Thursday, September 29, 2011

From Russia With Love

Sweet. pretty Natale
My friend Natale was born in Siberia and came to America as a young widow with a teenaged son. She was nearly penniless and determined to put together enough money to pay off the mortgage on the house she’d shared with her beloved husband. She barely spoke English. In Russia Natale is a nurse. But, as happens with many emigres to this country, her credentials did not travel with her. She’d heard there were jobs to be had in Key West, Americans are paid far better than even the nurses in Russia, and so, based on information from Russians who’d come before her, she came to Key West. She worked in the bustling kitchen of a busy downtown restaurant. Her employer, an immigrant himself, was kind and supportive. She also worked as a caregiver. She worked many hours, usually seven days a week. She does still.
    It is difficult to imagine the challenges Natale faced seeking to find her place in the new world around her. She understood mere snatches of English, though she learned quickly and ultimately she learned well. Her son attended high school. He made friends. Nonetheless, it must have been harrowing to be not only a stranger in a strange land, but a 16-year-old stranger, with a dead father, and a mother who worked nearly every waking hour.
    I met Natale nearly a decade ago when we worked in the same place. We weren’t introduced. I did not know her name. I saw her infrequently, but when I did I was charmed by her ready smile. I was also impressed by her beauty, which is quite startling. I had no idea where she was from, what she did, or with whom she was associated. I did not know if she was married. I knew nothing, except that, via eyes and smiles, we were acquainted.
I took this pix of Natale for her sister back in Russia.
    Now Natale and I work side by side. With time, we have become good friends. She has honored me with her friendship. I know her story. And just about every day I spend with Natale, I learn something new from her about the art of living. And for me, a world-class know-it-all and poster child for Attention Deficit Disorder, that’s saying something. Natale is one of the people in the world for whom I can shut up and listen. I always come away richer for it.
     Natale is quite beautiful. She has long blond hair, blue eyes, pale skin and a Marilyn Monroe-esque figure. The overall impression of her looks is not va-va-voom, but rather wholesome. She is not photogenic.
    Incidentally, I have two very beautiful women friends. In both cases, that beauty simply does not translate into photograph imagery. I will attach photos of Natale here, but they won’t do her justice. And besides, what’s most beautiful about Natale is her spirit.
    One day, when she was 16 years old, Natale arrived home from school to find her grandmother there, with the news that her parents had both died in a car crash. She walked out the door. It was April, bitterly cold, and there really was no place to go. But she remembers walking fast, as if relief from the pain was somewhere she could get to with enough determination. There was no such place.
    She and her sister were raised by their grandmother. Then came love and marriage. A son. He was still quite young when her husband died of a heart attack. As a widow in Russia she struggled hard to make ends meet. Then, the move to America, where she really has found a better life. Natale is an American citizen now, and we are lucky to have her and her practical wisdom.
Barb and Natale, my great friends.
