Monthly Archives: November 2011

How It Feels to Die

I was utterly convinced that I had a brain tumor. There was no way that you could have convinced me otherwise. I was around 23 and I happened to have a couple of really minor dizzy spells. In my mind, dizzy = brain, brain=tumor. There was no other possible explanation.

I had a serious boyfriend at the time (serious enough that we later got engaged) and he watched me devolve into a huddled mass that lived under the blankets in my bed. I lay there in fear of my impending death. I have a disturbing journal entry from that time that reflects my utter certainty that I had a limited time to live. My boyfriend called a good friend of mine and had her come over to check on me. I remember her sitting on my bed, stroking my hair, trying to reassure me that it was nothing. In my mind, she was coming to say goodbye.

I had made an appointment with my doctor who, not finding anything wrong with me, referred me to a neurologist. “I’m sure it’s nothing, but…” In my mind, that referral was the indicator of doom. Clearly, my doctor thought that a neurologist WOULD find something and she could pass off being the bearer of the inevitable bad news.

A few nights before the appointment my boyfriend insisted we go to the movies to take my (dizzy) mind off of things. Whatever it was we went to see completely eludes me. What I remember is sitting there in fear, not observing or hearing a thing, my dizzy spills getting worse. For some reason, I went into the lobby to call my father from a payphone. I was experiencing a full-on nervous breakdown, an antiquated term, but one I heard many times in regards to my mother. I was having a nervous breakdown, on a payphone in a move theater lobby, while my father listened. I was 23.

My father lives in California so the time difference was advantageous to him scrambling to call some of his contacts on the East Coast to get me in to see someone as quickly as possible. He called me back on the payphone with the number of a psychiatrist who his friend described as a “pussycat.” He had a Jewish last name.

I was able to get an appointment with him the next day. He was an older man, probably in his late 60s early 70s with a very calm demeanor. I had been in therapy on and off since I was 16 so I knew how it worked. I ran through my bullet points like I had hundreds of times and he listened and nodded in the way that therapists do.

A lot of people don’t realize that hypochondria to this degree is a symptom of depression. The dread, the fear, the self-sabotage and all that comes from the twirling spiral downward. I left his office with a prescription for Prozac when it was the newly lauded drug of the century.

Within the same week, I went to the neurologist for a brain scan. I held my breath as he came into the room after reading the results. “You’re fine,” he said smiling. Instantly my dizzy spells turned into little invisible vapors that swirled out the top of my head. Bye bye brain tumor.

Some time after that I thought I had ovarian cancer. It wasn’t nearly as extreme an experience but until I went to the doctor I was convinced that there was something the size of a grapefruit growing inside of me. My meds were “tweaked” and all was well. Until about two weeks ago.

For some reason my ability to breathe smoothly got all fucked up. I felt like there was a catch somewhere between my clavicle and my throat. No wheezing, no blood being coughed up in gobs, just…different. I began to incessantly google “symptoms of lung cancer.” Every day. Lung cancer and mold allergies. I tried to imagine which drag of a cigarette I had taken before I finally quit had run amok. One thing that really scared me is that apparently arm and shoulder pain is a sign of metastisized lung cancer and I’ve had pain in my arm for months. I can easily recreate the pain, clearly muscular, and in fact, I even chose to get a cortisone shot for it about six months ago. But, this didn’t matter. In my mind, the orthopedist wasn’t equipped to see a spot on my shoulder with simple x-rays and it’s been growing at a rapid pace ever since.

I questioned everyone. Are you having trouble breathing? Is it a dry feeling? Does it feel like this? Everyone had coughing and chills and fever. They wheezed and coughed up gunk. Clearly, I was the only one with lung cancer. I thought of what it would be like to have to tell my extremely sensitive daughter. I thought about my husband who I had just found the perfect love with. I thought about how the word would get out. Would I write a post on facebook? Would I be one of those people who smiled through it all and never told anyone until all my hair fell out?

