cancer, Life in General

An Elk Ate My Brussels Sprouts.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is IMG_E0457-1-776x1024.jpg

No, really. I was just bragging to hubby about how smart I was to leave the last few stalks in the garden as it would provide yummy fresh-from-the-earth vegies, when I went to pick some.

Pride comes before the fall. I stood looking at the mess made of all my efforts in confusion. The tops were off every kale plant, the parsley was sheered off at ground level, and the plump little brussels sprout globes were gone from the stalk or badly mangled. ‘What the…?’ I thought. Then I saw the hoofprints. The mesh fencing was still mostly up, but a section had been sort of smushed down to about four feet. Just high enough for an elk or a member of the elephant family of mammals to step over.  That’s when I realized that I probably wouldn’t want to eat the few remaining vegies because they have elk spit all over them.

I don’t know if you’ve ever seen an elk close up, but they are big, really big. Trying to keep them out of any food source is a bit like trying to scare off a mastodon with a broom. Both the extinct mastodons and very much alive elk are both herbivores and neither have particularly vicious reputations, but it’s probably smarter to just let them stomp quietly along their merry way and clean up the wreckage afterwards.

Sounds like a few relationships I’ve had, and, to be fair, the results of a smattering of my own actions. I admit it. But it’s also a lot like what happens in life.

Last week the best friend my husband and I have made up here, died of cancer. To respect the family’s privacy, I’ll call him Bob and his partner Jodi. We were with Bob through the diagnosis and his first treatments, including spending time in Seattle where he had his bladder removed. Then chemo, and when that failed, they turned to experimental immunotherapy.

It worked, the tumors shrank and he was told that though the cancer wouldn’t leave him, he could expect a good five years of reasonable health by continuing that treatment.

Having been on the board of a cancer charity where I worked closely with City of Hope for many years, I know a little something about what people and their families go through with diagnosis and treatment, and the many uncertainties. So, during conversations at that time, we promised our friend that we would be there for his girlfriend, Jodi,  who had only been with him for a single year before she found herself a full time caregiver, a role for which she was not prepared but stepped up to with grace and courage. Though in many conversations she privately confessed to me that she ‘had not signed on for this.’ I understood, it is a huge thing to give up your life to care for someone, especially someone you have only known a year.

Then the unstoppable pain started in one leg, nothing contained it, not codeine, not morphine, nothing. Bob resisted our suggestions to go back to the doctor and I knew that he was afraid of what they would tell him.

And it’s what they did tell him. Two tumors in his abdomen had grown together, and when that happens, the cancer speeds up. He now had a four by six inch tumor pressing on nerves and they gave him three weeks.

I went into neighbor mode. I cooked meals and delivered them, offered to run errands, sit up with him if necessary, anything I could think of to ease their pain. But in this time of covid, there were limited things I could do, and my husband was still recovering from pneumonia, so I had to keep a certain distance. Sometimes when I came to drop something off, I would wave through the window, and on one memorable afternoon, Jodi came flying out of the house putting on her coat and begged me to just take her for a drive for a few minutes.

I took her to one of my favorite spots and parked under the trees in the rain. She talked, and I let her, joined her, and tried to prepare her for what was to come. She’s been through deathbed scenes before, but it’s different when it’s your one and only, I know that, but not from personal experience. I have done home hospice for relatives and friends, but not a partner, so I could only express sympathy and rub her back as she wept. I hope it helped.

I’ll never forget the sound of soft rain on the roof of the car as the windows steamed and grew foggy from the exhales of my weak words of comfort and her gasps of sorrow. It is hard to die, but it might be harder to watch someone you love die. I don’t know yet. I’ve only done the latter, after I’ve been through the former, I’ll let you know.

My husband and I never did get a chance to say goodbye to our friend. Thankfully, though it’s strange to say, he died fairly quickly, slipping into a coma and then his labored breathing stopping at 12:45 on a Wednesday night. I happened to be  awake when Jodi texted me at 5:45 a.m. asking if I could take his daughter, who had come for the end, to the flyaway bus about an hour away so she could get to Seattle and the airport. After a quick discussion, hubby got dressed and left to drive the daughter all the way to the airport, (about two and a half hours one-way but we couldn’t bear the thought of her having to take a bus just hours after her father’s death) and I went to be with Jodi.

