Wednesday, November 19, 2014

A Fine Balance

I have an eight-year-old friend who had a big, cuddly, white cat named Jasper. A little over a month ago, Jasper's family made the difficult decision to have him euthanized. He wasn't well. He was sick, in pain, losing weight. He'd stopped purring. He looked sad. It was clear that Jasper was dying, that it wasn't pleasant for him, and that helping him along was the right thing. For Z - my eight-year-old friend - losing Jasper is her first heartbreak. She asked me, the other day, how I coped with the loss of my mother. She was hoping I could give her some clue as to how to mend her broken, little heart. I believe any question a kid asks is worth answering honestly, whenever possible. I told Z that the sadness of missing Jasper will probably never go away, but that she would get more and more used to it. I told her that she would never forget Jasper, and always love him, but that a time would come when remembering him would be more about remembering how great he was, than about how sad it was to be without him. I told her that being as sad as she is makes sense, because Jasper was a really important part of her life and that, because he's gone, her life is different, now - different forever.

What I didn't tell Z was that this heartbreak is only the first in what will be many losses, that life is all about loss and that the losses only become more frequent as we get older. She doesn't know that recently, when I was transferring my contacts from my old phone to my new one I was shocked to find so many people in my world - or at least in my address book - are no longer alive. Should I have told her that I still have the last two messages my mother left on my voicemail? Or that I don't have the heart to remove my favorite cousin's name and number from my address book? Should I have told her that as recently as last week I saw something that made me laugh and started to pick up the phone to call my friend, Heidi, who has been dead for over a year, now? I wonder if she'd understand how sad I am that the plan I had, with my old schoolmate, Joseph, to meet for a shot of bourbon when I finally get to Alaska, will never come to pass because Joseph died a few months ago?

It seems to me that we start out in life with a set of scales that are weighed down on one side by the people we have around us. As time passes, and these people leave - move or switch schools or divorce us or die - they jump onto the other side of the scales, weighing that side down a little more. Most of the time, I pay these scales no mind. For this reason, it's shocking to me to look over and notice that the two sides of the scales are closer than ever.

I'll probably never get rid of those voicemails or my cousin's phone number. Audaciously funny things will always make me think of Heidi and wish she were around to laugh at them with me. One day, when I finally get to Alaska, I'm having that shot of bourbon, and toasting to Joseph and a life well lived. I don't even like bourbon. I don't like cats, either, but I'll never forget Jasper.

  

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Cosa Nostra



This morning I woke up with a sharp pain between my shoulder blades.

It felt - still feels - as if a long, jagged knife had been stuck into the middle of my back while I slept.
It felt - still feels - as if the handle of that knife at some point snapped off, leaving the sharp blade inside of me.
It felt - still feels - as if that blade cuts a little deeper with each move I make.

Let me be clear: There is no heavy lifting going on, no jumping jacks. What I mean to say is that, when I inhale, the expansion of my chest to let air into my lungs causes the constant pain to become sharper, clearer, more intense. It hurts to breathe. Other things that hurt include:

Lying on my side
Lying on my back
Lying on my stomach
Sitting up
Standing up
Putting two slices of bread in the toaster

You get the idea.

I love mafia movies. Invariably in these movies, there's some WASPy, rookie cop who asks what "cosa nostra" means, to which the older, seasoned detective always answers, "It's what the Italians call the mafia...it means "our thing.""

Words and phrases lose a lot in translation. "Cosa nostra" shouldn't be translated in such flat terms. The phrase is charged with emotion - love, even. It's not "our thing." It should be something more like, "this thing of ours" or "this thing we share."

The pain of crumbling bones is not one of the things I thought I'd end up sharing with my mother. It's certainly not a thing I ever hoped to share with her, or that she ever would have hoped to share with me. But here it is. This thing of ours. This thing we share.

When I wake up on a morning such this one, and feel that knife in my back, I can't help but imagine my mother: 22 years old, pregnant, suffering from asthma so severe the doctor worries she might die in the same way her sister died - gasping for breath. He has her come in every morning for a shot of steroidal drugs. Drugs that keep the asthma at bay and allow her to breathe, and her baby to grow. Drugs that also, over time, turn her bones into brittle pieces of chalk. I imagine this as I roll out of bed. And, as that rolling movement makes the pain between my shoulder blades sharper, clearer, and more intense, I imagine being that baby who was not yet born when those life-saving, bone-crushing drugs started flowing through our shared blood stream.

