Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Storm: Friday night

The Derecho that passed through the region at the end of June shook me to my core. It reminded me how fragile everything really is.

The power went out that Friday, just after dinner, and I felt like a genius that I'd both been too busy to go to the grocery store that evening, as planned, and that I'd remembered to stock up on batteries a couple of months back.

Coupons: Buy one get one free.

Both of my little camping lanterns were loaded and ready to go.

I expected the power to be out until morning. The wind alone, I thought, would have shaken loose branches and thrown them onto power lines. At worst, if the storm was really bad, I figured I might be without power for the weekend --a couple of years back, the power on my street had been out for about three days just before Christmas. The power company scared us about spending the holidays in the dark.

The lights had returned in plenty of time.

Still, to be on the safe side, I made plans to take the food into town. The city would come back online first and the radio station where I work was on the same part of the grid as the hospital --at least, that's what I'd heard.

It seemed vaguely pathetic, but I didn't feel like I could afford to lose even the scrawny pork roast, the couple of bags of frozen broccoli and the seven of eight eggs I had.

It's all money.

We went to bed early and were grateful the air coming through the open windows was cool. There wasn't even any rain.

At first light, the damned dog sniffed and snuffed at my hand hanging over the side of the bed then whined to go out.I've learned this is a courtesy on his part. If Rudy, the damned dog, is not taken out when he first asks, he pees in the doorway to my bedroom, while staring directly at me.

I grabbed a pair of shoes, slung a shirt over my head, found his leash by the door and took him out. I thought I might check the garden while I was out, see if the wind had done anything to my tomato stakes or the ill-conceived bean trellis I'd assembled with local (and very green) bamboo.

The tomatoes were fine. The trellis was squashed and at the top of the yard, an apple tree had been yanked out of the ground like a ripe carrot. Roots that had never seen the sun were now exposed and the tree was irreparable. It was dying.

Down the road, two other trees laid on their side. Another had been ripped down the middle. Branches were cast everywhere and my little neighborhood looked battered.

An eerie silence seemed to hang in the morning mist.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Cancer Man: Mirror

She sounded older on the phone and right away she reminded me of somebody's mom --like the mom of one of my old friends, one who maybe did shift work at the local plant and spent her days off in the summer lounging on a lawn chair in the backyard, drinking budget cola spiked with budget rum and burning the up the afternoon with a dime store paperback.

That might even be more or less who Suzie was before she got sick. She told me she had a son, a little boy who was just starting school.

"I haven't worked in two years," she told me.

Her occupation before she got cancer was assistant manager at a convenience store.

"There was a lot of lifting," Suzie said. "I spent all day on my feet, on a concrete floor. The doctor said I had to quit that, that I was done with that."

She didn't really miss it much. The job sucked, but it was better than being a professional cancer patient.

"But at least I get to spend more time with my son. Before this, I used to work a lot of nights and if I was doing that right now, I'd barely see him. He'd be in school while I was home."

Suzie was definitely a "the glass is half full" type, which was amazing given that the cancer had taken a breast and spread into the bones around her collar and shoulder.

"My plastic surgeon wants to get my reconstruction done before they start chemo and radiation."

She wanted her doctor to take out her uterus, which apparently was what everyone (including the doctor, she said) believed was causing her cancer.

"Just take it out," Suzie said. "Get it out of me and let me live."

Her cancer doctor wouldn't do it. 

She changed the subject, talked about ducks and rabbits.

The rabbits lived across the road. She seemed to think they were pets that had gotten loose, gone wild, but were never brave enough to escape their yard --except when one of them ran out in front of a car. 

We'd passed over the remains of one as we left her driveway.

The ducks lived in her backyard. Her father had run over a nest with the mower some time back, but they'd managed to save some of the eggs, which later hatched. They'd been raising them ever since.

"They just follow us around the yard," she said then told me she'd hurt her shoulder over the weekend while scooping to pick up one of the ducklings.

The doctor, she expected, would give her hell about that.

Eventually, we talked about her illness. She was resigned to it and a life of gradual loss. Already, the cancer had cost her a job and very likely the man who was her son's father.

He wasn't in the picture any more and she kind of missed him. She missed the car he'd given her more.

"It was a gift for my birthday from my son's father and his Papaw. I miss that car. I loved that car."

Before she'd been diagnosed, she'd drove a sporty Mazda, a stick shift, that she said could fly.

The doctor made her give that up. She wasn't supposed to drive unless she absolutely had to and a stick shift was too much for her to manage with her shoulder the way it was.

