The Old Woman

View from the patio of our hotel

The old hotel sits on a small bluff just in front of the Pacific Ocean, the front one long row of doors, the back a row of patio sliding doors leading out to a long grey and weathered wood deck stretching the length of the building. Our room is close to the middle of the building, putting us right next to the elderly couple.  I see them for the first time as I come out of our room through the sliding patio doors to check out the view of the ocean. They are sitting in a couple of the green plastic chairs that are stacked on the deck in short piles between rooms. I am drawn to the elderly couple more than I am drawn to the sound of the surf and the blue sky over the ocean that is just now taking on the deeper hues of the late afternoon sun. But I don’t want to be rude by staring at them so I snap pictures of the pretty scenery.

I toddle down the little dirt trail that leads to the ocean, not going far, teetering along on my block feet that have been left numb, wooden and painful from chemotherapy, feeling a bit like a Weeble that won’t fall down. I have a cane in one hand and my hat on covering my bald head. I won’t go very far, fearing my feet will give out, becoming too painful, not wanting to risk getting stuck somewhere and not being able to get back. Every day now my feet have been getting a little bit better, each day more feeling coming back, the pain little by little going away.  When we started on this trip from Tucson to Oregon, I was in a wheel chair. I started walking at Yosemite National Park.

One dose of chemo put me in the wheel chair. It also caused me to lose feeling in my hands. The doctor wanted me to continue the chemo and offered to give me lower doses or different kinds of chemo that may not have the same effect. She could give me no assurances about my hands and feet ever returning to normal. “Most people get their feeling back,” she said. But most people did not get the extreme reaction that I had. “Do I have to choose between living and having the use of my hands and feet?” I asked her, knowing her answer already, just wanting her to see my dilemma more clearly.

The truth was that I never believed in the chemo. I had tried to convince myself that it would work, that the chemo was like an army of good little soldiers killing off the bad cancer cells. I even went to a hypnotherapist to try to reason with the inner voices that were screaming against the chemo, telling me it would kill me. I wanted to live and I knew that the chemo gave me better odds of survival. I wanted to do everything I could do to increase my chances, not wanting to let my family down because I was too much of a baby to do the chemo. But the hypnotherapy was a failure and the inner voices continued to scream. They screamed when they stuck the large needle into my vein to pump the chemo in. They screamed louder when they sent me home with the chemo bag strapped to my waist pumping my belly full to overfull. They screamed in horror when they gave me the hazardous waste bags and clean up gloves and gown to wear if I needed to clean up any leaks of the chemo that was being pumped into my body.

I chose not to do anymore chemo after that first dose, choosing instead, cleaning up my diet, taking supplements, and travel. I would not be on this trip to Oregon if I had continued the chemo. I would be isolated at home, kept far away from any germs that could disrupt my chemo compromised immune system. I have always chosen travel therapy when things get rough. Even when I was confined to a strict work schedule and things got just a little too much; I could relieve the stress by a nice 15 minute drive down a stretch of highway, so long as the highway was headed out of town.

I head back to our room, watching the elderly couple as I pass them, as the trail winds back in front of the hotel, taking peeks at them as I look up from the trail, careful not to stare. The woman has long straight white grey hair that looks like it had once been thick but is now thinning, now it’s pulled back into a knot tied loosely on the back of her head. She is average height and a bit lanky with only that extra bit of body fat that old people gather about them. The man was also thin but taller and walks with just a bit of a hunch but not much. What catches me is how happy they are together, the man busily running in and out of their room getting supplies for a late afternoon lunch on the patio, the woman setting up the little table they pulled out from their room, covering it with a small table-cloth, centering the plates and silverware on each side, making everything look pleasing.  She smiles at me as I walk past, her warm genuine smile and blue eyes pulling me in.

Mark and I take a seat on the patio next to the old couple, un-stacking a couple of the green plastic chairs, arranging them to look out over the ocean, watching the gulls and pelicans who are searching for their afternoon snack, watching as the sunset starts to take on colors. An easy conversation starts with our neighbors. They own a ranch in California and come to this hotel every summer for their vacation. This will be their last summer at this hotel because tomorrow they are going to put a down payment on a ramshackle cottage in town where they will spend their future summers, renovating and fixing it up. They are excited about the purchase and happy to have yet another project together. They are easy talkers and I get the feeling that they are happy with their life together. We talk about how lovely the sunset is from this patio and they say that is one thing they will miss at the cottage next summer. Mark pulls out his guitar, finger picking soft tunes, as we listen while relaxed and contented half smiles take over our faces, until the night chill forces us indoors.

