Friday, September 30, 2016

My Wife Died of Lung Cancer

I'm waiting for her to come home so I can go to bed.

Today I emptied the dishwasher, took the dogs to the park, went grocery shopping, did a load of laundry, took over the kitchen table to do a few hours of legal research for a friend. It could have been any day from 2010, 2011, 2012.

But this time of the year in 2014, we did not know that we were two weeks away from the chemo treatment that would cause neuralgia and the beginning of a quick end, a nightmare from mid-October to mid-January. And whether I'm awake or asleep I'm living that nightmare, except for the times I forget and I'm doing what I'm doing, waiting for her to come home.

This keeps being impossible.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow

One of my elderly family members is in the hospital, so I go to his apartment to pick up more comfortable clothing. He lives in a Jewish-run assisted living center in the heart of a Jewish neighborhood. As I sign in at the front desk, I notice a woman who has passed the time where guessing her age would be polite. She is petite, less than five feet tall, with short white hair swept away from her face. She wears a denim jacket and talks to the woman at the front desk about how much she enjoyed having breakfast in the garden with her daughters. Arthritis has reshaped her hands and she wears no wedding ring. I didn't know there was a garden in the back yard. I live three hundred miles away from my mother. We had been talking on the phone at breakfast time about her plans to celebrate Mother's Day when I received a text message saying yes, thank you for your offer to bring things to the hospital, please pick up a blue tee shirt and a pair of his eyeglasses but not the ones from the 1970s. This woman, with her warm presence and sparkling intelligence, reminds me of my mother. 

We meet again at the elevator. I move past the three elderly gentlemen on board, to the back. She commands the front, asking each gentleman for his floor. There are three more floors and someone calls out for each of them. A man with a thick head of silver hair and the chiseled cheekbones of a model wears aviator classes. His hands are elegant, unturned by arthritis and perfectly manicured. If not for the way he leaned on a walker, I would expect him to fly our plane or pose for the Banana Republic catalog. He walks into the elevator last, and does not turn around to face the door - the walker is too bulky to maneuver in such a small space. 

We reach the second floor, and he pulls out backward, followed by the other men. She calls out after them, "Out, out, brief candle! Life's but a walking shadow." 

They shuffle onward, and I wonder if they heard. 

The elevator doors close on her performance, and she turns to me and says, "No one ever knows the words of The Great Bard, Shakespeare." She has sized me up and deftly returns the conversation to her daughters' visit. I wish her a happy Mother's Day. She asks me if I am a mother, and in my pause she answers, "No." There is so much space between the second and third floor of this building. I pause a moment more and to meet her in this conversation I tell her, "I would like to be. I hope one day I get to adopt." 

The doors open.

Something shifts in her. She squares her shoulders. With a concise lift of her head she says, "That is very necessary." 

I am trying to make sense of the almost imperceptible shift in her, this woman who may have fled a place of pogroms, lived through a time of hiding, distributing, shipping children to safer shores. Or she might have lost one of her own children in the distribution of babies that flowed from our eastern seaboard during the early years of the Baby Boom. In the confines of polite conversation I have no way to turn these images around into appropriate questions. The moment has passed - ever agile, she is gone. 

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Looking, Leaping & Longing

Emily Freeman at Chatting at the Sky has a beautiful post about the encouragement given to a young girl as she crouched at the edge of the high dive. She walked down off the board, returned later to take the leap, and propelled herself off the board into the cold water below. (But you should still read the blog post - the writing is wonderful and I promise I haven't ruined the story.)
My father in law grew up playing stickball on the streets of New York City. Someone hit the ball onto an apartment building rooftop, and he went after it. He got as close as he could - the rooftop of the neighboring building. As he stood there, looking across the chasm between the rooftop he could climb and the rooftop that held the small rubber ball, so close yet out of reach, his friends shouted - JUMP! JUMP! You can make it in TWO JUMPS!   
The little boy had climbed, surveyed, considered the advice, and reconsidered his original plan. He came empty handed to his friends who had counted on him to retrieve the ball and save the game. I don't know if they played another game that day, but the history of stickball in New York suggests that eventually they found a new ball and played more games.
I'm glad for the little girl who listened to her gut, respected herself enough to back away from the edge, reconsider, return, and leap into blue skies and cold water. I'm glad for the little boy who thought better of advice given by people who couldn't see the flaw in their plan, glad that he didn't feel compelled to sacrifice himself in order to save face with his friends. 
Kudos to the people that cheered on the little girl, who shouted encouragement when they could have shouted anything - could have soured the opportunity with taunts or jeers, or left her alone with her fears in deafening silence. I tip my hat to those long-ago children who gave their best advice and welcomed back the little boy who didn't take it and came back empty handed. 
How many times do I say "tell me what to do to get this to work out" when what I really need is: tell me that I can come back empty handed and still be okay with you, remind me that I can still play with you. Help me turn down the howling wind of this fear so I can better listen to my gut, sort out my own mind, consider feedback and the options and not feel rushed to step back from the best and scariest vantage point here at this edge.  "Leap, and the net will appear."


