Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Long and Winding Road

It’s been almost one year since I finished my fourth round of chemotherapy. Since then I’ve been feeling well. My test results are all good. Last fall, I went back to work. I even feel great at work. Clicking-my-heels-great. Staying-up-all-night-barking-at-the-full-moon-great. On December 31, 2010 I had my feeding tube removed. Happy New Year!  No more liquid diet (we called it “tube food”) for me. Back to eating solid food. My hair is chemo curly and my eyes are still blue. My husband still loves me like he used to do. I am cancer-free. And the best thing that any doctor can tell you about cancer is this: the further away you get from cancer, the closer you get to being done with it. So, I’m well on my way.
    Then I got this belly ache. In the past two months it’s been a regular event. Nothing truly awful, just a little belly ache that comes and goes. And since things seemed to be moving along more or less as well as they ever did, I figured I was all right. I didn’t worry. I just walked around saying “I have a belly ache.” Denial is not a river in Egypt, folks.
    My husband says that when old people say to each other “how’s it going?” they are really asking “are your bowels moving regularly?” When I was a kid whenever somebody didn’t feel well my Nova Scotian grandmother would ask “have you moved your bowels today?” and if you hadn’t, you were ordered to report to the bathroom and not come out until this movement had been achieved. We kids would gigglingly oblige, tickled by her very proper choice of words, and half crazy with the fear of having the dreaded enema, which was generally applied while brothers, sisters, cousins, aunts and uncles waited for news just beyond the bathroom door. Oh, the shame. No wonder I was in denial.
Depression-era photo of Gramma and her daughters, Mom (R) and Aunt Phyllis. The economy may have been sluggish, but not their colons, by God. Gramma saw to that.
    No one likes to hear they’re full of crap. When your own doctor tells you that, right to your face, it really hurts. It hurts almost as much as being full of crap, which hurts really bad. If you are one of those people who says “please, I’m eating!” when those of us in the medical field begin discussing the darker side of human physiology gone awry, this is the time for you to butt out. No pun intended. 
    As it turned out my colon was on strike, backed up so badly that my stomach wasn’t even emptying any more. The emergency room tests showed a sad and painful truth. Even a couple of shots of something really strong for pain didn’t eliminate the pain from my lack of elimination. The situation had gone on for far too long, but like I said, feeling so good in so many ways had trumped that little old belly pain for quite a while. My stomach was like a little voice moaning softly into the darkness: “what about me?” it growled. “what about how I feel?” I was ignoring that voice. Having no appetite was a good thing, too, as I’ve grown very fond of my favorite 1969-era jeans. Quit your growling, flat stomach!
The beautiful and deadly croton plant grows right here in Key West. I wonder if they have one behind the hospital emergency room? 
    My doctor finally told me, as I shivered on the rock-hard gurney in the ER, that my stomach was the size of a football. It should be the size of a baseball, at most. My daughter Susan wants fruit analogies always. So I told her that my stomach was the size of a large papaya when it should be the size of a small mango.
Croton seeds contain oil from which a potent laxative is made. Remember in John Steinbeck's East of Eden when Kate slowly poisoned Faye, the owner of the whorehouse? She used croton oil. Way too much of a good thing. Ugh. Imagine being Ex-Laxed to death . . .
    I once asked a surgeon what thing he did to his patients that he dreaded most. The naso-gastric tube, he quickly answered. The tube threads down through a nostril and into the esophagus and then down to the stomach. The tube is hooked on to a suction machine which empties the contents of the stomach with great efficiency. You’ve heard of having your stomach pumped? That’s what happened to me the other night. Like most people, the thought of the nose-hose, as the set-up is slangily referred to by medical personnel, is horrifying, about the worst atrocity imaginable. But guess what? It wasn’t that bad. True, it isn’t nice. Yes, it feels weird as hell. You should never underestimate the power of modern sedating drugs to render you remarkably tolerant to the poking probes of tubes sliding into places the good Lord never intended for them to go. Cancer survivors know this.
