Adventures of a Crazy Dog Lady

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The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly-wugly Worthday

Tomorrow’s another birthday, likely to be spent in a state of moderate terror triggered by a single expression caught on the face of an ultrasound technician yesterday.

Normally, I like my birthday. It was always the last or second-last day of school, which meant it came with a built-in sense of joy and release for all participants but not quite too late in the year to secure an adequate number of guests for a party. As the possibility of partying became occluded with adult issues, like sick elders, kids’ graduations, or transitions like moving and traveling, I salvaged that day as Mine, All Mine–one day a year to spend as it pleases me and no one else. On the whole, people respond favorably to that claim–after all, who doesn’t need at least one day a year to please oneself?

Thus the past couple of dozen personal anniversaries have compensated for lack of festivity by being Splendidly Useful, days at whose ends I am once again on the right side of that adage, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Along with a generous snort of a precious liqueur like Mangalore or Ginger of the Indies at the close of My Day, I take a deep breath of courage for the next year, grateful for another chance to become who I ought to be. The Dutch housekeeper in me is mollified once more. Birthdays have become worth-days.

The last day of my sixty-third year could be an ugly-wugly one. It could, for that matter, be the last one. There lies my life, waiting to be Examined by the ultrasound of my intuition, blinking back tears of dread as it senses the look on my face while I wield the new and improved version of that instrument.

Last year’s cancer tinkered with my intuition machinery, showing me many more layers of knowing than I had guessed existed in the human psyche. What a shock to realise that the organism already knows everything! You are your own Ouija Board–ask only the questions whose answers you can face.

Maybe I mis-read the expression on the face of that ultrasound technician. On the other hand, she didn’t respond to my question about whether she was looking at the pancreas (Pancreatic cancer, I gather, is almost as quick a final solution as a firing squad). And then she decided to “do” the kidneys.

Oh, scheize…. The kids start howling the minute she asks me to turn onto one side. The pain is only a faint echo of what they endured during their ugly time, the years of domestic terror when Rescue Remedy must never be out of reach. That unique pain would kick me in the back so hard, I’d have to pull over, administer the RR, and just wait and breathe until my vision was no longer red-limned and the ears no longer crackled like a forest fire.

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The Orgasmic Lightness of Being

A natural-health newsletter alerts me to the rise of cancer among pharmacists, nurses, and doctors who handle chimotherapy chemicals. Rick the Health Ranger says, "Treating cancer with chemotherapy is like treating alcoholism with vodka. It’s like treating heart disease with cheese, or like treating diabetes with high-fructose corn syrup. Cancer cannot be cured by the very thing that causes it.

"And to those who deal in poison, watch out for the cause-and-effect laws of biology. If you deal in chemotherapy chemicals, don’t be surprised if you get cancer one day. If you deal in chemical pesticides, don’t be surprised if you get Alzheimer’s. If you’re a dentist installing mercury fillings in the mouths of clients, don’t be surprised if one day you just go stark raving mad (because mercury causes insanity, and dentists breathe in mercury vapor thrown into the air from their drills).

"If you work around chemicals, they will eventually impact your health, and never in a good way."

I read that the leading cause of death in my province in the last year was cancer. The news does not cause so much as a ripple, because we knew. Not a single conversation, no controversy, because, at some level, we already knew.

Not surprisingly, when my lovely Polish surgeon told me I was cancer-free, I arose from my chair as if filled with hot air and bounced around the room like a balloon, clapping my paws for joy. Free! Free! No need to decide on chimo or radiation. Free!

Until next time. Until I let stress wreck the body once more. Until I fall prey to the easy ways of stemming hunger and thirst, loneliness and stress. Free.

I don’t know where to look, where to put my hands. I don’t feel the floor beneath my feet. I float away with a ridiculous smile on my face. Cancer-free…free to be, you and me….

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Ironic, the loss of my iron man

Thirty-two years ago, I lost the love of my life, and my love lost his life, and all his loves.

It never stops aching. Not entirely. Every June 18, unless my living dear ones have crises that obtrude, I remember. Most years, I cry, again. Some years, I write another June 18 poem. I don’t talk about the date, lest it be thought an occasion. Let the stupid world think June 18 is just a boring day–I want it to myself, to remember the best man in my life.