This thing of ours. This thing we share.

When I put it in these terms, it's so much easier to bear.


Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Law #116

San Juan, Puerto Rico, 1944

It's necessary, they said.
You'll sleep right through it and you won't feel a thing, they said.
We know what's best, they said
It's for your own good, they said.

A boardroom on the U.S. Mainland 

It's necessary, they said.
These women are simple, they said.
They don't know what's best for them, they said.
It's for their own good, they said.
There are already too many of them, they said.

San Juan, Puerto Rico, 1944

I'm not sick, she said.
But, you're a doctor, she said.
You must know what I need, she said.
I trust you, she said.

She slept through it, just as they said she would, but it did hurt. The next day it hurt. And for many days after. It hurt more and for a longer time than giving birth to her son had hurt. And it left a scar. And she stopped bleeding every month. She was 34, and she'd stopped bleeding. But, then, so did the other women she knew: her sister, her cousins. They'd all stopped bleeding. She, at least, had her son.

A Gynecologist's Office, New York City, 1963

When did you have a hysterectomy? the gynecologist asked.
I don't know what that is, she said.
You have no uterus, the gynecologist said.
I don't know what that is, she said. 
When did you stop having periods? the gynecologist asked.
After la operacion, she said.
Who performed the operation? the gynecologist asked.
The American doctor, she said. 
Why did the American doctor do this? the gynecologist asked.
Because, she said.
Because? the gynecologist asked.
Because it was for my own good, she said.



Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Go home, Taylor Swift: I'm walkin' here!

Growing up in NYC in the 70s and 80s meant being told to be careful.

"Be careful of Bryant Park - the junkies all hang out there."
"Be careful to hold on tight, if you ride between subway cars."
"Be careful around Times Square - that place is bad news."
"Be careful not to stand near the edge of the platform."
"Be careful with that wallet in your back pocket."
"Be careful who you buy a hot dog from - that guy with the cart on 9th street picks his nose."



We were careful about so many things. We were afraid of almost nothing. The Boogey Man didn't have shit on muggers, rapists, subway rats, roaches, Coney Island on a hot, summer day, the East River looking more solid than liquid or all of Alphabet City. We were the kids who grew up reading about Son of Sam in The New York Post, every day, and following his exploits the way kids in Kansas followed The Hardy Boys. Son of Fucking Sam captured our attention, but he didn't keep people off the streets. Because no white boy with almond-shaped eyes and Dirty Harry's gun was going to shut down the most ass-kicking, hardcore, take-no-shit city the world has ever known.

We were careful, but we were never scared.

I'm not a kid, anymore, though, and what I see in New York scares me. I'm scared of a SOHO that looks like Mall of America. I'm scared of a Starbucks and Jamba Juice on every corner, and of my beloved bodegas disappearing. I'm scared of Pier 46, and the Ikea Ferry, and of Red Hook no longer having any edge. I'm scared of hipsters with ironic beards taking over Williamsburg and Greenpoint. I'm scared of Greek diners in Astoria closing down, the clerk at a Brooklyn deli not having any idea what Manhattan Special is, and of the scarcity of cuchifrito. I'm scared of a plate of fried plantains costing 8 bucks at a vegan restaurant.

I'm scared of the Disneyfication of Times Square.

MY New York isn't Mickey Mouse, dammit. My New York is Daffy fucking Duck, Miguel Pinero, Ratso Rizzo, Patti Smith, Roger Grimsby, Bella Abzug, Walt Frazier. My New York was that crazy, androgynous woman displaying the meatgrinder cover from Hustler magazine, and terrorizing passers by with her loud, aggressive orders to "SIGN THE PETITION!"  Even that crazy bitch is gone. Who would have guessed I'd end up missing her?

I bet David Berkowitz is scared shitless of gluten-free vegan pizza.


Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Air and Light



This morning, when I left for work, the year's first bit of autumnal splendor greeted me like an old friend. Not the changing of the leaves - SF doesn't get much of that. It was the air and light. Do you remember the air and light of changing seasons, when you were a child, and the way those changes were like living things? For me, this time of year...the time of brisk air and shorter days, of overcast skies wrestling for dominance over sunlight....this time of year is like an old playmate come back for another round of hide-and-seek. The air and light remind me of new school supplies, sharpened pencils, the sound of a rubber ball bouncing on the asphalt, afternoons spent at the library, and the crunching of leaves under my feet as I'd cut through Prospect Park to walk home. And also Halloween, with candy corn - always so much nicer to look at than to actually eat. The thing about autumn - the air and light - it's over in the blink of an eye. Like everything.



Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Sucking Teeth

"Here, kiddo -  this is for you, since you're always writing something or the other," she said, handing me a leather loose leaf binder, which closed securely with a zipper, and had a little corner where a monogram could be added. There were two of them. Mine was dark brown. The other was blue.


"Who's the other one for?" I asked.


"Your nephew."


Steven was all of four years old.


"What the hell is he going to do with a thing like that, Ma? He can't even read or write, yet."


My mother did that thing she did - that thing people from the Caribbean do, where they suck their teeth, and silently ask themselves, “Why am I wasting my time with someone who just doesn’t get it?”


"Time goes by quickly," she said, "before you know it, Steven will be in school and then, in the blink of an eye, he'll be in fifth or sixth grade, and he'll have a use for this, and I'll have it waiting for him. You'll see."


"You mean to tell me you bought these with the intention of giving one to me, and holding on to the other for five or six years, just so you can give it to Steven then?" I asked, mocking her, but with love.


"Laugh at me if you want to. I don't really care. I saw this and I liked it for Steven when he's older, so I bought it. Actually, it’s none of your business." This, too, was said with love. It was like this between us.


She walked away to stow the binder somewhere until Steven was old enough for it. On her way out of the room she said, without looking back, "Time goes by quickly. You'll see, smartass."


I was living overseas, years later, when she called me on the phone to tell me that she'd just given Steven his binder for the start of the sixth grade school year. She sounded pleased with herself. I could tell from the sound of her voice that she was waiting for me to eat crow.


"You're nuts, you know," I said, "But you do always give the best gifts. He loved it, didn't he?"


"Of course he did. You knew damned well he would."


I laughed and had to admit she was right.

That was all a long time ago. Steven is a grown man, now. In less than a week he's getting married to a wonderful young woman. It will be the first time the whole family - what’s left of it -  is together since my mother’s funeral in 2010, where Steven took the podium and spoke so lovingly about his "Gram.” His words -  those of a young man who, for a moment in time sounded like a wounded, heartbroken boy - made me ache, and wish he really were a little boy, again. Just last week he was a newborn baby who fit in the palm of one of my hands. Just a few days ago he learned how to write his name. Just yesterday he was giving one of my mother's eulogies. I keep thinking if she were still here, she'd say it, again: "Time goes by quickly." This time, I'd get it.


Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Racist In Me

Before you write me a scathing email calling me a racist, let's save some time: This is going to be a bit of a racist rant. Not in the way a lot of people would assume but, racist all the same. I don't even make an apology for it. I reckon we're all a little bit racist, and that it comes out at select times. Everyone has his or her triggers. For me, this video, which was the first thing I saw online this morning, was the perfect trigger.

When I first saw this video, and read what the people in it had done, I looked at them and the words I heard in my head were, "Fucking white people." Yeah, I told you this was going to be racist. Because this band of entitled, heterosexual white people, walking down the block like the cast of Friends had just committed a hate crime, and nowhere in the news story did I see the word "gang" or "marauders" or "thugs"...words that are ALWAYS used when a group of black or Hispanic people gather. Instead, the article described them as "clean cut" and "well-dressed."

Fucking white people.

Even when they commit a hate crime, and their images are caught on camera for posterity, even then they get the benefit of the doubt. They're clean-cut! They're well-dressed! Really? How about mentioning that they're dangerous, violent, and full of rage? How about referring to them as a white gang? Because, hey - when three or four black dudes commit a crime together, the media seems just fine with describing them as a "gang of black youths." But no.  Michael Brown - unarmed, not committing a crime, not doing anything but being a black guy on the street - he was "no angel." A marauding bunch of young white people who target a gay couple, gang up on them, beat them badly enough to send them to the E.R., and rob them of their property? They're "clean-cut" and "well-dressed."

Fucking white people.