We left the old hotel the next morning, never seeing the old couple again. I wonder about why I was so attracted to them and particularly to her. I can still see that warm smile and pretty grey hair all swooped in a bun.  I can imagine her taking the hair pins out at night as she walks around in her nightgown, white grey hair falling around her shoulders, putting out a late night cup of tea for her husband who smiles back at her and adores her. I can still see her blue eyes bright against her cream peach colored skin, the wrinkles framing her face and eyes as she smiles. It is the life in those eyes that I am attracted to. She is so present and alive with those eyes.

In the days and weeks after I left the old hotel, as the woman’s smile continues to interrupt my thoughts, I realize what it is that I was so attracted to. I see me at her age and want that. I want to grow old. I had always resisted growing old. I thought of age as only getting wrinkles and new aches and pains, a slow decline. But now, after getting cancer and realizing that there is no guarantee of old age, I want it, I want old age like I want cake at a birthday party. The old woman gave me a vision of old age that is not just about wrinkles and aches and pains. When I saw the old woman I saw what living this life was all about, having a man who grows old with me, doting on me, finding new projects to dig into together, the wrinkles adding warmth to my smile, keeping that light of a life well-lived in my eyes.

Several weeks after returning to Tucson I got a card in the mail. It was from the old woman. We had never exchanged names so she had to ask the person at the front desk of the old hotel to forward the card to me. She writes:

“I don’t remember your name but that’s alright. You were a bright spot in our trip. I do hope everything is going well. Our escrow closes the 15th and then the work begins. I have enjoyed my thoughts of you, the music, and especially the smile.”


The Wedding

I am the second from the left

I see Denny walking up to me as I’m leaving the church, him wearing the suit jacket I suggested over his jeans, me wearing a bridesmaid dress, my hair wild, not having enough time to properly make it up right, me four months pregnant with his child. Did he possibly know what I had gone through to get here? I am so angry, my teeth are grinding but I need to put on my smiling face. I am supposed to marry this guy, the father of my unborn child and my relatives are surrounding us, evaluating us, determining whether he is worthy of admission to the club. I tell myself that I should not care. But I do care because I am forcing this smile on my face as Denny walks up to me.

It all started earlier that evening in our upstairs apartment in a two story house out in the country twenty miles away from this church: Just this casual comment, “Why don’t you wear your suit to the wedding?” I ask. But I see immediately the resistance, the scowling look his face takes on, the tightening of his jaw, the movement off the couch and into the next room. I follow more persuasive now, “I will be all dressed up in a gown. It will look odd if you show up in jeans and not even a tie. A suit will look so much nicer.” But he does not want to even go to the wedding. “All your relatives will be there judging me. I am not going to dress up like a monkey to impress them. What’s the point? They won’t like me.” “There is nothing to worry about.” I tell him over and over again. There is nothing to worry about. My relatives are all sweet Wisconsin country people. It takes a lot to cross them.

It’s my cousin’s wedding, the cousin who I grew up with. We were best friends our whole lives and I am standing up in the wedding. I want this to be about her. I want this to be about me and her. But it isn’t about that. “Just wear the suit jacket with your jeans,” I suggest. But he doesn’t like that any better.  “That will look stupid. I can’t wear that together. The jacket is too dressy.” I try again. “It’s just a corduroy jacket, it will go. People wear suit jackets with jeans all the time.” “It’s stupid.” He responds. “I will look stupid. I’m not going.” he leaves me standing alone in the room.

I tell him about my relatives. “They are not going to judge you,” I say. “They just want to meet you. What difference does it make anyway?” He picks up on this, “What difference does it make if I go? Why should it matter? It’s just a fucking wedding.”

