Sunday, May 27, 2012

Little Girl Turned Big

One night a couple lifetimes ago we decided it was time to start a family. The next night we decided maybe we had rushed things. Nine months later, our beautiful daughter, Kirstyn, was born.

The 80 mph race to the hospital, though a white knuckler at the time, has mostly faded from memory. The 39 hours of labor, not so much.

We held her every waking moment in ‘the football hold’…it was the only relief any of us found from the miseries of colic. Her second birthday party was an enormous affair, what with the clown, the pony, the puppeteers, the face painting and the full buffet for parents who came with their own toddlers. You might say we got a little carried away, but it seemed the obvious thing to do at the time.

Years passed, second by second and also at lightning speed. We sat with her through night terrors, worked with her through speech therapy, and lathered cream upon her eczema. We clapped and fawned our way through countless performances of Rock and Roll banged out on her kiddy piano, and did our best to remedy the hideous haircuts each of her dolls would suffer sooner or later.

When she was ready to branch out, Cecil ran alongside as she learned to skate, and then again as she learned to ride a bike. She tapped and pirouetted for a while, then played piano. Finally, she punched and kicked her way to a black belt in Taekwondo. We moved through her life as if it were our own. Day and night, we were what she needed us to be, for we had cast ourselves as her champions and never lost sight of what that meant.

I remember the day of her first Homecoming dance. She floated down the stairs, the child I knew concealed beneath a veil of beauty and grace that had made their way to her when I wasn’t looking. When did all that happen? It was as if I was seeing her for the first time. She’d become a young woman before I’d had a chance to say goodbye to my little girl.

I think the change cranked into high gear when Kirstyn was in the eighth grade. That was the year she decided she wanted to go to Harvard. “Wow,” I said almost to myself. “How does one get into Harvard?”

“Straight A’s forever, unusual extra-curriculars, community service, leadership at school, interesting summer enrichment programs, top scores on the SAT and a killer essay.”

“Are you up to all that?” 

“I think I am,” she said. 

She’d barely uttered those words before the feds descended upon our life. For the next five years, prosecutors and their agents were after Cecil with a vengeance that made no sense, but which drove them, nonetheless. Throughout her entire high school experience, Kirstyn’s father was a high profile criminal defendant. She stood like stone at his arraignment and watched him shuffle along in a jumpsuit and shackles. One day in health class, not knowing the connection, her teacher held up an article and wanted to discuss the local doctor’s drug case. Kirstyn stared down at her paper, choking back an assortment of emotions no child should have to endure. 

It was only a matter of time before hungry cameras caught her up and delivered her to page one, above the fold of the newspaper. With that, Kirstyn publically became the daughter of the accused and her world shifted beneath her.

At home, we whispered and wrote notes in case the feds were listening, and we stomached the humility that came to the door in food baskets left anonymously when people knew money had run out. Kirstyn watched her father almost die from cancer and the treatments meant to save him and, in the end, she sat in a courtroom watching him be crucified.

Somehow, through all of this – and much more – the girl never wavered.

She fought her way to a Second Degree Senior Black Belt. She rocked babies in the hospital, big-sistered underprivileged children and sat on her school’s Youth Court. Every Science Fair yielded trophies. Every summer she headed off on some experience of a lifetime. She took the SAT four times before she was satisfied with her score, and she spent six months writing her college admission essay. Determined in her goal, Kirstyn brought home nothing but A’s on every report card. She graduated Valedictorian, and spoke of injustice and prosecutorial excesses at Commencement.

One night, in December of her senior year, Kirstyn called from down the hall. As I walked to her, I could see she was shaking. “What’s wrong?” I asked, not sure I wanted to know. She took my hand and led me to her computer. “I think I just got into Harvard,” she said, barely above a whisper, not daring to believe; not realizing what had just become of her. 

The Welcome to the Class of 2009 message stared from the screen. We stared back at it. Then we squealed like little girls and we jumped up and down like little girls and then we cried like little girls.

