A Photograph of me without me in it

A Photograph of me without me in it
A photograph of me without me in it

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Friday Night Lights

My partner Ann and I started watching the television drama Friday Night Lights last week. I have to steel myself anytime we watch television drama, because inevitably someone will end up in the hospital, and I will struggle again with my own memories--in mind and body--of time in hospitals. 

Sure enough, in the first episode the star quarterback receives a bad hit that breaks his spine. For each of the other episodes we have seen, he and those who love him struggle to understand and come to terms with the new realities in his life. 

In my years of teaching high school, two of my students were seriously injured playing football: one's spine was broken and another died when he was taken to the emergency room with a head injury. This fictional player's struggles, and the struggles of those in his life, are all too real. 

I experience such scenes more intensely than I'd like to: my chest tightens and my breath is shallow. I smell Chlorox. (I can't explain that one.) My lips feel cold. I feel slightly nauseated, like all the blood in my body has run to my stomach. 

I had similar reactions after Izzy in Grey's Anatomy had cancer and Nate in Six Feet Under had a brain tumor. 

Clearly, I'm not reacting to the same situations as these characters: I wasn't a football player, and I wasn't dating the head cheerleader like Jason; I didn't go bald like Izzy; I wasn't an undertaker like Nate. 

Specifics in the scene, however, surprise me, and for a moment I don't breathe. When Jason's first in the emergency room and hands without faces cut his clothes away, I relive my first moments in Harborview Trauma Center after my car was t-boned and ten pairs of gloved hands explored my bones while I, on a backboard and in a neck brace (called a "collar") and therefore unable to see the people around me, heard disembodied voices say over me, "Legs?"…"Okay"…"Arms…"Okay."….And so on in an inventory of my major bones. 

All the tubes and beeps take me back to my own hospital bed after neurosurgery, when I hallucinated that puppies in the room were chewing on the tubes that helped me do something important, though I wasn't sure what.

Those times when my vulnerability was visceral revisit me. I know it's all in my mind, like the times when I'm in a car's passenger seat and fear the car that might run a light at the next intersection, but my body reacts anyway. 

In a class on Death and Dying a few years ago, a simulation on dying sent me into a tailspin that lasted a couple of weeks: in those weeks, I felt groundless, spinning like Sandra Bullock lost in outer space in Gravity

One doctor I saw for my insurance guessed that I was experiencing PTSD, though I didn't tell him about the incidences above. (I wasn't hiding it. He didn't ask.)

If I am reacting so strongly in these fairly controlled situations where I am taken care of by capable professionals in a clean, well-supplied hospital, I can't imagine what those who experience war and other violence must live with. After all, I believe I am safe now. It's just my body's memories that tell me differently. Too many others continue to live in threatening situations. 

I think often of a conversation with a classmate, who is a veteran of Iraq's wars. On the first day of class, when people introduced themselves saying things like, "Hi, I'm Mary. I'm looking forward to Social Work as my second career," he introduced his name and said, "I believe in the right to bear arms." 

He and I met before class a few weeks later because I was curious to understand a little about this person who saw gun rights as so central to his identity that he announced that identity in a room full of liberals. 

He explained to me that in Iraq, he had carried his gun everywhere. He even slept with it. Though he wasn't hurt there, he was an ambulance driver and sometimes had to retrieve the remains of those who had been shot. Once, several people near him on base were shot at such close range that the bullets stapled parts of their bodies to nearby wooden posts. He cleaned the remains of men he had known, putting parts in body bags though it wasn't clear which parts went with which bodies.

When he returned stateside, he spent three days feeling vulnerable without a gun and finally went to a gun store to buy a gun so that he could sleep at night. There was another guy from his squadron there who had come home the same day and was at the gun store for the same reason. 

Such trauma doesn't just result from war. Think of all the young black men who've been shot by police officers or other teens. Think of their families and friends. I think of my teenage students who were in a car that crashed, killing two and leaving two to survive. When I review student applications for college now, I read too many stories by young women who were raped and molested when they were elementary school children. I think of all those in prison. The list goes on.

There is so much trauma in this world. I wonder if that's a necessary outcome of our human nature, or if we might do something to change it. I suspect we couldn't eradicate trauma: after all, my brain tumors were no one's fault, and that man who t-boned me with his big white Jeep didn't intend to hit me. 

But if we could end trauma where we have control: if we could end our part in war and incarceration; if we could support all children in living in safe homes and neighborhoods; if we could end the power of racism's fear…If…

You may say I'm a dreamer. But I'm not the only one. 

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Grandma and Grandpa

Grandma and Grandpa are eerily realistic, three-foot tall, apple-faced dolls who hold hands and look vacantly towards the middle of our dining room. They came to live with us after a high school auction at a school where my partner Ann was consulting. I had come in late from work at my own school and gone through the silent auction by myself. I was the only person who bid on Grandma and Grandpa: $27. Heck, I thought, they’re lovely, and the bench they’re sitting on is worth that much.

