May 22, 2014

Tired and nervous as a cat, I am sitting in Room 138 of the Courtyard Marriott adjacent to the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville. Buck is in the shower, preparing for a routine EKG at 11:50, then an appointment with Dr. John Casler at 1:15, then a 3 p.m. with a nurse practitioner to go over labs and clear him for general anesthesia tomorrow morning for Dr. Casler to remove the enlarged lymph nodes from the left side of Buck’s neck.

11:45 now, and we’re in the Davis Building. Buck has gone in for the EKG, which we are well-accustomed to,a s we both get one every year as part of our physicals.

It’s been so many months since I kept a regular journal that the very act of putting ink onto paper feels strange.

I’m so anxious about Buck’s health I can barely focus my eyes. He would say I am hollering before we’ve been hit and of course he is right about that. Nonetheless, I feel half-paralyzed, jerky, spastic. Much too distracted to read a book.

I see I am in no-way prepared for our “real” aging, possible illnesses and eventual death. Not his. Not my own.

Copyediting a Novel Manuscript (notes from a field manual)

A better title for this post might be “Lessons in Humility.” I thought I was a fairly decent writer. I thought I had a rudimentary knowledge of sentence construction and grammar. I thought I at least knew how to spell and whether a word is a word.

That was when I still thought takeoff (as in that thing that happens when you’ve fastened your seatbelt) was two words. Same for armrest (one word, not two).

Buck’s a former journalist and has a thick skin when it comes to killing his darlings. Good thing, too, because I hated telling him that the scenes where his hero and heroine go shopping, eat ice cream, and wash dishes together were sweet, but more suited to Harlequin than a manly action thriller. Or that the five pages of what we came to refer to as “the begats,” where various loose ends of characters get neatly tied up stops the flow of the story like a hairy Scottish cow that won’t get out of the middle of the road, and had to go. He took it well, agreed, and assassinated more than 3,000 words. The resulting leaner script no long backs and fills: it sings.

We’ve been both bloodied and bandaged by the FIND function on Word. Two days ago, when we were “sure” the manuscript was now error free and darn near perfect, I said, “Oh, by the way, I forgot one last thing. We need to run our words and phrases list through FIND to see how often they show up. This was a list we scribbled on yellow sticky notes of various words and phrases that “struck our ear” as showing up perhaps a little too often. This project, which I thought might take ten or fifteen minutes, turned into a two-day marathon with exhausted runners.

We began with “grit” and “pluck.” They’re strong, but only showed up twice in 396 pages. Buck adores Kim’s (his female protagonist) “pouty” lips, but three mentions (two on one page) were overkill. FIND is awesome, because it not only tells you how many instances of a particular word or phrase are used, but presents them to you in a sidebar list so you can view each one on the page and decide whether to keep, change or get rid of it altogether.

We were cruising along on this process, feeling fine, until we got to “took a swallow” (22 instances), “nodded” (72), and “chuckled” (78). Buck saw the defeated look in my eye. “No time to weaken now,” he said, and we plunged into the fray and vanquished the buggers.

It’s easy to see why folks who write a book just give up. Completing the manuscript may feel like massive loss of blood, but the copyediting portion of the festivities is the true death of a thousand cuts.

Where Meaning Dwells

“One in six men will get prostate cancer in their lifetime. Most of them will die of something else before the prostate cancer would have killed them.” The urologist sat on a swivel stool and looked at my husband, who was perched on the edge of the examination table.  “But here is where it gets tricky,” Dr. G. continued. “How long are you going to live?” He glanced over at me, flashed his steel-blue eyes. I felt like he was gauging my reaction to see how open he could be, whether I would get up and run out of the room. He looked back at Buck. “Because that’s a big factor in determining how, or whether, we treat it.”

Buck doesn’t have prostate cancer, or at least if he does we don’t know about it. Yet. But his Prostate Specific Antigen (PSA) numbers have turned erratic. A chart he and I made last night from 2008 to December of 2013 looks like a nascent Bull stock market beginning to make a run. And the doctor’s question goes to Buck’s age. “You’re an unusually healthy guy for 76,” he said. “Extremely fit. No meds. Most likely good for what? Ten to twelve years? Maybe more?”

My ears began to buzz, and I had to concentrate on breathing to keep my hands from clenching the chair arms, to keep my face impassive when I wanted to scream. I felt like an atomic clock was in the room with us, counting down seconds.

