Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Waiting for the Dawn

Take this soul, stranded in some skin and bones--
Take this soul and make it sing. *
November 26, 1997. The day before Thanksgiving. I am alone in my dorm room, sitting on the floor in an empty space surrounded by stacks of books and papers. I rest the old beige telephone on my lap and dial the surgeon's office carefully.

Hello, I'm calling for Dr. La Mancha? Yes, I can hold. Hi, yes, I'm still here. I'm calling for the results of my biopsy last Friday. Yes, he said he'd call me on Monday, but I didn't hear from him then, and he hasn't returned any of my messages...yes, I can hold. Hi, yes, here I am.

Dr. La Mancha is out of the office for the week. Another doctor is on the phone. Well, it is lymphoma; nodular sclerosing Hodgkin's Disease in fact, he says. Looks like stage 2A. You'll probably receive the standard treatment regimen--chemotherapy, probably four cycles or so. ABVD, I imagine, followed by several weeks of radiation therapy. We'll refer you over to Dr. Kaplan at the Tumor Institute, and you can set up an appointment with him next week or the week after. Okay? Okay.

My roommate has entered the room during this brief conversation. She glances at me and her face lights up. "I knew it would be okay!" she whispers, grinning. I realize my face is frozen in the polite smile I put on when the doctor began to speak, and quickly shake my head at her, relaxing my grimace into a frown. She bites her lip and sits down on her bed while I mechanically take notes as the doctor finishes. Nodular sclerosing Hodgkins 2a, I write. Chemo. ABVD. Radiation. Kaplan.

I still have that slip of paper in a scrapbook in my closet. "Chemo" is underlined twice.

The Automatic Bravery of a Cancer Patient, Exhibit A: My roommate being a nursing student, she all but pulls me to the nursing building to sit down and ask questions of her favorite nursing professor. The professor answers cautiously when I ask about the possibility of staying in school while I receive treatment, but admits it might be an option.

I am eighteen and have been in Seattle for barely one year. I stay in control of myself when the nursing professor is speaking, but every time I think about moving back home I start crying again. It seems childish to be more upset about this than I am about having cancer, I realize, but the tears keep coming.

I don't want to tell my parents this news. I imagine my mother sobbing. Oh, hell, will my father cry? Will they insist that I move home? What if I just don't tell them until after Thanksgiving?

But they already know about the biopsy, so they'll be waiting to hear something. And I'm a terrible liar. So I try the next best thing: I ask the nursing professor if she can call my parents to tell them, while my roommate and I are in the midst of our ten-hour drive home. I convince myself that this is a great idea--my parents can have a day to absorb the shock before I have to deal with their emotions, and the professor can answer the questions they will have.

Yes, I tell myself. This is a great idea. And she does it, too, calls them while I am on the freeway, inaccessible in the slow traffic jam that always oozes down I-5 the night before Thanksgiving.

I'm still a little ashamed of being that cowardly, I say.

Ah, you say, shrugging a little; but it was seven years ago, after all. You were just a kid.

I'm glad it's been seven years. It's not a cheerful anniversary, but I mark it every year.

Is it morbid that I can remember this date more easily than the date of my final radiation, my "remission date?"

*Yahweh, by U2, from "How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb"

Thursday, November 18, 2004

Wee meats

My husband and I had dinner at a Mexican restaurant last weekend. I ordered chicken carnitas, which prompted my husband and I to a discussion about the meaning of the word "carnitas." I thought it just meant "little meats," but he was certain it meant pork, and was bothered by the idea of my chicken-pork blended meat meal.

Since neither of us speaks Spanish all that well anymore, I thought I'd settle the disagreement with a peek in the trusty Spanish-English dictionary when we got home. But no entry for "carnitas" was to be found. Well, I thought, I'll bet one of those crazy online translators can help out. So I went to the dictionary.com Spanish to English translator and typed in "Yo quiero carnitas."

And the ever-helpful dictionary.com translated it into English for me:

"I want carnitas."

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Pointy Little Timers

This month marked the third full year I've been at my job.

That might not sound like much to some of you. Some members of my family have had things in their freezer for longer than that. My 77-year-old grandma, for instance, keeps an enormous chest freezer in her garage. Two years ago it broke down just before Thanksgiving, allowing the gathered family to celebrate our bounty by throwing it all away. My mother and my aunt established themselves at the freezer to excavate the trove of food; the rest of us hovered nearby. Grandma had meticulously written the date on each item when she put it in the freezer, making it an enormous popsicle of a time capsule.

Grandma wouldn't let us throw out the newer frozen foods, so she got her neighbors Bob and Jo to clear out space in their own garage freezer to temporarily store her goodies. Then my siblings and I lined up with garbage bags to distribute the food. First my mom or aunt would exclaim over the item--"Chili, 2000!"

"Enchiladas, Christmas 1999!"

