Archive | My So-Called Life

Howling at the moon

My father is depressed. He sits in the chair, head down, clutching a pillow and saying little. And why shouldn’t he be depressed? He has cancer and it’s starting to seep in that this is much more than a temporary bump in life’s road.

“I asked the doctor if he’s going to live, and you know how they are,” my mother whispered to me in another room. “He didn’t really want to give a direct answer. He finally said he didn’t think there was any point to radiation and chemo, that this was a very aggressive cancer. But he doesn’t know, I don’t want him to know. I’m going to try to talk to him tonight.”

Later, I am helping my mother get dinner in their tiny galley kitchen, and she breaks down. “I told him he has to fight, I can’t do this alone. I’m notready to be a widow,” she says. I hold her until she stops crying. As I’m heating my father’s soup, I tell her, “Mom, I don’t care either way what he decides. But I want it to be what he wants.”

I think she thinks the force of her will is enough to keep him alive. The thing is, we’ll all going to die and when it’s time, nothing stops it. But hardly anyone’s ever as ready as they might be.

I remember talking to my ex-husband the December afternoon before he died. He was very angry that he didn’t have the two years they promised him after the stem cell transplant.

“The thing is, the time you have is the time you have,” I said after he was done. “Whether it’s two days, two weeks or two years, it’s what you have. So you can spend it being angry that you don’t have more time, or you can spend it living. But whatever it is, it’s yours. Live it.”

He just nodded. A few minutes later, he went to sleep. The next morning, he died peacefully on a hospital gurney during a liver scan. No one even noticed until they brought him back to his room.

I was thinking about that tonight, driving home on I-95. By the time I hit Bridge Street, I was crying out loud. For my father, for my mother, for myself. For all the time we always think we have and how carelessly we spend it.

Howling at the moon, for all the good it did me.


I lead a relatively pristine life. I don’t smoke, drink rarely, eat well and take lots of vitamins. (Okay, no exercise, but still.)

Ever since my dad got sick, though, I’ve been living on absolute crap. For breakfast this morning, I had two pudding snacks, a piece of honey-baked ham left over from my niece’s college-graduation party Sunday (actual protein!), a Fudgesicle and a couple of crackers. For lunch, nachos and a Pepsi.

It’s as if I’m compelled to punish my own body for being alive – or maybe it’s to make myself feel alive. I’m not sure. Whatever it is, it’s the strangest thing.

What’s even weirder is, everyone keeps telling me how great I look. “Did you lose weight?”

Yeah, my father’s malignancy is eating away at me from the inside.

Death warmed over

It was gray and drizzly, so we went to a restaurant for Memorial Day burgers instead of cooking out. I told my friend what a shitty, shitty week I’d had. Suddenly, the little dancing lights appeared.

“Oh shit, I’m having another migraine,” I muttered. “This is just not fair. Two in one day? That’s never happened before.”

The pulsating geometric crescent got bigger and bigger. I could hardly read the menu. Then the damned thing switched to the other eye. What the fuck? That never happened before, either.

It felt like my face was swelling up; everything started to hurt. “Shit, shit,shit,” I said. “Why is this happening?”

“Look, you’re under a lot of stress,” my friend said. “All this stuff with your father, you’re worried about money…”

“This is really freaking me out,” I said. “The migraine never switched eyes before. That’s weird.” I confessed my secret fear.

See, I don’t have fused vision like most people. I have a dominant eye, and the other one is mostly for peripheral vision. For years, they didn’t even line up. Then three years ago, I accidentally slammed the side of my head into the car door, and just like that, my eyes were suddenly in line. I was mostly delighted, but also a little wary. How come this happened? What if I had an aneurysm, a ticking time bomb in my head?

I eventually forgot about it – until last summer, when I started seeing double. It got to the point where I had to close one eye to read. As I told the doctor, though, I didn’t think I was really seeing double. It seemed more like my vision was trying to fuse, I said.

He told me whenever there was a vision change, that was important. Yadda, yadda, yadda. I never did get to the neurologist and right now, I need a break. I’m so sick of doctors.

My friend was sympathetic. “Look, your father’s sick. It’s perfectly normal that you’re paranoid about your health now. It goes with the turf. Let’s have some dessert.” So we did.

Yes, I know. My father has cancer and now every little thing is going to freak me out. But what if I miss something important because I’m convinced I’m only imagining things?

When I saw the cardiologist last week, he told me he didn’t think I’d have any problem getting my HDL levels up. “When you face your parents’ mortality, you go into denial mode about your own and you start taking better care of yourself,” he predicted.

Last week, one of my cousins was in the hospital with meningitis – from a sinus infection. (Did you know that’s how Michael Graves ended up paralyzed and in a wheelchair? A sinus infection that turned to meningitis. He was too busy to go to the doctor.)

Please, God, no migraines tomorrow. Please.

