Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Tale of the Almost-Right Condo

Upon our journey south, we came across the rental office.  I pulled in neatly and we accepted our packet, listening absently to directions before proceeding to our building - named Island Shores - on the beach.

Seeing a sign with a logo matching the one on the rental office, I once again swung Mom's car into a parking lot, waiting for a teenager to move the orange cones which were placed in every parking spot.

"We valet park for the restaurant," he informed us and I nodded, indicating that we had already checked in disregarding my errant thought of 'our building didn't have a restaurant connected to it.'  He glanced at the parking pass I proudly displayed and obediently moved a cone near the front of the building, helpfully pointing out the carts we could use to move our mounds of luggage.

"This cart says Boardwalk," Mom noted when I returned to the car, pushing the wobbly mass of plastic on wheels. 

"Yep," I agreed, barely glancing at it before beginning to move bags and boxes of soda and water onto it, demanding she assist in my efforts.  We finished loading both levels and I pushed it along, Mom trailing behind me as we moved to the elevator. 

I rolled my eyes at the family in front of us - they didn't see the ramp at the rear entrance to the elevator and had tried to lift their loaded cart up a step.  They succeeded in dumping about half the contents on the floor and I sighed at the silliness of people.

We rode the elevator to the fourth floor and began looking for our room - number 454. 

"Katie," Mom offered hesitantly, "all these numbers are four-eights." 

"Go around the other side," I demanded, glaring at her and refusing to admit I'd been wrong.  "We're on the gulf, not the street," I sneered.  She nodded sweetly, moving on toward the edge of the building and turning - hands facing upward in a helpless gesture - and reported there was nowhere else to go.

And the room numbers still started with four-eight.  Not four-five.

"We must be in the next building," I said on a heavily embarrassed sigh, already trying to determine how I could avoid blame for a mistake entirely my fault.  I jerked the cart around so I could return to the elevator while my mother peered around the edge of the building, helpfully pointing out that she didn't see another building.

"Come on," I muttered, speaking both to the elevator and Mom and she came around the corner to wait beside me, grinning widely.

"Do you really think you picked the wrong building?" she inquired.  "Do you want me to call the guy at the office?"

The doors opened and we went inside, laughing quietly at our silliness.  I steeled myself for embarrassment - though Dad would have said I didn't know and would never see those boys again - and determinedly pushed the car out when the elevator stopped.

"Katie," Mom stopped me, hand gentle on my upper arm, "this isn't where we get out."  So I glanced around at the first floor of condos - not the underground entry the represented our escape.  And I pulled the cart back inside the car, glaring around and asking Mom why we'd stopped here when there was nobody waiting.

"I don't know," she offered, waiting politely until the cart was all the way in and pressing the button marked 1 again, looking befuddled when the doors opened again at the same location. 

She glanced at me with a frown and I closed my eyes briefly before suggesting she push the ground floor instead. 

On the short ride down, we started to giggle, quickly becoming hysterical and clinging to the bar on the elevator and handle of the cart. 

I moved quickly, head up and shoulders back, to the car, determined to load our belongings and exit this mistake as gracefully as possible. 

I winced when I saw Mom moving toward the group of boys instead, purse over her shoulder and hands held upward in inquiry.

"What's this place called?" she asked and I cringed, yanking at the handle of the locked door.  "Oh," I heard her say and she called something to me that I completely ignored before walking over, grinning widely. 

"I told them we were in the wrong building," she informed me. 

"Fantastic," I declared, beginning to re-load the car so we could drive next door and restart the proceedings toward our actual room. 

Friday, November 23, 2012


The remaining rays of sunlight glimmered off Mom's knitting needles as they slowly - painstakingly - wove a prayer shawl.

"Do you pray?" I asked, glancing over from the driver's seat before returning my attention to the interstate. 

"I do," she replied and I nodded, leaving her to her work as I tended to my own - moving steadily southward as the sunset faded off to our right. 

"How far are you going?" a colleague asked when I joined a conference call - apologizing for spotty reception somewhere in Mississippi or Alabama.

"Until we hit water," I replied before elaborating with the name of our destination.  The fact is that Mom loves the ocean.  It makes her happy to sit and listen to the waves.  Feel the sand between her toes.  Bask in the sunshine.

And so, on what would have been my parents' 44th anniversary, we did what they had done so many times - loaded the car and proceeded south.

We stopped along the way - tired and wanting to watch the stars dance around.  We arrived, ending up in fits of giggles because I'd parked at the wrong building, loaded a cart and took our ridiculous quantity of belongings to a floor where our condo decidedly was not.

 Mom called Aunt the next morning, fighting back tears and mourning that the ocean was not the same.  There was nowhere she could go to feel truly happy or peaceful anymore.  And I curled on the couch and stared out our 4th floor window at the water in the distance, cursing it for being so calm.  For not smelling of brine.  For containing too many boats. 