    It takes about an hour to empty the contents of one football-sized stomach. Then they replace all that sludge with a laxative, right down the same handy tube. The result of that laxative is a most impressive purge, the details of which I will spare you. The next morning I awakened nose-hose free, clean and warm in my cozy bed, with vaguely disgusting memories of an awfully crappy night.
    Two things you should take from my story. One: eat your fiber. Try for 25 grams a day. It ain’t as easy as you think. Look on labels. I thought a bowl of oatmeal every morning was all I needed to keep my fiber quotient up. Hell no. You need a whole lot more fiber than that. Like most parts of the human body, you can get away with abusing your colon for many, many years. But when your very tolerant body can take the abuse no longer, it rebels with pain. And that means you’re in trouble. Don’t ignore pain. It means something. Especially when it goes on and on and on. For weeks. Or months. It means you need to find out what’s wrong.
    Second: once again I have witnessed firsthand that the most merciful people on this planet are nurses and nurses assistants. In the past two years I have been through some of the most distasteful procedures imaginable, and at every event, there was a nurse, or a team of nurses and assistants, urging me through the rough patches, assuring me of my ability to cope, ignoring the distasteful by-products of my ever more tenacious grasp on life as this and all human bodies grow weary of putting up with our abuse. If you’re digging your trip on this long and winding road, don’t forget the care and maintenance of your vehicle.
    Happy trails to you.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Love on Two Wheels

Mario Sanchez's 1964 painted wood-carving: Colorful Conchtown. Notice the bike is unlocked.
I have a friend who moved to Key West based on her one-time experience, during a visit to the island several years ago, of riding a bicycle to the Tennessee Williams Fine Arts Center to see a performance by the Key West Symphony Orchestra: recreation and culture all together on one starry night. Life simply doesn’t get any better than that, she decided, and set her sights on a life in Paradise.
     Long before I set foot in Key West, I heard stories about the place from Ft. Lauderdale neighbors, a hard-drinking shrimper and his equally hard-drinking girlfriend. They described the rough and tumble island of Key West where a sense of community prevailed. For example, a bicycle belonged to whoever wore it between their legs at the moment. If there was a bicycle leaning against a pole, untethered, and a person drunk and tired happened by, that bike had a new owner. At least temporarily. To my own hippie-basted consciousness, that sounded reasonable. Love the one you’re with. I was interested in that kind of freedom. The promise of the endless party caught my attention, too. So, when I got the chance, I took it. I came to Key West, and found the place to be everything—and more—those shrimpers had promised.  
When we owned the streets.
    You really cannot talk about Key West life without discussing the bicycle. The bicycle is elemental to the island experience, essential to the island process, deeply rooted in island legend and lore. I did not steal my first bicycle. I bought it, from a dancer at the Esquire Lounge who’d upgraded her ride to her new boyfriend’s moped. I re-connected with my inner child on that bike, riding for hours around and around the labyrinth of Old Town streets. I wore a bikini and enjoyed my newfound breezy freedom as well as the appreciative looks and comments of my fellows on the road.
    I married a man with a red bike, and together we biked to the M&M Coffee stand every morning for breakfast, and then on to the beach, or just around and around. It seemed to me then, as I watched his long body leaning languidly into each turn, that on a bike he was no longer a man, but a fish, undulating gracefully through the rippling sunlight, sleek and beautiful as a shark. We spawned, that man and I, and our baby boy loved being our passenger in his little bicycle seat. Often he fell asleep back there, and I reached one hand back to hold his nodding head, steering us home with the other. 
Sabrina and Baby Miguel on the bike she bought for me when mine was stolen.
    We went though a few bikes back then. My girlfriend came by and asked to borrow my bike so that she could show up for a downtown date fresh and not sweaty from walking. I gave her the bike and the lock, making her promise to lock up before diving into the night’s festivities. She vowed to lock. But somewhere along the way, she was distracted from her mission of returning my bike to me, and the following day she showed up on my doorstep, hungover and apologetic.