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Body, betraying

Woke at 5:15 a.m. to a ringing phone. The adrenaline rushed through me in that way only a late-night phone call can cause – especially when you have a sick relative.

I felt a little nauseated when I got up. Checked the Caller ID (naturally, it was a stranger) and decided to check my email. Now the weird flashing lights have started and I’m seeing the crescent-shaped geometric pattern that signals the onset of a migraine. The only way I can see to type this is to close my left eye.

I hate when my body betrays me.

And speaking of.

I found out yesterday that everything they tested from my father was positive for malignancy – all the lymph nodes, all the tissue samples. It’s a particularly aggressive form, the surgeon said. (My sister said it seemed like he couldn’t wait to wash his hands of the matter.)

Assuming he makes it through the rest of his recovery OK, he’ll be home in a week or so. But they’re having trouble controlling his blood pressure and his now-high blood sugar. (He’ll have diabetes now for whatever time he has.)

Once he’s recovered, it’s time to see the oncologist and find out whether he’s a candidate for chemo – or hospice. Time will tell.

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Maybe yes, maybe no

By on May 23, 2005 in My So-Called Life

There’s a Zen parable about a farmer whose wife gives birth to a healthy baby boy. “How lucky you are!” the villagers exclaim. “You’ll have a strong son to help you work the farm.”

The farmer shrugs. “Maybe yes, maybe no.”

The son grows and helps his father. One day, he runs over his own foot with a plow and damages himself permanently. The villagers commiserate: “What bad luck, that your son is now a cripple!”

The farmer: “Who knows? Maybe yes, maybe no.”

Some years later, there is a huge war. The Emperor’s men come to the village and all able-bodied men are taken into the army, where they will almost surely perish. Because the farmer’s son is crippled, he is left at home with his parents. “How lucky you are, that your son wasn’t taken!” the villagers says.

The farmer says (you guessed it), “Maybe yes, maybe no.”

This is all by way of saying that my father will be operated on in a few short hours. I don’t know what will happen and I’m trying not to have any expectations. Until they open him up and check to see whether the tumor spread, they won’t even know if they can complete the surgery.

Would that be a bad thing? Maybe yes, maybe no.

Because cancer is a horrible disease, and the treatment is no picnic. Hospitals often treat cancer patients more like guinea pigs than humans.

I just want my father to go through the least pain possible. Right now, it seems to be the best I can hope for.

In vino, veritas

By on May 19, 2005 in My So-Called Life

Here’s one of my worries: How can I become one of those eccentric old ladies who lives alone with her cats when I’m allergic to cats? Aren’t cats pretty much a mandatory accessory? (Note to self: Get allergy shots next time you have health insurance.)

I can’t seem to do anything right these days; I don’t quite fit in anywhere. Part of it, I suppose, is my long-term estrangement from that great American pastime: recreational shopping. It’s been so long since I had discretionary income, I’ve forgotten what it’s like to buy optional things. And I never got that whole mall thing, anyway. To me, shopping is something you do quickly and then get the hell out. (Unless it’s a bookstore or a music store.)

My friends understand this and most of them are as speedy as I am. I only have one friend I can’t stand to shop with, because she wants to look ateverything. (Oddly enough, she’s now a Republican by marriage.) Not only does she want to look at each and every thing, she also wants to fondle it – and talk to it. “My, aren’t you a gorgeous thing? Do you want to come home with me?”

I only talk that way in bars. And only when I’m drunk.

I remember one night in Dirty Frank’s with my friend P. For once, I wasn’t the one driving, and since I’d just broken up with someone, I was a little bummed. And since I wasn’t driving, I was drinking.

Some artist type was fingering my earrings, telling me how much he liked them. I glanced at the clock on the wall; it was shortly after 10. The next thing I remembered, it was after 2 and P. was gently shepherding me toward the door. The next morning, she called.

“Hey, how’s your back feeling this morning?” she said, solicitous.

My back? “My back is fine.” A pause. “Why do you ask?”

Now, P. is a wholesome daughter of the Midwest; she grew up on a dairy farm and is always very polite. She said sweetly, “Oh, well, when you were rolling around on the top of that booth making out with that guy, I said to myself, ‘Wow, that looks painful! I bet her back will really hurt tomorrow!’ I’m so glad I was wrong.”

What guy? What booth? What making out?

“This is a joke, right?” I said, hoping against hope.

“No, no. Don’t you remember?”

Bits and pieces started coming back to me. “Oh God, that wasn’t a dream?”

