April 2018

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Happy birthday, Ann-a-Plan!

Ann calls me “Sweet Mary,” and I call her “Ann-a-Plan.”

Ann's nickname is descriptive, as Ann loves to have a plan. The name has internal rhyme and hints at an iambic meter, as do so many of Shakespeare’s sonnets. That’s what gives the name its poetic ring.

When we said our vows at our wedding, Ann addressed me as "Sweet Mary" and I addressed her as "Ann-a-Plan." That way, we were sure to know whom we were addressing.

How did I arrive at such a perfect nickname? In the car one day, I was trying to create a palindrome, an expression that reads the same forwards and backwards, like "A Man, A Plan, A Canal: Panama." Ann likes to make plans, so I started there: Ann a Plan. But backwards that reads Nalp a Nna, so instead I made her name a poem: "Ann-a-Plan; Eat a Banana; Drink a Cherry Coke." Every now and then I call her "Eat a Banana" or "Eating Bananas," and we get funny looks in the grocery store. I've never called her "Drink a Cherry Coke.” That would be wrong.
 One of the great things about Ann is her laughter. It is always kind and always at the right place and time. We laugh together often, and she understands intuitively when something about my tumors and their symptoms will be funny to me.

Soon after my surgery, we went to an outdoor concert to see the Indigo Girls sing their harmonic tunes. It was cool outside and the sky threatened to drizzle, so I put on my Gortex rain jacket. When I tried to take a sip of water, I missed my mouth and poured quite a bit of water down my front. Ann noted, "At least you're dressed for drinking." We both laughed.
In a recent iteration of night violence, I sat up in the dark of the night and grasped a corner of Ann’s pillow in each fist. Then I yanked it out from under her. She awoke, startled, to hear me say to the pillow, “You are not my pillow.” The next morning, as she told me this story (I didn't remember it), we laughed together.
More than a decade ago, Ann and I worked with a few other members of our Methodist church to apply for a“sister parish relationship” with a community south of the U.S. border. In the application, we provided a description of our church and its mission, and in that description we explained the church’s central mission, to “reconcile” with GLBTQ persons.

Ann and I laughed about the possibility that any Latin American community would read our profile and choose to partner with us, but we were quickly paired with a community in El Salvador. We theorized that they must not have read our documents, but as we got to know this community, we learned that our assumptions about Latin America, like so many peoples' perceptions of the American South, were oversimplified and did not allow for the complexity that we would find there. What we found on our first visit—and in subsequent visits over the last decade—was that we had much to learn about our own country’s role in their civil war, and that they were willing to learn with us, too. We have laughed at ourselves for our doubt.

Last Christmas, I agreed to brave an ocean crossing for the first time since radiation, though I was not quite ready to leave the United States, so Ann and I went to Maui.

Our first day there, we tried snorkeling. When I tried to get in the water with my flippers and mask on, I was washed back to shore by a large wave, scraping the ocean floor as I tumbled to shore. I scooped up so much sand that I was still finding small shells in my belly button the next week. Others on the beach tried to help me, as I suspect they feared I might drown. I survived, and Ann and I laughed with our whole bodies, but I didn’t try snorkeling again. We still laugh about me rolling about like a fish caught in the shallow surf.

In the year after my surgery, we loved the way that children around the age of three responded to my eye-patch. Once, soon after going home from surgery, we went to Children's Hospital to visit some friends and their child. (Their young child had undergone several heart surgeries. She looked great and continues to thrive.) Her mother was telling us how many entertainers came through Children's to entertain the young patients. They had seen singers with guitars, puppeteers, people with puppies, and so on. As we were leaving, Ann pushed me in my wheelchair down the hall and a boy about seven years-old came out of a nearby room, nonchalantly raised his hand in greeting and said, "Hi Pirate," as if he was not at all surprised to see a pirate in this hospital. We laughed.

Another time, when I was waiting in the emergency room, a girl of about three came bravely over to ask me if I was a pirate. "Yes," I said, "I am a pirate. What are you?" Without hesitating, she said, "I'm a cat." And to this I wisely responded, "I thought so. That must be why you painted your fingernails." She simply nodded seriously and raised her hand to show the nails—bright pink with little white kittens—as proof to both of us.

Our niece Gretchen was not so amusing. She took one look at that patch and wailed in fear. She sobbed so powerfully that she had dry heaves, and my brother looked to the heavens, "Please, please, don't throw up." The next year my sister-in-law asked, "Gretchen, are you sad that Auntie Mary doesn't have her eye-patch this year?" To this, Gretchen responded seriously, "No, I am not sad that Auntie Mary doesn't have her eye-patch this year." Ann and I laughed and nodded in agreement. We weren't sad to miss that patch, either.

Ann and I have a long history of laughing together. Before my surgery, we visited our sister parish in Guarjila, El Salvador. The first morning there we awoke to a squealing in the yard where our family lived. When we had arrived, a young pig—perhaps a piglet—was tied to a stake in the yard like one might tie up a dog.