Kirstyn’s four years at Harvard were an experience that cannot be described. Overlying it all, of course, was the mystique and the privilege of attending a college of Harvard’s ilk, but most of all, it was the people and the atmosphere and Cambridge and, well, just everything about it. She emerged a vibrant young woman, competent and ready to find some exciting path to take her along to whatever she might do next.

And then, last weekend, Kirstyn arrived in Charlottesville to cover a shift as Cecil’s caregiver. It took but a glance to comprehend his frailty and, with words unspoken, the child became the parent. Each morning, she followed the sunrise to deliver her dad for treatments. Questions from the doctor came to her. Medications, vital signs and blood counts dominated her focus and caused her to take up against recalcitrant behavior. When she caught Cecil huddled under a blanket one night, shivering from the onset of fever, she scolded him. “What are you doing, Dad? Do you want to go back to the hospital? Take that stuff off.” Then she snatched the wool hat from his head and removed the blanket. Throughout the next day, she plied him with fluids. “Don’t argue with me, please. Just drink your water.”

If I look over my shoulder, I can still see Kirstyn dancing in the sprinkler. We still wrap ourselves around her life as we make decisions that will guide and protect her. When I look straight ahead, I see a beautiful woman who has started down the path away from us. It is her life now.

And, though that hurts in spots tucked away beneath the surface, it is among the greatest joys a parent will have. Our little girl has turned big.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Buzzy and Ricky Ray

A few months ago, when Cecil’s transplant coordinator said ‘Get ready to go,’ Cecil’s challenge was to get medically prepared. Mine was to put in place a series of logistics and a network of support. I had ten days to find a place for Cecil’s two-month outpatient recuperation in Charlottesville, and the same stretch of time in which to pull together a team of caregivers to cover him day and night.

I would have to work except on weekends, so I’d need to recruit others. I put out the call to family and friends. We would need about ten people who could leave their jobs and families, fly to Virginia (at their own expense) and give us a week. During that week, each caregiver would likely have to pile out in the middle of the night en route to the E.R. and to sit for hours at a time in the hospital, wearing a gown, mask and gloves. Before his or her week was over, each would feel like Stepin Fetchit, and each would come to exemplify the term bedraggled. I didn’t expect many to raise their hands.

Within a day, about twenty people had committed to the task – unconditionally – just, ‘Count me in.’ A couple of them put together a Facebook Group, so details of Cecil’s transplant and recovery could be posted for those who wanted to know. Almost immediately there were some fifty members. That number kept growing. The outpouring of concern and support was almost contagious. I watched Cecil's quest for health blossom into a community of people who banded together in a common experience. Many of these people had never met. Their lives had no cross-connection, but they had come together to nurture someone through a life and death experience. The community put down a network of roots and took on a life of its own.

Beneath all this was a sense of family, an ability to form relationships and to care for others beyond caring for themselves. What makes people feel such a connection? I need look no further than to Buzzy and Ricky Ray to answer that question.

Buzzy came into the family at my baby shower, when I was six months pregnant with Kirstyn. I can’t remember now how he became The One – or even how he became a ‘he’ – but, from the beginning, this scrawny little bear, non-descript in every respect, was Kirstyn’s main guy. When she ran down the hall to our room in the middle of the night to escape those scary things that come to visit every young child, Buzzy came with her. One night, she forgot him, and bravely retraced her steps to save him, before she would save herself.

We spoke of Buzzy as though he were another child of the family. No one questioned this; he was one of us. When we packed for a trip, Buzzy wasn’t laid out as a thing to remember. He was somehow at the door with the rest of us, ready to go.  

At my sister’s for Christmas one year, her pit bull got ahold of Buzzy and worked him over. The whole family was in mourning. I had to do something. I sewed a button where his eye used to be and crocheted him a new mouth. Cosmetic surgery here and there made the rest of it go away and Buzzy had been saved. The pall of disaster lifted.