Buck laughed easily. “Oh, more, I think. Maybe a lot more.”

We talk about death sometimes, and he makes me swear to stay healthy and safe. I swear. I make him swear to live forever. He promises to try.

The urologist explains to us that Buck’s PSA numbers aren’t alarming in isolation, but have begun to show a certain velocity that can be a danger sign. He wants to be sure if there are any cancer cells present, he knows which type they are. Apparently some are quite aggressive and some are not. The doc recommends an ultrasound examination and biopsy. Buck agrees and a time is set for next Wednesday.

We’re back home now. It’s raining and dark, with deep, nearly continuous rumbles of thunder. Buck is downstairs in a room we call “The Lodge,” writing away on the revision of a book he has just completed. I’m upstairs in an open area we dubbed “The Treehouse,” drinking spiced Chai and writing too many words in a bright circle of light. The curtain of rain outside the windows when it hits the concrete patio below makes a sound like tin foil crinkling.

A woman acquaintance warned me once that I was unwise to be so close to my husband; that in time it would bring me grief. Can you believe that? Foolish woman.

Besides, grief has been my close companion since I was 13, and I am unafraid of it. It is like that inner part of a ripe tomato skin, the part I call the velvet, the part where meaning dwells. You can only get to it by dropping the ripe tomato into boiling water for thirty seconds and then lifting it out with a slotted spoon. The peel slips off, revealing the gem-like velvet. Grief is always in the room with us. Grief, I think, is also the kernel of love.

A happy postscript: Dr. G’s nurse, Patty, called Friday morning, to advise us there were no aggressive cancer cells, no passive cancer cells, not even any passive-aggressive cancer cells, none at all. When I looked at Buck, he suddenly seemed years younger. When I caught my own eye in a mirror later in the day, so did I.

One Ping Only

“MR. WESTMARK, ARE YOU EXPERIENCING ANY PAIN?” The nurse’s round, pink face and pear-shaped body makes me think of a giant bunny. I wouldn’t be surprised if there is a fluffy cotton tail beneath his scrubs.

“No,” Buck said.

“Would you confirm a few details for me?” Once Nurse Hare has Buck’s full name and our phone number, his computer screen fills up with personal archival information from every encounter Sacred Heart Hospital and Buck have ever had, except maybe for his birth, but that happened in 1937 at the old hospital over on 12th Avenue.

“And can you tell me why you are here today?”

“Well, it’s probably nothing.”

The nurse tilts his head, waiting.

“It’s a funny feeling, right here, where my heart is. Like a wave. Doesn’t last long. Doesn’t hurt. Feels electrical. Kind of like what I had a month ago, but those just felt like extra thunks. Lasted about a day and a half. This is different.”

A white hospital bracelet materializes in Nurse Hare’s hand and he has Buck’s wrist ensnared within it quicker than a New Orleans’ cop making a wee hours arrest. I watch his smooth professionalism from where I stand two feet away, leaning against a file cabinet. He continues to puff out questions like soft clouds, all the while taking Buck’s temperature, pulse, and blood pressure, looking without looking, assessing. “Are you feeling that sensation now?”

“No. I feel fine.”

“When did it start?”

“When I got up this morning. Happens every five to 20 minutes. Umph. There’s another one. So, around lunchtime, I called my internist, and he wanted me to come over here and get an EKG.”

Nurse Hare completes his intake and gives Buck a paper with a number on it: 94 — not such a bad number to have, since it’s based on a triage designation. He points to a room visible through a transparent plexiglass wall on the other side of the main reception area, and tells us to watch the screen and listen for a doorbell sound and that number being called. We move in that direction like obedient, slightly confused, sheep.

By this time it’s nearly 2:30.  A TV suspended in one corner is set to the Weather Channel. We and others in the room gawk at the image of a large tornado that has touched down near Gulfport, Mississippi. The storm is headed our way. Great.  When a tall young guy in blue scrubs calls #94, (no doorbell sound, nothing on the electronic screen),  we meet him at swinging double doors. I tell him I am going to run out and move the car from the Emergency Room’s 15 minute zone and will be right back. He explains that Buck will probably be back out by the time I return, that they are going to do an EKG and get some blood, and then it will probably be an hour or so until they can “kick somebody else out”  and have a bed ready.  Did he say bed?

