For as long as I can recall, I have endured an often overwhelming empathic response to both beautiful and tragic events, human and animal suffering, and gross injustice…whether actual or fictional. As a child, the book, Old Yeller, destroyed me. I remember vividly a neighborhood friend educating me on the Holocaust. I asked her if the Nazis had killed children, too, feeling myself become disoriented and numb, as she nodded her head and solemnly answered, “Yes.” I asked her several times, as if this kid knew the answer, “Why didn’t anyone DO anything?” I obsessed over it for a long while. After seeing the movie, Funny Girl, as a 4th grader for goodness sake, I couldn’t sleep for several nights. 😳 I kept secret my angst over the breakup of Fanny Brice and her husband, “Nicky” Arnstein, even as I quietly cried in my bed on the upstairs porch where several of my siblings lay dreaming, not a care in the world over this tragedy! Soon thereafter, I’d have my hair cut like Streisand’s, albeit with the requisite much-too-short bangs my dear stylist (mom) had seemingly perfected. Still, I thought my 4th grade school photo was super stylish! Even then, however, I felt self-conscious about my profound upset over a movie. I once earned the ridicule of my younger brothers, Sean and Patrick, who discovered me sobbing in front of the tv. “You’re CRYING over The RIFLEMAN?” Sean asked incredulously, as he and Patrick rolled their eyes and shared a laugh. Insensitive brutes! 😉 The two-parter entitled, “The Wyoming Story,” ends with long separated father (Lucas McCain) and disillusioned son (Mark) running toward each other in an extreme long shot, the camera then cuts to a close-up as Mark jumps into his father’s arms. Just look at those faces! I defy anyone to watch this episode and not cry!
As children, Ethan and Ben came to expect and accept my becoming verklempt while reading aloud to them. This passage from The Wind in the Willows moves me to this day.
Then suddenly the Mole felt a great Awe fall upon him, an awe that turned his muscles to water, bowed his head, and rooted his feet to the ground. It was no panic terror—indeed he felt wonderfully at peace and happy—but it was an awe that smote and held him and, without seeing, he knew it could only mean that some august Presence was very, very near. With difficulty he turned to look for his friend and saw him at his side cowed, stricken, and trembling violently. And still there was utter silence in the populous bird-haunted branches around them; and still the light grew and grew.
Perhaps he would never have dared to raise his eyes, but that, though the piping was now hushed, the call and the summons seemed still dominant and imperious. He might not refuse, were Death himself waiting to strike him instantly, once he had looked with mortal eye on things rightly kept hidden. Trembling he obeyed, and raised his humble head; and then, in that utter clearness of the imminent dawn, while Nature, flushed with fullness of incredible colour, seemed to hold her breath for the event, he looked in the very eyes of the Friend and Helper; saw the backward sweep of the curved horns, gleaming in the growing daylight; saw the stern, hooked nose between the kindly eyes that were looking down on them humourously, while the bearded mouth broke into a half-smile at the corners; saw the rippling muscles on the arm that lay across the broad chest, the long supple hand still holding the pan-pipes only just fallen away from the parted lips; saw the splendid curves of the shaggy limbs disposed in majestic ease on the sward; saw, last of all, nestling between his very hooves, sleeping soundly in entire peace and contentment, the little, round, podgy, childish form of the baby otter. All this he saw, for one moment breathless and intense, vivid on the morning sky; and still, as he looked, he lived; and still, as he lived, he wondered.
‘Rat!’ he found breath to whisper, shaking. ‘Are you afraid?’
‘Afraid?’ murmured the Rat, his eyes shining with unutterable love. ‘Afraid! Of HIM? O, never, never! And yet—and yet—O, Mole, I am afraid!’
Then the two animals, crouching to the earth, bowed their heads and did worship.
One time Ben asked, “Mommy, are you going to cry?” as I opened the book, Peach and Blue, and prepared to read this tearjerker…Uh, yeah…most likely…
I recognize that I am not uniquely special in this regard. Many people are equally as, or more, sensitive than I. Lately I chalk up my excessive weepiness to a depletion of physical, mental and emotional resources. Tears are always at the ready, elicited by both positive and negative thoughts, experiences, events and human beings. But, since most people become uncomfortable seeing a pale, splotchy-skinned, bald-headed cancer patient cry, I work very hard to maintain my composure.
My goodness, though…This has been a particularly tough couple of months for tear containment.
My latest bout of weepiness began with Neal’s impending visit, previously cancelled by Hurricane Harvey. Despite my best efforts not to mourn the living, I began grieving Neal’s departure before he had even arrived. 😬I know, I know…It sounds absurd…But, hey, my coping abilities are challenged. Whether it’s Neal’s comforting and reassuring presence as I rest my head on his shoulder, 2 random #cancerwarriorsisters’ kind words and gestures, a nurse’s encouragement and deep hug, a dear friend’s pictures of her son and self with Ben at a USC-hosted water polo tournament, a fond memory prompted by the Tom Petty song we sang during rehearsal breaks of La Porte High School’s production of Sweet Charity, or tragic news of a psychopath indiscriminately mowing down innocent human beings at a Las Vegas concert, I am overcome by an irrepressible emotional response. Humanity and heartbreak vie for equal influence over my heart and mind…But, I aim to maintain my focus on humanity.
