Tuesday, October 24, 2017

A Little Fiction

I wrote this in 2004 and never finished it. It was written as fiction, but only the names were changed.

            When Elinor came downstairs in the morning, Grandpere was stretched out on the kitchen floor, lying in a pool of urine.  The cat had received his name in infancy 16 years earlier, his patriarchal bearing obvious even then. 
            “Damn,” Elinor whispered, lifting him under his front legs and reaching for a rag.  She cleaned him and set him down gently. His hind legs slid out from under him, confirming her fear that this was the beginning of the end. 
            “Oh, Perie,” she crooned, moving the long black length of him to his favorite spot, a square of quilt on the kitchen floor.  His paws and whiskers still glowed white; the pads of his feet still the pink of youth.  Grandpere and his mistress sighed together.
            Sixteen years.  He’d been the family’s first shelter adoption.  Elinor had gone to the humane society alone, leaving her excited children and unashamedly equally excited husband at home to await the arrival of what would become the first of many cats.  Remembering the cats of her childhood, she had in mind a longhair in a ginger color, or smoky shades of grey, perhaps—maybe even a pastel calico if such a beauty could actually find itself homeless.  She was unprepared for the sheer numbers of cats at the shelter, the cold steel of their cages, the desperate cries of some and the withdrawn hopelessness of others.
            Elinor passed an hour at the shelter, no closer to choosing a cat than when she’d arrived.  A sign she hadn’t noticed before warned against touching the cats and spreading disease.  She realized she had touched dozens of cats, going from cage to cage and spreading who knows what.  She spotted an attendant and opened her mouth to ask where she might wash her hands.  But what came out was, “Could you please open that cage?”  The attendant did so, and out flew a sleek black cat with white feet and the longest white whiskers.  Her first impression was that he was so incredibly clean.  Overshadowing that in a split second was the connection he had created between them.  In her arms was every cat she had ever wanted.
            Wiping up the puddle on the floor, Elinor remembered how she had brought the cat carrier up to Keith’s office in the attic that day, for what he’d called “the unveiling.”  Keith opened the carrier’s door, and smiled as the cat stepped out confidently, aware of Keith’s approval even before he spoke.  “You’re a handsome fellow,” he said in the British accent that clung even after all the years in Massachusetts.  “Welcome to the family.”
            The attic.  Elinor dropped the paper towel into the garbage and stood at the sink, letting warm water run over her hands as she thought about the daunting task ahead of her.  It was an old thought.  She had noticed Keith’s first symptoms of memory loss in that office, and had tried to talk to him about it there, so many times.  Later, she had looked over his shoulder at his unintelligible writings, had watched, tearful, his frustrated efforts to remember how to boot up the computer he’d once programmed. 
            As Keith’s condition deteriorated, he spent more and more time in the attic.  He was gone now, laundered and sanitized in the pink-and-white nursing home, but the attic, still untouched eight months later, reflected the state of a mind in pieces.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

For Wayne and his Beth


Good grief: an oxymoron come to life
from pages drawn and quartered, inked and dyed,
where readers sought themselves and, laughing, sighed
as their frustrations, phobias, and strife
played out in miniature before their eyes.
Can grief be other than completely bad?
Can that which sears the heart from all it had
be partly good? There is no compromise.
There is,  however, one redeeming grace,
a balm to place upon the sorest spot,
one truth pain cannot weave into its knot.
When mourning comes, it stands upon this base:
Endearment is our bedrock, our relief.
Only those who love are granted grief.


Friday, September 15, 2017

Lee, part III

Luckily for me, Corinne Conti is a relatively unusual name. Had her name been something like Kathy Smith, a whole chapter would be missing from my story. I started with Googling, of course. I didn't have to do any more than that because Google brought a bunch of hits. One of them--for Blaine Conti--came with a phone number in Washington state. I figured Blaine might be Corinne's husband's name, but no. It was her name, her legal name.

I called, and she couldn't have been nicer. She sympathized with my plight. She hadn't been in contact with Lee for years, and she felt bad about that. Corinne had a young voice filled with warmth and enthusiasm, and I didn't realize until she told me that she was 85 years old. Her age, coupled with recent heart surgery, explained why she repeated questions several times. She suggested I contact the police and ask them to make a welfare check on Lee. I was reluctant to do this, knowing Lee's feelings about privacy. Corinne said she was quite familiar with Lee's feelings about privacy, and understood why I said I'd leave that option for last. But I realized the only address I had for Lee was a rented mailbox in a storefront. I asked Corinne if she knew Lee's physical address. No, but she knew the street Lee lived on. If only she could remember it.