They disappear into the back-shop.

Out front, several city police cars have two men and a woman sequestered within their bulky circle. The woman wears cut-off jeans and a green tank top that shows tattooed cleavage and rolls of fat between where her top ends and the shorts begin. That scene, plus the scudding clouds and swirling wind, add to my sense of unease. I run to the car and drive across the street to park at the very front of the shopping mall parking lot. It’s a lot easier than riding around trying to find a parking space on the hospital grounds. I feel strange and exposed while I wait for the walk signal to cross 9th Avenue back to the Emergency Room. The sky looks like it’s in a bad mood. I smell rain. Where is that tornado now? I know Buck is okay. Isn’t he?

Buck is back in his seat by the time I return. “The tech said he didn’t see anything that would raise any flags on the EKG.”

“Good. What happens next?”

“We wait, damn it all. Here I rush us down here and take up the whole day and nothing’s wrong.”

I smiled. “I can live with that.”

He laughed. “Yeah, well, I take your point.”

He pulls a full legal pad stuffed with several stapled inserts from his black zip-up case and goes to work editing a section from his manuscript draft. I flip open my Kindle Fire and read a few chapters of Natalie Goldberg’s latest, The True Secret of Writing. Between the Weather Channel’s doom-like forecast, the cop scene outside, people-watching and eavesdropping, I don’t get far in the book, but far enough to read her description of visiting Ernest Hemingway’s home in Key West, and noting that Death in the Afternoon is one of her favorites.  I have specifically, maybe immaturely, avoided that one because I think it’s about the glorification of bull fighting. But now, my fingers moving as I watch that tornado on the flat screen, I find I have instantly downloaded Death in the Afternoon into my Kindle library.

I hear a child call “Mama? Mama?”

A woman speaks. “Here it is, Mama. Here’s that cheeseburger you wanted.” A shapeless old white-haired woman slumped in a wheelchair  falls upon the greasy package like it was her last meal.

A Chinese man walks in with quick, short steps, his face set in worry lines. Heads straight for the security guard standing almost at attention beside the reception desk. “O.R.? O.R.?”

Finally, the guard comprehends. “Third floor.”

The man spots a nearby elevator and starts walking. He turns back to look at the guard.  “Here? Three?”

“Yes.” The guard nods.

I’m at the desk to ask a question and overhear this exchange. “You get some of everything here.”

“Yes, we do.”  He is a tall black man, mid-fifties if I had to guess, with a baritone voice, military bearing and wise eyes.

We have been waiting for about an hour when a man in jeans overalls and a brown t-shirt comes in, accompanied by a large woman in baggy fuchsia shorts with her blond hair pulled back in a pony tail. She walks to an empty row of chairs in front of us, but he stops and sits down beside me. She calls to him and motions, but he says, “I’m wore slap out. I’m taking a load off.” Her eyes dart around, but when she sees he is not going to get up, she walks back and sits by him on the other side. The unmistakable odor of fresh excrement wafts over Buck and me. We don’t look at each other, but silently, simultaneously gather our things and go around the corner where we spy four empty chairs right beside the automatic front doors. They open every few seconds, bringing in a new wave of humanity on a tide of fresh, humid air. It is the best seat in the house.

A man arrives by ambulance, covered in hives, unable to breathe. His wife stands in the front entrance, explaining this to someone on a cell phone. She sounds calm, almost nonchalant. When she walks by, I catch a fragrance of fresh soap and strawberry shampoo.

Buck writes, strikes over, writes again. I start reading Death in the Afternoon.

A disparate gaggle, two women and a man, comes in the door and stands a foot away from us. “I was callin’ and callin’ her cell phone and she don’t answer it. Finally, she picked up, and I got her talkin’ to me but she was talkin’ real slow. When I got over there, she was gone, and they cain’t find her. ” The man mutters something. I smell nicotine and booze. A nurse herds them to a far corner, where I see her explaining something to their bowed heads.

Technically, Buck and I are violating the rules of the way the ER is organized. We’re sitting in Reception, rather than one of the three holding pens set aside for those who have already been “received.” I see the battle-weary woman, an efficient traffic director, exchange a look with Roosevelt, the tall security guard, but they don’t ask us to move.