Neal arrived last Tuesday afternoon, 09/26. During his visit I had to suppress the occasional urge to count the number of days and hours we had left together. It’s so counterproductive and undermining to my effort to live more in the moment and appreciate each precious day on this earth. On Thursday, we spent all day at the hospital seeing my medical team and receiving chemo. I’m a really fun date!
It was my final BIG dose of the clinical trial; two chemotherapy drugs, the antibody, steroids, and anti-nausea medicine. It knocked the hell out of me…which only led to more weepiness. But, I held it together pretty well until the night prior to Neal’s departure.
On Friday evening, we watched the USC Trojans lose a winnable game, the disappointment aftermath of which carried over for Neal into Saturday morning coffee, social media punditry, and armchair analysis. Patrick was here, so additional Saturday football was in order, as his alma mater, University of Houston, was due for a bounce back…Well, at least one fan went home happy…
Sunday lunch was a dose of Jewish penicilin at Kenny and Ziggy’s Deli with Patrick, Jenny and Clay. Were my mother alive, she would no doubt say, “That matzoh ball soup from Kenny and Ziggy’s saved your life, Jill!” It is often the only food that sits well on my stomach.
Neal departed for Los Angeles on Monday morning, 10/2. As irrational as this may sound, I seriously considered whether to have him and our sons visit again. Just about the time I’ve reached some equilibrium, adjusted to the “single life,” and am able to end our nightly video or phone chats without tears, a visit from one of them destabilizes my tenuous and fragile balance. I must repeatedly grieve their departures and absence.
Acupuncture this past Wednesday found me highly reactive to the needles and electrical current used to address pain across my lower back, left hip and leg. My body was extremely sensitive, flinching with nearly every needle application, which I can only attribute to chemotherapy side-effects. My medical team has ordered a bone scan, despite my belief the back/hip pain is just a flare-up of the sciatica I’ve suffered in the past. Because it’s on the left side, which is also the location of my cancer, MDACC takes no chances. I appreciate immensely their thoroughness. Following my blood draw on Thursday morning, my chemo infusion was cancelled due to a low Absolute Neutrophils count (an infection fighting element of white blood cells). I still received, however, the final dose of Panitumumab and lots of IV anti-nausea meds. I have been unable to get much food down, or keep it down. It’s been miserable. Fortunately, the anti-nausea meds kicked in immediately, and are working like a charm. My blood was retested on Friday, but I remained outside of range for the chemotherapy drug, Taxol. We tried again Saturday morning, and I had rebounded to just within range. I received more IV anti-nausea meds, the steroid, and Taxol.
Sunday and Monday are Neupogen shots, then if within range this Friday, Oct 13th, 😳 I’ll receive my last weekly trial study dose. Reaching that milestone, I’m certain, will be replete with plenty of love, support, encouragement, and yes…tears.
I’ve become hyper-conscious lately that humanity and heartbreak have always walked hand-in-hand, fingers entwined, through so many of my own, as well as our collective, events and experiences. Feeling emotional, nostalgic and sentimental about the past when the present becomes excessively challenging is a common, self-directed therapy. From my recent cancer diagnosis, home displacement, and often grueling chemotherapy side-effects and delays, to devastating hurricanes and incidents of senseless, heartbreaking human loss, my present is surely making a piss-poor run against the past for that “Better Days Ahead” prize. It is difficult for me not to romanticize the past, I think, because those were my “pre-cancer” days.
I’ve been considering a great deal my childhood, youth, and young adulthood growing up on Galveston Bay. No matter how challenging things were the bay was just outside our front door, providing an often private haven for prayer, surrounded by G-d’s natural gifts. The bay offered a front seat to an often spectacular sunrise awash in ever-changing hues of red, pink, blue, purple, and gold, as if G-d were showing those revered Impressionists exactly how it’s done.
A cup of coffee overlooking the bay before chauffeuring the Haggard school shuttle provided a compelling reason (perhaps the only one) for early rising. Gazing out over a kaleidoscope of colorful sails as a swarm of Sunfish streamed from the Houston Yacht Club to race around the buoy markers and home again supplied regular, free summertime matinees. The Shoreacres bayfront is where I watched with my mother pop-up thunderstorms roll in…before a surge of hormonally-driven teenage angst and my mother’s fatigue and weariness intruded. It’s where I learned to catch crabs from a wooden pier with nothing more than string and chicken necks tied to a rusty nail, running home across blazing hot asphalt and oyster shells on filthy, burnt, and splintered feet.
It was safer living on the bay than in Houston, she reasoned, so my mother commuted often long distances to her nursing jobs. In her absence, we “ran the streets day and night” she said. True that…We were children put in charge of even younger children, absent much parental supervision.
