throat cancer

Déjà vu

I watch as the nurse places two plastic bags in the locker. One holds my friend’s shoes; the other clothing he has removed following the nurse’s instructions.

“Will my stuff be safe?” he says to me.

“If you like, I’ll put your wallet and watch in my tote,” I say.

What I don’t tell my longtime friend, who I’ve accompanied to this Outpatient Ambulatory Surgical Center, is that I’ve got this down pat. In Tommy’s case, I stowed his aged wallet and wristwatch in my bag where it never left until I placed them on a mini-memorial atop his chest of drawers in our bedroom.

“I left my wallet home,” my friend says.

“So, no worry,” I say. I sit on a chair facing his bed while we wait for another nurse to come in to get his vitals. Next, the anesthesiologist reviews drugs they will use to knock him out, and finally the surgeon appears to discuss what happens next.

While this is going on, I zone out and recall the time a year ago when I sat with Tommy in a pre-op area. In his case, the ENT team planned to insert a feeding tube down his throat so he could get nourishment. He was dehydrated – that’s what brought us initially to the hospital – and the tube was to solve his problem. Then, we’d be on our way home.

After they wheeled Tommy out of the pre-op area to perform the procedure, I returned to his hospital room. The phone rang. “We have a problem,” said the doctor on the other end. “When we tried to insert the tube, there was a blockage. We’re pretty sure it’s cancer.”

The voice of my friend’s surgeon wakes me: “He’ll be out of surgery in a half hour, so just stay put in the waiting area.”

Sure enough, before I know it, the surgeon finds me to say, “He did great. You can go in and see him.” My friend looks fine, and is chatty. Perhaps the painkillers, or his relief all is over is making him eager to converse.

But, as we talk, this latest nurse is monitoring his blood pressure and it is too high. Could our gabbing be the culprit?

“Do you mind?” my friend asks with an eye to the closed curtain that will lead me out.

“No problem,” I say. Then once more I go to thoughts of Tommy and the time he was in this hospital and wouldn’t let me out of his sight. During the 10 days he was here, I’d sleep on a cushioned window seat. On the few nights I didn’t stay over, I’d return to find him wearing a weighted vest.

“He tried to leave,” a nurse explained. “Had his clothing, shoes, and baseball cap on. Was halfway down the hall before we caught him.” Often I’d wish he had escaped, for those hospital days were the worst of my life -- heartbreaking and fruitless.

Once my friend’s blood pressure subsides, I’m allowed to return to his room. He is dressed and ready to be escorted via a wheelchair to curbside where a cab will return us to his nearby apartment.

At his high rise, I push open the lobby doors to save him from exertion. We go upstairs and I hang out for a few hours until I’m satisfied he can be on his own. “I can call neighbors if I have problems,” he says. “Go home.”

When my Tommy was finally released from the hospital – with his internists’ advice to forgo risky surgery because it would be torturous and not cure his aphasia or his increasing dementia -- it was an ambulance that took us home.

When we arrived, neighbors were waiting. I stood on the porch as the drivers lifted his stretcher up the stairs. The neighbors followed and held the front door open. With a gentleness and reverence that reminded me of a potentate’s litter, our caravan moved to our bedroom where a hospital bed awaited.

With Tommy safely settled, in the house where we lived for 13 years, away from the hospital setting I had grown to despise, the neighbors stayed to help set up the equipment. Oxygen tanks and medical supplies stuffed the hospice room.

An evening phone call to my post-surgery friend confirms he is managing okay. The painkillers are doing their job and he is comfortable watching television. “Thanks for being there for me,” he says.

Because Tommy wasn’t able to speak for the last year of his life, I didn’t get those same words. But, as many a caregiver will tell you, it was an honor to be there for him.

Homeward Bound

The first thing I saw was an American flag flying from a pole attached to the roof of the porch. My heart lifted. It wasn’t patriotism that buoyed my spirits, but a sign that the new owners of our old house had changed its appearance.

I had dreaded returning to the place where Tommy and I, and our golden retriever Buddy, had lived for 13 years. Because my departure wasn’t spurred by happy events, but by my husband’s death in 2012, this visit was stained with sadness.

When I first received the invitation to share the graduation celebration for a neighbor’s children, I told my daughter, “I don’t think I can go. The party house is right across from ours. It will be too painful.”

As I spoke those words I envisioned our blue-trimmed house with porch steps that needed painting, the flowerpots that Tommy hung each summer, and the decorative bench that sat along one side. 

I conjured images of Buddy and I seated on the top step. When my picture included my husband on his red Schwinn rounding the corner heading towards our house, I couldn’t stop the tears.