"Oh my god--a whole gallon of potato soup from 1997! And it's split down the side!"

Then, with a nod or a sigh from Grandma, one of us would either empty the contents into the garbage bag and toss the empty container into a recycling bag, or put the entire thing into the "save" bag. The "save" bag swelled to surprisingly large proportions but we lugged it down to Bob and Jo's garage anyway, safely restoring those bricks of soup and bread to zero degrees and ensuring that after Grandma replaced her freezer they could return to live for many more years in the comfort of her garage.

Anyway, I've been at my job for three years, which is a long time for me as a recent college graduate. Er, for certain values of the word "recent," that is. It was my first "real" job after school, anyway. I was hired there after several months of unemployment in the fall of 2001, months of financial woe mitigated only by working occasional shifts at the bookstore and cobbling together a few babysitting jobs. So to get that call, after an interview I thought I bombed (Boss: "And what are you interested in down the road?" Me: "Well, after the work I did with Americorps, I'm pretty interested in obtaining my teaching certification and working more directly in the field of education." Boss: "Oh...well, we're hoping to find someone who will be staying here more long-term..." Me: "D'oh! Backtrack backtrack backtrack..."), offering me a full-time permanent position with a SALARY and BENEFITS! --well, that was a thrill. I felt like a real adult for the first time. (I even went out and bought myself a comfy chair with my first paycheck--my first furniture purchase!--just to cement my adulthood.)

It was also sobering, though. A little too open-ended. I told myself I'd work there for at least two years, and then I'd re-evaluate my options. Three years ago when I first opened the drawer of the desk I'd be using, I found an assortment of office supplies, including one of those 1,000-count boxes of staples. Only one strip of staples had been used. I wondered cheerfully how many years it must have sat in that desk, through how many former tenants of my position. This box of staples will be here long after I'm gone, I thought.

Yesterday my stapler ran out of staples. I opened my trusty little box, and pulled out the

That's right: I've used a thousand staples in the last three years. The box that seemed set to outlast me--empty, all its staples used up.

I didn't make much of it at the time. I refilled my stapler and tossed the empty box into the recycling bin.

Still, it's a bit of a marker. I went through an entire 1,000-count box of staples, and counting--and I'm still in the same holding pattern. Last year when I reached my two-year mark I did start looking around to see what new direction might be worth pursuing. The direction I found (north) didn't work out after all, so I stayed on, and don't regret it a bit. I like my job and my coworkers immensely. I could see myself staying on there for another three years or more and enjoying it thoroughly.

But now the busy season is over, I have a new box of staples, and it's time to analyze my path. I want it to be a conscious decision, and not find myself staring at another empty box of staples in three years, wondering where they all went.

Sunday, November 14, 2004

Justice Ministry

New to the blogroll, over there to your right: Justice Ministry. Highly, highly recommended. I just found out about this website about an hour ago. I hear these sermons every week and I think, "I wish I had a photographic memory so I could transcribe these and put them online for other people to enjoy." Lo and behold, here they are after all!

Start here for a taste: "The Unbearable Lack of Loopholes."

This is what keeps my batteries charged throughout the week. This is why I don't curl up in a corner and cry. This is what keeps me sane and gives me hope.

And that's good news.

Thursday, November 11, 2004

I'm much more a night person than a morning person. I can stay up all night if I feel like it, but waking up before 7:00 a.m., even if I get plenty of sleep, is anathema to me. Oh, I do my best, and I always make it to the bus on time, but I love sleeping in on my days off.

I have today and tomorrow off, and what do I do first thing this morning? Bounce out of bed at 6:30 a.m., of course, just after my husband left. I was so excited to have four days off in a row! After weeks of maniacal frenzy at work, finally I would have two days entirely to myself, and I wanted them to be as long as possible. As I got dressed I sketched out a quick outline of the day: go for a long walk, drink some coffee, and sit down at the computer to write.

I didn't stick to the schedule completely, but I did indeed go for a walk. Discovery Park is across the canal and not too far, but I'd never ventured to find my way over there on foot before. It was a foggy, chilly morning, and still quiet at 7:30 a.m. when I set out. It only took me about a half hour to get to the North Parking Lot of Discovery Park; I can't believe I've lived in this apartment for a year without trying out that route before.

I hiked up to the Daybreak Star Indian Cultural Center to look out over Puget Sound as the fog cleared. We just acquired a digital camera, and I'm still trying to figure out how to use it to take good pictures. I took the ones below from the top of the bluff, anyway. The first obvious problem is that I can't seem to make my horizons straight. Kind of a problem when looking at the ocean, eh? We'll see how much better I can get in the days ahead.

Blackberry bramble over Puget Sound

Shilshole Marina through the fog

Dandelion in the meadow

Grass in the field

Sun breaking through the fog

Flower at Hiram M. Chittenden Locks

Tuesday, November 09, 2004


I made something tonight.

