Friday, June 22, 2012

Day 149

We neared the Christmas season and Mom couldn't seem to get an appointment with her doctor at Kaiser. She had planned to come up to Seattle, since we had missed each other for Thanksgiving. But, her discomfort was rapidly worsening. She found herself not wanting to cook. Not wanting to see anyone or go anywhere. It didn't sound like her. Work became harder and harder.

Finally, in early January, she met with her doctor.  Then came the waiting. The tests and the waiting.  They're going to run some more tests, she said. MRI led to CAT Scans and blood work. More waiting. 

It's the pancreas. They want a biopsy. I need you to listen now. You understand what this means, baby girl, right? She's crying, but firm. 

Time thudded to a halt along with my heart. I entered a new kind of time. A time that truly had mastery over me. A feeling, I imagine, like being held hostage. The moment some poor soul captured by another accepts that control of their fate is not solely their own to toy with. It is seeing without delusion. But, that does not mean we are powerless. For power and control are not the same. The former is a true and vital part of being human. The latter, a mere mirage.

A biopsy. They want to do a biopsy, I told my husband. He had barely come through the door from one of his jobs, harried and exhausted. A biopsy, he confirmed disbelieving as he dropped his heavy bag on the living room carpet, still wet from cycling through Seattle rain. I was huddled into the couch under a blanket, a common scene these days. My face, red with the day's revelations. He dispelled the cloud of fear that hung about me with a few simple words: Well, I guess we're moving to California.

Mom and I have always been close. By close, I mean kindred.  Connected by some deeper force than even we understood. I told her a long time ago, back when I thought I could change the world through some summer mission trip to Turkey, that I would come back from whatever far off place I had landed, and take care of her at the end of her life. Of course, I never imagined that it would happen so soon. Ben knew that I would be utterly miserable, the longer I had to stay away. He too wanted to be with her. She always got him.

So, again, we waited. Joshua came out to Woodside from his new condo in Vegas  to be with mom after her biopsy.  It meant so much to her to have him close. She kept telling me that she wouldn't have known how tell him otherwise. They've always been so similar, those two. They've had such a unique relationship.

I always say, I've always been more like dad trying to be more like mom and Joshua Paul was always so like her trying to be like dad. They have the same heart: tender, lion-strong and enormous to boot. The funniest similarity is that they both think we all can't see how gooey they are inside.

Day 1

On January 26th, 2012 mom had an appointment with an oncologist at Kaiser in Redwood City.  That night, mom wanted to video chat with us to discuss the results of her biopsy.  She wanted to tell us face to face. She wanted us to see how strong she is so we wouldn't have to be so afraid. Then, time went ahead and stood still. Through the blur of a trembling planet held in stasis, came these words like a slow-motion fall into a sea of stinging nettles:

I have cancer. There's a tumor on my pancreas and it spread to my liver. We're going to start chemo right away. We're going to fight it.

We stared at each other with our brave faces on. Ben held me close. I squeezed all my childhood fears into his hands till my knuckles burned. We all agreed to be strong, to fight and believe.  I think that was the first time I ever really needed hope. I couldn't find it. Did I even know what it was?

I'm afraid, like Nietzsche, I believed: Hope in reality is the worst of all evils because it prolongs the torment of man. Hope fell synonymous with naive, altruistic, denial, heartache. Perhaps those words are akin to hope. But if anything is possible like our darling Sagan says it is, then I suppose in some universe hope also might play a role. At the very least,  I determined to think on it. To listen to hope as it came. To strive for a perspective on hope more like the Dalai Lama:

I find hope in the darkest of days, and focus in the brightest.  I do not judge the universe.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Day 144

Intro Cont...

I was just remembering the conversation mom and had one day after work in early December. I sat in the church parking lot behind our little house in Greenlake just north of Seattle and we talked. I told her that everything I know about the mother I want to be is in my memory of her. That means giving unconditional love selflessly, passionately and often to my children.  It means giving them a home to be proud of, filled with laughter and an inexplicable warmth.

The kind of place that feels instantly like home, smells like home. Before you know it, your feet are up a drink is in your hand and your laughing louder than you have all day. It's a place where time stops, well, as long as we can manage it. In my mothers house, people catch themselves sighing. Breathing deeply. Wanting more. Wanting to stay and stay. People forget whatever else they had planned and simply linger. They forget what always seems to plague them. The remember who they are though. That's what light does. She is light.

You were a lioness, I exclaimed. Am I not that as well? You guarded us. You huddled us into your bosom and reared us alone for many years. How will I know how to share the task of parenting? What will keep me from guarding my children as you did?