We ran amok! And, there were always lots of friends to “ringlead” or partner with us (you all know who you are…) on some risky adventure, the least of which involved upping the ante in our car dodging shenanigans on the Shoreacres Circle to include a homemade dummy, sneaking out late at night to “haunt” the Houston Yacht Club, and later, hosting parties where the beer flowed and the live bands rocked! To say things (especially laws) have certainly changed today would be a vast understatement. When the police arrived, they’d often tap a beer and walk around for a few minutes, then leave with the admonishment, “No pot, or we’re shutting this down, ok? And, turn down the music.” Once, a friend drove her car into the drainage ditch at the end of Seagrove. The Shoreacres police put her into a friend’s car, sent her home, and told her they’d help her get the car out of the ditch the following day. This is how different times were. Not “better” in this case…just very different. “And, that’s all I have to say about that,” as I really would have to write a book to cover it all, and some of it may be better left untold…
We came to discover who our “true” friends were, as they were the ones who’d suffer through the Texas heat or biting cold that permeated our unventilated home. Still, nearly every last one of them would hightail it out of there when my mother called, “G-D DAMMIT, YOU SON OF A BITCHES GET IN HERE RIGHT NOW AND CLEAN THIS UP!” She was a colorful, creative, and nearly constant cusser until deciding she sounded too “crude,” her epiphany ironically coinciding with an absence of children in her home. She often dressed in just her one-piece black bathing suit and flip-flops to work around the house. And while it strikes me as laugh-out-loud funny now to remember her descending the stairs, wiping sweat from her brow and cussing up a storm, it was downright disturbing and humiliating at the time! As a child, Jenny once reportedly asked her if she would, “Please, please not cuss” when her friend visited. Not sure how that turned out.
While she always welcomed our friends, she expected us to remove all evidence before she came home from work…usually around 8:30 am. She didn’t object to the festivities, per se…just the messes. “Ring-a-ding-ding, where’s the next party?” she chided us. Uh, probably at the Haggard house…😉One morning I entered the kitchen to find my mother, just home from her night duty nursing job, still dressed in her hat-to-shoes all-white uniform. She was showing a boy I didn’t recognize around the kitchen, saying, “This is the food pantry. The pots and pans are kept over in that pantry. There should be milk in the refrigerator.” Now, it was a cardinal rule that the designated grocery shopper always purchase 4 gallons of milk, so there was almost always milk in that refrigerator…unless, that is, Patrick had consumed it all after football practice in his large salad-bowl-served Captain Crunch cereal. I followed my mother out of the kitchen and up the stairs asking, “Who is that?” As she removed her starched cap and massaged her head, she replied, “I don’t know. Probably a friend of Sean or Patrick’s.” She always believed and taught us that we had plenty to share. Sometimes to a fault, unfortunately. Several people she tried to help put us at risk, and worse…
I often imagine what it would be like to have my mother’s counsel and comfort right now. Sometimes I feel like a sick, frightened child who just needs to be held and rocked to sleep. My mother was always her best parent to me when she was also acting as my nurse. When ill, she would administer excellent medical care combined with special, nurturing treatment like buying me new nightgowns and delivering breakfast in bed. Growing up I longed for more of my mother as personal private-duty nurse. As a widow raising 9 children, her attention, time, energy and availability were exceedingly taxed and limited. Understandably.
It is because my longevity feels more fragile now that I tend to audit and evaluate my past; poignant and painful memories, accomplishments and regrets, time well-spent and far-too-much time wasted during my presumptive expectation of ripe-old-age. I think a lot about my mother’s appraisal that, “Growing up on the bay saved your lives!” It’s certainly true in many regards, most assuredly because of the era. Today, 9 children who “ran the streets day and night,” one with cerebral palsy who largely depended on the children in the house, would unquestionably be turned over to CPS and the foster care system. And though she was far from naive, I don’t believe my mother ever fully knew just how many times, or just how far we all tested her premise…
As a young adult I often longed, like George Bailey, to “shake off the dust of this crummy little town,” and start fresh in some exciting new city. But ever since I left the bay I have wished and fantasized about returning to the place where first I discovered the profound impact humanity and heartbreak can have on a human being’s emotional development and character. Shoreacres is where abiding first friendships were established, tested and bound forever by covert, harebrained high jinks until some sibling or another inevitably broadcast the mischief. It is home to first loves, carefree fun, and family bonds broken and healed. It is the last home of my father, and his back-yard harmonica serenades. And it is home to the only competing humanity and heartbreak memories I have never been able to fully reconcile. Perhaps that’s why I long to go back…for unfinished business?
The sudden death of musician Tom Petty this past week, who often sang in the mid-late 1970’s of the “small-town kid searching for something bigger,” triggered so many high-school era memories. His anthems could, no doubt, provide the soundtrack for a movie about that big Shoreacres Haggard family and their widowed, harried, overworked mother, wild children, near death escapades, backyard parties, and ultimate, maybe even miraculous, all-in-one-piece arrival at adulthood.
By damn, I’m overdue for one of those youth-inspired, windows down, aimless drives down back-roads and highways, singing at the top of my lungs to Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers music. Cranked up…Waaay up…