Friday, July 27, 2012

What, Me Worry?

This week the hilariously funny man Tom Davis, half of the Saturday Night Live writing team of Franken and Davis, died of throat cancer. He was diagnosed around the same time I was. He fought the good fight, but ended up succumbing to a fatal tumor that lodged in the bones of his spine and pelvis. I’ve been told that my throat cancer, currently in happy remission, might reappear in my lungs, or liver, but no one said anything about tumors down there.
Franken and Davis, insanely funny guys. “I wake up in the morning, delighted to be waking up, read, write, feed the birds, watch sports on TV, accepting the fact that in the foreseeable future I will be a dead person,” Davis wrote. “I want to remind you that dead people are people too.”
    Robin Roberts of Good Morning America fought her own cancer battle five or so years ago, only to learn recently the chemo treatments that arrested her breast cancer had planted the seeds for a new version, this time in her bone marrow. So she’s back in Cancer Land. I know you can recall people in your life who’ve gone in and out of Cancer Land a few times. It’s not unusual to hear of warriors with multiple tours in Cancer Land. Like my friend Dr. Sandy Shultz once told me: cancer is an adversary every bit as cunning as Al Qaeda. When you understand that, you gain the ability to sit back and relax. It really does no good to imagine what might or might not happen next. And even if nothing at all untoward happens cancerwise, there’s still the specter of old age and, inevitable death, the final chapter on everyone’s horizon.

    My husband Michael visited Cancer Land nearly fifteen years ago. All these years later he enjoys a cozy and practical relationship with the reality of death. This is good for me, the recently reprieved, the tentatively hopeful. Such intelligent rationale and healthy fatalism is ultimately comforting.

    Last Sunday, a mostly gray day punctuated with angry squalls of rain, thunder and lightning, Michael noticed a break in the weather around 5 p.m. and suggested a walk on the wide, breezy promenade at Smathers Beach. I picked my head up out of the book I’d been reading, and told him I was afraid of being struck by lightning. So, no.

     “Oh don’t worry about that,” he said. “If that happened you’d never even know it. And it wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing. Think of all the misery you might miss. You’d avoid the risk dying a lingering death of cancer or of drying up of old age.”

    I came out from under my quilt, sneakered up and followed him out the door. By the time we arrived at the beach I sort of hoped I would be struck by lightning. What a great line for my obituary!

Who would notice this?
    My old friend Lois Kline celebrated her surrender to cancer with a huge party for family and fans. She was 86 years old. Lois and I shared a friendship of the sort that transcends time and space. We bumped into each other every two or three years. It never mattered how much time or circumstance separated us between visits. We had rapport. Lois had rapport with life. She was a fan of my writing, and she always let me know. I was a fan of her joie de vive. She was the kind of woman you call “real.” A few weeks after her big party she died. Her obituary, which she wrote, appeared in the paper. It made you feel happy to read that obituary. It also made you wonder about yourself: have I done everything I wanted to do with this brief appearance on Earth?

Two years down the road from Cancer Land. (Thanks, Alyson, for the happy picture,)
    The last time I saw Lois, just a few months ago, we chatted merrily, as we have dozens of times before, and she mentioned she’d been terribly sick with gall bladder disease. I now surmise it was the prologue to the pancreatic cancer that took her life shortly after that. On that day, she did not know she was terminally ill. Nonetheless, said she was thankful to have lived for 86 years. She said being old was rough. She said she had begun to be curious and ready for what comes next. After a few minutes Lois paused for a beat or two and then, cocked her head to the side and demanded: “What in the world happened to your neck, woman?”

    She’d apparently not heard of my visit to Cancer Land. Surgery on my neck has left me somewhat rearranged. Cancer treatment, after all, is always a deal with the devil. So I’m not the same as I used to be, but who is? In any event, since that surgery, husband, family, friends, and coworkers have all assured me my scar and tissue deficit is barely noticeable, unremarkable, and certainly no one meeting me for the first time would suspect from my appearance that any bad thing had ever befallen me. But Lois, with the spirit of a soaring eagle, and the keen eyes to match, noticed. I laughed out loud. Thank you, Lois, for your unerring honesty. And thanks for acknowledging those hard-won battle scars. Thanks for reminding me to live till I can't.
Miguel Perez and his grandfather, Miguel Perez.

