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Posts Tagged ‘Magic Dog Press’


donaldhasnoclothessmall

“I don’t see any new clothes,” the small child said in the piercing tones only a small child who is long on sugar and short on sleep can achieve. “I see the Emperor’s butt! And his—“ the voice cut off abruptly, then finished “—really little!”

The Emperor stopped dead in the street.

Silence fell, followed by furious whispers.

“Well, I don’t!” said the child defiantly.

The Emperor drew himself up to his full height, thrust out his chin, pursed his loose, rubbery lips and narrowed his eyes to furious slits. The slits swept slowly over the crowd, all of  whom suddenly found their shoes, the contents of their bags, and imaginary lapel lint of pressing importance.

All, that is, except for a small, defiant, grubby-faced child. He stared at the Emperor for a moment, and then quavered, “You are, too, naked! I can see your pee and everything! You don’t supposed to let other people see your pee!”

The Emperor glared down. “Fake news!” he thundered. “You’re spreading fake news. My new robes are the finest in the land!”

“You’re naked,” the child insisted mulishly. “I can see your pee!”

Suddenly the crowd came to life. “You’re just too much of a loser to be able to see such fine robes,” they shouted.

“Am not,” said the child. “I can see his pee.”

The Emperor’s face deepened from bright orange to deep crimson. “You are what is wrong with the kingdom,” he blasted. “You’re a hater, and you’re lying to all these people. You are their enemy. SAD.”

I would like to tell you that the crowd saw the king bullying the child for stating no more than what they could see was the naked truth. I would like to say that they turned to each other and said, “The child is right; our Emperor is naked. Let’s get him some help, and find somebody a little more grounded in reality to control the nuclear codes.”

But that’s not what happened. The Prime Minister stepped forward and said, “I see the Emperor’s robes and they’re lovely,” even as he gazed upon the Emperor’s sagging bottom.

The Minister of War stepped forward and said, “The Emperor is the perfect person to have charge of our national security, and by the way, those robes are perfect,” even as he gazed on the Emperor’s vast white belly.

The princes stepped forward and said, “Dad’s the best—great robes, big guy,” even as they averted their eyes politely.

The Empress, who was riding behind the Emperor in a closed golden carriage, said nothing at all.

And so it was that the Emperor spent the rest of the parade—and the rest of his reign, wearing his fabulously expensive, nonexistent, robes, and while a substantial number of his subjects spent their time deriding anyone who, like the small child, pointed out the obvious as haters, losers, and FAKE NEWS, the surrounding nations looked on and wondered who was crazier—the Emperor, who had been duped into exposing himself, or his people, who could see he was naked, but refused to admit it.

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july22_blogphotoIt’s been a few weeks since I’ve posted. I’m sure those who are not my facebook friends were waiting with bated (I’m always tempted to write this “baited”) breath to learn if I survived (spoiler alert: I did).

I survived the trip to Seattle. I survived the pre-surgery consult. I survived the surgery, once the doctor realized that my lungs don’t LIKE IT WHEN I’M STANDING ON MY HEAD (more of this later). I survived that damned easy-access pain medication button, once I banished it from my bed (more of this later, too). I survived the trip home. I survived a couple weeks of healing. And now I’m surviving an infection that makes me look like a kangaroo.

My survival is something of a delightful surprise to me–like many people who find themselves flirting with the Big C, once I Left the Happy Land of Denial(this happened two days before I had to go to Seattle for surgery) I found myself confronting my mortality in all sorts of unexpected ways.

Because I’m a mom, my first worry was for how my son was going to survive without me. At times like this I tend to obsess. I know this because it first happened when I was pregnant. The pregnancy was unplanned and I was doing it solo, and let’s face it, at the time I was far from a sterling example of mental and emotional health. The doctor had yanked my anti-depressants as soon as the test came back positive (I was already three months pregnant–my recent trip to the Happy Land of Denial was not my first visit). I was dealing with the fallout from the vicious gossip being spread by one of my Nearest and Dearest–gossip specially crafted to undermine any emotional support others might want to provide. My relationship with my son’s dad had ended six weeks before I realized I was pregnant. Things were stressful at work. My counselor had about given up on me.

Looking back, there was too much–too much uncertainty, too much guilt, too  much shame, too much failure, too much loss. “Pick one thing,” some secret part of me advised, “and focus on that.” And so I did. In the midst of all the uncertainty and the variables (Where would he go for day care? How would I earn enough to keep us? How would I manage to keep him fed? What if I dropped him? What if I turned into the thing I most feared–an abusive mother?) Somehow my brain screened out all those very real concerns and gave me one manageable worry: How would I keep my baby warm?

I dug out my fabric reserves and visited the fabric stores. And then I started making baby blankets. I made quilts, mostly–lovely pieced quilts, full of fluffy batting. And then I bought my baby clothes–in sets. I bought onesies and sleepers, mostly, and receiving blankets that coordinated with everything, because I was planning not for a baby who was going to be making a public splash, but for a baby who was going to live his life in soft jammies, cocooned in color-coordinated quilts. I might not have formula. I might not have diapers. I might not have a car seat. I might have no idea about daycare, or juggling a baby and a career. But my baby’s clothes were going to match ALL of his blankets, and he was going to be by all gods warm. When he finally arrived I had a stack of baby quilts two feet high in the corner of my bedroom.

I realized how scared I was at the idea of cancer, and Seattle, and surgery, when I found myself blithely glossing over things like tests, my will, my advance directive, getting my records from my doctor here at home to the surgeon at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, arranging the trip to Seattle, and tracking down the hotel once I got there in favor of one simple, manageable worry: Would The Boy have enough to eat?

I filled the freezer with healthy frozen meals. I bought bread and sandwich fixings. I bought breakfast stuff. I arranged with friends to play backup, should the freezer fail him. And every time we drove past Safeway, I found myself asking, “Is there anything we need to buy for the freezer? What are we missing?”

To which The Boy replied, “Mom, we can’t get anything else into the freezer. It’s full. I’ll be fine.”

And I knew he would be–if I could just remember that one magic thing, that one missing ingredient, that would spell the difference for his survival. Leaving someone you love, no matter how capable they may be of managing their lives, is hard, and it’s scary, particularly when you have no assurance of the outcome.

It was winter, and we were going to be driving through the mountains. What if we had a wreck? What if the passes closed and I was trapped in Seattle? What if once I got there everything fell apart, and I had to come home and start over, and all the while the cancer grew and grew? What if my sister–who was meeting me in Seattle so she could go with my to my appointments and see me through surgery–and I had a huge fight? I pictured us trapped in the hotel room, prisoners of the love we bear for each other, wounded by our sometimes-prickly personalities. What if I just plain got lost?

I pictured The Boy marooned at home, the freezer empty, the house freezing because the power bill hadn’t been paid (I’d paid a month ahead, but who knew how long I might be stuck in Seattle?) withering away, lonely, starving. And cold. Very, very, cold.

I think the hardest thing I had to do was drive him to school the morning before I left, say goodbye cheerfully–and then not stop by the school on the way out of town for one last look at the person who has made my life worthwhile. For his sake, I pretended that all those fears hadn’t even crossed my mind. I pretended that I was positive I’d get to Seattle, everything would go well, and I’d be home by the weekend. I pretended–but I left town fearing that I’d never see him again.

Lest you think harshly of me, let me explain. Seattle Cancer Care Alliance was not my first choice. My doctor recommended that I go to Oregon Health Sciences University, and since I feel my doctor generally has my best interests at heart I took her advice, way back when I first got the diagnosis. I went home and called OHSU’s Gynecological Cancer Intake number.

“What’s your diagnosis?” the woman on the phone asked.

“Serous Carcinoma,” I said.

“End-o-me-tri-al Can-cer,” she said to herself, presumably as she wrote.

“No,” I said, alarmed. “My doctor says it’s serous carcinoma.” Like about everybody in my position, I had immediately googled the term and learned that serous carcinoma sometimes appears in the uterus, but that it’s a different animal than the more common endometrial cancer.

“It’s easier to spell,” the woman said.

I have to admit that rocked me back on my heels a bit–was OHSU keeping patient records, prescribing medicine, and operating patients based on what they found easy to spell? I hoped not.

“You’ll have to get me your records,” the woman said. And she gave me a fax number.

I called my doctor’s office and arranged for the records to be sent.

The next day I called to check. This time I got a man on the line. “No, we don’t have your records,” he said. “What’s your diagnosis?”

And so we went through it all again. I got another fax number. “Do you think it might be possible to arrange my pre-surgical consult and my surgery within a few days of each other?” I asked. “I’ll be driving for several hours to get there, and hotel costs for an extended stay will be hard.”

“Do you have any idea how big an organization we are?” he inquired. “We can’t make special accommodations like that. We can’t schedule the surgery until you’ve had the consult.”

“Even though I’ve had a D&C and a CAT scan, and have a diagnosis?”

“We can’t schedule the surgery before you’ve had the consult,” he said implacably.

“Would it be possible to talk to the doctor, or her nurse? Maybe if she understands the situation we can figure something out.”

“No,” he said, and then did a quick reprise of  “Do-you-have-any-idea-how-big-an-organization-we are?”

I called the next day to inquire about my records, and got a third person, who had also not seen my records. She gave me a third fax number and assured me it was right next to her desk. I hoped so. I asked to speak to someone in billing, so I could be sure my health insurance was acceptable.

“We don’t do anything like that until we schedule the surgery,” the lady told me.

About then I started seriously wondering how this was going to work. They wouldn’t schedule the pre-surgical appointment until they had my records, which were apparently going to a fax somewhere in a yurt in Outer Mongolia. They couldn’t tell me if my health insurance was valid until the surgery was scheduled. They couldn’t schedule my surgery until I’d had the pre-surgery appointment. And all the while the cancer was growing.

And that was when my sister Sandy got serious about figuring out a way I could go to SCCA. I’d found it online. Its outcomes were good. It was ranked fifth in the nation. It turned out that Sandy had a former colleague and friend who had worked at the Hutch. She offered to show me around. Other staff members did the same. Before I ever called, I felt like they knew me there. I felt like I mattered to them.

Still, though, it was not without trepidation that I called the SCCA gynecologic oncology intake line. My experience with OHSU had made me wary.

“Hello, this is Marilyn,” said a lovely lady. “How can I help you?”

I told her my diagnosis, and asked if it might be possible to be accepted for treatment at SCCA.

“We’ll need to see your records,” she said, and my heart sank. “If you’ll give me your doctor’s phone number, I’ll arrange it,” she finished.

And that right there was the beginning of a beautiful friendship, because Marilyn became my friend–my smart, plugged-in friend at SCCA, the person I asked about everything–and she’d answer my questions, explain why the answer couldn’t yet be determined, and sometimes tell me who could give me the answers I needed. Marilyn was there for me. When I called, I talked to her. She knew my case. She knew my concerns. She got my damned records the first time. She told me who my doctor would be. She explained the relationship between the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, and the University of Washington Medical Center (it’s a little bit complicated, but the benefits make it worthwhile). She sent me information on places to stay. She helped me work out a pre-surgical consult and a surgery date that were within a couple days of each other. I relied on Marilyn. I loved Marilyn. I still do. I’d have a baby for her, if that ship hadn’t sailed.

