The Long Goodbye

Four years ago, I sat in a small doctor’s office in North Phoenix and listened as my mother’s pulmonologist explained to my mother why she was coming down with a persistent cold every few weeks. “Unfortunately, it is cancer,” she said. Although she was not a cancer specialist, she estimated my mother was at stage 3B or 4, but that an oncologist would be able to make that determination following additional tests.

She was 63 years old. Earlier that week, during a week of otherwise good health, she’d completed her normal 10-mile bike ride and attended fitness classes at her community’s recreation center. This woman had advanced cancer? It seemed unreasonable.

Over the next several weeks, she wavered through treatment plans, including none, holistic, and traditional, finally deciding to go chemo and radiation first. The chemo treatments–demanding 8-hour affairs that required she lay in a recliner covered in blankets while various chemicals dripped into her body through an IV–initially took a huge toll on her. This was the only time I remember her balking at her predicament. “The cure is worse than the disease,” she said, her body riddled with stabbing pains.

Fortunately, the treatments began to be less and less difficult, and eventually, she recovered and went back to exercising after just a few days. Throughout her years fighting back, she made fitness her top priority, eating well and doing plenty of aerobics with her core group of “fitness buddies.” She golfed, she spent time with her friends, she laughed often. She loved being alive.

She made astounding progress. Initially, her tumors shrank a staggering amount. Doctors, who initially gave her 6 to 9 months, were cautiously optimistic as they moved her to a care plan that would help her maintain her level of health while preventing a backslide. The first pill regimen she was on was great–but gave her bloody noses, mouth sores, and difficulty swallowing. She took it in stride but eventually managed to get into a cancer drug trial.

The drug trial was really effective…but again, had strange side effects. She reluctantly stopped the trial and waited for a new one to open up for her. In the meantime, she was again suffering from a nagging recurring cold…that morphed into pneumonia…that caused a fluid build up in her lungs…that caused her lung to collapse. She went to the emergency room and spent several days in intensive care getting help. This was three and a half years into her fight. A doctor looked over her chart and said, “Maria, I think you only have 6 to 9 months to live.” She’d heard it so much by then it didn’t even register.

But in the hospital, the drugs they gave her to fight the pneumonia ended up giving her an infection called C-Def, which attacks the intestines and, left untreated, is fatal. A large number of patients who contract this do not survive. But at this point, it was clear my mom was not a typical patient. She took on the treatment program, which caused bouts of debilitating nausea while she suffered from constant digestive problems, and eventually, several weeks later, came out the other side and was cleared by her doctors.

But the pneumonia et al had taken its toll on her body and health. She was done almost 40 pounds from her normal weight and she’d gone several months without cancer treatment. We all knew in the meantime her tumors were growing but we were hopeful she’d get accepted into another drug trial this year. And then, she was. On Tuesday of this week, we took her–weak, but resolved to give it a try–for one more chemo treatment to see if she could tolerate another course of treatment.

It went excellent–she had almost no side effects from the chemo. We think, though, that sometime Wednesday she suffered a mild stroke. For the last 24 hours, she was a little confused about when and where she was, had difficulty speaking clearly, lost the ability to walk and feed herself, and then faded into exhaustion.

By this point, my mother had outlived 95% of the patients who receive the same diagnosis.

We had every hope that her symptoms, which we initially chalked up to sleep deprivation and the chemo, would abate and she would bounce back as she always did. Throughout everything, I expected her to recover. Not just to recover, but to thrive. She was that tough. She meant business! By Thursday afternoon, we began to fear the worst and gathered around her in the living room, holding her hand, talking with her, comforting her.

Even as she receded, the core parts of her were still there. If she burped, she politely excused herself. When I complimented her and said, “You’re going great, Mom,” she smiled and said, “Thank you.” And, as she always had my entire life, she raised a hand to her forehead to comb her bangs away with her fingers.

Her mind bounced around for a few hours. Her eyes would glaze over but then become suddenly alert. “I love you guys,” she said, her voice slurred by upbeat. “Is this my wedding day?” she asked later, confused. “Your glasses are really in right now,” she told me kindly. After some quiet time passed, she told us, “I’m 12 years old,” and then “people lie to me a lot–grown up people.” (It was when she was 12 her family emigrated from Belgium, initially telling her they were merely taking a vacation.) She moved back further and further until we couldn’t reach her anymore, and then we were fortunate enough to get her to Hospice of the Valley, where the staff worked with us to keep her comfortable and provided us with a lot of emotional support.