They looked a lot like older people I’d met in the small town where my dad grew up in Eastern North Carolina: Grandma has white hair pulled back in a bun. She wears a pink lady’s hat that matches the pink flowers in her lacy dress and holds pink flowers in her hand. Her neck muscles are taut with age and her brown socks are sliding into her comfortable black shoes. She’s clearly aging but sits tall, looking strong.

Grandpa is more stooped. His hair is thinning, and he has heavier eyelids. He’s dressed in black overalls and wears a bow tie, like I imagine my grandfather might have had he lived past sixty.

Both Grandma and Grandpa used to have glasses, but when my nieces Lucie and Gretchen were in town for our wedding, they wore them around the house and broke them. (It was worth it: the girls had fun and made us all laugh), and now both Grandma and Grandpa look myopically into the air in front to them. Most days, they hold hands and lean towards one another, though if my friend Ellen has been here they’re in some compromising position: maybe Grandma’s hand is on Grandpa’s crotch or maybe Grandma’s lying on top of Grandpa. (Grandma seems to be a bit feisty in Ellen’s imagination.)

I love Grandma and Grandpa. When I picked them up from the auction table to pay for them, Ann said, “What are you doing?" Then, "Where are we gonna put them?” That’s always Ann’s question when I buy something new, and I appreciate her leadership in keeping our home uncluttered, but one must find room for art. I think I told her that. She rolled her eyes and nodded, resigned to our new housemates.

Two men in line to buy their own auction items laughed to see my prize and one said, “I wondered who would have to take those home.” He clearly didn’t see the treasure I did. The woman running the auction thanked me for buying them and told me the story of their purchase, twenty years ago. She was visiting in the Appalachian Mountains and fell in love with them, so she called her husband to see how he’d feel about her paying $400 for something he hadn’t seen. He said he trusted her aesthetic, so she bought them, but when she brought them home, he hated them, and they’d been a source of tension for twenty years. She was glad to be unburdened, and I was glad to have paid $27 for such a treasure.

When Ann and I brought Grandma and Grandpa in, we weren’t sure where to put them, so for about a week, they sat inside our front door, facing the bottom of our staircase. They were so realistic that we both jumped each time we descended the staircase. I think Ann suggested we move them to the cold and wet basement, but I found them a more comfortable spot near the fireplace in the dining room.

Guests always notice them, some more adoringly than others. When ten year-old Sylvia and her younger brother came over, Sylvia called them “creepy.” When the two of them asked permission to explore upstairs, Sylvia asked if there were any more creepy dolls up there. At first I said no, but then I remembered my childhood doll that Grandmother had had refurbished years ago and now had dusty skin and a missing eye as she rocks in my child-sized rocking chair. It looks like it came from the set of The Shining. “Just one,” I said. Sylvia and Eli stayed downstairs.

Older women who visit always have a different reaction. When our neighbor Annabella, now 95, comes into the room, she always speaks to Grandma: “Hey, Girl! How you?” she asks, and then she laughs in a burst. Another time, Sister Josephina, a visiting nun from a small town in El Salvador who seemed uncomfortable around American affluence, seemed relieved to see Grandma and went immediately over to talk with her. (Apparently, Grandma understands Spanish, and the two hit it off.)

Grandma and Grandpa fit in with the folk art in our home. Most art is from travels, from cultures that have challenged my own assumptions, but Grandma and Grandpa are from the land where I grew up. They remind me of who I am, or at least where I’ve come from. They also reinforce my idea—formed since my brain tumors—of myself as an artist. 

I’ve always had glimmers of this identity: when I was in second grade and adults were always asking me what I wanted to be when I grew up (a ridiculous and problematic question), I always answered that I wanted to be an artist. In fourth grade, a classmate splashed water all over a drawing that I had been working on for weeks in order to submit to a contest, and the world of art suddenly seemed a transient one for me, so I moved on to other ideas. I was always a quirky, oddly intellectual child, and loved poetry that others found impenetrable, which seemed artist-like. In college, I remember a disapproving professor stopping class to ask why my overalls were two-toned, and I replied, “What do you have stripes in your tie?” (I am still pleased with what seems to me to have been an insightful comment on the prevalence of art is our lives.) When I taught in Dallas and strangers learned I was a teacher, I was often asked if I were an art teacher, probably because of the bright colors I wore and the outfits that wouldn’t have been sold as Geranimals but somehow worked. (Most women who turned out to be lesbians are asked if they are PE teachers.)

