Sunday, February 25, 2018

Not a Post About Death

I realize I've been writing a lot about death and dying lately.  In fact my last three posts have mentioned it.  Maybe it's because a lot of my friends and acquaintances have lost family members in these last few weeks.  Maybe it's because I myself was deathly sick these last few weeks.

But if you back up to the summer, I was writing about mosquitoes and keys and icebergs.  I want to talk about things like that again.

I want to think about things like that again.

Because I'm healthy again.  And I have friends and acquaintances who had babies in the last few weeks too.


And it was 80 degrees in Nashville yesterday.

So here we go, I promise, a post with no mention of death.

I know, dear Downtown Diner customers, I know.  Too late.  Sigh.

So, welcome to the Year of the Dog!  

That is the Chinese New Year, of course.

As is our tradition, my kids flew to China to celebrate the holiday with Buddy and his family.  The family gathered together, warm and cozy, in Buddy's Beijing apartment on New Year's Eve and ate homemade dumplings that his parents made.

In the first days of the New Year, they went out to eat, reuniting with friends and extended family and high school classmates.

There were giant, deafening fireworks, although due to new government regulations this year they were allowed only on the outskirts of the city.  Grant was very upset about this violation of his human rights. 

I was looking forward to Chinese New Year too because when the Year of the Dog starts, the Year of the Rooster ends.  And I would finally get to take off the obnoxious red thread I'd been wearing around my waist all year.

You see, the Year of the Rooster is my 本命年, or Chinese Animal Year.  There are twelve animals and twelve years in the Chinese Zodiac, so every twelve years you celebrate your Animal Year.  You can find yours here.

You would think your Animal Year would be a special and fun year, sort of like your birthday.  But in fact it's the opposite - your Animal Year is a dangerous year according to Chinese tradition.  There are three things you can do to protect yourself during your Animal Year:
  1. Wear something red against your skin all year along.  It can't be something you bought for yourself though - it must be something that a friend or loved one gives you.
  2. Wear jade all year.  
  3. Spend a lot of time facing due West, which is directly away from the God of Age, Tai Sui.
Granted, it's a tradition most modern-day Chinese don't put much stock in but I thought it would be fun to wear something red against my skin all year long.  So when Audrey and Grant went to China last year for Chinese New Year, I had them buy me a red thread to tie around my waist.  The one they bought me had bits of jade woven into it - two protective elements in one.  Clever.

And it annoyed me from Day One.

In the mornings when I showered and got dressed, that red thread felt like a damp earthworm wrapped around my waist.  Often during the day my finger would catch on the thread and I would be reminded that this year was a dangerous year for me.

While it started out as a fun thing, the red thread got into my head as the year wore on.

In the early months of the year I thought of the thread as a helpful reminder to be cautious.  This is a good year to wear my seat belt at all times and wash my hands after being in a public place.  Those are simple, common sense things that everyone should be doing every year.

But as time went by, the red thread crossed from being a friendly reminder to an ominous presence.

My thoughts progressed from

"Take good care of yourself, this could be a dangerous year" 


"Watch out, this is a dangerous year."  

Do you see the difference?  It's subtle.  But even subtle messages can leave their mark on your mind over time.  Even the lightest green snake will leave tracks in loose topsoil as it zig-zags across the garden. 

And then when I got sick in late November with strep throat and then bronchitis and then a calcified granuloma, the red thread sent me into an internal dialogue that I could not resolve.  The cycle went something like this:

"Good thing I had this red thread around my waist this year.  If not, all of this could have been a lot worse.  Maybe I would have died."


"Did I bring this on myself this year?  Did I, with constant worrying that something bad was going to happen, actually make something bad happen?"


"Maybe I just focused on the bad so much that it's all I could see.  I had a sore throat after Thanksgiving and the only reason I went to get tested was because it was a dangerous year for me.  And the strep throat diagnosis was the beginning of a long series of medications and tests and scary diagnoses.  What if I had never gotten tested for strep?"

You see how this got exhausting after a while.

And then one Saturday morning before the CT scan which was to determine if I had cancer or not, I was lying in bed wondering how to explain the red thread to the tech.  Should I offer to take it off for the scan?  It was still four weeks before I was "supposed" to take it off, and just before a CT scan seemed like the very worst time to let go of my protective talisman.

