Because I like long titles, that's why.
In the 1970's, my sister developed complications while delivering her last child and had to have her blood transfused, or die. Placenta praevia, I believe they call it. She ended up with two things out of the precarious deal: My sweet, tough and beautiful niece, Carly, and a case of Hepatitis C, that lay dormant in her body for the better part of thirty years. She was relatively asymptomatic for a good long while, but began to show increasingly more severe symptoms, and by the time 2009 rolled around, was having to visit the emergency clinics to have pumped out of her what her failing liver could not process. I accompanied her to the University of Washington Hospital in February of 2010 in an attempt to get her on a list for a liver transplant, but it seemed clear by that time that 1) The disease was progressing exponentially and 2) The wait for a liver would take much longer than my sister had left to live. We all visited her at her house at the end of April, listened happily to the music of John Prine, and more or less pretended that she wasn't lying in her living room on a hospital bed, and those weren't Hospice instructions tacked to the sheet of green paper on the wall. Mary and I left for the Oregon Coast where I stared out at the water, watched the pelicans, and wondered about life's transitions. When we returned, Penny was in the hospital and not making much sense. We bought for her one last order of fish and chips and drove home. That was Sunday. On Wednesday, May 5th, she did not wake up. Don't talk to me about the trouble with Obamacare, or any other kind of health care snafus, because I will only slam my dead sister's case back down your throat. If the Affordable Care Act had been up and running in 2010, my sister would be alive today. You see, even though there was no test to detect Hep C in blood until 1992, it was still one of those notorious pre-existing conditions. But I don't really want to argue about insurance companies. I just want to tell you that I mourn my dear sister to this day and will probably never stop mourning her. On Facebook, there is a little doo-dad you can click on that allows you to poke a person as a means to let them know that you're thinking of them. Two weeks after she died, and for reasons inexplicable to me, my sister poked me on Facebook. As far as signs go, that's enough for me.
Have I told you abut BCG treatments? Yes, I have. Have I told you about the kidney stones that relentlessly attacked me about the time I was recovering from cancer? No. Don't judge. Kidney stones hurt like hell. I had one nurse tell me that she'd had both kidney stones and labor, and she'd choose labor over the stones any day. I asked my urologist,Dr. A., if the stones could somehow be connected to the bladder cancer and he said, "No."
"But couldn't they have irritated the bladder so much over time that they created an environment for cancer cells to grow?"
He said, "No."
Then I started noticing other symptoms in addition to the stones, such as extreme fatigue, bone pain, confusion, among others and I began to worry that maybe the cancer had returned in a different form and my days were numbered. I was writing two different novels at the time; One that started out being called, The Short Happy Life of Cameron Galloway, and then morphed into The Boy Who Sat on Eggs, which then became Hello In There, and then was finally published as Cameron and the Girls. The other novel I was working on was called Boy Unknown, the story of an adolescent who can cure people of their ailments by reading to them. This was the irony I lived through most of 2010. I read to myself a lot, but no cures. Just additional diseases. But the big one didn't appear under the guise of diagnosis until 2011, so it doesn't qualify for this post.
While I was in New York in October, back in Spokane my closest friend was walking up the stairs to his writing room with a piece of toast and a cup of coffee and fell, down the stairs, but also into a coma that he never woke up from. He lingered for a couple of days, long enough for me to think about coming home and fulfilling the promise I had made to him a year before. I told him that yes, if he was in a vegetative state with no hope for recovery, I would be willing to kill him as a favor not only to him but to those suffering around him. Perhaps kill is too harsh a word. I would be willing to put him out of his misery as only a close friend should be willing to do in such a circumstance. I was never put to that test; Bob died before I returned. I would have done it, though, and met whatever consequences faced me as a result.
By the time 2010 was drawing to a close, I was very much looking forward to 2011. I don't know why, though. An additional life threatening diagnosis and two more surgeries awaited me. But here I am. Looking at the close of another year. Still alive. Still kicking. I get maudlin at the end of a calendar year. I am a sentimentalist who has developed into a bit of a realist. But you know what? 2010 made me that way. And it's now freed me up in a way I've never felt free before. Here I now sit at the center of the world; just like me, the equator makes the earth a little rounder at the middle, and I couldn't be happier.
As I write, I hear music out my window. The people here are celebrating not only the New Year, but the opening of a new street. A new street? Yes, a new street. I hope always to be in a place that thinks a new street is worth celebrating.
Tomorrow is a new year. And even if Hell on Earth awaits me again in 2014, I will be prepared for it. I'm walking down this new street now. And I feel like celebrating.
SVD is the title of a YA novel I've written and have been trying to locate for the past three years. So, don't steal it, it's mine. I have been told that my blog posts are tending to be somewhat morose, so I thought I would liven it up a bit by talking about my near-death experiences. What better subject matter to consider as we draw close to the end of yet another calendar year and approach, in spite of the personal protests, yet another one of those godforsaken birthdays that we used to look forward to as children.
To begin with, I'd like to admit that I've always been a bit of a private person. Shy is maybe a better word, but private nonetheless. There are those who would argue with this premise but they're stupid so don't pay attention to them. I am and always have been shy. Except for that one time during my freshman year of college when I accidentally went to the wrong party. I said shy and I mean it.
In March of 2010 I was just as shy as I am now, which explains my frustration when my new urologist asked me to strip and when that was accomplished, asked my permission for two intern-types to observe the examination. I did happen to notice that the intern-types were already in the room and introducing themselves, so I said sure
As for the urologist, I don't care where you're from, I simply want to be able to understand you. Dr. A. is from Romania and I am not entirely convinced that the root of his language is a romance one. I do love this man, though; maybe because I have never been this intimate with a male before, and, perhaps most importantly, he has small knuckles. In any event, his demeanor and decision-making do not always involve the patient, which is how it came to pass that I ended up on his table, in front of an audience, with a camera jammed into my urethra.
I am not talking abut the 35mm variety, or even a camera phone, thankfully, although during the process, it seemed somewhat like one of the old Polaroid cameras as it wended its way to its destination in my bladder. Sick yet? I was. I must say, Dr. A. was quite thorough, and quick, which is the kind of skill you want in a spelunking urologist. It wasn't long before he yanked out the camera and declared, not to me, but to the intern-types, "Jes, we haf a tumor." Sorry, all of the accents of my non primary English speaking characters sound like Arnold Schwarzenneger.
Sad, I thought. I wonder what poor sap he's talking about.
"Ve vill schedool ze surgery for ten dayse."
"Nice ass," said the female intern-type when she left the examining room. Not really, but given the circumstances, I could have used a pronouncement like that.
And this, dear friends, was my introduction to having been diagnosed with a high-grade, fast growing, unfriendly, malignant tumor in March of 2010, approximately 10 days before one of my closest friends died from lung cancer.
Shy, I said.
But not for long.
I've asked several pole dancers this, and they agree that once you start stripping for strangers on a regular basis, you kind of get immune to it. Which is what happened to me. I got so used to it that I was all the way down to my boxers before I realized, or the assistant reminded me that I was, in fact, at the dentist for a teeth cleaning. They were pretty good sports about it, though.
I had surgery. Two of them actually. I have to say I enjoyed them both. There is nothing better at a time like that than total sensory deprivation and back-up drugs. The tumor was removed, and then it seemed like a different type of tumor took its place (hence the second surgery), but this turned out not to be true. The reason it looked that way was because of a little procedure I was undergoing that I like to call Hell On Earth.
Hell On Earth is a procedure that is now administered post surgery for those stricken with bladder cancer, and it is known by the acronym BCG. Which stands for Bacillus Calmette-Guerin, a vaccine developed by a French bacteriologist and a veterinarian. This last person's occupation gave me pause but it is true that sometimes people treat animals better than they do humans so I was all in. Until I found out how this vaccine is administered.
"Not again," I cried to Dr. A. who was already inviting people into the examining room. This time I think it was the practice's accountant and an uncle from Romania without a green card. I assume it is not unlike some of the more forbidden forms of Santeria in that as I lay naked on the cold table, Dr. A. and his assistant were mixing some kind of solution out of my eyesight, using a pre-Columbian volcanic mortar and pestle. Or so it seemed.
Then this happened: Dr. A. threaded, what I thought was, a rather large catheter into my screaming urethra until it hit bottom, and then utilizing a rusty funnel obviously not sterilized in the local autoclave , poured the smoking liquid into the funnel and eventually into my poor aching bladder.
"Now," he says. "You do not use ze bathroom for two hours." This followed by the by now ritualistic ripping of the catheter from my nether parts.
"You've got to practice doing that more sweetly," I say, but he, the accountant and the uncle are already long gone and I am left, naked and shivering, and alone. But I have my orders.
Let me ask a question, and it will be a harsh one: Have you ever pissed razor blades? Sorry for the language, but my God in heaven! That will make a believer out of you. Once a week for six weeks pleading to some as yet unnamed gods to stop the torture of eight, count them, eight hours of ridding the bladder of a tuberculosis virus instilled under shady conditions and unhappy not to be in its natural environment, which I believe is actually the lungs. Ouch! I'll say that again: Holy Mother of God. I begged for leeches or a blood-letting instead.