    My brother-in-law borrowed my husband’s red bike, and lost it under similar circumstances. Who remembers the realities of chains and locks when deep in the thrall of partying in Paradise? The red bike was gone. I was working at the Miami Herald where a freelance writer showed up every day on a red bike very much like the one lost by my brother-in-law. I didn’t expect he would be willing to part with such a treasure, but I offered to buy it. He sold it to me for $25 and a big smile. My husband was thrilled. It was almost exactly the same as his stolen red bike . . .
I'm not quite ready for the Tricycle. But I like it.
    Lately, as I grow older and less slippery in the joints, I’ve considered a tricycle. I envision a broad seat, a bohemian display of plastic flowers in the basket, and myself pushing the pedals real slow, moving through the streets like a lazy snail. But when I am driving my car, and come upon such a vision, I find myself thinking “poor old thing.”        
    The woman who once owned the shop “Among the Ruins,” retired now, rides her bicycle though the streets of Key West, garbed in chic clothes and always a jaunty hat. My Nova Scotia neighbor Enid, rides her bike in a Tour de France-inspired outfit, and a helmet. She’s 84 years old and fit as a fiddle.
    So no, I won’t succumb to the tricycle just yet. But we don’t ride our bicycles anymore, either. The traffic is too dense. It’s too scary. And riding on a busy sidewalk, yelling ahead to pedestrians to move aside, goes so appallingly against the spirit of the thing. I can’t do it.
Bicycle with Baggage. Sometimes a whole life story can be told by a bike.
    My baby Conch, now a man, uses his bike almost exclusively. He rides without a helmet, and without the slow and sinuous grace of his father. He drives fast and purposefully. When I fear for his safety I remind myself of his ancestry, deeply rooted in a society of free bicycles.  He is in a bigger hurry than his father, or anyone, ever was back in the day. Nowadays, everyone is in a hurry. 
    Today our bicycles sit motionless on the front porch, posing in the tropical sun for tourists’ cameras, tethered securely, mostly retired, waiting and waiting to be taken for a ride around and around the island.

Thursday, June 2, 2011


The Beatles were scheduled to play at the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Florida, in September, 1964. Florida was still segregated at that time. The Beatles refused to play anywhere that was segregated so the venue was desegregated for the concert. But the arrival of Hurricane Dora cancelled the concert and sent the Beatles to Key West to wait out the storm.  
Lately people have been luring me into conversations about religion -- as in why their faith is the true faith and someone else's is not. Frankly, the subject leaves me queasy. Personal beliefs about good and evil and the meaning of life are very deeply personal after all. So I say “my mother always told me a lady does not discuss religion or politics.” I’m reluctant to discuss the dynamics of my own religion, a faith based on the power of creative recycling that we practitioners call Recyclism. I have no desire to recruit; no Recyclist does. Recyclism is something one finds on their own. It’s a private thing. Lately, it seems, people are more hungry than ever to lay their religious cards on the table, to announce their goodness, renounce evil, and to praise God. This patting of one’s own morally superior back is amusing. As a follower of Recyclism, I respect the soul’s yearning for a spiritual foothold. It is only through seeking, after all, that we ultimately find our way. But please, let me eat my lunch in peace.
    A fundamental belief of Recyclism is reincarnation, but our understanding of the way to rebirth is what separates our creed from others. We believe that spirits are energies that cannot be created or destroyed. The spirit, on its infinite journey through space and time, takes a variety of forms, enabling it to visit a number of planets and universes. For the visit to Planet Earth, for example, our space suits are human bodies. On this planet, as on all others we visit, our space suits are destined to become obsolete, no matter how sincere our wish for it to be otherwise. We die. Our time is very limited!  The human body is particularly frail and subject to a vast number of maladies. Being born is like sailing out to sea on a ship destined to sink. On this planet scientists and technologists work madly at outsmarting nature, their goal being what? Eternal life in these flimsy space suits? We Recyclists shudder at the thought. 