However, I have always recognized my aesthetic limitations. For example, I can’t draw a convincing line, and I can’t sing a note on key. In college, when friends and I were making buttons, my friend George drew two lines and a dot that were artistic in a way that no button of mine ever would be. For a while, I got into photography and thought I might teach art instead of English, but then I could not manage a course on the technical aspects of light, speed, and meters. Plus, I wanted to live comfortably with a degree of affluence that artists often do not experience.

For years, Ann and I have collected and displayed folk art from around the world. In addition to Grandma and Grandpa, there’s a wooden carving that stands three feet when it’s off its pedestal. The carving, from the Ecuadoran mountains, is of a man carrying a watermelon and a walking stick. He wears a hat, his jeans have a hole in the knee, and he’s wrinkled and stooped. He looks sad to Ann, and she's always telling him to cheer up. I call him “Woody Madera” or "SeƱor Madera" when I’m being formal.

We also have a painted horse from Guatemala, two paintings from the small Chinese town where friends adopted their first daughter, the framed poem “Desiderata”, which I calligraphied in high school, a cloth embedded with mirrors from a friend’s journeys in India, elephant candlesticks from Tanzania, a wooden head from my sister’s travels in Peru, “Susannah”( a clay doll from Cuba), baskets from Ethiopia, and so on, and so on…and photos I took in places ranging from our yard to Africa.

I own a book with photos from the poet Pablo Neruda’s home, filled with artifacts from the sea, and I think our home looks like an artist’s home, except that it’s less cluttered and more tidy.

Since my brain tumors freed me of practical worries about how I’d live or what I’d do with my life (I can’t work to earn a living anyway), my sense of myself as an artist has grown. I present a quirkiness that has me sharing poems with passers-by.  I lead a poetry club at an assisted living home, and I write and share my writing whenever I can. I attend friends’ readings and write and read blogs. I get four poems each day in my inbox. Though I haven’t published much, yet, I now introduce myself as a writer (and a social worker), and sometimes I forget to brush my hair before I leave the house. This seems truly artsy to me.

Perhaps I’m coming to a new sense of who I am, or perhaps I’m newly discovering who I’ve always been.

Monday, November 9, 2015

A Rose by Any Other Name

Friday at the assisted living facility where I'm doing my social work practicum, I could not recall "Juliet's" name. I was leading a poetry club that I love and wanted to thank Juliet and "Ernie" for bringing poems to the group, so I said thanks to Ernie and…and I blanked. I looked at Juliet and tried to dog paddle to her name, but I was sinking, and she rescued me. She was gracious and assured me that it was okay, but I felt awful. 

I know that stress impacts recall. More people were attending than we had seats for, so the last person to come had to sit on his walker. Juliet pointed out that this was a good problem to have, and we all agreed to meet in a larger room with more seats next time. 

I once witnessed my dad have this problem. A couple of years after I came out as a lesbian, my partner Ann and I attended a dinner celebrating my dad's work as president of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Our family sat at a round middle table, and throughout the dinner doctors came up to meet the family and thank Dad for his work. 

This was the first time that Dad had introduced Ann as my partner instead of my "friend," and he was clearly stressed. Each time, he began the introductions with Ann and me and then went around the table. Each time he got to my little brother, he blanked on Matt's name, and Matt introduced himself. 

Surely, Dad knew Matt's name just as I knew Juliet's. It wasn't that we didn't remember: it was that we couldn't find the name in our brains. Our search engines were on the blink. 

I started having problems with word and name recall after radiation for my second brain tumor. I can usually find a way around it so that people don't notice. Once, soon after radiation, I was sending an email to colleagues and couldn't think of the word "split," so I rearranged the sentence and used the word "bifurcation" instead. I got some grief for that one. 

From time to time, this difficulty with recall happened before my brain tumor diagnosis. As a public high school English teacher, I generally had anywhere from 32 to 41 students in each of five classes, and remembering all those names was challenging. Once, a female student who had the same last name as the male sitting beside her raised her hand, and though I knew her well, I had no idea what her name was. My mind raced but was completely blank. It wasn't like her name was on the tip of my tongue. It had been momentarily deleted. I tried to laugh it off, but she wasn't amused. 

Another time, a student asked me for a bathroom pass, and as I was filling it out, he said, "That's not my name." I looked up and was completely blank. If this weren't his name, I had no idea what was. He must have originally registered my stress in trying to get his name right because then he said, "I'm just kidding." I laughed, but I wasn't amused. 

When Shakespeare's Romeo reflected on his own Juliet's name, he considered how ridiculous the feud was between their families and mused, "What's in a name? That which we call a rose/ By any other name would smell as sweet."

True, but there is a lot in a name. After all, Romeo and Juliet died. And knowing their names is how we let people know that they are part of our lives. Generally.

