Thursday, December 15, 2016

Killing Him Softly

The following is a guest blogger story written by a friend who wishes to remain anonymous to protect her father's privacy. And it's a tough topic, but an extremely important one. I, for one, have seen enough suffering--my own and that of others--to be a proponent of the right to choose an expedited path to The Great Unknown when one's pain is too much to bear and it's clear that there's no returning from the abyss. 

You can spout all the religious doctrines you wish in opposition, but let's remember two things: (1) Religions are manmade constructs and anyone who believes otherwise is probably trying to sell you salvation on television for a mere $99/month (I am not anti-religion or spirituality and I consider myself a "seeker"--but I do not believe in using religion as a basis to argue my own perspective), and (2) We can never--NEVER!--know the full extent of someone else's suffering, so how then are we to judge their choices? (Hint: we're not supposed to) 

"Freedom" is one of those buzz words that gets tossed around quite a bit in the American culture. Why shouldn't this concept extend to end-of-life choices? 

When it comes to departing the physical realm by choice, I'll take compassion over condemnation any day. 

* * * 

My dad’s last cocktail was alcohol-free. For a man who started most days with a screwdriver, this was unusual. Instead of vodka, he mixed some white powder that I had prepared into his orange juice, choked down the lumpy concoction, and was gone 13 minutes later. I was there with him. This is my story.

My dad was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2010. He had symptoms for two years before that, but like a lot of guys he didn’t go to the doctor (side note: GUYS! go to the doctor. Getting a wand stuck up your butt would suck, yes, but not as much as slowly dying over six years from a disease that could have been treated). By the time he made an appointment, it was too late. He had six years of a slow-motion death. He knocked everything off his bucket list, including a cruise to the Panama Canal. Oh, and a cruise to Mexico with me and my daughters, where he learned Gangnam-style dancing. That’s my dad.

Things got worse in 2015. He stopped his chemo treatment and entered hospice care, which is usually a 6 month or less deal. He was in hospice for almost a year. Then in June of 2016, when the cancer had spread to his spine and the pain was relentless, California passed a new law known as the aid-in-dying law. Similar to Oregon’s law, it allows patients with terminal illnesses to end their suffering without the stigma of suicide. Oddly enough, it became my dad’s lifeline for a while. Knowing the option was available to him gave him comfort, and pushing forward to get approval from his doctors gave him something to focus on.

I supported him in thispartly because I was pretty sure Dad would fill the prescription, then let nature take its course. I thought he wanted the comfort of having a choice, but not the fear involved in actually making that choice. I was wrong.

On a Sunday in August, I called Dad for our usual weekly call, which involved me trying really hard not to be impatient as he told the same stories over and over, obsessed over his need for earthquake insurance, and griped about all the people who annoyed him.

He told me that he would be seeing a second doctor that Tuesday, one who would confirm his diagnosis and back up the recommendation of the first doctor, that he be prescribed the medication. I decided to make the 1.5 hour drive down to be present during that visit. I had no idea I wouldn’t be returning home that night. The doctor said that he was eligible, and she would be arranging the prescription within days. I scrambled to arrange things so that I could stay. It was clear my dad was serious and he was ready.

It took three days for the prescription to be available. It wasn’t as simple as “phoning it in”, and only one pharmacy in the county would fill it. We were informed that it would cost $3,600the pharmaceutical company had jacked the price up as soon as the law was passed (thanks, a-holes). It came in 90 capsules containing powder, which the pharmacist had to empty one by one into a vial. Oddly enough, the pharmacy took my dad’s credit card as payment, which seemed to be a questionable business decision.

The label said “May be habit-forming”. I think not.

We made plans for Dad to take the medication that coming Monday, when his hospice team was available to be nearby and provide support. I was terrified. What if he chucked it up, or fell off the chair he had selected as his final stop? I felt comforted knowing that hospice would be within arm’s reach if I ran into trouble.

Only, they weren’t. Dad decided on Saturday that he was ready. He had a couple bites of breakfast, then announced that he wouldn’t be eating anything else, as he wanted to “get the show on the road”. The instructions told us to wait 5 hours after eating, so we agreed that at 3pm, he would take the anti-nausea pill, then at 4pm he would drink his final cocktail. And that’s when it really hit me. I started to get shaky and dizzy.

We waited. What did we talk about? I hardly remember. I kept thinking it wasn’t real, that he wouldn’t do this alone, without hospice support. It was unfair to me. It was selfish. My husband drove down with our kids to see him, and I didn’t have the heart to tell him of the new timeline. He drove off, and I walked back inside.

At 3pm, I told Dad that he could still change his mind. That once he took the anti-nausea pill, it would be hard to turn back because we would then have to wait to get another one when we rescheduled it. He looked at me, popped the pill, and I knew this was happening.

For the next hour, we sat around and made small talk. I don’t remember much, but it went by surprisingly quickly. My mother had agreed to be there at 4pm to support me, but when the clock struck 4, she wasn’t there. My parents were long-divorced but still friendly. “She’s always late! This will teach her,” Dad said. Some marital wounds never heal over.

With shaking hands, I put 4 ounces of orange juice in a glass in front of him, then brought the powder over. Dad said he didn’t want my fingerprints on any of iteven though what we were doing was legalso I humored him and used a napkin. I opened the medication and poured it into his glass. The powder puffed up around my face in a big white cloud.

At that moment, I was pretty sure it would be lights out for me instead. Waving away the clouds of powder in front of my face, I handed the drink to Dad.

The powder made a very lumpy concoction that must have been hard to choke down. But Dad did it, without hesitation. No last words, just a “Cheers” and he drank it down. My mom had arrived by then, and the three of us sat looking at each other for several minutes. Nothing happened. He shrugged his shoulders as if to say: I can’t even do this right! And then his head tilted down and he began to snore. I had learned that the process could take up to 24 hours, depending on the person’s physical health. My dad’s was not good.

About five minutes later, the snoring stopped. Dad wasn’t breathing any more. It was over. He was gone. His ending was peaceful and calm, and on his own terms.

At that point things got really challenging for me. I’m going to document all the details, in the hope that they will help other people considering this process. As I’ve been talking to people about it, I’m learning that this has been going on for agesthat people use morphine or other drugs to cause the same outcome, with a wink from the medical establishment. This new law legitimizes it, but it doesn’t introduce a new solution. It just alleviates much of the guilt felt by all parties, and for that I am thankful.

Once Dad was gone, I called hospice to send a nurse out. It took about 45 minutes, which isn’t longunless you’re sitting in a room with your dad’s body on a chair, mouth hanging open, color drained completely away. Then it’s the longest 45 minutes of your life. She pronounced him dead and asked me the time of death. Despite all my Grey’s Anatomy viewing, I had forgotten to note it. “4:13 p.m.”, I pronounced with confidence, totally making it up. “4:13 p.m.”

After that, there was nothing left but to wait for the funeral home to pick him up. True to form to his last moments, my Dad had recommended the cheapest possible solution, opting for an out-of-area cremation service that cost less. It took them four hours to arrive. Four more of the longest hours of my life, after the 45 longest minutes.

When they arrived, two well dressed young men who were very solicitous, they took an inventory of his clothing. ALL his clothing. They were rooting around to see if he was wearing underwear. I asked them to please stop, but they needed to know if he was wearing underwear so it could be returned to me along with his other clothing and belongings (like a watch, which came back to me with his ashes). Just say he’s not wearing any! I begged. Stop looking. My mom, in a rare display of awesome gallows humor, suggested we should have put him in shorts, because “it will be hot where he’s going”.

If you are going through this, I strongly suggest not looking when the funeral home staff puts the body on a stretcher. I really wish I hadn’t. To this day, my last memory is of Dad’s head flopping to the side, his arms flailing out. His skin was waxen and almost yellow. It wasn’t pretty, and I wish I hadn’t seen it.

They asked if my dad was a veteran. This stumped me. I knew he had served 28 days in the navy before being discharged for health reasons, but he never identified as a vet. Still, I couldn’t say no. So they got a flag, draped it over the stretcher, and asked “Ma’am, would you like to take a picture?” No, I really wouldn’t! I thought as I took the picture.

And then he was gone.

It’s been almost four months. Writing this feels cathartic. Not everyone responds well to this story; those who were raised Catholic, like my husband, find it difficult to process. But I know I did the right thing for my dad, and that I honored his wishes.

Rest in peace, Dad. I picture you dancing gangnam-style with a screwdriver in hand in the great beyond.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Bridal Underwear of the Worst Sort (APIWATWOL #2)

#2 in my "A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words Or Less" series. (For a description of how this series works, see Installment #1.)



This photo was taken well into Jeff's and my outdoor wedding reception in a wooded area north of San Francisco, Nicosio to be exact. The night sky served as a backdrop for the 18-piece jazz orchestra headed up by Jeff's pal, Chris. At this point in the festivities, my hair was a mess, matted with sweat from dancing. But beneath my wedding dress--a casual number that I bought off the rack while shopping with my pal Sabra--an even bigger mess was brewing.

See, I was wearing the most godawful undergarments imaginable. In addition to helping me select a dress that wasn't all lace and tulle, Sabra had instructed me in the ways of bridal underwear. (Bridal underwear? Seriously?) Specifically, she taught me that there existed pantyhose that actually went all the way up to one's boobs instead of stopping at the waist. Who knew?! Then she taught me about bras that ran extra long and, when combined with the extra tall pantyhose, would fortify a bride's efforts to keep her gooey pizza belly contained long enough for decent wedding photos. Hypothetically speaking, of course.