    My ex-father-in-law is absurdly healthy, also is in his mid-80’s. He doesn’t do much anymore. He lives quietly, and often consults his doctors with health issues that have so far turned out to be not life-threatening. Still, his patience is wearing thin.
    “How’s your life going, Grampa,” my son, his grandson, might ask him.
    “It’s taking forever!” Grampa always answers.

    One of these days I’m going to write myself a brilliant obituary. It will be long, and probably expensive, because the Key West Citizen charges by the inch for obituaries. But that bill won’t be my problem. And right there, you’ve got something else to like about being dead!

Monday, July 16, 2012

Hemingway Reconsidered

Antonio Gattorno, a Cuban artist, sketched Hemingway in 1934
When it comes to Hemingway it seems we just can’t get enough.  I have been this way forever, more caught up in the Hemingway legend and lore than that of any other writer. And I am not alone in this.  Every day of the week we bump into pedestrian tourists from every corner of the world en route to the Hemingway House and Museum, Key West’s number one tourist attraction, located just around the corner. When I moved into this house, I hopefully envisioned that a molecule or two of Hemingway’s genius might survive in the air I breathed, or that his magnificent mojo might linger on the lazy tradewinds buffeting our neighborhood just below the Key West Lighthouse.

    Hemingway’s star burns brightly fifty years after he shot himself to death while his wife Mary slept. He was 61 years old and burned out, emotionally, mentally, and physically. He was done with this life and he apparently knew it, not surprising to imagine in a writer described by his biographers as being self-absorbed and delicately strung. Controlling, too. Hemingway began calling the shots long before that final, fatal one.

    It is amazing to consider how Hemingway single mindedly paved the way to his fame and fortune, dependent for years on funds provided by his wives’ trusts and their willingness to keep his path cleared of impediments like pesky journalism jobs, mortgage payments, unwanted pregnancies, crying babies, and histrionic reactions to his outrageously selfish nature. They believed in him and he believed in him and he made it work — with their supremely significant support.

    In spite of all the bravado associated with Hemingway in Paris, in Spain, in Africa, and at sea, the man was actually rather clumsy, the books say. He adored truly brave men who fought bulls and won boxing matches. Those were his heroes. But he met his physical challenges in the wild armed with a gun or a fast boat, and a sturdy rod and reel or a hefty pair of boxing gloves. He had deep contempt for F. Scott Fitzgerald, a great writer, because he was unmannishly incapable of holding his liquor. He was jealous of others' success, friends or not. He discouraged his wives from having interests or deep friendships outside of the marriage. His first wife Hadley, whose legacy lived on in the lovely, high cheek-boned beauty of her granddaughters Margeaux and Mariel Hemingway, was an accomplished pianist. But when Mrs. Hemingway scheduled a concert in Paris, her husband didn’t show up. Hadley lost her nerve. The concert never happened and Hadley’s great talent goes largely unrecognized. Did you know?

    Hemingway kept track of Hadley’s periods in a little notebook he carried in his pocket. When her period was late, he despaired. Babies were a bother in any number of ways — the division of their mother’s affections primarily, and then, it was difficult to travel with them. Sadly, Hemingway’s three children all spent much of their childhoods without the presence of their famous father, often with caretakers while their parents traveled for months at a time. Remember the story “Hills Like White Elephants”? Well it ain’t just about a couple having a conversation over a beer at a train station. Just ask the critics.

     Hemingway’s second wife, whose family purchased for her as a wedding gift the house that is today Key West’s Hemingway House, was a writer. Her writing career ended on the day she married Hemingway. Pauline was pretty and fashionable and modern. Hadley was earthy and substantial. With single mindedness of purpose, somewhat akin to Hemingway’s blind dedication to his talent, Pauline cunningly befriended Hadley, and then took Hemingway from her, setting aside her strict Catholic scruples (she never missed Sunday mass) because she just couldn’t help herself. Hemingway, whose vanity was a flimsy and pliable thing, rued the theft till the day he died, writing often of Hadley’s feminine perfection and ultimately holding Pauline in contempt.

