Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Inch Eighty-Nine: The Shoe Fits

When Anne Morrow Lindbergh's older sister Elisabeth died young, Anne wrote: A long long week, so strange and unreal and artificial now, and suddenly dropped into the past. A week of false hopes and false dreams: all kinds of plans and schemes that now seem irrelevant—because Elisabeth died. 

Last week was our long long week because Dale died.

And now we are moving on. Life goes on, a fact that my brother Dale understood as well as anyone. Even while he was busy dying, he was vitally interested in what we were all doing and remind us that those other things—the rest of life—were also important. Chemo sessions, laundry, the World Series--all the stuff of daily life keeps flowing no matter what the Big Event is.

I am writing this Tuesday night although I won't get it posted it until Wednesday evening. Earlier tonight I was reading Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest by Wade Davis. It is an excellent history and a good book for long chemo sessions. But I have set it aside to browse through The Tightwad Gazette III, the last of the Amy Dacyczyn collections.

Sometimes I just take comfort from reading about the frugal efforts of others, and tonight is one of those nights.

When I was in Oregon in September (was it only six weeks ago?), I came back with four pairs of new never-been-worn running shoes, all free. This was thanks to the kindness of a woman, now a friend, who I've known for almost 40 years--the last love (and one of the earliest loves) of my first husband, who died so suddenly a year and a half ago. Jennifer works for a small company that tests running shoes and she showered me with shoes. I at first felt silly with that many shoes, but I now smile realizing I will likely never have to buy sports shoes again. From a frugality standpoint, it's a win situation and my feet, racked by neuropathy as they are, appreciate the variety.

Monday I came home from work early, put on one of my pairs of shoes, and walked to a nearby park. The park runs along the Olentangy River, a childhood playground for me and my brothers. The sky was an impossible blue and the maples and other deciduous trees were aflame. I walked the mile loop slowly, reveling in the fall spectacle. I thought of my dead brother and the hours we spent at the river; I snapped a photo of the river and texted it to my youngest brother, to let him know where I was.

A walk is one of the best ways I know to pull together loose ends: mental, physical, emotional, chronological. This walk was no exception, which is good because I had a lot of loose ends. By the time I made it back home, I was drenched in autumn, and anchored once again by life moving on.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Inch Eighty-Eight: Obituary

I wrote last week about my brother, who was rapidly coming to the end of his days. Dale died Tuesday night, after two long days of slipping in and out of consciousness. Services are this weekend.

Before dying, my brother penned his own obituary. It is currently playing on Facebook to rave reviews. This week he is my guest writer, a prospect that would have amused him to no end. I don't often say this, but I wish I had written this:

Marvin Dale Nelson, Jr. (September 19, 1953 – October 20, 2015) 

All of this is true, more or less. One of the things about liver cancer (apart from it cutting my life down to a fraction, which sucks) is it gives me a small window of time to write my own send off. I won't bore you with statistics but there are a few things you need to know or else funeral homes and newspapers think somebody dropped the ball and start finger pointing. I was born September 19, 1953 and given the handle Marvin Dale Nelson Jr. My dad, Marvin Dale Nelson, Sr., is the first edition. My mom, Shirley (Skatzes) issued four more kids, busy woman that she was. After me came Heather, who died in infancy, April (married to Warren Hyer, sons Ben and Sam Sanchez), Michel (married to Kate, children Mike Jr., Tim and Meg) and finally Mark (married to Jackie, children Matt and Lizzie). There are also two aunts surviving me, Virginia (Ginger) Skatzes and Gail Nelson Rubinowski, as well as numerous cousins of every degree. But this really isn't about them.

I appreciated my parents’ love for me and I loved them in return. In my younger and more vulnerable years, my dad gave me some advice that I've been turning over in my mind ever since. Along the way, I learned to swim. I graduated from Delaware Hayes High School in 1971, setting records on the swim team, got a scholarship and spent a year at Kalamazoo College in higher education. That wasn't for me.