I've had a Rumi quote taped first to my kitchen wall and then to my office wall for more years than I can remember: 

"Let the beauty we love be what we do. There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground."

For years his words landed with me as a re-minder to have my prayers be my practices. I got the gratitude part, but I knew I was missing something. 

Tonight in a moment of otherwise unremarkable ceiling-gazing, the meaning of the quote slipped into focus. 

"Let the beauty we love be what we do. There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground."
It has been easy for me to know what needs to be done - pay bills, fix squeaky wheels, answer emails, vote, feed the cats - but I have been dragging around this idea that there is Something Significant I am supposed to do with my life, to make my life worthwhile and to have my time on the planet amount to Something. Significant.

And I have been counting on some powerful feeling or sign from the Universe to tell me The Thing.

As if. As if there was only one big Something. And I would know what it is. And I have to do it, and when I do it my life will have Turned Out.

I've been trying to do The Right Thing for The Right Reasons in The Right Order and in Good Time.


There is so much love, so much that moves me, so much unruly potential. So much possible. 

I've just been worrying about getting it wrong, missing the window. Like that scene in I Love Lucy when Lucy and Ethel work at the chocolate factory. They set out to wrap individual pieces of chocolate candy in paper as they move down a conveyor belt, but the belt runs fast, their timing is off, they wind up shoving candy hand to mouth rather than let a piece slip by unwrapped - there's candy flying everywhere and it is mayhem.

Lucy says to Ethel, "I think we're fighting a losing game!"

Ethel can't say anything, because her mouth is full of chocolate. You couldn't hear her anyway, because the audience is laughing loudly at the spectacle of these women being overwhelmed by having so much chocolate in such a short span of time.

Sometimes life is like a box of chocolates, and those chocolates are flying past you faster than you can neatly wrap them for public consumption.

I want to work my best, side by side with people I am proud to call "friend," shove chocolates in my mouth, laugh with the glee of freedom, and marvel that there are so many opportunities that some slip by untouched. 

I am going to pursue what calls to me and watch the results shake out in their own good time, worry less about doing in the right order, the right time frame, or whether I get to do it all - because there are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Food For Thought

I recently moved to the metro D.C. area to expand my career opportunities and work with people from all over the world. I have a home and a spouse in Pittsburgh. I am married to a massage therapist who moonlights as a professional space organizer. This is every bit as awesome as you might imagine. I live in a lovely, light filled efficiency apartment where the person who knows all my quirks and proclivities has helped me arrange all 500 square feet to meet my needs, and everything I need is only a few steps away. Which is why I was surprised this morning to see that I am still gravitating toward working on my dining room table, instead of at my desk in my home office all of twenty feet away. 
I sat down to the dining room table with my morning cup of coffee and put pen to a remnant of white packing paper that had been wrapped around some new purchase for the apartment. My day and week unfurled across one side of the sheet and then over to the other. People, places, tasks; part idea parking lot, part compilation of to-do lists. I took a couple of phone calls, scheduled a lunch date, and noticed that my desk was a repository for papers and a holder of pens, but the real work was getting done at the dining room table, the space in which so many endeavors - breakfast, lunch, and dinner - come to fruition to be savored sometimes alone, but more memorably with friends and family.
I think it is those memories that season the space of the dining room table. With memories of friends and family I feel fortified even after hours with my head bowed low and fingers flying or faltering over the keyboard. The jar of oatmeal bars and the bowl of fruit within arms' reach don't hurt either. Journeys of the mind are made solo, whether inward for writing or outward for job hunting, bill paying, or into the treacherous waters of requesting customer service. I take heart beginning and ending each journey at the place where memories of my kindred spirits will find me, in time for dinner.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Remember This

God speaks to each of us as [s]he makes us
then walks with us silently out of the night.