The catch? Like Cinderella's big night out, at some point these armor-like undergarments would lose their magical powers, similar to the way everything goes to hell when Cindy stays at the ball a tad too long. The jeweled carriage? Poof! Back to being a pumpkin. That gorgeous gown? Poof! It's once more the tattered frock she wears daily.

In similar fashion, at some point during the long night of dancing and mingling with pals who went as far back as elementary school, my overpriced, overly restrictive undergarments rebelled at my wedding reception. Just like that. No warning. Poof! 

First, I felt the steady downward curl of my pantyhose as they made their way south, gaining speed as they rolled into a thick coil around my waist, causing my upper belly to tumble out between the top of my pantyhose and the lower edge of my bra, like an overstuffed sausage whose casing had torn. Poof!

And then, without the help of the pantyhose holding it in place, the lower edge of my uber-bra snapped upward like a cheap window roller shade, only stopping when it had made its way halfway up my bosom, effectively cutting my breasts in half. Poof!

Nothing was where it was supposed to be and I thought if I pulled off my dress right then and there, my entire chest and belly area would look like a package of store-bought dinner rolls, all crammed together with only the slightest delineation of where one roll ended and the next began. Not exactly the look I was going for when the last of the guests left and Jeff and I officially launched our honeymoon (aka, had sex) in the main house on the property.

Thankfully, it appears I'm a one-wedding kinda gal, as Jeff and I still seem to like one another after 20 years together. Thus, never again will I have to subject myself to the humiliation of bridal undies.







Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Top Ten...and Never Again! (APIWATWOL #7)

#7 in my "A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words or Less" series. (For a description of how the APIWATWOL series works, see installment #1)


I came in 1st PLACE! (among the last 906 runners who completed the marathon)

Not exactly what you'd call a glam shot, but this is truly one of my Top 10 All-time Favorite Photos depicting one of my Top 10 All-time Favorite Moments in Life: the finish line of the 2001 NYC Marathon. Sixteen months after nearly buying the farm in childbirth.

Given the state of my joints today, I must also admit that running that race was one of my Top 10 All-Time Stupidest Things I've Done. (We don't need to get into the other nine.) It was, in hindsight, way too soon after my near-miss to be putting my body through something so taxing. But alas, what's done is done. And I wouldn't trade it for all the cartilage in the world.

So for today's APIWATWOL, I give you the Top Ten Reasons the Moment Captured by This Photo Is One of My Top Ten All-time Favorites:

(1) We made it. Not just to the end of the race, but to the end of the most horrific, unexpected, soul-crushing, blood-hogging, heart-opening, amazing journey we'd ever undertaken. Getting discharged from the ICU was an important chapter of that story, sure. But this race was the epilogue. A deeply satisfying epilogue.

(2) Jeff is with me. No, you don't understand. Jeff hates distance running. And by hates I mean loathes. So after I made him run a marathon with me back in 1997, I promised I'd never make him do another one. When I began training for this race on the one-year anniversary of my little dance with death, I assumed I'd be running solo. But one day, Jeff laced up his sneakers and kept pace with me as I made my way down our street. "You don't have to do this," I said to him. "Yes I do," he replied. And he did. What a guy. 

(3) I had enlisted friends, colleagues, people who sat next to me on the bus--anyone!--to help me raise money and blood for nonprofit blood centers with this race. Each day throughout my training, as I collected those little return envelopes from my letter campaign from the mailbox, I felt like I held in my hands little packets of encouragement. Each check felt like a friend saying, "I love and support you." Each commitment to donate blood (some for the first time ever) felt like a friend saying, "In honor of you, I will love and support a stranger in need." I wish everyone could experience this feeling, that of being completely supported in a worthy goal that is bigger than their individual lives. It's amazing. (And through mostly small donations of $10-$100, together we raised nearly $40,000 and over 500 pints of blood to help others who, like me, had their lives turned upside down with the need for blood transfusions.)

(4) I had actually planned to raise money for some sort of nursing-related effort because the nurses, and their incredible care of both me and my family members, is what I remember most from my six weeks in the hospital. So I'd phoned one of my nurses and told her my plan. Her response? "That's very sweet to think of us nurses, but if you really want to say 'thank you,' you ought to raise money for blood centers. You do realize you single-handedly created a blood shortage in San Francisco during your illness, right?" Ok, point taken. Blood it was. (But I still adore nurses. Wouldn't you?)

(5) I knew within the first three miles of the race that my body wasn't ready for this level of exertion. Jeff knew it somewhere around the fifteen-mile marker, when I had to lay down on the sidewalk--ironically, right beside a hospital. But to his credit, instead of saying "we should quit" he said "should we quit?"--allowing the final decision to rest solely at my feet. My throbbing, soles-on-fire feet. And I suspect he already knew my answer when he asked. There would be no quitting during this, my comeback race.