That morning as the pig squealed for an hour or so, we worried that this family might be slaughtering its piglet for us, but when we emerged from bed, the piglet was in the backyard, unfettered. When we asked why the pig had been squealing (remember that our Spanish is not too good, so this was a challenge), they laughed. The pig was new to them, and young pigs will return to their mothers, but if you run them around the house three times, they get confused and will stay at their new home. We laughed at our own confusion.
Ann has a kind heart. She is especially gracious to a soul in pain. She is kind to me, to students, to our families, to strangers and to our neighbors' pets Violet and Hector.

Ann is kind, but she is not perfect. She is also tidy. (In my book, tidiness is not next to godliness.) I feel at home in a certain degree of disorder, so at home Ann has created places where I can be messy in a way that doesn't bother her. It works, as no one who visits sees my hidden mess, and neither does Ann, but I get to make piles.
Did I say Ann is tidy? A few years ago, when my parents were visiting, Ann bought Dad some oatmeal for his breakfast. He didn't eat any the first day and left it on the counter. She gave it to the postman for the annual food collection for the food banks the next day.

In another example of excessive tidiness, a carpenter, Sailor (I don't know why her name is Sailor and not Carpenter), remodeled our downstairs bathroom so that it is now more accessible for me. Sailor put some extra tiles and plumbing parts in an old trashcan and moved it to the basement to get it out of the way. Ann emptied the trashcan when she was straightening the basement that afternoon, and our parts were driven to the dump during trash pickup the next morning. Oops.

I am perpetually amazed that I get to live my life with Ann. Though she is twenty years my senior, we are soul-mates. Often, people see our closeness, but perhaps because of the age difference, our relationship seems unclear to them. Ann has beautiful white hair, while mine is auburn. I walk slowly with a cane, while she trots about town. I hold her arm while I walk.
Ann’s age coupled with my disabilities often confuses people. They think she should be the one who needs help. As we entered the hospital one day, me holding Ann’s arm on the left and my cane on the right, Ann overheard one of the volunteers say, "I don't know which one is the patient."

This has happened to us before. Early in my radiation treatment, we were crossing the street in the crosswalk as we left the hospital, and an elderly woman wearing her bathrobe and fuzzy slippers (to protect her from the winter cold) turned to me and said, "Thank you for taking such good care of your mother." When she noticed that I was the one using the cane, she looked confused and shuffled along.

Once again, we laughed together.
Ann, like I was, is a high school teacher, but I taught Humanities sorts of things (Language Arts, History, Journalism), and she teaches math (Algebra, Geometry, Calculus and such). Like I do, Ann finds teenagers compelling: she laughs with them, delights when they discover an idea new to them, and cries when something awfully good or awfully bad happens to them. She loves to spend time with them in the classroom (during or before class) and in the outdoors (camping and hiking).

Ann’s earliest teaching experiences were with the Peace Corps in Haile Selassie Secondary School in Debre Berhan, Ethiopia. A few years ago, when we were travelling in Ethiopia, we visited her classroom, which had changed little since her time there 45 years ago. The old blackboard was still there. I sat in a student’s desk while she stood by the chalkboard, raised my hand, and said, “Algubunyum” which means, "I don't understand." I waved my arm repeatedly (and somewhat desperately) and said, “Algabunyum” so that the visit would feel like old times.
 One of my favorite stories of Ann’s teaching in Ethiopia is her story of her first day. She stood before her middle school students, each of whom had studied English as a foreign language throughout elementary school, but they were taking their first core courses in English. She introduced her West Texas self in her West Texas drawl and told the students something about herself. They all nodded and smiled, but at one point, she said something that should have elicited a response, and they still nodded and smiled. She slowly said, “If you understand what I am saying, raise your hand.” One student raised his hand, and the rest nodded and smiled. She turned to the board and started writing numbers. They seemed relieved. (Apparently, she had an easier time being understood in Ethiopia that she did in Boston, where she had her training and where her Texas accent confused the Bostonians.)

Once in Ethiopia when we visited a market, a herd of children followed us. One tried to sell us a plastic bag, but mostly the children were just watching what we white people might do. An older woman selling produce in the market said in Amharic to the children, “They’re human, you know.” Ann translated for me. We were relieved, as we had been watched and followed so closely by children and adults that we had begun to wonder.
Ann taught thirty years (egads) in Washington public high schools. When she retired, she worked for five years as a consultant, but she missed the classroom. Without the energy to teach the kind of load of public schools, she’s teaching now in a small private school that is committed to building a respectful community. She loves the work, and those in the school seem to love her. Colleagues, students, and Ann seem to thrive: a win-win-win.

I feel so lucky to be living this life with Ann. Today, I'm celebrating the fact that she was born to make so many of our lives so much better. I love you, Ann-a-Plan!

1 comment:

  1. Happy Birthday to Ann! We are very glad she was born to plan fun events, teach all of us calculus, laugh with us and at us, and to be such an integral part of the unit known as "Ann and Mary" (or sometimes "Mary and Ann"). Life wouldn't be near as much fun without you two!


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