Chances are pretty good that I DON’T have lung cancer. I’ve felt a bit more normal the past few days. I don’t know why I bring this on myself. Why, when I am at my happiest am I expecting it all to end? Why do I choose to sabotage my bliss? I don’t have answers for this, but perhaps, after 20 or so years, it’s time for another meds tweak.


When I go to the prison to teach my writing workshop it’s not as simple as just walking through the sliding doors at the entrance and breezing past a person at a desk with a quick wave and a smile. It is a very deliberate process, which after many months, I’ve pretty much gotten down. I wait in line, sometimes behind an attorney, sometimes behind a family member of an inmate who is told that they have to wait until visiting hours in order to see the person they just took several buses and trains to see. The guards who staff the desk have to take their time to follow all of the unique steps of each visitor. You can’t get pissed at them like you might a supermarket checkout person in training. In this context, it’s pretty critical that they follow the rules and not miss a beat.

At this point I already know to have my driver’s license out of my wallet to exchange for my purple-ribboned badge, with a very bad laminated picture that identifies me as a volunteer. I get my locker key and throw everything in except for a pencil, a notebook and my reading glasses. (I keep my fingers crossed that an inmate in my class won’t suddenly go on a rampage, grab my pencil and start stabbing the rest of us in the neck and eyes. I keep a VERY close eye on it.)

This past week there was a guard at the desk who I had not seen before. He was frazzled and flustered in a way that the unflappable and very sweet Luis never is. As he was attempting to untangle my purple id tag from the orange ones which were tangled with the blue ones, a guard emerged from a side door and asked all of us to step back behind a stanchion. There was more hubbub than I had yet to experience during my time there and the woman who I report to, who has become a friend, told me that it was “Release Day” for the male inmates. Soon, a line of men, mostly black and Latino in their twenties and thirties, dressed in street clothes, began to file through the door, while a guard said “Congratulations” as each one passed. In all there were about twelve, some with grins on their faces, some just staring straight ahead. Everyone around me seemed unfazed by what was occurring right in front of their eyes, the officers and staff having witnessed this procession endless amounts of times. To me, it was one of the most profound things I had ever seen and has left me with a sense of non-closure, never knowing what will happen to these men on the “outside.”

By then my badge had been found. I walked through the metal detector escorted by the supervisor of the program I volunteer for and waited while the security officer pressed a button that opens an old and clunky sliding door. When it closed behind us, I flipped my badge at the next checkpoint and waited for the next old and clunky sliding door to open, where I was taken up by elevator to my class.

The group seemed bigger than usual—about 17 or so women, somewhat indistinguishable from all the other classes I’ve taught. As usual, there were always some who said “Good morning,” or complimented me on my clothes, and always the one who wouldn’t smile, would roll her eyes the second I started to say what I was going to be doing with them before putting her head down on the table.

“I want you all to tell us something that people would be surprised to learn about you,” I asked them. “Something that would surprise them.” Silence.

“Come on. We ALL have things about ourselves that are interesting that people wouldn’t assume just by looking at us.”

A white woman somewhere in her 40s with a few missing teeth raises her hand.

“I play guitar and the harp.”

“I’ve been a ballet dancer since I was three and now I teach little kids,” said a beautiful and very young Latino woman.

I point at the eye-roller, a black woman in her 20s with cornrows and dark circles under her eyes. She smiles slightly and seems impressed that I’ve called her out.

“I’m an ice skater. I been ice skating since I was 4.”

A white woman with black stringy hair and bright blue eyes shouts out from the back, “I’ve skydived 7 times.”

“I’ve peed in every state in the country.”

“I’ve traveled through Europe,” this from a young white woman with track marks on her arms.

“Okay, these are all great. I want you to write about how these things make you feel. Tell me about what they do for you. You’ve got about ten minutes.”

The guitar player reads about wanting to gain her father’s love and approval by learning how to play guitar because it’s something that he does. The ballet dancer talks about how dancing makes her feel, how it frees her mind and her body. A woman who makes orthopedic shoes talks about how it helped her with her 30-yr heroin addiction. The ice skater describes the feeling of complete freedom on the ice, how it takes her mind off of everything else. The young woman who has traveled extensively giggles when recalling the innocent trouble that she and her best friend got into as 17-yr olds in Italy. The orthopedic shoe maker has begun crying and finds herself unable to speak. The women all acknowledge whatever pain she is feeling by not speaking for a moment.