    One day a co-worker of ours talked about her plans to retire one day and move to a house in Georgia, where she planned to have a garden, grow potatoes, can tomatoes and bake her own bread. Natale listened. Someone said that our co-worker’s vision sounded truly wonderful.
    “I have had a garden and grown potatoes, and canned tomatoes and baked my own bread,” Natale said. “But now I am in America and I go to Publix and buy whatever I want, anytime I want it. I’m happier now because it’s much easier to go to the store.”
    Yesterday we ate lunch at our friend Barb’s house. Barb is from Kentucky, part Cherokee, warm and wise. She is also a great cook. Her home is rich with handmade quilts, beautiful rugs and homey, earthy furniture, like you find in a country home. Over lunch I told Barb that on my bucket list is a visit to Kentucky. In the car, on the way home, Natale told me that I didn’t need to travel to Kentucky. I only needed to drive up the road and visit Barb’s house.
    As for my illness, and the accompanying drama of my self-pity, Natale listens quietly to my musings on life and death with great patience. She does not tell me to not worry, that everything is going to be fine. She does not tell me stories of other people’s cancer. She just listens.
    More than once she has explained to me her survivor’s philosophy. When bad things happen she works hard to accept them as they are, put them behind her and move on. Simple, I know, but she manages to put her wisdom into action. That doesn’t mean she doesn’t grieve. But she’s learned to keep grief in its place. And she understands the power of humor.
    The other day the phone rang just when I was having a hot flash. It was Natale.
    “Natale!” I said. “I’m having a hot flash!”
    “Did you think it was your boyfriend calling?” she asked.
    I attribute it to her Russian aesthetic, but I have learned that Natale doesn’t do things half-heartedly or sloppily. If she folds a napkin, it will be beautifully folded. If she gives a gift, it will be a perfect gift.  When I had surgery for throat cancer she came to my house, bringing cream of wheat, a potted cactus, and a green house-gown. She cooked the farina and served it in the prettiest bowl in my kitchen. She taught me that the trick to lump-free farina is to stir it constantly, always in the same direction, as it cooks.
    Natale is married to a man who adores her. She has a three-legged dog, who speaks Russian—or so I hope, as Natale always talks to her in Russian.
The Kremlin in vivid technicolor.  Who knew Russia was so beautiful?
In elementary school in New York we practiced air raid drills. We huddled on the shiny, tiled halls, against the concrete walls, on our knees, with our heads wrapped in our arms, until the drill was over. This was the position we’d use when the Russians attacked. For a long time the word “Russia” evoked dark and frightening images in my mind’s eye. My husband says when he was a kid he thought of Russia as a foreboding place of guns and tanks and missiles. We marvel at how brainwashed we were back then.
    Natale has shown me beautiful photos of Moscow, where the subway stations are bright and beautiful and so clean you could eat off the floors. (“Because Russians spend a lot of time waiting for trains,” she’s explained.) Still, I dream of traveling to Russia, to see Moscow and the Kremlin for myself. But for this lifetime, my visit to Russia will be my friendship with Natale—a sweet trip indeed.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