I got married as people tend to do. Of that era, the less said the better. I have no children of my own, but I would have liked that.

Calendar pages turned and months turned to years. I found a calling as a mechanic and I got to see how things work and how I could make them work. It was satisfying to some degree and filled a large chunk of my life. I worked with many people in many places. A lot of them I liked, others not so much. No regrets here, but to do it over I would get that college degree just for the options.
Throughout my life I made friendships to last forever. One in particular was Sally Blum. She always had my back and I had hers. What more does one need? Friends are the family we choose for ourselves.

Ships at a distance have every man's wish on board and I am no different. I loved to travel, a gift from my dad. Now that you are reading this, I am evidently free to hitchhike the galaxy as soon as the paperwork is completed. So until you see me swinging on a star, remember, a story has no beginning or end—one arbitrarily chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead. Now my story begins again.

There will be a Celebration of Life on Sunday, October 25, 2015, at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, 28 East William Street, Delaware, Ohio. Friends will be received at 1:30 p.m., service will start at 2:30 p.m., and a reception will immediately follow at the church. All arrangements are by Snyder-Rodman Funeral Center; burial will be private. Flowers may be sent; donations in lieu of flowers may be made to the American Cancer Society or Hospice of Central Ohio.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Inch Eighty-Seven: End Days

My older brother is dying. He was diagnosed with metastasized lung cancer earlier this summer and began treatment immediately. The oncologist was able to rein that cancer in. What no one anticipated was the liver cancer, which turned out to be unrelated to the metastasized lung cancer, suddenly going rogue and exploding in size and impact in the last three weeks. Treatment has stopped; hospice is in the home.

My older brother is dying with grace and humor and sadness and tears and laughter. The cancer is consuming him so quickly that his face is not the same face it was just four days ago. His energy levels are dropping by the minute.

My older brother is dying. I have always had an older brother and there will be a gap now. I think of Anne Morrow Lindbergh's writing when her older sister Elisabeth died, and the grace and sorrow with which Anne wrote about the loss of her sister and the hole in her world. 

I am at work as I type this. A half hour ago, I had to walk a block downtown to do some banking for my Aunt Ginger. When I stepped outside, I was hit with the intensity of the October day. The maple tree at the law office across the street is aflame; the sky is brilliant blue. All I could think of as I stared up at the sky and smelled the sweet smell of autumn was that I was fiercely glad my brother is dying in the midst of all this beauty and splendor. What a season to exit the world in.

Edna St. Vincent Millay's sonnet, "God's World," came to mind:

O world, I cannot hold thee close enough!
   Thy winds, thy wide grey skies!
   Thy mists, that roll and rise!
Thy woods, this autumn day, that ache and sag
And all but cry with colour!   That gaunt crag
To crush!   To lift the lean of that black bluff!
World, World, I cannot get thee close enough!

Long have I known a glory in it all,
         But never knew I this;   
         Here such a passion is
As stretcheth me apart,—Lord, I do fear
Thou’st made the world too beautiful this year;
My soul is all but out of me,—let fall
No burning leaf; prithee, let no bird call.

May my brother's way out of this world be marked with the brilliant burning leaves of this season.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Inch Eighty-Six: Portland Moments

Rosh Hashanah gathering 
A month ago I was in Portland for eight days. Five weeks later, the immediacy of the trip has faded. Rather, I find myself reflecting on what I carried back with me.

Oh, that's obvious. Love, family, togetherness. Warmth, laughter, some tears. Good times, good food. A Rosh Hashanah meal full of family and friends, including a nephew (from my prior marriage) whom I had not seen in 14 years.

But there are two specific memories that I carry deep in my heart, with all the other memories as an overlay.

The first is Ramona, who is now three. Her verbal skills have exploded. She is pre-reading and I found myself more than once listening to her sound out her world. "Uncle Pat has a dog, Grandma. Duhh-duhh-duhh. Dog. 'Dog' starts with a D, Grandma!"

