Friday, March 30, 2007

On the Shedding Habits of Snakes

Yesterday I learned that a hedgehog's quills are actually hairs, made of the same substance as our fingernails.

Two volunteers from the Bronx Zoo were at the Patient Activity Center with a variety of small mammals, birds and reptiles, giving a short discourse on each one before passing it around for petting. I also learned that animals with eyes in the front of their heads were predators, and animals with eyes on the sides of their heads were herbivores. I did not know that.

It felt good to be with Jim outside of his room, attending something we could enjoy together. He fell asleep during the snake, but otherwise we had fun.

Earlier that day, the same activity center had hosted a seder. This was the reason I'd taken the day off from work. Passover isn't until Monday, but they had the celebration early at Calvary for the 7 patients and their families who could attend. I never found out what happened to all the extra seder plates. Perhaps they combined all the leftover ingredients to make an egg salad so good you could plotz.

After the zoo and the seder, I wheeled Jim back up to his room. They don't use regular wheelchairs at this place. They use these Barcaloungers with wheels, with the footrest in the "up" position so you feel like you're pushing a freight train. I felt several times as if I were steering my husband right into a wall, and narrowly escaped collisions with other patients.

The doctor who attends the unit stopped by. She's going to consult with the physical therapist to see how Jim can get some strength into his legs, which should give him a little more autonomy.

Then we watched TV while he ate his dinner.

"If I got better and came home, would that be okay?"

"Sure. Why wouldn't it be okay?"

As long as he doesn't go looking for the car vacuum.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Fun With Pronouns

I wrenched my knee on Thursday night and spent Friday feeling like somebody had whacked me across the shin with a lead pipe. I limped around my office making "Keane painting" eyes at everyone, but couldn't bring myself to take the day off because:

1. I feel I've been playing the "terminally ill husband card" too often to push my luck; and

2. I wouldn't be going home. I would be going to Bed Bath and Beyond to buy a new toaster oven because our old one bit the dust.

We bought our old DeLonghi together 13 years ago during a January White Sale at Macy's. The one before that had been "mine," which became "ours" when Jim moved in.

The same deal with our cats. The ones we have now, Chico and Ashley, were adopted by us together after our original cats had passed on in extreme old age. The original cats, Phoebe and Pongo, had originally been my cats, and they became "our" cats when Jim moved in.

This new toaster oven is nominally "ours" and being brought home to a place I still refer to as "our house." But it's unlikely that Jim will see this new toaster oven, and had no input in its selection beyond this conversation:

"I'm getting a new toaster oven."

"Did our old one bite the dust?"


My sister-in-law swears by her digital DeLonghi, but it's disappointingly small. I would feel as if I had the starring role in a poignant movie called "Lonely Widow With A Single Porkchop." So last Friday, I went looking for something big enough to cook a whole chicken. I've rarely cooked a whole chicken, even when cooking for more than one person, but I like the assurance of knowing that I could if I wanted to.

I got the Cuisinart pictured at the bottom of this post. Isn't it a beaut? And it's made as well as our old DeLonghi. The DeLonghis aren't made as well as they used to be.

Saturday morning, I finally got around to some long-neglected housework before going up to the hospital. The bending and stretching helped my knee until the Advil could kick in. I did a lot of weeding and decluttering; eg. the car vacuum my husband inherited ten years ago (we don't have a car.) Stuff that never worked that we couldn't give away and couldn't bear to throw away and never got around to fixing. I was culling the best of "we" while contemplating all the possible permutations of "I."

Psychologists call it "anticipatory grief," but it was the best I've felt in weeks.

Here's the toaster oven. Look! Pretty!

Monday, March 19, 2007

Man of My Dreams

Jim had a full contingent of visitors on Saturday, so I took the day off to rest. I got a haircut and went back home with intentions of catching up on housework. On the way back into the building, I encountered one of my neighbors, who hails from a former Soviet bloc country.

"I heard your husband is not feeling well?"

"He's in the hospital, as a matter of fact."

"I have injection, from Russia," she said, sotto voce. "A friend of my mother was given three weeks, she take injection, she live three more of years."

"Uh, thanks, really, but he can't have anything unless it's through the hospital."

"Yes, America has too much of lawsuits. In Russia these things are more free."

I headed up the stairs. I was so tired that instead of vacuuming, I lay down to take a nap for the next four hours.

In one of my dreams, Jim and I were like the couple in the new series, "The Riches," except instead of living in a rich person's house, we were living in a rich person's SUV. Jim was healthy and active in this dream, and we were traveling.

When I woke up, I realized that the Jim in the dream hadn't been around for at least three years, and that even a Russian miracle injection wouldn't be able to bring him back.

