Sunday, August 29, 2004

Thoughts on waking 

On weekend mornings, a cat alarm wakes me. The cats take turns, and each has its own technique. Sergei settles onto my arm, purring, and gently kneads my shoulder with his front paws until I wake. Lyra licks the spot between my upper lip and my nose; it's the feline version, complete with tuna breath, of being kissed awake. Sasha's alarm is the gentlest; he snuggles next to me, draping his large, fluffy tail across my face.

This morning it's Sasha turn. My first thought, just at the edge of consciousness, is of soft fur everywhere. My hands move of their own accord to ruffle fur, scratch his chin, push his tail out of my face.

My next thoughts are of Paul. These are not sleepy, semi-conscious thoughts of snuggling into his arms, or turning to spoon against his back. Rather they are anxious thoughts, increasing in magnitude as I wake more fully: Did he sleep well? When will his swallowing improve? What if it never does?

I roll onto my side, curl against his back, wrap my arm around him. I have learned where to place my hand to avoid the feeding tube. He shifts to move closer to me, makes a soft, contented sound in his sleep. I breathe slowly, trying to calm my mind. I want to enjoy this small, quiet moment. We are here. We are together. We will be OK.

Friday, August 27, 2004

Back story 

I was thinking I had writer’s block. I had trouble with writing even a few words about anything. Nothing I wrote pleased me. I felt stuck.

But today, as I wrote for the blog I share with my husband Paul, I realized that the problem is not that I have writer’s block, at least not right now. I just can't write about the small day-to-day details of my life when there’s this enormous thing – my husband’s cancer, and its impact on our lives – that's demanding to be considered. And reconsidered. I want us to have a normal-for-us life again. We just can’t yet. Neither one of us has recuperated from his illness and treatment.

I also realized that, in trying to write here about the details of our very complicated life, I've had a problem with the back story. There's just so much of it. You can read a lot about the past seven months of it over at Paul vs. the Squamous Monster. However, as we’ve written primarily for our family and friends, who already know a lot about us, you’d still be missing a lot.

So here, in 500 words, is a short, much too medical, history of my life with the man I love. It's a "just the facts, ma'am" treatment, because, well, I could write a book... and may yet. But I don't have time for that tonight.


I met my husband during my junior year of college in New England. We fell madly in love. Nine months later, he was diagnosed with cancer. Non-Hodgkins lymphoma, to be exact. He had radiation and chemotherapy for the next 3 years. He almost died a couple of times. While he survived, our romance did not. We had a horrible break-up. We were very young.

We went our separate ways for the next 12 years. I moved back to Texas. He moved to California. We saw each other at friends’ weddings. Sometimes we talked; other times we didn’t. Once or twice we kissed. I got involved with someone else. He got married. I got uninvolved. He got unmarried.

He called me one night in 1995. He asked if I ever thought about us getting together again. I said yes, and we did. We wrote lots of email. We ran up huge phone bills. A year later, I moved to California. We were in love. We got married May 23, 1998.

A year later, we moved to Seattle. We bought a house. In 2001, he walked a marathon as a fundraiser for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. He did it to celebrate having survived 20 years since his cancer diagnosis. We started the paperwork to adopt a child. Life was good.

In January of 2002, he was diagnosed with congestive heart failure. It’s a long-term side effect of some chemotherapy and radiation. He started taking lots of drugs every day to ease the load on his heart. We put the whole adoption plan on hold. The drugs worked well for him. Last year, he was stable and feeling good. We were all set to start up the adoption machinery again.

In January of this year, he was diagnosed with cancer. Again. Oral squamous cell carcinoma at the base of the tongue, to be exact. He does not drink or smoke. Maybe the radiation caused it. Maybe he’s just unlucky. Six months ago today, he had surgery. Twelve hours of surgery. They removed the tumor and adjacent lymph nodes, reconstructed his tongue with tissue from his arm, put a skin graft over the hole in his arm. He got a tracheotomy and a feeding tube. When the swelling went down enough, they removed the trach. He is still learning how to swallow again, and still gets most of his food through the tube. We don’t know how long it will be until he can eat normally, and get the tube out.

