Three Word Wednesday – 3WW week #400

This is a fun writing exercise, a little like my Friday Freewrites only the prompt is 3 words, the directions are simply to write something with the three words in it.  Go to Three Word Wednesday to play along!  *Disclaimer: I’m treating this as a freewrite, so you’ll find below a minimally edited piece written spontaneously to include the following three words:

This week:  Devastate.  Gossamer.  Plummet.

Who knew that hope is a thing we find at the bottom?  The word hope carries a lofty connotation; it is something held high, something to aspire to.

I always pictured hope as a shimmering beacon atop a slippery slope, to be scrabbled up toward, fighting for handholds and footholds.  Or I imagined hope as a welcome yellow porch light casting cheerful rays far into the shadows of an otherwise inky night.

But nothing is what I thought it was.  Not the bad-news phone calls, which as it turns out come when they shoudn’t, not ominously at 3 am but rather on a benign Saturday morning while dunking breakfast dishes in sudsy water.  Certainly not the news itself, which should devastate me but doesn’t.  Not the doctors, who are supposed to have useful answers and explanations but whose limited wisdom, it becomes abundantly clear early on, isn’t going to do us one goddamn bit of good.

No, none of it is anything like I expected.  It’ll take me years to integrate this trauma into a new version of reality.  Reality, it seems, is a web of gossamer threads, each one so fine it could sever in the slightest breeze, but together so strong they form a thick fabric in which we’re all willingly ensnared. It takes a lot to thrust us from reality, so we talk about it like it’s something immutable, permanent, but reality is actually constantly in flux, changing as we construct and deconstruct it to fit our circumstances.

Anyway, something happened, as you’ve likely gathered, and it changed everything.  It cut me right out of that sturdy web of reality and sent me into freefall, plummeting down, down, to land in deep water.  I held my breath and let myself sink to the murky bottom, tried not to think about the cold.  There I began searching, grasping at vague shapes, picking up, examining, discarding.  Then – there is was!  Hope!  Not a shining beacon at all but rather a humble stone, worn smooth by time with a weighty heft, just right to slip into my pocket.  Hope, plucked from that bottom-place, that place I would never have gone by choice, that place that showed me how to be truly alive.

Acknowledging the Darkness

In the wake of multiple losses, I haven’t had a choice. The darkness clings to me like a fog, like vapor. The shadow is that space between what I thought I wanted – between the life I would design, were I the intentional architect of my own destiny – and what is.

trees in fogDisappointment is the result of expectations. We all have them; our minds work overtime devising the best possible future for ourselves. We will find fulfillment in our careers and our relationships, we tell ourselves. We will live to a ripe old age and die peacefully in our sleep, hands clasped, a faint smile playing about our lips. Those we love will enjoy similar longevity. They certainly will not suffer, and neither will I.

Then something happens that clashes with this optimism. Our rose-colored glasses are rudely torn from our faces, and we squint, disbelieving, in the glare of reality. Someone gets sick. Someone gets hurt. A job, even an entire career, evaporates. We throw up our hands and rage at the heavens. “Why me?” we demand. “I don’t deserve this.”

Maybe not, but the universe doesn’t operate on some moral balance sheet, doling out challenges and tragedies only to those who are deserving or feel able to “handle it” at the moment. These things that help us grow – that make us resilient, compassionate, and deep – they hurt like hell and we’d never sign on for them willingly. We are much more content to doze in the back row of the classroom of life.

Ben Franklin said, “No pain, no gain.” To that I reply, “No shit.” Experience tells me he was absolutely right.

Sometimes It’s Better To Be Feral

Morphine made Mom psychotic.  We didn’t know that, but she did.  She refused to take an adequate therapeutic dose, a decision which left her screaming and writhing in pain for a good part of the last 6 months of her life.  It was frustrating (to say the least), but it was her choice.  Mom would take control any way she could.  Control was always of paramount importance to her.

wolf - national park serviceI shrugged off her complaints about the morphine.  She said it made her “feel crazy,” but she always had a litany of complaints about medications.  Her list of “allergies” was long and earned her frowns of skepticism from most healthcare providers. I would roll my eyes right along with them.  “They’re not ‘allergies,’ Mom.  They’re sensitivities.  Side effects.  Whatever.  Not allergies.”