Leaving my son home alone while I went far away to a city I didn’t know for a surgery that either would or would not turn out well was hard. Marilyn made it easier. My good friends the Mulders, who drove me up and then waited to drive me home afterward made it easier. My friends Megan, and Marty and Morris, and Leatrice and Mike, and Amber, and Terrie, and Sylvia, all made it easier. My son’s professors made it easier. My sister Sandy made it easier. When I got home, my mom came and stayed and made it easier. Cancer is hard. Dealing with it requires finding a provider who offers the best science, and the best outcomes. But I was lucky. In the midst of the hard stuff, I found a whole world of people willing to carry a bit of the load.

And that’s important, because there’s more to cancer than a tumor. There’s also an intensely human side to the equation. I was a mom, worried about my kid. I was a sister. I was a professional woman worried about my clients. I had a long drive and not a lot of money. OHSU has excellent science. But based on my experience, they have forgotten they deal with people.

“Do you have any idea how big we are?” the man asked. Clearly they were too big to do something as simple as assign a single intake person to minimize confusion. They were too big to understand that some of us deal with tight budgets, and the uncertainty of a long hotel stay or multiple five-hour-one-way drives can become insurmountable obstacles at a time when we just can’t afford them. They were too big to keep track of my damned medical records. They were too big to write down my diagnosis using the most specific term, simply because the more generic term was “easier to spell.” I hung up thinking that perhaps OHSU was just too damned big, if it had come to see its patients as something other than human beings.

And that was why I found the sheer size of the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance startling, once I arrived for my pre-surgery consult. As my sister and I sat in the lobby waiting for my appointment I leaned over and whispered, “It’s a lot bigger than I thought it would be.”

My sister, who has a long and illustrious history doing media relations and communications for world-class medical centers, looked startled. “What were you expecting?” she asked.

“Oh, maybe a couple of rooms,” I said. “We’d come in and check in at a counter, and Marilyn would be in the back, and there’d be maybe a doctor’s office or two…”

Sandy snorted, but quietly–the SCCA lobby was quiet and serene; it didn’t encourage excessive personal expression in the way of snorts.

I never got to meet Marilyn while I was there–her job was to smooth the way, to guide me gently through the hard, complicated, terrifying business of preparing to deal with my cancer. Once I arrived at SCCA I became other people’s responsibility. But Marilyn was my first, and best, friend there, and much as I love her, I hope we never have to speak professionally again. Good luck, Marilyn, wherever you are.

 

 

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Photo on 12-24-15 at 12.10 PM #2aHere’s the thing–what with one thing and another in my life, I learned long ago that the future was uncertain. The corollary to that, of course, was that I had to take whatever immediate gratification was on offer. I have never had a substantial savings account. I have no 401k, or retirement savings. I can’t save for a vacation. I’ve always seen this as a disadvantage–and it has been. Not being able to believe in the future has meant that I have lived in the eternal “now,” and sometimes that was a nice place and sometimes it wasn’t. Moreover, my passage through “now” has been a bumpy road–lovely highs and terrifying lows, many of which might have been smoothed out by a little planning and foresight. And those are, regrettably, not within my skill set.

When I got the cancer diagnosis “now” was terrifying. I rushed around and did all the things that my “now” demanded–I made a will. I signed an advance directive. I signed a power of attorney. I added my son’s name to my bank accounts. I got the car ready for him to take his driver’s test. I paid the bills ahead. With the help of my amazing sisters I found a top-notch cancer treatment center and scheduled my surgery. With the help of my mom I found a ride up and back. With the help of local friends and some of my friends from back in my college days I’ve arranged for The Boy to get to school and back, and have company for the nights I’m gone, if he wishes it.

Then I was ready, and it wasn’t yet Christmas. And here’s where the gift of my “eternal now” comes in. Because I had done everything I could do, I was ready to go to the hospital. And because it had now been a couple weeks, the “now” of the diagnosis had faded into the past. The “now” in which I have lived the last two weeks has been great–we’ve had a lovely Christmas. We spent time together. I enjoy my work. I’ve been doing creative stuff (yet another uterus picture, since you ask–one that sent of of my son’s friends shying backward like a startled colt when he saw it yesterday, then provoked spasms of laughter). I like my clothes. My house is a mess, but that’s all right, sort of. I’m doing important things in my “eternal now.”

If I had the gift of foresight, this might be much, much harder. As it is, I know in theory that this might not turn out well–and so I’ve done whatever I can to hedge against that. Some of that creative writing I’m doing is stuff I want my son to have–stuff that I think he might find comforting and important if things go really, really badly. That’s the reason he’s now on the bank account, and the car’s ready as soon as he can take his driver’s test. That’s why we have a backup network of friends and family.

Things might go badly. I might die. But I’m not dying today, and chances are I won’t be dying for at least a few months–even if the very worst happens. So for me, in my “eternal now,” things are great, and I’m holding onto that.

I’m not stupid, even if I am shortsighted: I know things are going to be worse before they’re better. But for right now, they’re good. And I’m relishing that.

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Gladys_WilliamJ_ZimmermanSo tonight I’m making meatballs, bitterly regretting that I mixed up the whole danged package of meat because, let’s face it, you can only cook so many meatballs before the whole thing starts to get a little nauseating, and listening to Tig Notaro’s “Hello, I have cancer,” set for about the bazillionth time.

As she always does, Tig makes me think of my Grandpa, who was both a great storyteller, and a lifelong thwarter of Mr. Death.

Mr. Death and I have been having some conversations lately, what with the cancer diagnosis and the ongoing uncertainty about what stage I’m at–the CT scan hints at very, very, early, but I keep wondering–did they scan everything? Did they scan my armpits? I’ve got some weird warts there. How about my neck, jaw, and face? I’ve been prone to glandular swelling for years, and my non-smoker, non-chewer brother got salivary gland cancer when he was in his thirties. How about my brain? I know they didn’t scan my brain, and so far two or three of my dad’s ten sibs died of brain cancer.

Cancer’s an old frenemy around here–so far we’ve had brain cancer, uterine cancer, ovarian cancer, salivary gland cancer, pancreatic cancer, and thyroid cancer in my immediate family, and those are just the ones I can list off the top of my head. I know they scanned my torso, but what about all the other spots?

So Mr. Death and I, we’re talking these days. He’s saying he’ll get me, and I’m saying, don’t be so sure, and he’s saying I get everybody, and I say not when they’re in their fifties, and still have a kid who could use a mom for a while yet.

I feel comfortable sassing Death this way because sassing Death is also in my family. My grandpa and Mr. Death had several intense conversations, and until the last one Grandpa won every round. Mr. Death threw everything he had at Grandpa–black widows, stampeding cattle, loose concrete drainage tiles, a brain tumor, and a steep flight of stairs–and what did Grandpa do? He laughed in Mr. Death’s face. And then he made a story about it.

Mr. Death also had an unfortunate encounter with my great-aunt. Great-Aunt Pearl was old. She was blind and deaf. Most of her friends and peers were dead. Her family mostly lived far, far away. And so it was when the doctor palpated her abdomen and found a large mass Aunt Pearl opted to simply let nature take its course. She was old, lonely, and ready to go. Her family migrated home like salmon. They said goodbye. And then a few days later Aunt Pearl had the mother of all bowel movements.

The mass was gone. It was a miracle. But Aunt Pearl was still very much alive, and now her family had to figure out a way to tell her that she was likely to remain that way for the foreseeable future. How do you tell someone who is Ready to Go that there’s been a delay? I don’t know what they finally did, but it can’t have been an easy conversation. As I recall, they were mostly worried about how pissed she was going to be at having Mr. Death stand her up.

Mr. Death’s one undisputed victory was probably Grandpa’s funeral. It’s a long story, which is best told with lots of voice impersonations, dramatic hand and body gestures, and funny sound effects, but the short version is that my uncle, who was videotaping the service, had a heart attack while he was taping. Since he was sitting down no one discovered this for far longer than I think any of us would have wished. When they did figure out what had happened things got very complex, very fast. My Dad and uncle administered CPR until the paramedics arrived, at which point everybody realized that there wasn’t room for all of Grandpa’s mourners AND the paramedics. Everybody picked up their chairs, went out in the hall, and waited for the funeral director to find them another chapel. Meanwhile, the mourners tried to sort out who would stay and bury Grandpa, and who would go to the hospital and support my aunt. It was a trying experience for all concerned.

Grandpa’s lifetime of survival stories, and most of all his funeral, changed my view of Mr. Death and how to handle him forever. I don’t know if this will work for other people, or only for families like mine, where we just plain can’t get the hang of dying gracefully, but here is what I know. Dark times come. You survive if you can. And then you make a story about it. If Mr. Death wins your round, you can know that somebody else will make a story about it.

I’ve been thinking about who will tell my story if Mr. Death gets the best of me. While I think some of my family would do a good job of it, there are others who, to put it kindly, would Not Photograph Me From My Best Side, so to speak. I don’t want them telling my story, I want to do it myself. This means I must make every effort to survive. I have to make sure  the voice impersonations, dramatic hand and body gestures, and funny sound effects get done right.

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So anyhow, to borrow the opening of Tig Notaro’s amazing routine, I have cancer. Luckily, in my case it just seems to be a very small, infant cancer, more of a cancerette, though we’ll know more after surgery, when all of my lady parts have been excised and the doctors can really take a look at the Little Stranger that has taken up residence in my son’s old apartment–the one he outgrew nineteen years ago.

To be honest, the news pretty much freaked me out, though I should have been expecting it. There’s lots of back story in my previous post, so I’ll just say here that I’d been bleeding for far, far, too long, that my son finally sat me down and made me google my symptoms, and that I wound up in the last place in the world I wanted to be–in a strange OB/Gyn’s office (they are all strangers to me–I haven’t visited one for something like seventeen years), locking up all my joints to keep from shaking, trying not to cry (there are good reasons for that seventeen years), and looking at the walls for distraction. And that’s when I saw it.

basicshape

“My god,” I thought. “It’s a cow.” Which is not what the artist had meant and, as it turned out, not what my doctor had meant when she hung it up on her wall. But the cow was what I needed to see. I spent the rest of that horrible half of my life (hey, it felt like it) staring at that diagram. “Yes,” I decided, “it’s definitely a cow. With big curvy horns with eggs on the ends–gold eggs, because this is a cow that likes jewelry…”

Because I wanted to think about something–anything–except what was happening between my legs, I reported my observations to the nurse, who was very nice about it. She didn’t see the cow, she said, but then she really didn’t have to, did she? I saw it, and that was enough. The doctor finished. I put myself to rights, shot a quick photo of the diagram, and limped out of the office, drained and shaking–but with the seed of an idea.

At home, I opened the photo and turned it into Illustrator, and then set about painting the cow I saw. I called The Boy, who serves as my focus group in projects like this. “What do you think?” I asked.

“Maybe make the horns solid, not cutaways…” he suggested.

“Yes,” I agreed eagerly. “And I could make them carved into spirals, with precious jewels wrapped around them…”

I went back to painting. He went back to playing his game.

That night at supper I said, “I’m thinking that there’s a frog in there, too…swimming, with tadpoles that look like sperms…”

“Uh huh,” he said, because he understands that when I say things like this I’m not looking for an opinion. I’m thinking out loud. He only has to listen.

“The cow needs a red river, because periods,” I reported a little later. “And there need to be flowers in it, because in that blood lies the possibility of life.”

“Okay,” said The Boy, wincing a little. He’s evolved, but still human.

I went back to painting.

“It’s going to be in the desert, because menopause,” I told him. “But there needs to be a flower and a bee, because the birds and the bees.”

“Mm,” he said, caught up in a boss battle.

