Sunday, December 31, 2006

We're All Buddies On This Bus

A few weeks ago I was down at the hospital having blood drawn, and the phlebotomist and I were engaged in an in-depth analysis of the pros and cons of giving my own wig a home haircut. The cons were leading: it would never grow out if I fucked up, and besides, it might trigger my old compulsive haircutting disorder and how weirdly sick would that be, considering that I'm completely stark raving bald?

Bald as a baby

Suddenly, the PA system began to blare a tinkly music-box rendition of the Brahms Lullaby.

The phlebotomist lit up like a cigar. The tinkly music meant that an actual baby was being born, she told me. Right then, that very moment, in this very hospital! Mindless of the huge hideous needle protruding from yet another collapsing vein in my elbow, we paused our wig discussion for a moment to contemplate the special pink or blue miracle du jour: another tiny, helpless (and possibly baldheaded!) babe had just been born into poverty at Our Lady of the Damned.

"So," I said once she resumed fiddling with the plunger, struggling to extract one last drop of blood from the pathetically desiccated turnip that is my right arm. "What do they play when somebody dies around here? Wagner? Mahler? Taps?"

The phlebotomist looked up at me, shocked, her expression as horrified as if I'd just wandered downstairs to the nursery and set that poor newborn infant on fire. She was so disconcerted, she yanked the needle out of my arm before undoing the tourniquet and blood spurted everywhere.

I mean, yeah, sure, I get it. We live in a culture where birth is the happiest most amazing miracle imaginable, but mentioning death in anything other than hushed reverent euphemisms at a funeral parlor is a tasteless and rude social offense. Nobody wants to be reminded of mortality: maybe if we pretend to ignore it, it will cease to exist. Viva la denial!

But you know, this squeamish pretense of cheery deathlessness often leaves those of us who've been arbitrarily assigned to pair up with the Noble Truth of Impermanence as our buddy-system hand-holding partner on the great field trip through life feeling just a little bit crazy, and very very lonely.

So, Death. Capital D. Mine, yours, everybody's. May I talk about it frankly here, without being scolded?

Last night I learned that a woman I used to know back in California died of lymphoma, a little over a year ago. She was almost exactly my age. I was talking to my son, and he had asked me if there was anyone I would like him to invite to his wedding. I thought for a moment, and named this woman and her husband, who had been my son's music teacher over 15 years ago. He hesitated a beat, then blurted out, "Uh, actually Allison is dead." I imagine that delivering this news was somewhat awkward and uncomfortable for him, considering. But I appreciated that he plunged ahead and talked about it openly, even though I was obviously rattled, and told me what little he knew about the details. It had been a long time since we'd been in touch with these friends, so he didn't know much.

After we hung up, I went online and found an obituary. It said that she "died gracefully and in peace at home with her loving husband at her side, following a long and valiant battle with lymphoma." Naturally, my first self-absorbed and embarrassing thought was: Hooboy, nobody in their right mind is ever going to say that about me, unless maybe there's a very large tank car of morphine involved. I'm sure as hell not being graceful or valiant while I'm sick, and I doubt anything short of some really badass drugs is going to change that if my condition worsens.

I was relieved to read on, though, that "Allison was absolutely her own person and never strode blindly down life's path but always found and followed the right and compassionate way." Yes, I believe she did, although as I recall there was never anything sticky-sweet or nicey-nice about her. I admired that, and I would be honored if those same words were carved on my headstone. Or scotch-taped to my mayonnaise jar, or whatever.

And finally I was really touched by this: "Allison's latest attachments were to the city of Paris and to her Border collie, Jack, but her greatest love, her husband, survives her and he mourns her passing."

I wonder who wrote this? Obviously someone who knew her well. How often do you read an obit that mentions a surviving canine by breed and by name, even when the dog was the dead person's truest friend? She was always a dog person: back when I knew her, their dogs were Tucker and Ajax. But Paris, I think, might have been something new.

