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It wasn’t too long ago that I thought undergoing chemo, again, would be the worst thing that could happen to me. I endured the first round a little under two years ago in the wake of a breast cancer diagnosis, the chemo infused through a medically inserted port just under my collarbone. Since then, I’ve had a lumpectomy, the port removed, radiation, recurrence, a double mastectomy with reconstruction, a hysterectomy, another recurrence, and another surgery. And in a few days I’ll be undergoing chemo once more, and I’m actually anxious to get started because, of course, chemo isn’t the worst thing. A particularly stubborn kind of cancer that keeps popping up again is. So on my last chemo-free weekend for the next several months, my husband, Joe, and I dropped my daughters off at my mom’s and bought tickets to Mad Max: Fury Road.

On top of the world...............Sometimes when we walk down the quiet hallway, and stop at apartment #210, the door opens into a narrow dark foyer, the bathroom to our immediate left.  But sometimes, the door opens and reveals nothing but blue sky. In the former of the two possibilities, if we turn right, we walk down another hallway. Keith Richards plastered on the purple wall. We enter the living room with its low red sectional couch, covered in purple and black sheets and red pillows. Looking east, towards Lake Michigan—a bank of horizontal windows, the blinds usually drawn.

He sits down and pulls out his black lock box of narcotics.

He arranges his pills on the glass-topped coffee table. On a good day, Roku is working, and he picks something from Youtube to watch, or asks what do you want? I always say Law and Order. In this iteration, he’s okay—the pain seems to be manageable, he might eat something, or he might not, he might throw up, or he might not, and so things are in a kind of equipoise; meaning, theoretically, days like this could go on forever. And this is why I go to the kitchen and pour a glass of wine, and eat a candy bar.

PEOPLE LIKE US

Friday was the bombOn our leafy terrace in Lebanon, beside the civil war in Syria, my wife Kelly and I were entertaining an old friend, the new Beirut bureau chief for a major news organization. This woman was moving to town to cover the battle and was scouting houses before she brought her husband and young children. I swirled a large glass of wine, a father myself, and recounted how just a few weeks earlier, a massive, seven-hour shootout had raged just below our balcony, shell-casings bouncing off the asphalt. How I had cowered in our bedroom, checking periodically to ensure our three-year-old daughter was still asleep, listening as thousands of additional rounds of machine gun fire bounced off the walls outside. How Lebanese soldiers arrived in camouflaged armored personnel carriers, and how seven or eight grenades exploded when the bad guys down the block determined that they would fight to the death. How, instead of cowering beside me, my wife Kelly had put down her wine glass, grabbed a notebook and a flak jacket, and walked off into the night.

828-3886. I recognize the number when I see it flash up on the screen. It’s one of the few phone numbers that I know by heart. We’ve been friends for twenty-two years. Hers were the last digits I learned before we all outsourced our memories to our cell phones. All the other numbers from my past have lost relevancy or don’t connect to the living: street addresses for homes we no longer own, birthdays of grandparents, channels of TV stations, pre-pregnancy shoe size, and of all those landlines long abandoned—hers was the last working phone number.

828-3886. I answer the phone. “Hey, Robin, what’s up?” When you’ve been close friends for over two decades, you can hear the bad news in the sound of their breath. “Oh no,” I said, bracing for the news. “I have cancer.” “What kind?” “Pancreatic.” “Pancreatic,” I repeat with a voice I don’t recognize. Or maybe it’s a finality I haven’t heard in my voice until now. It had started as a slight pain in her abdomen earlier in the year. The initial diagnosis was gastritis.

ag2Like writing this memoir wasn’t exercise enough in accelerating through self-consciousness and isolation, now I have to interview myself about it?

Apparently.

 

You’ve been quoted calling your new memoir, The End of Eve, “a comedy about domestic violence.” What’s up with that?

When I was working on the book I found it a bit tricky to explain to people what I was doing.

I’m writing about lung cancer!”

“A great project about watching my beautiful, crazy, abusive mom die!”

I must have sounded so depressing. People would go all doe-eyed. So I started saying I was writing a comedy about domestic violence. Well, that didn’t go over so well, either. Because, of course, domestic violence isn’t something to laugh about. But here’s the truth: I grew up in a violent household. My relationship with my mother always included some level of violence. But it also included a lot of humor. Some days, aking my mom laugh was the only way to get her to put down her weapons. It was the only way to get her to drop the drama. And laughter is a real way to relieve tension—that’s not just a quirk of MY family of origin, it is what is true.

Cold sore 2Yesterday, I woke up with a familiar sensation, or what, for me, is a familiar sensation: a tingle in my upper lip. A slight, hair tickle itch. Fizzy, like I’ve rubbed my mouth with the skin of a habanero pepper. I went to the bathroom and turned on the light, unconcerned about burning my eyes with the sharp, sudden brightness. In the mirror, I saw the faint irritation lining a section of my lip about a quarter-inch long, barely noticeable. From experience, I knew it would erupt in the next few hours. A cold sore.