“Do you have to go?” my daughter asked. “I’m sure they’ll understand.”

“I love the graduates and I believe they’d like me to be there,” I said. “Maybe I have to think of them instead of me.”

On the day of the graduation party, I rode the familiar Blue Line train to my stop. The cars were filled with passengers and luggage on the way to the final destination of O’Hare Airport. Going home, I thought to myself. These travellers were likely looking forward to their return, while I was worried about my reaction.

I could have walked on the opposite side of the street, but was drawn towards my old house, where the sight of the flag eased my passage. When I arrived at my address, a large black dog raced down the steps to greet me. “Sorry,” said someone on the porch as he tried to move the dog that was now happily being petted.

“No, it’s okay,” I said. “I love dogs. This used to be my house.”

He reached out a hand. “Hi, I’m a brother-in-law, let me get the owners.”

When he went inside to retrieve them, I introduced myself to people sitting on the porch. My apprehension was evaporating as I witnessed how much this beloved spot was being appreciated by others.

A couple, likely in their 40’s, were exuberant in their greetings. “We’ve heard so much about you from the neighbors.  We’re happy to finally meet you. Would you like to come inside?”

I hesitated. I was doing okay so far, hadn’t fallen apart, but could the interior send me over the edge? “Have you changed the inside?” I asked. “If it looks different, I think I can handle it.”

“Come in,” they said. They led me inside and were as tender as if I were returning to a long-ago childhood home, rather than one left a mere four months ago.

Several of the former white living room walls were painted bright colors. The wooden floors had been finished in a darker stain. The stair bannisters were now white. In the kitchen, the oak cabinets had also been painted white.

I couldn’t recognize this house! There was no repetition of the many pieces of art we had hung on our white walls. A large sectional had replaced the facing couches that cushioned Tommy and Buddy on one and me on the other.

“Do you want to see upstairs?” they asked. I was growing confident.

“Sure,” I said. More painted walls, a crib in the smallest bedroom, an alcove there once stuffed with extra bedding had become a closet for baby clothes, new carpeting in all of the bedrooms. I was as delighted as if I had been the contractor who had performed the renovations.

I cooed and praised at the remake. It wasn’t so much because I admired their decorating choices but because everything looked completely different!

We shook hands when I left. “I know you’ll enjoy the house and the neighbors as much as we did,” I said.

“We love it already,” they said.

The party was sweet; the neighbors were grateful I had attended. When I left, as I walked back to the Blue Line on the opposite side of the street of my old house, I stopped for a final look.

“Goodbye,” I said. With just a slight mist blurring my vision, I put two fingers to my lips and blew my old house a kiss. Then I continued my journey home.

Empty Nest Syndrome, Part 2

I had narrowed my search to synagogues whose online descriptions contained code words that met my criteria: inclusion, equality of women, welcoming to gays and lesbians. As I scrutinized their monthly bulletins, I imagined myself sitting in a Torah class debating the text's contemporary relevance. Would that satisfy a current tug?

Maybe a Sabbath service at another house of worship? Could that  reignite a lapsed  faith?  Or, would a film or book group provide stimulation and challenge? A social justice program focused on immigration? How about that one?

The quest began to feel familiar, so I closed the cover of my laptop and moved to the couch for further investigation. It was there, sinking into the furniture’s comforting cushions, with my eyes shut, that my mind was free to flip the pages of the calendar backwards. Days, weeks, months, years reversed until I reached 1988. That's where my tour ended. I was likely, once again, suffering from Empty Nest Syndrome, albeit with very different losses.

I pin my first experience with the malady to the gloom I felt after my two daughters moved from living at home to their own apartments. But, that wasn't the excuse I used to cajole my husband. My addiction to my girls, and his feelings of being lower down my list of beloveds, were already causing frays in our 28-year marriage. So, I opted for a project I thought could bring us closer together, and perhaps fill the void left by my absent offspring.

“I want to join a synagogue,” I told my husband. We were living in our posh condominium off of Michigan Ave. and seated at the breakfast table with a view of the lake and other high rise buildings.

“Why now?” he asked as he divided the morning paper -- sports for him, local news for me.

“The High Holidays are coming up and I don’t want to feel left out,” I said. “I don’t want to feel dumb anymore.” This was believable, and it remained the excuse I gave to others who questioned my synagogue search and my timing.

“I’ll do the investigating and If I find one that feels comfortable, you can check it out,” I said.

We landed at the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation (JRC) in Evanston. With its charismatic rabbi’s encouragement, I joined the Board of Directors, and embarked on a year-long study to have an adult Bat Mitzvah.