I stayed all that day, helping her clean up, crying, listening, encouraging her to sleep. She tried several times to lie down, but would pop back up again when her brain screamed reality at her. Twice she called for me and when I went in, she asked me with pathetic desperation that tore my heart, “He’s not coming back, is he?” I told her no, he wasn’t, but that he would always be with her.

So I took a chair and sat by the end of her bed, propping my feet up close to hers, and we cried more, and laughed in that sad gurgling way one does when one more onslaught of grief will snap you in half. At one point she looked up at me with alarm in her eyes and asked what was wrong with her. She said she felt like someone was tugging at her right sleeve. I explained that lack of sleep will do strange things to your body’s physical sensations, but I also suggested that it might be him, just patting her arm, letting her know it would be all right, and I told her to watch for signs from him, ways that he might try to contact or comfort her. We discussed things that they shared a love of, eagles and the sea both figured strongly in her heart.

At about five o’clock in the afternoon, she finally fell asleep. I stayed an hour, then decided to head home, leaving a note.

You are loved,

You are supported,

I am a phone call away.

She slept for several hours, but woke before dawn. I joined her a bit later and we spent another day just trying to sort reality and absorb the blow. It’s a feeling of total helplessness and the only remedy is to get through it. By the third day I took her out for a drive  just to get her out of the house. As we drove through a dense part of the national forest, an eagle swooped from a tree and paralleled my car for a hundred yards or so before veering off into the canopy, and we held hands and smiled through the tightness of tears in our throats. Now, a week and a half later, she’s doing much better and I’m helping her look for a new place to live. She does not want to stay in his house without him.

Death is like elk or even mastodons in the garden. One long swoop of a tusk churns up everything we’ve planted, every well plotted future meal and harvest. We don’t expect it, we can’t stop it, but we can listen with awe and gratitude to the bellowing in the distance as the herd retreats, leaving us to clean up, to replant, to reflect on the fragility of our human endeavors. All of us are temporary, they seem to say, that’s okay, it all comes back together in the end.

And yesterday, when I went to see my friend, she told me with a smile that she had woken in the night and heard him calling her name, not sadly, not desperately, just to let her know he was there.

I thought about that moment. His strong, loving voice echoing from the distance far ahead, letting her know the way, so that we she can follow and not get lost, and that there is nothing to fear.

Like a herd of mastodon calling across the Pleistocene marshes, ‘We were here, we too passed this way. Do not be afraid.’

So I will replant my garden, I will love and lose and learn until it is my time to pass through those marshes.

And I will not be afraid.

I miss you, “Bob”.

Shari, January 17th 2021

family, Life in General, mental illness, parenting, therapy

Perfect Lives

Isn’t it interesting how many people have perfect lives? To judge from my relatives’ posts on social media, nothing happens but bringing home trophies, straight A’s and loving family gatherings.

They like smiling and church and friends and their fabulous houses and cars and perfectly behaved children on their perfect, Round Up-poisoned lawns.

I’ll tell you what they don’t like.

Anybody knowing anything real about them. I suppose I don’t mind so much anymore because trying to be ‘perfect’ all but killed me before I figured out what bullshit it was.

I’m usually against bleeding all over social media, but sometimes I cut myself, and something ugly spatters across my computer screen. You might want to fetch a lobster bib to read this.

I recently wrote, very briefly, about having to bite my tongue when my sister went on a rage rampage with her middle finger in my face screaming F U, (but not abbreviated) in front of her nine year old with her 14 year old in the bedroom within hearing. Hell, the whole Northridge mall was within hearing, but I kept my wits with me and my voice down. I didn’t slaughter her with truths that she could not even understand much less hear.

Because what’s the point? She had no idea that she was talking about her own pain. I’ve always known she considers herself morally superior to me, and most everyone else, but I was genuinely shocked at the unhealthy level of suppressed, transferred blame. I don’t know why I should be, I remember the sensation well. She’s not mad at me for leaving my husband, she’s mad at her husband for leaving her, but she doesn’t know that. I wouldn’t have either at the same stage of life. I spent much of my twenties and thirties so unconscious that I was playing drunken bumper cars in the dark, and often I couldn’t even find the ride, but I was definitely in a carnival.