(6) There were fire trucks and firefighters every mile along the race course. Remember, this was a mere seven weeks after 9/11 and the stench of the attack was still in the air in lower Manhattan. The firefighters were there to clap and cheer for the runners, but, as if on cue, the runners would all clap and cheer for the firefighters. It was a Mutual Admiration Society of the best kind. A true display of humanity in action. 

(7) While Jeff and I had our reasons for participating in the race, it was obvious that thousands of other runners also had their own reasons motivating them along the race course that day. And damn--that was a sight to behold. People with the names of loved ones fighting cancer on their shirts. Others with the names of friends lost in 9/11 on theirs. One man, starting dead last, was running for charity and a large bank had agreed to donate $5 for every runner he passed throughout the race. So we're rambling along when I keep hearing, "On your left! Running for charity! On your left! Running for charity!" And, whoosh!--Mr. Charity Runner flies past. In the end, Larry Parker of Ladder 129 in Queens, raised over $118,000 for the Uniformed Firefighters Association Widows' and Children's Fund. Wow. Makes me tear up just thinking about it again.

(8) And speaking of tears, boy did I cry a LOT throughout that race. The starting gun goes off. I cry from the sheer magnitude of the moment. We exit the two-mile bridge that launches this race and thousands of people line the streets, hands outstretched for a high-five in passing. I imagine they are all my nurses and docs cheering me as I run out of the hospital. You got it--crying! I see that first fire truck, a dozen or so firefighters cheering from atop it. Bawling like a baby. A 6+ hour race gives a person plenty of time to think, which, in my case, meant plenty of time to cry. All good tears though. Tears of joy and exuberance and gratitude and humility. 

(9) We came in first place! (among the final 906 runners to complete the race) Ok, fine, so technically that doesn't qualify as "first place." Tomato, tomahto. My overall finishing place in the race was 22,758 and I AM SO FREAKING PROUD OF THAT!  22,757 people finished this race ahead of me, but I'm certain the level of pride I felt the moment I crossed that finish line was on a par with the pride felt by the overall winner of the race when he finished.  Four hours earlier. Ouch. 

(10) This photo was taken by one of the few remaining race volunteers. (See that pitch-black sky? Exactly.) As soon as we crossed the finish line, Jeff and I hugged one another like it was our last day on earth and I lost it. "We made it," I said. We. Made. It. I noticed a woman approaching us, probably to scoot us along, as was typical in marathons to prevent finish line traffic jams. Instead, she kindly, and with great reverence for the moment Jeff and I were sharing, asked if I'd like to have a photo taken with the disposable camera attached to my CamelBack. Yes. Yes I would. And this is that photo. 




Monday, December 12, 2016

The Dog Ate My Assignment (APIWATWOL #6)

#6 in my "A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words or Less" series. (For a description of how this series works, see installment #1)



Confession time. I really REALLY wanted to cheat when I pulled today's random photo for my APIWATWOL project, toss it back in the box and pull a different one. But I didn't. Because cheaters never win and winners never--oh never mind. Anyway, this photo is from the fall of 1980. And how the hell am I supposed to remember details from 1980?

At least I know that it was taken during my one ill-fated semester at Gettysburg College, the school I chose based on the fact that: (1) they had a later application deadline and I didn't think to start applying to colleges until January of my senior year in high school (d'oh!), and (2) it was the best school I got into, and (3) Gary, one year ahead of me at our high school, went there and he was smart (and possibly cute and I might've possibly had an ever so small crush on him which I might've--not saying I did--acted on once matriculated at Gettysburg). Anyway, I went to Gettysburg.

But I had this Home Town Honey back in South Jersey, who was five years my senior and had recently graduated college. Rather than reassure me that feelings of homesickness were normal for college freshmen, my HTH instead complained about missing me and why didn't I take the train home this weekend even though I had come home last weekend too. So, I took the damn train back home to spend the weekend with the HTH. Pretty much every weekend. Which meant that all my new pals at Gettysburg were getting to know one another better outside the classroom while I was busy playing housewife in a crappy apartment in South Jersey.

To my credit, and despite my complete lack of engagement at Gettysburg College, I do remember that the girl in this photo is named Cindy and that she was my best friend that semester. Although for the life of me I can't recall her last name. Or anything we did together. Or why I liked her (though I'll bet she had a strong sense of sarcasm if I'd designated her my BF). And since I can't recall a thing about Cindy beyond her first name, I decided I'd write about a few of the memorabilia that are pinned to the cork board in the upper righthand corner of the photo, small items I'd displayed on my dorm room wall as reminders of who I was--or at least who I wanted others to think I was.