A day or so later she did remember it, and called to tell me. With some creative Googling I got the name of another tenant in Lee's apartment building. A little more digging revealed that he worked in a restaurant--so one morning I called the restaurant. What a thoroughly nice guy! It turned out he no longer lived in Lee's building, but his brother did. He would ask his brother about Lee, and one of them would get back to me.

By this time my son had jokingly called me a stalker. It does make you think about how easily we (and our neighbors) can be found.

Lee's upstairs neighbor emailed me to say he and his wife had knocked on her door, but she didn't respond. However, he said another neighbor noticed Lee's car going out regularly. So she must still be working.  I felt enormous relief, as this was not the news I'd expected to hear. But after a few days the relief was tinged with hurt, puzzlement, and even a bit of anger. How could my dear friend, who knows me so well, who means so much to me and always said she felt the same, ignore my pleas and leave me hanging like this?

An answer--the only one I'm going to get--came weeks later, when Lee's therapist called to tell me she had died. She said as Lee's cancer had progressed and she had to quit her job she withdrew more and more, shunning contact with anyone. Her car had been used by the caretaker she'd hired.

I've always said if I were sick in the hospital I wouldn't want visitors other than my family. One might say Lee took this to extremes, but then her need for privacy was always somewhat beyond the norm. If we'd talked, we would have talked about her illness. We'd have had to. She was probably tired of talking about it, tired of thinking about it, tired of trying to accept the inevitable end. But would she not have drawn any comfort from me? Have I been through so much that I used up all my comfort on myself? I always made Lee laugh. Does that not count at some point? I hope not.

In the end, I was able to do one thing: I wrote Lee's obituary. I was glad no one else wanted to take it on because I wanted to do this for her, and I knew I could do it well. In the process, she and I connected with every word.

Wednesday, September 06, 2017

Lee, part II

I eventually located Lee, and left the phone message that made her cry. And then we picked up where we left off. There was some serious catching up to do. She had to absorb the news that my husband and daughter Gillian had died, and I learned about her bout with breast cancer.

We were no longer Manhattanites working in the rarefied atmosphere of Lincoln Center: Lee was a psych nurse in Alaska, and I was home in rural Pennsylvania. But our connection remained the same. We had much to share, much we needed to share. I changed my phone plan to give me unlimited minutes. We also emailed a lot.

As we got older, the topic of our health came up more frequently. We were both rather compulsive researchers, and learned quite a bit as we compared notes. We had our DNA tested at the same time. We got into genealogy and shared our discoveries. We read books together and discussed them.

Then Lee's cancer came back. That was scary, but it became less frightening as Lee's doctor assured her she could continue working and could even go to Europe, which she'd been thinking of doing. Soon after the diagnosis she had another scary experience: skidding on ice and crashing her pickup truck, totaling it. She bought a new Jeep, but after the accident she felt as though the other shoe was bound to drop.

In April 2016 she emailed that she was scheduled for another PET scan. She was depressed about that, but said Alaska was beautiful in spring and she hoped Mother Nature would work some magic on her. She ended the email with, "Thanks for hanging in with me.  You are always in my heart. Love, Lee."

I emailed back, and at some point called her as usual, and then called again. Emailed again. But she didn't return my calls, and the emails had stopped with that one in April. I persisted, asking--later begging--for even just a line to let me know she was all right. Nothing. This went on for months. At Christmas I sent her a card and a letter. As with other letters I'd mailed, they were not returned to me. I felt that was good. But Lee's mailing address was a UPS mailbox, and for all I knew they could have been throwing them out.

A few years earlier we had talked about the possibility of something happening--illness or death--and I said she knew how to get in touch with my kids, but I didn't have the name of anyone I could contact if I were worried about her. Lee said, "I guess you could call Corinne Conti." I wrote the name down on a Rolodex card. It felt like half ace in the hole, half last resort. But of course I had no idea who Corinne Conti was, or where she was.

To be continued (last time) . . .

Friday, June 09, 2017

Lee, part I

I still have her phone number on my night table. With a four-hour time difference between her home and mine, our conversations would often take place at my bedtime. I would have had more energy to talk at other times, would have been less brain-fogged, but I knew I'd get her voice mail.