At three, Ramona is no longer the frenetic ball of energy she was at two. Her focus is sharper. She will sit through several books, then "read" them aloud  herself. She is capable of creating and following a sustained story/play line using plastic animals (giraffes, elephants, lions, horses, whatever—it's a peaceable kingdom).

Pie making
Ramona and I baked a pie together, an activity I put at the top of my "want to do" list. At three, Ramona is not quite ready to make a pie from start to finish, but she was excited to roll out the dough. Well, she was excited until she realized she could run her finger through the flour/sugar mixture I dusted the rolling mat with and stick her finger in her mouth.

"I LIKE making pies, Grandma!"

The other deep memory I will carry forever is I sat my sons down and spoke with them about my health. I'm way, way farther along the continuum of myeloma, so much so that I have passed all statistical expectancies. My Mayo oncologist said that I am in a very tiny class at this point, definitely in the shallow end of the pool. While I am hoping not to die in the next several months, I explained that death is a lot closer than it was.  And then my voice broke.

"I am learning to say goodbye to the things and people I love, and other than Warren, there is no one I love more than you."

I managed to get that out before I burst into tears.

Sam, sitting nearest to me at the table, looked at me, his eyes wide and stricken. He reached over and covered my hand, holding it.

Ben, at the far end of the table, shoved away. I thought I had upset him so much that he was leaving the room. Instead, he came around to where I was sitting and put his arms around me. We all spent a few minutes sniffling (well, I was crying) and then regained our composures. We then started playing a card game.

There are far worse ways to deal with life and death than to talk, cry, and then play a game.

Life goes on. It goes on in a card game. It goes on in a hug. It goes on in Ramona saying loudly at the supper table, "Pie! P! I! E! That spells PIE!"

And it does.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Inch Eighty-Five: This Week

I wrote the below post the day after the Sandy Hook shootings in Connecticut back in December, 2012. Since then, there have been multiple mass shootings across this country, the most recent one in Roseburg, Oregon. With every shooting, there is a hoarse cry of "Why?" immediately countered with a pushback from the NRA and gun advocates as to how this was somehow the fault of gun-free zones (so the victims and the state are responsible for this) or, in the words of presidential candidate Jeb Bush, "stuff happens."

I grew up around guns. My dad hunted; my brothers hunted with him. I never got taken out hunting, but I learned to shoot. I do not own a gun, but I am not opposed to others owning them. I do not see gun owners as either evil or idiots. But I fervently believe that screaming that any type of gun control violates the Second Amendment and the only safe nation is an armed nation is idiotic and leads to senseless deaths. I do not believe that limiting access to guns is a step towards fascism or anarchy. I also do not believe the answer is to say "well, that shooter was mentally ill" and pretend there is no further issue to discuss. 

The further issue is this: we should not have to take our lives into our own hands when we go to school, or go to worship, or go about our everyday lives. I should not be forced to carry a weapon to defend myself as I go about my daily routine. And I should not have the NRA dictating to our political leaders a "hands off" gun policy in this nation and accusing me of being anti-American and unpatriotic because I disagree. 

I believe that as this nation becomes more polarized along religious, racial, and political lines, the potential for acts of mass violence grows. In a polarized world where we have eliminated civil discourse, it is just as easy to shoot to silence the opposing view as it is to argue. After all, "stuff happens." 

I have started identifying publicly as Jewish and liberal, because, as I tell sympathetic friends, when the extremists start lining people up, I want there to be no question where I stand. 

Here is my blog from December 2012. This is for the victims of the Umpqua Community College shooting:

It is the morning after and I am baking.

28 families in Newtown, Connecticut are making funeral arrangements, 20 of them for small children who did not live to see Christmas this year.

And I am baking.

My mind keeps churning over the news. My thoughts reel back to Columbine and watching the news that night with my hand to my throat and the tears rolling down my face. This morning as I read the online newspaper, my hand went immediately to my throat and the tears started again.

And I am baking.