The skydiver who oozes deep sadness talks about how freeing it is to take that plunge, how when you’re up there nothing else matters. She speaks a bit angrily about not feeling that air on her face while she’s in prison and acknowledges that it’s no one’s fault but her own. She explains how angry it made her every time I looked at my watch because time doesn’t MATTER in prison (She made it very clear that she wasn’t blaming me for this, but tried to explain how I can take time for granted.) She said how angry it made her that I could walk out the door and into the beautiful day that it was and feel that air, and live my day, filling up my time however I wanted, while she, yet again, had fucked up her life. She thanked me for allowing her to write about the thing she loved the most.

When time was up and the women began filing out, the young traveler said “I have to tell you that I LOVE that skirt,” which was met by nodding heads and compliments on my boots. The skydiver was the last to leave. I told her to hold on to that feeling of the air on her face, that release, and to do whatever she could to experience it again. She looked at me with such intense gratitude, but at the same time seemed utterly resigned to having to serve her term in misery and self-loathing.

You May Ask Yourself, Well, How Did I Get Here?

Tomorrow I have what is now my 6th annual parent-teacher conference. My ex-husband and I will sit at student desks with their attached chairs that barely accommodate my spreading thighs and his growing gut. We might feel ashamed of our sometimes lack of organizational skills when it comes to the shuttling back and forth of our daughter and the things that get lost in the shuffle. We’re not the Poster Parents for keeping the details together ( as I write this, she has a day off for a “teacher professional day,” something they seem to have a lot of, and, well, we didn’t know this until 3-days ago and had to scramble to find someplace for her to go.) The best part, though, is that he and I are in this together and both will admit, in this arena at least, we’re not exactly “Parents of the Year.”

I have never felt as old as I did when we had our first parent teacher conference back in kindergarten. It was a rite-of-passage that blind-sided me. How the hell was I old enough to be sitting talking about the future of my (very high verbal skills, not so great in math) 5- yr. old child? I was more caught up in that than the content of the meeting. I smirked while my ex-husband engaged in the conversation. I now do everything MY parents did—I sign permission slips, quiz her on her social studies homework and vocabulary words, while I have to fob off the math homework on my husband or stepsons because as my parents would say, “I don’t understand this “new math.” I still feel occasionally strange being called “Mom.” Aren’t I too YOUNG to be someone’s “Mom?”

For me, and I will never forget this, was the epiphany that I had in college, shopping at a local supermarket with a friend, that becoming an adult was the second it occurred to me that I could actually choose my own cereal. If Fruity Pebbles ended up in my cart it was because I wanted it to. I didn’t have to argue about it with anyone. My choice. I feel bad for my daughter having to hear an endless stream of “nos” every time she unleashes the “Can I have this? Can I get this?” but she will some day experience the joy of throwing that first box of cereal made of cookies into her own cart.

As I’ve moved up in my field, I’ve also found myself in the unlikely role of being a supervisor. I EVALUATE people. I MENTOR people. When did I become any sort of expert that I am looked up to as a mentor and guide? When did I become the person that people who have reported to me are complaining about me to their friends saying what a bitch I am or telling them how great I am? Am I feared when I have to call someone into my office to confront them on something they’ve done? I still have to hold back tears in these situations because I hate confrontation of any kind.

I’m not going to like that day when I am offered a seat on the train simply because I look too old to be standing. I don’t want to be the old couple that is called “cute” by people in their 20s just because I’m holding hands with my husband. None of these are original thoughts, I know, but as I turn 47 in just two days, I find myself wanting to run and flee, in the opposite direction, down the timeline, from a big giant statue of a 5 and a 0. I ADORE my life. It is absolutely everything I want it to be (except for never having the money part) but there is something about mortality that doesn’t sit very well with me.