"Dad would have brought his binoculars," she noted as we stared at one ship close to shore.  I nodded, continuing to stare as the men aboard worked, wishing with futility that the beach had brought me some peace.

I sighed heavily when I saw the adhesive fish on the shower floor.  We had looked for adhesive ducks for the tub at home - giggling over the episode of Big Bang Theory that had inspired the search.

I had my toenails painted when he was sick.  One of Friend's visits of mercy was marked with manicures and pedicures and I'd just never removed the sparkling gold that had once covered the tips of my toes. 

I remember it chipping when we cared for him in the last days.  I have clipped away most of it as I've sat - mostly quiet - to mourn.

The remainder clings to the very edges of my nails.  It remains out of no profound reason - I simply can't be bothered with much of anything lately.  I work.  I sleep.  I eat.  I avoid thinking and activities that would require it - talking with friends, writing blog posts, answering emails.  The desire to do so lingers - I want to be better and normal and good again. 

But I'm left feeling like I'm clinging to the vestiges of a life I once loved.  And careful examination will release the wisps that I'm so desperately grasping. 

Nonetheless, I very much hope all of you are well. 

Sunday, November 04, 2012

Interpretation of 'Everyone'

I'm quite content with my new job.  I come home mentally exhausted on some days - matching standards to documents to templates to examples.  I'm learning new subjects.  Meeting new people.  Enjoying the sunshine as it streams in my cubicle.

"Hello, Katie," colleagues say as they peek over my chest-high cubicle wall.  I shift my attention from the television screen I use as a monitor and smile at them, amusing myself with the mental image of gophers popping up to say hello.

"Hi, gopher friend!" I chirp in my mind and begin conversations either friendly or professional.

There is additional noise where I sit, but I've purchased a red iPod nano to help mitigate that distraction.  I downloaded a bunch of music from my iTunes account - some songs I've never found time to hear - and fit the now-more-comfortable headphones into my ears.  So I listen and think and work.

I rose from my chair to embrace a colleage as he came around my gopher-proof wall.  I motioned to the table I'd share if anyone sat near me and I cocked my head inquisitively as he sat and opened his computer.

"How are you?" he asked as he glanced up from his screen.

"OK," I replied with a shrug.  "I was home last week and that was difficult.  But overall?  I'm doing better."

We chatted about work and I made notes on certain items.  Projects that had been mine.  Decisions I'd once made.  And I stared at my replacement - the man who'd been awarded the job I'd so wanted - with a mixture of fondness and sympathy.

"So how's it going?" I asked, feeling separate from what once was.  It feels like a different world when I return to that part of campus.  I frown when former colleagues invade my new space - they don't stay against the wall like good gophers but lumber in and take up space, glancing at my photos and shuffling through papers curiously.

He talked about problems and issues and exhaustion and I nodded in response.

"I'm happy here," I noted though he hasn't asked.

"Everyone wonders what you're doing," he replied, shaking his head.  Rather than taking offense, I grinned.

"I've not communicated my new role very clearly yet," I told him.  "I'm getting settled and rumors are settling out - I think people are figuring it out."

"But you were known globally!" he protested.  "And now you're..."

Which made me laugh.

"And now I'm here, sweetheart," I continued to chuckle as I patted his hand.  "I'm still working in R&D.  I feel like I'm doing more good here, actually - making a difference.  I get to travel with my mom rather than catching planes and taking meetings for work.  I listen to music rather than taking endless conference calls."

I paused.  Thought.

"I loved what I did - what we did as a team.  But I had serious frustrations.  I wasn't completely happy.  Obviously.  I needed a change.  And this has been good."

"But everyone," he began and I finally scowled and interrupted.

"There is no 'everyone!'"  I protested.  "It's like saying 'the business feels this is a priority.'  Complete crap.  Someone - who has a name and a life and hopes and dreams - made a decision.  Or wonders what I'm doing.  And I've realized it really doesn't matter.

"Perhaps," I continued, "you're disappointed that I'm not around to do the work you don't like.  And I can say with utmost sincerity that I don't care.  Perhaps certain teams have expressed disappointment that I no longer answer their questions immediately or scramble to meet their needs.  And because I like and respect you - you, not this elusive 'everyone' - I'm telling you that this was the right move for me.

"So if you, and I paused to call him by name, "are wondering if I've regretted my decision to abandon ship, the answer is no.  Not at all.  I don't want to return to academic research.  And I don't want to go back to that level of management.  Not right now.  Probably not ever.  I need my emotional resources for me and my family.  The business - and nobody in it - is allowed to have them to the extent they were once permitted."

He nodded and I waited for him to indicate he missed working with me.  That my contribution was considerable.  But that acknowledgement did not come and I found it barely stung. 

So I'll say this as a reminder to myself - especially as I seem to find myself here repeatedly - consider the goal.  And weigh that against the cost.  Life is full of options and perhaps some appear unattractive until you're forced to examine them more closely. 

"Is God taking care of you?" Mom asked one night as we cried together over the phone and I told her to trust in Him. 