When my mom, who also heard the caterwauling because she was recovering from broken ribs, which was the only reason I was in my sister’s house to start out with, found out that I had mentioned the unflattering event in a blog, she was concerned.

But not about the behavior, about the fact that I had said it out loud, I had brought the ‘perfect’ family image down a notch.

Nobody is supposed to know that our family would actually descend to screaming obscenities at each other, (or one at another in this case) and I’m definitely not supposed to say that the reason for that is buried personal failures that should have been dealt with years earlier.

Because it’s hard to deal with things that you swallowed long ago that are now twisted stuck in your gut.

I imagine what it would be like if it were possible for a surgeon to cut into someone’s repressed pain.

“Scalpel, suction. Bucket!”

Imagine the hissing sound of puncturing that mass, the nasty, festering puss, and the smell!! All that tear and bile-soaked, gangrened, rot. I know, pretty right?

If you think of  it as cleansing out the infection, digging down to the root of the problem makes more sense, like squeezing a huge zit or removing a tumor. Perhaps a strong dose of self-awareness antibiotics could clear that bs right up.

I’d take ‘em.

I suppose, to a certain degree, that’s what I did. I’ve had several therapists in my life, different people who worked for me at different times. Or didn’t. The first, before I knew what therapy was for, was Freudian. He basically sat there with his eyelids closing as though fighting sleep.

The next one was better, she was a woman in her sixties who had lived a great deal of life and believed in sharing it. I remember telling her about a birthday party I had in seventh grade that no one came to and it made her cry. You may have your own list of sad stories but I made my therapist cry. We have a winner!

She got me going on the right path. Taught me to pay attention to what was bringing up my feelings, what was beneath them, and take responsibility for my responses. I saw her for a couple of years, felt good and stopped, then years later when I was ‘happily’ married, I thought, ‘I’ll just go check in on myself.” So I made an appointment, walked in with a smile on my face, sat down and beamed at her.

“How are you?” she asked.

I always come off so strong and in control that it was the first time in years someone had asked me sincerely, “How are you?” and even as I choked out the words, “I’m fine.” I busted out crying.

She gave me that sympathetic, understanding look I remembered so well, handed over the box of Kleenex, and shook her head as she said, “I don’t think you’re fine.”

Clearly I wasn’t, but I had no idea how un-fine I was until I went back. In retrospect, though everything seemed terrific on the surface, frankly, I was unhappy. I was living a life filled with dinner parties, gala events, a handsome, semi-famous husband who appeared to adore me, (mostly when we were out) and working with that therapist again made me realize that 85 percent of my energy went to other people, leaving very little for me. I was holding everyone else up and sinking from the weight.

Denial is a weird and malignant thing. Pretending you’re happy, striving to have all the ‘things’ you should have instead of the peace you truly need, being convinced that if other people admire your life, it must be great and you have no right to feel unhappy, all of these things lead to dangerous self-deception.

And man was I lying to myself.

Then I got the really great therapist. This one made me work, I mean hard. Instead of letting me ‘talk it out’ she would shake her head and call bullshit. She would force me to look backward and inward, she broke my ass down.

There were times I would leave her office and stumble to a nearby park to sink down at the base of a tree and wonder about how horrible a person I was, how ignorant of even my own basic triggers. It was ugly and staggering to look at myself without the kaleidoscope of distraction techniques my sub-conscious had employed to shut my own darkness out. It was friggen’ cold out there.

Then this ruthless, wonderful therapist told me, “Take a trip by yourself, go somewhere that people are more awake where you can take an honest look at yourself.

So I did. I went to Jemez Springs, New Mexico to a remote hotel that was connected to a number of healers and shamans. Over several days I worked with different people. Some traditional therapy sessions, some art therapy, some spirit journeys, and tons of hiking or sitting in a solitude so absolute that sometimes there was not even sound. The desert is very soul cleansing. It was stunning how many of these people told me similar things about myself.

But the biggest break-though came from a woman who was supposed to be just giving me a massage. Turned out she was a very connected spiritual healer, and as she was working on my back, she said, “Wow, you’ve got a lot of city smudge on you, do you want me to cut some of that off? I said of course, that that was why I had come. During this time I was trying to decide if I should leave my husband or keep trying to make it work, something he didn’t understand because for him, everything was fine.

