Posts Tagged ‘hospital’

mary’zine #63: September 2013

September 19, 2013

I really appreciate how the Internet fine-tunes the ads for me so I see exactly what I’m most interested in buying.



 ?????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????my way no highway

I live a block from Hwy M35, which is in the process of being dug up, someday to be restored to its former glory as a thoroughfare  par excellence or at least par ordinaire. There’s no other way out of my neighborhood, so it’s been a daily challenge to find a place to cross without getting stuck in a sandy morass or intimidated by heavy machinery hulking down the road. It would be useful to have signs that indicate where it’s possible to cross the construction zone to get to passable streets, but there are only those that state the obvious: “Road Work Ahead” or “Road Closed to Thru Traffic.” One sees the “road work ahead” quite clearly, and one must be able to go “thru” to the other side if one wants to leave the neighborhood for any reason. I go out daily to scout for access, to reenact the rite of passage, praying that the way back via U.S. 41 and a numbered avenue will deliver me past the upheaved and ruptured roadway to my home.

One day, the water coming out of my faucets looked kind of brown. So when I see another big-machine-and-crew doing something down by the bay, I go out to ask if they’re working on the water lines. I feel like Alice in Wonderland as I approach a huge truck with a man sitting high up in the driver’s seat. I call up to him, “Are you working on the water lines?” “WHAT?” “Are you working on the water lines?” “YOU’LL HAVE TO ASK THE GUY IN THE….” He points at a large bulldozer that’s moving incrementally back and forth in the dirt while a bunch of other guys stand around watching. So I mince through the dirt and mud, feeling like a very small female person indeed. Everyone stops what they were (or weren’t) doing, and I approach the man in the very tall earthmover and yell up to him, “Are you working on the water lines?” Again with the “WHAT?” I glance to my right and am startled to see the first guy standing inches away from me. I must have jumped a little bit, because he explains that he’s there to “protect” me. From what? “In case the equipment moves.” OK. Earthdozer guy isn’t saying anything, so this guy tells me they’re digging a trench for a culvert to drain water to the bay. At least that’s my interpretation: All I really got from him was that water was going to be going toward the bay, not the other way around. I thank him and go back in the house feeling not only small but really, really not-a-man.

The good thing about all this construction is that it provides work for the locals.  For example:


my new part-time gig

Someday, the heavy hand will write and, having writ, will move on. To 14th Ave., I hear.

only God can take a tree

We’ve been blessed with an unseasonably cool August, with some heavy thunderstorms, one of which plucked a large limb off a tree in my backyard. I have several trees, and I love them beyond all measure. The ones on the south side of the house have leafed out to the point where I can sit in my big comfy chair by the upstairs windows and remain out of sight of any passing walker, stalker, or would-be talker. A mighty fortress is my pad. My lawn service came and took away the offending branch and all was right in my little world.

Then: Another thunderstorm, with whipping winds. I’m awakened at 3 a.m. by the sound of a branch creakily detaching itself from the mother trunk. I go out with a flashlight and try to find which branch, which tree. It occurs to me that I shouldn’t be out there walking into a possible death trap. So far, none of the limbs have hit my house, but there’s no guarantee that I won’t get caught under one. It turns out that the enormous tree in my front yard had lost two big limbs from high up.


As with the other tree, I thought it would be a simple matter for my lawn people to cut off the broken limbs and haul them away. They aren’t tree experts, but, except for needing a ladder, what would be the big deal? It rained a lot that week, so they missed the weekly lawn cutting, and I waited in limbo—ha! limb-o!—not knowing if I had to call an actual tree service to do the deed.

Two weeks later, the lawn guys show up for the usual mowing. I had left them a message to ask if they could take down the broken branches or if it was too big a job for them. So there they were, but when they’re finishing up, I see that the branches are still hanging there. Then my doorbell rings. A guy I’ve never seen before says, “We can take down those branches for you and haul everything away.” “Yeah, that’s what I was hoping.” “A tree service would cost you $500,” he says, “but we’ll do it for half price, $250.” I say yes because I’d prefer to deal with the people who’ve been taking good care of my yard for 9 years now. The guy says that he and his “foreman” will come by on the weekend to do the job.

It slightly bothered me that I didn’t know this guy, but I couldn’t pick any of them out of a lineup: 6 or 7 guys descend on my yard, and in less than half an hour they’re gone. So the owner of the company (T for Tony) returns my call about the tree, and I describe the guy who said he was going to do the work: short, full beard, the word “monkey” on his t-shirt. T says, “He’s not one of our guys.” So then I think that some ne’er-do-well has pulled up just as the legit lawn guys are leaving and has taken advantage of my assuming he’s with them. There’s precedent for the workers around here trying to go behind the boss’s back. A few years ago, my sister Barb was having the roof (rhymes with “woof”) on her garage replaced, and one of the guys came to her and said he could do another job for her, something to do with the siding, I think. She agreed, of course, and a few days later the boss of the original crew called her up, drunk, and yelled at her for giving work to this guy—she should have gone through him. Well, of course, Barb didn’t know that. She tried to explain, but the guy told her to fuck off! The wife of the guy later called to apologize for him, and I think she sent Barb flowers. Imagine her (the wife’s) life for 1 second.

So… I worry for the next two days. What am I going to do if illicit short monkey beard guy shows up Saturday morning and starts hacking away at my tree?

Oh, I forgot to mention that T said the tree “needs to come down.” “WHY?” “It’s rotten.” I’m shocked. The tree is more than twice as tall as my house, and I’m going to have nothing but a stump out front? Some people across the street recently had 3 or 4 huge trees cut down, I thought because they interfered with power lines, but maybe they were rotten, too. I’ve been feeling sorry for them. Now I’m to join their sorry stump club? (Update: I was paying the breakfast bill at Schloegel’s one morning, and the cashier said we’re neighbors. I didn’t know her from Adam, but she recognized my face. Hmmm. Anyway, she said that the son of the old people who’d lived in that house, who had since died, took down those majestic trees because he “didn’t like them.” Is this a male thing, this hatred of nature? Another XY I know is the same way: no room for trees, must put down more and more concrete to accommodate cars, SUVs, trucks, motorcycles, trailers, ATVs, RVs. You don’t think it’s fair for me to take a sample of 2 and extrapolate to the entire male population? You’re right, but I still think I made my point.)

So T says he’ll find out who the mystery guy is, and he’ll call someone named Dan to assess the tree situation. But I haven’t heard back from him by Saturday morning, and I’ve resigned myself to sitting downstairs by the front windows all weekend so I can catch the imposter in the act. I feel like the little not-man with the construction guys again, only this time I’ll have to deal with a guy wielding a chainsaw. I call T, not expecting to reach him at 9:00 a.m. on a Saturday, but a woman answers and says she’ll have him call me back. And he does, hallelujah! He says the guy with the monkey shirt is one of his guys and that he told him no, he couldn’t borrow the company’s ladder to do the job. That’s a huge weight lifted off me; at least I won’t have to fight off a rogue tree trimmer. (But, T—could you have called me 2 days ago to tell me that?) Dan the Tree Man is out of town, but T assures me he’ll get in touch with him and they’ll come over and look at the tree.

All’s well that ends well. Turns out I got two other enthusiastic recommendations for Dan, from my niece and my sister. He came and took down the cracked branches while I was away one morning. Apparently the tree isn’t rotten after all. I feel blessed to have several trustworthy men in my life. I couldn’t be a home-moaner without them.