And then it was done.

cowI turned to the frogs. Long, graceful arms, spindly, pathetic back legs, waving water weeds, spermish tadpoles doing a synchronized swimming routine. And bathing suits on the frogs with flowers and jewels, because these are Middle-aged Lady Frogs who like bright colors, costume jewelry, and Slenderizing Lines.

frogs3smallIn fact, they looked much like my Grandma, and, increasingly, me. Middle-aged ladies, carrying eggs…and so the farm wife was born, out in her overalls, carrying enormous buckets of eggs. And all around her, gigantic, fat hens with tiny heads, because after all, what would a hen do with a brain? A hen’s job is eggs. Lots of eggs.

farmladysmallAnd then I thought of ballerinas–middle-aged, portly ballerinas with saggy underwear. The Boy suggested that the saggy underwear should hold a well-used pad. And the picture became a metaphor about body-shaming, about how we women spend so much of our lives concealing the biologic realities that shape many of our days, about the risk of exposure if we choose to ignore those realities. I started the drawing. And then I went in for the D&C, and the doctor told me the news was not good.

“It’s cerous carcinoma,” she said.

For a second I thought she’d said it was “serious carcinoma.” Is there any other kind? I wondered, and then my mind went blank, and I couldn’t catch my breath. She went on to explain, and to give me some idea of what I needed to do next. This was good, because my future had just shut down in front of me. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t talk. I couldn’t think.

“Is your son there?” she asked.

“Yes,” I croaked.

“Would you like me to explain things to him?” she asked.

I handed him the phone. He listened. He asked a few questions. He hung up. And then we clung to each other, and cried.

I called my sister, who agreed to tell the others who had been waiting for the diagnosis.

When my brain came back online I thought about my paintings, but the thought of my little ballerina with her overflowing pad was obliterated by the diagram I had started with, consumed by a black, lobed mass, growing and spreading and unspeakably ugly. There was no picture there.

I thought of my son, and the fear in his eyes, and realized that the cancer was real–but so was the fact that I am a mother, and as a mother I needed to be strong. You mothers who have faced a diagnosis like this understand what I mean–the cancer is real, and terrifying, and above all else we want to soothe that fear for our children. We have cancer, but we are still mothers, and we still reach for our children, and seek to give comfort, both now, and in the future. “How do I want him to remember me?” I asked myself.

And I knew. I wanted him to remember me strong, loving, caring, smart-mouthed, and laughing. I wanted him to remember me engaged in my life. And it didn’t matter if I had six months or six centuries left. Once I’d taken the steps I could to eradicate the cancer, I couldn’t control what might happen. But I could absolutely control how I met it. I could remember that even though I have cancer, life goes on, and I can continue to live it. I didn’t want my son to see a mom who fell apart before she had to.

That day may come. I’m still in early days, when the effects of the D&C have left me feeling far better than I’ve felt in years–so much better that I can joke that cancer seems to agree with me so far. But I’m not stupid. I’ve seen cancer. I’ve seen treatment. I know it can get ugly. But it’s not ugly yet. Now, my son and I go to movies. We play games, we laugh. We joke. We entertain his friends. Our life is good. And I’m loving every minute of it, even as I make plans to have my uterus and ovaries removed as soon as possible, even as the knowledge that I have cancer knocks my breath out of me for a second sometimes, even as I make the appointment with the attorney to write my will, my power of attorney, my advance directive, even as I arrange with friends to watch out for my son while I’m away in the hospital. Because the cancer is real. But so is the rest of my life. And for now, it goes on. I’m finishing up a couple books I want to make sure my son has. I’m painting the illustrations. Yes, life goes on.

I know it does, because I’m painting again, and I’m writing, and I am still a mother who loves her son, and whose son loves her.

basicshape

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penimage

“We’re going to the State Pen,” Dad said one night as he waited for Mom to finish filling his soup bowl and buttering his bread.

“The Pen?” my brother Matt asked. “What for?”

“We’re gonna chop their alfalfa. They didn’t get enough to bale, but they need to clear the fields so it doesn’t ruin the next cutting. We’re gonna do it. I’m gonna go talk to’em tomorrow about it; there’s a lot of restrictions.”

The next night at supper he was full details. “They didn’t want to let you girls in,” he told Mom, Sally, and me. “There haven’t been any women contract workers inside for over fifteen years—only the guards. But I told’em, ‘You haven’t met my girls. They’ll be fine. They’re my crew, and if they can’t do it, I can’t either.’ The warden talked to a few people, and they finally said it was okay, but there are some rules.”

“What rules?” asked Sally nervously.

“You can’t go into any building without a guard. There’s a bathroom in the dairy barn, but if you need to use it you have to get a guard first. No talking to prisoners. They’re not going to be allowed in the fields we’re cutting. There’s to be no contact. Absolutely none. And no provocative clothing.”

I wondered if he was joking. I was frightened at the very thought of being inside the prison compound, with no walls between me and thousands of dangerous men, and what with one thing and another our wardrobes were the very definition of ‘non-provocative.’

Still, though, Sally and I made a special effort. The day we started work at the Pen we dressed for the occasion by donning long-sleeved flannel shirts, buttoning them up to our necks and around our wrists, pulling bib overalls and then coveralls on, braiding our hair tightly, and stuffing it up under John Deer “gimme” caps. It would have been funny, if it weren’t over a hundred degrees out, and our trucks un-airconditioned. We were boiling hot, but we felt safer for our camouflage.

We drove our unlikely caravan up to the massive concrete walls and stopped at the heavily barred gates. Guards with guns stared down at us. Dad got out of the pickup and walked up to the guardhouse. Uniformed men carrying what looked like machine guns came out. They walked toward the trucks. I gripped the wheel nervously. Dad stepped up on the running board.