I Can't Be Dying If I Look This Good

         Life should NOT be a journey to the grave
         with the intention of arriving safely
         in an attractive and well preserved body,
         But rather to skid in sideways,
         chocolate in one hand,
         wine in the other,
         body thoroughly used up,
         totally worn out and screaming
         "WOO HOO what a ride!"

     I gave up chocolate and candy two years ago when I had 37 blasts of radiation designed to destroy renegade cancer cells located between my ears and my shoulder blades. I’d read that radiation could wreck my teeth, and I really want to keep them, such as they are.
     As for wine, I gave that up, too, long ago. It stains the teeth, and so does chemotherapy. And truth to tell, drinking the stuff often led me into awkward situations in other people’s beds. It’s been over 25 years since I’ve touched a drop. Or awakened in a strange bedroom.       
Respectably attired a few Fests ago
     Nonetheless, this sober and sugar-free body of mine is nowhere near well preserved, and sometimes feels frighteningly close to being thoroughly used up and totally worn out. Am I getting close to the end of the road? If I am approaching the end, is it really the end, or a transition from one plane to another? Is it time to sign on for the Social Security check, or should I hold out and hang onto my job, for the health insurance? Should I cash in my IRA and head to Italy for a very grand finale? What if this is my last Fantasy Fest? And if it is, should I join the scary league of over 60’s who march, nearly naked, in unabashed joy through the streets of Key West? How will I know when it’s time to wrap things up?
    The PET scan. That’s how I’ll know. 
    The PET scan is the ultimate test for detecting new cancer after you’ve done everything you can to put the original cancer to rest. When you get a clean, or as my doctor calls it, “normal” PET, you are in remission. Get clear PET scans for five years and they call you cured.  That’s not to say that the cancer won’t rear it’s miserable and conniving head at some future date, but the scientists had to draw the line somewhere, right? So five years is the golden stop. I’ve got four to go.
    After my initial diagnosis, and the resulting chemo and radiation, I flunked my first PET scan. Which means I had more cancer, which was treated with surgery and four rounds of intensive chemotherapy. I finished in August, 2010. Three months later my PET was normal. Six months after that my PET was clean again. Now it’s time for another, and I’m a basket case.
    During the past two years, as cancer has kicked the stuffing out of me, not once, but twice(!!) people around me have been remarkably candid. Shortly after I was diagnosed, as the word got around, one of the bosses at work said to me “how can you be here?” like I should have been at home dithering in despair.
My favorite picture of my mom. I miss this woman.
    I have realized, during this cancer journey, that many of us do not truly grasp the concept of our own deaths. Yes, we will all die. Everyone you know will die. Some of them before you. Some after. Being born is akin to sailing out to sea on a ship destined to sink. It’s the other thing, besides taxes, that we middle class citizens can count on.
     Death, mine or anyone else's, but particularly mine, is so difficult to imagine. When my mother died, she took with her a memorable singing voice, her kooky sense of humor, her recipe for the world’s best lasagna and the words to every nursery rhyme ever written. Where is all of that good information now?
    Which reminds me of something insanely sweet my son said to me. I told him I wanted to film myself and leave behind a video for his children, my grandchildren, who are yet to be. Miguel told me that wasn’t necessary.
    “But I want them to know who I was,” I said.
    “I know who you are,” he said. “You’re in my heart, and you always will be. I’ll tell them who you were.”
    Being forced to recognize your looming mortality brings different responses from different people. A Key West friend has been diagnosed with bone cancer and refuses to even discuss the possibility of treatment. I envy his resolve. I don’t see myself ever choosing that route. I’ll do what the doctors tell me to do. I like it here on Planet Earth.
    The other day, at the Salvation Army store, I found a pair of Donna Karan jeans, size 8 and a glove-perfect fit.  Five more pounds and they’ll be history, but for now, they’re sweet indeed. My husband thinks so, too.
    “I think we should go to New York for a week,” I told him, “just to show off my ass in these jeans.”
    Good PET. Bad PET. Today I’m booking flights. Cause today, it doesn’t matter.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Mosquitos and Roach Clips