I believe she was lucky to have died at home. I would certainly prefer that to dying in a hospital. But if I do have to die in a hospital, I want my devoted survivors to promise me this: that somebody (Dixie Rae? Are you listening?) will break into the control room at Our Lady of the Damned, lock the door, and blare a recording New Second Line by the Olympia Brass Band over the PA.

And if anybody asks, tell them I was never graceful or valiant, but I was always my own person, a real pain in the ass who made the whole damn bus stop every ten minutes for juice and cookies and bathroom breaks on the great field trip through life. And that the whole time, I was never ever afraid to hold my assigned buddy's hand.

Allison, 1954-2005


Anonymous Anonymous said...


1:44 PM  
Blogger Jeanne said...

Argh. Did my earlier comment come through? I think it just disappeared into the ozone. Jeanne

2:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

When things started going terribly wrong during the delivery of my son, something towards that ER episode "Love's Labor Lost" which aired a week or two later, I was relieved to find that I was still myself. I was thankful to have a doctor that honestly answered "yes" when we asked point blank if I might die. And I continued with the same deadpan humor I'd used with each new complication. It kept me calm, focused and engaged with the world. I wasn't scared.

I was scared of feeling the panic I'd seen in the faces of some people who had died in my presence, but instead I found my strengths. I think part of the strength came from having lived my life on my terms, and we see that in each of your entries.

Keep being yourself. Keep saying what needs to be said.

3:46 PM  
Blogger Trasi said...

Yep, you don't need to be, feel, or do anything other than what is coming naturally. You can feel confident in your life as you have lived it. Nobody who lives such a fantastic life, with wonderful sons and such a vibrant personality that obviously brings so much to others' lives necessarily wants to give it up. BUT, we all do someday, and if your number is going to come up with this disease, you can be damn proud that you have lived a rich and beautiful life. I know I'm not there yet, where I could say the same, having a 3.5 year old daughter and MANY things left to do, but I hope I can face it with whatever moxie it is you're facing it with, whenever my time comes, or those times where you're in doubt.

5:35 PM  
Blogger BunnyBubblette said...

Do you think it's possible that Allison might have written her own obit? What the heck .... why not? Maybe she knew she was going to die, and maybe she planned to die at home, and maybe she took it upon herself to write her obit exactly the way she wanted it written. And she let her husband fill in deatils, such as the date, afterwards.

5:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I gotta tell you, you are so brave. I sit here, I have my health, a great husband, I'm overweight, don't exercise, don't go for check ups (although I just called to make appointments with a number of drs (internist/obgyn/mammogram) I think because I'm reading your blog...and I'll be 53 this coming summer. This is so not about me, but you do need to know that there is one person who you never met, who you are affecting in an important way, both physically and emotionally. You don't have to care, that's not my point, not at all, but I do just want you to know it. Your blog has profoundly influenced me in a positive way. Just earlier today, as we walked in midtown, among so many, many people, the air so ripe with the anticipation of a new york new year's eve, I told my husband that I felt so fortunate to be there in that moment, to be IN the moment, and that I attributed it to reading your blog. Thanks.

Yeah, I guess it's best that we think about all that stuff, death, etc. I'd like my ashes to be spread in my garden and maybe in Central Park too. Hey, if James Brown can have THREE wardrobe changes while he was laid up, I could split my ashes, right?

I think your spirit is going to get you through this and I think where you are concerned, denial is a river in Egypt, it certainly ain't what you're about. I'm sorry about your friend Allison. It sounds like she did things her way too.

I couldn't find that album, but here's a bunch of other stuff that they do. When we go to NOLA, this place has it all, here's what they had from the Olympia Brass Band, fyi.:

Peace. another susan

6:07 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am sorry for your loss. I have to tell you, though, that I laughed hysterically at the phlebotomist's response to your question, which seemed like a perfectly fair one to me.