The surgeons believe that they got all of the cancer. There were clear margins around the tumor. The lymph nodes were negative for cancerous cells. His most recent CT scan, from the end of June, was clear. He’ll have another one in December, and then one each year for the next four years.

We’re now recuperating from this, and trying to imagine where we go from here. We love each other. We want to have a family. And right now, every day is a struggle.

Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Salt and pepper to taste 

I thought that I would never color my hair. I thought that I would gracefully play the genetic hand I've been dealt, moving from almost black through salt and pepper to snowy white with little more than the occasional wistful thought of a previous decade's darker hair, and even faint anticipation of someday having a luminous silver bob of the sort that I so admire on somewhat older women.

It seems that perhaps I was wrong.

Recently, I was at the zoo with my 3-year-old nephew. He laughed as I hoisted him up onto my shoulder, the better to see the sleeping lions. The elderly woman standing next to me smiled and said to him, "Having fun with grandma?" I recognize that I am, in fact, old enough to be someone's grandmother. Given my family's up-to-this-point short generations, my grandmothers were not much older when I was born than I am now. Still, I'm not yet ready to look like someone's grandmother. And it surprised me that, to a woman perhaps 20 years my senior, I did.

And, I know, I know, that comment said as much about her as it did about me. Perhaps she was a grandmother at my age. Maybe my hair had nothing to do with it. I don't know what she was thinking.

But this I know. My first thought, when I looked at some recent photos taken with our nephews, was I look old. (And fat, too, though I knew that without photographic evidence.) It wasn't one of those gentle musings about growing older, of the sort that I have when reaching for my reading glasses. It was Oh my god, how did I get so gray? That's not what my hair looks like!

And that, folks, was the clincher. That's not what my hair looks like... or, more to the point, I'm not yet ready for my hair to look like that. Someday, yes, but not now.

My birthday is next month. I think I'm going to treat myself to a really good haircut, and - for the first time - some color to go with it. Something in a nice rich brown... with a few streaks of white.

Sunday, August 22, 2004

Excellence in sport 

Since joining our family (and probably before), our cat Sergei has been an athletic boy. As a kitten, he amazed us with acrobatics in pursuit of his favorite toy, a cluster of feathers on a string. Backflips, vaults over furniture; they were beautiful, elegant... and talk about sticking the dismount. Sergei landed on his feet every time. He had the makings of a fine gymnast, I thought.

Little did we know that Sergei's true calling was track and field, particularly the high jump. Sergei did not readily share this new interest with us; we had to discover it for ourselves. While sitting at my computer one evening, I heard a plaintive meow, followed by a scratching sound, then a thump. Roowwwwrrr... scrabble, scrabble... thump. I was puzzled. Roowwwwrrrrrr... scrabble, scrabble... THUMP. And curious. Walking into the hall, I spotted Sergei crouched by our bedroom door. He looked up at me, stretched nonchalantly, and strolled over to be scratched. Paul allowed as how he had heard the sounds, but did not know what Sergei was doing.

Some days later, again at my computer, I looked up to see Sergei crouched in the doorway to my office. Facing the door jamb, perhaps an inch away from it, he was looking toward the ceiling, making the same strange throaty meow as before. When he noticed me watching, he quieted and sat up. I turned back to the computer; he crouched again. In my peripheral vision, I watched him; muscles tense, almost vibrating, emitting that same strange meow (rrooowwwwwrrrr). Suddenly, he launched himself straight up into the air. His paws scrambled against the door jamb (scrabble, scrabble), adding a little height to his leap. Then he dropped to the floor (thump). And caught me watching him, looked startled, and ran away.

The first time I saw Sergei jump, he got about three feet off the floor. Now, fully grown, well muscled, and with finely developed technique, he can jump nearly five feet. He has lost some of his diffidence, and is more comfortable with being watched while he jumps. However, he's not one who performs for the roar of the crowd. Sergei jumps just for love of the sport.