"He is," I replied.  "He does.  It just takes me some time to accept it sometimes."

Thursday, November 01, 2012


 "It - by nature - metastasizes."

I remember sitting in an elegant auditorium at my post-doctoral institution, listening to a seminar that I hoped would assist in my aquisition of additional funding.  Instead, I frowned as I listened to him speak - showing elaborate drawings of cells breaking free from the primary tumor and exploiting the body's normal functions in an attempt to find a new site to invade. 

"So you can't win," I remember thinking.  "You either die of cancer or you get lucky and die from something else sooner."

And while my oncology knowledge is outdated at best and perhaps not-exactly-correct at worst, I still have this feeling that cancer is always lurking.  Waiting.  Watching.  Tumbling end over end through the blood stream or lymphatic system, searching for a suitable spot.

Likewise, grief infiltrates - curling threadlike tentacles from the television where commercials urge you to seek better treatment for your specific kind of cancer.  Swat absently at you when everything turns pink in October.  Knock you off balance when an admin's husband dies from the same kind of cancer Dad had.  Pummel your heart when a dear friend who'd been viciously protective of me earlier this year deals with his father's diagnosis, surgery and chemotherapy.  Tug at your attention until you're crying while watching Dancing with the Stars because there's a certain performance on Country Night that's a little too poignant. 

I mostly endure.  Approach each day gently and carefully.  Treasure the moments of happiness and laughter and do my best to guard against the terror and sadness even as I acknowledge the futility.

I prayed on Monday morning, hand on Mom's head as she trembled with dread. 

"Help us," I begged God.  "Blanket us with strength and mercy and comfort as we go back to the cancer center.  To the place Daddy went every Thursday so he could try to stay with us.  We miss him a lot.  And I know you're keeping him safe and that you love him.  So love him extra this morning and love us too."  I gulped, took a breath and continued. 

"Bless those who are there today or any day.  Battle the cancer and the side effects and bring those patients and their families comfort and joy and peace.  Give us those things too - Mom and Brother and me.  Amen."

I felt strong until we got there.   Yet once we climbed the stairs and turned left to Pod C, I began to tremble.  I glanced nervously around in the crowded waiting room.  Popping up from the edge of my seat when we were called, I followed Mom to the same spot Dad would sit as they'd check his blood pressure, weight and temperature. 

And I started to cry. 

We went in the same room we'd visited with Daddy.  And I thought about how I hadn't known he was slipping away from us so fast. But I clung to Mom's hand and stared across the room at Brother, focusing on the inhale and exhale.  Mom prompted me to tell a funny story from our trip north and I was interrupted when the oncologist opened the door.

I went still when I saw him - the doctor my parents decided to share - and felt my eyes go wide and heart race.  He sat for a moment, asked questions I can't recall and I frowned when he had Mom leave my side to sit on the table.

"You're doing great," he told her as she perched on the edge.  We'd had to help Daddy with the small step toward the end.  And he couldn't lie back because of all the pressure in his belly. 

"I don't need to see you for another year," he continued as I was plagued by flashes of memory.  Dad's hat that boasted that he was a veteran.  The way he'd recline in the treatment room as they dripped poison into him for hours.  His cheeks would flush.

"The prognosis is excellent," he concluded, turning when I began to sob, clutching Brother's hand helplessly as the grief drowned me.  Why didn't we help Dad earlier?  Why couldn't he be great?  Skip appointments for a year?  Have an excellent prognosis?  It's not fair.  None of this is right and I hate it and I lost control as my emotions rioted for long moments in Exam Room 1.

I faced away from but next to Brother as we stood at the desk to pay and make Mom's next appointment.  I linked my arm through his and stared out the window, struggling for control.  I watched a train go by.  Gazed at the rustling branches of trees and tried to numb myself to what was happening inside.

"We've been waiting for hours," a young woman said behind me.  "My dad was supposed to see the doctor and get treatment, but we're still waiting."  And I held Brother's arm tighter as they told her they were scheduling an ultrasound for him.  They'd try to remove some of the fluid so they could begin treatment again.  And I clenched my teeth and tried to pray as my younger sibling sobbed into my hair. 

"Mom," I gasped and called her again when she didn't answer.  She finally transferred her gaze from the wall to my face. 

"Please," I begged.  "Let them bill us.  Send an appointment card.  Please?"  She nodded.  The familiar office staff nodded.  And the three of us raced down the steps and out the door, my gasping sobs echoing shamefully through the two-story lobby.

We finished most of a box of Kleenex on the drive home, all trembling and exhausted and so terribly sad.  Mom and I napped, fingers linked, and Brother returned the next day.  We had a nice time on Tuesday - looked for furniture for Mom and laughed and ate and I paid $500 for the repairs on the truck Dad bought Brother. 

But Monday was misery. 

And that misery lurks.  Ever present.  Always waiting. 

And my awareness thereof is excruciating.