At some point, she told me the cancer in her bones was stage four. The doctor couldn't really operate on it, not without it causing the disease to spread --and even if they did, could she really do without a collar bone and a shoulder?

She didn't know the answer to that.

So, they were going to contain it --or try. About once a month, she said she'd have to go in for chemo therapy. This would continue for the rest of her life.

"I guess you'll do whatever you have to, to live," she said and laughed.

I wanted to laugh along with her, but couldn't bring myself to do it.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Cancer Man: Smoker's lament

Almost all of them smell like cigarettes. They get in the car and they reek like an old tobacco barn. I know the smell.

Back when I was a smoker, a real smoker and not a dabbler who hid his habit, I remember that when I was short on money I'd buy the GPC cigarettes at the Feed store next door from the pizza parlor where I worked a couple of years while in college.

For considerably less than a buck you could get a pack of cigarettes that tasted like hot asphalt and smelled like roasted pus. You lit the things, inhaled and felt the smoke walk around your lungs like an evil spirit that couldn't be bothered to wipe its dirty feet. If you were lucky, it only gave you a headache. Usually, they made me want to throw up.

Half a dozen times I almost quit because I'd been stuck smoking those things between paydays and God, how they stank. You could barely get the smell off your clothes, let alone wash it out of your hair or scrape it off your fingertips. You had to scrub and soak to get rid of the stain and stench.

The people who get in my cars these days for our little journeys to and from, I know, smoke the worst of the worst. They still smoke because where they are now, quitting barely matters, but they don't smoke Marlboros or Winstons or even the much despised Dorals. Those brands to them are like cuts of beef to me --something you look at in the store, pray for it to be on special, but seldom actually put it in the cart.

They smoke the stuff that comes wrapped up like old porno magazines, in plain wrappers that don't promise the products they contain will do anything that the name brand versions sometime suggests. They won't get you laid, won't make you seem more interesting and won't contribute to your image as a rugged individualist. They're a suicide pact. The surgeon general's warning is hardly necessary and is more like the contents of a fortune cookie.

The smell clung to Lila. I could almost sense it before she opened the door. I didn't ask what Lila's cancer was, but it hardly mattered. From what she was smoking, I could tell that whatever she had, it wasn't looking good.

Lila and I were supposed to have met earlier. She'd been booked before months ago then called off because the chemotherapy and the radiation terrified her. She wanted a second opinion.

"I don't want to do this if I don't have to," is what she told me over the phone then thanked me for calling. If she needed me, she'd call me later.

I'd just forgotten about her.

Lila lived on the edges of what passes for civilization, in a grubby trailer at the end of a dusty gravel road that ran parallel to a railroad track.

"Sometimes they'll have the train on the tracks and you have to walk half a mile just to get around it."

The trains come at regular intervals and usually through the night. I asked her how she slept and she shrugged and said she had no idea.

Picking her up, her grown daughter thanked me twice for doing this and on short notice. They had three vehicles in the yard. None of them were reliable, they said, and besides, the daughter needed to wait at the trailer. Someone was picking her up later to take somewhere else.

"My uncle has esophagus cancer," she said. "He's got surgery today." Lila's daughter shook her head, looked tired and defeated.

I said nothing. That particular brand of cancer is ugly and usually fatal.

She said, "It's my birthday. Happy birthday, right?"

Too late.

I took the woman's mother back down the road and tried to make idle chatter. That's usually better than silence, but she didn't want to talk. She wanted to get this done and hopefully live to see her grandchildren get through school.

At some point, she asked about how I got into this business and I gave her the lame story about the newspaper already having enough people to play volleyball for the corporate cup.

"We needed points and I could get them points by donating blood or becoming a driver for the cancer society. I did both and stuck with the driving because I believe in it. I wish I'd started doing stuff like this years before."

I told her it was a good way to get out of the office. I told her I'd met a lot of interesting people then I lied and said most of them turn out fine.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Cancer Man: Lila

The call came out of the blue.

"Do you still, like, help people when they've got the cancer?"

"Um, yes," I said, wanting to explain that this was usually through an agency. They handled everything, but I just didn't feel like explaining anything. They barely call me anymore. The program is apparently on something of a downswing, even though Cancer continues to be popular.

"Well, I need to get to hospital on the 19th," she told me.

"The 19th of October?"

"No, Wednesday. Can you come pick me up?"

I thought about it for maybe a second, then shrugged and said, "Sure. What time and where?"

And then I asked her name. 

Over the past couple of months, I've struggled to connect with Hospice. I have the training. I want to help, yet when I get the cattle call emails requesting assistance, I tend to look at them quickly then disregard.