Dairy Barn, Chicken Delight And The Soda Man

When I look back, I continue to be amazed by how EASY things were living on Long Island in the 70s and how very quaint some of our every day conveniences seem in retrospect. These things pre-date drive-thru ATMS, (although you could speak to an actual LIVE teller from your car and stick your deposit through that tube that got sucked up like Augustus Gloop in “Willy Wonka), drive-thru pharmacies, drive-thru dry cleaners, and grocery home delivery. Today, we could live our entire lives out of our cars.

Dairy Barn, pictured above, is total iconic Long Island. Before I confirmed otherwise with friends, I vaguely remembered driving INTO it, like a meat locker version of a car wash. As you can see from above, that’s not quite how it worked. You drove up to a window, and gave some young, undoubtedly stoned, teenager your order which usually consisted of bread (they only had white, squooshy bread), eggs, orange juice (not the best, I might add), butter, etc. The guy would disappear into his inner, refrigerated sanctum, slide the glass doors closed and start pulling things off shelves. Then, he would reappear with our bag, my mother would pay, in actual CASH, and off we’d go.

Perhaps these trips were a stop gap between deliveries from our actual MILK MAN! Yes, we had a MILK MAN who would creep up our back porch stairs, and leave glass bottles of milk in a tin box which made a distinct sound when the lid slammed shut. The coolest thing about the Milk Man was that once a year he brought bags of Halloween candy.  Was it free? Did my parents order it so it was one less thing they had to worry about? I never ONCE laid eyes on the Milk Man or received an answer to this one remaining mystery of my childhood.

Not only did we have a Milk Man, we had a SODA MAN. For the life of me, I can’t imagine why we needed a bi-weekly CASE of soda, glass-bottled with non-screw off caps, but I do know that it made my brother, who my mother referred to as the “soda jerk” (only in this particular context, not in life) very happy. There was “cola” and orange and cherry and lemon-lime, such artificially pretty colors all lined up in a heavy plastic, red crate-like tray. When it was finished, and on some designated day, the empty bottles would be left somewhere and like magic, they’d be replaced by a whole new case of pretty-colored liquid.

The soda was kept in the garage next to our extra freezer. This freezer was nothing short of miraculous. About once a month a delivery truck would pull up and a uniformed man would wheel, dolly-full by dolly-full, boxes of glorious frozen food. There were gorgeous and perfectly sized and flash frozen pork chops, steaks, ground beef and lamb chops along with the most delicious croissants I have EVER tasted. There were cans of concentrated orange juice, bags of frozen French fries that were all stacked so lovingly that I wasn’t allowed to touch anything. Perhaps this was a foreshadowing to my first job during the summer right after graduating from college as someone who SOLD, over the phone, going down the Syracuse-area phone book name-by-name with a ruler to keep my place, the exact same service. My job was to convince people to allow a salesman into their home, to discuss the benefits of having something like a side of beef stored in a freezer that they may or may not already own. After that, my job was done.

Growing up, when my father was either working late or at a hockey game, we would have the great fortune of ordering from Chicken Delight, what I remember to be the holy grail of poultry.  The chicken, fries and very soft rolls would come, broken out into the individual meals we requested, in two domed cardboard plates stapled together. It came with little packets of honey (which I never ate) and wet naps. It brought instant happiness into our home.

Home delivery of crappy-yet-totally-delicious food is so pervasive now that it shocks me that my favorite local Chinese place has the gall NOT to deliver. “Wait, you want me to GET UP and DRIVE the HALF MILE to your little hovel of a kitchen just for the best Chicken Chow Foon around???? Fuck YOU!”
Back then you didn’t have to pump your own gas (truth be told, I will choose full serve over self despite the higher prices) but you did have to stand and wait in an actual line with actual standing humans at McDonald’s. You had to walk into an incredibly hot and LOUD dry cleaners with that dry cleaner smell instead of having someone pass you your clothes through a car window. There was certainly charm (not to mention human interaction) in those day-to-day things while now we just scream into a speaker with a faceless person on the other end.