But now, in this assisted living facility, most residents have memory issues. When I see someone I know, I use their name and say hi and tell them, "It's Mary." I've been there since June, and they seem to sense that they know me even if they don't know my name.

But Juliet doesn't struggle with memory, or at least I haven't noticed it if she does. She's a great reader of poetry and advocate for the poetry club. She has woven herself into my heart. And I want her to know that she's part of my life even when I don't recall her name. (I think she knows that, but I want to be sure.)

I believe that these brain tumors have aged me more than my years, and now there's this new awareness of this limitation. Perhaps, like my other limitations, there's a gift here, in this case a gift of empathy in recognizing my brain's fallibility. Another resident--one with a great wit and significant short term memory loss--told me on Friday, "You have no idea how hard getting old is." 

Though I don't know all of it, maybe I know some. 

I think I'll share this with Juliet. 

Thursday, November 5, 2015


My partner Ann and I visited her brother and sister-in-law in College Station, Texas, last weekend. With them, we attended an event for big sports donors, a football game, and a women's basketball game. We love sports, so this was an excellent visit.

Though I lived in Dallas in my twenties, the visit was as much an introduction to a culture different than my own than any travel I’ve done in rural Latin America or Ethiopia. 

In my favorite moment of the donor party, the speaker cheered on the equestrian team, which was competing on Friday, with the traditional Aggie cheer: "Beat the hell outa [insert opponent here.]" The equestrians were competing against a school called "Incarnate Word," an epithet for Jesus, so the cheer went "Beat the hell outa Incarnate Word." Then the speaker ducked and looked up in case lightning was coming to get him.

Saturday, we returned to the new coliseum, I mean football stadium, to witness a football game. (One does not merely “watch” a football game in Texas, but the attending takes on the religious tones of “witnessing.”)

The game was not an important one for conference rankings, so only 102,000 were reported to be there (though Ann’s brother said it was probably more like 85 or 90,000.)

We watched from 30 yard line seats for the first half and then moved to some of their generous friends’ box for the second half. Our hosts were warm and welcoming, as people in Texas generally are. (This may be a stereotype, but it’s true, so maybe it’s just a cultural description. I’m not sure of the difference.)

The game’s pageantry fascinated me. The new stadium, which can seat 104,000 people (and often does) called to mind the Roman Coliseum with its grand arches and tall pillars. (At the entrance, were tall brick rectangles recognizing the biggest donors, though to me the rectangles looked, unfortunately, like gravestones.)

There were cheers and songs that, it seemed, everyone knew. “Yell leaders,” young men dressed in tidy white, led the cheering with large gestures. (No cheerleaders at this previously all-male school.)

Each time the Aggies scored, a corps of young men wearing army green uniforms and tall leather boots lit a canon. (Made me jump every time.)

The crowd cheered loudly but remained seated until the marching band took the field at half time. Then there must have been a couple of hundred instrumentalists zigging and zagging in complicated designs, the trombones bowing in rhythm so that they didn’t run into one another and didn’t break stride.

The whole thing was marvelous, but also had eerie echoes of The Hunger Games, or Gladiators, or—I hesitate even to write it because it’s both terrible and true—those films of Hitler’s troops performing for the dictator.

With a couple of minutes left in the game, ROTC students, “the corps,” in military kaki, lined up just past the end zone. Ann said they were “protecting the field,” but she couldn’t say from what.

It had seemed to me that the players needed protection from one another. Throughout the game, they stapled one another to the field, and four times the medics had to help a player up and out of the way. I wondered aloud to Ann (but not so loudly as to seem a traitor) if there might be something wrong with a sport where the crowd expects some players to be so hurt that they need help getting from the field (or even sitting up) on their own.

I have been wondering a lot about football lately. I love sports and football’s strategy and athleticism amazes me. However, so much about the game troubles me. A crowd of mostly white fans yell thunderously as a team of mostly black players pound one another.

I know some people say that these black men are lucky to play their roles, that they have chosen and worked hard for their accolades, and yet I wonder what the game says about racism and violence in our country.

Is there a connection between the fact that the USA is the only major country (as far as I know) that plays football and the number of guns in our country? What about our country’s history of racism, and these mostly black teams playing for mostly white fans?

Football fans are rabid in Seattle, too, so the obsession is not just a Texas thing. Seattle fans stole the #12 from the Aggies fans, and everywhere are blue and green #12 signs.

The Seattle Times sports pages may as well be called the football pages, though in the nether pages there are sometimes articles about other sports and even (gasp) women’s sports.  

The parallels between the Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire and the Rise (and perhaps Fall) of the American empire strikes me, and here’s another parallel: grandness of a violent sport where the more privileged watch the burly less privileged fight—though the death here is generally protracted rather than immediate.

I hate to be a spoiled sport, but who are we?