Oddments

In search of story


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Eighteen

He died.

You met David in my blog last March. I’d just received word that he was losing his years-long battle with cancer, and I did the only thing I could: I wrote. I cried, too.

There are some people in our lives who are — in our hearts — always eighteen, and David was one of those. It’s a self-congratulatory thing, I know: if he’s still eighteen then I am too, right? I’m filled with vigor instead of disease. I have hormones and bones, collagen and memory!

But it isn’t so, as David’s death attests.

I am not young any more; I had my turn and it’s long over. So it’s delusional to feel those hormones. But the fact is that friends from our growing-up years awaken the eighteen-year-old that was, and that’s a real bliss point. Being eighteen was imperfect, but it had a lot going for it. People who were eighteen with us have their roots in the same imperfections and in the soil of that time, which for us was searingly eroded by the lava flow called The Sixties.

David went to college and to Viet Nam. He left eighteen behind rapidly. But whenever I saw him over the years eighteen was still there. It was unmistakable though maddeningly elusive. It was fun and melancholy at the same time: that matchbox of eighteen and the freight train of age.

David loved trains. He even knew “Up and Down the Monon,” one of several neglected classics of Indiana railroad lore. So trains bring David to mind in a very colorful, gritty, nostalgic way. We grew up in a spaghetti bowl of railroad tracks and heard the same midnight trainsongs.

May the angels lead you, David. Save a place.


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A daughter on Mothers’ Day

Mom was struggling to breathe, so I drove her to the ER. Pericardial effusion, they said, then emergency surgery, biopsy, and pathologist’s report: possible cancer. A week later, wanting only an understanding of what was happening to her and a proper bath and shampoo, she lay in her hospital bed.

Telling my mother to do anything was usually not an option for me. However, after that surgery and that week, I told her we were going to the University of Chicago Hospitals, and I told her to ask her primary care physician for a referral there. Uncharacteristically, she did not argue.

That’s how things stood that day when I was sitting in a chair at the foot of Mom’s bed, and he came in. He gave Mom a Chicago doctor’s name, a name he’d picked, he said, because he found it amusing. A cardiologist. Mom expressed her surprise, that she’d expected to be referred to an oncologist.

Stabbing his finger in the air at her, he raised his voice: “I NEVER SAID YOU HAD CANCER! NO ONE EVER SAID YOU HAD CANCER!”

Mom started to shake and reached for the oxygen, but she persisted, asking why, then, the pathologist had mentioned possible cancer cells.

“Because,” he snapped, “she’s a woman and she’s covering her ass!”

Less than two months later, Mom died. Cancer in her brain, lung, lymph nodes, pericardium and heart. We never knew where it started or where else it had metastasized.

Mom’s dying was tortured, brutal. I was there, and I can still see it. “I NEVER SAID YOU HAD CANCER” sounds in infinite loop around it.

My stomach hurts as I write this. Where do caregivers go with these memories? Where are the words for the anger and the helplessness?


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Summer

The email came a few days ago: he was in a nursing home and not expected to live much longer. That tall skinny kid with the close-cropped curly brown hair who never could be still? Whose arms and legs were miles long and as restless as his mind? Whose motormouth was legend? Whose presence was felt even in absence? — witness “Excelsior” and “FL” scrawled on blackboards as he lurched through our world. Whose protest song, “…back to back, belly to belly, well, I don’t give a damn…,” wafted over our heads? HE is in a nursing home?

And thus does memory distort and taunt. That verbal Riverdance, without a static cell in his body, left his imprint over fifty years ago. That kid is not in the nursing home. The man cancer made of him is in the nursing home.

I took out a notecard with a picture of a Tiffany window: “Summer” — deep magentas and purples as vital and exuberant as that summertime of life when we were barely adults and had only the looking forward. I wrote a few words to him, but there were really no words, only pen marks. I should have sent him an envelope of silence; it would have had more meaning.

Sputnik christened our freshman year. We were wrested out of the 50s and into the 60s by forces barely imaginable. That bright, intense kid seems the emblem of that life’s summertime, turned so quickly arid by war.

One day in that pre-war summertime, he told me I had great legs, which he likened to an inner latch in a coffin. Today, as I admire their varicose palette, not unlike those Tiffany colors, I hear his wisecrack and I remember the summer. Thanks, David.