Speaking of nature, I’ve been derelict in looking after the wildlife that perch on my hanging feeders and paw and peck at the ground. When I run out of birdseed and “critter food,” I am loath to make a special trip to another state (5.9 miles away) to get supplies, so days can pass before I get off my ass (oh, “I’m a poet and don’t know it; but my feet sure show it: they’re Longfellows” [sh*t my dad said]). I am never more happy than when I see the birds and furry rodents feasting upon the seed and nutty riches I lay out for them. Besides making the birdbath to runneth over, I’ve put down a ceramic bowl that I fill with water for the ground creatures, though I don’t know if they partake. (Update: I sat out on the back porch the other day to watch the goings-on. It was slightly too cool to be out there in shorts and a t-shirt, but I was roughing it. It took several minutes of sitting absolutely still before the creatures that had fled when I opened the back door returned to the bounty. At the most populous point there were 2 mourning doves, a blue jay, a squirrel, 3 chipmunks, and a cardinal, mostly coexisting without incident. But one of the chipmunks chased another one around the yard and out of sight until it reappeared, the apparent victor. I got an answer to the water bowl question when another chipmunk came out of nowhere and ran toward it, stood up on its tippy toes, and leaned over the edge to take a very small sip of water.)

I was happy to see this. I thought how cool it would be to take photographs of some of this action, but I cannot seem to operate a camera. I did take a halfway decent picture of Luther with my cell phone (to show the people at the vet that he is not always a savage beast), but now I have no idea how to upload it to my computer. Anyway, these times when I sit outside—not exactly in nature, but nature-adjacent—and watch the wild ones are very precious to me. In my youth I did the whole tromping through forests and up mountains thing, but the microcosm of my back yard is just as satisfying to me now.

We anthropomorphize animals, we just can’t help it. I’m always dreaming up explanations for why Luther seems to know when I’m getting dressed to leave the house without him and when I’m about to grab him and take him to see ol’ Doc Anderson. Recently, he had to get more “crystals” (stones) removed from his urethra and, true to form, he hid until I tricked him by tapping the cat comb on a ceramic cup. (The slightest touch on that cup brings both cats running.) Luckily, I managed to grab him. The experience is traumatic for him, of course, since it involves a forceps and his urethra. But it’s no picnic for me, either. Apparently this is going to keep happening, at >$300 a pop. But there’s a happy aftermath. When he recovers fully from the anesthesia, he can’t seem to get enough of me: He follows me around, wants to sit in my lap, and rolls on the floor from side to side, seemingly for my amusement. This may be more anthropomorphism, but I say he’s grateful to me for getting him out of that hell hole and doesn’t hold it against me (or forgot) that I was the one who brought him there in the first place. After about a day and a half, he goes back to normal and sets down his gratitude like a heavy valise and goes off to play-wrestle with his brother.

We know that certain animals are “intelligent” (however that manifests), but are we any good at assessing it? I saw a video the other day that blew my mind. An elephant was shown at an easel, painting what the description said was a “self-portrait.” (The trainer gave her the brush with paint on it, and she held it with her trunk.) It was uncanny. As the figure took form, looking more and more like an elephant—observers in the video whispering “oh my god” and other words of amazement—the elephant, whom we learn is named Hong, completes the painting by adding a flower held in the painted elephant’s trunk.

I didn’t know what to make of this. I figured the picture probably wasn’t a “self” portrait, but maybe elephants had the ability to depict their fellow creatures just as early “man” did on the walls of caves. This would be extraordinary in itself—that animals would have the skill and especially the intention of making pictorial representations—but what if the painting came out of some subconscious animality that equaled humanity in its depth and expression. (In which case, the trainer should really take a few classes at the Center for Creative Exploration in San Francisco to understand that Hong could have gone much farther with encouragement. “Could anything else come into or out of the painting?”)

It turns out that the trainers, well, train the elephants to make certain strokes with the paint. In the age-old way, they give them treats to reinforce what they want them to learn.



I’m so happy in my fortress, with my kitty cats, the Web as Wide as the World, an endless supply of books (some Kindled, some inert) and music (iTunes is my master), regular phone calls and FaceTime with friends, and visits with sisters. I’m living a fair approximation of the life my mother enjoyed for 3 years after retirement and before colon cancer. She was so angry at the end, her bliss cut short at 69—weird to think I’m only a few years from that point myself. I don’t think I’ll be angry when I face the inevitable. I’m so grateful for the unexpectedly full and rich life I’ve been given, against all odds (and many ends).


(do you think this is overkill? hahaha)

This is where my health stands now:

I had diabetes for about 5 minutes, but now I’m “normal” again, though at the high end. I am seriously overweight; there’s a skinny person inside me who’s not even trying to get out, because she believes she’s still thin. I weighed 112 in college. My mother called me Olive Oyl when I was a teenager. I ran 10K races in my 40s. But after I retired from my job at age 50 and no longer had to walk several blocks from Golden Gate Park and hike up the hill to UCSF, I was doomed.

I recently had a follow-up appt. with my doctor. The nurse takes my blood pressure, which is 146/70. I say, “That’s not too bad, is it?” She allows as how “it could be worse.” I agree: “I could be dead.” She giggles. I like to leave ‘em laffin’. My doctor is très jovial, which I appreciate, but she’s a little scattered. When I first started seeing her, she’d ask every time, “Are you still not smoking?” “Not since 1971!” I should never have mentioned that I smoked cigarettes for 1 year back then, but I cannot tell a lie. (None of the many doctors, including two psychiatrists, I’ve seen have ever asked about my recreational drug use. I find that odd.) So anyway, on this “visit,” the doc casually refers to my “arthritis,” and when I say I don’t have arthritis, she looks back at the computer screen and says, “Oh, I just saw ‘osteo-‘ and thought….” (So what did that “osteo-” mean? I didn’t think to ask her.) A couple months ago, she asked when I’d had my last mammogram and then wrote down my (wild) guess. She has all the information in front of her!

I’ve been concerned about my high CRP (C-reactive protein) level for several years now, and no one can tell me what it means, except “inflammation somewhere in the body.” Even my previous doctor, the one I liked so much who disappeared off the face of the earth, maybe caught up in his own personal rapture, had no answers for me. Neither does my present doc. But she decided to have me do a treadmill test with “echo” to see if the inflammation is “cardio.”


I walk on my treadmill for 15 minutes a day, so I wasn’t too worried about the test. There was a lot of prep, because the ultrasound tech had to take images of my heart while I was resting so there’d be a basis for comparison afterward. She told me everything that was going to happen (more than once), kept asking if I had any questions, and finally said, “I’ve been throwing a lot of information at you, don’t you have any questions?” I wanted to say, “I must be smarter than I look.” When it was finally time to get on the treadmill, another tech told me how high my heart rate should go, and there was a monitor so I could watch that and the time. The first 3 minutes was easy… about what I do at home. But then at minute 3, the tech ramped up both the speed and the incline. After 30 seconds of that, my legs were killing me and I almost couldn’t keep up. I thought I was going to tread myself right off the back of the thing, like Bill Murray in some movie or other. The tech asked if I could make it to 4 minutes. I did, just barely. Then I had to quickly get over to the cot and lie back down so the ultrasound tech could take more images. I thought I would never catch my breath. A cardiologist went over the results, and I got the word that my heart is fine. So the high CRP is still a mystery.

By the way, I had a problem with the questionnaire I had to fill out ahead of time that mirrored my confusion over which chair in the exam room was “first” (which I wrote about several months ago). Most of the questions required yes or no answers, and, appropriately, there was a blank box next to each answer. But then there was a series of questions about diseases, and instead of “yes [blank box], no [blank box],” there was only “yes [blank box] no.” Maybe you were supposed to write Y or N in the box? That didn’t even occur to me at the time. I ended up circling the vertical line of “noes” but boy did I feel dumb. Or perhaps too smart for my own good, which sounds a lot better.

In the same vein, I was filling out an insurance form and had to make an appointment to speak to a benefits counselor. I set up the appointment, and in the confirmation it said that I would be calling the counselor on October 16 at “1:00 Central Standard Time.” Well, we’re still on daylight saving time on Oct. 16, so I spent a few minutes wondering what they meant by calling it standard time. Clearly, they just hadn’t thought about it, because in another communication they called it simply “Central time.” So it occurred to me, not for the first time, that I was cheated out of several points on my IQ test in high school by questioning things that the makers of the test never even considered. Now that I edit for scientists, I know just how careless even smart people can be in writing. You may call this “overthinking,” but I call it “thinking.” The IQ test has been called biased because of cultural assumptions and references that minorities might not be familiar with. I say it’s also biased because it doesn’t take into account people who are too smart for their own good (and/or born editors).