I have had it. This argument has gone on for too long and I want it to end. “Just wear your damn jeans and tee-shirt then.” I say. In my mind I am thinking what a baby. I am going to marry this guy. He is the father of my child. “Just wear what you want and just come to the church. You can leave right after the ceremony. You won’t have to talk to anyone.” He has stopped talking to me and picks up his guitar. The conversation is over. I know that he is not going. He has seen my anger and is not going to take the bait.  I am not worth the fight.

I have had enough experience to know that I am getting nowhere. I will have to go to the wedding alone. My relatives will see that I have chosen poorly. They know I have decided to get married. They don’t yet know about the baby. I know about the baby though, my body a walking baby factory, my belly puffing out. This is my future. I can see it clearly. I have this to look forward to, this nowhere of a relationship, this nowhere of a life that after tonight will be an open book for all my family to see, proving my mother right: I can’t attract anyone worth their own salt.

I am not going to beg for his car keys.  Maybe he will have the heart to consider that, just maybe, he could at least drive me to the wedding since I have no car.  Its two miles down a dirt road to the highway. I can hitch a ride. I grab my bridesmaid’s dress, throw it in a sack, and head out of the house. When I get to the gravel road in front of our house, I do not look back. I am not going to give him that satisfaction. Maybe he will come to his senses and come after me. I keep doggedly walking ahead. I can be stubborn too. Two can play this game. The minutes tick past with each step, only the sound of gravel crunching under my feet. The house is now out of sight and no Denny. The bastard is not going to come. I will have to hitch a ride. I calculate the time to get to the wedding and it will be close even if someone stops to pick me up. I look for cars on the dirt road but none come. The sun is setting; lights are coming on in the two other houses on this road, making the road seem even lonelier.

I curse the day I met that asshole. Why couldn’t I leave him when I had the chance? Why did I take him back? Tears run and I let them. I will come alone to the wedding. I can hear it now: “Where is Denny?” and “Why didn’t Denny come? Is he sick?” There will be concern in their voices. It will all be well meaning, no one suspecting that he is home because I told him to wear a suit, because he is too chicken to meet the relatives, because he doesn’t love me. What will I say? What can I say? He’s an asshole. I am going to marry an asshole. But what choice do I have. I’m pregnant. That’s what you do. You get married.

I am able to catch a ride on the highway. “Where you headed?” the man asks. I tell him about standing up in a wedding. I always want the ride to know I am expected somewhere, as if it’s some kind of safety hitch, someone will be looking for me, and you better not do anything stupid. I know it doesn’t mean much but it’s something. “Did your car break down?” I can see he finds it weird that I have to hitch a ride to a wedding. Who doesn’t have a ride to a wedding that they are standing up in? Me, that’s who, me with the asshole husband to be, me with the asshole father to my unborn child. “Yeah, I had to walk two miles to get to the highway for a ride.” I say. “You gonna be late?” he asks. “I hope not,” I say. There is nothing else to say.

I have the ride drop me off at my parents so I can get dressed there and do my make-up and hair. They can give me a ride the rest of the way. The only person home is my older brother. “Everyone left for the wedding,” he says. Why aren’t you there?” “Car broke down,” I grumble. “Can you give me a ride?” I hurry into my dress and make-up, quickly pulling up my sweaty hair that has gone limp from walking the dusty two mile dirt road. I had it in curlers before I left home. Home, do I call it that?  Nothing can be done about it now.

I walk into the church just as the bridesmaids are lining up to walk down the aisle. “We had given up on you,” my Aunt chastises me. “Where were you? We were going to go ahead without you!” Luckily, there is no time to explain. We have to start our walk. The music is playing now. I put my head high and take the steps in the way we had practiced them: One step, close, two step, close. I put a smile on my face and walk into the sanctuary. I look up and smile. I look down and take a step. I smile and refocus ahead of me. I can’t look into the faces, the faces of my expectant relatives. I feel my protruding belly. I am not big for four months but there is a bump and it shows in the slinky dress. I am a tainted bridesmaid.

I stand in the front of the church with all those faces of relatives turned my direction, listening to the preacher go on about the sanctity of marriage and the meaning of the vows: to remain there for each other, for the rest of your life, remain faithfully there, giving to one another, in sickness and in health, being a partner for life. I wipe a tear. Tears are appropriate at weddings. It’s OK.

I look now at my husband to be, the father of my unborn, as he walks up to the church, after the wedding, after leaving me to get here on my own, after listening to vows of marriage. He looks at me with his head down, apologetically. “I should have worn the suit. I feel out of place in these jeans,” he says to me as if this is a concession to the argument earlier.

Cheerful Nurses

Cheerful Nurses

I lay down on my back on a long table, the surface of the table made of cushions covered in hard plastic, the hard cushions covered by white paper that crinkles when I move, the table in a room with more tables, each table separated from the other by hospital curtains. The room is not clinical and white, but rather painted in hushed tones with subtle lighting. Nurses are moving around the room setting up equipment, chatting softly with light happy voices, laughing softly, smiling at me as they walk past.

The nurses are very cheerful, too cheerful, given that I am still not awake to what is wrong with me.  I want the answers to be simple and I want the medical profession to say that I will be fine. No one has told me that. I have been told I have a tumor. I was told that in Vienna. My primary care physician was pleased with the diagnosis from Vienna and pleased that I was able to bring the ultra sound images back with me to the States. “I am glad that you went to Vienna.” She said “You will not feel like traveling for a long time.” I did not ask her why. I love to travel more than anything. She was not aware how resilient I could be. She would see that she was wrong about my traveling again. I would be back to myself soon enough.

My belly floats on top of me, having filled with liquid again, this being the second time it filled, the first time just last week, while I was in Vienna, only one week ago. When I got back from Vienna on Monday, my primary care doctor scheduled this appointment for me, across town, in this room, with the many tables and cheerful nurses, to get the fluid drained again.

It is time to get the tube poked in my belly. I am assured by the cheerful nurses that it will not be too painful but there will be a poke. I ready myself and the tube is inserted. I am pretty brave about shots but this is more than a shot. This hurts more than the first time, the time they drained it in Vienna. I put on my brave face but I turn away from the procedure. I can’t look at the large needle and try not to think about it.  I want to be as cheerful as the cheerful nurses. “Is this all you guys do?” I ask after the shock of the needle has subsided. “How many people need this done?” I have on my happy-go-lucky voice. They tell me that this is all they do all day. Today it is quiet. Most days the beds fill up. They have some people they see every week to have this done. “It really helps people. They look forward to coming in to relieve the pressure.” they say.  “We try to get as much fluid out as we can so that they don’t have to come in as often.” They are careful not to include me in their reference. “What causes this? Why are they coming in all the time?” I also do not include myself in the reference. “Most of them, it’s because of cancer, the fluid just builds back up,” they say. I shudder at the thought, the thought of coming here week after week, seeing these cheerful nurses, nurses who are healthy and happy, me a belly full of fluid needing to be drained, me dying slowly. I shake the thought away.

This is the first time anyone has said the word “cancer” to me. I imagine people coming in here with big bellies, bellies like mine, finding some solace in the cheerful nurses. Perhaps the nurses are so cheerful because their patients are all slowly dying and they want to be there, to be a ray of light in their patient’s diminishing days.  I will not believe that is my fate. This is not going to happen to me. I am stating the facts as I can tolerate them. To think that I would spend my days watching my belly fill with liquid to end up coming back here, week after week, is not something that I can believe. I will not go down this path. I will not be back here. I shake the thought away.

Throughout my treatment for cancer, I am able to shake many thoughts away, scary thoughts, end of life thoughts; they come and I shake them away.  Before being diagnosed with cancer, I had always thought that cancer, with it’s death note, would be the one thing in the world that I would have the most trouble with, that it would consume me, that the diagnosis alone would crumble me, I would succumb to it because that is what happens with cancer, people die when they get it. I know that not everyone dies. Some people live. But that word “cancer” might as well have been a skull-and-cross-bone, the way it hit me.

I could see why cancer came knocking on my door, the years at a stressful job, the hectic schedule that never let up, the poor diet, all rang alarm bells in my head, but I could not fit death in. It was like a puzzle piece that no matter how many times I turned it around and looked at it, there was no way that it fit. In a way it was interesting, the way it did not fit. Death came with the puzzle, it was handed to me, cancer and death, they were a pair, it was supposed to fit, but death made no sence in my life. Things had just started to get tinteresting. Things had just started to get good. There was so much left undone. The timing was confusing.

I never returned to the room with the cheerful nurses, never seeing them again, having fully recovered. The puzzle is not completed, the scull-and- cross-bone puzzle piece with its nubby angles not fitting in my life, the time to fit not yet ripe. I know that I am lucky.  The cheerful nurses are for someone else

Deal Breaker

The bar is filled with college kids, some older, but most of them younger than me.  I am here to scope out the guys who are saddled up to the bar, filling the small cramped spaces, chatting and laughing, looking so free. I try to make myself fit in, knowing that I do not. I am different, having started college late, after getting married, after having a baby, after getting divorced. It never escapes my mind that I have a kid at home. I am not free.

Val is still outside the bar. It is a trick that she taught me. I go in first, looking as if I am looking for her, but really I am there checking out the crowd, seeing what the guys look like. Val will come in once I have had a chance to work my way through the thicket of people to the other end of the bar.  She will come doing the same thing, making it look like she is looking for me, but really checking out the guys, meeting me at the other end to compare notes. There are more guys than girls so we will stay here for a while. We order a beer, having already gotten tipsy at home where beer is cheaper, nursing this beer as long as we can, unlike the beer at home which we chugged to get fast results. We wiggle into a spot at the bar where we see the most guys hanging out.

I know the kid at home is a deal breaker with the guys. I have been here before. I struggle with the deceit of hiding my life, hiding who I am. Do I see if I like this guy before I tell him, breaking the deal? Do I wait to see if someone likes me before I tell him and break the deal? My heart does not like this idea.  I try not to think about it. I don’t want it to be so important.  I am just here to have fun, I tell myself. What am I supposed to do, wear a red badge on my chest?

Val has taught me everything I know about this game of flirting. Val, who did everything the normal way, had nice boyfriends in high school, went straight to college, dating more nice boys along the way. During the years Val was going out with nice boys and having fun, learning the art of flirting, I was at home with a child and diapers and a husband who wished I didn’t exist. Val picks up with the guy next to her, easily moving into conversation, accepting a light for a cigarette she bums. She will talk about anything except medical school, thinking that is a deal breaker. I can’t imagine how being in medical school can possibly be a deal breaker for her. I admire her. Actually I love everything about her, her bouncy brown hair, her Wisconsin twang in her voice, but mostly the fact that she is free in a way that I am not. I am shy and it takes me awhile to warm up to this game of flirting, even with a few beers under my belt.

On campus the other day, this guy chewed me out. He saw me waiting for the light to turn green at the cross walk, me with my bike, my bike with the child seat attached to the back. He yelled at me, chiding me for leading him on, pointing out that he did not know I had a kid. I was embarrassed, my head hanging, saying nothing. It was true, I hadn’t told him. The light finally turned green. I walked off, my bike at my side, the child seat like a red badge of shame beside me, the guy still yelling at me.  I did not even know his name. Last weekend I had been with Val, flirting with him at a bar, a bar just like this one. He was the bartender.  I flirted with him when I got my drinks. He never asked me out. We never kissed. Why did I need to tell him?

We are being offered drinks now and the night is fun, full of laughs, everyone looking for someone to love, no one showing it. The game of flirting is in high gear. I have forgotten about the guy on campus. I can be just like Val, just like everyone else here. Free.

There’s a guy I think is cute, long wavy hair to his shoulders, a beard, small round wire rimmed glasses and a nice smile. He’s interesting, goes to the University, the economics department. I am in Business school and we compare classes we’ve had in common.  Having a kid is the most important thing in my life but I don’t say anything about her. We are just talking. This is not serious.  He tells me his mom is Jewish and his dad is Catholic. He was raised Catholic but wants to be a Jew. I am an atheist and want to know how a person can want to be Jewish.  This conversation is more intimate. Still I say nothing about my daughter. We end up outside, kissing, me thinking I should tell him, not wanting to, thinking I should, knowing it will be the end if I do. The kisses are nice, having been a long time since I kissed anyone. I’m just here to have a little fun, I tell myself. This won’t go anywhere.