He was a brave man, our Spence. He didn’t go to the hospital until 20 hours before his death. If you haven’t spent last days with a cancer patient, just believe me: that’s hard.

He had lied to all of us, his family, friends, and me. Especially me–he’d broken up with me inexplicably, just after we had decided to have a child. Still clad in the long cotton hippy dress I had worn for him that evening when he came to dinner with his dreadful verbal mission hidden in his throat, I lay on the river stones outside my shack, devastated, for two days. At some point I picked myself up, fed the wolfdogs, packed up into an old Ford Econoline van, and left for anywhere.

Two years later he came to visit me in Yukon, for no apparent reason. He still could not articulate why he broke us up. Lovely visit, but mysterious. I watched him stride away in the fresh northern morning, attache case banging against his knee, full of meaningless papers about the pipeline, geologist’s boots sticking out from under his suit with the leather elbows. The thought arose: "This is the last time I’ll ever see him."

He took a "business trip" to the Phillippines. I still have the tightly woven little bag he sent me as a memento from Baguio City. He was in the oil business, a geologist–so it all made some kind of sense. I had no idea he’d gone for the "psychic surgery" then so famous on the moccasin telegraph, later so infamous as the "cancers" allegedly removed from sufferors’ bodies were proven to match chicken flesh in every possible way.

Nobody knew Spence was sick until very close to the end. In those days, there were no early tests for colon cancer, and having cancer was, well, a little embarrassing. If you had cancer, you had probably done some bad living, bad loving, or wrong thinking in your life. You hid your cancer and prayed for survival.

Much later, I put it together. He’d been given a year or so to live, although he outlived the prognosis by two years. At one point, he’d been in the hospital for something–something he lied about, obviously–and of course I’d visited him there. I’d found him cheerfully piloting his wheelie-thing around the place so that he could continue his engineering-course homework in the brightest lighting in the building (other than the operating room). He was cheerful as only a faker can be, but I was naive enough to swallow his guff. "Why on earth are you taking more courses," I did protest, "when you already have a PhD and tons of post-doctorate work behind you, not to mention dealing with whatever this medical problem is?"

He said something about needing this course in the future and about life-long learning. I believed him. I wanted to believe him. I wanted to believe that Spence would always exist in my life, whether we were a couple or not. I needed an immortal good man.

Someone in his group of friends was a doctor, however, and the cat crawled out of the bag. On finding him out, we all flew into his eyrie in Calgary, totally pissed off with his bravado. There followed six weeks during which we all practised mundane courage, exemplified by Spence, who refused to stop living a single day earlier than he had to. Though he insisted on doing for himself far beyond the capacity of 999 of a thousand mortals, there was no denying that cancer is a sticky, icky, messy, stinky business. Like most major bodily events, cancer is all about fluids and odoriferous bits of gunk. The last course Spence "taught", to us there on the 34th floor of downtown Cowtown, was Transcendance Training, up close and personal.

Although too sick to drive, he walked into the hospital that last night under his own steam. I seem to remember the nurse taking his hand as he stepped up into the bed, his final bed, and he said, in an altered voice foreign to the voice of the bear I so loved, "It won’t be long now," and she answered gently, "No, Dr. Taylor, it won’t be long."

It wasn’t. The next afternoon, with his good friend his ex-wife and me, his last love, each holding one of those great hands, he left us.

Sort of. We could feel his presence above us, relieved to be free of the battered body. It followed us back to his office, where we held the prescribed wake with the long-saved flagon of scotch, and I threw myself down a set of stairs in a paroxysm of grief which had apparently had turned me into rubber, as not a single bone broke.

This year, as my initial "You’re kidding me" response to my own diagnosis ebbed away, the thought arose, Of course. Of course I’ve got the same disease.

This is nonsense, of course. Everybody and his dog have colon cancer nowadays, because we all grew up in poisoned environments. For some people, that started way back. Spence, child of the Depression, rode the rails, sailed the high seas during WWII on the ill-fated Lexington, and kept samples of radioactive rocks in his library, shining eerily in jars of oil or water.

I asked my docs how long the cancer thingy had been fashioning itself in me. Three to six years, I was told.

Three to six years…. Spence died at fifty-nine, which seems criminally young now. I was then a few days short of 30. Three decades later, at about his age, I was growing the same kind of cancer.