This wasn’t my medical adventure, but I played a small part in my sister’s colonoscopy by driving her to the hospital at 6:00 a.m. I sat with her during the taking of the medical history and the failed attempt to teach a nursing student how to insert an IV needle. “Tom,” who introduced himself unforthcomingly as “head of a unit downstairs” and “also a professor,” was there to teach a male nursing student how to hook up an IV. Tom explained to him how to insert the needle as if he were flying an airplane: first, go in at a 15 or 30 degree angle, then level off like when the wheels are dropping down. I rather doubt that the student had ever piloted a plane. Barb suffered through all the jabs, and at one point she said, “Would it help if we made airplane noises?” I thought that was hilarious, but Tom merely said, “No.” Eventually, he had to put the needle in himself. (Aha! a reading comprehension test: In whom did he put the needle?) I felt bad for the student, but even more so for Barb.

Barb also weighed in on my anthropomorphic imaginings about what goes on in Luther’s mind when he thinks I’m going to take him to the vet. Sometimes he hides under the bed, and sometimes he acts completely unconcerned. I was telling her that he sat in the middle of the room as I was getting ready that morning, not reacting at all to my going up and down the stairs, getting dressed, etc. (He seems to get most suspicious when I put socks on.) Barb’s suggestion was, “Well, it was still dark out, and he knows the vet isn’t open at that hour.” That, indeed, is my favorite explanation.

more odds, more ends

In dismal news for editors and editrices, the word “literally” is about to get another definition in the dictionary: It will also mean “metaphorically,” since just about no one uses it correctly. I guess that’s one way for language to evolve. But when that happens, we lose a perfectly useful distinction. “Literally” used to mean something. Now, people will be able to say, “I literally died laughing”—and get away with it!

Conversely, we maintain distinctions that have no meaning, such as “the exception that proves the rule.” Once upon a time, “prove” meant “test,” so exceptions test the rule. This isn’t just a matter of semantics. Writers are using a concept that doesn’t exist when they say, “well, that’s the exception that proves the rule,” as if exceptions to rules actually show that the rule is valid. They don’t!


After about a 3-week spurt of work, I’m idle once again, spending many hours a day reading for fun instead of profit. I tend to have several books going at once, and at one point I was reading two mystery novels, both of which had major characters named Amber and Kirsty (which is strange in itself). Whenever I encountered either name, I had to do a little mental calculus to remember which Amber and Kirsty I was reading about: the two killers, or the insomniac and the mentally disabled child. To make matters worse, the Amber and Kirsty in the two-killer book had changed their names so their crime wouldn’t follow them through life, and their childhood names were used interchangeably with the new names, so I had to remember each time that Amber=Bel (or Annabel, just to confuse me further) and Kirsty=Jade. I never finished the book, and now you know why.

I’ve now started reading another mystery novel in which the main activity is playing poker online, so the real names of the players are interspersed with their nicknames—and even those fake names change according to which avatar the player has chosen for that round of play. So you have Chip Zero chatting online with Second Gunman, and sometimes they call each other by their real names, which, no, I am not going to go through the whole book looking for examples.


I came across a phrase in something I read recently that I have never seen expressed in quite this way: A character was talking about his dying father, and he (the son) referred to the feeling as being “suspended over the abyss of anticipatory grief.” This phrase exactly expresses what I felt when my mother was dying of cancer. I had never before had the (almost literal) feeling of looking into the abyss. I was feeling it in my body and “seeing” it in my mind’s eye. And yes, it was “anticipatory,” because I felt very different after she died. Just as she did with her crossing, I had traversed the abyss in a way, by going through the actual experience and not just fearfully imagining it. Afterward, I had more navigable feelings, such as peace and catharsis, and strong (sometimes lucid) dreams.

all’s well that ends

There is a word to describe the state of bodies in perfect chemical equilibrium with the outside world. That state is called “Death.”
—Paul Tobolowsky,
Stardust Dancing: a Seeker’s Guide to the Miraculous

I was kind of blown away by this quote. I immediately had the image of a person standing upright in the chemical swill (or ground of being, to be fancy about it), and by that posture considered to be “alive.” Instead of a parallel reality, this would be a perpendicular one. The flat surface would be the “undifferentiated”—complete harmony and oneness. Anything standing perpendicular (seemingly “apart”) to that would be the “living,” a seemingly separate entity.


you are the glass ball, distinct and yet reflecting everything around you


dead?   the cosmos remains, but you are no longer a visible or self-conscious entity

(And no, I don’t think you get to take your glass ball and go home, i.e., there is no individual soul. You are soulful because you are part of everything that is.)

When I went to to find the image(s) to match my first thought, I couldn’t seem to find the right search term. So I browsed more widely, and the glass ball came up. I think it’s a more eloquent illustration of aliveness than my idea of a stick figure standing (alive) and then lying down and blending in (dead). I love this process. It’s not just the writing, it’s the challenge to be open-minded and find what I need without imposing too many prejudgments on it.

the end

thanks for reading!

p.s. I cannot get the hang of the layout, spacing, etc., for these posts. Sometimes—and I fear that this might be an understatement—I am too dumb for my own good.

mary’zine #47: November 2010

November 7, 2010

Above is another of P. DuPont’s wonderful pictures of the Bay-called-Green. Every year or so, she comes to visit me for my birthday, which, unfortunately for her, is in late October, so she freezes the whole time. This year, she had an agenda: She had offered to paint my upstairs bathroom, kitchen ceiling, and part of another room where my contractor had repaired some cracks and plastered them over. I guess she likes to have a purpose in life. (I would rather pay other people to carry out my purposes in life, at least when they involve house maintenance and yard work. Of course, I “paid” her only in sparkling conversation.)

She also wanted to see the 49’ers game—a problem, because I got rid of my TV some months ago. (I’m not a TV snob; just wanted to save some money.)  I watch “Modern Family” on, buy season passes to “Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad,” and “The Good Wife” on iTunes, and beg my sister Barb to let me come over and watch “Dexter” and “In Treatment” on Sunday nights (like an ex-smoker who doesn’t buy cigarettes anymore but cadges them off other people). Then it turned out that P’s beloved S.F. Giants were in the World Series, so it became a project to figure out how she could see or at least hear some of the games.

Oct. 27: As usual, I drove down to Green Bay to pick her up. She was supposed to arrive at about 10 p.m., but in the “It Goes Without Saying” Department, her plane was late. So I found myself sitting all alone—no passengers, no one else waiting for an arrival, not even an employee in sight—in the airport at 11:30, staring at the monitor of arrivals and departures, searching in vain for any record of her flight. We were apparently going to begin Airport Life anew the next morning at 6 a.m. I took this as a bad sign. It was an odd feeling, like I had missed the End of the World and was stuck there alone forever with only the peanuts and candy bars in the vending machine for sustenance. I called United, and the friendly robot voice informed me that P’s plane was indeed in the air between Chicago and G.B., so that was comforting. An employee eventually turned up, asked me where the plane was, and I told her it was expected at 12:03 but was already 20 minutes late. She chuckled at the fact that the flight had “dropped off the board a while ago” so she’d had to get the information from me, a mere nobody. I could have trashed the restroom and set fire to the seats in the waiting area while she lounged in some back room doing God knows what, but I guess they don’t worry about security at midnight in the middle of the week.