Monsoon Season

Woodpecker in Mesquite Tree

We are still in monsoon season in the middle of August, the rains adding humidity to the usually dry air of Tucson. I am sitting on the back patio, it is early in the morning, and the sun is still safely behind the house causing shadows everywhere. The shadows make dark creases in the folds in the mountain that fills the sky in front of me. The sun is harsh against the brightly lit orange jutting rock faces, the long shadows well-defined in contrast to the sunny surfaces. The fingers on the hand of finger rock stand out in the morning sun, bright between two other jagged mounds of rock, one in shadow, the other mottled sun and shadow. Saguaros dot the lower hills casting thin dark lines, the light shining strong against their tall lean sides causing them to stand out like bright shiny candle sticks on a mound of green. I call it green anyway. I now have Tucson eyes. When I came here from Wisconsin the landscape looked craggily and brown. Now I see the green. All I see is the green. The monsoons have left behind a cacophony of new sprouts in all shades of green which blend into a sage color from this distance.

There are humming birds flying past me, whizzing over my head, their buzz like light sabers as they swoop near, two are racing each other around the patio, swooping down across the valley before coming back again for another round. One takes a breather, sitting on the dried stem of a nearby grape-vine, fluffing his feathers one time, he eyes the humming-bird feeder, then zooms over to light on the edge of the huge mesquite tree, still eying the humming-bird feeder. A finch stops to rest on a thin branch just above the hummer, he is too close, the hummer flies up, hovering in front of the finch to give the finch a piece of his mind.  The hummer darts in and out making little jabbing motions towards the finch like a boxer, but the finch holds his ground, not budging from his perch, he is twice the size of the hummer after all.

A rabbit is pulling at a low hanging branch, he is statnding on has back legs pulling down a branch,  trying to get at the green leaves just out of his reach, his ears standing tall on his head, the branch making a racket of crackling noises. A male cardinal lands on a branch of the small orange tree to my left, his bright egg-yolk-yellow beak and black face distinguishing him from his partner, how brave to fly around in that red plumage for everyone to spot. The goldfinches are just as brave with their neon yellow bellies, fighting with the larger less colorful finches for a spot on the feeder.  A yellow butterfly twinkles through the air, flitting to the left, wings flap, flap flapping and then to the right, flap, flap flap, before disappearing over my head. I wonder how they survive with all these birds around.

It has been some time now since I have seen the owl that lives in the owl box high in the mesquite tree. In the spring and through June he would poke his head out, his head filling of the round hole opening of his wooden house, his big round yellow eyes dropping and squinting against the sunlight, one large claw hooked around the edge of the opening, he would peer at me stealthily through those slit eyes. He is dormant now that his mating season is over and I wonder if he is still there. I wonder also if the white-winged dove’s eggs are hatched. I last saw them three days ago in the grapevine garden at the side of the house, the nest thatched together with twigs and branches, wedged into the vines just above eye level making it easy to see the bright white eggs nestled together as I stand on tip toes.

Owl in June 2012

White-Winged Dove Nest August 2012

The chatter of birds now dominates the cooing of the doves or the sharp piecing squawk of the woodpeckers. More light sabers buzz my ears. A swallow dives across the sky and disappears over the roof. A white-winged dove has just landed on the little garden fence in front of me, he is surprised to see me so close and walks down the fence, hopping into the bird feeder, taking a drink before flying to a low hanging perch on the mesquite tree. A light breeze passes by, fluffing my hair a bit from behind before dying away, the breeze is soft on my skin, the perfect temperature, like a lovers touch.  The Dove attempts to interject his thoughts, but is ignored by the cheerful chatter of finches and sparrows, he continues anyway with his soft, more serious almost mournful: coo coooo,  coo, coo, coooo, coo, coo.

Goldfinches August 2012

I must go in now because it is warming up just a little too much. But before I do I just need to watch two goldfinches drinking from the bird bath, they take their turns dipping for water as if they are marionettes, their heads being pulled alternately by strings.