My plan worked. My husband joined the synagogue’s choir, accompanied me to Saturday morning services, and lifted his tenor voice in ritual song during the celebration of my late-to-the-game, coming-of-age ceremony.

Then, he left me for another woman.

Feeling like a third wheel, and possibly the object of pity by those who knew my story, I dropped my JRC membership. Occasionally, I’d return, and when I married Tommy, I brought him to a special service. But, my second husband had his own Lutheran lapses and while he encouraged my bond to my roots, had no interest to join me. So, I slowly let Judaism seep away until this current search.

While my first attack of Empty Nest Syndrome was brought on by my daughters’ departure, I realize now this second episode is due to a combination of losses. Consider: within a period of six months, Tommy and I had soothed our golden retriever as the dog took his last breath. Three months later, it was my husband who died after being diagnosed with throat cancer.

Then, I added to these losses by -- in what  seemed like a flash -- selling our house and moving from a neighborhood where both the dog and spouse and I lived happily for 13 years with model neighbors.

While my swift action was intended to lift depression and establish myself in a new, urban lifestyle -- and in many ways the relocation has accomplished this -- that blue feeling that accompanied my daughters’ leave-taking has begun to creep in.

How to fill the void? Will a particular synagogue help me find new faith and relieve the sadness? But, then I remember those old “third wheel” feelings that arose as a solo amid families and couples. Would I be at ease in pews of long-time members up-to-speed with one another and liturgy?

Perhaps I should instead postpone the search, slow down, and sit with the inevitable sorrow that has been my recent visitor.  Staying put; a new challenge for me. 

The Men In My Life

I’ve unpacked the tin tubes, plastic posts, and curved tops from the skinny box that has arrived from Walmart. The directions for the shoe rack appear fairly simple: attach this to that, then that to this, and finally, remove scrambled shoes from the floor of my bedroom closet and set them neatly on the gizmo.  Alas, my assembly looked like a wacky Lego, rather than the structure promised on the carton’s front.

Ramir to the rescue. In less than five minutes, he unscrewed and repositioned all of the parts until it was a replica of the image. Ramir, along with George, Greg, José, and Roberto, who are members of the maintenance crew in my apartment building, have smoothly taken over the helpmate role once performed by my husband, and several men who lived on my block on Dakin St.

Back then, when Tommy and I were in our three-bedroom house, John topped the team who cared for us. Even before my spouse became ill, when he was able to still mow the grass or shovel the walk, John would beat him to it.

“Honey,” I’d say. “I hear a snow blower outside. Do you think it’s John?” 

We’d both go to the window, open the drapes, and wave as we saw our neighbor steering through through white mounds on our front walk on his way to our driveway.  While John was the über neighbor,  there were other males who came to our aide. 

“What ever you need, any time of day,” was what Casey said as the ambulance drivers were bringing Tommy up the stairs from our ride from Northwestern Memorial Hospital. Then, Casey placed a yellow post-in in my hands with his cell phone number. 

Joél on Dakin St. asked how he could help after I had hip surgery. “My car needs maintenance,” I told him. “Give me the keys,” he said.

During the 12 days my husband was in hospice, upstairs in the bed with railings on both sides, his long-time buddy, Randy, visited several times a week to rake leaves and de-clutter the downspouts. 

After Tommy died and I sold our house and moved to an apartment building, friends who were experienced renters said, “You won’t have to worry about lawns or snow anymore. And if anything needs fixing, you just call maintenance.”

And I did. At first, my requests were basic: replace a dead light bulb, unclog the bathroom sink’s drain, coax a stubborn ice maker. But the new men in my life have far surpassed those everyday appeals. With care and precision, members of the staff have hung all of the two dozen paintings on the walls of my convertible studio. 

And it was Ramir who was at the door after this request, “I have a Hoover Upright vacuum cleaner, and I can’t figure out how to put it together.”  As I stood nearby, feeling like a dazzled intern watching a surgeon, Ramir studied the carton’s image, and quickly performed the operation. “Let’s test it first,” he said. He plugged in the cord to the wall socket and after the first loud hum, showed me how to steer it. Then, he stood by to be certain I could manage the hefty machine on my own.

“Can I give you something?” I asked him then, and again at the latest shoe rack assembly, for I knew these tasks didn’t really fall under the category of Maintenance. But, this new man in my life waved away my question and was quickly out the door.