2010 couldn't get any worse, I thought. Please don't make it any worse. I'll strip professionally if I have to. I'll invite the Mormon Tabernacle Choir into the examining room. Just don't make it any worse than the razor blades. And then, in the middle of this six weeks of karmic payback, my poor sweet sister died for no good reason.
To be continued...
I just finished reading what I consider to be The Great American Novel. And I say that because this Steinbeck book, though written in 1938, still resonates today and if we're lucky, will resonate for the duration. The title was discovered by Carol Steinbeck, Mr. Steinbeck's first wife, and is taken from one of the verses of the famous Julia Ward Howe song, The Battle Hymn of the Republic: He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.
I once wrote a novel about the ashes of D. H. Lawrence and the early part of the book takes place in a TB Sanitarium in North Carolina. I wanted it, of course, to sound authentic so I researched southern dialects, mostly by speaking with friends who were either living in the South, or had been born in the South and had still retained an accent. The problem, I quickly discovered, was that there were as many different accents as there were friends and family to interview. But I did my best and my agent tried to do her best by advising me that it might be a good idea to drop the attempt at dialect and just write it in English. Liz, if you're reading this, I haven't forgotten. There will come a day...
The genius of John Steinbeck in this novel is that he did his research so well that he came up with an absolutely true accent for the folks he was writing about. It's not North or South or Midwest or West or even East; it's a working class accent that carries the book with both its complexity and simplicity. It is a stroke of genius and allows the story of good honest folk pitted against the Big Business, grammatically better speaking, wolves (sound familiar?) to capture us and wrench our hearts and souls. Just like can happen now, when The Grapes of Wrath first came out, there was a lot of blowback against Mr. Steinbeck regarding his portrayal of the big bad business guys. And just like now, the bad guys were in a position of power to control the workers both financially and politically. It was a horrific circumstance for people who were quite literally starving to death. History can and does repeat itself, or else it keeps going along the same way and we just don't pay close enough attention all the other times.
I am absolutely stunned at the grace and power that this book possesses. But some of it, I might have personalized. Like the Joads, my father was a victim of the Dust Bowl period. He was the youngest of ten, and after his mother died from tuberculosis when he was 12, he and his father worked as sharecroppers in Oklahoma. According to my father, they did not get along, and when he turned 15, his father told him he was on his own, his old man was going to California. My father reluctantly went along. It is there that his stories about the trip west stop. My Aunt Johnnie said that when my father arrived in California, he was a stick figure, and I can only imagine what he must have had to go through. He went on to join the Civilian Conservation Corps and then the Army and kept up with some of his family relationships, but not with his father, it seems. It was said by my mother, that when my father presented her to my grandfather, Grandpa said, "Welp, I see you've gone and got yourself a squaw." Maybe leaving your home on a long dusty trail to you-don't-know-where does that to a person. My father was affected by leaving Oklahoma; he was affected by World War II. I have been greatly affected by John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath.
In another matter, I hope it wasn't my fault that the very day after I posted my last blog, one of the pigs was butchered next door. I think this may be the beginning of a trend where these pigs are concerned. If it is my fault, I hereby humbly apologize to my porcine neighbors and wish you the best in whatever afterlife is reserved for pigs. Don't you just love bacon?
They say that fortune favors the bold, so here goes. Over the years, I have lived next to a variety of types, some kindly, neighborly and some a little on the nutty side. But never have I been subjected to the kind of neighbors who now reside right across the concrete block fence where I first met Doris.
Pigs. There's no other way to say it. Slovenly, noisy, smelly, cantankerous pigs. The whole lot of them. Inevitably present. As if they are members of a cult called Pig Dynasty. They squeal and snort and bang against the fortress that keeps them from my side. And so do their animals.
Just kidding. I feel sorry for Doris, now having to live over there full time. Something happened. Either I came on too strong for her, or the priggish neighbors (I said priggish, not, well, you know) decided enough was enough. They seem the overly OCD type. I can visualize them up in their room, counting up the eggs at the end of a long cackling day and finding, always, that they are one oblong prize short.
They staked out a spy and her name is Guinevere, or at least that's what I've named her. She looks harmless enough what with her hoe in one hand and her GPS monitor in the other. But it's always the harmless looking ones who turn out to be the ruiners of a good time. And why, I ask you, does she not speak Spanish or Kichwa? It's either one or the other or both here. I suspect she's a plant and do you know why? Because Doris no longer comes to visit. That's why. No clumsy winged entry into my yard. No feverish search for the right bugs. No gifting me with the missing egg from the count next door. Nothing.