“They’re gonna search the trucks,” he said. “The scale’s outside the walls, so you’ll have to stop each time you go weigh, pick up a guard, have him ride to the scales with you, and drop him off on the way back. They have to be sure we’re not smuggling anything in.” I opened my door, dropped to the ground, and watched as the guard poked around in the dust, alfalfa leaves, and desiccated chopped corn that had accumulated under my seat. To my mortification, his probing turned up an unexpected mummified mouse. He sneezed, buried the mouse again, and backed out, satisfied. “It’s clean. Go on in.”

I hastily shoved the mouse corpse out the door with a gloved hand, then climbed back into my truck and pulled it into gear. The massive gates swung open and we chugged through, then waited for Dad to get back into the pickup and lead us to where the prison farm foreman waited. Men were everywhere. They turned as we drove in, gaped, and called to other men who came running and gaped, too. I pulled my John Deer cap down to my eyebrows and drove by, trying not to look at all the murderers, robbers, arsonists, and rapists. And around us all, on the high towers, stood the guards, staring down at us, machine guns at the ready.

We pulled up to the farm office. The warden came out, a gun holstered at his hip. He talked to Dad, who came back and told us, “Just follow the warden to the field. The bathroom’s in there—” he gestured to the dairy barn—“but you have to come here first and get a guard. Remember that. No going in buildings alone.”

Sally and I shook our heads. No, we wouldn’t go into any buildings alone. The murderers, rapists, arsonists, and robbers circled like sharks, keeping a safe distance, mindful of the guns overhead. Our caravan pulled out of the prison yard. Matt’s truck, pulling the bagger on the trailer, turned right and chugged out of sight around the dairy barn. Sally and I followed Dad and the warden’s pickups down a dirt road. The road wound out of the farmyard and past a massive gray building on the right. A huge yard, fenced with cyclone fencing and topped with tangled razor wire, ran beside the road on the left. Guards patrolled the perimeter. Inside men in blue denim shirts and jeans lounged, played basketball, and smoked. They looked up at the sound of our engines, stared, and ran for the fence.

“How do they know?” Sally asked, tugging nervously at her cap.

“I don’t know,” I answered, and tugged at my own, resolutely not looking at the crowd of men who now stood packed along the fence. We left the prison yard behind for a row of pigsties, then we were in familiar territory—fields. A cornfield came first, followed by a fallow field, and then the alfalfa field we would be cutting.

A man in a blue denim shirt and jeans drove a tractor in the fallow field. He stopped and stared as we drove by. Sally and I drove into the field and pulled up behind Dad, resolutely ignoring the man on the tractor. We unchained the chopper and Sally climbed into the high cab, fired it up, and backed it carefully onto the ground while Dad set the jacks and unhitched the trailer.

Matt drove up in the other truck, climbed into the idling chopper, shoved the throttle ahead, and we were off. Dad and the warden chatted by the field while we filled the trucks. The convict from the neighboring field climbed off his tractor and joined them. The three men talked until Sally’s truck was full, then the warden led her back to where the bagger was set up and Mom waited.

I pulled into the field and Matt filled my truck. I followed Dad’s pickup back to the bagger. Dad stayed to help Mom empty the trucks, and Sally, Matt and I were basically on our own. When I got back from dumping my truck I interrupted Matt and the convict from the fallow field, leaning against the chopper, talking. Sally said she saw the same thing. All day, Matt and the convict talked between trucks. When Sally or I showed up the convict hot-footed it back to his tractor. By the time we pulled up he was industriously tilling his field again.

The day heated. The alfalfa had been lying in the field for far too long. It chopped into a fine powder and coated us with light green-gray dust. The trips fell into a pattern: the fields, then the pigsties, then the prison yard with the watching men crowded along the fence, then the farm yard, then a wait if the guards were transporting a prisoner from the old prison to the new maximum security building, then the bagger—if the warden hadn’t asked for the load to be weighed—and then the whole trip in reverse. A guard rode with me the first time I took a load outside the walls to the scale, jouncing along on the passenger seat, gun in hand. He waited while I weighed the truck, then we jounced back. The next time he simply waved me through. The whole thing would have been monotonous, if it weren’t for the guns, the convicts gazing enthralled at pale green women completely encased in flannel and denim, and the pickup loads full of convict farm laborers.

The pickups—tiny Datsuns packed with men—seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time careening past the field we were cutting. When we met on the road the men filling the cabs and beds of the pickups and standing on the running boards grinned maniacally and nearly fell out of the trucks with the vigor of their waving. And then there was the jogger. The jogger never waved. He simply ran, every day, long, even, single-minded strides, his dog running with him, tongue lolling.

And, back at the field, there would be Matt and the convict. We learned his name was Reg. Reg told Matt he had been framed for armed robbery. The warden said Reg was in for murder. “Reg is a nice guy,” the warden told us. “He was a Golden Gloves boxer; his hands had to be registered as lethal weapons.” Reg was in prison because of a woman. “He just can’t stay away from her,” the warden told us. “Problem is, she cheats on’im, then he gets mad and loses his temper. Last time he took a swing at some guy made him jealous, and killed’im. So now he’s here.” He shook his head at the perfidy of the woman, forcing a nice guy like Reg to kill somebody and go to prison. “If he could just make a break, get away from her, he’d be all right.”

“But he said he was in for armed robbery, that he’d gotten drunk and was asleep in the car and the guys robbed a liquor store and—” Matt started.

“Son, in here they was all framed,” the warden said gently.

Every time I pulled into the field Reg would be ambling back to his tractor. Once Matt came over and swung up on my running board and stuck his head into my cab, grinning.

“Reg has been in here too long.”

“What makes you say that?” I asked, curious.

“He said, ‘You’ve sure got some good looking sisters.”

I laughed. Sally and I, though we both cleaned up fairly well, were, if not frights in those days, certainly very, very plain. We had set out to be. Matt laughed with me. “Let’s go, ugly girl,” he teased. And away we went, still laughing.

That night at supper Sally and I were discussing the jogger. “I didn’t know they could have pets,” Sally said. “What is he, a special case?”