My wonderful, beautiful daughter-in-law Alise mirrored my thoughts on her Facebook post last night and I would repost her words here if I could. But Facebook is balking so I am able only to summarize them. (I will post Alise's moving words in a separate post in the next day or two when Facebook decides to cooperate.) Alise cried out to us to focus on the children who were killed, not on the killer and what made him tick. Forget him. What Alise wanted to know is what the children's favorite colors were, could they tie their shoes, what games they liked to play. Alise wanted us all to remember these were children, with the little things that make up a child's life: a favorite book, a stuffed animal, a song sung in class.

And I am baking, filling the house with the scent of biscotti, wondering what cookies those children liked and whether they had yet done any holiday baking with their mothers, their fathers, their grandparents.

I think of Ramona as I roll the dough with my hands. When Ben was a little boy, there was the Cleveland School shooting in Stockton, California, where we lived at the time. We were horrified. And then came Padukah. And Columbine. Yet despite that violence—violence at a school—I still sent Ben and Sam off each day with my biggest worry being a traffic accident.

Those were just random acts of violence, I thought at the time. But increasingly, they are not. And as I look at Ramona in all her three-month old glory, I fear her parents live in a world—in this country, for God's sake—where they will send her to school someday and pray she not be gunned down in her classroom while she recites her ABCs.

And I am baking.

In Making Piece, Beth Howard wrote: "In those late autumn days, as winter approached, all I did was bake. With each push of the rolling soul was soothed and my heart mended a little more."

It is the day after Newtown and I am baking.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Inch Eighty-Four: Overdoing It

When Benjamin was a toddler, we went through long stretches of time where, simply put, his father and I overdid it with him.

I'm not talking about material possessions, although Benjamin did not lack for books and toys. Nor am I talking about signing him up for too many activities.

What I mean is that far too often, we expected a very young Ben to confirm his needs and wants and schedule to our adult ones. Drive an hour and a half to visit friends? No problem! Put off lunch or supper for an hour or more because it was more convenient for us? Piece of cake!

In looking back, the results of these and similar choices were predictable. Ben, who by nature was a very easy going, low maintenance, gentle child, would become stressed and unhappy. Tears, complaints, wild sobbing, and ultimately a complete and total meltdown would invariably happen. And each time, after frantically patching up the situation, my then spouse and I would say "we overdid it with Ben. We pushed him too far. Let's not do that again."

You'd think I'd have learned my lesson almost three decades later.

I have recently started traditional chemotherapy, "traditional" in that I go to the infusion center and sit for two plus hours having toxic chemicals pumped into me. Two days a week, three weeks in a row. Rinse and repeat.

I am tolerating chemo fairly well, all things being equal. It could be a lot worse.

But I am overdoing it.

Living with a cancer that is making slow, inexorable progress, I keep dialing back what I do and how much I do. The chemo is a game changer for how I feel and how much I have left to spread around, no question about it.

But I haven't yet gotten the hang of dialing back, even on chemo days.

On chemo days, I have to factor in extra downtime. But I don't. On chemo days, I have to factor in feeling really mediocre. But I don't. And overall I have to readjust my expectations and schedule for the rest of the week. And guess what? I don't, at least not consistently and not very well.

This explains why the other night I was eating a quick supper at a Culver's after 8:00 p.m. an hour from home, and why, by the time we got home, I'd been gone for five hours straight (on a chemo day, no less).

Don't get me wrong. It was a good way to spend those five hours, going with Warren to a drumming session and participating in the same. But by the time I crawled into bed with chills and aching joints, all I could think of was Ben and overdoing it over and over and over again with him. Had I been that long ago toddler, I'd have been sobbing myself to sleep, wondering why no one was taking care of me. I'd be wondering what I had to do to right the day gone so wretchedly wrong.

But I am not that toddler. At fifty-nine and a half, there is no one—no inadequate caregiver, no lax parent—to blame other than myself. No one. So if I fall into bed hours too late, or fail to cut back on my schedule, or neglect the little blinking "OVERDONE IT" signs lighting up my day, well, it is a lesson I sorely need to learn anew.

Let's hope the lesson sticks one of these times.