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.”

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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

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

About the First Day of School

Me in Italy

Me in Italy

The day was filled with firsts. My husband and I woke up after spending our first night in an apartment we rented in Perugia, Italy in the heart of Umbria.  I opened my eyes to see an arched brick ceiling, part of a medieval tower. We had seen pictures of that ceiling on a website when we put our down payment on it earlier in the year, but in person the ancient mortared bricks with their graceful arc, reaching from each corner of the room, were so much more perfect. It was the first morning peering out the open shuttered window, seeing the swallows swoop around the valley below. Most importantly, it was our first morning walking up the steep hill to the top of the piazza and back down the other side to the immersion school where we would start Italian class.

It had been a dream of mine to go to Italy and take an immersion course for as long as I could remember.  I was fifty three years old when the plan to go was finally beginning to take shape. However, before we made any of the reservations, I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. I was diagnosed in May and our plans had been to leave for Italy the next year and stay for the summer. Throughout my treatment for cancer, I calculated out my recovery period.  I could not let go of this trip to Italy.  I wondered often if I would choose to go to Italy and learn a foreign language if I really was on my last breath; if I could not beat this cancer. I held on to that trip to Italy like an anchor keeping me healthy. I did not allow myself to think of death: I would recover and I would go to Italy to learn Italian.

As I walked across the piazza on my way to Italian class with jet lag pulling at my ankles and hazing my vision, I could not help but snap awake to the fact that I was alive and cancer free. The anticipation that I would finally be learning a foreign language in Italy, which had been my guiding light for so long, suddenly dulled in comparison to the fact that I was alive and living life. That in the end was the miracle.

Slowing Down to Listen

Slowing down to listen

I have spent a lifetime learning to do things faster. Early in life I decided I not only wanted a child, I wanted a career as well. Raising kids while going to college and trying to support the whole venture on my own was a race against time.  I was determined to have it all and to make it work and I found faster and more efficient ways of doing things. I found better and faster ways to manage my time at work and I taught the kids to raise themselves. I managed everything right down to which traffic lane I took to the office. I looked for the fastest lane of traffic at the right time to get to work in the shortest period of time. If I could shave thirty seconds off my time in the morning, it gave me thirty more seconds to sleep. I slept hard so I would be ready again for the race when it picked up the next day. I did manage to have a social life, but I squeezed it in between my more important obligations; during times when I should have been working or when I could have spent more time with the kids. When I was with friends, I worried about the kids. When I was with the kids I worried about school and work. When I was at work I wanted to be somewhere, anywhere else but at work.

Racing became a way of life for me. It kept me from facing the questions that kept coming up.  I knew that I was unhappy with my job but what else could I do? I was raised to understand that work is hard. Life is not easy. Who was I to complain? I did good things for people in my work. I was reasonably good at it.  I had spent years in college learning my profession. I had never really paid for the cost of college. Who was I to just quit? What would I do with my life if I quit? How would I earn my way in the world? I didn’t know how to do anything else. I could not just quit. How could I justify that? Most importantly, who would I be if I quit?  So I continued to race against time. I didn’t want to stop to face those questions. I saw no answers and the less time I had to dwell on it the better.

Retirement was my light at the end of the tunnel. I could justify quitting when I retired. It was like getting into heaven.  If I worked hard now, the payoff would come when I retired. I could relax and enjoy myself then. When I retired I would know what I wanted to do in my spare time. Everything would somehow, mysteriously be better then.

My body did not wait for me to retire. When the diagnosis came back that I had a tumor on my ovary, the race stopped. Time stopped. I stopped. Everything stopped. The shock of it caused me to hear a voice inside me that I had been ignoring or quieting in some way for a long time. I had to stop the race, not just slow it down. I had to stop it entirely. I had to listen. The word “cancer” woke me up from the frantic race I had been running. I started to listen. I listened hard. The first thing I heard loudly and clearly was that I needed to quit my job. I had to start over, cold turkey and figure this thing out. I heard in a way that I had not heard before that these are my last days. Is this the way I wanted to spend my last days? I was going to die. I may beat the cancer and I may live a long life but the number of days I have left was not the point.  These ARE my last days.

It has been two years since my diagnosis. I continue to slow down and to listen. I practice staying out of the race and I search for answers. It is a process and I practice every day. Cancer gave me that. It keeps me on my toes. These are my last days. I ask the same question often: What do I want to do with my life right now? Then I listen for the answer. For now the answer is always the same: “just listen”.