Saturday, February 08, 2020

lucky seven and the screaming woman, or: who knows for sure

This is Venice Boulevard at 8AM on a Friday morning: bright sun, a bite in the air, Alana's Coffee Roasters spilling patrons onto sidewalk picnic tables, tent cities hugging the corners of everything. In front of an event space called (really) Neyborly, a middle-aged white woman wearing suede ankle boots screams.

She's yelling at someone not visible to the rest of us. In addition to the distressed yelling, her skin gives her away as a likely resident of one of the tents, though who knows for sure. Her cheeks are that red-brown of too much time outdoors.

Neyborly types
I've arrived early for a work meeting. I am waiting for lab work to confirm that I still don't have cancer. It's been seven years, but who knows for sure. My physical exam on Thursday went fine. My initial labs, including my liver numbers, were fine. Those are promising data points, but the tumor markers--the ones I'm waiting for--are the biggies.

During the wait, I imagine over and over again how I would tell Dash I wouldn't live to see him graduate high school. I mean, there are breakthroughs on the horizon, but seven years ago I was told we were five years out from a breast cancer vaccine that has yet to materialize, so who knows for sure. I stumble across a Twitter account of a woman who's had metastatic breast cancer for ten years, and I do the math. I figure it would be best for me to die when Dash is still in elementary school or after he's firmly ensconced in high school. I've heard that twelve is a magical year for kids' brain development, so that would be a bad year to die.

During the wait I think about other parents who've failed to control the world for their children, to the point where they don't even get to give their children the gift of themselves. I think about border separations, especially. The long sprint from Honduran frying pan to American fire.

During the wait I am full of anger and empathy. I want to care about things like AK's battle with Verizon and who I'm supposed to be mad at on Twitter. I manage to put on a jacket in the morning, and it seems like an act of deep kindness to myself and also stupidly frivolous.

Between my last check-up and this one, we lost Elizabeth Wurtzel, who wrote biting, badass things about cancer, and Shannen Doherty announced her stage 4 status because she was suing an insurance company and the news it was going to come out anyway.

Elizabeth Wurtzel
When I walk past the screaming woman, I look at her an murmur, "I'm sorry, honey," the way my mom talked to me when I was in the midst of something she couldn't fix.

I make eye contact with a woman sitting at one of the picnic tables, who is also watching the screaming woman. I know our faces are mirrors of each other: knit eyebrows, useless sadness. Except, I like to think it is not totally useless? In the Great Connectedness, to love another person, even for a minute, is to see the face of God. (Thank you, Victor Hugo/Les Mis.)

One table further down the sidewalk, I watch two men watch the screaming woman. They are laughing like, "Oh Venice, you're still nutty." Or, being as generous as possible, they are laughing nervously. Maybe they were having some kind of initial professional meeting and are measuring how to react. But they give me a focal point for my hatred, which has been looking for a place to land.

And then, two hours later in the middle of a staff meeting, I get word. Dr. Kwan's email confirms I am cancer-free. Seven years and counting. The odds, my friend Kim reminded me during my semiannual panic, were in my favor. Like Hunger Games. And cancer is a game that is exactly as fair as Hunger Games. I'm rooting for myself, but I feel like I'm killing Shannen Doherty in the process.

Last time, when my liver numbers were suspiciously high, I figured out it was probably from eating so much junk food--embarrassing but true--and although binge eating has always been in my toolbox of troublesome coping mechanisms (along with obsessive ruminating and sending emails that should stay in my drafts box), I think there might be a reason it peaked in the summer of 2019.

Molly was as fierce as Elizabeth Wurtzel, and every bit the writer, but she didn't get the chance to get famous because the world is ridiculous. Even when systemic oppression isn't at play, even when you're talking about two pretty white ladies, the world is ridiculous.
Molly died in March of that year. I can't pretend we were closer than we were, but her death shook me hard. I think a small part of me was like "Oh, so this is how fair the world is? This is how fucked-up and arbitrary? There's no good reason I should be alive," and while 97 percent of me wanted to be a good mom and spouse and sister and daughter and writer and citizen, 3 percent of me wanted to hurl myself into the sun to see what would happen. Fucking with my body in the most basic-bitch way was a small act of self-sabotage (and/or an outlet for my considerable work stress, who knows for sure). It took a couple of visits with clean tumor markers and wonky liver levels for me to stop.

I've eaten reasonably and exercised a little these past five months. I'll try to do even better these next six. Living in the world and knowing that what you do doesn't and does matter is really fucking hard. It's hard to know you're 99.99 percent powerless over the world and 86 percent powerless over your life, but to put every ounce of energy and your whole living-for-now body into the .01 and 13 percent respectively. Here goes nothing. Here it continues.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

can you hear the drums ferdinando?

I met Ferdinand on my third or fourth date with AK. The plan was to meet at her house and in a move that was retroactively predictable, she was running late. A thin-hipped black cat soft-pawed toward me on the fence.

"You must be Ferdinand," I said, and we hung out there, outside the bungalow she shared with Alberto, and for the next fourteen years.

Yesterday we said goodbye to him. For months, he'd been doing that ailing-cat move where he drank water from any vessel he could find: glasses, the pots in Dash's play kitchen, a plastic souvenir Dodgers cap. But both OC and T-Mec had long, slow declines during which they mostly lived their lives, and even when he went from his usual slender build to truly bony, I thought we'd have a while.

Then all of a sudden we didn't.

Big eyes, big heart

Long ago, AK and I picked out careers for our cats, and Ferdinand's was DJ. He was always the coolest guy in the room. He came and went as he pleased; we assumed he was off to a gig. He was the reason I slowly and cautiously transitioned OC and T-Mec into becoming part-time outdoor cats. I knew the risks, but none of them was ever eaten by a coyote, and they killed more rats than songbirds. Back in his bungalow days, Ferd would escape the house mysteriously and meow to get back in. Finally we caught him on top a book shelf, nudging open a swinging window with his nose, and leaping to the ground.

When AK and I had problems, Ferdinand seemed even cooler and occasionally became my rival: the cat who could do no wrong when I could only do wrong. But meandering conversations on our cats' probable careers (OC: town crier; T-Mec: PhD student in neuroscience, doing her dissertation on Why Do Some Cats Talk So Much; Ollie is an adverb salesman) brought us together when adult life was too much.

Ferd was a nine-pound alpha, never hesitating to sink his teeth into OC's neck when he felt like it. But when it came to food, he was a delicate flower. "Oh, did you want that?" he'd say, quickly ceding the food area.

He won the hearts of human visitors. "I don't like cats, but I love Ferdinand" was a thing we heard a lot. He'd let you sling him over your shoulder. As a kitten, his hunting specialty was Palm Frond a la Nand, but he graduated to rats and once manhandled a squirrel.

The girls next door loved him and Ollie, though Ollie--ever the self-protective middle child--kept a low profile. Ferd would hang around a little longer when all three kids screeched "Gato!" and charged.

As he grew skinnier, Dash grew both gentler and bolder, frequently picking Ferd up by the middle and carrying him around. I should have stopped it more often, despite its sweetness. Ferd's skinny middle was full of cancer, and he had to have been in pain. He rarely protested.

I told Dash the news yesterday after school. I'm afraid he thinks cats just go to the vet to die. He's a privileged kid in plenty of ways, but I didn't lose a cat until college, and he's lost two. He said, "Now we have two cats in our hearts." He said, "What will Jasmine and Juanita say?" He said, "Is he in the fire?" because cremation is a fascinating and terrible concept to him, as it should be.

Ferdinand. Ferd. Mr. Nand. You're DJing the best party now, and we're missing you at this one.