     Then came Martha Gellhorn, who calculatedly posed herself on a bar stool at Key West’s Sloppy Joe’s Bar one day in 1936. She planned on knowing Hemingway, who was by then well-published and much publicized. He was also growing restless with life on Whitehead Street, beneath the lighthouse. The address of the grand house of Hemingway, far more splendid than any other in the neighborhood then and now, was listed as a tourist attraction in a 1935 guidebook published by the city. It was not unusual after that for his curious fans to wander into the Hemingway’s yard. Meanwhile, Pauline was growing weary of keeping the children quiet and their menagerie of pets fed and watered while Hemingway holed up in his studio pursuing his art by day, patronizing downtown bars by night. Martha Gellhorn was hot, more attractive than Hadley or Pauline, younger, and a fine writer. She was accomplished, too, as a war correspondent. Always up for a catastrophic scene, Hemingway got himself hired as a correspondent and followed Gellhorn into the Spanish Civil War. Imagine the excitement of those times for wartime writers — living in hotels, ducking bombs, never knowing if the next rendezvous would be their last. The strange aphrodisia of wartime cemented their relationship, and, only weeks after divorcing Pauline, Hemingway married Martha. After the war they settled on a farm in Cuba, and entertained other notable personalities of the day. But it was not a happy marriage. Hemingway was growing grizzly and fat, while Gellhorn was reaching her brilliant and long-legged professional stride. They parted with animosity, and Gellhorn later famously wrote that after the wartime dust had settled, she recognized Hemingway as a brute and a lousy lay to boot.

    Hemingway’s last wife, also a writer, was Mary Welsh. They met just as his and Martha’s marriage was collapsing, and on their third date, Hemingway proposed. Mary was married to another, but wasted no time in freeing herself up for Hemingway, whose need for a woman to love him and provide him with unwavering support, was deep and profound. Mary stood by her man as he clamored into the sloppiest days of his life. He began to frequently injure himself in ways both mundane and dramatic. There were burns from drunken falls into campfires, plane crashes, gashes and infections. His liver was failing. His blood pressure was up. He suffered diabetes. He endured depression. The hostility he'd kept mostly covert for so many years became blaringly obvious. He was noticeably abusive to his wife.

    And in the middle of all that, with the ever-faithful and long-suffering Mary responsive to his every beck and call, he wrote the novel that put him squarely on the world’s literary map forever. It was The Old Man and the Sea. He wrote it in a blast of clarity, in a kind of fever, and knew, as he wrote, that it was his finest work, that he had reached the sure pinnacle of his success. And as scalers of the highest peaks know, getting down the mountain is often far more arduous than the climb to the top.  And so it was for Hemingway.

    The Old Man and the Sea changed me. It opened my 14-year-old eyes to the possibility of words telling so much more than just a story, blowing the lid off my conscripted little world. I wrote an English paper on the book. I got it! And the teacher got it that I got it and gave me a big fat A Plus. I watched the same thing happen to my son when he read Hemingway’s greatest hit. He told me he wanted a tattoo in homage to Hemingway. I discouraged him. I told him that although Hemingway’s work was great, Hemingway the man had been a creep and certainly no one to be emulated.

    Many years ago when a cherished hero of my childhood came to Key West to participate in the Hemingway Look-Alike contest, I was horrified to witness the high esteem in which he held Hemingway, the man. I felt it was a sacrilege that he, who truly was a magnificent and even noble man, was interested in aligning himself with the fat, white-haired, bearded middle-aged Hemingway wannabes who assembled on the stage of Sloppy Joe’s bar to be judged in a competition that had absolutely nothing to do with art.  It was a celebration of the middle-aged Hemingway, a man who, in one way or another, had trashed the lives of just about every person he’d met, man, woman or child.
What’s to celebrate about that? I wrote a newspaper column at the time, and in it I ridiculed him for his folly. His family has held me in contempt ever since. But before he died, he forgave me. Because he was a noble man.

    Now that I am older, older in fact than Hemingway when he died, I can sometimes consider the Hemingway phenomenon in a different light. I understand that Ernest Hemingway was driven to create, to strive for greatness, to live forever, no matter the cost. And though it is true he was not a very nice guy, he inspired us well beyond nicely. He inspired us spectacularly. I envy him his dedication, his unshakable faith in his talent.  Every July Key West celebrates Hemingway with running races, arm wrestling, a look-alike contest, fishing tourneys, walking tours, trivia contests, and lots and lots of drinks. Hemingway lives on, long after the blood and bones of him are dust, he endures, because he lived his life as an endurance contest, always believing what the old man Santiago did: that "a man can be destroyed but not defeated."