At bedtime, I often got her voice mail anyway. I never knew if she was out or simply not answering the phone. Because we were such close friends, most of the time I assumed she was out. But it was never the safest assumption.

We met in our twenties, both living in Manhattan and working at one of the most glamorous music venues in the world. It's wonderful when you have a dream job and you're aware of it. I was aware. The atmosphere could be casual (I sometimes brought my dog to work) or beyond sophisticated. I took piano lessons in an office down the hall. My co-workers and I lunched at some of NYC's finest restaurants, and lunch almost always included scotch or a martini. I honestly don't know how we got any work done in the afternoon. Because this was the 1960's, many of the offices, mine included, were filled with cigarette smoke. We had free tickets to just about everything.

On our lunch hours, when we weren't eating and drinking, Lee and I would walk the streets (yes, in our heels), exploring little exotic shops. Sometimes we explored the building in which we worked. Thanks to a shared (if somewhat unbalanced) sense of adventure and my overdeveloped sense of mischief, we went places Lee wouldn't have gone on her own (and neither, perhaps, would I). I don't know if this was good or bad, but we had lots of memorable fun.

I was married and living in midtown. Lee was single and had her own apartment near our jobs. I took a bus to work, and one morning I got off a few blocks before my stop and dropped in on Lee. I knew she'd be just about ready to leave for work, and we could walk together. She was, and we did. But she was clearly thrown by my unexpected appearance, and asked me not to do it again. I would never have predicted that reaction. We were such close friends. Growing up in an apartment building where my best friends lived as well, I had never encountered an intensely private person, and I couldn't relate. I don't think I even heard the word territorial in those days. But I never dropped in on Lee again.

Lee's reaction was all the more surprising given her remarkable intuition and sensitivity in interpreting human behavior. She taught me more than I could ever write about here. Looking back, I was often more than a little dense in comparison. I remember my response when Lee said family patterns tend to repeat through generations: I thought that sounded silly. Silly me.

When Lee got married I was her matron of honor ("female witness" is more accurate), and shortly after that my husband and I left Manhattan and moved to New Jersey, then to our weekend house in Pennsylvania, then to a more permanent home in PA. Lee, whose marriage didn't last long, visited me in all these places before deciding to go back to school to become a nurse. After graduation, she began her journey west. We kept in touch while she worked in several states, but after she sent a post card from Alaska I stopped hearing from her.

"I cried when I heard your voice." Lee was talking about a message I left on her answering machine. By now it was years after she sent that post card, and months after I first started trying to find her. It wasn't easy, but I was like a dog with a bone. I missed my friend and wanted to know how she was. In the process, I found her ex-husband and called him. I scared the poor man, who figured if I was calling him it must be because Lee had died. But no, he didn't know where she was.

To be continued . . .

Friday, November 18, 2016

Anti-Trump People, How's Your Health?

My tension level was high during most of the presidential campaign. Even though I thought Trump wouldn't win, I couldn't believe someone like him could actually run for the office and be taken seriously. It was wildly frustrating to hear people (some of them friends of mine) talk about how he was going to make America great again, while I saw him in a completely different light--someone I wouldn't even want to have dinner with.

Now that he's the President-Elect, my blood pressure is almost as high as my tension level, and the fibromyalgia I've had for decades has kicked into high gear. I was awakened several times last night with hip and knee pain, and it was a tough job persuading myself to get out of bed this morning. It's time to get proactive about my health, even though it seems there isn't much I can do about the White House.

My blog post today comes to you from Dear Prudence, a.k.a. Mallory Ortberg, who writes the advice column for Slate. I hope it's okay to post an excerpt here, crediting both Ortberg (I mean Prudie!) and Slate. I have the feeling lots of us can use her advice right now.