Eight months into my pregnancy with Dru, Cecil, Kirstyn and I went to Bald Head Island. No cars were allowed; we traveled about in golf carts. At the end of our week, we stood on the pier waiting to board ship back to the mainland.

‘Where’s Buzzy?’ Kirstyn cried out, with just minutes to go. Panic set in immediately.

“What do you mean, Where’s Buzzy? Don’t you have him?”

“No, he’s not here,” came the sickening words. Another passenger chimed in that he had seen a stuffed bear lying in the road on his way to the pier.

Lying in the road? We jumped into a golf cart and raced back. I was at the wheel…45 pounds to the good; hair flying wildly in the breeze; pushing the cart to its limit and damning it for going no faster. A mile  into the woods and around a bend, a slight something appeared in the lane ahead. Was that Buzzy? Oh God, please, let it be him. As we came closer, there he was, splayed in the middle of the dirt like common road kill. The three of us leaped from the cart in unison and scooped him up, cuddling and soothing him against the injury. We stood in relieved silence for a minute, and then raced back to the boat.

Just before Dru was born, we found Ricky Ray at the bottom of a bin of stuffed animals in a baby store. We knew instantly he would be the Other One: he looked just like Buzzy.

Again with the escapes down the hall in the middle of the night and the family trips. We now had four children instead of two.

One day it was time to wash Ricky Ray. Dru would not relinquish his little friend easily. What would the washing entail? Would it hurt? How long would it take? I explained the process as we stood together by the washing machine.

“No,” Dru clutched Ricky to his chest. “He will hit his head.” So, I put Ricky into a pillow case and described how that would protect him from all the tumbling. As I tied a knot to secure him in, Dru cried out in horror, “He can’t breathe! He can’t breathe!” I quickly untied the knot and placed the bundle into the washer.

Every year at Christmas, the kids came down the stairs to see what Santa had brought. The four of them, Kirstyn and Buzzy, Dru and Ricky Ray, paused on the landing so we could take a picture. Then the four of them sat about the living room as we opened presents and enjoyed the beauty of life and love shared over time.

All these years later…Buzzy is 26 and Ricky Ray is 21…they are simply a part of our family. Buzzy went off to college with Kirstyn, and lives with her now in Boston. Ricky Ray is entering his third year at UVA’s School of Engineering. When Dru went off for his first year, Ricky Ray sat on top of the bags to be loaded.

“So, you’re bringing Ricky Ray?” I asked, thinking of a teenage boy’s quest for manliness, and the curse of pranks or teasing. Dru looked at me like I was some kind of nut. “Of course,” he said. Where Dru goes, so goes Ricky Ray.

Dru is a strapping young man now who worked at Microsoft last summer and will research cutting edge technology for a professor in the fall. This summer, he is traveling in Asia. He moved out of his dorm for the summer and came to the cottage, where Cecil is recuperating. “Mom, will you keep Ricky Ray while I’m gone,” he asked, as he handed me the bear. “I don’t want to bring him cuz something could happen to him in China.”

“Sure, I said, as I tossed Ricky into my weekend bag.”

Dru bristled. “Don’t throw him in the suitcase.”

“Oh, sorry.” What was I thinking? I placed Ricky Ray on the bed.

We learn to love from a young age. We look around us and we emulate what we see. It doesn’t matter if the ones you love are black or white, or made of cotton, bonds come to people who have learned how to form them, and been given the opportunity to do so. These are the threads that make life powerful. We are not here to mark time. Rocks do that. Human beings feel things. That’s what makes us different.

And that’s why, this summer, I will be sleeping with a dingy white bear, curling around him with love unquestioned, conjuring up the years we have spent together.     

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Spheres of Reality

I spent last weekend in Charlottesville with Cecil, then came home Sunday night for a few days’ work. At 5:30 Monday morning, a text called out from my nightstand: he’d fallen; plunging blood pressure; fever spike; hallucinations. They were transferring him to the ICU.