This morning, my dad called and woke me to say the nurses felt the end was near. I made it to her bedside, where my dad, brother, and I called our immediate family so they could speak to her before she passed. The ending came so quickly. It was too late and too soon. We wanted more time. We wanted more health. We wanted to know she was safe.

We sat in the room with her for a long time afterward. After a while a low flying plane, its engines sighing loudly, broke that silence.

You can read about my mom’s experience in her own words by reading her blog.

Thank you to everyone who sent their wishes and thought of us today–we are grateful for your love and support.

Notes toward an Autobiography

I have developed a new obsessive-compulsive behavior. Before I can read a magazine, I go through and remove all the blow-in subscription cards. After that, I go from cover to cover and tear out any advertising (or advertorial) printed on stock heavier than the rest of the magazine, typically cologne/perfume samples and tobacco ads (I’m looking at you, Marc Jacobs).

Then I may read the magazine.

* * * * *

I have traveled over 6,000 miles since August 15. Only 2,200 of those miles were by aircraft. The rest were by car. I love driving. I love to travel by car. Air travel makes me stressed out and cranky. I dislike being close to people I don’t know, and I have a secret fear that I will be strip-searched by TSA, or, at the very least, that the metal detector will go off even though I have dutifully removed everything from my person that may contain a metal. Driving for travel is like being Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman: you say who, you say when, you say how much.

* * * * *

Whenever I do fly, I’m as neurotic as when I read a magazine. I have three primary fears in life: being hungry, being cold, and being bored. Being on an airplane exacerbates all of those concerns.

Here is a list of the non-negotiable things I have to carry with me into the cabin:

a neck pillow
a zip-up sweatshirt (in case I get cold)
a bottle of water
some kind of nutrition bar
a bag of candy of some kind, or a salty treat
my iPod
my Nintendo DS
at least two books, but usually three (in case one is boring or poorly written, and also to cater to my unpredictable reading tastes).
(in some cases, I substitute a magazine like Spin for one of the books)
my laptop

Partly this is because I’ve rarely flown on flights shorter than 3 hours (see driving, above), and these items are often used in conjunction with each other. For instance, the iPod goes on at 10,000 feet. (I find it an especially useful form of stranger repellent.) Then I sleep or play games or read.

I do not talk to other passengers, and I never, ever, disclose that I am a writer. It’s just too risky.

I always sit by a window. And before I get on the plane, I like to have tomato juice.

* * * * *

On one of my recent flights, the man next to me made the stations of the cross while we took off.

* * * * *

I have only once really believed I might be about to die while flying. It was, I think, on one of my flights to Phoenix/back. Right after we lifted off and were making our ascent, the plane arced and pointed down. I mean, down. I didn’t hear that weird plane-diving whistle sound, but the other passengers and I all leaned forward involuntarily. We flew at that angle for about ten seconds.

They were the longest ten seconds of my life.

When the plane flattened out and began to climb again, I looked over at my seat neighbor, who, like me, had been staring out the window, as if that could help. “Holy shit,” I said. Her eyes, round and wide like jet engines, said the same.

* * * * *

In an unrelated story, my niece is, at this very minute, at school, dressed as Lady Gaga for Spirit Week. I had no part in cultivating this action, but believe me when I say it delights me to no end.

How did she do Gaga? A long, blond wig and a dress made out of dollar bills.

Note to self: Halloween.

The Phenomenology of Anger

I realized, about a day after the fact, that last week represented a passage of 14 years since I first came out to another person. It happened at college. I’d been out to myself, somewhat, for a few months before, but I don’t really count that time because it was a tentative, exploratory, uncertain kind of growing-towards being an out person.

How can I recall the date? I told my best friend right after she’d opened the birthday present her family had mailed to her. Kind of sticks in your mind.

After feeling sort of stunned by the amount of time that has passed, I started remembering other people I came out to after her. I remember being really excited, but also nervous. I’d grown up in this little town and I’d gone through a few really difficult years of high school–years that I think most people in my life, including my friends, had no realization of just how difficult they were.

Almost all of my friends were supportive, and I’ll never forget my best guy friend’s response: “Actually, Charles, I’m not all that surprised.” He said that while we shot some pool in my parents’ basement. I was sort of offended. Hadn’t I been just sooo in the closet that nobody could tell? Ha. Good god, no.

