I found myself nearly crying in the naturopath’s office. She had just complimented me about the amount of important things I had done in life. My response was sudden, sharp and certainly strange. Even I thought that, as I observed the scene then and in retrospect. “No,” I insisted. “I have not accomplished anything; not the architecture career I started…the organizations I invented have all three disappeared… two bad husband choices…never rich enough to be really helpful to others…and my visual skills…no significant “body of work.” In one fell swoop I demolished myself. Immediately, I felt foolish and soiled. But when I reached the car to go home, I knew that I believed these criticisms and I was sad and I needed to think about this state of mind.
A cancer diagnosis can sharpen one’s wits; can refocus the eyes on the clock, the calendar…what is left undone, to do, to fix. The measure of one’s life is checked repeatedly and sometimes I found myself wanting. Regrets can spoil any good day if I let them in. My dreams are full of anxiety of tasks that must be done. I wake at three in the morning and a roiling list of obligations keeps me awake for hours.
Today, I came back from the hospital not having had the drainage from around my lungs that had been scheduled. It was my decision, but the whole experience was wearing. In the car I was beyond exhausted. I rested with my eyes closed while Ken went into the supermarket. And on the way home I fell asleep and when I got home I went back to sleep—in my bed this time. When I woke, I saw clearly. Three stories came to me.
The Story of Bill, the Nurse:
The nurse who greeted us today was a stocky guy with an open face and ready smile. He escorted us to one of the examining/procedure rooms. Ken sat in the only chair. I stood and paced and then sat on the edge of the bed. Bill stood too, but took his seat next to me—right next to me and swung the rolling computer screen in front of us to check on my file. Side by side is so friendly, even kindly and cozy—not my usual experience of nurses. Eventually, we got to “How are your bowel movements?” We have fun being silly and serious and even flip with this lowly topic, when suddenly, he scrambles to leave the room. Without missing a beat, I joke about his being very impressionable. He laughs and we return the laughter. When he comes back, he runs down his list of questions. “Did you store your own blood for a transfusion?” “No,” I say confused. “I don’t think I ever had a transfusion and I don’t remember ever having had a discussion of storing my blood.” “Oh, it must be an error,” Bill says casually as he deletes that from my file. “There are probably more,” I volunteer. We were enjoying the time with Nurse Bill. At some point, I ask “Don’t you need to see my ID?” He chuckles and acquiesces as I hand him my driver’s license. Then, he says unexpectedly, as he looks down at my ID in his hands, “I hope you are not the jealous kind, Ken, but your wife is beautiful. Just look at those cheek bones!” More laughter.
We talked of many things. His daughter who is studying textiles in Maine; and the older one who is starting off her career in museums at the Quadrangle in Springfield. It went quickly from subject to subject—some medical and some social. We were waiting for Dr. Grassi. There was a schedule mix up and it was the day before Thanksgiving. Buying time perhaps, he notices my sweater, says that his daughter would find that pattern interesting. “I made that!” I say triumphantly and explain my salvaging efforts—cashmere with holes, camouflaged with needle felting. He is animatedly interested, explaining the custom in Japan of letting repairs show, like a silver seam in a broken vase. We are baffled by the unexpected direction of the conversation.. I have a poem about just this topic. I promise myself to bring it to him on Monday when I return for chemo.
Ken, reflexively, hands me his business card, to which I add my name on the reverse and invite Bill to bring his daughter to visit me to talk textiles—indeed both his daughters—art and textiles.
At one point Bill and others are looking for Dr. Grassi. Not in his office, not answering his phone. I suggest he may be in ‘the smallest room of the house.’ Bill finishes the quote for me “I am sitting in the smallest room of my house. I have your letter before me, Sir. In a moment it will be behind me!” he identifies it as Voltaire’s. Later I search and find it ascribed to a variety of witty European writers. But in that moment, Ken and I stare at this phenom who is my nurse…. who exists down here in the bowels of the local hospital?
When we leave, he actually escorts us to the elevator…a long, long walk…as if he were walking us to his front door after a lovely evening visiting his home. He held the elevator door open with his body and as I walked in he gave me an ample hug. I gratefully accepted.
The Story of Levi, the Moldavian:
Ken told me that yesterday a man he barely remembered rang our doorbell. It was clear the man wanted to see me, not Ken. He was Levi, the Moldavian who had worked for UPS helping during the winter rush at least 5 years ago. I needed prodding to remember him. But, clearly the Moldavian remembered me. He kept looking over Ken’s shoulder to see if I was there. I had made a connection for him with the only other Romanian speaker I know. We had spoken of life and immigration and our own parents’ stories. He remembered our kindness and wondered oddly if we always are kind to strangers? Would Ken help him, he quizzed strangely…. by lending him money? giving him a car?…and a few other less remarkable questions. He is a devote Evangelical Christian and wanted to know if we are so generous because we are Jews. Incredulous, I asked Ken to repeat this.
He had returned with one of his three children, his American contribution, but perhaps mostly to check on us to see if we were real and still there… the way in the late 1980’s I used to check that a file was really saved when I hit the computer’s ‘Save’ button… the way we scan a bookshelf with our fingertips to make sure a favorite title is still there and briefly reabsorb its tale. Ken said no to the car but gave him a book for the 3-year-old standing patiently by his side. Perhaps he had just come to show us his progeny.
Ken awkwardly waited for him to say goodbye. The man lingered glancing again inside. Sensing the unfinished quality of the visit, Ken asked for his phone number, assuming he wanted me to call him. I don’t know where that number is now. Unfinished will remain unfinished.
The Story of Eloise:
A few days ago, we were at the supermarket in Northampton…each of us on our own, collecting items. I was in search of Quinine water walking along the large back aisle, the one with dairy, meat and fish. I was feeling good and in a happy mood. Wrapped in my wool shawl, I had tossed one side back over my left shoulder. A woman some 10 feet away from me, walking toward me, says suddenly: “You look fabulous!”
I don’t know her; she doesn’t know me. I smile and say “thank you.” We stop and revolve around each other and start a lighthearted conversation that focuses very quickly on her name, Eloise, and the children’s book Eloise at the Plaza. We each claim it as one of our favorites, chatting about our favorite scenes and special pages. I ask what the nanny’s name was and we agree that it was just Nanny.
There is no agenda. She blurted out a compliment and I responded kindly and we each felt—she in particular—a momentary kinship. She asked if she could hug me. We did; two strangers hugged near the packaged ground beef. We chatted more. I told her I had a favorite book with my name in the title too: Impunity Jane. It’s about a little doll stuck for generations in a dollhouse until a boy steals her and she gets a life of wild adventure. I asked her son’s age. Twelve, she answers. I acknowledge and say it might work for him. He’s a boy, she emphasizes. It might delight him, I emphasize. And then Eloise asks if we might stay in touch…
Two years ago, I might have agreed and exchanged phone numbers. And with that either start a whole new line of friendship or something else that verges on an obligation. Today I thought quickly and realized I did not have the time or energy to include her in my story any more than this charming encounter. I smiled, paused, and took my prerogative of elder.
“Could you be satisfied with just this?” I asked gently, still smiling. She nodded yes, and took another hug.
We parted down the aisle in opposite directions. I looked at her figure as she walked. Her head turned back to look at me. Awhile later, at the cash register, Eloise pops her face in front of mine and blurts out “I forgot to ask your name!”
“Impunity Jane,” I smiled back.
“Oh yes,” she said and she was gone.
Three messengers came to remind me of my lifetime full of meaningful human interactions. I smiled gratefully. I could be satisfied with just this.