But here's the thing. You can't see any of those memorabilia, can you? Or the cork board. Because I set this photo aside for the sake of procrastinating for, like, an hour. Tops. And when I returned to my writing spot to dig into my self-imposed assignment, the damn dog (yes, that cute little "fuck you, cancer" pup featured in installment #3 of APIWATWOL) had sunk his teeth into my assignment. Literally. And eaten the damn cork board. Figuratively.

Which means I had nothing to write about.

Which means I got out of this assignment.

Which means that RuPaul isn't a bad dog at all. In fact, quite the opposite.

Good boy, RuPaul. Good boy!


Happy to help, Mom!




Sunday, December 11, 2016

Bald Shrimp and Benne Wafers (APIWATWOL #5)

#5 in my "A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words or Less" series. (For a description of how this series works, see installment #1)


The back of Sabra's head and her gal pals: Liz, Carmen, Nina, Kara and moi (not pictured: Stephanie)

Ok, admittedly, this isn't the best photo in terms of composition, lighting--well, everything really. But I'm sticking with my own rules for the APIWATWOL project: the main photo must be picked at random, no mulligans.

Don't let the artistic quality (or lack thereof) of this picture fool you, though. My friend Sabra's 2012 Bachelorette Weekend was one of most enjoyable middle-aged chick parties ever. So much more fun than the typical 20-Somthing "Let's Go to Chippendales and Pretend We Give a Rat's Ass About Hot Guys Dancing Half-Naked" Bachelorette Party. Oh, wait. On second thought... (But I digress.)

When a group of women over the age of 40 gets together, there's a different kind of fun. The wine is better (we make more money). The housing is better (we make more money). The stories are better (we've been through more in life).

But most importantly, the sense of connection and camaraderie is palpable, as we've each had our share of hardships and have developed a sense of empathy as well as a greater appreciation for life's joyful times. We're well past the need to prove ourselves or compete in that subtle way our younger selves might've fallen prey to, be it through looks or accomplishments or job titles. Not one blowdryer or business card came out on this trip.

The beauty of Sabra's Bachelorette Weekend was that each of us--women she'd known since college, grad school, work, even the womb (she has a twin)--was there for the same reason: we adore our pal Sabra and wanted to celebrate her happiness. And that's enough. In fact, that's the best reason.

In this particular photo, we had just returned home from an afternoon of strolling the historic district of Charleston, during which we passed another gaggle of pre-wedding celebrants, two decades younger than us, who were drunk off their butts, wearing shorts and skirts that showed half their butts, and adorned with matching bachelorette party sashes and hats that were butt ugly. Thanks, butt no thanks.

While out and about, we had also enjoyed rooftop cocktails at a local hotel, where those of us who didn't grow up in the South tried to fill up on appetizers because we knew what lay ahead. Sabra had insisted that we dine on some of her childhood favorites during the weekend, and so upon returning to our rental home, she laid out a culinary spread reflective of her roots. And her roots, apparently, included "bald" (that's Southern-speak for "boiled," y'all) shrimp, slaw (as in cole), pimento cheese (don't even), benne wafers (flat dry cookies) and pecan pralines (sticky nuts forbidden by any dentist worth a damn).

I love you dearly, Miss Sabra, but shrimp aside, this Jersey Girl would take a cheesesteak with extra white American cheese and an ice cold Rolling Rock any day. Yo.

The bride-to-be enjoys a bald shrimp and a laugh


Better Wine (even with fake customized labels)

Better Housing (beachfront Charleston/Isle of Palms) 

Better Stories (who needs bars when you have a deck?)

Saturday, December 10, 2016

The Journey of a 1000 Miles (APIWATWOL #4)

#4 in the "A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words or Less" series. (For a description of how this series works, see installment #1)



The photo I chose at random for this installment of my new blog series, A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words or Less, was taken by Jeff in April of 2000, while my newborn baby girl was living 400 miles away with my brother’s family and I was on my sixth week in the hospital after a fairly significant childbirth-gone-bad experience.

That odd thing wrapped around my waist—the one that looks, ironically, like a baby sling—is holding four plastic containers attached to tubes inserted into my midsection for the purpose of collecting drainage from my third surgery that month. An extra hospital gown is tied around my neck like my very own Superwoman cape (and trust me, I did feel like Superwoman in that moment)—my nurse's attempt at preserving my dignity. As if I had any left at that point. 

You'll see that I am smiling—a Pavlovian response to the word cheese offered by Jeff as he snapped the photo. In actuality, I recall feeling mildly annoyed by the simple request of a photo, not out of vanity but because I felt I was going to puke any moment, the vertigo created by lying inert for five weeks rather overwhelming. I had set my goal at making it to the nurse's station about twelve meters from my hospital room, and pausing for even five seconds and raising my eyes the slightest bit to meet the camera lens felt like both a monumental burden and needless imposition. 