The quail did not visit the water bowl this morning.  I set out a dish of water for out for King Tut, the pet desert turtle, but the quail seem to get more use from it. Usually they come trooping through, the momma quail in the lead, followed by the babies one at a time, the papa in his regal suit and bandit face sitting high on the wood stack watching as his young ones, now teenagers, make their way through the holes in the rabbit fencing that doesn’t keep out the bunnies. After every last teenager is through the fence papa looks around a bit, his duty is complete for the moment, and he can relax. Eventually, papa hops down from the wood pile and into the garden. The teenagers are now all huddled around the water dish, their barely notable top knots bobbing up and down as they reach in and out for a teeny gulp of water, momma standing off to the side making sure everyone is herded in for a drink. When all are sated, they take formation in line as they hop back through the rabbit proof fence, papa back on the wood pile counting to make sure all are present before hopping back down to take up the caboose position, all have their heads held high as if they are out on a fancy Sunday stroll in the park, mamma and papa’s top knot long and flapping with each step, the teenager’s top knots are not long enough to flap. One of the kids gets sidetracked and papa herds him back into line.

Teenager in garden

A hummer decides to hover in front of me causing me to look up into his tiny proud upraised chest, wings beating fast like propellers at his side,  I spot his needle sized beak pointed in my direction giving me the once over before darting off. I hear the garbage truck stop at the front of my house, sounds of machinery cranking as mechanical arms jet out to pull in and up our trash can, air-brakes hissing as the truck stops at the next house. It must be about 7:30 now, time to get going, but not before noticing the new inhabitants in the saguaro just past the mesquite tree. There used to be baby sparrows living there, in that grapefruit sized hole, three-quarters of the way up the saguaro, two babies opening their mouths wide for momma bird to fill them, they were all mouth, wide hanging open mouth in the sunlight at the entrance of the hole. Now I can’t make out what type of bird has taken up residence. I need my binoculars to see them clearly. The baby sparrows left before the monsoons came at the end of June.

Now it really is time to move indoors and start my day. The temperature was perfect when I first sat down out here in my sleeveless PJs, but now it is warming up, my PJ’s are sticking to my skin. Soon it will be blazing hot.

Five Kids

“I never wanted five kids” mom says casually as we are rolling cinnamon and sugar into a layer of store-bought dough that had been rising all morning in a warm sunny window. “The doctor never told me about birth control until after the fifth one; I really only wanted one or two.” I am fifteen years old and convince myself that being the second oldest means that I am safe; that I am a wanted child. I imagine what my family life would look like with just my older brother and me. I could not help thinking life would be calmer and more in control than our current reality which was anything but that.

Doctor Cook and Doctor Phefercorn have a clinic that services our small town of Dorchester as well as other small towns on southern edge of the north woods of Wisconsin.  I often hear my Aunts discussing which one of them they go to and which one is more of a quack than the other. Dr. Cook once diagnosed my sister with a spider bite and sent her home when what she really had was rheumatic fever and should have been sent to the hospital. The doctors are respected but not trusted.

Most families in the area have five kids except a hand full of very large Catholic families. Those families are talked about: “There is no way that one family can handle that many kids. They have to be getting welfare. How can anyone even keep track of that many kids?” Maybe most people wait for the doctor to bring up birth control.

Mom is proud of the fact that we always have food on the table and there is always a bowl of fruit in the kitchen for us to snack on. Mom grew up in the far north woods and life was not as easy for her. As a child, she sometimes wore clothes that her mother made from gunny sacks. Milk and cheese were not on the table at every meal.

I know very little about my mother and what it was like for her as a child. The rare snippets I have are from little things that she let slip in rare moments when her guard is down. She doesn’t like to talk about the past. If I ask a pointed question, the response is something like, “Oh I don’t know, that was so long ago, why do you want to dredge up that old stuff?”

I have been to the little shack, in the north woods near the equally tiny town of Spirit, where my mother’s parents lived and where my mother was raised.  The grey, wooden shingled one story house seemed swallowed up by a  field of tall, wild grass where rabbits waited for me to feed them Twix cereal. The house was sparse and poorly lit and my grandmother’s ailing sister, Great Aunt Tillie, lived in an overly humidified bedroom on the side of the living room. Mom talks about the miles and miles she walked to school through the woods in knee-deep snow. The relatives before Mom came over from Germany to be loggers. I guess there is not a lot of money in logging.