That's why people who haven't seen him in a while, or who were in denial about how bad the disease was getting, are shocked to see him now. And several people have told me they can't believe how composed I am. I couldn't believe it either, and I was sure that I was repressing some sort of nervous breakdown. But when you live with somebody with a slow-killing illness, you're grieving all along. You grieve by inches.

So I'm doing my best to enjoy the Jim that's still around, now that somebody else is taking care of the physical stuff. In between deciphering garbled conversations and phone messages from him, going back and forth to the north Bronx, taking care of my job, and dealing with the relative who's saying "that place" as if I've consigned my husband to some Dickensian hell-hole.

I feel guilty that my body is telling me it's relieved and hungry for sleep. I have to tell my mind to listen to it; it knows what it's talking about. This is the eye of the storm.

Friday, March 16, 2007

The Other "H" Word

Hospitals have this crazy rule about letting you stay when you can no longer benefit from curative treatment, but still require round-the-clock nursing care. So Jim is transferring today to a cancer hospice in the Bronx.

Apparently, this place has a great reputation. In the past couple of days, a half-dozen people I've mentioned it to have had a loved one stay there. It's been around forever. I also found out that my mother's mother stayed there in the 1940's, not for cancer but for tuberculosis, which was incurable then.

Jim will be able to wear his own clothes there, and bring his guitar. They'll even let you bring pets, although Chico and Ashley would take issue with this.

The only problem is going to be for me to get there every evening after work. It's easy if you have a car, which most people in the city don't. It's a trip when you're using public transportation. So he'll probably have to wait a bit for the guitar.

Thursday, March 15, 2007


Jim's hospital bed is motion-sensitive. I'd never seen that before. Sloan-Kettering is definitely a more cutting-edge hospital than we're used to. I keep thinking, this had better be covered.

He's taking longer and longer naps and awakens disoriented. Tuesday, he called me at work and said "Are you home? Are you home?" Yesterday, when I came in after work and woke him, he wanted me to "plug in my two watches."

"Your watches? You've only got one watch here." And watches don't get plugged in.

"You heard me! You know what I mean! Here." He handed me his cell phone.

"You want me to recharge your cell phone."

"Yeah! What's wrong with you?"

Then he was looking for his squeeze ball. He doesn't have a squeeze ball. He's thinking of a previous hospitalization, when he had a brain tumor that affected his left hand and after the tumor was surgically removed, he had to build up strength in that hand. So he had me looking all over the room for the squeeze ball. Then he called in the nurse.

"It disappeared through one of the holes in the top of the drawers," he tells her. There are no holes in the top of the drawers. The nurse smiles at me understandingly.

He misplaced his cell phone somewhere on the bed Tuesday night, and can't move well enough to look for it. So I'm crawling around the bed in my suit from the office, and the motion-sensitive mattress is bucking and heaving under my hands and knees and threatening to throw my husband off the bed like a mechanical bull. I found the cell phone. He was laying on it.

After about fifteen minutes of disorientation, he's lucid again, but his speech is slurred. When people visit and I'm there, they lean in to listen to him and then they look at me, the Official Jim Translator. But I can't understand him half the time and then he gets mad. I left a message on his cell this morning and he left a voice mail when I went into a meeting. Listening to the outgoing announcement on his cell phone highlighted the extreme difference between the strong, carefully articulated voice on the announcement and the way his voice sounds now.

I stretched out next to him on the undulating mattress last night to watch TV (it's covered.) Then I went home to our mattress that's too large for one person. The cats and I fling ourselves around, having fun with the extra space. The mattress is new; we needed a new one a few months ago because the old one was shot and Jim was already in pain. It was a tough call, since we didn't know how much time he had left. Do I wait and get a smaller bed? But his comfort had to come first.

So now I'm thinking, "Will I keep this or get a smaller bed? This is a great mattress. Beds are expensive. But this is a small place and I would need the room. What if I bring guys up here and they say, 'Is that where...' 'Oh, no no no, that's a new mattress.' Fifteen men on a dead man's mattress. And where am I getting these men? This isn't the '70s and I'm 52 years old. What am I planning on doing, cruising Disco Fever Night at AARP?"

Meanwhile, I already have a husband, and he's wearing me out. And while being with him for 16 years has shown me that I can successfully form relationships with other humans, I think that I will need a long, long break.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Supportive Care

The junior partner of the Bigtime Lung Cancer Guy came into Jim's room to consult with us yesterday.

"We still have plenty of treatments we can give you," he said, kindly. "This isn't a rare cancer and it's not like we're out of ideas. The problem is that your system is too depleted from repeated bouts of cancer and treatments and anything we could give you at this point could kill you faster than it could help you."