    Recyclism believes it is counter-productive to live in the same house for too long, or work the same job for too long, or even follow the same TV viewing schedule for too long. We encourage change, movement, variety and exposure to the greatest number of experiences and adventures. We believe there is nothing new under the sun, only new arrangements of what already exists, and new ways of viewing the same wisdom and truths. Our hope is that salvation will come from accepting life on life’s terms, and from acknowledging that everything in this universe, and every other we suspect, is temporary. Here today. Gone tomorrow. Our ultimate goal is to be free of the space suit, on an eternal space walk as it were, cruising with God, or the Gods who have already learned to Let Go. But that takes a long, long time—believe it or not, thousands of lifetimes!
The Beatles stayed at the Key Wester motel. Water from the motel
pool was gathered into tiny bottles and sold for $2 as "genuine
Beatle water." A boy from Key West High School broke into their room
and stole a Beatles jacket and pants. He was quickly busted when he
wore his Beatle clothes to school the following day.
    Perhaps Recyclist George Harrison expresses it best in his song, "My Sweet Lord," when he says: “I really want to see you. I really want to be with you. I really want to know you, Lord, but it takes so long my Lord.”  The song “Imagine” by John Lennon is, of course, our favorite anthem to enlightenment. Yes, all the Beatles are Recyclists, a little known fact.
   We believe it takes thousands and thousands of lifetimes, doing the same things again and again, to finally recognize ourselves for exactly what we truly are: Recycled versions of each other, different, but the same.  A feature of Recyclism is our belief that intellect, talent and genius is recycled from one incarnation to the next, but not necessarily into the same package every time. When the spirit is free of the space suit, or body, it goes into a debriefing mode, where, for a while, it exists as pure spirit, no meat. No Recyclist knows how long this period lasts. No one has come back to say. Naturally this is our goal, to walk with the Gods. But before that can happen, we believe the disembodied spirit is dumped into a sort of spirit hopper, a cosmic blender if you will, the “frappe” button pushed by the finger of God. (Yes, we believe in God. We don’t not believe in anything. Who are we to judge?)  And then, those spirits, the saints and sinners, the good and the evil, the dark ones and the light, are disassembled and reassembled into new material, newly arranged souls, to be fitted with new space suits and sent to whatever place they will go to learn their next lessons. That is . . . the same lessons. This process goes on every day, has gone on and will go on. And so we meet the array of personalities who travel with us and beside us through whatever strange realm in which we find ourselves. All of us different. All of us the same. You know how it goes: you meet someone new and after ten minutes you feel as if you've known them forever. You have! You know all of us. Everybody knows everyone.
Today you can sip a cocktail and eat a snack where the Beatles once slept at the Abbey Road Snack Shack at Hyatt Windward Pointe Resort, which was once the Key Wester.  The massive rehab of the property changed everything but this historical building.
    As for our moral values, they are the same as every great religion: do unto others as you would have done onto you. Love thy neighbor as you love thyself. The Ten Commandments make good sense to us, as do the twelve steps and traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous. To Recyclists, the message is the same: Be Nice. Maybe you’ve seen our bumper stickers.
    We don’t discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation or color or age, mere features of the space suit and ultimately of no consequence. We oppose and fear discrimination and cruelty, but not much else. We like music and dancing, and all the arts. We’re into expressing ourselves.
    Our Higher Power is the same as yours. We believe in everything -- astrology, palmistry, tarot cards, extra sensory perception and deja vous.  Who are we to deny the truth of any of these things? We believe in seeking the high road, the higher calling, and the day when all our spirits will live as one.
    Like I said, we don’t do heavy recruiting But if you’re interested, I’ll tell you where you’re most likely to bump into Recyclists. We’re usually the ones laughing, or smiling, or involved in something fun. We love fun. We shop in thrift shops and prefer maintaining long friendships to darting about in search of newer, flashier ones. We prefer the mountains or the sea to the cities. We believe in giving peace a chance. We work at not taking this life, or any other life, too seriously -- why should we? We’ll all be leaving soon. That’s what Recyclism says. Imagine . . .