Oct. 28: P rooted around in the garage and found the paint my sister K had used for the kitchen ceiling—“Travertine Beige”—a really nice color that I call “Yellow”—and set about the task of repainting the large area that had been covered by my ancient fluorescent light fixture. Later, we drove back down to Green Bay for dinner at the Republic Chophouse, which P had found online. The food was excellent, and I couldn’t get over how nice the booths were: secluded, with generously sized, upholstered benches rather than naugahyde-over-foam repaired in spots with duct tape. I also exclaimed over the cloth napkins, told P I hadn’t eaten anywhere in 6 years where the silverware wasn’t wrapped and taped into a paper napkin (I exaggerated slightly, as is my wont). I have made the transition to hick in record time. On the way home we found the World Series game on the radio. The Giants had already won Game 1, so P was stoked. When we got back to my house, we tried to get reception on my tiny Sony radio, but it was hard going. Still, we managed to listen and marveled at the number of runs her team was racking up. In the eighth inning, with 2 out and a comfortable lead of 6 to nothing, she inexplicably decided to call C in Oregon to tell her about our day. I heard her asking C if the cat missed her. I took the radio upstairs, where the reception was only marginally better, and suddenly—I must have spaced out or just didn’t understand what was happening—the Giants got 3 more runs, and I’m yelling down to P, “9 to nothing! 9 to nothing!” She came upstairs and started looking for the game streaming online (never found it), while I continued to listen with the radio up to my ear, reporting on every pitch until it was over. It was a weird role reversal.

Oct. 29: To Menard’s (home improvement store) to get supplies for the bathroom paint job. P suggested a dark gray to cover the boring white, and while I was skeptical of the color she picked out, we appreciated the aptness of the name—“Family Ties.” (They don’t bother to name colors colors anymore.) I can barely walk lately, so after the excruciating torment of navigating the huge store—paint in one far corner, cashiers in opposite far corner—I mostly napped while she worked (she actually whistled) until it was time to go to the ritual birthday dinner at Schussler’s with my sisters (Barb and K) and brother-in-law (MP). They first met P not long after I did and get along fine. P and K, in particular, are hilarious together. They both laugh a lot, so the two of them in K’s kitchen trying to cut the birthday cake and transfer it to plates was apparently the height of comedy. P and MP talked football and baseball, and I sat in (K’s) recliner starring as the Birthday Girl and raking in the many generous gifts. The World Series wasn’t on that day, so we didn’t have to worry about finding the game.

Oct. 30: My birthday! I don’t remember much about it, actually, but I never forget a meal, so I can report that P and I had a wonderful dinner at The Landing, now one of two (S.F.) Bay Area-quality restaurants in “historic downtown Menominee.” My favorite waitress, Cindy, was working, and I got to brag about having a friend who not only came all the way from Oregon for my birthday but was painting my bathroom. Cindy was suitably impressed. She had met Terry and Jean (from Massachusetts), and Diane (from San Francisco) 2 years ago so has this image of me as someone who is much loved by friends from all over (which is true, amazingly enough). Conversely, when Cindy came by my sister’s garage sale last summer, MP could hardly believe that I knew someone locally that he didn’t know.


Oct. 31: I met the dog next door, who’s named Buttons and is as cute as one. I was outside feeding the birds and she was barking up a storm, anxious to get at me, so there but for the grace of 2 fences went my rabid attacker. When I turned to see what the commotion was all about, there was my neighbor waving at me. He and Buttons were both dressed for winter, and I was out there in a t-shirt and shorts. My body is apparently “burning up from the inside” (according to an alarming article I found online), so I’m always hot, and it might also be the cause of my sudden-onset “arthritis” in both knees. I’m not one to ask, “Why me?,” but it’s funny how put out I feel at having anything go wrong with my body, even at the age of the Beatles’ lyrics, “Will you still need me, will you still feed me….” Like: Am I really expected to hobble painfully for the rest of my life?

K called and invited us over to watch the Packer game and order pizza for lunch. I started obsessing about what to do, because we had already made plans with Barb. P calmly pointed out that we could go to K&MP’s for football and Barb’s for the World Series. Which is what we did. We brought take-out to Barb’s from our new Mexican restaurant, La Cabaña—I’m so excited—The citizenry has taken to La Cabaña in droves. It may not be the best Mexican food I’ve ever had, but it’s way better than Taco Bell or Taco John’s, and it’s run by real Mexicans. According to my haircutter, the owner worked in his father’s restaurants in Chicago and moved up here because he found the area so beautiful. I’ve heard all my life about how much Chicagoans love the U.P, which I guess they see as wild rather than boring. Well, come on down! Or UP, rather.

Nov. 1: By now, pages were flying off the calendar like in a Frank Capra movie. Only 2 days to P’s departure. She finished painting the bathroom and did a beautiful job; she was right about the color, a kind of gray/brown that changes subtly with the light. We went to Schloegel’s (family dining establishment) for supper. I had lobbied for Mexican again, but she didn’t go for that. So when she was perusing the menu at Schloegel’s, it took me a few seconds to respond to her idle question, “Have you ever had their taco salad?” When it finally hit me, I said, “If you order a taco salad, I’m going to kill you.” We both laughed like madwomen—the main pleasure in having her here, along with the long, leisurely talks that we usually conduct on the phone once a week. She’d overheard a woman in a nearby booth tell the waitress that she preferred Taco Bell to the new Mexican restaurant (which is next door to Schloegel’s) because it’s “pricey” ($7.99 for 3 steak enchiladas, rice, salad, and chips). Some people have also remarked that there’s a “language barrier” there, as if we have to point and grunt at the menu to be understood. We just don’t know how to handle the differently ethnic around here.

Nov. 2: P has a calming influence on me when it comes to doing what needs to be done. It was election day, and I had reluctantly concluded that I wasn’t on permanent absentee ballot status as I had thought—meaning that I had to go to the high school, find the gym, and remember how to vote in public. (I was a permanent absentee voter in California for many years.) I devoutly wished that I could just forget the whole thing, but I knew that both P and my sister (who wanted me to vote for certain school board members) wouldn’t hear of it. We also had to go back to Menard’s to see if we could find a match for the paint in the cats’ room*. And I had to buy food for the little beasts, and I wanted to get a sandwich for lunch because I knew I’d never make it to our 7:30 dinner reservation. I was stressing about the effort it would take to accomplish all this, but P couldn’t have been more calm about it—but then, she can walk.

*Yes, Brutus and Luther have their own room.

We made all the requisite stops and I even managed to get through it all without having to pee. The voting place was well hidden: I guess you’re just supposed to know where it is, having lived here all your life. It was annoyingly unorganized, but I got through it, and I later found out that one of the board members on Barb’s list won by 1 vote! Mine! She was happy about that, and in another example of my sudden wielding of serendipitous power, I mentioned that the flat white thing she described finding in her cat’s litter could be a tapeworm—and it was! She was ecstatic (that she was able to get him treated for it), and I felt, temporarily, like I could do no wrong. Didn’t last long, but you know.

That night P and Barb and I tried our newest restaurant, Table Six, which is upscale Italian. I can’t believe we now have two high-end restaurants barely a block from each other. The owners of The Landing are apparently all pissy about the new place and have gone to great lengths to keep Table Six customers from parking in their lot. Small-town rancor is alive and well. We were delighted to discover that the food at Table Six is excellent. Barb and I played it safe with lasagna, but P had steak and asparagus risotto (risotto? in Menominee?), which I know was great because I got the leftovers.

Nov. 3: I drove P to the airport and reluctantly let her go back to her life. I returned to mine by having an early lunch at El Sarape on the east side of Green Bay. I can’t get enough of Mexican food, it seems.


I rarely read the poems in The New Yorker because they’re usually so obscure, but this one caught my eye because of the title (I’m drawn to anything that mentions social security, having finally attained it.) I like the poem a lot and especially appreciate finding a new (to me) poet.


The mind seeks what is dead, for what is living escapes it. —Miguel de Unamuno

I’m practicing the stoic art of insouciance,

not because I prefer not thinking about

what signing up for Medicare means,

or why so many who came after me are being

called first, but because downstairs

my soul was examined for signs of violence

and duplicity. Its fatigue and ambivalence

weren’t visible, apparently. In the next row

a man is telling a girl bobbing to an iPhone

to sit still before the guard returns.

