China, Women’s Rights and the Round Table

In China it is well known that “Women Hold up Half the Sky”. At least that is what I was told several times when I was there during three weeks in September 2014. “Women Hold up Half the Sky”.

My husband, Mark, and I were invited to China by Beijing Normal University. Mark was invited as a research scientist and I was invited to assist graduate students to practice English. My job was to hang out with graduate students each day and hold a conversation in English. I got to choose what we would talk about and the issue of Women’s rights in China soon grabbed my attention.

The reason Women’s rights in China caught my attention was because of the round table dinners my husband and I were invited to nearly every day that we were in China. Over the span of three weeks, that is a lot of round table dinners! There were many things that seemed odd about these meetings at the round table and I want to go over a couple of things that intrigued me in reference to women in Chinese culture.

Every dinner or lunch, we were invited to, had the same format. There is always a separate room in a restaurant or meeting hall with a large round table. When we enter the room everyone mingles around until it is determined where everyone will sit. A discussion ensues about who gets to sit at the head of the table. Even though the table is round, the spot against the back wall is always the head of the table. The person seated at the head of the table had to be the most important person in the room. Each person defers politely to the other until the most important person is agreed upon. There is usually a good bit of friendly banter until the issue is resolved. The next two important people sit next to the most important person at the head of the table and so on until the table is fully seated.

Eating at the Round Table in China

Eating at the Round Table in China

I noticed early on that there were never any women at the head of the table unless it was to sit next to her husband. Only one of the many dinners I attended had an important female professor near the head of the table. Mainly, the women were collected at the least important side of the table.

The second thing that I noticed was that no one ever drank anything unless a toast was made. There were times when I became quite thirty, waiting for a toast to be made. A toast can be made between two people or the whole table. Men are expected to drink alcohol and often strong clear liquor is served. As the dinner progresses and more and more toasts are made, the men are strongly encouraged to drink ever larger quantities of liquor. My husband had to swear he was allergic to alcohol at times to avoid consuming large quantities of liquor. Women on the other hand are never pushed to drink liquor and often drink something non-alcoholic like tea or juice. I was very relieved about that. By the end of the dinner many of the men, particularly the men at the head of the table, were sloshing drunk.

It became clear to me that much business, including making contacts and resolving plans is done around these round tables. Many deals are struck over a toast of liquor. This led me down the road to asking many questions concerning equality for women in China. I asked several graduate students as well as some of the professors that I sat next to at these round table dinners.

I started with the most basic question: Are women equal to men in China?

The answer that I received was a resounding “Yes!” The Chinese I talked to went on to clarify things like: Chairman Mao made men and women equal soon after he came into power in 1949. It was Mao who said that “Woman hold up half of the sky”. I was also told unequivocally, that China is more equal than anywhere else, even the United States! I was told that at Beijing Normal University, woman entering college have a separate entrance exam from the men that is much more rigorous, because women score so much higher than men on these exams. This is one of the results of equal education for women. I was also told that as a result of equal rights for women, many women are excelling in sports and outperformed their male counterparts at the Olympics. It was clear that women had made many strides since the days of foot binding and from when Mao declared men and women equal. All the Chinese I talked to presumed that equal rights for women were a good thing and they were clearly proud of the strides that had been made for woman in China.

I felt uneasy with these answers though, since my experience at the round table dinners did not suggest that women were equal to men. I never saw a woman sitting at the head of the table. So I was prompted to ask: “What about women in positions of power? Are there as many women in positions of power as there are men?

Everyone I asked said; “No, there were not many women in power”. Of course I had to know why not and it surprised me how many people answered the same way: I was told by both men and women that “Women do not like that kind of work”. Men also sometimes added that “Women do not want to give up their power in the home and that there is so much to do in the home.” I found it interesting that only the men said this. One woman told me that she believed that these round table business meetings with all that drinking were an impediment to women getting in. It was hard to get invited to the head of the table and women do not drink like men. You are expected to drink if you are at the head of the table.

I then asked the young women graduate students if they will be contented to work in the home and let their husbands have the better paying jobs. None of them seemed satisfied to do that. I asked the young men graduate students if they think they will be contented to have their wives do all the work at home. They thought they would like that, mainly because none of them knew how to cook, but they didn’t think their wives would agree to do that. The young men were more concerned that it might be difficult to find a wife because there are more men than women in China as a result of the one child policy.