And yet, what if the thread showed up on the scan and whoever reviewed it didn't know I was wearing it and didn't know what to make of it?

What if the bits of jade embedded in the thread showed up on the scan as something that looked like a tumor?

Or even worse, what if there was a tumor hiding just behind a bit of jade and the scan didn't reveal it?

The only thing worse than a false positive is a false negative.

My thoughts circled and turned left and right, folding in on themselves like a labyrinth.  And then, just like in a labyrinth, I reached the center.  I stood up, went to my bathroom, pulled a pair of scissors out of my top drawer, and I cut the red thread off my waist.  I held it up over the trash can and let it fall in like a boa constrictor I had just beheaded.

I felt free.  I felt like I had liberated myself from a 5,000-year-old Chinese curse with the slice of one sharp blade.

Although the red thread was in a coil at the bottom of my garbage can, the tape on my internal dialogue had not run out yet.

"Do you think you'll regret this when you do your CT scan?  What if the scan says you do have cancer?  Will you wish you had kept the red thread on?  Maybe it would have helped.  Just maybe?" 

I put my hands on my now un-yoked waist, 

turned due East, 

and looked Tai Sui straight in the face.  

"Nope," I said.

Because this is not a post about death, Tai Sui.  

It is not.  

I'll deal with you again in twelve years.  


Monday, February 19, 2018

Letting go

I can pinpoint the moment when I realized I was having a truly awful year.  It was when the imaging tech asked me, "Have you had cancer before?" as she rolled me into the CT scan.

Yes, that was the exact moment when I knew the Chinese superstition had been right after all.  My 48th year had been truly abysmal.  The Chinese Zodiac says that every twelve years we celebrate our animal year and it's supposed to be a particularly dangerous year.  That might mean relationship troubles, financial problems, or health issues.

I had tied a red thread around my waist in February 2017 to ward off any bad luck that might come my way during my animal year and wrote about it here.  At the time I did it for fun but now I was beginning to wonder if there was something to the superstition.

"No," I said.  And I wanted to add, "Are you saying I have it NOW?  Because I thought I was here for a test to determine IF I have cancer?"

But since I've never had cancer, I wasn't sure how these things work.  On TV I've seen people get a cancer diagnosis.  The set-up is always the same.  They're always sitting in a doctor's office, at the doctor's desk.  They have a loved one next to them.  The doctor gives them the diagnosis.  The patient asks questions.  The doctor answers with percentages and chances and probabilities.

The doctor's desk is always a darkish red wood, probably cherry wood.  I hate that kind of dark wood.  I don't think I'm alone here, am I?  Why haven't doctor practices figured out yet how much patients hate those dark red cherry wood desks?

Maybe they keep the desks ugly so that the news we get when we sit at them seems less ugly in comparison.

That makes sense.

I need for things to make sense right now.  Because getting a cancer diagnosis from an imaging tech, who has yet to roll me into the CT scan, just doesn't make sense.

Although in a way, it does.  Techs see thousands of patients every year and although they're not trained to interpret results, I bet they have a good intuition about the people who come into their offices for scans and tests.  In his book Blink, social scientist Malcolm Gladwell calls it the power of thinking without thinking. 

Sadly, techs aren't trained to keep their intuition to themselves.  I picked up on it.  Their seemingly innocent questions were the first rumblings of thunder in the distance.

As I waited for the CT results, the days jerked by, pixelated and in shades of grey.  When I had mental energy, I wondered what kind of cancer patient I would be, if it came to that.  Would I be the kind who commits to kicking cancer's ass?  Or would I submit to whatever God's will was for me?  I didn't think I had the energy to commit to kicking cancer's ass - I hardly had energy to floss my teeth every day.  But I also didn't want to just raise the white flag and check myself straight into hospice care.

Simply pondering my options was overwhelming, and so I succumbed once again to the grainy black and white images.  My reality was film noir, spliced with X-ray images.

One frame is the front porch.  It's dark and Grant is receiving a greasy, lukewarm dinner delivery packed in styrofoam and wrapped in a plastic bag.  Again.  He tries not to leave the door open too long because it's cold outside.  A single light bulb on the porch illuminates the scene.  His dark shiny hair reflects the light like a mirror.

One frame is the decorative pillows from my bed, in a pile on the carpet.

One frame is a text from Audrey.  She's re-arranging her schedule so she can pick Grant up.

The range of my emotions is as limited at the color spectrum of my memory.  I try not to be afraid because only people who have cancer need to be afraid.  I don't want to start playing the role of a cancer patient.  I'm afraid of even looking like a good understudy.

I feel numb.  It's like my emotions, faced with the flight-or-flight conundrum, have fled.

I don't have enough information to know what to feel.  

I feign cheerfulness.  I don't want other people to worry about me.  Because only friends of cancer patients need to worry.  But as I observe the faces of the people around me, I can tell I'm not doing a good job.  They all look concerned and confused.  I'm pale and when I laugh I start coughing.  My cough is awful.  It's more like a whole-body spasm.  When it's over I'm left wheezing and gasping for air.  I'm embarrassed at how little control I have over my respiratory system.

I try not to laugh.  I try not to cough.  I work from home.  A lot.

It felt like an eternity.  And then finally, my cell phone rang.  It was my doctor's office, calling with my results.  I happened to be at my office that day.  I walked outside to take the call and found the most beautiful bench under the most beautiful tree.   My office is right next to a park so there are lots of beautiful trees and benches.  And squirrels and birds and ducks.

If the doctor was going to give me bad news, I was not going to make it easier on him.  He was going to have to do it while I sat amidst all this beauty.  In comparison to my beautiful surroundings, the news was going to look truly abysmal.  I dared him.

"Your test results are in and everything is within the normal range.  The spot on your lung is a calcified granuloma.  I know you've never been diagnosed with pneumonia but you must have had it at some point in the past and the granuloma is sort of like scar tissue from that.  It's nothing to worry about.  We don't need to do any further tests."

Which is the best possible outcome I could have hoped for.  I should be grateful, and I am.

But I still don't know what kind of cancer patient I would be, if it ever came to that. 

I still don't know why I had this health scare this year.  Was it because it's my 48th year?  Or would this have happened anyway?  Would it have been worse if I hadn't had my red thread around my waist? 

I still don't know why doctor's desks are made out of that awful cherry wood.

Let it all fade.  

Let the black and the white blend together.  

Let the resulting grey turn to ash.  

I mix it with water, dip my finger in it and taste the fear.  Then raise my finger to the sky and watermark a giant question mark between the clouds. 

Trace it again and again until I can let go.

There are so many questions that will never be answered.

All we can do is let go.

Monday, February 5, 2018

January 31, 1998

It was a Saturday.  I didn't talk to Priya that day.  I don't know how she spent the afternoon but I bet she was studying.  She was the best in our class, partly due to her immense talent and intellect, and partly due to her dedication and hard work.

She highlighted one last term, made one last note in the margins, and closed her books for the last time.

Then she and Jennifer went for a late-night walk along the waterfront on Monterey Bay.  Priya had a cigarette and an espresso in her hand.  She and Jennifer stood in front of an empty row of parking spaces on the commercial fisherman's wharf.  They were in front of a parking meter which flashed "0 minutes left."

She was running away from him when he shot at her.  I hope that means she was running towards the end of the wharf, and that the last thing she saw was the moonlight shining on the ocean.

Her favorite poem was "Der Panther" by Rainer Maria Rilke.  

Der Panther

Sein Blick ist vom Vorübergehn der Stäbe
so müd geworden, daß er nichts mehr hält.
Ihm ist, als ob es tausend Stäbe gäbe
und hinter tausend Stäben keine Welt.

Der weiche Gang geschmeidig starker Schritte,
der sich im allerkleinsten Kreise dreht,
ist wie ein Tanz von Kraft um eine Mitte,
in der betäubt ein großer Wille steht.

Nur manchmal schiebt der Vorhang der Pupille
sich lautlos auf –. Dann geht ein Bild hinein,
geht durch der Glieder angespannte Stille –
und hört im Herzen auf zu sein.

The Panther (English translation by Stephen Mitchell)
His vision, from the constantly passing bars,
has grown so weary that it cannot hold
anything else. It seems to him there are
a thousand bars; and behind the bars, no world.

As he paces in cramped circles, over and over,
the movement of his powerful soft strides
is like a ritual dance around a center
in which a mighty will stands paralyzed.

Only at times, the curtain of the pupils
lifts, quietly--. An image enters in,
rushes down through the tensed, arrested muscles,
plunges into the heart and is gone.

There is no good ending for a post like this.  You just suddenly realize that you're at the end.