Now that’s not nonsense. That’s a warning to all us Boomers. This is the age it happens, people!

If Spence could know that in just six short months, his last love was diagnosed, treated with surgery, and declared cancer-free, he’d whoop with joy for me and wish like hell those opportunities had been open to him. Because he loved life, and he loved me, and everything could have been different.

Roads keep diverging in the yellow wood, and that is what makes all the difference.

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A full month after the surgery, the lab results arrived.

They were said to be due within two weeks. Good. That way, I thought, I can plan my summer. If the cancer is gone, maybe I can attend my friend’s wedding. If the cancer lurks and various docs think I need more treatment, well…at the least, it means a lot of self-education and some big lifestyle changes.

Once the results arrive, the patient doesn’t get them, of course. Oh, no. One must attend the doctor in his office. In my case, two doctors on two separate days. That is, after all, the only way doctors get paid–by seeing and treating patients. Our system doesn’t pay for talking to the patient over the phone.

Luckily, I’m in Powell River. In Vancouver, I used to rage over having to wait four months or more for my clients to see a specialist–it played havoc with trial dates and trial preparation. Little did personal-injury clients know that most of the delay in their cases was caused not by the legal system but by the medical. But here in a town of 20,000, my wait is only another week. Just too late to get a flight to that wedding, probably.


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Wisdom Nugget

The acquisition of wisdom is seldom much fun. The happiness part comes later, once the pain subsides.

Take me, the woman stepping around town now with a smile wrapped twice around my face, ending with a knot behind my ear. I’m idiotically happy. Why? Because I’m still alive. Because surgery saved me for another day. Because I’m Canadian, which means I partake in what Americans call, in dread and loathing, “socialised medicine”. Because, if I still lived in the US, I’d be slowly dying now, too poor to save my life even if I knew how sick I was.

In theory, of course, I knew that our medical system, although not the world’s best compared to, say, that of France, is a far more harmonious interplay of needs and expertise than Americans’ addiction to what they think is “free enterprise” for doctors, researchers, and medical entrepreneurs, and “free choice” for patients—hah! Like anybody else, I watch Michael Moore.

In reality, there’s nothing like triple-whammy surgery, six days in the hospital, and six weeks of baby-steps recovery to bring home the truth: medicine is not politics, dear American friends—it’s a resource basic to life. In a world as polluted and harried as ours, every one of us is going to need a medical miracle sooner or later. Mine was sooner.

It may come as a surprise to read here an exhortation to anyone over fifty, or fat, dragged out, and hollow-eyed as I was, to visit a doctor and ask for the new colon-cancer screening. This experience has taught me—again—that health and harmony are synonymous. Think of your life in its time as a piece of music, where allopathic (Western) medicine plays the spectacular bits on one staff, and complementary medicine and healthy living come in with the obbligatos and the chords on other staffs.

From the editor of Immanence, some would no doubt expect staunch adherence to naturopathy, clean living, and food-is-medicine principles—perhaps even some distrust of the allopathic medical model. True enough, after years of being unable to afford any medical care whatsoever while living in the US, I’d fallen out of the habit of seeing an allopathic doctor with any regularity, figuring I knew best, anyway, and so far, so good. Hadn’t I beaten fibromyalgia and assorted ailments into submission with naturopathy and naturally good living? Surely, if I tried just a little harder and maybe worked a little less, I could lose those bags under my eyes and that stubborn belly?

The results of the screening stunned me. Me, a cancer patient? My self-image crumbled in twenty seconds. This body couldn’t be mine, surely? There must be a mistake! A mix-up!

I’d been harboring dumb beliefs like “I’m not the cancer type” and “I’ve built up a powerful immune system.” Wrong! I was sick. Looking back, I recognise that cancer has been going on for years, the signs so incremental that I could explain them away. Every time someone tells me how much better I look now, I realise afresh that, like a betrayed lover, at some level I was the first to know, but at the mundane level I was the last to find out.

Please, take this screening. Don’t let beliefs about yourself stand in your way. Don’t let the politics of medicine interfere with the best care for your body. And if there’s a new-fangled, non-invasive test for cancer or the other diseases that plague our society, get in line for it. Chances are, I’ll be in that line-up with you.

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Is A Life So Small?

"Is a life so small?"

