Don’t Go

The image above is one of those perfectly encapsulated generational images. On the left, our son, age 2 and 3 months, poised in his dandy finery next to the knob on Thanksgiving, impish smile as he reached for the doorknob, his favorite talisman of the terrible twos. On the right, a photo of his daughter, age 2 and 4 months, hand extended in an eerily familiar manifestation of her DNA. Both photos say “Don’t go.” But in the one on the left, it was we who were saying “Don’t go” and on the right, it is our granddaughter who wears the universal mien of the child who wants her parent to stay. I haven’t asked Chris who took the shot, but I’m assuming from his Instagram post that he evoked this tragic look of loss on her little face.

April has been a month rich with visits, starting with a spring break visit from our son and his wife and daughter, three days full of flurried energy. Our guest bedroom isn’t the comfiest spot for a family of three, but we’ve hungered for connection, so it was great to have them here.  This last visit was taxing because unbeknownst to me, Jimmie was becoming dangerously anemic.

Our second visit was from our dear friend Susan, who resides in South Africa. Her trips are about the clearest demonstration of a friend’s love that I’ve ever witnessed. Two legs of travel, the first 10 hours, the second 16. Each way. I don’t know how she does it, but she manages to stay awake while here to visit, and to watch baseball with Jimmie while I head off to work. The last day of our visit was cut short, when I drove Jimmie to Hotel Good Samaritan to find out why he was so exhausted. Susan, ever gracious, had cleaned the house and left us flowers reminiscent of those she left 34 years ago in our honeymoon suite after executing the Maid of Honor duties for our wedding.

The third visit was Jimmie’s niece, Martha, come to support me through the last weekend of productions in the spring semester. I called her on Wednesday, she arrived Thursday evening and began taking care of us selflessly, as she has done so many times before. She cooked for us, spent time with Jimmie, and still managed to make discoveries around downtown LA, checking in on the progress of the mural in Pershing Square.  She discovered a new dangerous french bakery/cafe opposite Pershing Square, where she picked up the best blueberry scones I’ve had ever. Martha has an enormous zest for life and such style that I am constantly finding myself wanting to emulate her. She was as ever, a good sport, when I cajoled her into participating in one of the spring productions at USC, entitled Don’t Go.

Don’t Go was a devised, exploration in collaboration with the Sojourn Theatre Company, under the auspices of USC’s Arts Initiative, “Visions and Voices” of what happens when strangers meet, form a relationship, then discuss a topic that they may not see through the same lens. For a year, we’ve been planning this artist residency, and for the past four months or so, we’ve cast the seven student actors, and then the Strangers. The rehearsal period and performances were the culmination of this phase of the project, which I suspect will have a future life in the capable hands of the Sojourn Theatre.

I’ve come to appreciate the kindness of Strangers. Both at work and at home. Yes, capital S because the Strangers I met at work this month were many, curated from the USC campus and from among friends, family and neighbors within the larger Los Angeles area. The play demanded participation of seven of these curated souls each night, and finding them initially seemed impossible given the constraints of our other productions and the fact that each day only had 24 hours. Guided by the directors of the piece, Nikki Zaleski and Rebecca Martinez, we reached out to create bridges across the campus and with other theatrical institutions, such as The Pasadena Playhouse, which yielded willing participants to this theatrical and social experiment. Potential Strangers were asked to fill out a brief survey, indicating their availability for specific dates and performances or rehearsals, and some brief questions to unearth issues that they might feel strongly about. Meanwhile, the directors were building a structure for the conversations to take place while guest scenic designer and artist Aubree Lynn simultaneously designed a habitat. Student Costume and Projection Designer Mallory Gabbard worked to create clear instructional projections and a curated wardrobe to support the desired environment.

Student Lighting Designer Abby Light created a flexible plot which could both color and provide movement around the space for the conversations to unfold. Student Sound Designers Jacob Magnin and Noah Donner Klein grappled with the physics of reinforcing sound in unpredictable places throughout the theatre.

Most impressive to me was the ingenuity of the Stage Management team, students Lexi Hettick and Domenica Diaz, who communicated throughout the process with our Props Manager, Hannah Burnham, as the tasks to foster relationships evolved. In tech and performance, Lexi created an improvised tracking system to call lighting, sound and projections as determined by Sojourn artists, Jono Eiland and Michael Rohd, who took us all on the journey each night. It was different each night, because the topics selected were different. Lexi’s and Domenica’s focus in tech was laser clear and sound, live mixed by Noah was integral to the audience’s ability to follow the show.