I didn't want to be a lioness, she said. I had to be. You work in a flower shop. I could hear her smile: You have a beautiful husband who will be a wonderful father. You have a powerful community around you. You won't need to be the lion. And if you do, you'll know. Just trust yourself. You'll be magnificent. You'll be the flower child I didn't get to be.

It brought to mind this fable told to me by a dear friend, Katie who lost her mother from Pancreatic Cancer a couple of years ago. A fable she heard through a shaman in Seattle whom, I imagine, heard it from Nietzsche:

When we are born, we are camels. We drink and we drink. We drink in all that we can and store it. It is important that we drink in much, so that we may be large camels.

And, it is important to be a large camel, because when we reach the desert, as great a camel as we were, so we are great as a lion.

It is important to be a great lion,  because we must cross the desert. And, when we reach the edge of the desert we must slay our dragon. The dragon is: Thou Shalt.

Once we slay our dragon, we become a child.

I've thought long about this story. I love old stories. I think I was born a lion. A desert child. And the desert was my home. The only home I knew or wanted or knew to want. I didn't know to hope for more. I became   quizzically adept at guiding new born lions from one end of the desert to the next, offering pointers on how to locate, name and ultimately defeat their dragons whilst mine thrived from neglect. I remained paralyzed from a fear of my dragon. Little wisdom I have shared, have I consumed.

As I sat again on our porch, staring into the lake, I saw the evening light dance on the water. Street lights spraying pink, yellow and green lights in ticklish streaks down the black quivering surface. I followed the light, crisp and electric into the foggy blur of cloud cover reflecting hazy on the water. In that moment, the scene changed. The axis of the planet changed. The bright lines were not tracing the waters face, but pouring down an abysmal cliff face. The fog wasn't a gray mirror, but a billowing fog nestled in the basin of an interminable canyon. Perhaps it was the smoky breath of a dragon hidden beneath.

I felt dizzy. Turned my head. Restored my field of vision. But, then I couldn't help myself. I peered again into the pitfall and drenched in its possibility. A lair. Where my dragon hides. I want to see his face. I want to slay him. Let him surface, I called to the cavern. I summoned some haughty attempt at courage and waited for the challenge to be answered. Nothing. Like the Nothing of the Neverending Story. Just nothing.

Fear gripped me. Nothing is more frightful than the unknown. Better the devil you know, they say. But to walk up to, no, to jump into an unknowable trench to face an unknowable enemy with an unknowable outcome. Pass. It occurred to me far later, much longer than it probably took you to sort out, that it is the Unknown itself that I must slay. But, what kind of weaponry does one bring to a battle with the unknown. How, for instance, does one approach the question, will this pregnancy survive? Why do I get this sinking feeling when i think of my mother telling me she was not feeling well?

If I bring power, I end up yearning for control only to be dismayed. The earth need simply shudder beneath my feet to dismantle that illusion. If I bring cunning, it will take but a moment to find I'm outwitted and bitterly humbled. To prepare for the unknown is to howl at the moon. It occurs to me, I cannot fight this dragon. So, how do I accomplish its death? This meditation returned nightly and grows in meaning even today.

I gather hints here and there. This weekend, in fact, a wise young man simply said to me: Accept. I keep hearing words like that. Surrender. Release. Breathe. These words are my mantra now, though they sit heavy and dry on my tongue like a bad case of cottonmouth. I keep licking my lips and sloshing my tongue about to shake it off. But, perhaps this dragon will lie down to a my new song of concession. Then, if I'm lucky, I'll arise a child again.

I want to be a child when I have a child, I told Mom.  Maybe then I won't have to worry about relying so heavily on the lioness at the expense of those closest to me. She always understand my crazy way of saying things. You will be, she told me.

Then she asked me what I was making for dinner. I can't remember now. She always asked that though. I almost don't know how to make dinner anymore, without her asking. What should I serve with the pork loin, I'd ask. Ooh, I just got this great recipe for a Warm Apricot Spinach Salad with Prosciutto and Goat Cheese, she'd say.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Rest and Reflection

So many of you have shared your experience of this blog with me and what it meant to you. Please know, that it meant a great deal to hear that we were somehow able to connect through it. In fact, there has been so much encouragement, that I've decided to expand this blog and our story into a book.

 I'll be posting the new installments on the blog. I look forward to your comments and emails as well. If you have something to add to a particular time frame I'm writing about, or just want to share a story that was meaningful to you in this process, please do share it! I'd like to get as full a picture as I can.