Lately, I hear that cry of anguish again, every day.

The heart-shaped face of my Hawaiian poet-friend, Susan Starr, arises from memory.

Eleven years ago, kay and I were struggling to fit in a visit every week or two to Susan’s little ohana perched on a hillock a third of the way up the sunny slopes of Maui’s dormant volcano, Haleakala, the "house of the sun". The rent was cheap, by Maui standards–a mere $500 per month, if memory serves. For the privilege of privacy, Susan, who could no longer hold down one of the scarce-enough social-service jobs on the island, was willing to pay almost her entire monthly stipend. The little building was furnished in lawn chairs and meditation pads–and a desk with a built-in easel, like a drafter’s desk, where Susan tried, almost every day, to produce a piece of art. There was less food than art supplies in the tiny house, and any little goodie we could bring along was welcome, provided it fell into the category of Stuff Susan Can Still Eat. The details have drifted away, but I recall that the provision of an adequate juicer posed a huge practical and financial issue. Life wasn’t easy within those four walls.

Yet Susan was one of the lucky ones.She had some medical coverage, and she received a small monthly stipend from somewhere. By contrast, had cancer happened to me as it did to her, starvation and exposure would have been my lot, for there was absolutely no coverage for the likes of me, and no social safety net, either. Once I had sold all my chattels and property, the only option would have been death on the beach. But those were the days I was confident I would never have to face cancer. I wasn’t the type. I kept my head down and worked like a dog as if, in the end, I would have earned a nice juicy bone and a comfy dog bed.

For several years Susan struggled along, through hoped-for remissions and dread relapses. Even as the cancer settled in her bones, she worked at rebuilding her life, using food as medicine and art as therapy and, she hoped, income. But income never materialised, art therapy accomplished no miracles, and all the good food in the world could not beat back the cancer.

The day she entered the hospital, never again to emerge alive, was an outrageously busy day for her friends. Such days always are hugely inconvenient, because of the nature of our overly busy lives. My daughter, our poet-friends, and I spelled one another on what promised to be a long, 24/7 watch. Throughout her last four days, Susan kept pronouncing poetry, till her last breath. Amazing stamina! Later, poet Kelly Arbour assembled these final articulations into a mystical poem (which unfortunately I do not have to hand).

Hospital care during this phase had great benefits. Susan’s pain was alleviated, while access by her friends was enhanced. All good. But nothing could mask the stark scene we stepped through, wooden as novice actors, as we accompanied her to her final ward.

The cancer had broken her neck. She lay in the bed, as able to speak, think, feel and create as ever–yet unable to move. This was her irreversible moment, the moment of no return. All hopes and dreams were to be dropped at the threshold of that hospital room.

Although it could not have happened, I remember her seizing my hand. I must have picked up her hand, which had no will of its own any more. Yet such was the force of her feeling as she spoke, that memory refuses to reconcile with fact. I feel the fierce grip of her thin fingers as if it happened. I see her face, framed in its curly abundance of graying hair, lying at an add angle, like that of a small animal, pathetically still at the side of the road after being struck by a car. I hear Susan cry out, "Oh, Eva, is a life so small?"

She was fifty-eight years old, still pretty, still productive. A good friend. A good person. And she wanted to know if this was all there was. She asked again, as if I of all people would have an answer, some comfort. "Is a life so small?"

I fought back tears, because the only answer in me was, "Yes." For Susan, as for most of us, life is that small. Far too small for the beings we believe at heart we truly are.

Ten days later, I was honored to act as the celebrant of Susan’s homespun funeral. Among the poets and artists who attended prowled a vulture or two, grumbling over the pathetic size and quality of her estate. So small a life, almost no material goods were left behind beyond some nice drawings and a pretty scarf or two. But she’d left that cry of dismay reverberating in the air she had occupied, and I never forgot it. As I face my own version of cancer, it is a gift to remember that if our capacities and potentials prove more than our flesh can handle, it’s wisest to forgive our bodies for failing us. Forgive, and be as nice as possible to the vehicle you live in, because mind and soul operate only by permission of the flesh.

Here are a couple of poems I wrote for Susan, who died Labor Day, 2000.