When I was her age signing up meant going

to Vietnam, which meant practicing

the Zen art of vanishing. At the windows

a blind man is asking why he didn’t receive

his disability payments in prison,

he needs his “…sustenance.” Behind me,

another man is asking to see my paper,

he’s looking for work, he says. Happy

to be free of “Afghanistan: What Could Work,”

I hand him my New York Review of Books.

Bismarck said explaining was a weakness.

As her father explains the necessity

of securing her future, the girl squirms.

She fears only boredom. I feared everything.

In five months my father would die

and mother and I would live on the $200 a month

his Social Security paid. At the windows

the blind man is practicing the existential art

of grovelling, exposing the stitches on his scalp

to a clerk who’s practicing the cynical art

of indifference. The girl’s soul, hovering near

the ceiling, is enjoying its moment of radiance.

My soul, fretfully pacing the water cooler,

is practicing the fatalistic art of understanding

that nothing can be done about Afghanistan,

that in order to influence the future we must kill it.

—Philip Schultz

my body, my (plunged, prodded, and poked) self

Last time, I left you with kind of a cliff-hanger about my medical condition. Well, I have neither fallen off the cliff nor been rescued in the meantime. The wheels of the medical-industrial complex grind slowly, but they grind exceedingly fine.

At least it has been established that I do not have colon cancer, and I do not have breast cancer. That leaves xn places in my body where they may still find something horribly wrong. I feel like the elephant in the fable about the blind men touching its trunk, tail, ears, etc., and trying to guess what it is.

As part of the follow-up to my physical, I’ve had a colonoscopy, a mammogram, an ultrasound when they found something on the mammogram, and a biopsy of the something they found on the mammogram. Still to be resolved are the high cholesterol, high C-reactive protein (CRP), and abnormal white blood cell count. Oh, and a heart murmur. The high CRP was something I knew about before, but the lab tests keep coming back with wildly different results. When I went to a screening clinic for heart desire (Freudian slip! I mean “heart disease”!) a couple years ago, it was 10 (supposed to be no more than 3). A month or so ago, it was 29, and when they checked it again a week or so later it was 14. Also, my heart rate has been erratic at the doctor’s office—between 80 and 116 at different times, for no apparent reason.

Before the colonoscopy, a nurse who had just taken my blood pressure proceeded to ask me a million questions that I had already answered a million times. Those people are thorough—different nurses kept popping up and asking me my name and birthdate as if they were trying to catch me in a lie. While the first nurse was questioning me and entering my answers into a computer, another nurse was trying to get the IV needle in my arm. My sisters and I all have veins that strongly resist capture. So she’s fussing with my arms and hands, poking here and there, and the Question Nurse comes to “Do you have high blood pressure?” And I quip, “I don’t know, you tell me!” (See, she had just taken it. Do I have to explain everything?) And the Needle Nurse smiles! At last! Someone appreciates my feeble attempt at humor! And eventually the needle goes in, mission accomplished.

Part of my problem in joking with strangers is that I don’t have the courage of my convictions. I don’t sell it, or I don’t sell it with the requisite ha-ha or strong, confident deadpan. My deadpan only seems to work with people who’ve heard it many times before. I met my new doctor (I think I told you), and at my physical, he was crouched on the floor with one of my feet in each hand for some reason, while I sat in my “gown” on the end of the examining table. I thought of restraining my immediate association but then decided to go ahead. I said, “I’d like to see something in a nice loafer?” See, that questioning uplift at the end of the sentence conveyed my lack of confidence. He just said, “I can’t help you with that,” and when I croaked, “JOKE,” he said, “Oh, I didn’t know you were joking.” I don’t really blame him; he’s doing his thing, and I’m making some bizarre commentary that he has no context for. He’s Barb’s doctor, too, and she had an appointment with him a couple days after mine. She said to him, “It took you a while to get the loafer joke, didn’t it?” He had to agree.

The next time I saw him, I said, “I’ve never felt comfortable with a doctor in my whole life before.” He asked if I was comfortable there, and I said, “Very much.” He seemed pleased. It’s really true, and I still can’t believe it. Is it because it’s the U.P.—no, actually, it’s N.E.W. (Northeastern Wisconsin), but close enough—that they have to try harder? When you go to the hospital (“BA”MC) (I explained that last time, look it up), there are signs everywhere saying “Thank you for choosing BAMC.” And I always think, “I didn’t know I had a choice.” But maybe they’re sensitive because it’s common knowledge that “people from Menominee/Marinette go to Green Bay for health care, and people from Green Bay go to Milwaukee.” I suppose Milwaukeeans set their sights on Chicago. Anyway, everyone who works at the hospital here seems to be genuinely friendly and just busting out all over in their desire to please. That was not my experience in the real (S.F.) Bay Area.


So I’m lying on a hospital bed with an IV sticking out of my hand, waiting to be taken for my colonoscopy. Barb is sitting in the recliner next to the bed crocheting a scarf. (She is an inveterate crocheter, an unrepentant, unregenerate crocheter.) Mounted on the wall is a TV, which is showing a series of nature photographs, but because I don’t have my glasses on, all I can see are blobs of green and blue. I wonder idly what’s in the IV bag, and Barb thinks there must be a mild sedative, though I am feeling anything but sedated—or loopy, one of the consolations I was looking forward to after enduring the 6-hour trial of drinking 9 tall glasses of lemonade-like liquid the night before. (“Lemonade-like” in the sense that someone must have waved a lemon in the general direction of a small dune of powdered laxative before it got to me.) I insisted I wasn’t in the “feeling no pain” zone, but then I started paying closer attention to the blobs of nature on the TV and noticed that now there were fluffy white clouds streaming leftward against a blue background. And I started giggling. Like, if you’re feeling anxious about the soon-to-be hose stuck up your ass, surely you’ll be pleasantly distracted by these faux clouds drifting by. I pointed out to Barb that one of the clouds looked like Dick Cheney, but she did not find this quip amusing, and usually she’s highly amused by me, so that’s when I decided I must indeed be intravenously ingesting some sort of happy concoction. Then I had one of my patented epiphanies when I realized that, in the future, the world will be like the movie Beetlejuice in that there will be no “outside.” You’ll spend your life in rooms without windows (there will be nuclear winter beyond the walls, or maybe just abstract patterns or white noise) but you’ll have a TV monitor—or maybe they will have perfected the showing of images on your retinas—to feed you scenes of life as it used to be. Old people will tell their grandchildren about the far-away long-ago when you could actually be in the picture and surrounded by the picture as you were now surrounded by blank walls and closed-circuit TVs, and the young’uns will roll their eyes at Grandma and Grandpa’s lame, pointless memories, as they do now when we oldsters start waxing nostalgic about Grateful Dead concerts and safe, cheap recreational drugs. As I was going on about all this, I had the distinct feeling that Barb wasn’t listening. Well, at least I was amusing myself. I mean, somebody has to.

They finally come for me, and the last thing I remember is being told to turn on my side. Next thing I know, I’m back in my “room,” Barb is still crocheting, and I have disagreeable pain in my stomach, which lasts all the way through the recovery period and on to the car and the restaurant, Schloegel’s, where I’m desperate to eat something after more than 32 hours of fasting. I’m trying to discreetly let a little air out of my bum in little toots. The Recovery Nurse had said I could eat “anything” now, so I took her at her word and ordered Swedish pancakes and sausage—except that I told the waitress “Swedish meatballs and sausage,” and fortunately Barb noticed and I was spared a meat overdose. At the hospital everyone had been adamant that I wouldn’t remember a thing the doctor or the nurses said to me after the procedure, so I was equally adamant that I was perfectly alert, though I could tell that my glazed eyes betrayed me. And I did remember pretty much everything, which boiled down to “Don’t do anything for the rest of the day; tomorrow you can resume your normal life.” Since my “normal life” consists of not doing much of anything anyway, I did not find this instruction difficult to follow.