 Mom was very clear about her intention to share this process with the world: We know things other people don't know yet, she said to me. If they can learn something from us, we need to tell them how. You need to write about this for their sake. I must confess to you early on that sharing has never been my strong suit.

 Deep breaths. I told my husband the other day: I think I'll look back on this time of my life as a haze of sighs. Breathing is important. And, deep breaths give wind to a full voice... or so I'm told. We'll see.

 So, here is the first of what I hope will be many stories about my mother, my family, our friends, hope, courage, death, time and as much of myself as I can muster.

 Some beautiful autumn morning in November 2011 I was turning down Holman Rd. headed west. I had a couple of deliveries that morning in the charming, little red pick-up owned by my employer, Melissa Feveyear of Terra Bella Flowers in Seattle. Nana and I were talking again. My mind wandered to her often at that time. Enough so, that it had become curious to me.

 But not now. Now, I was laughing at something she said, or had said long ago. Something crude probably. As I pulled to a stop at the light in front of the QFC, and slid the stick back to neutral, my head instinctively turned to the passenger seat where I expected to see her with her head thrown back in laughter and her heels lifting off the floorboard.

 And, I did see her. Only her face wasn't gleeful, it was sobering. It almost felt as though she were clutching my elbow to further gather my attention, as she had done so often before: You have to be brave now, baby girl.

The light turned green as my whole being erupted with tears. I cried so hard, so deeply and so instantly that I had to pull over. I gave in to whatever need to come out. I'm not sure for how long. There is a secret power to crying that too often is allotted only to women. Crying is healing, refreshing and deeply soothing to the soul. The tremendous fear I felt in that moment had washed away.

Soon, I felt better. I pulled out of the parking lot and continued on my route. My mind flickered back to that odd encounter and I made a mental note to give it more of my curiosity. But for now, I took this bit of wisdom from my grandmother, as I had so many other pithy truths before: be confident, be generous, be a good dancer, be sexy, be adventurous, and so on. Be brave. Ok, I thought. And for a couple of days after that, I didn't give it another thought.

I was out on another flower delivery when mom called. I hadn't heard from her since they got back from their Thanksgiving on the beach. We weren't with them, even though it was supposed to be our Thanksgiving with them that year. Early on in our marriage, Ben and I decided to solve the family holiday crisis by switching Thanksgiving and Christmas with our families each year. And, last year, Thanksgiving was meant to be with mom and John and the rest of the expanded Seufert clan eating deep-fried turkey by the shore, but alas I couldn't travel down. I was early on in a high-risk pregnancy and couldn't risk any extra strain on my body. So, of course, mom called to tell me all about it.

Actually, she started saying. I haven't been feeling well. I have this weird pain in my stomach. Jessie made these delicious beans... I laughed and interrupted her. You mean Aunt Terri, I asked playfully. Mom always got us confused. She said we were kindred somehow and so she would get us mixed up her in head. She laughed. Yeah, anyway T made these beans and I ate so many of them, I think my stomach was just crampy. Anyway, she continued, I'm going in to see the doctor this week.

Good, I said trying to give encouragement to the idea. Mom was never a fan of doctors and therefore didn't go very often. I don't get sick, she used to say smiling sweetly. It just feels like heartburn, she said. I'm sure it's nothing. I agreed, told her to keep me posted on her appointment. When's your next appointment? 'Cause you're prednant, duss in case you forgah, she squealed in her baby-talk voice. I din'net forgeh. I'na hav'a baby, yay! Yay, she cheered. A puppy yelps in the background. It can only be Guinness. Guinness is mom's Tea Cup Chihuahua. He's black with white paws, so when you tip him over he looks like a Guinness. When they got him as a puppy almost 9 years ago from a work friend, mom wanted to name him Domino. But, Josh and I balked. He has to be named after an alcohol, we insisted. It was sort of a family tradition. It started with our 155lb German Rottweiler, a.k.a. Jager Meister. So, Guinness it is. And, Guinness the "Circus Dog" was howling into the phone from my mother's lap with her encouragement. Dins, it's Jessica. It's Jessica, Dins. Say, I love you. Arrroooo. Arrooo. Dass a good puppy, she said. He said it. Did you hear him, Jess? Yes, I laughed. If you don't agree that you heard him say it, this can go on and on.

We exchanged words of love. They came freely and with great familiarity. I'll call you later, mom. I checked the card in the arrangement next to me and headed back on my route. A subtle wave of sadness fell over me and for the first time since it happened, I remembered my encounter with Nana. Is it my pregnancy? Should I be concerned? This was our second try, but the doctor said the baby looked great. We heard the heartbeat. We even got pictures this time. I heard mom's confident words of reassurance when I first told her about the great results of the sonogram. If it's not that, I thought, is it mom?