Hallucinations? I’ve been prepared for any number of calamities throughout the stem cell transplant process. We’ve already been visited by many of them, but hallucinations were not on the list.

I jumped from bed, maybe brushed my teeth…not sure…then threw the dogs into the car. The sun came up as I sat outside the kennel, waiting for it to open, so I could board the pups. The poor girl who arrived tried to comfort me as I conducted business through a stream of tears that fell, unblotted and unexplained.

 Racing up the highway, I prepared myself for what was waiting. Maybe he would die today. Maybe the graft had failed and he would fade away gradually. Maybe he’d stroked out and would never be the same. When I got there, I found a man I didn’t recognize. There were many things going on, but the hallucinations have stayed with me most of all.

He spoke more like a child than anything else. The trashcan was stalking him, but cleverly jumped back into place when I stood up to catch it in the act. We peeked under his covers to look at the potatoes he had gathered there, and the hand that was arranging them. Billy Bob Thornton pulled up a chair alongside of his bed to sing to him. And, of course, the wallpaper was waving (in 3-D), there were insects crawling on body parts, and squirrels were plunging to their death off high-rises out the window.

Reality snuck in around the corners from time to time. “I think I’m seeing things that aren’t really there,” he said once, just as his eyes darted off to follow the glitter that was raining down upon a stack of Ziplocs that were mobilizing in the street below.

I didn’t know what to make of all this. Cecil is a highly educated man: an engineer; a physician. Suddenly, he was talking nonsense. His reality at the time was a place I couldn’t get to. We were in different spheres, like two planets orbiting independently of each other. Meaningful communication was not an option. It reminded me of when we were fending off the feds.

Nothing they were doing made sense. Cecil was the kindest, most dedicated doctor a person could hope to have. His population of pain patients was among the most difficult to treat, but he never gave up on any of them. Yet, the feds pounced on him like he was some drug dealer barely in disguise. They had to know Cecil was a good man and a wonderful doctor. That information was all around them. It just didn’t seem to matter. They were committed to a reality that, for us, didn’t exist.

Cecil’s legal team was ready to defend his medical decisions. It turned out though, the feds had a different theory of the case. They put on evidence that was so far afield of the allegations it was almost laughable – except it wasn’t. The jury was presented stories of dead squirrels, Beetle and Bailey living in the basement, prescriptions exchanged for nasty old wine racks, and pot billowing from bongs all day every day in front of, and with, patients. They attacked Cecil for being eccentric. They made fun of his eclectic office d├ęcor, and they had a field day with a ‘coffee stained patient list’ they’d found in his truck during the first of their raids. The lead prosecutor flashed Cecil’s driver’s license picture on a theater-size screen throughout the trial. It had been taken on a bad hair day.  

In looking back, the whole case seems now like a grotesque hallucination. It was as far-fetched as the potatoes under Cecil’s sheet, or the trashcan that was stalking him. If you look around, though, these kinds of disconnects are everywhere. One doesn’t have to have IV drugs running through his body, or be an ambitious prosecutor serving a political agenda, to see things that aren’t there.

Every day in my law practice, I hear stories of people talking at each other without being heard. I have a case now in which neither party can see the spouse’s point of view, no matter how legitimate it might be. She is an evil bitch, that’s all there is to it. He is a domineering bully who draws the line at nothing, for no apparent reason. Each comment is taken as menacing, and neither party is above bending or stretching words or intonations to mean something they likely never did. I spent fifteen minutes with a client last week debating the significance of where the spouse had placed a comma in an email.