Beside me is Amy, my physical therapist, more upbeat than usual because it was the first time she’d managed to get me beyond the confines of my room. When I first met Amy, she asked me to lift my right leg off the mattress. No matter how much I willed my leg to rise, it lay there like a recalcitrant cinderblock. Same with the left leg. 

The next time Amy came to visit, I feigned sleep. She left without a word.

By my third Oscar-worthy slumber performance, Amy was on to me. I could no longer put her off. And so the real work of my recovery began, the work that involved greater reserves of tenacity than I had heretofore known existed within me. At that point in my life, I had completed six marathons. Not one had come close to the challenge afforded by learning to walk again.

My physical therapy sessions were grueling, both physically and mentally. Many days, I would’ve preferred to curl up in a ball and slip away to The Great Unknown, the way animals that know they're mortally wounded do. But our human ability to think is, as they say, what sets us apart. And my mind was full of thoughts of a baby I had yet to meet but for one brief visit when my brother and sister-in-law flew in for the day with Clare. Many times I thought my little girl was better off with them, hell, with anyone but me.

But every so often, such as the afternoon this photo was taken, I managed to muster up the old Lauren, the Lauren whose grit and stubborn optimism could overcome any challenge Life threw in her path. Like the task of making it all the way to the nurse’s station before pivoting and returning to the comfort of my bed and another dose of morphine. These were the moments that, I believe, helped me beat the medical odds of my illness. That allowed me to run one more marathon a year-and-a-half later just to prove to myself that I could.


Friday, December 9, 2016

Puppies and Practicalities (APIWATWOL #3)

#3 in the "A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words or Less" series. (For a description of how this series works, see installment #1)


This photo was taken on December 27, 2015, the day after we picked up RuPaul from the breeder in Michigan, the same breeder from whom we adopted Gigham and Duke as litter mates a decade earlier. RuPaul is lying on the floor of our little basement apartment in my mother- and father-in-law's home in Williamston, right before we loaded up the SUV and drove back to Boulder, sneaking him into a hotel somewhere along I-80 in Nebraska.

A week before we got RuPaul, we almost didn't go through with it. All because of one brief telephone call at a truck stop in Iowa on our drive out to Michigan.

We pulled up to the gas pumps and I told Clare, 15 at the time, to go ahead to the restrooms without me, that I wanted to make a quick call. As soon as she walked toward the building I told Jeff to send her back into the mini-mart for some made-up errand if she came back and I was still on the phone, quickly explaining that my biopsy results were in and I didn't want to have that conversation in front of her. He instantly got that look, the one he gets when one of the women in his life--his mother, his sister, me--is in trouble in a way that he's powerless to fix.

Jeff began pumping the gas. I got back in the car and dialed the number.

A medical assistant took my call and explained that the doctor was out for the rest of the day, could I please call back tomorrow. In no uncertain terms, I told her that I had less than four minutes to get some answers while my kid was inside a gas station on our road trip, and that I already knew the gist of my results based on the tone of the voicemail message I'd received. If there was nothing to worry about the message most likely would've been a quick, "Just wanted to let you know your biopsy results were clear. Have a great holiday." Instead, the message had been an ominous, "Please call the doctor as soon as possible." Reluctantly, the woman on the other end of the phone shared my results with me.

Sure enough, it was cancer. Not stage-4 terminal cancer, but cancer nonetheless. Cancer that would require treatment in the coming months. Cancer that might prove to be more than originally detected once lymph nodes were biopsied during surgery. Cancer that would make adopting an 8-week-old puppy, at best--impractical, at worst--downright stupid.

When we checked into our hotel in Iowa City that night, Clare said she wanted to workout at the hotel gym and take a bubble bath in the jacuzzi tub. Perfect. I convinced Jeff that he and I should walk to the closest liquor store for a bottle of wine, but while strolling the downtown pedestrian area in search of said wine I noticed a small Irish bar.

"You know what?" I said to Jeff. "We've been together almost 20 years and we've never done a tequila shot together."

He looked at me like he didn't quite get what I was saying, probably still a bit stunned by the news we'd received three hours earlier and hadn't yet shared with Clare.

"I have cancer, for chrissake," I continued. "Will you let me play the Cancer Card and go do a shot with me?"

"Sure," he said, the slightest smile emerging as he held the door to the pub open for me.

We spent the next couple hours formulating a plan. The strategy for finding an oncologist. Timing for surgery. How to tell Clare in a way that was honest, but wouldn't overwhelm her. Whether or not to go through with adopting the puppy we were headed to Michigan to pick up during our visit with Jeff's side of the family.

Four tequila shots, three beers and a platter of sliders later, we had our plan. Getting a puppy right before embarking on cancer treatments wasn't convenient. But then again, neither was cancer.

RuPaul joined our pack one week later.

Sometimes, the best plans begin with tequila.




Wednesday, December 7, 2016

A Picture Is Worth a Thousand Words Or Less (#1)



So here's the thing. I get distracted. Easily.

