The Brush

IMG_2063I had a bit of a scare yesterday. Spent a good chunk of the day at Massachusetts General Hospital, or MGH as we locals call it, wearing the lovely blue gown, open at the front, and the white plastic bracelet.

My friend Mary heard about my symptoms the night before. She’s an RN who worked in the ICU in this very hospital before her kids came. She offered to come with me but by Mac was also having symptom so I had to stop first at the Apple Store and sort that out and I knew she wouldn’t want to come along on that errand.

The Apple store guy pressed various buttons in various combinations as we did a little looking around in the laptop’s brain and all was well. I bought a second external disk drive because that’s what careful worriers do and I am for sure one of those. I mean what if I lost every essay I have written every week since the fall of 1980 – and almost 1500 blog posts? That would be so sad for me. Not for the world of course, but for me.

I got to hospital at last at 2:45, made my way up to the sixth floor offices of the Internal Medicine Associates, walked in –  and there was Mary.

She came in to the exam room with me as I described and then revealed the source of concern. I had just had a mammogram in April so what was this?

“We can do another mammogram,” said the nurse practitioner who was so cheerful and smart.

“And an ultrasound?” said Mary.

“Sure.  We can do an ultrasound. Let me see what’s available.” She scrolled and scrolled through images on her computer screen. “How’s 8:30 tomorrow in Danvers?” she said.

“Anything today?” said Mary. “Anything right now?”

It was by then almost 4pm.

“Let me see.” she said and disappeared briefly from the room.

Mary and I talked more with each other and then all three of us talked together when the nurse practitioner returned.

Then her phone rang. “Got it.” she said into the mouthpiece, then turned toward us. “If you go downstairs to the Breast Center RIGHT NOW…

We went and within 90 minutes both the mammogram and the ultrasound had been done and read and I had talked with not one but two radiologists who confirmed that there was no mass.

Mary and I parted with a hug, I drove home, pulled up outside the church that has been my spiritual home since that same fall of 1980 and breathed.

I called David who was eyebrows-deep in yard-work and so could not get away. “I’m going to get a bite at Lucia’s and catch my breath,” I said. I had peppers and onions and fragrant grilled chicken and a glass of Chianti Classico and three glasses of water. There was a young singer with her guitar in the room where the bar was but the room I was in had only happy toasting diners. People love to be together over food though, don’t they?

I read my book a little and though I meant to write in my diary I was too distracted.

I left the restaurant just as darkness became complete and took this picture of one of the ornamental streetlamps, hung as they are in summer with these wonderful baskets.

I put the picture up on Facebook later last night. “A beautiful evening to be alive in “I wrote under the picture and thought of all the people I know and love, who struggle now with illness or loss, and do not have the easy happy ending that was mine today.

streetlamp hung with flowers

 

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On Death and Acceptance

Last month I wrote a column about the way we all used to tan so madly, all heedless of the consequences.  It was a humorous piece, or so I thought – until, this email about skin cancer arrived from a reader:

“Parents and middle-aged adults can quip about how fun it was to tan, or do all the stupid things we did as kids and then ask coyly how we made it this far. The answer is that those who didn’t make it aren’t here to write an article.”

Her words led me through many long corridors of regret and ended by bringing me to this memory: of an essay someone wrote for a class I once taught in which he described the final days of his robust 40-something son, who died of this disease, leaving his own young family to live on without him. The slightly shortened piece appears here below:

Our son’s death was a sledge-blow, but from the gentle way he told us of his diagnosis until those final days he lived his time with grace.

He had no illusions about his illness. He recognized that this sudden ambush attack by a cancer of unknown origin had made his body a battleground.

Doctors hoped he would have a few weeks of relative ease, and though his body lost the battle in a matter of days, his spirit remained undaunted. 

“It’s a good day to die,” he told us on one of those days. “‘I have just seen my beautiful place and I want to go there.’

We knew he would, because anything he ever wanted he worked for, and he was working for this.

There were important papers to be gotten together which would require his signature. If we worked all night, we saw that we just might have them ready. We asked him if he could hold on and he said, “I will wait.”