So here I am, without my favorite feathered visitor, without eggs, without, practically, the will to live. I do not take this sudden neighborly challenge lightly. I have friends in the business too, you know. Dennis has already asked me to go to Venezuela to work out a deal and Kirk says he's in. I am not without resources.
This just in: Forget what I said about the neighbor's 007-type hire. Apparently the reason she cannot speak Spanish or Kichwa is that she is brain-damaged after suffering a fall in her youth. I need to apologize. To her and to the pigs, who are, after all, only being themselves. Besides, I have now discovered the positive benefits of the plant called The Caballero (or gentleman, in Spanish...I don't know what it is in Kichwa, but I can tell you that while riding the bus today I did understand my first interchange in Kichwa. It was, and I quote: "Goodbye, Hernando. Goodbye, Luisa." It won't be long now until I'll be fluent in a practically extinct language.
Where was I? Oh yes. The caballero is a plant that only blooms at night, similar to the infamous Dama de Noche (or lady of the night) in Spain. When the pigs are at their quietest, but also for some strange reason, their smelliest, The Caballero, in a very gentlemanly manner blooms and produces one of the plant kingdom's most intense colognes to cancel out anything those pigs want to throw my way. So there, piggies. Be my neighbors. Be the pigs that you are. I don't care. I have The Gentleman to help me out. So I don't need to call on my undercover agents after all. But worry not, Dennis and Kirk, I'm still going to Venezuela.
I came to that conclusion while waiting for a bus on the side of the Pan American Highway, that piece of road that runs from somewhere up in Canada to the tip of South America. The bus stop is very near one of the few stoplights on the highway and when the light turns red, a group of street (or highway, I guess) performers runs out into the road and juggles, unicycles, plays Andean flutes, does backflips, or some combination of all those things. I'm standing there enjoying the show, when one of them turns to me and shouts, "Papa Noel! Papa Noel, give me a dollar!" I looked around. The other folks waiting for the bus did not in any fashion fit the description of Santa Claus, so my expert deductive skills figured out that he must have been talking about me. So, as this offender stood in the median and the traffic started moving, I shouted back, "Have you been a good boy?" He nodded his head, but I still threw him only a quarter because I knew in my heart he most likely was lying.
And that would have been the end of it all, except for that little boy outside the TIA store in Cotacachi a few days later. He was cute, as most Ecuadoran children seem to be and his eyes sparkled with mischief. He crooked his finger at me and I suspected that he would ask for a nickel or some other small denomination. But when I leaned down to find out what he wanted, he promptly pulled on my beard, squealed and ran, crying, "Papa Noel! Papa Noel!" Coincidence, you say? I think not. I feel I am now in the center of a broad South American conspiracy to profile me as the ideal Santa.
Perhaps I should be flattered. After all, to already be identified as a local after such a short time here, speaks to my ability to assimilate, doesn't it? It's just that, well, Santa? I want to tell that street performer, that little boy, and yes, later, that vendor at the Plaza de los Ponchos in Otavalo, that I have, in fact, lost about twenty pounds since coming to Ecuador, which should boot me right out of the Santa category and into, maybe, a charming sort of pudgy elf group.
But I think it's my hair. Whiter than I recall it being, and somewhat long in its present state. And my Benedict Arnold beard, that betrayed me when I was in my Thirties and has added insult to grayer injury ever since. Luis, who works for us, suggested I should go up to the top of Mt. Imbabura with my eight tiny reindeer and swoop down on Peguche with my sleigh loaded with gifts for young and old. This, of course, came on the heels of him telling me the sad story of his life and how, as a child, he waited and waited for Papa Noel to appear every Christmas night, but he never came, which I assume led Luis to believe that he had been too bad for a visit from the jolly man. He insists that his life would be better if Santa actually brought him a gift this Christmas. That mischievous twinkle, by the way, does not leave the eyes of those cute children, even when they have reached, say, the age of Luis. Incidentally, I am not climbing that mountain on Christmas Eve, reindeer or no reindeer. Alpacas or no alpacas, as the case may be.
I am avoiding red this Christmas, and sweets, of course. I will take long walks and eat less so that next year at this time, I can be better suited for the tiny elf category. "Look, it's that skinny gray American!" they will say. And I will grab my stomach, laugh, and shake it like a bowl full of low calorie jelly.