It’s easy to take up position and miss the things that don’t mesh with your sense of reality. When Cecil and I have arguments, the only ones that end well are the ones that find one of us willing to let go of our self-conviction. When I make my point from every conceivable angle, without considering what he is saying, the only movement in the conversation is in the volume and the level of sarcasm. If I find it within myself to stop and listen, and admit when he is right, the whole dynamic changes. Suddenly, we are laughing at ourselves. We become friends and lovers again, instead of antagonists bent on toppling each other. Our realities come together rather than collide.

Reality can be distorted by perception or context as it moves among us. It is upon common ground that we can communicate and mean something to each other.

On the way from the hospital to the cottage the other day, I stopped at a light. Two young men were sitting on the curb, each with a bottle of liquor in hand. They were both clearly well on their way to wherever the bottle would take them.

One spoke loudly in a string of vernacular and epithets, gesturing wildly as he berated the other. “How dare you, M…F… place your hand on my body,” he screamed. “You had no right to lay your hand on my body when you spoke to me, you son-of-a-bitch. I don’t put my hand on you when I talk, you bastard.”  He ranted and he raved, unfazed by the other man’s disinterest. The second man was not available…his headphones and sunglasses had taken him elsewhere. Undaunted by his friend firing off next to him, the second man swayed to music, tapped his feet and smiled to himself. The two sat together, joined in separation from most of the rest of us, but isolated from each other in what looked like a Woody Allen mockery of communication.

It takes work and effort to reach people. The challenge is to see the issue or the situation from someone else’s perspective, and then be willing to move toward it. I can forgive the guy who finds himself lost in hallucinations. I have come to dismiss the individual who cannot see that others likely have valid points to make. If you’re going to be so self-absorbed as to listen only to yourself, you might as well be a blithering outcast sitting on the curb, or the guy next to him in headphones.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

A Short Story About Time Flying

I planted a flower yesterday and, before I'd finished smoothing the dirt back under its leaves, a yellow butterfly fluttered down onto the blossom. To me, the beautiful ‘flying flower’ is the quintessential symbol of transition. I thought of Cecil, fighting his way through the course of a stem cell transplant, transitioning to something so much more at peace than where he has been.

Out came the phone from my muddy pocket. I looked at the sleek gadgetry, lying in my filthy glove, and dialed Cecil, eager to share the butterfly with him.

A week ago, Cecil was discharged from the hospital, a month into his transplant. A few days later, he spiked a fever and his blood pressure dropped, so they readmitted him back into the same room we had so eagerly cleared out upon his discharge.

When he answered my butterfly call, I asked if the hospital room was depressing for him now, having been denuded of the beauty we’d force-fed it earlier in the process. “It’s okay. We forgot the dragonfly,” Cecil said, as though he’d discovered an old friend in the room when they put him back in it. I’d taped a colorful glass dragonfly to the window in front of his bed, so the morning sun would catch it up and bring glittering beauty with each new day of the journey that faced him. Apparently, we’d left the dragonfly behind.

In Native American folklore, dragonfly magic crosses with that of the butterfly to show change. I thought it a perfect combination of message. The dragonfly symbolizes the sense of self that comes with maturity. The butterfly emerges in better form after having made its transition.

For most of us, transition is not so brilliant or suddenly dramatic as with the butterfly; it tends to be nuanced over time. One day you turn around and look at where you started and wonder how you ever got from there to here in a single lifetime.

Back in the day, I had every expectation that I would become an actress. After college, I moved to New York City, waited tables, and went to every audition that would have me. I just knew my big break was waiting for me in some obscure off-Broadway theater, as a big movie producer held his breath in the back row, stunned by the depth of my talent, eager to set me on my way.

I got an agent who, one day, called to tell me she had booked me for the summer as a dancer and back-up singer in a big hotel in Puerto Rico. I tore my suitcase from the closet and filled it with my prettiest things. At her office the next day, the agent handed me a one-way ticket to San Juan with little-to-no additional information. I would learn the details once I got there.
As I made my way off the plane in San Juan, a middle-aged woman stepped from the crowd to greet me. “I’m Jane,” she said. Let’s get your suitcase and head over to the club.”