I don't have time. It's awkward. It's not for me. Somebody else can get this one.

These are the things I say to myself and then my heart sinks a little when I get a note for a call off. Medicine doesn't need to be delivered because the patient won't be needing it anymore. The vigil is called off because nobody needs to sit with someone who has already checked out.

I don't know what I expected and I can't figure out if somehow I've become afraid of dying and death.

But the call on the phone, I couldn't turn that down, not after she worked up the nerve to call.

I have no idea how she got my number.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Seeds from the slacker: End of summer

The garden didn't do all that I'd hoped it would do, but it did a lot of things I didn't expect. I should have planted more tomatoes and put up an electrified barbed-wire fence, dug a moat then filled it with piranhas to keep out the fucking deer (They got my peppers. Oh, yes they did --except, amusingly enough, the ghost peppers which can raise a blister on bare skin. I have pleasant dreams of the deer biting into one of those then doing elaborate ballet in the backyard, unable to quench the fire that is consuming their wicked tongues).

I am not a vindictive man. Seriously.

There were many failures. My eggplant never came in. It barely even tried. The zucchinis performed well then were wiped out by a creepy looking white grub that looked like something out of "Alien." I still managed to get plenty of them before that happened, however.

We will not discuss the okra again.

The watermelons came in late, while the pumpkins arrived so early. I'm still looking at different ways to use the latter and the kids who said they loved the watermelon won't eat it now.

And now, the garden is about done. The tomatoes wither and I do not think my peppers will last much longer. I planted a couple of things that are supposed to do well in cooler seasons, but I'm not optimistic I'll see any spinach or lettuce before the real cold sets in. I'm too late.
The main thing is, I think, was this year was a building year, a learning year. I knew, not a lot about gardening, and now I know a little more. I learned that you need to keep better track of where your plants are and what they are. I could have used the sun better, controlled the space, fertilized and watered with something like regularity.

Still, it was a good year to try something new and stick with it for once. In the past, I'd put in little gardens then given up on them because of distractions, boredom or just because the work seemed too arduous.

And while I didn't get as much food out of the garden as I wanted, the work bore fruit in other ways. It gave me something to do with my hands when I didn't know what I was supposed to do. It gave me a place to go, to meditate and focus my attention back to the world of the here and now and not whatever my current aggravation was.

The garden also gave me something to share with people. I made pumpkin butter, which delighted my son, and I brought it for my friends at work. I gave the 80-something man I work with at the radio station zucchini for he and his wife after he told me the stuff was big in Mexico. His wife is Mexican. I shared tomatoes and a few peppers and talked gardening with whoever would let me bend their ear.

It gave me something to share with my father and I loved that.

With my meager tomato supply, I made the best marinara sauce I've ever eaten and shared it with my girlfriend. I shared the joy of getting filthy dirty with the dog and we bonded over a mutual distrust of rabbits.

It has been a grand garden and already I can't wait to start all over again bigger and better in the hopes of making new mistakes. 

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Faith here and now

I attend church these days --I know, quite shocking-- but as much as I try, most of the time I don't feel what's supposed to be in the message. There is no real revelation other than a petty political one that has no business being spoken from the pulpit.

I'm afraid I'm still more Buddhist than anything, just someone who is trying very hard to live by compassion for the sake of compassion, not because it's an expression of love for a divine being and not because I think it will get me into Heaven, but because it makes the most sense to love everyone as you'd have them love you.

As Vonnegut would say, "God damn it, you've got to be kind."

I believe that, even if I don't always get there (obviously).

Still, I think I used to understand Christianity a lot better. I used to pray and when I prayed I spoke to God with a fierce faith. I prayed for those I loved and asked with utter remorse for the forgiveness of my sins. I prayed for assistance, while believing fervently that God isn't one to grant wishes. I begged to understand and to find peace, but peace was slippery.

And I was thinking about some of these things as I was driving along with my girlfriend, discussing the preacher's sermon --I thought the guy sounded good, but didn't much care for what he said.

We were riding along, soaking in the air conditioning. The sun was shining and just ahead of us, we saw a young, dark-skinned man kneeling in the grass and offering a prayer to the east. His long hair was in tight braids tied together like electrical cables right above his neck.

It was just after noon and behind him, he'd dropped the pack he'd been carrying.

He was just a traveler, a weary pilgrim headed somewhere, but this gesture, a prayer by the side of the road in plain sight of Sunday traffic, was easily the most spiritually significant thing I'd seen in quite a while. It didn't make me want to convert to anything, but it reminded me that we're all on our own roads to "Damascus" and most of the time, like this young believer, we're moving against the traffic.