When Tommy was well, which was the majority of our 16 years together, he was our family handyman. In the basement of our house he erected a wooden table where he placed all of the tools he had accumulated in his adult life. He mounted a pegboard on the wall that stored nails, screws, hooks, and other tidbits essential to his odd-jobs and carpentry ambitions.

As his health deteriorated, and this aspirations evaporated, I bequeathed the table, tools, and pegboard to good neighbor John. But, I held onto one hammer, one screw driver, and a pair of pliers, believing I’d need them in a future life.

I’ve used each gadget occasionally: to pound the cover  of a stubborn jar of pickles, to open a key ring and add a store’s loyalty card, and to twist off the top of a bottle of nail polish. But thanks to the new men in my life -- who have accepted all of the responsibilities once handled by the guys on Dakin St., and by my own beloved handyman -- that’s all this trio of tools will likely be asked to do.

Like Mother, Like Daughter. Or Not.

I’m cooking the ground beef, pressing it flat, turning it over, and stirring until it darkens. The meat is an ingredient in a recipe for Italian-style Sloppy Joes that I clipped from the newspaper. 

As I watch the meat brown, I think of my mother, who with her famous Chili Mac, performed a similar coloration during my childhood. As she enters my brain, I imagine her smiling at the sight of her daughter cooking. This is an unfamiliar activity for me. Simple table-top grilling, microwaving, ordering- or carrying-out was my usual pattern.

But something changed after my husband died. Without the care and worry that absorbed me, I now have extra hours in the day. And since my menu is no longer focused on vegetarian dishes he preferred, I have a taste for home-cooked meals with meat or chicken. 

I’m not a creative cook who tosses in a pinch of this or handful of that, but instead a recipe follower who uses sauce-stained finger tips to trace each ingredient and step. I haven’t opted for fancy cookware, save for the cast iron pot a daughter insisted I add. But for tonight’s dish, I’m using my weathered frying pan. 

My mother, back in her kitchen in the three-room apartment we lived in above our store, used an electric frying pan for her cuisine -- as aged and well-worn as my current cordless. I can still see her, attired in a Swirl apron, wearing the wedge slippers she changed into from her preferred high heels.

As I thought about Mom and the commonality of our cooking, another notion plopped in my head: we both bear the title, Widow. In her case, she was very young, just 45 years old when she got the label, while I am nearly three decades older.

My father died in 1958, at 48 years old. A three-pack-a-day unfiltered Camel smoker, overweight, and with diabetes, his demise from a heart attack was not a shock; instead a fear that darkened my childhood.

My husband died November 2, 2012, at age 77 from throat cancer. “Was he a smoker?” doctors asked. I knew Tommy was a heavy smoker before we met, perhaps similar to Dad’s overindulgence. But I understood he had quit cold turkey at about 50. 

As I continued the recipe, stirring the browned meat into the already softened onions, then adding red wine, canned tomatoes, tomato paste, oregano, red pepper flakes, and salt, I remembered Mom’s words after she became a widow: “I never want to be a burden to my kids.” 

This pledge pushed her to try and learn how to drive. She enlisted her brother, my Uncle Hy, to pick her up on Saturdays for lessons on quiet streets. But after just a few outings, she returned to the apartment she and I shared, tears in her blue eyes. “I give up,” I remember her saying as she sunk into the couch.

Poor mom believed it was too late for her to take the wheel, so she accepted the proposal of a man 20 years her senior who could put her in the passenger seat. (This turned out to be a lousy marriage, requiring her to clip coupons. Her husband declined with Alzheimer’s, but outlived my mom -- who died at 67 -- for many years.) 

This is where Mother and I part ways. I was fortunate to enjoy a happy second marriage, free of contention or serious belt tightening. Tommy was only three years my senior, and I was the one who insisted he learn how to drive. While he also suffered from a deteriorating brain disease, he left this earth with me still strolling on it.

Secondly, unlike my mother, I’d never consider myself a burden to my kids. A sometimes embarrassment, a frequent meddler, an expert at passive-aggressive behavior, but a burden? Never.

Not only can I operate a vehicle (even manual if need be), but I manage my own business, can program a DVR, set up Apple devices, and build a blog like the one you’re viewing. 

While Mom would likely be proud of these accomplishments, in my heart of hearts I know it’s the recent cooking that brings a smile to her ethereal face. In our years together, I never asked her to teach me how to cook, or do the handicrafts she was skilled at, like knitting, needlepoint, and crocheting. I wonder now, was that hurtful to her?

Odd that cooking has become a new hobby, drawing my mother back into my consciousness. Perhaps her spirit sees a window of opportunity? She’s successfully led me to the stove, could a ball of yarn be next?