I never wonder very much about my mother’s past or about what her dreams might have been and what she wants from life. She is just my mother. She is the person I fear at times, hate at times and respect at times but she is never a fully realized person with wants and needs of her own, separate from mine. We are living the generation gap. In her world you do not talk about dreams and desires. The belief that you can be anything you want to be in life is one I pick up in school. For Mom, life is hard and you do the best that you can and then you die. You play the hand you are dealt.

I don’t think I will have five kids.

Vienna, May 2010

My husband and daughter and I find our way to the emergency room at the main hospital in Vienna; winding our way through a large building with long hall ways and up an elevator to more hall ways. It is after midnight and we have no idea what to expect. We are all a bit giddy and edgy; it is late at night and each of us is trying hard not to worry about what might be wrong with me. When we finally find the room we are supposed to be in, I go up to the window expecting the usual questions about needing insurance or some type of payment information. I am surprised when they send me directly to the nurse’s office before even getting my name.

I had gone to my doctor before I left Tucson because I was feeling really bloated and my stomach seemed large and tight.  She took some blood samples. “Can I go to Vienna next week?” I wanted to know.  The tickets were already purchased and we were leaving in a week. “We will get the blood tests back by Friday and I am sure it is just something you picked up in the Caribbean.”  I had recently come back from a sailing trip.  I called the doctor’s office on Friday but the tests had not come back. “Go on your trip,” she said. “The tests will be here when you get back. Don’t worry about it.” Those were the words I had been looking for. I hate missing an opportunity to travel.

The nurses office is a small cubical facing the waiting room. The nurse takes my vitals and questions me about what the problem is. We manage in broken English to communicate. I show her my stomach. “Is there a possibility that you are pregnant?” She wants to know. I am 53 years old and my husband has a vasectomy. There is no possibility. Under normal circumstances this would make me laugh.  After the nurse concludes that I am not in immediate danger, I am sent back to the front desk. The receptionist asks me for my Euro card. If you are in the European Union there is free health care provided for everyone; you just need to provide the card. Of course, I have no Euro card and imagine now will be when the paperwork will start; but all they want is my name and address and $50.00.

I had tried not to let on to either my husband or to my daughter that there was a problem. I did not want to ruin the trip, but my belly continued to grow each day we were in Vienna. I was huge. On top of that I could barely eat anything. I felt full all the time. I had to sit with my legs spread to accommodate my growing belly. I wanted to just make it through and get us all back to Tucson; but I could not imagine returning on that long overseas flight with my stretched out and distended stomach. On the evening of the third day in Vienna I sat back on the sofa in our small apartment and pulled up my shirt to expose my growing belly for all to see. I had been wearing baggy tops to cover it up. Now it looked huge. It was clear to everyone that there was something wrong.

We sit down wait out our turn. I watch as a few patients are called in to the next room assuming this could be a long wait; but in about 30 minutes I am called in. Within one hour I am seen by three doctors from three different specialties. They all speak some English. They also drain eight quarts of fluid from my abdomen.  “You have a tumor.” One of the doctors informs me. It makes no sense to me. What is a tumor? What does that mean: I have a tumor?  There are so many questions I do not want to ask or even think about. I want to go on assuming my health is the one thing I can always count on. I know that a tumor was not a good thing, but I want it to be something they can take out and I will be just fine. “I fly back to the States on Saturday.” I say.  “Should I go back sooner?” With just a slight hesitation the doctor responds,  “No, it’s not necessary, but you need to see someone right away when you get there; this is not something you can ignore.” It is reassuring that I do not have to rush home. It was not that urgent.  My thoughts can not let go of  that doctor’s moment of hesitancy. It continues to flash in my mind.

My head is mostly hollow and I am happy to keep it that way. I do not want it to take off down all the horrible roads I can think up if I let myself. I want to put off thinking anything for a while. We still have three days left before we fly home. Since the fluid has been drained, my stomach is now nice and flat again and I can move like my old self. We spend the last three days not thinking the worst. We go to the sites around the city and eat out at the restaurants in the evening. Even though we all do our best to stay casually light and avoid talking about my health, I can feel the heaviness that sits in the room with us. It is like I am watching myself live life. I am talking and laughing and eating and walking but I am not in my body doing these things. I am somewhere else. My body has betrayed me.

Me with my daughter Kelly and my husband Mark