Case in point: I was just organizing my home office closet in order to procrastinate on writing the in-depth follow-up email I promised I'd send a new client after a conference call this morning. (See? Already distracted!) As I'm stacking box after box of old photos--the ones that never made it into the 15+ albums I have--I think, Do I really need to keep all these old photos? Do I even remember who the people pictured within these boxes are?
And then an idea hits me. I've missed writing these past couple of months as my latest manuscript is complete and out for review with prospective agents, and I've been focused on my consulting work. (Those bills don't pay themselves, am I right?) But I miss writing on a regular basis. 

So I figure, why not randomly pull a photo from of one of those boxes and write about it? And why not do this at least twice a week? No overthinking it. And no cheating if I don't remember the people or places in the photo. Just pull...and write.

So here are The Official Rules, you know, in case you want to join me in my photographic shenanigans. 

#1 - One photo, randomly selected without looking at the labels on the box exteriors.

#2 - Limit the post to 1000 words or less. Because no one ever said "a picture is worth 2480 words."

#3 - No more than an hour, start to finish, to write my Thousand Words Or Less post. This isn't about perfection or publication or praise. It's about a freaking writing practice. And my addled memory. And the fact that I've met so many awesome people throughout my life and I suck at keeping in touch. Especially ever since my mother stopped keeping my personal directory up to date for me. (Sheesh, Mom!) And we stopped sending out Larsen Original Christmas Cards because we could never top the one we did back in 2008. (But damn, that was a good one, wasn't it?)

#4 (and perhaps the most important rule of my Thousand Words Or Less challenge) - No calling for a mulligan just because I snagged a photo of me with a former boyfriend I'd rather forget...or a photo of me in my early drunken days looking, well, drunk...or because it's a picture revealing my post-baby-and-every-day-since-then Muffin Top. Though let's be honest--I've probably already torn those photos to bits.  

Sitting amidst the mess I've created in my office for the purpose of procrastinating I tell myself, No time like the present! So I pull one of the photo boxes down from the closet shelf at random--the yellow one--and reach inside without regard to any of the labeled interior separators. (What can I say? I'm a Capricorn; we're fairly anal retentive when it comes to organizing.) 

The photo I select is one of an old roommate, Kelli de Sante, and me, circa 1993, in the tiny Newport Beach apartment I'd rented solo before Kelli, whom I'd met at Toastmasters, needed a place to live and she moved into the open loft upstairs, which heretofore had served as my home office. It was the same apartment in which I had recently snuck my contraband puppy, Spike. (See those two potted plants? See that beige carpeting? Shortly after I'd drenched those plants with water one day, Spike decided to do some finger-painting, spreading plant bits and dirt and mud all over the damn apartment. Try explaining that one to the management office.)

Thousand Words Or Less Photo #1

Kelli was (and likely still is) an elegant Southern woman, the kind that wouldn't even think to go outside to pick the paper up off the driveway without first applying lipstick. Contrast that with me, the woman who willingly drives around town wearing pajamas and has gone grocery shopping in slippers because Why the hell not? Slippers are comfy!

Kelli had a new boyfriend who came to visit her from Canada. I don't remember his name but I do remember that he wasn't what you'd call a Dog Person. In the least bit. I noticed him eyeing Spike as if she were a poopy diaper to be avoided at all costs. The thing is, Spike wasn't the type of dog that was okay being avoided. Or regarded as a poopy diaper. And if Spike didn't like something, Spike let you know. In her own special Spike way. 

Despite the openness of the loft that served as Kelli's bedroom, I tried to give the two lovers their privacy (no easy task in in a 700-square-foot dwelling). One morning, as Kelli was downstairs in the bathroom showering and I was tucked away in my bedroom, I suddenly heard the boyfriend in the loft saying, rather loudly, things like, "No, doggie. No no. Oh. Oh no." 

His voice took on a sense of urgency which then shifted to disgust. I sprinted upstairs to find the boyfriend sitting upright in Kelli's bed with nothing more than her floral bedspread covering the lower half of his naked body. And right next to him on said floral bedspread was a giant steaming Spike turd, fresh from the oven. Like I said, Spike wasn't the type of dog who appreciated being avoided. Or regarded as a poopy diaper. And so she fought back. By turning Kelli's bed--sans Kelli because Spike adored her--into, well, a poopy diaper. 

Mortified, I grabbed a tissue and scooped up the offending turd, made my apologies and turned to go, Spike's collar in one hand, Spike's turd in the other. Embarrassed as I was, I suspected I'd be laughing my ass off about this incident, with Kelli, in less than a month. It actually took less than two days. And suffice it to say, the boyfriend never came to visit again. 

* * * 

Well, it's been about an hour since I pulled that random photo out of the yellow box. My home office is still a mess and now I don't feel like finishing my closet project. Or starting my follow-up client email. 