Thirty minutes later, we pulled into an alley and stopped behind a sketchy, windowless building that looked like an old, dilapidated warehouse. “Let’s go,” Jane said.

The bright Puerto Rican sun gave way to a dark one-room bar, where three or four drunken letches sat about talking loudly. Relentless cigarette smoke singed its way into my lungs. In the corner, a barefoot girl in pasties and a G-string jiggled about seductively on a small wooden platform. She held a long scarf in her hand and, from time to time, ran it through her crotch, then twirled it around the neck of some guy in the audience, just before she hopped on his lap in her quest to secure another coin for the jukebox.

 “Go on back and get into your costume,” Jane directed me, as she gestured toward some hanging beads that covered a doorway behind the bar. I could only imagine what lurked beyond the beads, when what I could see out front made me want to turn and run. I glanced around and realized everyone was looking at me. It sank in. This is the job. The woman expects me to hop up on that platform and give it a whirl right now. I knew I needed to say something, but I was quite sure “Get me the hell out of here” was not what Jane expected.

I made up some excuse about being tired from my trip and asked to be taken to my hotel. As it turned out, my summer accommodations were located in what looked, generously speaking, like a maid’s room at Jane’s house. Or slave’s quarters. Or the place you would lock up a hostage. There were bars on the one dirty window. Various creatures, mostly of the reptile species, clung to the screen. In the corner was something that resembled a mat, which I gathered was to be my bed. The door locked from the outside.

“I have to get back to the club,” Jane said. “Don’t go outside. Blonde white girls get taken from the street here.” And she was gone. I briefly considered what would be worse, being hauled off the street by a gang of hoodlums, or a summer of sleazy sex with as many toothless codgers as would slap a five-spot on the bar for a shot of booze.

“I think I’ll take my chances on the street,” I said. I was talking out loud to myself by then. Thoughts of running aimlessly flashed through my mind. I wondered how many times I would have to fight off abduction. Those images were interrupted by a telephone ringing in the house next door. I grabbed my purse and ran from the bedroom, down the dark hallway to the front door. I threw it open, relieved it hadn’t been padlocked, and tripped my way across the empty swath of dirt between the buildings.

The neighbor’s front door was open, so I banged on the frame of the screen. A woman scuffed down the hall in a frumpy housedress and fuzzy slippers, saying something in Spanish.
“Telefono?” I pleaded. It was probably my look of desperation that caused the lady to open the screen and let me in. I called my mother. When she answered, I spoke in hushed tones. She did what she could to hide the panic in her voice, and saved all her ‘I told you so’s’ till much later. All she said was, “Get to the airport. A ticket will be waiting for you.”

I turned to the woman. “Telephono taxi, por favor?” I was now plucking words out of seventh-grade Spanish. She took the phone and called someone. I hoped it wasn’t Jane. 

The car that stopped at the curb was unmarked. I climbed into the back seat and said, almost wishfully, “Aeropuerto, por favor.” Without a word, the driver pulled away. We drove down dirt roads and back streets. My fingers grasped the door handle. I was ready to open and leap, if need be. When I saw the runway, I dared to think the ride would actually end at the airport and not in the dark basement of a boarded-up house. At the terminal, I tossed a twenty over the seat and ran inside, where I hid until my plane was ready to board.

I’m pretty sure the Puerto Rico Experience, as my family likes to call it, was just yesterday, but when I woke up this morning, I was married with two kids, living in the Shenandoah Valley, practicing law and advocating on behalf of POW/MIAs. When did all that happen? Somewhere along the way, when I wasn’t paying attention, a dragonfly must have snuck up on me with its friend the butterfly in tow and, poof, I became someone else. It was great having all those dreams, with years ahead in which to live them, but it’s also been an amazing ride since I put on my big-girl panties. And I definitely wouldn’t want to go back to Puerto Rico again to dance on a wooden platform.