On the road home that night, we received a call from his sister, herself an RN who had been in constant attendance. She said we should come back. Then our son insisted she hand him the phone  and his voice came clear through the night:

“Mom. Dad. Don’t rush back. Don’t do any more work. We’ve said our good-byes. Remember when the children came in? Have you ever seen such a day?  I love them! And I know you love me. Good-bye!”

We cried.

Then his sister had the phone again.  We talked it over there in the dark and decided maybe it wasn’t yet ‘a good day to die.’ So we kept on, collected what we needed, and gave it to the lawyer who worked all night. The next morning we presented the papers to Scott. Propped up with pillows, he signed them with a barely legible signature.

He and his mother talked for the last time. Then he smiled at her and said, ‘Night ‘night, Mom,’ reminding her that, as in childhood, he felt loved and unafraid as he went to sleep.

When it was my turn, I told him I only wished I could have been as good a father as he was. He asked me to kiss him. As I bent down to his bed, he squeezed my hand, smiled, and said, ‘On the mouth, Dad.’

Then something wonderful happened: As we held each other, a great clear aura of love filled the room. There seemed to be no furniture, nothing physical at all, and I saw that all the love he would have shown had he lived was now here, to be felt and used by us all.

 That love has already bound our family closer together, given us more understanding and more consideration. As John Lennon wrote, ‘All you need is love.’  Love is here for us all. Believe it , feel it, use it and add to it from your own stores.”

My thanks go here both to the wise reader who led me back to this story and to the brave grieving father who first set it down.

Nice Guy Traffic Cop

stuck in traffic poor dog

This was me in traffic yesterday morning, feeling kind of grouchy, waiting my turn while the opposite lane of cars snaked around some construction in the road ahead. The cop who halted me held up his hands, held them up again, held them up again as if to say ‘stop, stop, so STOP already!’ – which seemed a little weird because I was stopping. Then he pointed to a particular patch of pavement is if to say ‘come right here, come right here,’ kind of like they do at the rental car return place.

When he approached my car I thought “Here we go.”

But instead of chastising me in any way, he motioned for me to roll down my window. Seeng that Ihad my iPhone plugged in with that little tether that lets you listen to it through the radio, he said,”whatcha listenin’ to?”

That took me by surprise. “What’s that now?” I said.

“Whatcha listenin to?” he said again, leaning in my window. “Meaning what kinda tunes?”

“Oh I’m not listening to tunes, I’m listening an audiobook.”

“Cool! What book?”

“Oh um something called If I Wake Up or When I Wake Up or Will Someone Please Wake Me Up. To be honest I just started it. It’s for my book club. Some lady with amnesia or something,”I said.

“Amnesia, huh?” he said, and we both took a minute to think about what it would be like to have that particular affliction. Would that also be ‘cool’? Or would it be painful and punishing to maybe not remember who we even were or what we were doing paused in the middle of Rte. 38 there.

If he had amnesia he might forget that he was 26 years old and liked to chew gum. If I had amnesia I might forget that I was his age in reverse and now have pretty little spider-vein ‘bracelet ringed around both ankles.

But we didn’t have amnesia. We knew who we were and where we were, and he especially knew that the best days are of the ones where you have just enough high spirits left over to take on even the grumpiest-looking fellow citizens.

smiling dog

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Updike: Still the Best

DSC_0081I saw the thinly disguised remembrance of Updike’s mother in The Sandstone Farmhouse.

It appeared in The New Yorker shortly before my own mother died so suddenly. I wrote to him to offer my condolences and he wrote me right back, the nicest letter.

I always said I would go and find the story and offer a bit of it here, maybe on some quiet summer day.

It looks to me as though this is finally the day.

It’s just this passage partway through the tale.

His writing inspires me as much now as it did when I first read Rabbit Run, during Rest Hour the summer I was 13 and lying on my cot at summer camp.

Relatives and neighbors spoke to him with a soft gravity, as if he were fragile in grief. He knew he and his mother were regarded as having been unusually, perhaps unnaturally, close, whereas between themselves the fear was that they were not close enough. Why grieve? She was old and in pain, worn out, She was too frail in her last half-year to walk to the mailbox or lift a case of cat food or pull a clump of burdock. It was time; dying is the last favor we do for the world, the last tax we pay.

He cried only once, during the funeral, quite unexpectedly, having taken his seat at the head of his raggedly extended family, suddenly free for the moment, of arrangements and decisions. An arm’s reach away from him gleamed the cherry-wood casket he had picked put at the undertaker’s three days before. The lustrous well-joined wood, soon to be buried – the sumptuous waste of it. She was in there and in his mind there appeared a mother conceived out of his earliest memories, a young slim woman dressed in a navy-blue suit, with white at her throat, dressed to go off to her job at the downtown department store, hurrying to catch the trolley car. She had once reminisced, “Oh how you’d run, and if you missed it, there wouldn’t be another for twenty minutes and you wanted to cry.” She had laughed, remembering.

His tears kept coming, in a kind of triumph, a breakthrough, a torrent of empathy and pity for that lost young woman running past the Pennsylvania row houses, under the buttonwood trees, running to catch the trolley, the world of the 30s shabby and solid around her, the porches, the blue midsummer hydrangeas, this tiny well-dressed figure in her diminishing pocket of time, her future unknown, her death, her farm, far from her mind. This was the mother, apparently, that he had loved, the young woman living with him and others in a brick semi-detached house, a woman of the world, youthfully finding her way. During the war she worked in a parachute factory, wearing a bandanna on her head like the other women, plump like them by this time, merging with them and their chatter one lunch break when, he, somehow, had bicycled to the side entrance to see her. She was not like them, the tough other women, he knew, but for the moment had blended with them, did a job alongside them, and this too renewed his tears, his native pride in her then, when he was 10 or 11. She had tried to be a person, she had lived. There was something amazing, something immortal to him in the image of her running.

He remembered, from their first years on the farm, a crisis with the roof; it was being reshingled by a team of Amishmen and they had left it partially open to the weather on the night of the thunderstorm. Crashes, flashes. Joey’s parents and grandparents were all awake, and he, boy though he still was, was expected to help too; they rushed up and down the attic stairs with buckets, to save the plaster of the walls and ceilings below. There was a tarpaulin in the barn that might help; he found himself outdoors, in the downpour, and he had retained an image of running across the lawn in a flash of lightning that caught the white of her bare legs. She would not have been much over 40, and was still athletic; perhaps his father was included in this unsteady glimpse; there was a hilarity to it all, a violent health.

Working his way, after her death, through all the accumulated souvenirs of her life, Joey was fascinated by the college yearbooks that preserved girlish image. Group photographs showed his mother as part of the hockey team, hiking club. With a magnifying glass he studied her unsmiling competitive face, with her hair in two balls at her ears and a headband over her bangs. Her face seemed slightly larger than the other girls’, a childlike oval broadest at the brow, its defenses relatively unevolved. As he sat there beside the cherry casket crying, his former wives and adult children stealing nervous peeks at him, the young woman ran for the trolley car, her breath catching, her panting mixed with a sighing laughter at herself, and the image was potent, as fertile, as a classic advertisement, which endlessly taps something deep and needy within us. The image of her running down the street away from him trailed like a comet’s tail the maternal enactments of those misty years when he was a child crayoning with him on the living room floor, sewing him Halloween costumes in the shape of Disney creatures, having him lift what she called the ‘skirts’ of the bushes while she pushed the old reel mower under them – but from her point of view; he seemed to feel from within his mother’s head the situation, herself and this small son, this defenseless gurgling hatched creature, and the tentative motions of her mind and instincts as she, as new to the mothering as he was to being alive, explored the terrain between them. In the attic he had found a padded baby blue scrapbook, conscientiously maintained, containing his first words, the date of his first crawl, and his hospital birth certificate imprinted with his inky day-old feet. The baths. The cod liver oil. The calls to  the doctor, the subscriptions to children’s magazine, the sweaters she knit. Trying to do the right thing, the normal thing, running toward her farm, her death. In his vision of her running she was bright and quick and small, like an animal caught in a gunsight.

This was the mother he had loved, the mother before they moved, before she betrayed him with the farm and its sandstone house….

There is more of course but I will stop there. The mother in the story, like his own real mother, dropped dead in the kitchen of that sandstone farmhouse, lying there for a day or two before neighbors discovered her.

About ten years ago I flew to see my friend Bobbie in Swarthmore. One day during my visit, she and I drove to the tiny village of Plowville  to look for this sandstone house as well as the one ‘in town’ in the larger township of Shillington with its storefronts and trolley tracks. When we walked into the to Town Hall there to ask the address, a man who knew him happened to overhear us and told us so many details about him, mostly about his loyalty to the town and his perennial graciousness.

Four and a half years gone now but doesn’t he still live and move in my mind~ !

john updike bids us goodbye

Jeeesh, What Are You Gonna Do?

Me getting my first few hatemails
Me getting my first few hatemails

A bunch of people offered such good advice when I posted on Facebook two days ago about grouchy reader who wrote in to say he thought my latest column was the most boring thing he has ever read in a newspaper.

I liked all the comments people left, from the one that said, “Tell him to go suck a lemon” to the one who said  “Jealous! Who says that? He hasn’t gotten the memo that mean people suck? You go girl

I nodded and also learned something when one person wrote, “People who take the trouble to write are people you’ve affected, whether it’s positively or negatively. To a communicator, they’re of equal value. Your enemy is indifference.”

I smiled in appreciation of the one that said “I have learned that we are not always *for* someone – kind of like when you hear speakers and some just “speak” to you and others turn you off. No biggie.”

True enough, true enough, Laura.

I even liked the one that said, “You may be controversial at times, or even irritating, but never boring. I love reading your columns.” That one made me laugh right out loud. I’m irritating? Really?

But the one that made me feel best of all came from fellow columnist Mike Deupree now retired. I have been learning from HIM since 1988 when I attended my first ever National Society of Newspaper Editors Conference and here is what he wrote:

I once got a phone message from a reader. He sounded very upbeat, gave his name and phone number, said, “I just wanted to let you know that your column this morning was the dumbest f***ing thing I ever read in my life.” I always responded to people who identified themselves, so I called him and talked for a while. Nice guy. Became a regular correspondent and we met in person several times. (He was wrong about that column, though).

That experience has been mine exactly. Sometimes people write me the most hateful things, me with my liberal theology and my support of equality in marriage. I too always answer – by email because people don’t call me – and I think them for taking the time to write and sometimes say a word about God being a God of love and how I too admire and emulate Jesus and do you know what? Nine times out of ten they write back and say “well I was kind of in a bad mood when I wrote that” and though we haven’t become friends exactly like Mike and his caller, we seem to have blessed each other, which is all I’m hoping for every day when I get out of bed in the morning.

This is Mike, called ‘Doop’ by his friends around the time I met him. I miss him and wish he were still in the business.

Mike Deupree, late of the Citizen of Cedar Rapids, with the Senator Tom Harkin, also of Iowa
Mike Deupree, late of the Citizen of Cedar Rapids, with the Senator Tom Harkin, also of Iowa

Boring He Said

imagesGot some good advice from my Facebook friends Monday night when I told about the reader wrote to say that my latest column was the most boring thing he had ever read in the paper.

A couple of people asked to see the piece, so they could see for themselves. Here it is then: the word for word exchange I had with the cab driver who came to bring me to the bus station.

Maybe a column shouldn’t have as much real life stuff in it but I thought the opposite was true. Anyway, here she is:

Because I had to be in the city to catch a bus at 10am, I ordered a taxi for 9:00 and was out in front of my house at 8:55.

With an hour to traverse the eight miles to the bus station I felt happy and relaxed, the way you do in a cab when the cabbie is friendly and present, which is to say NOT talking on his phone the whole time.

In fact, this cabbie did use his phone once when it rang but only because he saw that it was his wife, just waking for the day. He told her it was raining out so she should just turn over and go back to sleep and who wouldn’t be happy to overhear a cozy domestic exchange like that?

Plus, friendly? He was sure friendly.

As he wove deftly through the braiding lanes of traffic on this expressway, he chatted about this and that: About how he had just been on this road two hours ago, bringing a woman to the airport. About how his stop-for-a-drink-after-work pals were all cops and firefighters. About how he graduated high school back in the 70s. 1974 to be exact.

“I know about the Class of ’74! “ I said. “Did you have shoulder-length hair and go to the prom in a tux with a ruffled shirt and a velvet bow tie?”

“Who knows about the tux, it’s so long ago, but yup to the shoulder-length hair!”

“And did they play Stairway to Heaven for all its endless length including that part in the middle when the tempo changes and you can’t slow-dance to it at all?”

“No doubt!” he said and broke into song. “Dah dah DAH dah dah dah, dah dah DAHdah dah dah and they’re buy-ee-ing a stair-eh-way to Heah-ev-en.”

We rode in a remembering silence a while before I recalled what had just happened on this road the week before.

“What a shame it was about the intoxicated driver in the Caddy who hit that trucker so hard he went over one of these guard rails and fell 40 feet down onto the spur beneath!”

“Another few inches and he would have fallen the full 400 feet to that street.”

“But he’s OK, I read.”

“If you call a broken back and neck OK. You sound like the driver. ‘Well he didn’t DIE,’ she said when she heard about his injuries.”

“No, I know! A broken neck and back is awful-”

But he was still talking:

“I also hear that-“

I wanted to interrupt him but by the time I saw what had happened it was already too late. In all the talk he had exited right when he should have stayed straight and now here we were in the long, no-turning-around tunnel that finally brings you up at…

The airport.

“You know I’m actually going to the train station, right?” I said in a small voice.

“Dang! “ he exclaimed. “ I have NEVER done this before!”

He went on. “Not to worry though. Watch this!” – and he orbited those airport roads faster than a hamster orbits his hamster wheel, dove into a second tunnel, surfaced four miles farther south, shot a mile and a half back north and landed me at the bus station at  last with 20 minutes to spare.

“I’ll eat the $5 toll for the airport,” he said, but I gave that same amount right back to him as a tip.

Because really how could I not? If there was ever a case of dual responsibility for that proverbial wrong turn, this was surely it.”

And now, just for fun, that very song and a typical couple from the good old class of ’74:

generic prom goers 70s

Off to College

rayvoughn steps 0ct09This boy came to our town as a five-foot tall freshman in high school. He was a scholar in our local chapter of the ABC Program. Such a journey!

Back at the start of his time here I used to bring him over to Harvard for to bone up on his Italian with my nephew Matt. Matt was a freshman there at the time but time passed as time will do.

Matt is now a senior at Harvard – and as of yesterday Rayvoughn was a freshman at the University of New Hampshire where he will study Computer Science.

Even at 14, Ray was good with computers. Shortly after he arrived, he was already the go-to guy at the ABC House for PC issues.

He networked all the computers and set up the wireless printer. And anytime anybody got a new Smart Phone – and we all know the Smart Phones are smarter than we are – Ray had it set and synched it up in a matter of minutes.

I felt lucky. As a volunteer and then the head of the Student Life , I got to see him all the time, starting when he was just over 5 feet tall and stood up at the big Fundraising Dinner and all unbidden said what it meant to him to be part of this wonderful program.

rayvoughn takes the mike.

I remember when he began wrestling and found out he was good at it.

he's all that - Ray wins the gold

That was the same time of year he wrote his History paper on the symbolic import of the Brooklyn Bridge in the years just after the ruinous War Between the States. I still have a video clip I made of him discovering all the material .

But time keeps moving; we all know that. He began working for PC Quick Help and grew almost a foot and graduated from Winchester High School last June, making both his dad and his mom and the host family who sheltered him for four years very proud.

Ray his hosts & his mom 2

both as a 15-year old…

DSCN0345

…and as an 18-year-old

And yesterday it was my privilege to bring him to college.

And yesterday it was my privilege to bring him to college. Four trips up those stairs and my car, whcih at 10 am that packed to the gills, by 2:00 was once again empty.

IMG_2072

So shine on Rayvoughn Shion Millings! You have a world of support behind you!