After we ate, I needed to get some groceries, and I asked Barb if she thought I “deserved” to buy a batch of bakery cookies after everything I’d been through, and she wholeheartedly agreed, which I knew she would. So I bought white chocolate-macadamia nut cookies, some broccoli, and the all-too-seldom-appearing cream of broccoli soup from the soup bar. I could give up cookies if I absolutely had to, but I couldn’t give up broccoli. Barb dropped me off at home, and I got set up in my comfy armchair with the cookies and a Thermos of water by my side and spent the next 10 hours alternately sleeping and waking up long enough to eat a couple of cookies, add a word or two to the crossword puzzle I was working on, and go back to sleep. I felt great when I woke up.

Oh, the doctor found a “medium-size” polyp in me that was presumably benign and sternly announced that I would have to have another colonoscopy in 3 years. Hey, piece o’ cake, doc. 3 years is like forever.


And on we go. Two days later, I went for my mammogram—which always makes me think of “candygram” from the “Saturday Night Live” sketch about the land shark; I picture a tech in a white smock knocking on my door with the coy implication that she has something wonderful to give me. I was sitting in the waiting room and looked up to see that several large panels in the ceiling—alternating with regular gray acoustic tiles—showed clouds and blue sky like in the colonoscopy room, but they weren’t moving. It was an odd look, and it made me wonder, Who designs this shit? And of course everything was pink. I hate pink, therefore I am not a real woman. (I was once told to my face that I wasn’t a real woman, and it’s surprising how much it hurt, as if I had been born with 2 heads or something. This was back in the ‘70s when I worked at Commerce Clearing House in San Rafael, and a coworker who’d been asked if she and her roommate [an obvious dyke] were lesbians said it was like being called a prostitute. Another coworker was describing someone as “queer,” and I, being newly recruited to the cause [though I never got my toaster], piped up, “I’m queer,” whereupon another coworker friendly to me said, “Oh, Mary, you are not.” I wasn’t sure how to take that, but I knew she meant well. That’s when someone else said, perfectly seriously, that I wasn’t a real woman. Thank God no one around this Bay Area seems to know what dykes look like, because if they did, half the farm women in town would be openly ostracized. I’ve gotten a couple of leers and sneers from men on diner stools, but I easily stare them down. Living here for me is like being an imperialist in a colonial outpost. Because you’ve been exposed to more of the real world than they have, you can culturally lord it over them. So the backwater men here still think they’re at the top of the totem pole, but I can pierce them with my unintimidated gaze like a lean and hungry yon Cassius—or fat and hungry in my case.)


So as I said, they found “something” on the mammogram, so I had to have a biopsy. The surgeon who did it is very well liked (I liked him, too), and my niece said he’s “the best cutter in town.” So I had a sodden thought: If he lived in the Middle East, he could be the best cutter in Qatar. (I swear I’ve heard that name pronounced the same as “cutter,” but the online dictionary claims it rhymes with: afar, ajar, all-star, armoire, and about 150 other words. I include this superfluous information just in case there are any poets out there looking for a rhyme for a small emirate—though it may be easier to use emirate in the first place. Mais non: There are over 400 rhymes for “emirate,” including Watergate, welfare state, and welterweight! I suggest you write about something else.)

The biopsy wasn’t a big deal, but the discharge instructions said I couldn’t lift more than 10 pounds for a few days. Guess who weighs more than 10 pounds each? Fatty McBrutus and Fatty McLuther. Even if I don’t lift them, they’re used to using my body, especially my chest, as an alternative bed-slash-stomping ground. I had to keep shooing them away or trying to hold on to them with only one arm. Try explaining that to a couple of selfish felines. But the excision healed up nicely, and the “something” turned out to be “nothing.”

At the follow-up appointment a week later, nice Dr. Surgeon called me “young lady.” I had vowed to educate the next person (always a man) who called me that in the mistaken belief that I would be flattered by the obvious lie. But it backfired on me. Dr. Surgeon said he was sorry if he offended me (though he was clearly the one who was offended) and that he thought of me as “young”—his last two patients had been 87 and 89. Well, OK. He then suggested that he call me “pleasant lady” because I’m “pleasant.” Was that a dig? By then I wished I had kept my mouth shut. What do you ever get for bucking the system, I ask you?

If you’re still with me, congratulations. You are a real trouper, which is why I’ve always liked you.


[Mary McKenney]

mary’zine random redux: #4 May 2000

March 14, 2009

I was telling J (my therapist) the other day, “I’d rather have 100,000 readers than a million dollars any day.” J asked what that would do for me, and I was amazed to hear myself say, “It would make me feel like I was part of humanity.” I’ve never really felt like I belonged here, on this planet. So knowing that other people are actually moved to laughter or tears by what I write is a revelation to me. Maybe I’m not so strange and alone. Maybe I belong. And it occurred to me that a lot of people must feel this way, all of us bumbling along, feeling different, feeling wrong, feeling separate—unheard, unseen—and that is why we are always looking for ways to connect.

I had this whole issue ready to go—ruminations on everything from caffeine addiction, to my time as a morally bankrupt librarian, to death, dreams, and metaphysics—but events overtook me, and I decided to write about my laparoscopic cholecystectomy (gallbladder surgery) instead. Lucky you!

déjà vu all over again

As I troll the aisles of United Market in search of rations for the days following my upcoming gallbladder surgery, I don’t know if the strong sense of déjà vu is from my December 1999 controlled buying panic preparatory to the nonevent of two centuries passing in the night, or if I’m harking back to Pookie’s ER experience. After all, he had stones, I have stones. He had an inessential body part removed, I’m about to have an inessential body part removed—my fourth, in fact, after tonsils, uterus, and appendix. I feel as if God is taking me Home piece by piece.

But there was no time to shop before Pookie’s turn under the knife, so this heady feeling of “Anything goes—and I’d better be ready for it” has to be related to my late-millennial buying spree—if “spree” is the right word when you’re pushing your cart slowly, contemplatively, down the aisles of forbidden treats, rationalizing your future need to be rewarded for having survived a natural disaster. Ordinarily, I would resolutely avert my cart from the tempting display of Pepperidge Farm soft-baked chocolate chocolate chocolate (how many chocolates? I can’t think straight after the first two) chunk cookies, but it seems I have entered a Twilight Zone of extreme calm and purposefulness in which anything in the store is mine if I but pass mine eyes over it. The mission that is driving me today is—I will be stuck in the house, alone, for days after the surgery, so I am allowed to imagine the medical and/or psychological postsurgical therapeutic benefits of any substance within reach. “Get it while the gettin’s good” is another way to look at it.

So I linger in front of the rows of soft, cuddly bags of soft, cuddly cookies, and my eyes are caught by those magical words: “REDUCED FAT.” If I remove my glasses and zoom in closer to the bag, I can read the rest—“25% less fat than our regular soft baked cookie.” Of course, this statistic is meaningless, because if a regular bag is 100% no good for you, then going for the 75% version is hardly a calorie-cutting measure. By law, the fine people who make these cookies down on old Pepperidge’s farm should not be allowed to use the word “reduced” or refer to the ephemeral 25% at all. For the sake of truth in advertising, the bag should read:


But 25% in the hand is worth 75% on the shelf (who says I’m no good at math?) so—plop, there they go, landing softly in my cart. Hope I can keep my mitts off them until I get home from the hospital. For good measure, I throw in a “mango tango” shake, a vanilla Frappucino, a quart of orange juice, fresh raspberries, half a cooked ham, and a whole roast chicken. I feel like I’m preparing for a picnic instead of surgery. As a concession to health, I toss in some frozen veggie burgers. I predict that hell will freeze over before those things ever get thawed.

(As I reread this, the day before surgery, the Frappucino and raspberries are long gone, but the cookies and, God knows, the veggie burgers are still waiting for my triumphant return.)