This story breaking the national news was perfectly timed, given my experience last night. I promise this is a true story:

I went out to dinner with a friend, last night. It was about 9pm when we headed home. The first leg of the trip we took together, but we parted ways when she had to get off the bus and transfer, leaving me to ride all the way out to a dodgy street corner, where I'd have to wait for a connecting bus. A bus that runs infrequently. I'm a city kid, which people mistake for being tough. Being a city kid has little to do with being tough, and everything to do with being smart. Being a city kid means having the common sense to know when and what to actually be afraid of, where and when true caution is needed. Being a city kid means never wasting fear on a person or a situation where danger doesn't really exist. This particular street corner, where I had to wait for the bus? At night, my fear and vigilance are not wasted. It's a tough corner. The street lights are often out. It's a corner where bad things often happen, and bad people often gather. When I got there last night - the only person waiting in the dark, under a broken street light - I was relieved to find that I wasn't entirely alone on the street. There were three teenaged guys standing maybe 25 feet away from the bus stop. They were loud and rowdy. They were yelling insults at one another, but it was clearly all in jest. They were all laughing heartily as the insults hurled back and forth. One of them had a cellphone, and kept saying something about some girl whose photos he'd seen on Instagram. All three teenagers were black. Two of them wore hoodies. Knowing they were there made me feel safe on this dark, somewhat unsafe street corner. This city kid was not wasting fear on people or a situation that posed no threat and, if anything, probably served a deterrent to actual trouble. While waiting for the bus, I texted back and forth with a friend, and mentioned how much I hated this part of town after dark, but that I wasn't worried on this particular night, because there was a group of young people making all kinds of noise just a ways down the sidewalk. I think I even said something sarcastic like, "Imagine that - feeling SAFER in America because there are black guys around!"

My instincts last night were right on target. It's the clean-cut, well-dressed gang of marauding white youths I have to worry about.





Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Four Inches

The scar is just over four inches across. Just above the pubic area, under my lower-most bits of belly fat. It hurts like hell. My understanding is that they opened up this wound and discovered a much bigger mass than they expected. Almost certainly nothing but a benign - if painful - fibroid tumor. But, still. They were expecting a tangerine. They got a grapefruit. From the four inch incision they removed my uterus (which housed the tumor), my cervix, and my fallopian tubes. My healthy and productive ovaries remain in tact. Of course, getting to this meant cutting through not only skin, but fat and muscle and I-don't-know-what-else. Which is why this hurts so much, even a week later, and will keep hurting, I hear, for several weeks.

Imagine someone kicking the shit out of you with his steel-toe Doc Martins. Now imagine that guy is giving you this ass-kicking not from the curb or some street corner, but from the inside out. Yes. Imagine this steel-toe-booted thug is living in your abdominal cavity, and kicking the ever-living shit out of you from inside your own body. That's what it feels like. That little bastard is lucky to have such excellent cover. If anyone tried to pull this shit on me from the outside, I'm pretty sure I'd murder them. Instead, I just keep taking pain-killers that do little more than take the edge off, and brace myself before doing anything drastic. Like breathing. Or sitting. Or standing. So, yeah....I brace myself for everything. This morning, a sneeze made me see stars and call out for my mother, who hasn't been alive since 2010.

I expected the physical pain (although I have to admit I never imagined it being quite THIS intense and unrelenting) but the other pain comes as a surprise to me. The uterus they cut out of me never housed anything more than a fibroid. Babies never sprung from it. George Washington did NOT sleep here. I'm sad about this, and a little guilty. Not that I was in any position ten days ago to do anything about it: I am 47 years old and perimenopausal. Still, the finality of this is really difficult to deal with. I keep thinking about my mother and my grandmother, both of whom seemed made for motherhood. They were both really fucking good at it, too. Growing up under their auspices, I learned to value motherhood above all other callings. Somehow, though, I never felt it would be right to try and tackle it myself, even though I love children, and have always wanted them. Now, long after it's too late to double back and rethink the choices I've made, I'm filled with both sadness and guilt. Sadness for obvious reasons. Guilt? I feel as if I've let the fine women who came before me down. They set such a great example, but I never picked up the proverbial ball and ran with it. They shared so much with me, in a way that one can only share with one's flesh and blood. I don't have a daughter to pass it all along to. It's ridiculous that I should find this painful: I've never even WANTED a daughter, but a son.  Now, though, at 47, and medically barren, I feel sad about not having brought another generation of girls into my direct line. In fact, my direct line will end, forever, with me. I can't help but think this would make both my mother and my grandmother a little sad; that they gave me so much, and I haven't made provisions for it all to keep going forward. And, now, through the decision to get this surgery (which will improve my quality of life, but was in no way an emergency procedure that saved my life in any way, as far as I know) I've made it all very final. My brain knows that they would understand. That, in fact, they DO understand, wherever they are, now, both part of everything.  My gut, though, my aching gut keeps wanting to apologize and tell the best women I've ever known that I've meant no disrespect by making such different choices. I'm not even completely happy with some of those choices, but they're irrevocable, and I have no choice but to make peace with them.