My experience in China with the round table dinners and the questions that it evoked about women’s rights in China gave me just a small glimpse into Chinese Culture. There were many more questions that I wanted to ask but I only had three weeks. I am grateful to all the Chinese who answered my many questions thoughtfully and sincerely. I am very curious to see what happens next with all these educated and talented women in China.

The Flat Tire

Jim was the first to point it out and we all ran over to the picture window to see what would happen next, each of us peering out the window, hoping for any kind of excitement. Nothing much happened in our neck of the woods. A fancy sports car with a flat tire on the highway that ran smack dab in front of our house was big news. This was enough to get all of our attention and we rarely agreed on anything.

The driver got out of his fancy red sports car, walking around to the side of the car facing us as we pressed our noses up against the window, watching for details. “He’s not from around here,” Paul stated the obvious. Most everyone in Dorchester lived on a farm or worked in the farming industry, hauling milk, fixing farm machinery, storing grain, packaging meat, or making cheese. There were a couple of factories; one that made pizzas and one the made fancy wood windows and of course there were a few teachers, insurance agents and a lawyer of two, but mostly everyone was blue-collar and even the lawyers knew better than to flaunt their meager earnings with the purchase of a fancy car for fear of being ostracized for charging too much. Besides, a nice coat of paint on a new car never lasted long between the salt poured on the roads in the winter and the gravel roads spitting chunks of gravel in the summers. Mostly, everyone bought an affordable used car, a Ford or Chevy, never a foreign model car, no one knowing how to fix those things when the broke down.

“Bet he’s from Illinois, maybe Chicago, “Jim always needing to one up Paul, intoned. There were two types of drivers got noticed on the road according to the gospel that ran in our house. One type was the farmers. You could tell them easily because they were the ones that drove slower than molasses in January, looking over their shoulder, peering into the fields that they passed, looking to see who had planted which crop when, always second guessing whether they were planting at the right time to out-guess the cold and the rains. Highway 13 was just two lanes of traffic and waiting for a clear pass around the slow driving farmers was next to impossible. The other type of driver was the tourists from Illinois. You could tell them because they were always speeding, rushing to somewhere, rushing to anywhere they were not. Dad could frequently be heard grumbling about those “damn Illinois drivers, trying to kill everyone on the road,” as they managed to speed past everyone, narrowly sliding past cars, causing Dad to have to put on the brakes to prevent causing a front end collision with oncoming traffic.

Highway 13, with its ever-present traffic was a constant reminder that things did happen somewhere, somewhere other than where we lived just outside the small town of Dorchester.  While my life stalled, the real world drove past our house every day on the highway that ran north and south in front of our house, me waiting not so patiently to grow up and take off along that same road to somewhere that was anywhere but the north woods of Wisconsin. My brothers and sister were no different from me, each of us dreaming for the day we could leave.

We continued to watch out the window as the guy examined the flat tire. “Look he’s got on a fancy suit.” Chris laughed. “How’s he think he’s going to change a tire in that?” I liked the fancy suit. It was a pin-striped, dark-grey and he wore it with a white shirt. No one wore a fancy suit around Dorchester except to weddings and funerals and they did not look like this guy looked in this suit. I remembered the prom I went to with my boyfriend, Kenny. He looked like a scarecrow in that suit of his with the sleeves being at least an inch higher that his wrists and the pants being even shorter. He pulled at his collar like there was hay stuck in there, itching away at him.

“Look he’s going back in his car,” Paul again stating the obvious. We watched as he got back in the car and  rummaged around in his glove compartment. “He’s looking for the directions,” Jim burst out laughing. “The idiot doesn’t know how to fix a flat.” It was rewarding to know that we country-bumpkins from Wisconsin had something on the fancy people in their fancy cars who squeezed you off the roads trying to get anywhere but here, even if we also wanted to be anywhere but from here. It was why we pointed them out on the highway in the first place. We pointed and laughed at them for being too fast, speeding through life and at the same time wishing we had a little of what they had, hoping that one day we could drive the fancy car, like the ones speeding past Dorchester, except if we ever did get a car like that, we would stop and show it off for a bit before speeding away again.

Showing off was not something that was ever done in Dorchester. We were not raised to be show offs. Maybe it was something about the harsh winters that made things this way. If you ended up stranded on a lonely road in the middle of the night, stuck in a snow-bank in sub-zero weather, you wanted to be able to go to the house down the road for help. No one needed enemies at a time like that. Maybe it was our German roots that made us this way. I never learned very much about those roots. I never even considered my German roots much, even though my Grandparent’s first language was German. Who wanted to be German once the atrocities of Hitler were taught to you in school?  I could not imagine being a German immigrant and living through World War II as my grandparents did. They could see what happened to the Japanese immigrants during that time. It was better to learn to lay low, speak English, and blend in, not making waves. But the war was now long past and not part of our history and we were ready move out and move up in the world; at least I was.