 But no, I couldn't go there. Throughout my life, even as a young girl, I've had these chilling, foreboding thoughts of losing my mother. I always soothed myself with the thought that anyone who had someone in their life like Denise would experience a fear of losing her. How could I possibly live without her. I never lingered long over these thoughts, but I confess feeling worried about the way she sounded. She never gets sick. She never goes to the doctor. But, more troubling than that, she never sounded so concerned, almost scared. Mom was quite fearless (except perhaps on the highway).

I shook these concerns off, took a deep breath and pressed on. This is a coping mechanism that is often too effective and quite costly in the long run. It is, I imagine, a soldier's game. A true survivor, when faced with impending dangers will shake off the fear of the vast threat and focus solely on the fight at hand. So, with a deep breath, he picks up his weapon, pushes off from the ground and somehow manages to put one foot in front of the other. This method, however, is only effective if at some point the season turns from war to peace and the soldier is able to rest and reflect over his battles.

It is the secret to my strength and thus, my greatest weakness. My body cannot bear the burden of my postponement of these wind-spun illuminations into what may be. I am a Odysseus bound to the mast with leather and chain tearing straining my joints and burning my skin as I kick and flail against them. All to harken to some siren song that will form a mirror before me that I might see my reflection fully and without filter. I dare not share the song, but stuff the ears of my men with wax for their own sake.

 A reflection is a dangerous thing. Ask Perseus who slew Medusa or Atreyu who faced the most fearsome oracle of all, the one that shows you who you really are. But, now I am resting. I am reflecting on these things and they grow with meaning even in the remembering. We seek what we find and without fail. If you spend a day thinking about butterflies, you'll find that after days of not seeing them, you see several flitting about. Too often though, we do not truly know what it is we seek, though we find it nonetheless. I am looking for meaning in the midst of meaningless loss. It is my desperate search for hope. A few days after Thanksgiving, I miscarried our second child. Mom called and told me that the doctor thought she had an ulcer, prescribed her medication and told her that she wanted to do some follow up tests. An ultrasound.

I called Candace, mon coeur, and finally had courage to voice my concerns. Mom isn't feeling well, I confessed to her. She heard it with the weight of all my meaning. Even and perhaps quite likely, more meaning than even I had uncovered. She will not shrink from my heaviness. She never has. I'm sure we scheduled a time to meet for happy hour pizza and wine at the Fremont Via Tribunali. It's dark, oaken booths and dimly lit wrought iron decor satisfy some of the all-too-important aesthetic of our times together. The food and the booze being equal in that hierarchy. From the first word, we are connected and speaking from the heart. Sure, there is humor and the occasional jape at someone's expense (usually the tastelessly dressed twenty something with her ass in the air). But mostly we plunge headfirst into the depth of being. We rattle quickly like two natives finally speaking without a translator. We rarely finish sentences and come armed with a full assault of detailed chronicles of the past 15 years with intimate insights to boot. It is a rare thing to find a friend that understands you fully and always seems to add to that understanding with constancy. I told Candace I would keep her posted on mom's tests.

I would have to wait till Ben got home later that night to tell him. I was very concerned. I returned to our little house across from Greenlake, just north of Seattle, that sat on a very busy thruway, Aurora. I sat on the porch facing the lake and let the sound of the traffic wash over me until it was nothing more than the sound of the ocean. It's a little trick you learn to play when you hear constant traffic.

I lit a smoke, grabbed one of the cold beers that had been left on the porch, and sat in one of the plastic brown chairs mom had bought for us at Lowe's when she came up to help us unpack. She set up our entire kitchen before she left. I looked out over the lake, watched a few runners go by with a slight sting of judgement and jealousy and let the day wash over me. The year. There is something terribly lonely about losing a pregnancy. It has to do, I think, with how not alone you feel when you're pregnant. At some point, it actually occurs to you that you are not alone, even in your own body. A whole person is growing beneath your skin in the dark complexity of your mysterious innards. And then, you are alone again.

Without the support of my mother, who endured two miscarriages herself before I was born, I don't think I could have come through those losses. She was so certain that I would be a mother. And what is even more encouraging, the thought I could be a mother. A good mother. The opinion of my mother on motherhood is without exaggeration (never believe a Jew when she says that) like Gandhi on meditation, like Mario Batali on Italian cuisine, like Anna Wintour on hem length. Her words comfort me still today and if I have the courage to keep listening, I'm sure they will always do so.