When she was admitted for inpatient chemotherapy last February, it seemed the perfect opportunity to get her pain under control for once and for all.  She was given intravenous morphine.  She said she felt better.  I didn’t say, “I told you so,” but I thought it.  I hoped this would help her see that she should follow the recommendations of her oncologists, who are quite adept at managing cancer pain for most patients.

Then she went berserk. You see, Mom wasn’t like “most patients.”  She was more like a wild animal, the kind that would chew its foot off to escape a trap.  The narcotic-induced psychosis caused her to do all kinds of strange and unadvisable things.  She got out of bed against orders in the middle of the night and fell in the bathroom, where the nurses found her.  She yanked out her PICC line (which delivers chemotherapy into the superior vena cava, its tip residing very near the heart).  Eventually, her psychotic state deepened and she became restless, nonverbal, eyes rolling back in her head, unable to focus.  Still, she relentlessly tried to remove her clothing and groped for the IV poles.

“Don’t touch those, Mama,” I admonished.  “There’s medicine in there that can hurt people if it spills.”  At these words, she would draw back momentarily, then begin again.  She had to be relocated to the room across from the nursing station.  A “sitter” was assigned to stay at her bedside at all times.

Of course this dismayed me, but since I work in the medical community, for some of the very same doctors who were caring for Mom, I was also a little embarrassed.  I wondered, Why can’t Mom behave herself?  Why can’t she be a “normal” patient?  I knew she couldn’t help it, but still.  She was causing everyone so much trouble.

With reversal of the narcotics, my mother returned to lucidity and could be informed of what we, the family, already knew: the one scan she’d held still enough to complete showed her cancer had literally “exploded,” now occupying the vast majority of her left thorax.  There was disease in the contralateral lung and both adrenals, not to mention her ribs and spine.  Chemo was pointless.  The orange drip was disconnected.  Without the whirr and beep of the pumps, the hospital room was quiet.  She would be discharged on hospice.

“They’re sending me home to die,” mom said tearfully in one of the few instances when she gave in to despair.  She was right.  They were.  It was the prudent thing to do.

I try to be gentle with myself.  After all, it wasn’t my fault I didn’t fully appreciate the gravity of her situation.  Even seasoned oncologists were shocked that her tumor had regrown to the staggering size of 18 cm in the three short months following her extensive surgery, during which time interval she was actively undergoing therapy with radiation.  Neither was I to blame for my failure, after a lifetime of hearing her gripe about medications, to appreciate just how severe her reaction to the morphine had been for all the months she refused to take enough of it to control her pain.  As it turned out, it really did make her “feel crazy.”  Go figure.

Five weeks after her homecoming, Mom was gone.  When I think of her behavior now, I smile.  Embarassment has given way to a kind of pride.  In the bigger context of her illness and where she was headed, I’m glad Mom fought like a wild animal.  I’m glad she refused to negotiate with her illness, the drugs, all of it.

She didn’t want to be a cancer patient, a cancer survivor, a cancer anything.  She just wanted to be.

Good for you, Mom, I think. Give ’em hell.  Whatever else I’m glad or sorry about, I’m glad she wasn’t well behaved at the end.  I’m glad she was feral.  Because that was the real her.  Narcotic-induced psychosis or not, that was Mom.  She wasn’t the lie-down-and-accept-it type.  She wasn’t the be-nice-and-don’t-make-waves type.

They say people die the way they live.  She died fighting.  For her, it was the honest thing – the only thing – to do.

Taking Risks

I’ve never been much of a risk taker.  I don’t buy lottery tickets, for example; I’d rather keep my dollar, thank you very much.  Even roller skating on the fourth grade class field trip to Star Skate was a stretch for me.  Wheels on my feet sounded scary.  I generally like my feet just fine on the ground.

leap-and-the-net-will-appearBut when it comes to my writing, I live dangerously.  Each time I write, it’s as if I’m leaping off the edge of something.  Writing, as I’ve said before, is an act of faith.  One of my favorite quotes is by John Burroughs: “Leap, and the net will appear.”  For me, this describes the writing process perfectly.

There’s an even bigger risk, though, that scrawling my most intimate thoughts across a cold blank page, even than sending them into cyberspace.  That risk would be to write “safe.”

I could compose nice little articles about nice little people.  Other nice people would read them and say that they were “nice.”  I could then smile and think, “Yes, I’ve always been good at telling people what they want to hear.”

Now there’s a truly frightening idea: to take my unique writing voice and use it to say something mundane, something forgettable.  Something I think people want to hear.  Something that doesn’t feel real to me.

This page, or this “slot in cyberspace,” or whatever it is, it is my space.  My writing time is my time.  It feels important to use this space, and this time, to say something true.

So the real irony is that when I take risks with my writing, I am actually playing it safe.  Honest writing still feels like a risk, but in fact I know the net is always there.

I just have to leap before I can see it.

Magic in Mirrors

More things of Mom’s keep finding their way into my home.  Just the other day, Dad brought me some odds and ends of hers, including her old stapler.  Apparently, it was something she had before they were married.  Dad loves staplers, so either he was being quite unselfish by passing it on to me, or he feels that he has entirely too much stuff since Mom died and he consolidated two households.

Another item he didn’t have room for, or didn’t want, was her full-length mirror.

“Do you want that mirror?” he asked when he called.

You bet I want it.  I knew exactly which mirror he meant.  Mom always spoke of mirrorwanting a full-length mirror, and she finally ordered this one from Pottery Barn.  I’m glad she got to have it…one small dream realized in a lifetime far too short to grant all her wishes.  But aren’t all lifetimes too short for that?

“Where will it go?” my husband worried.  After eight months of assimilating countless books, an impressive array of heirloom furniture pieces, and an extensive collection of decorative throw pillows, it was a fair question.  The mirror is tall and rectangular with an espresso-colored wood frame: simple, modern, elegant, and timeless. (Do you think Pottery Barn should hire me to write copy for their catalog?)  And it is large.

“In the corner, I guess,” I replied.

The mirror was placed in the corner, where it stands, working its magic.  I love mirrors.  They add depth, light, and mystery to a room.  They show us new angles of ourselves, but they are also enigmatic by nature.  Somehow, they seem to represent an answer and a question, all at the same time.  In this way, mirrors both frighten and reassure me.  There I am, but then again, there I am not.

As I look in this mirror, I imagine Mom standing before it, elegant and willowy, giving herself a sharp, appraising look.  Now that it is in my house, I shuffle past it wearing the new fleece monkey pajamas I received as a Christmas gift.  The beveled glass has been anointed with dog slobber.  My elegance, I suppose, is more sutble than hers.

Still, I’m glad the mirror is here.

Chicken and a Walker

I was cleaning out my car the other day when an old sticky note clogged the vacuum nozzle, sucked up from the crevice between the seats.  On the paper were written two words:   chicken and walker.

Finding this, I had to laugh at my discovery.  Just as my messy car represented the way I’d had to prioritize my time away from taking care of myself while my mom was dying, this short shopping list stood for something else: the way life goes on, even in difficult times.

The particular day on which I wrote that list doesn’t stand out in my mind, but I remember well the tricky high-wire act of balancing my mom’s needs and my regular busy family life during her illness.

Clearly, on that day, I needed to get Mom a walker, and I needed to decide what was for dinner.  Participating in everyday activities was a challenge during Mom’s illness.  I didn’t have time for everything I wanted to get done, but at least attempting to do ordinary things kept me sane.  Instead of being consumed by the crisis, I had an excuse to dip back into normal.  Even when it was inconvenient and there were more pressing needs over at Mom’s house, it felt good to momentarily surround myself with the mundane treasures of everyday existence.

When I located a walker and brought it to my mother, she gave it dirty looks like she was trying to set it on fire using pyrokinesis.  The rest of us were glad she had it.  She had grown quite unsteady.

Watching Mom lose the ability to do even the simplest things (at one point she fervently told me she would rather be scrubbing toilets) helped me appreciate “the little things in life.”  Sometimes even vacuuming is a luxury.  Or cooking chicken.

I don’t specifically remember making chicken that day, though I’m sure I did. People had to eat.  At times I felt surprised and even a little guilty to find myself hungry, like my desire for food meant I had lost sight of the more important things going on at the time.  But food is important, too.

My dad and I quickly discovered that as caregivers, we couldn’t give much unless we took care of ourselves.  There were a few encounters with the bedside commode that extinguished our appetites, but for the most part we ate.  We drank.  Sometimes we ate too little.  Sometimes we drank too much. But sometimes we were even a little merry.

It was a poignant time.  Caring for someone in such an intimate way is a profound privilege – and an enormous responsibility.  There we were, my original nuclear family – my mom, my dad, and myself – together, making it work one last time.  I cooked the chicken at home and brought my mom the walker she needed.   Nobody starved, and nobody fell.  I did the best I possibly could.  And I think it was enough.