There's always tomorrow, right?


Good ole Spike. Don't EVEN think of crossing her.     






Thursday, September 1, 2016

The Journey to Fuck-If-I-Know

Ever get in the car and just start driving for hours on end, not even sure where you’re headed?

Yeah, me neither.

Yet that’s exactly how I feel lately. It’s not that I’m some sort of baby boomer control freak (she’s lying). Ok, maybe a few echoes of that persona still persist from my 20s and 30s. But Life has done a great job of showing me that sometimes the best things are those we never planned, controlled, pitched or imagined.

My husband? The guy sent an 8-page letter threatening legal action to the corporate conglomerate I’d recently joined (truth be told, we were being rather dickish to his smaller start-up). I was copied on that letter. A few months later, we were engaged. And in five days, we’ll celebrate 19 years of an overall pretty damn good marriage. Didn't see that one coming!

My kid? The one you’re sick of seeing me post about on Facebook? Not what you’d call a planned pregnancy. But clearly she was ready to show up and show up she did (in the most dramatic of ways). Now, I can’t even begin to imagine my life without her to share the fun. There is nothing I wouldn’t do for that creative and loving goofball of a soul. She totally rocks and I adore the shit out of her. Again, surprise!

Favorite work to date? A decade of blood donation advocacy and professional speaking that came out of the blue after nearly croaking and burning through San Francisco’s blood supply in record time (see “pregnancy” above). All began when an executive from Johnson & Johnson sat in one of my audiences and asked my husband to have me call him. A few months later, my occasional pro bono talks for blood centers and Rotarians had transformed into a full-time paid speaking tour, with no requirement to tattoo the J&J logo on my forehead, let alone mention them. Who knew?!

So here I am on a journey to fuck-if-I-know-where and I have no clue as to what it’s leading me to, if anything at all. It's the journey of chronic, at times calm and at other times mind-numbingly debilitating, physical pain and loss of mobility--today being one of my more challenging days. (You know it’s bad when you have to leave your gentle restorative yoga class after only five minutes of what most able-bodied people would think wasn't worth the time it took to pull on their yoga pants.)

This against-my-will journey has been underway for a good five years—the prior eleven being no picnic either where my wellness was concerned. But I had no idea that the road would get even bumpier than it already was. Pain has a way of coloring everything you do, see, feel, believe. Instead of the rose-colored glasses I wore in my younger pre-medical-crap days, too often chronic pain is like viewing life through tar-colored glasses. Dark indeed.

This journey has taken me to places I wouldn’t have otherwise explored, and for that I’m grateful. I love new experiences and marvel at the immeasurable ways to tackle and perceive this mysterious thing called Life. I’ve experimented with all manner of approaches to wellness from the mainstream (take this pain med and go away until it’s time for another surgery) to the downright laughable (if spending tens of thousands of dollars to experiment is your idea of funny). Some things work, some don’t. Among those that work, some days they do, some days they don’t.

The upside of pain is the noticeable increase in my sense of compassion for others, knowing that they may be masking their own pain—be it physical or emotional—much in the same way that I tend to do when I’m out in the world…or even at home with my family. (Hearing myself whine about pain bores me, so I’d rather not. Except now. In this post about pain.)

Pain also helps me connect with others with whom I might not otherwise, like the guy with the amputated leg who swims at my pool and who, like me, didn’t expect his health to take the turn it did. Or the older woman with whom I shared a water jogging lane recently. When I jokingly lamented about the activities I could no longer do, without an ounce of judgment in her voice she responded, “Well…perhaps we’re meant to do different things at different stages in our lives.” Sure, it’s a pretty simple concept, but her words helped me more than she knows.

And recently when pain and insomnia kept me awake all night and I blogged about it, I was flooded with emails from women who were dealing with their own physical ailments and the challenge of remaining positive—or even mildly optimistic—that goes hand in hand with pain. I spent days having interesting and, at times, laugh out loud funny email and Facebook exchanges with several of them.

So today, as I was driving home from the pharmacy with my pain med prescriptions after bailing on gentle yoga, I was struck with the thought that maybe, just maybe, there’s a point to all this bullshit. Maybe my own journey of chronic pain is taking me to a place where I will be able to answer the question: What’s it all about, (Alfie)? Could it be that perhaps—like those two months spent screaming and hallucinating and sucking up blood transfusions in the ICU sixteen years ago—this current and unwanted journey into the bowels of chronic pain is taking me to yet another awesome and rewarding place where I can grow as a person, share what I’ve learned, and maybe even help others as they face similar circumstances? At some point, will I be able to look back at these years of two steps forward, one step back, and say, “Aha! I get it now!”?  Is that where this journey is taking me?

Honestly, I haven’t a clue. But for today—and with the help of 5mg of hydrocodone, a giant snuggly poodle, and the couch—I’m hopeful.