The take away for me from the month of April is the blessing of generosity in the people around us all the time were we only to be aware. As negative as the current news cycle is, it is sometimes easy to think we are surrounded by danger all the time. My personal visits at home and the circumstances of the Sojourn piece allowed me to appreciate that we can easily share our common humanity with a complete stranger over the course of anywhere from 10 to 90 minutes of getting to know them. We may present ourselves to the world in a way which may be very different from what is in our hearts.

Yesterday, a new visiting nurse came to check up on Jimmie, post-hospital stay. She and I had been playing phone tag a bit, and we were expecting her between 6 and 7pm. Starving, Jimmie and I downed a bowl of potato chips, and I went to see what of Martha’s magical leftovers were in the refrigerator, not intending to prepare them until the nurse left. She arrived, a young woman in her early to mid-twenties, clad in blue scrub pants, a gray t-shirt, and sneakers, a bounce in her stride that jostled her braids. Within the ten minutes of our meeting, she knew that I taught theatre (which surprised her), and we knew that she lived in the neighborhood and had a four year old with brain trauma. How do we know these things? Because we allow ourselves to be interested in each other. To take advantage of the most cursory and peripheral engagements to be curious about who they are. What do they think about this? That?

With our hands on the doorknob, poised for flight, we have the opportunity to say to each other, Don’t Go. Stay a while. Let’s share our common humanity.

 

The Anxious Man

When I was in college, I spent a summer in San Francisco, working for the Field Polling organization, lived with my Dad and his wife in their Nob Hill Victorian flat. That summer I developed two fondnesses which have stayed with me over the years, both related to bed.

The front guest room overlooked a stretch of Chestnut Street just south of the Art Institute in North Beach as well as the island of Alcatraz; on the twin beds there were comforters, which my stepmother, Joan, called ‘doonas’, clad in vibrant orange, yellow and white striped Marimekko fabric. I liked nothing better then or now than to burrow into those cocoons of slumber after a long day at my job.

That was also the summer that I learned to value the morning newspaper, a cup of warm caffeine, and the ritual of reading up on contemporary events and planning outings to movies and plays. On a student budget, I attended many more movies than plays, but each morning, I’d peruse the SF Chronicle’s “pink section” for the distinctive clapping man icons, (designed by Warren Goodrich in the 1940s) to guide me to critically popular films.sf-chronicle-movie-review-guy-2 (Thanks to Austin Kleon for his great post about the origination and interpretation of the Little Man). That summer, I also read the daily installment of Armistead Maupin’s “Tales of the City” which my college buddies, Bob and Bill and I  discussed avidly while we roller bladed in the inventory aisles of Macy’s that summer.  Three Princeton students assembling and collating training manuals for bored Macy’s employees.  And I’d finish by reading Herb Caen’s column about all that was politically topical in San Francisco. Herb Caen

 

Recently the Little Man has returned to my life. Except now I think of him as the Anxious Man.  Somewhere between Chair 2 and Chair 3 is the posture I frequently find Jimmie in when I come home from work. Leaning forward, elbows braced on his knees, brow furrowed. This pose is also frequently caused not only by anxiety, but by an arctic chill that he just can’t shake, even when I supply him with a warm cup of tea or coffee. I’ll sometimes get a phone call mid afternoon after he’s awoken from a nap and needs to hear my voice to bring him back to a less anxious place.

We seem to have entered a new phase. Jimmie’s memory frays at the edges like the fringes of my denim shorts when I was a teen, except his fringe is unintentionally extended, whereas I’d obsessively pull the threads to make my fringe longer, the shorts shorter. I cherish our shared memories and strive to minimize the devastation or importance of the loss. Ever helpful, Jimmie puts the dishes away from the drainboard while I’m at work. The other night when I opened the cupboard where we store our glassware, I discovered two coffee mugs. I laughed until I realized that his mistake was actually intuitive – that cupboard is directly over the coffee maker. Doh!

His memory isn’t consistently rocky. Sometimes he greets my questions about the events of the day with a quizzical expression. I don’t know, he says with the blissful nonchalance of someone whose day actually isn’t polluted by the toxicity of the current political climate. It engenders in me both envy and sadness, because of the loss of depth in our discourse. And then sometimes he’s completely present, working his crossword puzzles in the familiar pen as he’s always done.

If you see us together, don’t be surprised. I had arranged for a caregiver this Tuesday, when I had tech, but when she arrived, the Anxious Man returned, shoulders hunched, fingers intertwined, sometimes even with his forehead cradled in his hands. The well-meaning woman came closer, making reassuring looks at me. But when she started speaking, her sugary voice lilted as she said “What are some of your favorite things to do? Do you want to take a walk?”

I had to take her aside after a few minutes of condescending chatter. Jimmie looked up at me, rolling his eyes, and I felt him getting even more anxious. Within 10 minutes, he asked me five times when I was leaving, and it became clearer and clearer that I was not going to be able to leave.