It’s amazing, the preparations I have to make for being away from home for a day and a half. The cleaning, the packing. The calling the East Coast publisher to arrange to get the last figure captions for Recombinant DNA and Biotechnology—looks like I’ll be editing on my recovery bed—no sick leave, no vacation pay, or personal days for the self-employed—or is that “no rest for the wicked”?—the instructions on what to take and what not to, the meal planning before and after, the setting the VCR so I’ll have “The Practice” to come home to, the grocery buying, the phone numbers, the prescriptions, the errands, the cat food, the mental preparation for death, the hormone replacement patch—stick it far from the gallbladder—the preregistration, the forms to fill out, the blood test, the urine test, remember to tell them about the problems I had after the colonoscopy, was it the Versed? To complicate matters, my carport is going to be repaved the day I return, so I have to arrange for P and C to take their truck home (it gives me a feeling of security to have a pickup parked out back; I’m tempted to install a gun rack), and I have to move my own car out to the street before I leave. In this neighborhood, it feels like leaving my only child out in the yard for 2 days. I’ll remove my valuables—sleeping bag and survival kit, car phone—but still. In case my carport is covered in bubbling tar when I get home and I can’t get to the back door, I have to round up the missing key to my front door, which I never use. Can’t find it, so what am I supposed to do, leave the door unlocked? Then I have to buy bigger food and water dishes for Pookie, plus a second, huge litter box, so he’s completely self-sufficient for the duration. He’s going to feel like Pookie in Wonderland, everything suddenly getting bigger on him. Of utmost importance is what book to take. I decide on Cryptonomicon, a huge, elaborate novel about cryptography, computers, and World War II—probably too much for my postsurgical pain-addled mind, but I don’t want to get stuck with Family Circle as my only option.

No wonder I don’t travel.

Last but definitely not least, I have to arrange for a ride to the hospital and back. I have to arrive at 7:00 a.m. Monday and leave around midday on Tuesday. This is a dilemma of enormous proportions, because I find it really hard to ask for help. I hated having to accept charity as a child (we needed a lot of it) and I somehow got it in my head that it’s shameful to need anything. J has to talk me down from my panic, as if I were a kitten stuck in a tree. I ask her, half-jokingly, half-defiantly, if she’ll come and take me to the hospital, and she says she can’t “rescue” me from this challenge—but if I ask three people and can’t find anyone to drive me, then yes, she will drive over from Berkeley in the morning and pick me up. I am deeply touched by her offer. I know there’s no way I’m going to let her do that, but talking it out with her helps me see that the problem is all in my head, so I get on the phone and call a few friends, who are, of course, happy to help.

And by the way, I feel like writing an “Ode to J” for this woman who perfectly inhabits the role of my therapist, with a rare (in my experience) combination of looking out for my best interests and keeping boundaries intact, yet showing me very clearly how much she cares for me. Her integrity is unwavering. She has never let me down or tried to take advantage of me. The fact that this amazes me tells you something. I have been ill-used by certain female authority figures in the past, and J has done a lot to repair the damage. I am grateful for her presence in my life.

I have started writing this story before the actual surgery, counting on something of interest happening that will make all this introductory material worthwhile. I would hate for it all to be much ado about nothing, as so many of my preparations for disaster turn out to be. And I don’t want to have to resort to fiction, not my strong suit. (“Dear reader, it was terrible—the doctor took out my liver instead!”) Never fear, I have a backup tale to lay on you if the gallbladder story turns out to be benign.

Well here I am, back home… pain and Vicodin battling for dominance… and I shudder to think of some of the “special” moments I endured in the hospital. There was pain, there was nausea, there was a cloyingly rich yellow mystery soup I dubbed “cream of butter.” I think what I suffered from the most, though, was e-x-p-e-c-t-a-t-i-o-n-s. Because of the brief time I’d be there, I naively thought that it would be a piece o’ cake. Apparently, it was a piece o’ cake for some people. When the surgeon came in to discharge me, he bragged about the procedure, “What could be easier?”—but of course he hadn’t been with me during the long night of bloodletting (I learned that I have thin veins that disappear at the poke of a needle), the projectile vomiting, the excruciating catheterization.

But the expectation that failed me the most was the idea, the hope, that I would have a transcendent experience like the one I had after my appendix ruptured 3 years ago. Come to think of it, the first day or so of that hospitalization was no picnic either, but what happened toward the end of it wiped the bad parts from my memory chalkboard. With apologies to those who’ve already read the story, here it is. (I return to gallbladderlessland a few pages on.)

the parsley epiphany

We are not human beings with occasional spiritual experiences, we are spiritual beings with occasional human experiences—Deepak Chopra

Two weeks before my appendix burst, I had this dream:

I’m driving a small truck, like a camper, and I park at the edge of a cliff. I have to get out on the cliff side, and as I look out the door, I’m so close to the edge that I can’t even see the ground the truck is standing on. I’m going to have to go down the little steps and turn and step onto a rope ladder attached to the truck and sort of climb sideways to get to the back of the truck to the ground. I spend what seems like an eternity looking down into nothingness and wondering if my weight hanging off the side of the truck will cause it to topple over the cliff. But it seems steady enough… so I finally do it, I go down the steps, turn, put my feet in the rope ladder, which swings out away from the truck a little, and I am acutely aware of that vast abyss below me….

I woke up at that point, but not in a panic: I knew I had made it—I didn’t have to play out the rest of the drama and actually reach solid ground. It was all about being willing to hang there, suspended. I can still feel that vivid sensation in the pit of my stomach—how it felt as I swung out from the truck, absolutely nothing below me.

Trust is hard for me. I have a lifelong tendency to feel that disaster is always about to happen. If it doesn’t happen, I make it up. I constantly find myself in the middle of a mental drama in which, to take the most common theme (especially at night), a man is breaking into my house. This fear is somewhat understandable because I’m a woman living alone and it’s been known to happen, but I am also capable of worrying that an airplane is going to crash into my roof. It doesn’t really matter what the imagery is, there’s just a sense of always expecting to hear the bad news on the phone, the sound of breaking glass, it’s a feeling of what next? I hear a strange noise and my adrenaline starts pumping. I’m sure there are psychological reasons for this tendency, but that’s not the point. I’m now over 50 and wondering if it’s possible to have a sense of ease in my life. Trust the universe? Easier said than done.

And then, one day my appendix burst. I didn’t know that was what was happening, it didn’t feel like a burst, it was more like a slow turning of screws in my midsection over the course of about 30 hours. It is, of course, ironic that I assumed the pain to be benign—for once, I didn’t immediately leap to a disaster scenario—and I assured myself that it was just some gastrointestinal bug from the leftover Chinese take-out I’d had for lunch. As time went on and the pain got worse, I was thrown into that excruciating inner debate: Should I take the big step of calling the doctor? (I never think they’ll know any more than I do.) What if I ask my friend Jean to come all the way from Fairfax to take me to the ER and it turns out to be nothing?

As it happened, I called her just in time, I got to the hospital just in time, they operated just in time, and my life was saved just in time. Which tells me that, yes, of course, I can trust. Trust myself, trust my intuition, trust that I’ll know when the crisis is real and not manufactured by fear. Trust the universe to be “endlessly correlated” (Deepak again) whether it looks like it or  not. I’m not just saying this because my life was spared. People die all the time. The issue is not—Trust, and only good things will come to you, nothing bad will happen to you, no bad man will break in, no airplane will crash, no illness will come. There may be a local rupture—of a doorway, a roof, an internal organ—but there is no rupture in the fabric of being.

Upon arrival in the ER, as I was lying in pain, freezing cold, while an angel of mercy tried unsuccessfully to insert a catheter to take a urine sample—HURT much?—I felt safer than I’ve felt in a long time. Part of it was knowing that I had navigated the rocky road from “I don’t want to bother anyone, it’s probably just gas” to actually getting my body where it needed to be. But on a much deeper level, I felt that I was safe in the universe. I’m not that thrilled with the word “universe,” but I don’t know what else to call it. I’m not trying to aggrandize my little self, we’re all hooked up to the “universe” through the catheter of our individual lives—now there’s an image—but what I mean is the deepest, truest pulse, the heartbeat that runs through everything.