And, sometimes, to catch a moth.

Monday, August 16, 2004

40:40 vision 

My sister came in from the back yard, holding the little finger of one hand between the thumb and index fingers of the other.

"Splinter," she said, when I asked what had happened. "Would you get some tweezers? I think I'm going to need help with this."

I fetched the tweezers, washed and dried them. Then I looked at the pad of her little finger, mottled pink from her attempts to squeeze out the splinter. And sure enough, there it was: a fine, brown line under the surface of her skin. Running the edge of the tweezers across her skin, I met no resistance. I couldn't feel the splinter. I leaned in to get a better look. The little line of splinter blurred.

"Where are my reading glasses?" I looked around my kitchen.

"Oh, I have mine." She left the room, and returned with a slim turquoise tube while I was rummaging in my purse for the pair I keep there.

"What strength?"

"Plus one."

"Mine, too," I said, finally retrieving my own burgundy case.

We returned to the task, both wearing our slender, travel-sized reading glasses. Over the top of my glasses, I glanced at her face, and the auburn-highlighted hair that, if not colored, would be similar to my own salt-and-pepper braid.

"We're in our forties." She looked up; the glasses slid slightly down her nose. We smiled at each other.

I looked back down at her hand, saw the lines on her palm, the whorls of her fingerprints. The splinter looked crisp and clear. I got it out on my first attempt.

Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Storm tracking 

I grew up in hurricane country, so I know this feeling.

The storm is brewing. Clouds building on the horizon, a charge in the strangely greenish air; you can see it coming from miles away. The waiting is the worst. You do what you can to prepare: tape the windows, buy batteries and water. You don't leave, because this is your home. You wait, and hope that, when the storm hits, you'll be able to ride it out.

The storm finally hit my architectural firm last Tuesday. One of my coworkers gave notice that he was leaving. He did not bring the storm; his was simply an evacuation notice. And, as forecast, the storm came in the following day.

Due to economic climate change, the storm that finally hit my office has been all too common in the past few years. We're finishing up existing projects. We have no new work. We've been struggling with this for a while. Fortunately, this storm is localized. Our main office in California has more than enough work, and the extra has been a lifeline for our office, at least for a while. At this point, however, things are looking bleak.

The lease on our office space runs through January, and it appears that our Seattle office, where I have worked for the past three years, will close by the end of the year. If I want it, there is a job waiting for me at the office in California. It's good to feel wanted, and to know that I have that option. My husband and I have thought of moving back to the Bay Area, which is where we lived prior to moving here. There are many considerations, financial and otherwise. If we decide to stay in Seattle, my very well-connected boss will help me find another job with a good firm here. One way or the other, this storm is bringing big changes.

So, right now there's lots of wind and rain, and I'm feeling constantly buffeted. (Not as bad as the cancer tornado we had earlier this year... but, damn, I'm tired of being blown around.) Because I have been through a storm or two before, I do know what to expect. Eventually, the eye will arrive. There will be some calm, and clarity, and decisions will be made. Of course, there will be rain and wind the other side of the eye, but, in time, this storm too shall pass.

Friday, August 06, 2004

The Samurai Boss 

b4b.jpgThanks to Jay over at The Zero Boss for coming up with the idea of Blogging for Books. Here's my entry for #2: Servitude.

Updated 8/10: And thanks to Jay and Kim for choosing this as one of the seven finalists this month.

I'm an architect. Some years ago, I had a job that I loved. My boss was one of the two partners in the architectural firm; I'll call him Nelson.

Nelson was a charming Japanese-American man. He was sophisticated, clever, cultured. He was always impeccably groomed. He was quite a storyteller, and lunchtime often found a group of us clustered around the break room table, Nelson entertaining us with stories about his family. He was particularly proud of his surname, which was, he told us, an old Samurai name.