Young Rocky country cruising in one of his many very cool vehicles
When I was a kid, the star of my family was my little brother Rocky, a fearless and funny kid, with an unerring eye for the absurd. In spite of the difference in our ages, I was seven years older, we got along famously. When our adult cousin Maryanne told her toddler son Wayne to pull up his sagging pants, Wayne tugged at his pants, muttering “I are. I are,” while Rocky and I rolled on the floor laughing hysterically.
Rocky today
     Back in those days, the big kids in the family cared for the little kids while the parents worked. For many summers I was Rocky’s babysitter.  Which meant that Rocky did what I did, age appropriate or not. We lived on a lake, and spent just about every day at the dock in front of our house, swimming with neighborhood kids. One day Rocky and I decided to swim across the lake. Rocky was almost five years old. The lake was not wide, and Rocky was a great swimmer. I thought it was very cool that Rocky and I could swim across the lake and back. Wow! That night at the dinner table I proudly told my parents what Rocky and I had done that day. My mother dropped her fork. As it clattered into her plate she said “You did what with your 5-year-old brother?” I said it again, unsure this time, suddenly sensing the scene turning dark. “Rocky and I swam across the lake. And back!”  Suddenly I was in deep trouble, a sadly familiar place for Rocky and me in those days.
    One fall, in honor of football season, a gas station handed out plastic football helmets to the kids of parents who filled up their tanks with gas. Rocky got a helmet, of course, and immediately set out to test its strength. He donned his helmet, then ran, as hard and fast as he could, head down, into the side of the house. My mother heard the crash and ran outside to find Rocky, spread eagle, knocked out cold, in the autumn leaves. That helmet wasn’t so great, he said, when he regained consciousness. And I was thankful that the crash had occurred on Mom’s watch, and not mine.
Michael, Rocky and me in Nova Scotia one bright summer day
    I had a friend back then, who also lived on the lake. Janet would ask “what is Rocky up to? He’s such a funny little guy.” And I would entertain her with stories of Rocky’s latest antics. We were in a contest to see whose little brother could do the craziest thing.
   Janet’s own little brother once jumped into the washing machine, while it was going, and broke his leg. While he recovered, Janet’s mother would have us come to their house after school to play with him, as much as that was possible—it was like trying to get a kitten to stay put—as he languished for weeks on the couch in a massive cast. Rocky’s casts, and he had plenty through the years, never rendered him immobile. Even a broken leg and cast did not keep him from riding his motor bike around the yard or from hiking into the woods, on his trusty crutches.
    Today’s parents keep a much better eye on their kids. Kids don’t play outdoors, unsupervised, for hours on end, and they learn to read before they learn to swim.  They are far worldlier than we were, and suffer way fewer broken bones. But they are still funny.
    One early summer evening, my baby grandson watched as his father tilled the garden patch.
John and Will catch a fish
    “Will,” his father said, “do you remember last summer when we had a garden here and we grew cucumbers and tomatoes?”
    Yes, he did, Will said.
    “And do you remember all the other good food we raised here in our garden?”   
    Again, Will remembered.
John and Will
    “Will, what would you like to grow in our garden this year?” his father asked.
    “Cake,” Will answered.
    The same kid, now 8, went to chess camp this summer. He came home, sat down with his father to a game, and beat him in three moves. Later that night, at the dinner table, Will’s little brother John, 5, announced that when he grows up he plans to be a fireman. His parents nodded their approval and then asked Will what he wanted to be when he grows up.
    “A professional football player,” Will said. “What would you want your son to be? A big star who brings home the bacon, or a guy who gets cats out of trees?”
John & Will with their amused parents
    John, 5 now, and, like his brother Will about as smart as a little kid can be, started a new school this week. On day two of his school career John ran into trouble for talking at a time when he was supposed to be being quiet, and for not taking a rest at nap time. When his mother asked him about his misdeeds, John reasoned them away. As for talking on line—he was “only telling a couple of knock-knock jokes.” And at naptime, “the teacher wouldn’t even let me get a book.”
    My friend Stephanie, who lives up the Keys, told me this about her little boy.
    “The mosquito truck is coming by,” Stephanie said.
    “Oh Mom,” he said, with a heavy sigh, “don’t we have enough mosquitos yet?”
    A little Key West kid, around 5, whose parents shall remain unnamed, had to have stitches. The doctor patiently explained each step of the procedure, and the kid did well. A week later, he was returned to the doctor’s office for the removal of the stitches. Just like before, the doctor patiently explained to the little guy what would happen next.
    “This is what I'm going to use this to remove those stitches,” the doctor said, holding up a shiny, silver hemostat.
    “A roach clip?” the kid gasped.

 A new funny kid story: Grandson John, 5, is a genius at remembering maps, states and capitals. You have to know that to understand why Michael and I were howling with laughter when this arrived from Michael's daughter Meredith. 

Meredith:  John, WHAT is that on the couch?

John:  I don't know.

Meredith: You are the only one in here. What is that on the couch?

