Archive | August, 2006

Lacunae, part 1

ocean 005: looking up at the sun, by lifecanvas_com_au.

Thirteen years ago on September 1, my mother died. She had broken a hip bone in April, and had spent the better part of the next six months in a convalescent hospital ostensibly trying to recuperate from it. My sister and I lived far from home at the time—she was in Norway, I was in Minnesota—and we visited home periodically and kept in constant touch over the phone. Our dad was with her daily, trusted the doctors caring for her, and continually Thought Good Thoughts.

I can’t explain why the doctors treating her at the time did not instantly rule out a cancer metastasis: just three years before she had broken her hip, twenty-four of twenty-seven lymph nodes had been removed from under her left armpit, along with the entirety of her left breast; following this she endured months of radiation and chemotherapy. And the hip bone, it turns out, is the most common one to break for a woman her age with a metastasized cancer. We learned this, finally, from the oncology nurses, during the last week of her life. (Most of what I know about breast cancer and its metastases came from those oncology nurses, walking goddesses all, over the course of the last week of my mother’s life.)

I can’t explain why the nurses and attendants at the convalescent facility—who saw her struggling and failing to find the energy to do the physical therapy, who saw her appetite dwindling, steadily, along with her will to survive—did not review her health history, find the breast cancer just a handful of years before, and insist that a metastasis be ruled out. The only explanation I have ever been able to muster for this cavalcade of medical malfeasance is that my mother was a kindly, fat, older woman who had a high tolerance for pain and a strong disinclination to fight for attention. In other words, she was easy to undervalue, easy to ignore.

I can’t even explain why we—my father, my sister, and I, for whom my mother was the central heavenly body around which we had all orbited for decades—didn’t demand that a metastasis be ruled out. Of course on the surface of it all, we assumed that this had already been done by her doctor(s). But exacerbating that false trust was a huge gap in our knowledge about breast cancer and the courses it can run in a woman’s body. Bigger still was the hole in our imaginations where we might have been capable of envisioning a life without her. Honestly, we couldn’t, so we didn’t.

Back in Minneapolis in early August, I remember talking to my friends David and Susanne as I packed for a trip back home for her birthday. My sister had been home in late July, after I’d been there in June. She was beginning to be concerned about the care our mother was receiving at the convalescent hospital, and had proposed we take her home and care for her there.

I remember saying to David and Susanne, “I don’t know why, but I feel like this is going to be her last birthday.” I remember crying in front of them. They comforted me, and sent me on my way with a promise to watch after my cat Emma while I was gone.

A few weeks later, when my mother had trouble finding words (she, the life-long crossword puzzler), we took her to a neurologist, suspecting a stroke. He took a CAT scan of her brain, then an MRI. Then he looked at a simple x-ray taken back in April, back at the time of her hip bone break. On that April x-ray, plain as day, evident to anyone who would look carefully, were hundreds of lacunae: tiny holes and cavities all over her bones, the unmistakable sign of the return of the cancer, now irreversible.

We discovered this at the very crest of the waterfall, as it were: less than two days later she would fully lose consciousness, less than two weeks later she would be gone. I noted the next day in my journal: “Sunday afternoon, late, when she opened her eyes for a moment and saw me smiling down at her she smiled back. Sunday, August 22.” Our last earthly interchange.

Following her death, water provided the most apt imagery with which I could describe my condition. I felt that I had been plunged to the bone-chilling center of the ocean, and all was inky blue-black around me. I felt, instinctively, that there was a surface to the ocean—from time to time I could make out some kind of light indicating it—and I had an instinctual sense that I might gradually float upward towards it, perhaps even without the exercise of my will, perhaps simply with the passage of time. Whether or not I would ever break the surface, I couldn’t say for certain. What the world might look like, if indeed I did surface, was something I couldn’t begin to imagine. But I knew it would look very, very different.

Next time: Lacunae, part 2 (in Katrina’s wake)

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Photojournalist David Rae Morris: 9 Ward R.I.P.

work of photojournalist David Rae Morris

I will post my thousand words tomorrow. Today, I bow to the eloquence of a friend’s pictures. David Rae’s caption for this: “Toxic Art exhibit on the neutral ground on St. Claude Avenue in the Bywater.” See more of David Rae Morris’ Katrina photojournalism here. And when you are moved, as you are sure to be, write him, and tell him (1) thank you, and (2) you’re eagerly awaiting his book.

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Things one likes to see at a party

As the gals passed us by, I found myself commenting to my party guest (after rapidly recording the moment for posterity), “Now that’s something one likes to see.”

Party guest: “A girl in an evening gown riding a tractor.”

Moi: “Youbetcha.”

Party guest (since we were all there wishing bon voyage to our friends with the cross-dressing boys): “Actually, a boy in an evening gown riding a tractor would be just as great. It’s really about the evening gown.”

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Are you a boy?

Our dear friends with the skirt-wearing, evening-glove bedecked, female pronoun-using son are staying over this week, before they return home to Israel, whence they came eight years ago for grad school. Though none of us in the household (counting seven of us, in our extended state) is a gender-bending boy, I at least am some kind of a gender bending girl, which Amit picked up on at dinner the other night.