These are the words we dimly hear:

You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Embody me.

Flare up like flame
and make big shadows I can move in.

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don't let yourself lose me.

Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.

Give me your hand.

~Rainer Maria Rilke~

from: Rilke's Book of Hours: Love Poems to God. Translated by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy. Thank you to for posting this translation. 

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Of Vikings and Victims

Toward the end of my first month in law school I called my spouse, who is both captain of my cheerleading squad and the daughter of an attorney, and said, "It's not that law school turns people into assholes; it's that a certain type of asshole is drawn to law school."

If you're not a lawyer, this is probably not a surprise to you. But looking around the room as a budding young attorney in law school - seeing how formulaic we were - was as uncomfortable as the first time I heard the sound of my own voice on a recording.

What struck me as "being an asshole" Dr. Brene Brown calls the "Viking or Victim" mentality, the belief that: 

[E]veryone without exception belongs to one of two mutually exclusive groups: Either you're a Victim in life - a sucker or a loser who's always being taken advantage of and can't hold your own - or you're a Viking - someone who sees the threat of being victimized as a constant, so you stay in control, you dominate, you exert power over things, and you never show vulnerability. (Daring Greatly, page 152). 

As one attorney put it, "The world is divided into assholes and suckers. It's that simple." The attorneys Dr. Brown interviewed attributed their worldview to "values they had been taught growing up, the experience of surviving hardships, or their professional training." She thinks that most people who hold this worldview seek out professions in which this is the predominant view (rather than that the professional training creates the worldview).  

The technical term for this mentality is "zero-sum;" one person's win is necessarily someone else's loss. The zero-sum game becomes a seamlessly self-perpetuating phenomenon that takes on the appearance of an objective and inevitable reality. The attorneys whom Dr. Brown interviewed discussed "high-risk behaviors, divorces, disconnection, loneliness, addiction, anger, [and] exhaustion." She noted, "[R]ather than seeing these behaviors and negative outcomes as consequences of their Viking-or-Victim worldview, they perceived them as evidence of the harsh win-or-lose nature of life."   

People who are "vulnerability intolerant" may do hand to hand combat with deadly levels of stress. Suicide is one of the leading causes of death among attorneys. A 1997 study of attorneys in the United States and Canada by the Legal Profession Assistance Council (LPAC) determined that "the death rate by suicide among lawyers is six times the suicide rate of the general population." 

People inclined to take a zero-sum approach to their own existence are not in the best position to notice the tenderness of others and craft a proportionate response. An attorney might not have the clear sight to know whether she's crossed over from prosecution to persecution.

I have thought about this each time I've heard the phrase "prosecutorial over-reach" used to describe the circumstances surrounding the death of Aaron Swartz, who was charged with 13 felonies and faced the prospect of incarceration for having hacked into the MIT computer system and downloaded  from JSTOR millions of academic articles that many students want never to read. The public details of his situation appear more cut and dried than those of former prodigy Jonathan James, who ended his life rather than face another round of federal prosecution and incarceration. Each man was in his twenties, isolated, suffered from depression, and known to be incredibly talented and compelled to hack. 

I hesitated to sign the petition calling for the removal of U.S. District Attorney Carmen Ortiz, who along with Stephen Heymann some hold responsible for the death of Aaron Swartz. I don't want to shoot the messenger or join a mob calling for someone's head. I do believe in personal responsibility, which in Ms. Ortiz's career is coupled with professional responsibility in the form of prosecutorial discretion. There may be more to the case than I am privy to as a member of the general public but the truth is that one of the few forces that will rebuke a prosecutor is a public scandal. For there to be a public scandal, there must be a public scandalized. And so I signed the petition.