The plan of action is to give what's called supportive care--round-the-clock nursing care, nutrition, medication, steroids--to try to build up Jim's reserves. If he regains enough strength, he'll get more chemo.

"Doc, I don't want to sound like I want my husband out of the house so I can throw wild parties, but he's absolutely going to be kept under care until he can get around on his own again, right?"

Because I'm out of the house all day, and even when I've been in the house, I could never manage what I've been seeing them do at the hospital even if I cloned myself.

In fact, I hadn't realized how much I was already doing until I didn't have to do it anymore. It was slow and insidious, like cancer. About a month ago, Jim stopped being able to get up and down the stairs without assistance, so I had to make sure anything he needed was in the house before I went out. Then, he was too tired to cook and too tired to eat and I left little bags and containers of stuff that didn't have to be prepared, just warmed up. Sometimes, not even warmed up. Then everything had to be where he could reach it without bending over. Then everything had to be close to the bed or the kitchen table.

That's when you realize that your life is made up of concentric circles that get smaller and smaller until it's down to just you and your body.

They're going to keep him there, one way or the other. I've been bringing him bits of home to sustain him until he can return to the real thing. I've been going to the office every day, then up to the hospital, then home, where I play White House Press Secretary and give all the friends and relatives the official statement. You've just read one version of it here.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Invitation to a Consultation

The combination of brain tumors and powerful steroids are turning a conversation with my husband into a "Mister Short-Term Memory" sketch from Saturday Night Live. The doctors are aware of this, and want me to be in on the consultation they're going to have with him this afternoon.

After which, I am going to have a lot of anxious friends and relatives asking me for answers, and my instincts are telling me that they will not be answers that they will want to hear. Fortunately, my husband will shortly forget them.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Jim's At His Home Away From Home

When my husband was first diagnosed with cancer three years ago, a social worker told me, "Get used to the hospital. The hospital is going to be your home away from home."

This time, it's Memorial Sloan-Kettering, or just "Memorial," or as everyone in New York calls it, Sloan-Kettering. Jim was admitted on Friday evening, severely dehydrated and with swelling in the brain from metastatic tumors. He's getting fluids and massive doses of steroids and more care than I could ever give him here at home.

Sloan-Kettering's Urgent Care Unit, where the ambulance brought him on Friday afternoon, isn't the usual ER. It's only for people getting treated at Sloan-Kettering. So instead of the usual assortment of burst appendixes, traffic accidents and bar room brawl injuries, the special terminology of cancer fills the air: Chemo, radiation, stem cell transplant, anemia, and a variety of -ectomies and -ostomies.

I'd forgotten that the worst part of ER visits is the interminable waiting, followed by having no place to sit. Stretchers lined the hallway of the waiting area as the triage nurse took information, vital statistics and body fluids. Loved ones took turns sitting or standing next to their respective stretchers or sitting in front of a large, flat-screened TV watching CNN ("Newt Confesses.") Then the stretchers are off to curtained cubicles that can fit one chair.

Over the next few hours, we get to know each other: The Class of March 9th. The two grown sons with their elderly father, three generations of an Italian-American family around the 80-year-old matriarch, a seventy-something lady with the mien of an ex-ballerina accompanying her pale and exhausted husband. And of course, Jim and his posse, consisting of myself, his sister, her boyfriend and a mutual friend.

The loved ones may be talking, laughing, joking or resigned, but the look in our eyes speaks volumes and sounds exactly the same: Is this time going to be it?

More, when I get the chance.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Yin-Yang Cats

Ashley the Moon Cat and Chico the Sun Cat.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Smart Playlist

I've been using the "Smart Playlist" function in iTunes a lot lately. The way the Smart Playlist works is, you enter your parameters from a pulldown menu, say, tracks where the year is 1972, and tell it how many tracks you want, and whether they're at random, or ones that you've played most or least frequently. Then iTunes gives you a list of tracks based on your choices.

Today I was listening to "1964," and it turned out to be a fine assortment of British Invasion, Girl Groups, American Soul and California Sound, with a Dean Martin song thrown in. It was like a cross-section of what you would have really heard if you were a child listening to AM radio that year, that never seems to be duplicated authentically by any oldies station.

"Here, here," iTunes said, nudging me like a nagging parent. "The Dave Clark Five! You never play that one anymore."

All those years of putting mix discs and playlists together, and iTunes puts together a better mix than I do. The Smart Playlist is smarter than I am.

But I can't discredit myself completely. I've had some control over the matter. I selected the CD's and ripped the tracks and assiduously entered all the info on the "Get Info" screen. So I'm not altogether a pawn of destiny. You do everything that you can, and then you set yourself up to roll with the punches.

In the next few weeks, I expect a lot of punches, so I'd better get ready to roll.

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