Book of the Year, and given how many books as I read, that's no small beer.

It is a gray and damp Saturday evening as I type these words. The remnants of Hurricane Harvey have been moving through the area for the last few days. I think of all the displaced people, children and adults alike, in Texas, and hope that there are books in the shelters to help shut out the overwhelming trauma of the storm. 

We have had a wonderful (albeit atypical) cool summer this year. Not great for the tomatoes, but not to be beat for curling up in the evening with a good book in hand. Or at hand. Or both. 

It's nice to be noticed. So Becky, this is for you. You too, Dick.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Dandelion Wishes

Those who know me well know I am not a shopper. I am not drawn to malls, to boutique shops, to online shopping, to anything. Heck, in the last two years we have had both an upscale outlet mall and an Ikea open within 20 minutes of my house and I have yet to set foot in either of them.

So when a recent work group broke for lunch and we ended up at a restaurant with a gift shop attached, I cracked up when everyone else at the table announced they had to look in the gift shop before we went our separate ways.

Really? Really?

I followed my colleagues up the stairs to the open, airy gift shop and looked around. Clothing and jewelry that way. Quilts that way. Decorative household items over there. Gift books and clever toys for children back there.

N was soon holding up a rhinestone encrusted watch. S was in the clothing, looking at colorful scarves. The other S was thumbing through a gift book on friendship. She explained her best friend had just lost her father, and maybe this would be good to send her. Then she turned over the book, looked at the price tag, and said "that's the cost of a shirt for my daughter, and school starts soon."

I wandered through the space, bemused. This was more exposure to items intended for sheer consumer consumption than I had experienced in months and months.

Wall plaques are big business in this shop. You know: heartfelt sayings painted or printed on wood to nail to your wall or prop up on your mantelpiece. Some of them were grouped by theme: Family, Autumn. There was one area of eclectic: some inspirational, some faith-based, some silly.

It was on the hodgepodge wall that I saw the one item in the whole gift shop that I actually looked at. "Looked at" as in touched it, looked at the tag, then thought "I don't need more stuff in my life." It was a small plaque, painted distressed bright white, with an Impressionistic dandelion splashed against the white. (I admit it: the brightly colored dandelion is what caught my eye). Underneath the dandelion were the words "some see a weed, I see a wish."

To my husband's dismay, I love dandelions. I love their brightness when they bloom, I love their airiness when they go to seed. I still love to pick the puffs and blow them into wishes. Warren is pretty vigilant about snapping their heads off and digging them out when one makes its way into our lawn, but every now and then one slips by his eagle eye. And if I am out walking and see one in an untended lot, I do my bit by dispersing the seeds.

I walked away from the plaque without any regret. As I thought at the time, I don't need more stuff. But the sentiment of weeds and wishes has stayed with me.

My next walk, I may just have to look for wishes.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Inch One Hundred Eighty: Changes

This is the 180th Inch I have posted. Not counting a couple of soapbox posts from the time I resolved to post a weekly inch, I have been posting an "inch" of my writing weekly for over three years.

There has been a change in the lineup.

July, even though it is not yet over, has demanded a lot of me. I moved Aunt Ginger into an assisted living facility. With the help of several others, I emptied out and cleaned her apartment. Unneeded furniture headed to an auction, household/decorative items headed to my sister-in-law's yard sale, and all the rest headed to...our downstairs study, where it has taken over all available space. Mostly it is family-related: old photos to send off to cousins, old papers to shred. It has been an Augean task and I am not yet done with it, although with the move long behind me and the apartment empty and ready to be relinquished, two huge weights are off my shoulder.

July held, of course, a long-anticipated visit with my family traveling to Ohio. I still have not sorted through the photos I took, let alone the emotions. Biggest hit for the travelers? Fireflies. They don't exist out west and three of the five had never seen them before. Every evening, Ramona would announce loudly, "It's almost time for the Firefly Show! Come on, everybody!" Her very last evening in Ohio found her, Grandpa Warren, and me out on the deck, watching one last Firefly Show while the grownups packed.

One of my biggest regrets for the trip? That Ramona and I did not bake a pie together. She asked if we could. I simply did not have the energy to make one. I am hoping there will be another opportunity, here or out there, to bake a pie with my granddaughter.

This month also marks my return to treatment after about eight weeks of "holiday," which in Cancerland means simply "we're taking you off your drugs right now to let your body recuperate." (My body has been wearing down from the ongoing treatment and from the slow action of myeloma.) Last week I resumed treatment, starting a new drug regimen.

It has not been pretty.

I knew going in and had been counseled by nurses and oncologists that the initial treatment might produce a bevy of side reactions. That's why it is given very slowly in the first session. What none of us (least of all me) expected was for my body to react very strongly to the new treatment. Nausea? I threw up so hard and so much that I broke a blood vessel in my cheek and looked (well, still do) like someone cold cocked me. Rash? The skin around my eyes swelled and turned bright red. Respiratory? My nasal passage totally shut down and my throat started to close too. My reactions were such that my oncologist came up to Infusion from his office downstairs to consult with the nurses, talk with me and Warren, and shut down treatment until they could get me stable. I had to come back the next day to finish the initial treatment; Day 2 went off without a hitch.

No, I don't feel well. No, I am not myself right now. I go back this Tuesday, and will continue to do so for some time. We are all hoping I got all the reactions over the first time, but we don't yet know that.

The fun never stops in Cancerland.

And because the fun never stops, I am stepping back from my commitment to post an inch a week. I'm not going silent. I'm not walking away. I love writing. I just am out of inches right now.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Inch One Hundred Seventy-Nine: Here And Gone Again

They should be in the air and headed back to Portland as I type. Too many feelings to write.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Inch One Hundred Seventy-Eight: Update

Last week I previewed some of July and now I can update what has happened and what will happen.

Aunt Ginger is moved. I have the rest of this month to dismantle her apartment.

4th of July was a huge success. The weather was perfect and the crowd was large and enthusiastic. The link at the end of this paragraph should take you to the 1812 Overture, viewed from the orchestra, when the theater cannons are being set off at the end of the work. You do not need a Facebook account to see it. (Warren is on the timpani at the right of the video, playing timpani.) 

We are under 24 hours and counting for the plane to touch down and everyone to disembark.

And, despite my predictions to the contrary last week, Ramona will be able to pick a tomato.