This happened once the week before, when I was to assist with house management for the final dress of our spring musical; so we went together. Tuesday night we ended up going to tech together. Jimmie sat quietly tucked into the corner by the door and I popped back and forth between talking to him and listening as the stage manager ran the tech.

The caregivers who come don’t always cue the return of the Anxious Man. We had a lovely woman a few months ago who was easy to be with and inspired confidence in both Jimmie and me. She’s disappeared from the roster, unfortunately.

This week, I think we’re helping the agency break in some new employees. The past two days, we’ve had a couple who surprised us. We were expecting Mrs. Wang, but when I opened the door, Mr. Wang was right behind her. He had come along to “help with translating.” You like to think that the agency has sent someone that your hearing-impaired loved one will have no trouble communicating with in the first place. Now, he had ridiculous exchanges such as “May I have some crackers and cheese?” resulting in a bowl of crackers….. What does Jimmie do? He picks up the phone and calls me at work.

(whispering furtively)

Els, I just want some crackers and cheese. They brought me a plate of just crackers.

(heroically)

Put Mr. Wang on the phone with me, Jimmie.

(As the phone passes, I can hear Jimmie desperately asking Mrs. Wang for water with ice.)

Mr. Wang, Jimmie would like some brie. It’s in the bottom drawer of the fridge.

Oh, brie, okay, says Mr. Wang brightly.

Can I please speak again with Jimmie? Phone passes to Jimmie.

Jimmie, you need to be a little patient. The Wangs don’t know how our kitchen is laid out.

When I got home, Jimmie looked drained. I asked him if he eventually got his cheese. He started gesticulating with his hands, making little chopping cube like shapes in the air in front of his chest. Reminded me of Veronica the other day interrupting me while I explained clearly how Jimmie liked his hotdogs with baked beans and applesauce. (Okay, I’m not proud of the menu, but it’s a 5-7 minute prep time, friends, and it’s all about speed and simplicity.)

Applesauce for dessert?

No, just on the same plate with the beans and franks. (she looks repulsed)

Has he ever tried hotdogs wrapped in bacon?

(Stifling my nausea)

No, Jimmie just likes his hotdogs plain. With some dijon mustard. No bacon!

I went into the kitchen tonight and opened the dishwasher to put some things away, and to check to see if The Wangs had followed my request to put the dishes away. They had!

Now I’m the first one to acknowledge that no one loads a dishwasher the same way, and that I have OCD. But when I flipped the door down, there were three spoons lying on their side on top of the silverware drawer, and the plates and bowls were facing the wrong way. My ridiculous outrage was enormous. So big that I actually made my 91-year-old husband get up off the sofa and roll his walker into the kitchen to come look at how the Wangs had loaded the dishwasher.

I just had them unload the dishwasher, so they saw how I like it!

Jimmie looked at me like I’d lost my mind. I think I actually may have lost my mind. The first day the Wangs arrived, as I was leaving, I texted our son that Mrs. Wang showed up with her husband who is very nice but that’s a lot of company. To which he responded  OMG. This is a pilot in the making.

Maybe that’s what Jimmie should be doing. Writing that pilot.

Taking it one day at a time, friends, one day at a time. Anxious me and my Anxious Man.

 

 

Heartbreaking News…

Earlier this week, Jimmie and I attended Spamilton at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. It’s the first time we’ve been to the theatre together since we went to see Punk Rock at SDA almost a month ago. In all truth, we hadn’t been planning on attending the theatre again together not because we loathe the theatre or spending time together, but because the Circumstantial ROI of our theatre outings has become negligible for Jimmie. You can read here about our last Broadway Adventure.

The schlepp to the theatre is fine. We enjoy each other’s company and it’s nice to get out and see our adopted city’s sights traffic periodically. Assembling and disassembling Jimmie’s magical scooter is fairly automatic – no waving of the wand (that would be welcome technology, please), but it’s manageable. The logistics are surmountable. But when you can’t hear the play, what’s the point of surmounting the logistics?

Once we get to the theatre, sure, I have a moment of terror when Jimmie heads into the men’s room and I lurk by the door, craning to hear a thump and to ensure that no one takes his scooter for a joy ride. Other onlookers frequently are kind and offer an arm to walk him in and out of the men’s room. But I still look like some kind of perv, which is awkward.

Last night as I lurked before heading into see the show, I got a text from one of my friends from the spin gym where I have been a member for about four years. I had missed the email from the founder of the gym, which was entitled “Heartbreaking News…” In the brief email, she spelled out her reasons for the upcoming abrupt closure of the gym – on November 22nd. My phone lit up with other messages from friends I’ve met and gotten to know at the gym. I was completely distracted throughout the time leading up to the show, and immediately afterwards, restored my phone to see more communal wailing about the closure.