“Are you a boy?” he asked me, out of the blue.

“Good question!” I said, thrilled that I might keep him company, if for a moment, along his brave journey deep into the nether space between the sex of the body and the gender of the spirit. “I’m a little bit of both.”

For a second I thought that might be confusing, or ambiguous. Which of course it can be. But seemingly mostly if you’re a grown-up.

“On the inside, you’re a boy,” he flatly declared.

“Yep, pretty much,” I smiled back.

He concluded, “In your heart you’re a boy, but on your chest, you’re a girl.”

My sweetie and I met eyes with his mother, and we all noted wordlessly to one another his stupefying eloquence. All I could reply was, “I couldn’t have put it better myself.”

Then back he went to his pasta.

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We are family

GranBaba with the Lil Monkey.
Who’s GranBaba? My kid’s blood Gramma’s butchie lesbo sweetie, who else?

I was recently asked the following:

what’s your take on half siblings? other kids from the same donor.. not a part of your family.. who are such lil ppl to you.. or to lil monkey.. where is genetics in your scheme of the world?

I tried to answer succinctly, and of course couldn’t. So here I’ll try to answer somewhere between succinctly and loquaciously, in the at least it can be read over less than a cup of coffee range.

Ah, genealogy and kinship; ah, the half-sibling question. It actualy begs the question of what one calls or considers the kids who are biologically related to one’s kids via the donor. And it’s not necessarily “half-sibling.” Or rather, this would be the term that many may use, but it certainly defaults to biological ties as the determining organizing device. My particular familial grouping, however, defines our family by the social bonds in it far more than the biological ones. It helps that my partner has two siblings, one of which is technically a half sibling (different dad), the other of which is not biologically related at all (different “biodad” and “biomum,” in other words, adopted). Never does the fractionality of her blood relation to either of these people enter into any of their language regarding one another. Nor, at the core, does it influence who they are to one another. They are brother and sisters, with love and loyalty that runs as deep as the Mariana Trench.

When I was a kid, I referred to my parents’ closest friends as “aunt” and “uncle” (Auntie June and Uncle Slim, Australians, as it happens, by birth and by emigration). As a kid, I never wondered about what bonds connected them to my parents; their loving friendship was all I needed to see. Everyone in an extended family knows what this feels like; everyone who has been raised by people other than or in addition to their blood parents knows this. Long before the “gayby boom” queer people have created “chosen family,” both by necessity and by choice. But I believe it to be by far the most ordinary of familial weaves, the extended, mixed blood- and love-connected families, and I firmly believe that my own little clump of family is simply returning to an old-school version of family, far more than it is pioneering a new one.

I am in the process of reading Stephanie Coontz’ The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap, the better to be able to substantiate this educated hunch. It’s too rich a study to try to convey in a brief synopsis here, but suffice to say that Coontz’ scholarship helps bring every hazy notion of what a “traditional” family is or was into sharp focus. And at every turn, what’s romanticized is actually more likely to be a half-forgotten television series than a lived truth.

Much larger even than these kinds of families are those emerging from shared struggle, which engenders the language of “sister” so-and-so, and “brother” so-and-so for people utterly outside what most understand to be family ties. For over twenty years, dating back to my first deep exposure to the North American Civil Rights Movement, I have identified with this means of drawing kindred spirits together into the larger human family. And as a Buddhist, I actually believe that at some point or another we’ve all been each other’s brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, and so on, many times over. So what’s in a name, I sez. That which we call kin by any other name would smell as sweet.

And finally, a few introductory words on our connection to the person and people who’ve helped the Lil Monkey come into our lives. We know our donor: he’s the partner to one of my oldest chums. I’ve known her for over twenty five years (!), and him for over a dozen (!). Both my old chum and I wrote about the conception process, she from her vantage point as partner to donor (in its entirety here), me from mine as partner to biomum (excerpt here). The connection I have to our Donor Chum (he favors “Donor Guy,” I think because of the close cognate to “Cable Guy”) is ineffable. One day I will try to eff it. Our two families are distinct, but woven together. But I would say we’re knit together even more by choice than biology. Which is to say, we’re knit together by a great deal of mutual, voluntary love and respect. We name our kids’ relationship by what’s most accurate, socially: they are cousins, special cousins, to be exact. The kids have different parents, which is part of what distinguishes cousins from siblings. But like cousins, a blood thread connects them.

Today I went to our younger special cousins’ graduation from preschool. As she trotted in and saw me and the Lil Monkey, she whispered to her friend, “Those are my cousins.” Which, I note, included me, too. This little sweetie, a few years back, regularly alternated he and she in reference to me, in the same sentence. As in, “She wears his hair short under that baseball cap.” Both misnomers – the he/she misnomers, and the blurred familial title misnomer –are actually pretty accurate. She has the main point, which is that whoever we are, we are family.

Further food for thought: this piece by a fourteen-year-old writer, under the same title.

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