“Maybe he’s blind,” pondered Matt. “It’s nice that he gets to have his dog in prison with him.” Matt’s dog had been hit by a car a few years before, and he still missed him.

“But he runs. The dog follows him,” I objected. “He can’t be blind.”

“I’ll ask Reg,” Matt said. Reg had quickly become our authority on all things penal. Matt wasted no time. After my first trip he came over to my truck and said, “I found out about the jogger’s dog,” he said.

“And?” I asked.

“The jogger’s a mass murderer, in for life and then some. They let him run for exercise. The dog runs with him so they don’t have to send a guard. The dog’s been trained to kill him if he leaves the road.”

I lifted my eyes and looked up the road. The jogger ran by, strides long, even, powerful, looking neither to the right nor the left. The dog ran beside him, tongue lolling. I imagined him running, running, then leaping for the wall, hands tangling in the razor wire at the top, the dog savaging his back.

“Let’s go, ugly girl,” said Matt. We filled the truck and I started for the bagger. One of the farm pickups careened by. By this time I recognized the faces, though I had spoken to none of them. When they waved I waved back, lifting my hand nervously. At the bagger I sat in the truck, ran the chain belt unloader, and watched the convicts in the yard playing with a little black and white kitten. They had named it “Cop Car.” Cop Car looked fat and sleek. As I watched a prisoner picked him up and tickled his round little belly.

The day grew warmer. I had emptied my water jug, and now had to go to the bathroom. I held it for several trips, too embarrassed to ask a guard to take me to the restroom. I considered peeing in the field, but had no idea when or from which direction one of the convict pickups might come. Sally was in little better condition. Finally we gave up and went to the farm office together.

I knocked on the door. A guard stuck his head out. “Yeah?”

“We need to go to the bathroom,” I muttered, red-faced.

“Just a sec.” He disappeared and then emerged, carrying his rifle. “Follow me.” Sally and I slunk through the pathway of prisoners in his wake, knowing that every person in the farmyard knew exactly where we were going, and why. At the door of the barn the guard stopped. “Everybody out!” he shouted.

Men filed out of the barn and lined up in two rows. The guard went down the rows, checklist in hand. When he was satisfied everyone was indeed outside he cocked his gun and led Sally and me past the gauntlet of eyes and into the barn. At a door halfway down the dim passageway he stopped, knocked, pushed the door open, and looked inside. “It’s clear,” he said. Then he turned his back and stood, feet apart, gun cocked and ready, while Sally and I scuttled into the filthy bathroom. We looked around nervously.

“We could get AIDS,” Sally said nervously. And what are those funny lights on the floor?” I tore my eyes off  the filthy black sink and looked at the floor. Little circles of light lay everywhere. We looked up, tracking the lights to their source. The bathroom walls were full of bullet holes.

We had come too far to back out now. We raced through the process, dropping our pants, peeing from a safe distance above the seat, and foregoing washing our hands so we wouldn’t have to touch the filthy taps. I balanced on one foot and flushed the toilet with my boot. We opened the door to see the guard’s broad back. When he heard us he turned. “Finished?” he asked impassively, then led us back outside and to our trucks. Of everything I experienced at the penitentiary, going to the bathroom was the scariest.

It was easy to forget that the truckloads of men who smiled and waved at us were in many cases guilty of terrible crimes. We were farmers, working with other farmers, as we had for years. These farmers never spoke to us, but they talked to Matt, and to Mom—even though it was against the rules—and they waved. Sally and I soon thought nothing of waving back. The trips past the prison yard were the worst, though passing the new maximum security building with its narrow window slits was almost as bad. Matt told us that he had seen a face on one trip. The man had had to turn his head sideways to fit both eyes in the narrow window slit, but he had done it. He was looking out the window, watching us. After that whenever I passed the big concrete building with the neat little prison cemetery nearby I looked for faces.

I left the penitentiary a changed person. The convicts had become more than beasts in numbered denim shirts; they had become people. It was easy to forget their crimes. Even the mass murderer with his dog had lost his aura of terror—and I found that loss of fear more than a little frightening. Was I losing my natural survival instincts, or was I simply becoming more humane? I didn’t know.

We spoke of Reg often, laughing ruefully at Matt’s conviction that he had been imprisoned for too long if he could find us attractive. Early that fall Dad told us over supper that the prison had called again; we would be bagging their corn. We looked forward to going back and seeing the familiar faces grinning and waving from the racing pickups, to hearing what Reg had to tell Matt about prison life, to watching the prisoners play with Cop Car. Sally and I still dressed for the occasion in loose, concealing, aging clothing, but we only put on the John Deere caps when we drove past the prison yard.

We arrived on a crisp, cool morning. The guards saw us, opened the gate, and waved us in. We roared past and out to the field, looking for the racing pickups full of convicts. The pickups were there, but the faces had changed. Reg still chugged around the fallow field in his tractor. “That has to be the best-tilled field in the state,” Sally and I joked, but we were relieved to see him there. Maybe he could tell us what had happened.

Matt filled my truck and I made the trip to the bagger, passing Sally on the return trip, as usual, and arriving at the field to see Reg jogging for his tractor. Matt waited for me to stop, then swung up on my running board and said, “A bunch of’em got sent back inside the walls.” “The Walls” was how the convicts referred to maximum security.

“Why?” I asked.

“They were growing pot in the cornfield and the guards caught’em.”

“Really? In the prison cornfield?” I snickered.