And so, as I was rushed up to surgery—ah, the thrill of being the center of all that attention, my reward for the preceding hours of solitary torment—I felt that it truly didn’t matter if this was my time to die, it didn’t matter if this drama, the drama of little Mary, one of countless millions of dramas, was about to end. I knew I was held in much bigger hands than the hands of the surgeon. As I had that thought, I flashed on the hands of the blue Being in one of my recent paintings. You could as easily say that I was held in those hands. Whose hands they are doesn’t matter. Hands are there.

After a few days of, let’s face it, pain and misery, when I was unhooked from the I.V. antibiotics and was able to eat soft food, I sat in my hospital bed, looking out on Mt. Tamalpais, and the sun was pouring in, and all I could see out my window was green, except for the birds who would come up to the wire netting and look in and chirp and fly off again. As I contemplated the food on my dinner tray—the usual hospital fare, not the carrot cake and chili dogs I had been dreaming of (literally)—I saw that the same “cottage cheese and soft fruit salad” I had had for lunch had been dressed up for dinner with a sprig of parsley on the cottage cheese. This simple, even lowly, probably mechanical gesture (I don’t think someone in the kitchen was sending me waves of love by tenderly placing the parsley just so) pierced my heart. It touched something in me about the care that had sustained me through the difficult days, the focused attention to keep me safe, the confluence of events and help from friends, and even a compassionate surgeon (!!!). I felt so blessed, and the blessing came by way of a sprig of parsley and a ray of sunlight, it was such a simple thing.

But the real surprise was when I examined my good fortune, and I knew that the gratitude was not for anything. It wasn’t for the nurses, the doctor, the sun, the view; it wasn’t for another friend named Jean, an out-of-towner, who drove to Marin without a map and found the hospital by sheer luck and intuition because “calling didn’t seem good enough”; it wasn’t for my medical insurance, my restored health, my repaired bowel; it wasn’t even for my life. I was not grateful for my life. The gratitude just kept tunneling down, and it wasn’t dependent, I was grateful for no-thing. Each good thing that had happened could have been taken away—including my life—and the gratitude wouldn’t have been touched in the slightest. I found this most curious.

And so I ate the cottage cheese and the tasteless, touch chicken tarragon with canned mushrooms, not being grateful for any-thing, and tears fell on my hospital gown and I thanked God, and I felt so incredibly held in grace. And it was not Mary that was being held, Mary was just as meaningful and meaningless as the sprig of parsley—a manifestation of God’s love and completely expendable at the same time. What an incredible precipice to teeter on, but it didn’t feel like teetering, because the precipice and the abyss were one, there was nowhere to fall, there was no one to fall, no truck, no rope ladder, no ground, no dream separate from reality, no rupture of any kind.

It’s not that I have attained enlightenment and will never have paranoid fantasies again. In fact, the day I came home from the hospital, I found myself in another fantasy loop of “what if something awful happened, what if my guts fell out of my stitches and I had to call 9-1-1 and the medics had to break down my door and the neighbors looted all my belongings….” Then it hit me what I was doing, and I thought, oh my God. It already happened. One of my worst-case scenarios already happened. Something burst in my belly,  a true life crisis burst upon me, and what did I do? I handled it. Or it was handled. The friend was called. The doctor was summoned. Life took its course.

It was a wonderful insight to see that the ravings of the mind are completely unconnected to reality. And a deep experience (a spiritual experience, for lack of a better term) may not even affect the mental level, because the mental level is what it is. It made me realize that I don’t have to set a new standard for myself now that I’ve “seen the light.” Maybe I’ll jerk to attention when I hear a noise outside, maybe I’ll stave off the bad man in my imagination, maybe I’ll fear the worst over and over again. The mind is not capable of deep change. I can probably hope to catch it sooner, and I expect I will. And then I will go on with my life. I will not look for change on that level, because it’s not relevant.

I have been given the gift of the piercing moment of truth, the fleeting awareness that the things of my life are not the Real, whether they are sweet and precious or difficult and painful. The truth is: Appendixes can rupture. Being cannot. On some very deep level, it doesn’t matter what happens to you.

Do I need to keep this gift on display, keep asking to see it again, as if it will disappear? Where could a gift like this go? Sure, it would be nice to live in a state of higher consciousness, but it doesn’t ultimately matter. What’s true is still true, whether I believe it every minute or not. This releases me from a potential burden, the burden of trying to live up to something that’s beyond my mind’s comprehension. I don’t have to prove anything, I don’t have to attain anything or “be a better person.” The truth doesn’t have to set me free. How liberating is that?

Epilog: A few weeks later, I received a questionnaire from the hospital about my stay there. One of the questions was: “Were your spiritual needs adequately met?” I had to laugh. Oh, yes.

Back to the present

And now do you see why I had such high expectations about going back to the same hospital, the same surgeon, as if I had attained a level of blissful transcendence that would keep me safely above it all? And just in time for the ‘zine—how appropriate my two stories would be, cheek by jowl, as if I were singularly blessed to be able to perceive the usually fearful experience of surgery from some higher plane. Yes, that earlier surgery and its aftermath were a gift, but so was my safe transport through this less-threatening experience, just as every day is a gift—but how tempting it is to single out certain moments, to want only the heady insight, the glorious relief, the ice cream that sweetens and numbs the pain, the bliss of oblivion named Vicodin when the throbbing gets too bad, the luck of the draw that brings the sweetest nurse on earth to your side when you need her the most.

I think my lesson here is that holding out for epiphanies is a lost cause, because they’re not within my control. All I can do is take what comes. Besides—when I think of sweet Pramila, who came in to take my breakfast tray and said, with a twinkle in her eye, “Are you finished with this, or are you still enjoying your coffee?” (you would have had to taste the coffee to get the full effect of this quip)—and another twinkly-eyed chap who said he was writing on my chart, “Patient claims to have washed up and brushed her teeth already”—I know that epiphanies aren’t made up of only the amazing insights or the moments of life-snatched-from-the-jaws-of-death. Epiphany is where you seek it, I suppose.

I sit here typing this on the evening of my return home—physically drained for sure, and feeling a little let down, but still grateful for the love of the people in my life and the disinterested but caring presence of the angel-strangers at the hospital. Somehow the very ordinariness of what I went through, compared with the earlier surgery, feels appropriate. Life is not scripted, much as I would like to cut and paste only the happy endings. Maybe that would be the beauty of being a fiction writer, epiphanies a dime a dozen as long as you can fit them into the plot.

But even having to stick to “facts,” it seems that things tend to connect up, that even dashed expectations and failed attempts at transcendence play their part in life. I got up after typing the above paragraph—suddenly I felt the need to wash down my evening Vicodin with two chocolate chunk cookies—didn’t want to risk taking the drug on an empty stomach, you know—and I accidentally stepped hard on Pookie’s tail. He retreated to his little bed under the stairs, turning his head away and refusing to purr as I petted him and apologized profusely, asking his feline forgiveness. I knew it would come—his brain isn’t big enough to hold a grudge—but I wished I could erase what I had done.

And then I thought of poor Nurse S., whose catheterization technique was pure torture—something about my vagina being “too high”—I worry about my body like everyone else, but it never occurred to me to worry about that—anyway, she came to me when her shift was over, took my hand, and said how sorry she was to have caused me pain. Even though I murmured, “It’s all right,” it didn’t feel all right in my heart. I judged her harshly and held on to the resentment, banking it as if it would pay interest some day. But now I see the true epiphany of this story. Transcendence is not just about the moments of grace or pleasure or love; there is salvation in the difficult moments, too. I see that sometimes it’s my turn to be the one who forgives and not just the one who gratefully receives.

[Mary McKenney]

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