I put a couple of frozen chicken breasts into a pot and filled it about a third of the way with water. I chopped broccoli, celery, onion, and potatoes, adding them to the water bit by bit. I vigorously shook parsley and bay leaves into the bubbling mix. A few hearty dashes of salt and pepper, a half-cup or so of milk, and a quick stream of marsala cooking wine, just because I was curious what it would do. I let it simmer together for a while, then threw in a couple of handfuls of stir fry noodles.

Oh, it was good. We both ate a bowlful before sitting back with groaning bellies. There's a big container of it left over, too, which will make a fine little lunch to reheat tomorrow.

We've been so lax at cooking for ourselves lately. After being so good at alternating nights and cooking for each other, we got out of the habit over the summer, especially during the frenzied weeks before the wedding. Then there was that stretch where we mostly existed on ramen noodles for the last week or two of each month to make the dollars last without resorting to the credit card. And as hot as it was here this summer, neither of us really wanted to heat up the house to cook anyway.

When we once again gained two incomes this fall, it became so easy to continue our laziness and eat out. Or order pizza. Very shortsighted of us, we agreed, and pledged to be more responsible. Then we lost the special events coordinator at work just a month and a half before our one huge special event, and I ended up working 60+ hours a week to help out. That was also not good for our cooking schedule. Lots of Taco del Mar, those weeks.

Now autumn is cooling into winter, and the warmth of the oven is welcome in our apartment. I stir my cobbled-together chicken soup and glow with pride. (Pride and the heat of the stovetop, I suppose.) My husband has been sick, and we are both hungry, but I--I have created soup. And it is good.

Of course, some people might say soupmakers must create ex nihilo, so they will deny that I really had anything to do with the appearance of the soup on our table. I am, instead, a temptation to doubt in the divine providence of the soup--a lie of Satan leading witless souls to stray from the true origins of the soup.

Still, the soup was very good.

Monday, November 08, 2004

Last Leaves

"She makes me feel like a little kid," my brother said last Sunday as he walked into church with our mother.

He was three years old when I finished reading Lord of the Rings. My sister and I trotted through the field and the woods behind our house, describing our beautiful imaginary horses and lopping off weeds with our stick-swords. I called myself "Abner" and my sister called herself "Al." Abner and Al were Robin Hood-style warriors, defending the powerless against the depradations of the wicked. When he wanted to play, we called him "Angellor" to continue the alliteration, and the three of us wielded sticks against invisible enemies all year.

It was two winters later when we dressed up in Nana's old clothes, pulling her faded dresses over our grubby jeans and sweatshirts, and he begged until we gave him a dress to wear, too. Then the three of us preened together in our chilly bedroom, twirled and danced, pitched our voices an octave higher to sound like grown-up ladies.

That was the winter we moved. Our parents spent a week scrubbing dog shit out of the new house before we could move in. We spent the week with Grandma and Grandpa; they spent the week shampooing dog shit out of carpets, cleaning spiders and mouse droppings out of closets, and patching holes in the water-stained ceiling. "It's a better school district," they said while they scrubbed. "We're only five minutes from town here," they reminded each other when they lay down aching into bed at night. "Everything will be easier now," they told themselves.

But that house was still too small for their submerged emotions. The alcohol was gone, but that just gave anger and depression more space to sprawl out in, and they started taking their arguments outside where there was room to bellow. My sister and I heard him crying, and we crept down the hallway through the kitchen to our brother's room. We sat on his bed and tried to calm him down. We sang "Jesus Loves Me" and "This Little Light of Mine. When the fight outside filtered into his bedroom anyway, we sang louder, doing the hand motions.

This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine.
Ths little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine, let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.
Hide it under a bushel? No! I'm gonna let it shine.
Hide it under a bushel? No! I'm gonna let it shine, let it shine, let it shine, let it shine...
He turned twelve just before I left for college. That year I had to write a paper either defending or questioning the GPA system. I attacked it, writing about my brother's ability to teach himself computer skills in his spare time from the time he was ten years old. I argued that the grading system did nothing to accurately gauge his intelligence, but only to measure his ability to complete rote assignments and memorize facts for tests--tasks he performed poorly. Of course, it wasn't my professor who needed convincing: it was my father, who had taken low grades as proof of my brother's "stupidity" and heaped scorn on him every chance he got.

He was nineteen last summer when he informed me that if I wasn't a Christian, he shouldn't be talking to me because I might corrupt his integrity. "I gotta keep my witness pure," he said. "And if you can't agree with that, I shouldn't be talking to you and letting you make me doubt things.

"I gotta keep my witness pure," he repeated.

As they walked into church together last Sunday, he announced to my mother, "She makes me feel like a little kid, and I just don't want to talk to her anymore."