John:  Idaho.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Letting Go

Dr. Siddhartha Venkatappa, Oncologist
Yesterday Key West said goodbye to our two-day-a-week oncologist, Dr. Siddhartha Venkatappa (Dr. V), who will return, full-time, to his practice in Miami. Not to worry, people. The office will stay in its same location on the Boulevard, same wonderful staff, with a new oncologist taking over. We will not be without a cancer doc.
    After all these years, actually most of my life, in quirky, come-and-go Key West, it still makes me sad when a person or a place that has become a fixture in our community, leaves. I’m sure Dr. V’s wife and children are happy that he’ll be home more often. His partners in Miami will be pleased, too, to have another doctor to share patients every day of the week. But for those of us whose relationship with Dr. V is based on the most frightening and life-altering event life can offer, a deadly cancer, the connection is strangely intimate. And thus, important.       
    Dr. V has seen me taken down by chemotherapy to a pitiful, bald scarecrow. He has seen me choking on my own tears, and kindly waited for me to regain my composure. He has told me that he has no idea of how long my remission from cancer will hold. Of course no one does, but at least Dr. V has the honesty to say it to me, out loud, and to stand by that diagnosis a whole year down the road from my last cancer treatment. I appreciate knowing that truth, brutal though it sometimes feels.
    Through the two years we’ve known each other, we’ve made a few adjustments in how we communicate during in our brief encounters. For example, the first time I went to him as a patient, Dr. V referred several times to “the man upstairs,” and I had to remind him that I was there for medical treatment, not faith healing. There has been no more talk of the man upstairs.
Brother Rocky and me, August, 2010.   Rocky told me that when he left Key West that day he believed he would never see me again. Two days later our Mom died.
    I have learned that Dr. V will carefully consider each and every question I put to him, and respond as if writing the answer to an essay question, listing information and building a case for his bottom line.  One day, after one of his patients, someone I knew,  died unexpectedly when their cancer took a sneaky and vicious turn, I asked Dr. V “Aren’t you frightened by this cruel disease of cancer?” and he replied “Absolutely not! If I was intimidated by cancer I certainly wouldn’t have chosen to become an oncologist.”    
    I have heard that many of Dr. V’s siblings back in India are lawyers and that he is the first doctor in the family. Dr. V has told me that his was an arranged marriage and that by the time he actually met his wife, they were engaged to be married. Of course the Internet has taken away much of the mystery of the arranged marriage, he said. But isn’t it nice to imagine starting out a relationship with a grown up person who, like you, is seeking marriage and a family? So neat and scientific. Like oncology. You almost envy it. It’s so hard here in America finding The One.
    Once I saw Dr. V in the airport. He was deep in conversation with another guy, but I politely requested his attention for a moment, to explain to him how baffled and frightened we were about what we’d heard was going on with a loved one. I know this is shamefully akin to asking a doctor at a cocktail party to examine a mole on your foot—but like I said, there is an intimacy between the cancer patient and the cancer doctor that, in my mind, cancels out self-consciousness. My son and I were headed to the hospital bed of his suddenly very sick father. Dr V left his seat to come to where my very distraught son was sitting and explained to Miguel and me what would probably happen. And he was right. What he told us turned out to be pretty much what happened to Miguel’s dad—who is fine today, just like Dr. V said he probably would be.
Miguel and me (in a wig), November 2010
    Yesterday I told Dr V of a dream I’d had many years ago, before I came to Key West. In it, I was told that I would have a long, happy life and then die of leukemia. Dr. V told me about Freud’s theory of dreams, which he happens to be reading currently. He says dreams are bits and pieces of events from the past few days or weeks, aligned by the imagination, and arranged into a story that makes sense to the dreamer. He suggested that dreams don't actually predict the future, or even mean that much.
      He added that if I did get leukemia due to changes in my bone marrow brought about by the chemotherapy and radiation treatments, it would happen ten to fifteen years from now. And if that happened, if I were to live that long, my treatment would be considered to be very, very successful indeed. And dying of leukemia, he added, is really not a terrible death.
    Last night I dreamed I was jogging on the beach and then couldn’t find my way home to my downtown neighborhood. As I wandered, I found myself at the (defunct) Dennis Pharmacy Luncheonette, talking to an old woman, dead and gone now, who worked there long ago. I asked her to direct me to my house on Truman Avenue, and she pointed, saying, “right over there.” But no road ever took me home. I woke up, thinking Freud was so wrong. Dreams so do mean something.