This is why I don’t drink anymore, just in case you were wondering. That annoying little thing where entire chunks of your life vanish…

People at Drinking Liberally the other week were all like, oh, I thought you didn’t drink? as I sipped my merlot. Kids, a single glass of wine during a social occasion is not drinking; ten shots of Southern Comfort or tequila over a two-hour span is “drinking.” Seven G&Ts is “drinking.” Polishing off an entire bottle of Amaretto is “drinking.” (My 35th birthday. It was a present, at one wild party at a beach house near the Upper Chesapeake. I ended up drinking the entire thing, getting in a boat and paddling out to an island in the moonlight while one of my friends stood on the shore howling, “Lassie, come home!” But I digress.)

I’m so well behaved now. And my life is so boring. Except for the continuing financial crisis, of course.

Just another day in paradise

By on May 18, 2005 in My So-Called Life

Woke up, had breakfast. Scanned the newspapers and other blogs – not a whole lot happening today except for the Newsweek thing, which although infuriating, is beginning to bore me since I know the media is so out of shape when it comes to asserting themselves.

Checked the want ads: Only one job for which I’m remotely qualified. I attempt to apply, but Monster seems to have lost my cookie. I spent twenty minutes fruitlessly fucking around, trying to remember my login.

Then the endocrinologist called with test results, sounded very solicitous. All the scary results from February are now resoundingly normal, except for low Vitamin D levels.

“Do you drink milk?”

“Yep, every day.”

“Then you need to take Vitamin D.”

“I already take it.”

She told me to double the dosage. Then: “You sound much better.”

“Yeah, well, there’s only so far down you can go,” I said. Which is true. Eventually I get so tired of being depressed, I give up on it. I feel better, at least until the next crisis hits.

Any minute now…

Ghost story

By on May 14, 2005 in My So-Called Life

I’m pretty sure I made the endocrinologist cry.

I’m not positive, because she lowered her head until her hair covered her face, but her shoulders appeared to be shaking and her voice sounded all choked up.

This was after we talked about the extreme probability of my being clinically depressed, and I told her about the last five years. (I was even depressing myself all over again. Ever see those charts of stressful major life events? I’ve had most of them since 1999 – some of them, more than once.)

She, of course, suggested antidepressants. Even though I told her they hadn’t worked before.

“I don’t know how I’m going to pay my rent,” I said.

“Isn’t there a generic form of Prozac now?”

“It’s over $100 a month and besides, it didn’t work the last time I tried it. And I don’t know how I’m going to pay my rent,” I repeated. “Today my job got cut back to five hours a week. That’ll cover my health insurance and taxes. There won’t be anything left over for anything. Not even food.” Just listening to myself made me want to cry, but the endocrinologist beat me to it.

She’d told me we should get all the tests done while I still have insurance. She said the good news is, I don’t have an underactive thyroid, although it’s at the low end of the scale. “You’ve just been under so much stress. You’ve had such a hard time of it, and of course your body is reacting,” she said. “You’ve had such a hard time…” (This was when she started to sound like she was crying.)

God. Doctors listen to crap all day. I must really be a mess if I’m making a doctor cry… The thought made me even more depressed.

Anyway, she suspects my adrenal glands may be malfunctioning. Or there’s an outside chance of a tumor on my pituitary gland, because my previous blood tests aren’t looking so great. She ordered some new ones.

She was very kind. She listened for a long time; I needed that.

I told her how being chronically unemployed was like being a ghost in the land of the living, how invisible I felt. How people’s eyes glazed over at the news of yet another economic catastrophe, how they needed to believe it was something you did or didn’t do because they were so desperate to believe it wouldn’t happen to them, and besides, it’s Just Not Their Problem.

I said people were so determined not to be co-dependent, they couldn’t muster up plain human decency anymore. (If it didn’t require any extra effort on your part, it wouldn’t be kindness, now, would it?)

The only reason I even could afford to see her, I said, was because I had a blog, and my readers donated the co-pay. “They bought me a car, too,” I added.

“Really? You must be good,” she said.

“Writing’s the only thing I’m good at,” I mumbled.

I told her it’s getting impossible for me to talk to people, because they usually fall into one of two categories: Those who bitch about problems I only wish I had, and the others who talk about how happy they are and how much God must love them.

They make me want to scream. No, they make me want to punch them in the face and feel the satisfying crunch of cheekbone against my fist. But that would make me Not A Nice Person, and these are my loved ones. I should cut them some slack, right? So my solution, I’m afraid, is to avoid them.

I never used to be the kind of person who begrudged happiness to other people, and it appalls me that I feel that way now. And I don’t want to be someone who says, “Excuse me, I think my problems are a little more urgent,” because, as my nana used to say, “Everyone’s cross is tailor-made.”

I mean, it could be worse. I could be dying, right? Who am I to be so angry at people for being happy? What the hell kind of friend am I?

The deal I made with myself is, they’re entitled to their bad moods – and their happiness. I just don’t want to hear about it.

The thing is, I know people feel overwhelmed in their own lives, even the happy ones. There’s not enough time for everything that needs to be done, people are so rushed. They’re just trying to get through the day.