Matt chuckled along with me. “Yeah. Sally and I found their little garden on our last pass. It was sort of sweet, really. There was a watering can, and a blue shirt. One of the guys must have been out peacefully tending his little garden when they caught him.” The image of the convict gardener tenderly caring for his pot plants, nurturing them lovingly amid the cornstalks until the guards came crashing in like Demon Kings, struck me funny. The sheer gall it would take to do such a thing in a prison farm awed me. Matt and I started across the field. Sure enough, deep in the heart of the cornfield was a little clearing, trampled corn, a little tin watering can, and a twisted blue denim shirt. We left it as a sort of memorial, though to what, I wasn’t sure. Perhaps initiative. Perhaps quiet rebellion. I missed the familiar faces.

Cop Car had grown into a teenage cat, and no longer liked to have his tummy tickled. His convict owner had been released. The days passed hot, sticky, and long, even though it was fall. And then one day everything went wrong. It was hot and still. The prisoners in the medium security prison yard stood by the fence, staring and hooting at Sally and me. The chopper kept plugging. I had to go to the bathroom, but was too embarrassed to ask the guard to take me. My head and neck ached. Sweat stung the in scratches on my hands and arms. Early in the afternoon I pulled into the bagger, engaged the chain drive, and waited for the truck to unload. Dad was operating the bagger. I wondered where Mom was, but then she appeared at my door, a plastic bag full of little ice cream and orange sherbet cups in her hands.

“Here,” she said.

“I didn’t know anybody’d been to town,” I said, surprised. I took one, peeled the top back, and let the icy goodness slide down my throat.

“Nobody was. Reg stole them from the prison cafeteria for us. Here, take some more; there’s a whole bag. And take some out to Matt.”

I choked. My mother was knowingly giving me stolen ice cream. “He ripped them off? From the prison cafeteria?” The thought of Reg risking getting sent back inside the walls for ice cream cups horrified me.

“He just handed them to me and said, ‘You guys look awful hot out here.’ What was I gonna do, tell him to take’em back?” She laughed ruefully. I ate the ice cream gratefully and took several out to Matt, who reacted much as I had—first with shock, then with laughter at the sheer improbability of it.

But the laughter wasn’t the end of it. Those ice cream cups made me question myself. Would I have thought to bring ice cream to the convict farm workers, hot as it was? I doubted it. I hadn’t really seen past the number-stamped denim shirts, the guard towers, the razor wire fences, the guns, the dog trained to kill a running man. I had been thinking in terms of “us” and “them,” convicts, who slept within walls here, and free contract workers, who slept within walls half an hour away. Where was the difference? Reg’s ice cream cups said, “There is none.” They spoke of our common humanity, rather than our putative differences. “There is no “us,” they said, “there is no ‘them.’ There are only people, some kind, some terrifying, most a mixture.”

As a general rule people don’t get into the Washington State Penitentiary for parking violations. Most of the people there had done some very bad things. Reg himself was in for murder. I had always believed that it was right and proper that dangerous people be locked away from the rest of us. But then I thought of the ice cream cups, and I realized it wasn’t quite that simple anymore. I could no longer simply write off men behind bars as “them.” Instead, it had become “we,” hungry, thirsty, hot people, who felt better for the kindness of a little stolen ice cream. “Us” and “them” had become moving points, defining the person using them more than the people defined.

I would have liked to have thanked Reg, but the rules were there, and there for a reason. “Tell him thank you,” I told Matt.

“Will do,” he said. “Let’s go, Ugly Girl.” Then he swung up into his cab, still licking ice cream off his little wooden spoon, shoved the header into gear, grinned, licked his ice cream again, and we roared across the field and past the forlorn garden. The mass murder and his dog jogged by. Reg puttered around in his fallow field. Everything looked the same—and utterly different.

 

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Class of 2015 photo in front of school

Today my son graduates high school at two in the afternoon. It’s the culmination of a week of pretty much non-stop activity–parties, baccalaureate, pictures, marching practice, scholarship award night, tuba practice (he’s playing part of his state solo in the graduation ceremony), his own personal graduation party, the arrival of friends and family, and far too little sleep. In a larger sense, though, this is the culmination of a chapter in our life that started in September, 2002, on the day that I dropped him off for Kindergarten, and then went home and wept because my child was growing up.

A lot has happened since then. The tuba. Allergies. Mold. Moves. Love. Loss. Books, art, music.  Most of all, friends have happened. They happened a lot this week. Megan, Marty, Morris, Dakota, Donnie, Mike, Leatrice, Adam, Jakob, Zack, Colin, Whitney, Olivia, my sisters Sandy and Shirley (because one of the things the years have taught me is that sisters can be friends, too). My mom.

We’re ready for graduation. We’re ready because we worked hard for it, and because we had friends who helped. And because they helped (and because my sister Sandy just emailed me her pictures from the party) I had a minute to see something I otherwise would have missed.

I looked at the pictures. I saw the faces I’ve seen in my living room and my yard, and in some cases my classrooms for the past nine years. And what struck me was what survivors our children are. In all the romanticizing of the teenage years and prom and homecoming and graduation (and in the case of our town, the Noize Parade) and football and soccer and baseball it’s easy to lose sight of how very, very hard it is to turn from a child to an adult. Our children have done it–and mostly they’ve managed to hold onto the best parts of themselves–the parts we saw in the baby hugs, the kisses good night, the wonder of Christmas, the first trips to the zoo, the stories at night, the ball games in the yard, the conversations on the porch while the stars came out, and the conversations in the car–the hard ones, where we could talk about the things that we needed to without having to look at each other. Cars are good places for that. They force us to listen, rather than look, or run away when we don’t like what we’re hearing.

I look at those pictures, and for every person there I see a challenge met, a win, a loss, a change. And so for The Boy, and for his friends, and for his classmates I had the privilege of knowing in my classrooms, let me just say, “I’m immensely proud of all of you. And while you may not know it, I love you all. You’re good people. You’ve enriched my life, and brought out the best in me.” You’ve let me feed you. You’ve listened to my stories. Sometimes you’ve told me yours.  You’ve sat in our living room, and sometimes slept on the floor. Thank you for that. Thank you for sharing your lives with us.

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