So this woman is still massaging me, but now she’s talking gently too, I occasionally sense her making sweeping movements over my body and occasionally she clapped her hands loudly. As she’s doing this, I’m getting more and more limp. I feel exposed and vulnerable, but not afraid.

Then she asks me about abuse and I start to cry. All my life men have said inappropriate things to me, even as a child, I’ve been touched and taken advantage of, I’ve been groped and pushed into doing things I didn’t want to do, but I’ve never thought of it as anything other than ‘normal’. That’s just how men are, right? As I got older and wiser, I learned to stamp on that boundary, but let me tell you, in the acting world, the boundary line is deeply zig-zagged. I lost roles because I wouldn’t sleep with producers, I was able to flirt my way out of a great many situations with something like, “Wow, if only I wasn’t married…” but let me tell you, successful men have very fragile egos and they take a great deal of handling. Once I had to report a director to a producer, but I already had the job and the producer was a woman so he couldn’t fire me, but needless to say, it was a bit tense on that set! I thought it was no big deal, but as I lay there, all of these dismissed and repressed thoughts surfaced with a chill that turned to shudders as this woman massaged me. Then she began to talk, gently still, ever so gently, all the while she worked the knots in my shoulders and kneaded my hands with a reassuring touch. Finally she asks, “What do you really want?”

I am on my back now and I put my hands over my face and sob. “I don’t want to feel alone,” I weep.

“Give me your hands,” she says. I hold them out and she places her palms against mine. “Tell me again,” she says.

“I don’t want to feel alone anymore.”

“Say it again.” I do, and as I do, she pushes against my palms, I instinctively push back.

“Keep saying it,” she says. I push harder and repeat, “I don’t want to feel alone, I don’t want to feel alone,” until I am straining against her, the hurt and loneliness in my body raking me with waves of pain. One more time, I shout now, “I don’t want to feel alone!!”

She released the pressure, leaned down over me and whispered, “I’m going to do something that might startle you.”

She put her arms around me, held me gently and whispered in my ear. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry for all you’ve been through.”

And I disintegrated. Weeping until I had no energy or tears left.

She finished the massage in silence and I stumbled up, got dressed and went back to my room. I barely made it to the bathroom before I began vomiting. Up it came, everything in stomach, all the forgotten bile and hurt hurtling from my body with projectile force.

For four hours I lay on the floor of that bathroom, unable to so much as lift my head. I was so physically weak I did not have the strength or the will to move. Somewhere in those hazy hours it came to me that I had hit the bottom, I had become aware of who I really was, and I realized how unaware and manipulated I was by forces unseen and it crushed me that I had been so blind. I felt like a total failure, a baby soul, a blob of emotional goo.

Eventually though, I roused myself enough to move to the bed, then a chair and by early evening, I felt not only felt better, but pretty damn good. I won’t say I was ready for a hike, but I felt…lighter, cleaner.

I returned to LA and went to see the therapist, I told her about the whole trip and all I had learned, and I finished by telling her that I was devastated to discover how damaged my core self was, that I felt broken.

She smiled at me, a little lazily and said something I will never forget.

“Congratulations,” she grinned. “Now let’s get started.”

In the work that ensued, I admitted the pain of being the odd-one out in a close family, I confronted my disappointment in my mother and father, in the tactics used by my siblings to make themselves feel better, which was primarily mocking others, namely me. I recognized my perfection complex, and my self-destructive spiraling when I ‘wasn’t good enough,’ my competitive nature fueled by the desperate need for my mother’s attention while surrounded by talented siblings. Beauty and winning had always been rewarded, I had been compared to other girls all my life, and it had shaped me.

It took a long, long time, to be free of much of that.

I know that everyone faces troubles and unkindness and ignorance, we all react differently to these things. How you got there isn’t all your fault, but fixing it is all your responsibility. Pretending that you or your family is perfect won’t let the infection out. Denial will just keep growing in darkness until it kills your joy.

Understanding what makes you tick doesn’t make the self-doubt and blame vanish, but it eases it a bit each time I face up to it. I still work on it, all the time, everyday in fact. But at least now I know I’m not alone.

I’m worth working on, and so are you.

It isn’t easy, but man is it worth it.

Wanna’ feel better about yourself?

Look at the worst of you first.

Then whisper to yourself, “I’m so sorry.”

And give you a hug.

Take one from me too.

Shari, March 1st, 2020