A couple of days ago, a doctor who is not my regular physician had occasion to look at my scar.  "How beautiful!" She exclaimed, "That's a lovely bit of work and a gorgeous scar. And it's healing so well and so quickly. You and your surgeon could be the poster children for tidy surgery and optimal healing! You're barely going to see this, when the healing is complete."

I'll see it.  Always. All four inches of it.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

One Week

One week. Seven full days. 168 hours, give or take. That's how much longer I'll have my uterus.  Now, I am not one of those women whose identity is all wrapped up in her reproductive organs. I've never understood it when women say the idea of losing their uterus makes them feel as if they'd somehow be less of a woman. In point of fact, my stupid uterus has given me nothing but grief since I was 12 years old. I will not miss the intense and debilitating pain, the long, drawn-out episodes of heavy, uncontrollable bleeding, the endometriosis. I certainly will not miss the tumor that has called my uterus home for the last six months, and which has caused a whole, new set of horrible symptoms. I will not miss menstrual pads, or inevitable accidents, or the business of having to keep spare clothing in a desk drawer at work. I will not miss anemia. I won't miss any of that and, yet, the idea that this entire chunk of my body will be gone in just about a week's time is somehow disconcerting. I think it's because I never got my money's worth. I feel as if I paid my union dues, but never got the benefits of membership. I'm referring, of course, to the fact that I never had kids. It sort of pisses me off. I mean, it makes me sad but, mostly? It pisses me the fuck off. Not that I ever made an effort to have kids, or that I'd be having one, now, if I could - I'm way past the age that I believe people should be having babies, even if they're physically capable of conceiving. Even though I've always loved kids and wanted some, I have never had the urge to incubate a baby, let alone push one out. I'll have to live with this decision, which isn't too difficult: everyone has some regrets in life. It seems to me, though, a collosal failure in human evolution that all of this: the monthly agony of cramps and soreness  and bleeding and bad skin and crazy mood swings...that all of it has yet to become optional. At 47, as I'm about to have all of the plumbing removed, I can't help but look back and think of what a huge waste it's been. Perhaps a baby or two would have made all of that ugliness worth it. As it stands, it all just adds up to a whole chunk of my life revolving around the grief caused by an organ that, at the end of the day, never gave me anything back. In fact, while I know there are women who mourn the loss of their uterus, I'm a little disconcerted by the fact that this option wasn't presented to me ten or twenty years ago.  I'm just going to say it: my uterus sucks. It's done me no favors, and caused me a whole mess of trouble. I don't want it. I never wanted it. I never even got to fill out a questionaire and choose it as an option - it came standard. This is how nature works, I know, but it pisses me off. It pisses me off, too, that my medical team is prepping me for what sounds to me like a long, slow recovery that will involve a fair amount of pain. Hasn't this motherucker caused me enough trouble, already? Even its absence can't help but stick it to me.

Fine. Be that way. Your days are still numbered. You have a week.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Stritch

The 122,564,756 Stritch tributes on my Fb stream last night (I have a lot of gay male fb friends) must have subliminally sunk in. I dreamt that I was having lunch with Elaine, herself, (and some other old broad I didn't recognize) at some swanky, sunny, sidewalk cafe (ladies who lunch and the sloppy lesbians who tag along for a free meal?) In the dream, I dropped my napkin, bent down to pick it up, and farted. I looked up, embarrassed, ready to apologize,  but Stritch didn't miss a beat: she was waving down the waiter and saying, in her gravelly voice, "I'll have what she's having."

I feel Elaine Stritch would wholeheartedly approve of this dream.