Dear Prudence,
Do you have any advice for we who opposed a Trump presidency? Now that we fear seeing Roe v. Wade overturned, worsening climate change, hatred and bigotry stirred up? Discovering that our neighbors, colleagues, and acquaintances voted for this racist, xenophobic madman? How can we cope, and what can we do in our own small part to resist this? I for one feel gobsmacked. Do you have any suggestions for taking back our power? (Please don’t say, “Just give him a chance”—because we don’t want him to get a chance to implement all his vitriol.)
—How to Cope in the Post-Trump World
I do not think “give Donald Trump a chance” is a useful piece of advice, although plenty of people who ought to know better have suggested it over the last week. I think Donald Trump has had a more than adequate chance to demonstrate his values over the decades of his life as a public figure; we have all the information we need to make an informed assessment of his character. I think he did not initially disavow his endorsement by David Duke and other white nationalists because he did not wish to, because his very political existence depends upon their support, and to suggest otherwise is disingenuous. I think he chose a running mate who supports LGBT conversion therapy because he does not care about the safety or well-being of queer people, and I think he called for a national database of Muslim people because he doesn’t care about religious freedom and is happy to profit from Islamophobia. I think he mocked a disabled reporter because he doesn’t care about people with disabilities. I think he is exactly the person he has presented himself as. I think there is no reason to expect him to suddenly display restraint after being given presidential power.
As for what you can do as an individual right now, a few suggestions:
Donate whatever time or money you have available to organizations like the ACLU, the NAACP, Planned Parenthood, Emily’s List, the Southern Poverty Law Center, Campaign Zero, the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, the Trevor Project, the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Contact your local mosque or Muslim Community Center and offer your services as a volunteer and tell them you support them. Contact your congressperson/representative/state legislators and offer specific calls to action, whether that be that they vote for or against a proposed legislation, whether you want them to sponsor a bill, or make a public statement. (In many locations, representative’s offices are required to read all physical mail; consider calling or writing an old-fashioned letter before sending an email.) Offer support to the people in your life whose safety and well-being are particularly threatened by this white nationalist wave. Challenge racism and obfuscation of motives when you see it (“I’m so economically anxious I had no choice but to vote for a misogynist bigot”); do not use euphemisms and gentler language for the sake of comity to describe the ugly things you know to be true.

Monday, October 17, 2016

The Information Age Sucks.

If you know me, you know I've embraced parts of cyberspace with enthusiasm. I enjoyed CompuServe back in the 1980s. I've been on Facebook for some years (thank you, Maureen) and have posted many hundreds of my dad's photographs and my own. I don't text often, but email is my favorite form of communication. I've been in online writing groups, and I'm a devotee of GardenWeb (now Houzz). And on and on. But I wish we'd never been given any of it.

When I was growing up in the 1940s and 50s, we had Democrats and Republicans as we do today, but there the resemblance ends. I remember when no one had television, and I remember when we got our first one. (My dad gave me a choice of a TV or a puppy. I chose the puppy, but somehow he morphed the dog into a 12" Admiral console.) The news was broadcast on TV, but most people got their news from the newspapers.

My dad read one paper in the subway on his way to work in the morning, and another (the New York Herald Tribume) in the evening on his way home. People communicated with each other in person, or on the phone, or by letter. This is how we got our information. All of these methods allow for error, of course. Newspapers have never been 100% accurate 100% of the time, and as for talking to each other, do you remember the children's game "Telephone"? We all have our internal filters, some more . . . um . . . interesting than others, and what goes in doesn't always come out the same way.

But most of the time informational errors back then were relatively minor ones, and differences were subtle. The contrast with today is dramatic. And disturbing.

Today we are swamped with information, and depending on who you are, a great deal of it may be completely untrue. Crazy fiction. Dangerous stuff. We've heard quite a bit of it in recent months, but the fact is even in non-election years the emails go round and round, spreading stories most of my friends would never believe, but there are people who believe every word. President Obama wants to change the National Anthem to "Kumbaya"? Syrians punish their children by pouring boiling water on them? I read both of those things in forwarded-many-times emails sent to a friend.

And then there are the websites. NPR interviewed a woman who used to run a website devoted to challenging the "conspiracy theory" websites and their like, but she gave it up when she could no longer keep up with the huge number of them.

People pick up what they read on these websites, what they get in forwarded emails, what they hear on "hate radio," and they post it on social media, where it goes "viral." Wonderful. Never in the history of the world have we experienced this. Where it will lead, I have no idea. But I'm not optimistic. On "All Things Considered" this afternoon, there was a feature on an organization that talks to people around the country about Islam. We heard one of their speakers address a group in Montana. He spoke like a reasonable person, but the NPR reporter had to point out over and over that what he was saying about Islam wasn't true. Building on what the speaker said, a woman in his audience stated with conviction that Muslim refugees want to come here to convert us or kill us. Others in the audience agreed with her.