Friday, July 6, 2012

Dying For Affordable Healthcare

Three years ago I was diagnosed with cancer of the throat. It’s a nasty business, cancer, and when you hear the news you think: “what do I do now?” and then “let’s start doing it, now.” In a little town like Key West, people being treated for cancer get to know each other. In waiting rooms we swap remedies for the horrific burns, sores and weakness that come of treatment. I paid 37 visits to the radiology clinic, and there I was friended by two men dealing with the same cancer. The younger one, Jeff, was an independent contractor house painter, around 40 years old. The other, Cecil, about my age, was a musician. Neither had health insurance, so, in addition to being stripped of any and all energy, and thus the ability to work at their jobs, they both struggled to find ways of paying for their treatments. Cecil had a wife. Mrs. Cecil was bright and personable and devoted to her husband’s recovery. She also worked fulltime, as a bartender. Her job offered no benefits like insurance. Cecil’s treatments were paid for by Medicaid. And all of their savings. Not long after we three started, the radiation ruined Cecil’s teeth. Mrs. Cecil talked of her frustration in searching for a dentist to perform the indignity of pulling his teeth and fitting him with dentures at a price they could afford. They finally found him in Miami, and were forced to pay for it out of pocket. Medicaid did not help with that expense. It was a real hardship. Less than a year later, Cecil’s cancer returned and he died.

     Jeff, the youngest in our throat cancer trio, was surprisingly chipper during our radiation treatments. Aside from a rosy hue to the skin on his neck, he did not seem to be as horribly affected as Cecil and me. The standard treatment for throat cancer is chemotherapy and radiation, both at the same time. It’s quite gruesome. It’s chemo in the morning and radiation in the afternoon with breakfast, lunch and dinner served through a tube implanted in the stomach. One day I asked Jeff how he was doing with the chemo. He told me that he wasn’t having chemotherapy yet because he was waiting for Medicaid to approve it. Rather than wait for the go-ahead from Medicaid for standard treatment, his doctors had advised him to go ahead with the radiation, to do at least something to keep the cancer from spreading. And so he did. He had half the treatment, and waited for the slow-moving wheels of Medicaid to grind out an approval to pay for the other half of the life-saving equation, which was chemotherapy.

     Five months after I finished radiation and chemo, my cancer returned. I had surgery and more chemotherapy, and finally the cancer was arrested. Meanwhile, Jeff gave up the struggle of being treated for cancer in Florida and returned to his family home in Connecticut.  I read his obituary in the Key West Citizen a few months later. Somewhere in that horrible season another local man was diagnosed with throat cancer. He’d been gainfully employed, and health insured, for many, many years. The economy had changed all that, his insurance had run out, and he was back in school to learn a new trade when the cancer diagnosis came. He had a wife, a car, a home, grown kids, a life rich in years well spent, most notably as a beloved, volunteer soccer coach. In spite of all he and his artist wife had done right, they were without health insurance. They scrambled to rearrange their lives and their savings to make themselves eligible for Medicaid. There were fundraising parties. There was much sympathy and horror all around. After all, we are a community of artists and hand-to-mouth living citizens – the coach brought the truth sharply into focus; this could happen to any of us. Not long after his shocking diagnosis, and just before he dove into the real hard and nasty part of his treatment, the beloved coach died. Why he died is unclear. One morning he just didn’t wake up. Heart attack? Or broken heart?

    I was working for a national corporation when I was diagnosed with cancer, but I’d only been working there for a few months and the insurance company questioned whether or not my cancer had been pre-existing. Ultimately I was able to prove that I’d not surreptitiously gotten myself hired in order to have health insurance and be treated for cancer. My husband mercifully spared me from the bills around my cancer. But I did take a peek at the year-end statement from my insurance company. It said my cancer had cost them over $100,000.
     The last time I saw my oncologist he said he would make no promises about how long my remission would last. But he did tell me this: “Cancer returns on the day your health insurance runs out. Do not be without health insurance.” And so I work a job that provides health insurance because I am quite literally terrified of being without it. Dying for lack of health insurance seems to me like drowning just off Mallory Pier, at Sunset, with crowds of American tourists watching you, sorry for your struggle, but too frightened of drowning themselves, too concerned with their own survival, to dive in and help.

What the world needs now is love: