The Rumblings Abdominal

Over the past couple of years, my eyes grew so heavily hooded it was as if I was peering out at the great Street of Life from under a pair of heavy canvas awnings. Thus, late last month, I had an operation to open these peepers up a bit.
Everything went swimmingly the surgeon said, and so, five hours after the initial scalpel cut, he sent me home – with an Rx for a 10 mg dose of Percocet, which, besides some acetaminophen, holds within it a small but mighty hit of Oxycodone.
These pills I took in strict moderation, choosing to take only the one-, and not the two-pill dose at a time and stopping cold turkey after just five days. I still felt pretty crummy of course, and my eyes stung. I couldn’t bend over, lift anything weighing more than a few pounds, or even read or look at screens. And so my husband and I decided that, come the weekend, we would seek a change of scenery. We would drive the hour and 40 minutes north to our summer place where we could curl up with our new kitty, stream some good shows and look out at the frozen lake.
Now I had not been outside at all in the ten days since my operation, but the morning of our planned trip I felt the need to join three friends in doing an errand of mercy for a fourth, very elderly, friend. And so I slowly dressed and, glad to be out at all, drove to meet these three, one of whom called out to me as she crossed the parking lot.
“Should you really be here?” she exclaimed, knowing of my surgery. “And also, WHY are you dressed like this?!” she added, her eyes sweeping down over what turned out to be one very ill-considered getup: a silk blouse, a crepe skirt with a voluminous hemline just brushing the tops of my high-heeled boots, and the fanciest coat in our front hall closet. “I mean, are you going someplace after?”
Well, I was going someplace, of course: to the lake, later, but first home to meet up with David, there to give the kitten a small palmful of kibble before settling her in the cat carrier for her journey on my lap, and finally to visit a drive-through for burgers to go. BUT, I told my friend, the far realer truth was I had dressed up just to feel better.
And mostly I did feel better, at least for the first third of the journey. David and I talked companionably, and I nibbled at lunch, balanced over the cat carrier that held our soundly sleeping kitten.
And then it all went south.
The little cat opened her eyes just as a certain.. scent reached our nostrils. It was a mild scent, reminiscent of the meek scent of a newborn’s diaper. Alas, she then began crying out,
Something was coming.
It was coming.
It came.
We sped like Roger Rabbit in his roadster to the highway’s nearest rest area, me whispering “I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” into the cat’s wee triangular skull. Because I just knew that her troubles followed from a nurturing flaw. I knew that the only other time I had given her kibble – as the vet had said I could do now and then “just as a treat” –  she had had what appeared to be a kind of painful diarrhea that caused her to cry out just like this. 
And now it had happened again.
Once we had reached the rest area, I pulled the poor creature out of her foul prison and set her on the floorboard in front of the passenger seat, there to be looked after by David, while I shot into the Ladies Room and did what I could to dab at the many stains and pawprints on my silky blouse, my fancy coat, and that gorgeously wide crepe skirt. I made a spectacle as horrifying as the raggediest of the ragged Walking Dead, and people were shrinking from me, I could see, but what else could I do? I crawled back into the passenger seat and cradled the kitten in my arms, David doing 80 because you can go that fast in New Hampshire.
Nestled up against me, she went right to sleep, tummy up and legs splayed. After a while, in despair and alarmed by this new immobility, I whispered to David in mournful tones, “I think I’ve killed her.” “Nah,” he said back. “She’s just worn out.”
Of course, he was right. She was just worn out. And once we reached the refuge of this house up north I was able to give her a bath, hose and scrub the holy hell out of her cat carrier, bag my formerly fancy outfit for later consideration by the dry cleaner, and treat myself to the world’s longest shower.
So all of that was Story One.
Story Two commenced at the end of that peaceful weekend when I met my daughters for a fun dinner out – only to find I couldn’t eat a single morsel, or concentrate, or say much.
I was just as sick the next day, and the day after that, or for all three of the days following. Finally, 18 very long days after my eye surgery, I began to both faint and throw up, a winning combination in anyone’s annals of illness.
“For heaven’s sake get in here to the hospital!” cried my PCP when finally I called her. “You need to be evaluated!”
David came home from work and into the ER I wobbled, to do my seven hours of penance among the suffering.
There were people coughing, people in masks, people spitting up and people passed clean out. As far as I could tell, though, I was the only one with blood puddles under me legs.
Long story short, after a CT scan with contrast and various other ministrations, the docs decided to admit me to the ER’s observation unit 12 stories up. I felt I had died and gone to heaven. From the rag-and-bone shop of the ER, I had ascended to the hospital’s uppermost floor, with a twinkling view of the Boston skyline.
I got to stay in that room for two blessed days, and though they discharged me before I was altogether well, I have done the remainder of my healing at home – or to be utterly candid, at home for two days and then in the cozy stateroom of a Viking cruise ship whose itinerary loops all around the Caribbean.
Both David and I have treated these 8 days as a rest cure. We pad about on deck, take gentle walks on land, eat amazing meals and toddle back to our cabin for yet another nap.
This – tonight – is our last night on board. Tomorrow we fly home to that new little cat of ours who has been well cared for by not one but two sets of family members nice enough to have actually MOVED IN in order to look after her.
I can’t wait to see her, keenly aware as I now am of our connection. For are we not all meek small creatures, utterly dependent on the intricate workings of our bodies to go about in the world? We are indeed, and in this connection the famous limerick comes to mind that gives this post its title:

I sat next to the Duchess at tea.

It was just as I feared it would be:

Her rumblings abdominal 

Were simply phenomenal 

And everyone thought it was me.

Well, it was me, this time.
The upside is that I now keenly sense my commonality with all beings, and I am content. Sure, my eyes still sting a bit and yes, some bruising persists. But these eyes are OPEN! – enough to see that whatever further surgeries await me in this life I will never, ever, again take the fiendish little pill known as Percocet.
ariel in her cave
See? My eyes DO look better, don’t they? 😉

A Crummy Cook Gives Thanks

A Facebook friend posted the night before Thanksgiving that she was really grouchy just then and wondered if anyone else was feeling that way too. I was, boy. I was feeling super grouchy though I didn’t post as much, being at the time too grouchy to join in the spirit of generosity that characterizes Facebook at its best.

I had a list of good reasons for my grouchiness that night, or so I told myself. For one thing there were the muscle cramps I keep getting as I sleep, which make me dread the night as much as the parents of colicky newborns do. I LEAP from the bed every time one hits to put weight on the troubled limb, even knowing that one of these days I could accordion flat down into a human puddle, like those collapsible tin drinking cups the Scouts used to use on camping trips.

There was also the tedious chore of food preparation, a task I have not enjoyed since the Seventh Grade when our poor Home Ec teacher tried to teach me and 29 other snickering 12-year-olds how to make Prune Whip.

There was the personalizing of 200 holiday cards that I’d spent the previous six days working on. I wish I could just sign our names and be done but I can’t seem to do that any more than I can plunk a big box of Count Chocula down on a dressy Thanksgiving Day table.

And finally, there was the way I looked just then, in worn-out sweat pants gone in the waist, a hand-me-down man’s shirt in which I look like the old dad in Modern Family, and over it all an apron from a decades-past college reunion embroidered with an image of Dorothy’s ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz.

Well, I knew that much: I wasn’t in Kansas anymore, if Kansas is seen as Martha Stewart’s version of the run-up to Thanksgiving Day.

My husband David had gone up to bed before 9. I minded that and wished desperately to join him but instead stayed downstairs by the kitchen bingeing past episodes of This Is Us and inscribing another 40 Christmas cards while a slew of wee laboriously peeled onions seethed on the stovetop. (I’d been too late with my shopping to find the kind in a jar that comes all cooked, dammit.)

I worked and I worked and finally at midnight thought The heck with this, pulled off the apron and crawled into bed.

The next morning I spun up now less three bowls brimming with greens and various toothsome mix-ins. I made the bechamel sauce for the onions and blobbed the whole sucking lava-thick mess into a chafing dish even though at that point it looked to me like nothing so much as a mixture of Ping Pong balls and Milk of Magnesia.

I spread all these dishes out on our kitchen counter and texted a picture of them to our daughter Annie, along with the “caption” Three Salads and a Funeral”, the funeral being what I had come to think of as my Creamed Onion Surprise. She in turn texted back lovely pictures of the three holiday tables she had set up for the whole family and the next thing we knew we had set out Over the River and Through the Woods to her house. My failing Merit Badge contributions were added to the feast and we all sat down to eat on the all-too-short remains of the waning, amber-and-amethyst-colored afternoon.

In other words, the sun rose and the sun set on that day, mere hours from Decembers’ start, and we looked, and saw that it was good.

 

On Being Backed Up By Your Mom

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I get such a kick out of this picture; I don’t know why. I can’t recall my own mother backing me up like this when I even metaphorically stuck my tongue out at anyone. Parent-child solidarity was rare when I was a child. Most people my age go on about how they got punished twice for wrong-doing, once by the teacher who discovered them at it, and then again by their parents when they got home at night.

Come to think of it though, my mom wasn’t like those parents either, and actually may have BEEN more like the filly-mare team pictured here. For one thing, she was twice as old as all the other mothers in my Second Grade class. She’d seen some hard things in her life and at age 50 was not about to let anyone push her kid around. For another, as I gradually realized over time, she had a wee bit of a problem with authority and liked nothing better than to challenge it whenever she had a chance.

I say this because two months after my seventh birthday I got kicked out of the much-becalmed convent school my sister and I attended – for talking, of all things. And I don’t mean I got sent to the Sister Superior’s office. I mean I got hauled out of my little nailed-down desk-and chair combo by my scarlet-faced teacher, handed an empty cardboard box and told, “Pack your books! You don’t go here anymore!” Out of all patience, the good sister threw my coat at me and told me to go stand alone at the abandoned edge of that urban schoolyard under the darkling shadow of the elevated train while she had the main office call my mother to come fetch me.

I stood there and stood there. “What will I do now?” I remember fretting through my tears. “I think I’m too little to get a job!” And then I saw my mother bounding up the hill of the school grounds in our goofy old station wagon. She took me home all right, but the next day she brought me back and, on encountering the young nun there by the doorway, hopped from the car and strode right up to her.  “See HERE!” she began. “A child who talks in class is a child who is BORED!” and what could this green young nun say, especially since it did really kind of look as though my mother was actually sort of lifting her up by the snow-white bib of her habit?

Anyway, my mother saved me, even though I didn’t faintly deserve saving. Because the truth is, I did talk, endlessly, to the kids in the seats to the front, back and sides of me. I was guilty as charged. I have always suspected that Mom knew that as well as I did, a fact that remained unspoken between us for the rest of our time together on this earth.

The funny thing is, her doing that for me made me more, rather than less inclined, to stay on that straight and narrow ever since.

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Get Back to Work, You

On a plane ride home from Tampa, I saw a giant of a man in the seat in front of me who wore such a skimpy tank top that I had a chance to count every one of the thousands of shoulder and back hairs visible to me.

Then, on that same flight, a mere 30 seconds after the pilot turned off the Fasten Seat Belt sign, a woman in one of the backmost rows began shouting “Jesus Christ,  will you people MOVE!”

Later, as we were all proceeding along the lengthy peristaltic trek to Baggage Claim, I saw at the bar of one of the airside eateries a youngish dude in a cowboy hat who kept shoving his napkin up under his sunglasses as he wept and wept while talking on his phone.

These were all things I noticed in one three-hour period.

It has literally been months since I have come to this blog to write down anything at all, whether happy or sad. Suffice to say it was some summer. But now, finally, I think I’m ready to begin again, maybe because of the kindly dermatologist I saw for the first time just before that flight. He asked what I did for a living so I told him I had taught high school English in my 20s, and then added with a look that was unmistakably nostalgic, that for 36 years I had written a weekly newspaper column.

Had written?” he asked .“Yes,” I sighed. “A day came, kind of out of the blue, when I felt I just couldn’t do it anymore. Writing a weekly column is like having to produce a term paper 52 times a year, I could also have quoted author Sidney Sheldon’s observation that a blank piece of paper is God’s way of telling us how hard it is to be God.

It was at this point that the nice dermatologist said something that has echoed in my mind ever since. “But of course you still write, don’t you?” he asked, and I literally hung my head. “Um, well…” I stammered, shamefacedly – and felt lucky to get even those two words out.

You know how when we were kids the grownups would sometimes say, “Let that be a lesson to you?” Well, I let that moment be a lesson to me. And it was only days later on my trip from Tampa to Boston that I suddenly noticed these three people I opened with above.

Why was the cowboy crying? I would never know. You can’t intrude on private grief by going up to someone and asking but still: I wondered.

Why did that mountain of a man wear what amounted to an above-the-waist thong on an airplane? Did he not feel embarrassed, the way I would feel if, say, my travel companion suggested I pull out a razor and start shaving my armpits? (Shaving on a Plane, now there’s an idea for a new trend!)

And I wondered even more about the yelling woman at the back of the plane who by now had elbowed her way to just two rows back from me. “Why don’t you go in my place?” I said to her.

She looked at me quickly, maybe to see if I was being sarcastic.

I wasn’t. “No, really,” I said. “I’m in no hurry.”

“It’s just that I get panic attacks,” she said. “I have awful claustrophobia.” And I thought yes maybe she does, because hadn’t I noticed her at the outset of the trip joshing good naturedly with the people around her as she was stowing her bag?

I had indeed. And maybe I would not have ‘seen’ her at all if that lovely doctor had not metaphorically lifted my chin, thus encouraging me to keep on doing what I so clearly love doing, that is noticing things and writing down what I notice.  Maybe, speaking of God, doing that is even a kind of prayer.

On the Road.. er, Ship

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Water travel is always so broadening, especially in the hips. Especially if you’re spending nine days on a Viking Riverboat cruise where the food never stops, even at breakfast, what with the stout coffees and delicate teas; the fresh omelets and smoked fish and sausage; the veggies both raw and cooked; the breads and rolls and croissants; the cereals both hot and cold; the bowls of berries and the platters of sherbet-colored melon; not to mention the juices from every kind of fruit Eve ever thought to toss in her Garden-of-Eden blender.

This tour I set out on last month made its way through the Netherlands and into Belgium. Some of us also took the optional excursion as well, to visit World War I battlegrounds near the border of France. (After such indulgence on board, it felt only right to bear witness to the suffering the people of these lands endured during the bloody century just before this one, and I can say more of that in another post.

There in Amsterdam on that first full day, I learned about this old, old city that, staggeringly, saw over 17 million visitors last year. While threading through some of its 165 canals I learned too that it is home to people from 181 nations if you can picture it. I can’t, as my own list of the world’s nations stops at around 40.

It has a population of 850,000 people, 40% of whom are under 30 and there’s a frightening thought. I mean, what if these youth kick off a real virus of a border-crossing movement to take out all us oldsters, wallowing in our nifty AARP benefits and discount movie tix?  What then? Oh, admit you’ve considered the possibility. I mean can’t you sometimes just feel them behind you in the subway stations, waiting ‘til no one’s looking and shoving you in front of the train, Frank Underwood style?)

Still, they’re pretty adorable, the young, and here in Amsterdam especially where they’re all the time wheeling past on bicycles like so many American tykes in the great era of Hot Wheels. Sure, they drink and get high and amble over to the Red Light District to check out the patient ladies sitting bare as newborns in their cozily furnished display windows. And yes, in a typical year the city has to fish some 12,000 bicycles out of the canals, tossed there in moment of youthful high spirits. Nonetheless I am heartened by the sight of them. At the AnneFrank House there are at least as many young people as older folk waiting in line to get in. At the Rijksmuseum too where all the Rembrandts are kept. They are not innocent of history, the young people here. They know what has transpired here in this fallen world.

One crisp morning I stopped for coffee at a Starbucks with a whole plaza of outside tables. It was a place overflowing with both older people like me and with the younger too in their practical backpacks and their jaunty scarves, and as I sat among them all in a freshening breeze, I thought this is what peacetime looks like. For if this isn’t what people the world over don’t want I’ll eat my hat as the old fogies used to say: What we want is only to sit together, the young and the old and the in-between, the babies, the dogs and the toddlers too, and feel the blessing of each passing moment.

I thought all this. Then, it being almost time for another storied meal onboard, I trotted the quick mile-and-a-half quick back to the ship.

bikes in amsterdam

 

Travel Don’ts from a Hapless Tourist

A few things you’d best NOT do when traveling for ten days to countries where you don’t speak the language: One, fail to pack a warm enough coat; Two, fail to pack the most important hair product in your bristling arsenal of hair products because you foolishly believed the cruise line when it said no blow dryers or flatirons; and Three, scratch the living daylights out of the oh-so-delicate tissue protecting your eye, necessitating a trip to an eye doctor with whose staff communication was impossible given the language barrier.

But let me take these step by step, not necessarily in this order.

I’ll start with the forbidden hair care items about which the cruise line was as primly stern as the evil governess in a 19th century novel. No, you may NOT bring your own electric appliances, heavens no, it said the literature they send out ahead of time say. The current, you know. The strain on the ship’s energy sources. Anyway, they sniffed, you’ll find one of those leaf blower hair driers right in your stateroom.

But the problem for me, see, is that with the type of hair God gave me I have never been able to get even an approximately normal look by wielding a round brush in one hand and some honking-huge drier in the other. Instead I have to use the kind of drier that has the brush attached right to the heat source, the kind that were designed for men in the great ago of disco. (Think John Travolta’s hair in Saturday Night Fever.) Most of the women onboard this Viking longboat sported fabulously fluffy and /or shiny hair styles come the Cocktail Hour and the elaborate dinner with all that complimentary wine that the waiters kept unstoppably pouring. I can’t imagine how even one of them managed to look so great when here I was at these events looking like the homeliest Chia pet on the block.

Next, there was the issue of the warm-enough coat I had failed to bring which didn’t seem as it was going to be a problem when I unpacked that first night onboard – until it turned out that the weather report for the Netherlands and Belgium, which had PREDICTED temperatures in the low 60s with partly cloudy skies actually MEANT to say low 40s with a nice-two-for-one combo of pelting rain and hail. After one day-long walking tour on Saturday I couldn’t have said I had hands at all. You could have cut off all my fingers and applied nail polish to the bloody stumps and I wouldn’t have known the difference.

And finally, there was the wholly unanticipated visit I had to make to the eye doctor in Antwerp after, in an effort to remove the contact lens in my left eye, the darn thing just would not budge. This was at 10 at night after one of the fancy dinners with music and trivia games in the lounge afterward. I dug and I dug  ‘til the white of my eye turned dark red. See, I just knew the lens was in there and had rolled up into that part of my brain where I keep the multiplication tables and the names of all the major rivers in the world.

So the next morning I went to the ship’s concierge. He called a local ophthalmologist to make me an appointment. When the hour drew near, he called a taxicab to take me to the office of this good doctor.  Who peered with the standard blinding scopes and strobe lights into my eye said that whatever lens has been in there during that last elegant dinner was in there no more. Which means that what I had actually done was to cross-hatch with dozens of tiny slices the whole white of my eye. Death by a thousand cuts, in other words. But HOW after 30 years of daily putting in and taking out these single-use contacts, could I miss the fact that, before taking out the contact in my right eye, I had already taken out the contact in the left one?

All I can think is, must have been the wine. 🙂

There’ll be more to say about this wonderful trip in future blog posts. I just had to get the nonsense part told first.

chia pet

 

 

 

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She Dug Up Her Mother?

I just read an article in The Times about the subject of ‘serial’ memoir-writing that names author Kathryn Harrison, who has penned a number of autobiographical works over the course of her life. At one point she is quoted as saying she knows she needs to write yet another memoir when a perspective on her life becomes ‘an obsession’. For example, she writes, “It was only when I was on the phone with the funeral director out in Los Angeles, asking him to dig my mother up, burn her up and send her to me, that I thought to myself, ‘You’re behaving weirdly now. Perhaps you should start taking notes.'” The result: The Mother Knot, a book in which she finds peace of mind about her challenging relationship with her parents by scattering at sea her dead mother’s ashes.

This topic of trying to figure out – and write about – what happened to you really hit me as I read about it just now because it’s what I have been doing for 40 years: namely repeatedly beginning upon – and repeatedly not finishing –  a memoir of my own, filled with the often dramatic turns that both my life and the life of my parents and grandparents took over time.

I myself have never once thought of having my mother’s remains disinterred. Far from it. I like thinking of her in that old cemetery.  “Oh mom! You love that pale violet suit that you’re wearing still! ” I think even now, more than 30 years after she left us in such haste. I picture her there and recall how, on the cold winter day we left her on that little hillside,  I bent and scooped up a handful of the dirt that had been dug from the open grave. My cousin saw me, sidled over and said, “WHAT on EARTH are you going to do with THAT?”

I didn’t know the answer to that. I just know I needed it and I have still, in a slender glass vial. It is the more dear to me because it is dirt from the same grave where my grandfather has lain since 1958, with my sister and I looking on in our little Mary Janes and our new white gloves. It is dirt from the same grave where his bride lies, the young woman who was my grandmother, though neither of us had the chance to enjoy that bond since she died in the impossibly long-ago year of 1910.

Having this vial of earth comforts me yet, as does the fact that I still have the bright blue blouse my mother was wearing, all dressed up and feeling fine, when she died in my living room in at her own 80th birthday celebration. I still have the little purse she was carrying that December afternoon. I still have her cane. So much happened to her, both as a child and as an adult. So much happened to her two parents. How can I not wish to get it all down on paper, and say how it affected me, and how these effects have played out in my own life?

One day last year when I told two dear-to-me 16-year-olds only a part of this story their eyes widened in near-incredulity I suppose because truth really IS stranger than fiction and who among us, when young, can believe all that will happen to us in life?

Will I ever get it all down in words then? I have less energy than I once did so I have begun to doubt that I ever will, and maybe it doesn’t matter. I had a dream shortly after my mother died. In this dream, the two of us were trotting down a wide set of stone steps together, creating that rhythm people fall into when, sure of foot, they take on such flights of stairs. Halfway down, I looked over at her in surprise and said to this woman who in life saw most poorly and could walk only with a cane, “Mom! You’re running!”

“I know!” she called back, still mid-trot. “I’m not old anymore!”

It was a dream so vivid I’m not so sure it even was a dream. Maybe the idea of linear Time is a clumsy fabrication, the best we could do with our tiny minds. Maybe there is no Past but only an eternal Present, in which case why write your rueful memoir at all?

 

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