This also, BTW, is the second time in the last month I have read about dying "gracefully" of cancer. The first was the obit-blurb at the end of this really great article (which I first encountered through a link from Blue):

"Embedded: A no-holds-barred report from inside a nursing home," by Barry Corbet, to be published in the AARP magazine, January & February 2007 edition

At the end of this article is a little blurb called "Barry's Story," in which he is said to have died "after a graceful surrender to cancer."

I wonder what that's like, surrendering gracefully. I doubt I will discover, either. It's not really what I've been aiming for, and that probably doesn't bother me nearly as much as it should.

7:40 PM  
Blogger Jeanne said...

OK, I am trying again.

I wanted to let you know that I loved this post. I also had one of those lovely "ah ha" moments because I could see that you get it. Especially your comments about sappy obits.

So I added a link to your post from these two places on my blog:

Jeanne's Soapbox No. 3: The Language of Cancer


Writing Your Own Obituary

Why shouldn't hospitals play a few bars of music when someone dies on the premises? Wonderful idea. I'm going to pass it on.

Today, New Year's Eve, is the five-year anniversary of the metastasis of my cancer, which I celebrate--not because I am glad the cancer spread, but because I am so glad to still be here five years after the fact.


9:58 PM  
Blogger Lymphopo said...

Thanks Jeanne! And congrats on the feisty five. Happy New Year, and many more.

11:20 PM  
Blogger KC said...

Happy, Happy New Year, Liz, whatever that means to you and whatever it takes.

11:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I thought this might cheer you--or not. Who can know these things?

You'll have to cut and paste; this software doesn't seem to allow a direct link.

Jorge and I went walking around the campus two days ago.

We've switched locations in the world--which is kind of a shame--because--I "know" your house very well and lusted after it long before you snagged it and moved in.

If I wasn't out here now, I'd be on the short list of buyers.

Hold out for top dollar.



3:05 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello Liz,

We "met" a long time ago when you were still in California and our mutual passion for roses created a link across the ether. So I find that unfortunately you have joined the ranks of those who face cancer, as I had now for many years (breast and ovarian) and you still have the same great attitude as always.

Keep up the good work; you are doing fine. I know that my own attitude towards cancer (which is now attacking my love, my best friend, my lover in the form of Mesothelioma after surviving Melanoma) is that we are fighting a cowardly enemy. So when the time comes for me to say good bye and thank you for having me, my obituary shall read: "Rather than giving up the winning hand to cancer, she died. To the end not only she had the last word but the winning move". But you keep your eyes on the road, don't let something as vulgar and common as cancer distract you from the riches of living, you have done well girl, keep at it.

Best wishes for a much healthier 2007


4:39 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Liz -
Just in case you haven't found this organization, The Access Project is an advocacy group that help the unisured wrangle the hospital system. It's an interesting resource; please check it out. Maybe they can provide some real help.

Wishing you restored health and new opportunities in '07.


6:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm 32 and hopefully not anywhere near the threat of cancer, so I evidently know nothing about what you're going through. But I do hope this whole thing is going to turn around at some point and you'll be completely lymphoma free. Maybe I'm just selfish (since I LOVE your writing and I do hope to buy your book(s) some day)--but still! Happy New Year to you, Liz, and many thanks for the many hours of great reading you've provided us.

9:24 PM  
Blogger Jeanne said...

Hi again--could I make a request? I'd like to read more about Our Lady of the Damned. Could you oblige?



12:55 AM  
Blogger Ya Looblue said...

your last paragraph on this made me burst into laughter and tears at the same time. i heart you granny Liz. i hope this year brings some better things...

12:10 PM  
Blogger D E Huddleston said...

I have no personal experience with cancer, and just happened to stumble onto your blog. You have a lot of writing talent . . . and a lot to say with it. Surely, a book is in the works? I have bookmarked your site. Duane

3:39 PM  

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