On the last day of his life, my father bought two scratch-off lottery tickets. We had just finished a lap through the Price Chopper, filling a cart with foods his urologist said he should eat during treatment for the metastasized renal cell cancer wreaking havoc on his body. The cancer was incurable, Dr. Petroski had told us, but not untreatable. I latched onto that word, to the possibility of prolonged life; I married myself to it. Only three days had passed since the terminal diagnosis, so I floated through these tasks with little sense of reality, a bride who keeps forgetting her new surname. Got cancer? Buy frozen veggies and V-8.

My father’s urologist projected the CAT scan on his computer screen, pointing out the major organs like battle sites on a Civil War map. My father’s body, my homeland. Bladder. Liver. Intestine. Spleen. “Here’s the right kidney,” he said, using his pen to mark the perimeter. “You can see its recognizable shape, a healthy shape and size.” We nodded, my mother, my father, and me. We knew pointing out normalities meant an abnormality was coming. Dr. Petroski inhaled. “And now here’s the left kidney,” he said, moving his pen to a dark area that did not mirror its right-hand counterpart. It was as large as my father’s liver, but misshapen, a bulge in the center like a football. “You see the difference in the shape? That’s a tumor. That’s the problem.”

My father died on November 12, 2012. The date matters. My mind clenches the details, hugging tight the hairpin curves of my memory. I am the cartographer of this map. November 12, 2012.

Though it was a heart attack that ultimately killed him, my father was facing terminal cancer, and so our grief had been underway for weeks before his death. As the grim test results piled up, I shuttled my father to and from doctor’s appointments, picked up his medicines, stocked his fridge with the foods he needed to cleanse and strengthen his body. I did this mostly on autopilot and very little sleep. When I did occasionally break down—in the car, in my office behind closed doors—the ferocity of my keening frightened me. The pitch of it. The way it overtook and then left me, a funnel cloud suddenly curling back into the sky.

Hospice 101

By Diana Woods

Essay

Being on hospice doesn’t mean I’ll be dying tomorrow, although I’ve hoped it would be that easy. If only I could take my last breath while sleeping—one last inhale, roll over and be gone, leaving only a deep stillness in my room. But, despite the suffering, I want more time to prepare my children on how to keep up the house, the yard, to nurture the staghorn ferns and entice the glossy white dendrobiums hanging from the patio trellis into blooming. Everything I’ve ever possessed seems to be closing in on me. I’ll need to loosen my grip on all of the precious things I’ve garnered during my seventy-one years. My garden beckons outside the bedroom window. The dogs bark and the cat hisses, but the mute plants can only signal for attention by denying their plumes. Surely, my children will remember me stumbling out with the hose every morning, but will they care about the tender fronds and buds unfolding to reveal the tiny miracles inside of their world?

On the first day of 2006, I left my bad luck tied to a tree outside a famous shrine in Tokyo.  I wasn’t sure exactly what I was getting rid of, only that when my new friend, Ema, unrolled the tiny fortune and read it, she giggled nervously and said in accented English, “You unlucky this year,” then she pinched the corner of the paper between her thumb and index finger, waved it back and forth and said, “Is very bad, you leave it here.”

Seth Greenland is the author of the novels The Bones and Shining City and was a writer-producer on the Emmy-nominated HBO series Big Love. His play, Jungle Rot, was the winner of the Kennedy Center/American Express Fund for New American Plays Award and the American Theatre Critics Association Award. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, The Huffington Post, and the journal Black Clock.

Greenland’s latest novel, The Angry Buddhist, is a scathing satire of American family, marriage, and politics, situated at the intersection of the Old Testament, Penthouse Forum, and Elmore Leonard. I love Larry David’s blurb:

On the night of our mother’s first seizure, the one that leaves her on the living room floor with her right leg flopping like a fish out of water, my sister shows up to the ER with a newborn mouse in a pouch around her neck.

“We found it today,” her husband says to me. “Underneath my car, next to its brother or sister, who was smashed dead. She’s trying to save it.” It is just the two of us standing in the orange and blue hospital waiting area. I stare at him. “I’m not sure anyone is supposed to know, though. So maybe don’t say anything.”

 

My dog’s ashes are currently in a small silver gift box on my bookshelf. I loved my dog, but I hate that ugly box and its stupid tassel.

When my husband and I decided to cremate Bernie, we thought we would scatter his ashes along one of his favorite hiking trails, but doing so is illegal where we live. I hated the idea of us furtively dumping a baggy of remains in the always-crowded park. It didn’t feel like an appropriately jubilant celebration of his life.

Kris D’Agostino’s debut novel, The Sleepy Hollow Family Almanac, captures perfectly that anxious time after college graduation — the time when you realize everything you’ve been told about your education is wrong. Many of us, especially among the middle class, are raised to believe that with a college degree in hand the world is yours. For the majority of us, it doesn’t quite work out that way.