Dad unknowingly aided and abetted my desire to leave Dorchester and shored up my belief that there was more out there than there was here. He liked to give us a peek of things outside Dorchester, while also letting us know that home was the best place to be. He met a pilot at the tiny airport north of where we lived, an airport with a run-way only big enough for little six-seater airplanes, the pilot willing to take us up in one of those planes. Dad wanted us to see how amazing our little piece of the world looked from up in that little plane as it circled our small neck of the woods. My quest to leave Dorchester just got stronger, seeing our  toy-sized house nestled in a little patchwork of farm fields and thatched woods made it look so much smaller and the outside world that much closer to obtainable.

Dad also took us all to see Chicago, our big trip to see the city and what city life was like. He was careful to take us only to the absolute worst part of the city to see the dirty soot covered high-rise tenements, explaining to us, “That’s what city life is like. You have to live all crowded together in these cubicle apartments where it’s so hot you can’t breathe in the summer. The air is all polluted too. There’s nothing good about the city.” I wasn’t buying into it though. I knew there was more to the city. Even this grimy part of the city with all the people and cars and congestion looked promising. I dreamed of being Mary Tyler Moore and making it on my own one day. I could see myself in the middle of some gleaming city twirling around as I tossed my hat toward the sky in sheer joy of finally making it, having a cute little one-room apartment with a huge walk-in closet full of fancy city clothes and high-heeled shoes.

We continued to watch out the window as the guy opened his trunk, reading along in his instruction booklet as he figured out where and how to get the tire out of the trunk. “It’s going to take him forever to fix that tire. Do you believe he has never changed a stupid tire in his life!” We were full of ourselves watching this guy work so hard at the simplest thing. “Somebody should go help him.” Chris always wanted to make things better.” Jim objected, “Let him suffer for a while. Let’s see how long it takes him.” The guy in the fancy suit got the tire out and was trying to figure out how the jack went together.” Go help him,” I said. It was getting boring watching him fiddle between the instructions and the jack parts.

I also felt stupid because I did not know how to change a tire. We had a strict line between what boys did and what girls did in our house. Girls were in charge of cleaning and stayed out of the garage which was for the boys. It drove me crazy that I was stuck in the house and never learned about cars and how to fix them. I knew I could do anything my brothers did and I was certain that anything that they did I could do better. But the garage was not allowed. I would love to be able to go out there to fix that tire and learn a little more about this guy from Chicago. I wanted details.

“I know. Why don’t we let Cork go fix the tire,” Jim finally resolved. “It will be embarrassing for that guy to have a little kid change his tire. Cork was the baby of the family and was just nine years old. This seemed a fine plan to all of us and we watched as Cork, head held high, went out there to fix the guy’s tire. I am not sure what Cork said to the guy, but he handed over the jack parts to Cork and in ten minutes the tire was changed. Cork loaded the old tire in the guy’s fancy red sports car with the jack parts and headed back to the house with a big happy grin on his face. In that moment we all felt a lot better about being hicks from the north-woods of Wisconsin.

The Repo Man

Me with Elmo Somewhere in Canada Evading the Repo Man

The Nissan my ex-husband bought for me, after he totaled my car, was now being followed by the repo man. I just didn’t know it yet.  Tim had decided to quit making payments. It was not like I could make the payments. I did not have a job, having quit my last job, not able to continue one more day, being too exhausted. I was fried from the combination of depression and too many years going too strong, trying to do it all alone. In one rash moment, I gave up, quitting my job at a Legal Aid office in Phoenix, packing up the few things I owned, moving back to my parents at the age of thirty-eight. I had not lived at home since I was eighteen. In fact I had been dead set on getting out of there the day I turned eighteen. Now I was back.

I came back down the winding gravel road to my parent’s cottage on the Spirit River Flowage outside Tomahawk, Wisconsin in the Northern corner of the state near the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. A flowage is a lot like a river except that the only reason it exists at all is because a dam was put in causing a spillage area. The one difference between a river and a flowage is that a flowage can shrink to a slick stream of mud when the water is low at the dam. On the summer I moved back, the flowage was running high with water and I took it as a good sign.

Fortunately, both my daughters were taken care of for the summer. My oldest had graduated high school and was exploring life in Milwaukee, living with her father. My youngest, Daryl, was visiting her father in Japan for the summer. I had insisted that Tim take her, recognizing I was on thin strings at the time.

It seemed like a perfect place to recuperate. There was a little shack on the half-acre lot my parent’s owned that I cleaned out, packing in my few belongings, making it my home for the next three months. My parents were not thrilled to see me lulling around their place every day, looking forlorn and with no plan in life except to recuperate. They suggested little things each day over breakfast to get me moving along in some direction or other. “There is surely a job at the grocery store in town,” Mom would say with an edge in her voice and a frown on her face. “Tim should be helping out more with Daryl. When is he coming back from Japan?” my dad would demand. Dad always thought there should be some man who should be sorting this out for me.

I had a law degree. I was not going to work at the grocery store. The problem was that I was only licensed to practice law in Oklahoma and Arizona. This was Wisconsin. Not only was this Wisconsin, but this was the north woods. Making money here as a lawyer was not anything I had any familiarity with. People here tended to stick with who they knew. They did not know me and I was a woman to boot. Anyway, I did not even have the $500.00 necessary to pay for the bar exam and I had none of the study materials to get prepared to take the bar. I had no plan and there was no man who was going to sort this out for me.

I spent the summer looking up old friends and going to visit them. I liked it away from my parent’s house and the constant reminders about how lost I really was. In my Nissan rambling down the road in Wisconsin in summer, the pine and the birch trees making a tunnel of green, nearly covering the sky, with the black-top road my only companion, that being the nearest I could get to feeling free.

My parents turned out not to be the answer to my prayers in the way I had hoped. They did not understand the concept of being burned out. They had worked hard their whole lives and had no one to complain to about it. It was my choice to marry the men I married and I had made my bed. They wanted to enjoy retirement, not take on the care of their adult daughter and all of the problems that come with that. It was not that they were kicking me out. They just wanted me to figure things out and get on with my life.

Coming home from one of my visits, I found my parents sitting in their usual spot, outside in front of their house, taking in the sun at the time in the late afternoon just before the mosquitoes come out to drive everyone inside. “The Repo guy was here, wanting to know where you were.” Dad said sternly. “He wants to pick up the car.”

I had no idea Tim had been stupid enough to let this get this far. He had threatened to quit making the car payments, thinking he had paid enough and it was time for me to make the payments. I figured he had totaled my car and should be required to replace it for me. The Nissan was in his name, not mine; it was his car to pay for. “How the hell did they find me here” I wanted to know.  I could not believe that they could possibly find me out in the Wisconsin woods. It had not been that long since I had left Arizona and I left no forwarding address.

For the next two days, I made sure to park the Nissan in with my parent’s vehicles blocking it so that it could not be snatched away when I was not looking. It was time to leave my parents place.  The repo man was making that clear. The only answer was  to move back to Arizona where I could get a job as a lawyer without having to wait the next half a year or more that it would take to pass a bar exam.  Daryl would be back in another month and school would start for her. I needed to find a job and an apartment and get her registered for school. After two months of floundering, I felt purpose returning to my life.  I knew what I needed to do.

I sent in a request to cash in my only retirement account which totaled a measly $3,000. It would take a couple of weeks of process. When it got here I would move back to Arizona.  I still had a couple hundred dollars left in my pocket. With that I left town, both to evade the repo man and to go on one last road trip before I went back to my life of work and single parenthood.

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.”

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

The Beach

From the car window, we both eyed that coast line; a deserted stretch of beach just past the Wisconsin border on the Upper Michigan Peninsula. There was not a soul in sight. The beach stretched on for miles and the sun gleamed off the golden stretch of sand as waves lapped the shore and seagulls flocked and landed. Daryl imagined jumping in the waves like an Orca whale. I imagined a long walk in solitude.

I had been hesitant to take this trip alone with my youngest daughter, who was now twelve and had a mind of her own. She had strong opinions and I was too exhausted most of the time to put my foot down. We often ended up in long arguments about things that made no sense which further exhausted me. It often felt like we were in a vicious cycle with no end in sight. We would be alone together for the entire trip. There would be no escape from the arguments. We would be trapped together in a car.

I was a single parent in the deepest sense of the word. I was single and a parent. The parent part meant that I never had a moment to myself. The single part of that meant that I still had dreams of having a life separate from being a parent.  I longed for a little solitude. I wanted time to have a completed thought of my own without Daryl interrupting with her desire for her mother’s attention.