(for Susan Star, 1942-2000)

The tumor shakes me

as a dog unhinges rats

My neck then breaks my mind

into a hanging

flower of flesh

I float among my moments

feeling faintly ill

but my friends say this is normal,

this newfound skill to fly

I may swoop now from the calyx

of my last sun-shot morning

to the night-beds of fruits

fallen years ago;

may play the role of nemesis

dark-winged in my own,

my tiny, star-cupped garden

yet even winged, in wilderness,

in overgrown and fevered hours,

how shall I find her, that

poor naked girl lost in my jungle,

the red temple flower,

still stranded on some Wednesday

in my so little life?

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Lose 7 Pounds in 30 Hours–Without Boring Exercise!

As soon as I’d clambered into the house, I waddled into the bathroom and weighed myself. Two pounds heavier than when I’d entered the hospital.

I put a tape measure around the belly That in itself took effort. Almost forty-eight inches. Wow!

Given the five or six cups of hospital food ingested in the past week, these statistics made no sense. What was going on? Was it the types of food? The lack of deep sleep? The constipating meds?

I took the meds anyway. What if the pain got worse? I slept seven or eight hours straight for the first time in a week The nurse did call, poor dear, around midnight, doubtless very glad to find that I’d kidnapped myself. I would have liked to apologise for fleeing on her shift, but was already in dreamland. I awoke so grateful for that sleep. And then the fun began.

It was a good thing I’d left the hospital. Had I stayed, the morning staff would have discovered me in a pool of nasty-smelling stuff from top and bottom orifices, somewhere between bed and sink.

At our hojme hospital, Kay had put my wonderful mattress atop our library guest bed, which is a hard, unaccommodating fold-out thing (probably designed to discourage long visits). Unlike the $26K hospital bed, it did not rise, but it was also a lot closer to the ground, which meant I could if need be sort of roll out of bed and fall onto the floor without damaging anything except my dignity–not that I had much of that stuff clinging to my unwieldy bod by this point. From the bed, I could peruse the spines of several thousand books. My head lay nearest the god-bothering books, floor to ceiling–very appropriate for the occasion, I thought. One look to the left brought back Rumi’s poems, Sogyal Rinpoche’s Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, A Pace of Grace by BC’s own Linda Papov, the lovely face of Peace Pilgrim striding along her path, and The Idiot’s Guide to the Bible. I could let my eyes bounce along the shelves, up at the classic and then the upstart philosophers, human thought in all its luxurious, even excessive, variety. Then education, another collection of upstarts, of whom I am one–or was, until this happened. Then, books on the wonders of the body–you don’t realise how much has been written about what we humans are and how we work until you get sick. Some titles were too apropos: Who Dies? What Survives? I figured I could answer the latter title in one word–sure as heck didn’t need a whole book to tell me death is a synonym for THE END. But the book spine that blinked at me like a neon sign was Life without Pain. Imagine: someone believed strongly enough in that possibility to put out a whole book on it. That’s where I was going–to a life without pain. But not quite yet, apparently.

The home hospital had safety features in addition to ambience and a strong nurse in Kay, who proved able to lift me almost painlessly from the bed until I could retrain my muscles. A clock with a second hand allowed me to keep tract of my own pulse. A beautiful glass with a steel straw in it offered me water from the nearest shelf. For a call button, we set a large steel bowl and the steel wok lid beside the bed–the only items sure to wake Kay in case of emergency. We coaxed one of our ancient thermometers back into working mode, but left the far more expensive blood-pressure reader in its lonely exile in the bathroom, as it invariable reads the BP some thirty points higher than Walmart does. Instead, a six-weeks-old gray kitten agreed to snuggle with me and lower my BP–what could be better than that?

That first day was hard. The action began as soon as I woke up and wouldn’t stop. There was plenty of exercise for both of us–just not the boring kind one does in a gym. Kay was kept running, lifting, cleaning, as the gastric experiences of an entire week decamped. Even water wouldn’t stay down, but a human being has to have water; so it was sip, sip, sip all day, just to stay hydrated. The body temperature began to rise and Kay threatened me with Emergency or even 911, but somehow, after twenty-four hours, we’d beaten it back.

Thirty hours after coming home, I weighed seven pounds less and measured four inches less around. I took my first shower, a plastic bag taped over the incision site. I felt incredibly clean, both in and out, ready to build up this body again. There is nothing like the face of death, I thought, to prepare you for living.