They don’t even see me. I’m a ghost.

While waiting for my car in front of the hospital, I eavesdropped on a conversation between two strangers – a young woman and an older one who appeared to be a cancer patient. (She was in a wheelchair, wearing a blonde frosted wig tilted to one side.)

“You just have to let other people take care of you and you’ll be fine,” the young woman said, in the blithe way only a young person still believes.

“There’s no one there. I’m all alone,” the older woman said and started to cry.

I couldn’t listen anymore; I moved away.

Ghosts, everywhere.

Tending the fire

By on April 4, 2005 in Arts & Music, My So-Called Life

I’m about to say something downright obscene in a capitalist society: Feeding your soul is the only reason you’re here. Period.

And that’s why I get so pissed off when people blow off their Muses, because art is one of the soul’s major food groups.

I mean, come on: It’s your Muse. You know? If you insult or ignore her, she may not be back. And if you cut her off, her gift backs up and hurts you.

Kind of like blue balls.

I was talking to my best friend yesterday, and as usual, she was ranting ad nauseum about her job. Finally, I stopped her. I said, “You have all these creative impulses that you only allow yourself to channel through your work.

“Maybe it would make a real difference in your life if, instead of thinking of yourself as a manager who’s taking a writing class on the side, you saw yourself as an aspiring writer who has a day job as a manager.”

She was stunned. “Wow. That’s pretty radical,” she said. “You know, there might be something to that. That could work.”

I mean, she tells me she doesn’t have time for writing, which any writer can tell you is bullshit. It’s always a choice. You have an office? You shut the door, you hold your calls. Who knows what you’re up to?

Just because a phone rings doesn’t mean you have to answer it. What are you, Pavlov’s dog?

There’s not much authentic love for the muses in America. (Just look at school funding for the arts – it’s always the first thing they cut.) Art, music and poetry are only valuable when they make money – a lot of money. That’s the only validation worth having, to most people’s way of thinking. Contrast that with Ireland, where artists don’t even pay income tax.

I don’t know where I first got the idea I was entitled to be an artist, but I did, quite early on. And I protected that goal against all comers. Making money was never really the priority; the art was. Whether I was immersed in painting, writing or writing songs, my work was just as important to me as paying the rent.

I’m not necessarily proud of that, by the way. It is what it is. My kids might be happier now if they’d had a little less Bohemia and a lot more financial stability while they were growing up. (But then, what did they choose for their own lives? They’re both artists and musicians.)

Friends always tell me, “But I’m not brave like you. I couldnever (fill in the blank).” Brave? I’m the biggest scaredy cat in the world. I’m a nervous wreck, just deciding to move a piece of paper from here to there.

The only difference between me and them is, I do have faith. I take risks because I believe there’s something positive to come. So I make myself push on through the fear. I believe in my art, and so I believe in myself.

It’s very hard to make your art a priority because it pisses off just about everyone. I’ve had friends and relatives lecture me about being “selfish,” which used to baffle me. When you’re playing suburban Supermom, aren’t you being a tad selfish, too? Doesn’t at least a chunk of all that activity have to do with burnishing your self-image, and not your kids’ needs?

But that’s heresy, and we all know what happens to heretics.

There are other ways to honor your Muse besides turning it into a full-time paying gig. The single purest example I know? Acoustic music jams. They’re filled with superb musicians who never play anywhere other than a festival campfire or a friend’s living room, but man, do they love the music. You can see it in their faces when they play, and the feeling in the room is transcendent.

If, though, the Muses have called you to that more challenging level of creativity, you can’t shut it off without hurting yourself.

So you make excuses. No time, bills to pay, I never really wanted it anyway, yadda yadda yadda. Hey, maybe you’re right.

It reminds me of that old story about the world-famous violinist. He was coming to town to hear the most talented students, and this one very driven student practiced night and day in preparation for his big chance.

So he got his moment. He played his heart out, and the maestro said only, “You’re competent, my son, but you lack the fire.”

The boy was devastated. He dropped out of the conservatory, went to business school and instead became a wealthy man and patron of the arts.

Years later, he’s at a fundraiser and meets the maestro again. “You know, you heard me play years ago, but you told me I lacked the fire,” the man said. “Because of you, I stopped playing. Now I support people like you with my checkbook.”

“I’m sorry, I actually don’t remember,” the maestro said.

“That’s what I tell everyone. The ones who have the fire don’t pay any attention.”

Twilight Zone

By on April 1, 2005 in My So-Called Life

I wrote about this before, but really, it’s the craziest damn thing. The CD player just turned itself on and started rotating through the discs. I suppose it’s just Dead Ex-Husband’s way of saying “Good morning!” …

And no, I didn’t sit on the remote or set any kind of timer by mistake. I don’t even use the CD player since I moved in here and the remote is stuck in a box with all the other remotes I don’t use.

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