“Daryl, why don’t you just play for awhile and I will go for a bit of a walk. I won’t go far. You can watch me. I’ll just go for a little way and come right back.” She relented and started to make a sand castle while I started my walk up the beach. As I walked I tried to imagine myself free of motherhood and able to just take long walks on the beach. I pictured what I might look like walking alone on the beach with the wind in my hair and a handsome man walking from the other direction. My vision was short lived.  Daryl trotted up by my side.

“But Mom, just come in a little; I’ll show you how to play in the waves.” she said with that look of someone certain they knew what they were talking about.  There would be no point arguing. Daryl would not let this rest. She danced along by my side in the edge of the water. “Mom, come in just a little; jump like this; feel the waves.”

I stopped and watched Daryl dancing around in the waves. She was so free about life. She found pleasure so easily in the simplest things. I gave in and joined her in the waves. I jumped the way she showed me how to jump. Then it happened. I felt the waves. I mean I felt the waves the way Daryl felt the waves. Daryl just played and looked at me satisfied that I finally saw.

Faith

“There’s a much shorter route to Wisconsin,” Kelly said looking at my accusingly. She rarely spoke to me since leaving Chandler, Arizona and we were now in Harmony on the California coast. I was wondering how long it would take for me to be busted.

Kelly was not happy about being dragged away from her high school graduation and from yet another place she called home to go God knows where with her mother. To make matters worse, we were not headed to another town for another job and another life away from the old one. Now, the destination was unknown.  I knew that we would end up at my parent’s home in Tomahawk, Wisconsin but after that, there was no plan. In the mean time I wanted to go as far as I could for as long as I could on the approximately $100.00 left in my pocket. “But you haven’t seen San Francisco yet; we’ll see the Golden Gate Bridge and then head to Wisconsin.” I pleaded my case with the biggest look of hope I could put on my face.

When we dropped Kelly’s younger sister, Daryl off at the airport in LA to get on a plane to Japan to visit her Dad for the summer, I promised we would take the most direct route to Wisconsin that there was. Kelly had no interest in one of my crazy road trips. She was only talking to me on a need to know basis and had stopped showering. It was her way of showing me how pissed off she was.  “I talked to this guy over in the bar and he showed me a map. We can get on a freeway right now and go straight across the country. San Francisco is way out of the way.” Kelly looked at me hesitantly fearing the worst. I could be very persuasive at times. By the time we got to San Francisco she was talking to me again, not yet showering but at least talking. It was progress. In Denver, we were back to our old selves. By then she could see that we really were going to make it to Wisconsin.

Unfortunately, the $100.00 I had in my purse did not go quite as far as I imagined, even with sleeping at campgrounds; usually, we arrived late and left early before the ranger came by to collect and we ate cheap, mostly at greasy spoon restaurants. We only slept once in a wayside next to big diesel semis leaving their motors running all night long. Dad was a trucker and I felt safe with several semis around. Even if there was one bad seed in the bunch, one of them would be a good old guy like my dad and would save a couple of damsels in distress. It became clear on the long drive through Nebraska that we were not going to have enough gas money. At the next gas station, I sent Kelly in with my last twenty to pay for a coffee and the gas. I told her to pick up a lot of creamer; I thought it could sustain me until the next day. I sent out a prayer to the universe to get us to Wisconsin.

“This is the change they gave me. It seems like too much.” She handed me some bills and coins and nearly the whole twenty was there. “Show me the receipt,” I said. Sure enough, they had only charged Kelly for the coffee. Nearly the whole twenty was still there. We were about a quarter mile from the station by the time I figured out what happened. Kelly insisted that she told them she was paying for the gas too. At that point I looked to heaven and thought that was a rather un-kosher way to get me to Wisconsin but I took it as a sign and pressed on the gas pedal. We looked in the rear-view mirror for the next hour expecting to see a cop pull up. We rehearsed our story about how we had no idea that they didn’t charge us for the gas. We would put on our most inocent blue eyed, blond look.

We pulled out all the change from the seat cushions and put all the money we had into that gas tank. We commented on how the winds had changed in our favor and they really seemed to push the car along. The car rolled to a stop, finally out of gas, just as we passed the sign for Tomahawk, Wisconsin. We still had to make it to my parent’s house out in the woods on the other side of town. As the car stopped at the side of someone’s nicely manicured lawn, the Wisconsin friendly inhabitant came up to the side of the car (I swear this is true) with a gas can in her hand. “What’s the problem, out of gas?”  Kelly just looked at me with that look of; “I know this shit happens all the time on your damn road trips, but really?!” We got a gallon of gas, just enough to make it to my parents house.