Nelson had, through talent or luck, hired a group of architects who got along remarkably well, both professionally and personally. Never before or since have I had such great coworkers. One day, after several very long weeks finishing drawings for a complicated project, Nelson announced that he was taking the project team (those who hadn't gone home to sleep) out to lunch. We went to our favorite lunch spot, a nearby Mexican restaurant popular for its margaritas. Larry, Tara and I ordered a pitcher of margaritas. Nelson ordered a beer. We ordered lunch; Nelson ordered another beer. Our food arrived; Nelson ordered a beer.

As he drank his third beer, and then a fourth, Nelson told us another story about his family. This, however, was a darker story, about his childhood on the south side of Chicago. His parents, looking for a good place to raise their sons, had settled in a white ethnic neighborhood near downtown. Nelson and his brother were the only Japanese kids in the neighborhood, and the white kids picked on them. Then black families began to move into the neighborhood. For a short while, Nelson hoped that the black kids would become his allies, but they bullied him, too. And the white families began to leave. His parents, disturbed by the racial tensions, moved the family to a different white ethnic neighborhood farther south. The pattern of black influx, racial tension, and white flight - and bullying of two Japanese boys by both racial groups - was repeated... three more times. Nelson had to protect himself and his younger brother. He came from Samurai blood, warrior blood. He learned how to fight.

The part of me that wanted margaritas and a celebration was not at all interested in listening to this. However, the former psychology student in me found Nelson's story fascinating. His childhood explained so much: the perceived insults and discrimination (where I saw none), the hot temper, the pencils hurled, knifelike, across his office when he was angry. As a boy, I imagined, he had internalized the warrior aspect of the Samurai, without the Buddhist principles of acceptance and self-control.

By the time we left the restaurant, Nelson was somewhat... impaired. We had come in his car. It was a new silver Lexus of which he was quite proud, and so protective that he had parked near the far end of the parking lot, away from most other cars. As we walked towards the car, I was thinking about whether he was really OK to drive. "It's only six blocks. But he's not always the most careful driver..."

My internal monologue was interrupted by a stream of cursing. Nelson had spotted his car... and the enormous Lincoln parked immediately adjacent to the driver's side. It was a brand new car, dealer plates still on, and clearly its owner had not yet learned how to park something of that size in only one parking space. The car was perhaps a foot and a half from Nelson's car.

Nelson slid between the two cars. "Can't the jerks who drive land-yachts learn to park the damn things? Is that too much to expect?" He unlocked his car door, opening it slowly until it rested gently against the other car.

And then, as my coworkers and I watched, Nelson turned and slowly dragged his car key through the Lincoln's pearly white paint. He left a visible gouge about a foot long. In that moment, strangely, I expected to see blood welling up.

Nelson looked up from the damage, and saw us standing dumbstruck. "Damn straight I keyed the damn car. Teach that asshole a lesson!" We were silent. "Come on, let's get back to work." We got into the car. The drive back to the office was silent, and thankfully without incident.

Back at the office, Tara, Larry and I gathered in my cubicle, stunned, not quite believing what we had seen. Our boss, our sophisticated, urbane boss, had committed an act of vandalism... in front of his employees. We didn't know what to do. In our shock, none of us had gotten the license plate of the other car. I'm sorry to say that we did nothing.

And Nelson did nothing, acted as if it had never happened. Once honor and respect were lost, the Samurai's only chance for redemption was seppuku, ritual suicide. I don't know what Nelson might have done to regain our respect. But, by making no attempt at all, he destroyed the team that he had built. Within a year, every one of us had left the firm.

It has been nearly seven years since Nelson keyed that pearly white Lincoln, after having one beer too many and digging around in too-painful childhood memories. Writing this, I again feel stunned, and saddened. I still miss working with that group of architects. And I miss the Samurai boss I knew, before his dishonor.

Sunday, August 01, 2004

A blog of my own 

For the past 6 months, my husband and I have kept a daily blog about his second battle with cancer. (He's winning so far; I'll write more about that later.) At this point, I've decided that I want, in a manner of speaking, a room of my own. I need a place to write about all of my feelings. I'm tired of tailoring my writing so as not to offend our extended family. So, I'm starting this blog.