Shortly after 5:00 p.m., a tech fetches us and we follow him to Cubicle 9. The obligatories follow: shirt off, gown on, lie down, blood-oxygen, blood pressure and heart monitors up and running, messy stab for an unneeded port in his well-muscled right arm, and several Residents come in to talk. By this time, Buck and I both are more than eager to get out of there. Knowing we had to come. Knowing he really is fine.

There’s talk of premature ventricular beats which are generally benign, heads nodding in the right direction about the cardiology appointment we already have upcoming, and discussion of his great-looking runner’s legs, and overall fitness. The patient doesn’t take any meds; has an athlete’s slow heart rate. All good. They leave.

We yank off the EKG sticky pads. Buck gives me one of his trademark sharky grins. “Well, Twitchy Baby, looks like it was one ping only. Let’s go home and get us a good drink.”

On Writing: Delicate Flowers on a Slender Stalk

Slender stalk

I don’t usually talk to Buck about the specifics of the manuscript I’ve been working on for what feels like forever. For two reasons: I haven’t wanted to interrupt the flow of his own thoughts at a time when he was hurtling through legal pads and stacking them up like steps to the sky; and because I fear his crusty old newspaper editor’s red pen and his inclination to fix things. I’m as self-protective as a teenage girl wearing eye shadow for the first time facing her mother under fluorescent lights at the breakfast table.  I don’t have that thick skin it’s said a writer must develop. I fret about fixing something until it breaks. The parts are delicate. The whole must be resilient. He is editing a complete first draft. I am perhaps 40% done, and I write with fear and trembling.

Something happened last night. Buck and I sat in our usual spots, talking through supper. We’re thinking about a short road trip, and we talked about that. My mind was on the new writing I had done yesterday, and it just slipped out of my mouth, the scene between the old man, Tom Harper, and the young woman, Grace Ringer. There were no plot suggestions from Buck. There were tears. His and mine. Maybe for the first time I understood what I am really writing about and why I have been dragging it around like a burden. I won’t say anymore about our conversation. It’s too tender — delicate flowers on a slender stalk.

I’ve tried to keep my plot and characters at emotional arm’s length, protecting my vulnerable hot lava core with a chilly titanium sleeve. If there was no “there” there, the whole thing would have long since shriveled from my casual treatment and dilettante pen. When Tom spoke through me last night and made my husband cry, that was it. There’s something powerful going on here, and I just have to lay the words down as fast or as slow as they come, weave a swaying bridge over the chasm, cling to the ropes for dear life, and cross to the other side.

When We Meet Ourselves Coming Back

Beth with Theordore the Cat

Vintage somewhere around 1988. This kitty cat came with the cabin Buck and I rented near the Nantahala Outdoor Center in North Carolina.  We were there for whitewater rafting, hiking, and escape from our work responsibilities. He reminded us of someone we knew, so we called him Theodore. This ginger cat was the most efficient con artist I have ever seen. He loved us insistently and unconditionally until check-out morning when he lapped up the last of the milk in its pretty blue bowl, then heartlessly turned his fluffy tail on us and walked to the next cabin to become the most-adored of the new family just checking in. Theodore never looked back.

I went in search of one old photo yesterday, up the stairs, across the bridge that bisects one second story air space from another, and lost myself for several hours in a tumbled down haystack of memories. By the time I came back downstairs, I had forgotten why I went up there in the first place. I went upstairs wearing jogging shorts and a tank top. I came back down wrapped in a cloak of memoir, diaphanous layers on my head, thick woven bits of complex tapestry on my feet. My subconscious is smarter than the conscious me. I should let go of the steering wheel and follow it around more often. Journeys through memory are mysterious, and never straightforward.

At this point Kublai Khan interrupted him or imagined interrupting him, or Marco Polo imagined himself interrupted, with a question such as: “You advance always with your head turned back?” or “Is what you see always behind you?” or rather, “Does your journey take place only in the past?”

All this so that Marco Polo could explain or imagine explaining or be imagined explaining or succeed finally in explaining to himself that what he sought was always something lying ahead, and even if it was a matter of the past it was a past that changed gradually as he advanced on his journey, because the traveler’s past changes according to the route he has followed: not the immediate past, that is, to which each day that goes by adds a day, but the more remote past.  Arriving at each new city, the traveler finds again a past of his that he did not know he had: the foreignness of what you no longer are or no longer possess lies in wait for you in foreign, unpossessed places.

~from Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino