Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Thoughts about Richard

We're going to New York to visit my ailing brother-in-law tomorrow. In keeping with my poem a week theme of writing about people I don't know, here's one about him.

I Won’t Know Him

Even though I know him
I won’t know him.
I hear he’s shrunk in size
down 20 pounds
from his usual husky physique
in just a few weeks.
I hear his speech is fuzzy,
like he’s high on drugs,
but perhaps that’s a good thing.
He was jovial and upbeat
when I saw him last,
contemplating knee surgery
and spending the last years of his life
in Florida with his grandkids.
Instead , his years of smoking
sometimes four or five packs a day
left his body rampant with cancer.
When I see him next
he’ll be in a hospital bed
placed conveniently in his living room
in Queens, New York.
The taut white sheets
light cream coverlet
and stack of extra-thick pillows
support and comfort his every move.
Alongside his bedpost
hangs the morphine drip
that he can tweak ever so slightly himself
to ease his pain.
When I see him tomorrow
this man whom I’ve known for 40 years
will be a stranger to me.
If only I had seen him two months ago.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Making space in my life

I finished my latest book: Foreign Affairs; I finished the scarf I had been working on for over two years; I gave away some handbags, shoes, and scarves; I hired two of my cleaning lady's sons to transfer the new rug from the family room to the dining room and return the cleaned and repaired rug back to the family room; I took an old, worn, mildewed belt for repair; I finished and submitted my last batch of critiques to the zine I’ve been reading for, and I wrote and sent a goodbye letter to the doctors that didn’t serve me very well at the Torrance Memorial Polak Breast Diagnostic Center. 

There’s such a thing as making space in one’s life. Well, I’ve been doing a lot of that lately.

The morning after

After six days of rain in the LA area, it was just gorgeous yesterday morning. There's nothing better than a clear and clean beach after the rain.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

More 70th birthdays

My friend, Chuck, whom I've known since 6th grade said, "I'm still trying to align my age with my mind," on the occasion of his 70th birthday this week. My sister-in-law, who also turned 70 this week, said she was really feeling her age.

I can relate to both views. Most days my mind tells me I can't be nearing 70 -- no way do I look or feel that age. Other days, I just want to lay down and sleep for hours and otherwise let it all hang out.

Maybe the only way to get around both thoughts is to just live in the here and now and not worry about how I look or how old I feel. Sure, this is an old tried and true attitude. But, with what little time I have left, it's the right choice.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Wishes from Ram Dass

I thought his new year's greeting was worth repeating here.

“Now that this decade of 2010 is upon us and we are in the midst of so much turmoil and suffering, I want to extend a wish for us. That wish is to be part of the process of energizing our consciousness in a way that manifests more compassion, more listening, more atonement, more justice, more sustainability, more harmony, more happiness, more peace and more love. I would like our lives to be a statement of all of that. Where we find it wanting, that’s where we are called to do our work on ourselves.” -- Ram Dass

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Cancer? Not even close

I hestitated at first to share this here, but I thought why not? It's an example it is about how important it is that we also take charge of our lives. We must be the deciders of our own destiny. No one else -- even a doctor -- should tell how what to do with our own life.

So here goes.

I had an appointment with a breast surgeon oncologist yesterday at Cedars Sinai, and he actually entered the exam room laughing at the report about the so-called suspicious lesions in my left breast. Before he even examined me or did an ultrasound he said he felt the radiologists at the Torrance Breast Diagnostic Center put me through this stressful exercise for no reason. Then when I explained that I knew the head of the breast center in Torrance he said the junior radiologist must have wanted to be extra careful and that’s why her report was so worded. Interesting that he characterized her as a junior associate probably to indicate that she didn’t know what she was doing.

I told him that’s why I came to see him. I didn’t trust her preliminary diagnosis because she seemed so unsure in the examining room. And, I didn’t trust her written report. If as she said in the exam room one of the lesions was benign and the other had an 80 to 90% chance of being benign, why would she characterize it as suspicious and give it a category 4 rating when the next category up from 4 means cancer? My sense told me I didn’t want someone like that sticking a needle in my breast looking for something that was barely visible on the screen.

After his exam I felt even better. A visual and manual exam showed nothing, and the ultrasound, the doctor said, showed a couple of tiny spots that looked like nothing – the kind of things we all have many of roaming around in our bodies. 

The doctor and I agreed that I’d come back in three months for another look, and I left totally confident in this decision. In fact, I immediately went shopping, we had a lovely dinner out with friends later on, and I had a good night’s sleep for the first time since I got the call about the need for further investigation from my mammogram of December 17, 2009.

I also made the decision that this doctor would take care of my breasts from now on. I will not go back to the Torrance facility. Even though his office is farther away, at least it’s close to some very good Westside shopping opportunities.

So, here’s the chronology:

I had the mammogram on December 17, 2009.

I got a call on December 29, 2009 that I needed to come in for a couple of more shots. When I asked what the finding was, the appointment lady couldn’t (or wouldn’t) tell me. She just told me to be prepared to have the additional mammogram pictures taken, wait 15 minutes while the doctor reads the results, and then I’d be subject to an ultrasound if necessary. She suggested I come in on January 11, 2010. I asked her which doctor would be reading my records, but she couldn’t tell me. I asked for Pat Sacks whom I’ve known for a lot of years through our association at The Wellness Community, so she made the appointment for January 12, assuring me that Pat would be available that day. (Needless to reiterate, she wasn’t. I never saw Pat – another reason for my upset).

Between December 29 and January 5 I stewed about it. Bob and I were trying to plan a trip and I bluntly said I really couldn’t plan anything until I knew the outcome from my up and coming breast exam on January 12. Yes, he said, you’re right to be concerned, but he still wanted us to make the plans. Throughout that little interaction I kept reminding myself of one of my mother’s favorite sayings: “man plans and God laughs.”

On January 5 I saw my gynecologist who had received a copy of the December 17, 2009 mammogram report. She said she was cautiously optimistic that there was nothing to it. She did a manual exam and found nothing to be concerned about then either, and I know from past experience that she can be pretty picky. She won’t let anything get by her.  The only thing that concerned us both was the wording on the report – there was a new finding, but it still said there was no change from the findings from the previous year (I asked about that on January 12, and was told they just forgot to uncheck a box). Well, if they made that mistake what other mistakes could they make, I thought.

So, between January 5 and yesterday, January 15, I kind of lay down my worries and moved on with the other things in my life. However, by yesterday I was thoroughly worked up again. When the nurse checked my blood pressure was up to 152 over 80 – when I’m normally about 110 over 60. She said they don’t worry too much about blood pressures over there at the Cedars breast center. Just walking in the door brings on the stress. I also was perspiring so that I had to take a shower when I got home.

So, the outcome was a good one. And, I thoroughly like my new doctor. At first I was concerned about going to a man, but I was perfectly at ease with him. Also, in this center I didn’t feel like a number. Everyone there was so nice. Plus I also didn’t feel so out of control. 

I chose to leave the practice that made the iffy diagnosis. 

I chose the new doctor. 

I chose with the doctor the next course of action.

Yet, again, it’s back to my recurring theme: Choices. It’s what we must do to stay in control of our own lives. 

I must also give my gynecologist a footnote. She definitely was a big help throughout and the day she received the written report from the January 12 exams. If the Torrance folks had had it their way I would have had a needle stuck into my breast to aspirate the lesion and a biopsy if the needle aspiration didn’t produce the right result. I chose not to have a “junior” associate do that job. If it has to be done in the future I’d rather it be by a Harvard graduate surgical oncologist though the Harvard doctor doesn’t think it will ever get to that.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Weekly poem

Plucking to Kill Time

So I’m waiting at the stoplight
at the corner of Marine and Sepulveda

and just happened to glance over at the car
in the lane to my left.
The car was like my husband’s, a gray Toyota Camry,
but that’s where any similarities stopped.
Inside was a lady in the driver’s seat
busily scrunching her chin from side to side
and up and down
and contorting her mouth every which way
as she peered into the sunshade mirror
and plucked out her chin hairs.
Her readers hung low on her nose
while her fingers and those tweezers moved
around her chin a mile a minute.
I was fascinated. I couldn’t help myself.
I kept looking over until the light changed
and she took off her glasses,
set her tweezers aside,
moved the shade out of her way,
and drove North with the rest of us.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

New poems for the new year

I've decided to write a poem a week this year. Not like my ambitious poetry mentor and chief promptor, Robert Lee Brewer, who says he's going to write a poem a day.

I also think I'll write poems about people I don't know -- my imaginings and observations about the strangers who come in and out of my life. Here's the first.

1.     The Couple at the Gym

He reminds me of a Svengali as he waits for her at the bench.
In his baseball hat and long sweats,
his backpack slung over one shoulder,
he paces, looks around, adjusts his workout gloves
until she appears from afar.
Her black hair is done up in a pony tail, she has a movie star’s face,
and a body without a pinch of fat.
He leads, she follows him, into the gym
and they workout side by side
on equipment of his choosing.
He hands her the weights,
she complies with the dictated reps.
He finds two treadmills for their next set
and she like his obedient follower
jumps on one of them.
They don’t talk. He’s occupied singing along with the music
flowing through his ear buds.
She just works out, looking pretty.
And so it goes
Svengali and the good girl. I see them everyday
at the gym.

One of Robert's last prompts of last year was to write a juxtaposition poem. Here's my attempt at that.

The wind blows through me. I clutch my jacket close and think how we’ve all turned out. My hair whips into my face as I rummage for my comb. We are all damaged in one way or another. The green trash bin has been knocked over into the street, and brittle and dead leaves scatter on the driveway. The lot of us has had its share – diabetes, obesity, obsessions, sleep apnea, gimpy knees, and now a broken neck. It is calm again.  The neck is healing. The gimp is gone. I used to think it was a tragedy to die young.  I see no movement in the trees. The branches are still. Maybe it’s a tragedy to get old. It is turning cool, the bright sun doesn’t warm, but the days will start getting longer now. Still we are a sorry bunch.

Friday, January 8, 2010

The death sentence

My brother-in-law was given a death sentence this week – his doctors say he has four to six months to live. I'm going to tell the story of his illness as best I can.

What it all boils down to is the choices we make in life. He chose to smoke for over 50 years. And, he didn’t smoke a little. He smoked three to five packs a day. Plus he lived with the second hand smoke from his late wife’s cigarette habit. She died of lung cancer about four years ago.

After she died he decided to quit smoking. He read a book about how to quit, and when he finished the book he just did it. He quit. And he was so proud of himself. When we saw him a few months afterward he looked good and seemed fit. He was walking three to four miles a day and he didn’t show any residuals from his former tobacco addiction. And, he was determined to sell his house in Queens and move to Florida to be near his children and grandchildren.

Unfortunately, his wellbeing didn’t last long. By March 2009, his knees bothered him so much that he couldn’t walk his daily three or four miles. He needed knee replacement surgery on both of his knees. He booked the surgery and went in for a pre-op physical. It was then that the doctor discovered he had a heart blockage. Instead of knee replacement surgery he had triple heart bypass. He recovered from that surgery and went back to the surgeon about his knees. Again he booked knee surgery. Again he had a pre-op physical. This time the doctor found a suspicious spot on his right lung. Yes, it turned out to be cancer and he had a series of radiation and chemotherapy to combat it. When that was over and he checked out okay, the doctor decided to give his brain a dose of chemo just in case the cancer should decide to migrate there. It was a precaution he was told. And, then he went back for another test. This time there was a spot on his left lung, and that too, turned out to be cancer.

From here on out the story gets grimmer.

He had another bout of radiation and chemo. And, his naturally positive attitude began to go down hill. His voice became raspy as well. Plus the chemo was making him sick to his stomach. New tests showed his cancer has spread to his liver and bones. An MRI taken last week told the doctors there is nothing more they can do for him medically. They told him to get his affairs in order and be prepared to die. They gave him the death sentence.

And as is his way, he will sell his house, clean away his things, and move to Florida and spend what little time he has left with his family there. We asked him to come stay with us, but he’s not willing to do that. He needs to be where he’s most comfortable.

So, another one of my family members is the victim of tobacco. Though my brother didn’t die of cancer – he was cured of the disease 20 years before he died, he died from the effects of tobacco anyway. He had smoked for 30 years.

My paternal grandfather also died as a result of lung cancer. He had been a pipe smoker all of his adult life. He was diagnosed at about age 70 in the mid 1950s – a time when chemotherapy was a thing of the future. The doctors tried surgery to cure him, but found the cancer had already spread, so they closed him up and sent him on his way. They told him he would live about six months, and he surprised us all by living two years – without radiation, without chemotherapy, without anything. Perhaps my brother-in law’s doctors are wrong too. Maybe he can live longer than they predict. I’ll keep good thoughts about that.

It just makes me so sad – and so angry about how horrible the effects of tobacco can be.

I remember the boy who gave me my first cigarette. We were 15 and so proud of ourselves for acting so grown up. And, we thought we were so sexy – just like the couples in all the cigarette ads of the day. I was lucky. I quit – cold turkey after smoking for 15 years – when the Surgeon General’s report of 1964 told of all the nasty effects of smoking. I found out my friend continued smoking another 20 years or so. And, even though he was tobacco free for about 10 years, he ended up dying of lung cancer too.   

Monday, January 4, 2010

At the movies

At the end of every year I spend a lot of time at the movies. The end of 2009 was no different. And, having a 12 day break between Christmas eve and January 4, 2010 helped a lot. My goal is to catch up on the latest releases because those are the ones that are likely to get the Academy Award nominations.

So, here's the list of movies I've seen lately, not counting those I've seen via Netflix (by the way, I recommend them all -- even the panned Nine if only for Daniel Day Lewis and his bevy of beauties):

The Blind Side
An Education
Up in the Air
It's Complicated
Sherlock Holmes

And, here's the list of those I still want to see:

Where the Wild Things Are
The Serious Man
A Single Man
Me and Orson Wells
The Young Victoria
Bright Star
The Road (maybe)

So, you can see I'm ready to go to the movies at any given moment . Give a holler and you can join me.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

The first sunset

A friend sent this photo of the first sunset and these inspiring words:

"This is the first sunset of 2010 in Manhattan Beach. This is the beginning of a beautiful year to come....a sign!"