Heartbreaking News…

The power of words.

Since I wrote the last two posts, I’ve discovered people’s hunger to discuss and share the issue of giving care to our loved ones. A half dozen people have approached me to share their own stories, proving that we humans have a lot going on in our lives that isn’t necessarily visible in our daily comings and goings. Many people are shouldering their responsibilities at work while also carrying untold pounds of personal grief or struggle at home. And we don’t talk about it in any kind of direct way. We hide it as though it’s something to be ashamed of when it’s not. It’s just completely a part of our lives. We carry it because we want to, or in some cases, we need to or have to.

Tuesday, Jimmie and I visited the doctor after he experienced drainage difficulties in the morning, which I was able to help him solve with some of the medical equipment I had left over from over a year before. Note to self. However much you relish the idea of a personal bonfire to eliminate the traces of your medical mishigas, you should resist. By saving two boxes of single use catheters, I saved us a trip to the ER and missing a lecture. And yes, I know you were all asking yourselves,

What was she a girl scout or something?

Just as you shouldn’t get ahead of yourself in medical equipment armament, don’t Konmari yourselves into an ER visit as your situation changes.

Our visit to the doctor was late in the day. When we came in, he was in a hurry, and unfortunately hurry isn’t in our repertoire anymore. Jimmie inadvertently scooted into the wrong room requiring me to use my air traffic controller batons to steer him into the correct one, where the doctor did a quick ultrasound. As Jimmie stood to get dressed again, his back was facing the doctor when I asked him about the biopsy results.

The doctor, lowering his voice, quietly said,

Oh, They didn’t tell you? There’s aggressive cancer in the prostate.

I looked at him, incredulous. Did who tell us? This was his surgeon speaking. Also, I couldn’t believe that he was trying to tell me this without including Jimmie, who is extremely hard of hearing and facing the window while he pulled up his pants. My bossy sister emerged.

Oh, no. You need to tell him this directly.

And in my loud, most comely voice, said to Jimmie.

Jimmie, you need to turn around. The doctor has something important to tell you.

Jimmie turned and the doctor delivered the news. Again, he was still in a hurry, not that he was being unkind or elusive, but this was his last appointment before heading over to the adjacent hospital, and the details were brief.

Aggressive prostate cancer. Hormone therapy.

The power of words. When Jimmie stood up from the table, he caught his leg on something sharp, and as I hurried to help him with his pants, the doctor and I both watched as two small blooms of blood developed on the back of his khakis. He quickly applied gauze and tape, and then Jimmie and I executed the extraction of the scooter from the office.  Everything else about the exit from the office is fuzzy. I can’t speak for Jimmie, but I was in an emotional blackout.

The next twenty-four hours moved in a blur. We decided to go to Spamilton to take our minds off the unknown.

The follow up appointment with his GP two days later calmed us down. He confirmed that the entire tumor board of the hospital had reviewed Jimmie’s case and were unanimous in the treatment plan. Somehow hearing that was a comfort. Prostate cancer is slow moving.

Heartbreaking news…Aggressive Prostate Cancer. These word combinations are tough to read but it is our reactions that are our own to manage.

In the case of the closure of my gym, the truly heartbreaking news was that I had already paid for my 2018 membership and have yet to hear back from the management about a refund. If I am honest with myself, I had been thinking that I needed to change up my workout plan. Spinning, as good as it is for cardio, is boring. I’d been thinking I’d like to try pilates, or something else. So barring legal issues getting my membership fee back, while the news is heartbreaking for all the spin instructors at the gym and for the convenience of having my gym within 400 paces of my front door, these words can be managed.

In the case of Jimmie’s cancer, we will move forward with treatment, and take it a day at a time. Lord knows we are practiced in that. And we even have more theatre outings in our future. Last night we attended, heard and enjoyed Circle Mirror Transformation to see the MFA Y2 Actors in the Scene Dock Theatre. Tonight Eurydice is on the ticket.

This morning I got a text with some photos from Chris.

A bear broke into my truck last night

Now that’s heartbreaking. Especially given how much the truck has meant to Chris.  But that’s why we have insurance.

I’m grateful to be blessed with all the things we have. Good enough health to be able to attend a gym on a regular basis. Good enough medical care to help us through this crisis that Jimmie is experiencing. Lots of loving support from family and friends as we go through this ordeal. Good enough auto insurance to repair Chris’ truck. All of it is surmountable. As Chris texted me this morning, “This too shall pass.”

Heartbreaking News…Aggressive Prostate Cancer…Bear in the Truck. The power of words do not render us powerless.

And in the meantime, it seems fitting that Thanksgiving is right around the corner.