I told one friend when we went ice skating. I loved to go ice skating even though the closet rink to my town was 40 minutes by car, in an outer ring suburb of Milwaukee. We’d driven out together, and skated around the rink during open skating, and as we sat on the bench unlacing our skates afterward, I told her.

This was a girl who I’d known for years. For most of my life. A girl who had sat next to me in band as people threw shit at the back of my head, who teased me mercilessly because they thought I was a fag, who had seen me humiliated in the lunch room by kids in my school on more than one occasion. I’d driven her to school in my little car and forced her to listen to Ace of Base, Madonna, etc. And when I told her, her face went pale. It crumbled with disappointment. She had a hard time keeping eye contact with me. Me? I sat there, smiling dumbly, thinking she was just surprised.

“You know what? I’ll pray for you,” she said finally. It was the conclusion of a long internal monologue that apparently ended in my favor. She put her hands on her thigh decisively. “I’ll pray that you won’t end up in hell for this.”

Naturally, an awkward silence opened up between us.

She said, “I want to tell you something, since you shared a secret with me.” She went on to explain how she’d been away from home, involved in a group that required her to be out of town for training and preparation purposes, and she explained that she’d gotten romantically involved with a man in her group. “He really wanted to have sex,” she said, “but I want to be a virgin when I get married, so I let him have anal sex with me.” She started crying a little bit. “And it was awful,” she went on. “It hurt so bad.” I could tell she was embarrassed and ashamed. I comforted her. I told her it was okay, that it was nothing she couldn’t or shouldn’t move on from.

It wasn’t until sometime later that I realized she had thought me coming out = her dirty anal sex secret in her mind.

And this week, I finally got angry about it.

O Academe!

Working in academia has its pluses and minuses. All summer long I enjoyed what amounted to a private city, with restaurants empty at lunch time, wide sidewalks and quads free of pushing and shoving and skateboarders, and on-campus services like the gym and library that seemed to be waiting for me to command them into activity. It’s a stark contrast from the other nine months of the year. Throughout the academic year, students swarm the campus like picnic ants. Waiting for Starbucks was more excruciating than waiting for Godot. And food in the union, when it was even available, was like revenge—always cold and never what you were expecting.

The rest of my “mini-moir” is up at the Americans for the Arts blog as part of their Emerging Leaders Forum.


I’ve never been afraid of danger, so the other day, when I stepped out onto the glass floor of the Calgary Tower, the one hanging out over the street about 520 meters from the ground, I was shocked to discover neither of my feet had actually moved and that I was still standing safely on the carpeted area.

Through the glass, I could see straight down to the street below. I could see tiny people walking, matchbox-sized cars slipping around a turn, little construction vehicles working. I could see the shadow cast by the tower.

Stepping onto the glass seemed counterintuitive, like stepping onto a cloud. I watched two Indian women giggle while having their photo taken on the glass panels next to me, seeming in the photo, I’m sure, to float on air. They had no problem doing it. My friends walked over next to me and stepped onto the glass. I wanted to grab them.

Instead, I tentatively moved my foot onto the glass. It felt sturdy, but…didn’t it just move? Bend? Surely I felt it bend. Or jiggle. My hand flew up onto the huge metal beam next to me. I imagined myself falling as the glass shattered, my feeble attempt to hold onto the girder thwarted by the fatty ghosts of all my fast food meals the week previous. I couldn’t manage to get around it, but I was determined to get a photo of my feet on the glass, looking down. I had to.

I lunged my body across the glass panels to the metal handrail on the other side, grabbing hold of it with two sweaty palms. Quickly, before I could rethink it, I set both my feet on the glass panel and clicked the shutter.

Then, I scuttled off the glass, full of panic, sure of doom.

Excerpt from "The Grief Muscle"

On my first day back at the gym, I was still pretty depressed and distraught about my break-up. Exercise seemed to me to solve two major problems: it gave me something constructive to do since I couldn’t sleep and I felt like I could punish something—in this case, my own body—for causing me pain. Because I couldn’t take it out on anyone else—and truly, although I was hurt by my boyfriend’s message, I wasn’t angry and I still loved him—I would make the pain I felt internally something I could feel in every muscle of my body. And also, something that would, after a few days, fade away the way I hoped my sadness would.

I walked in, feeling out of touch with the gym after my two-month absence. But right away I saw Green Shorts Guy pedaling away on an exercise bike and the husky couple wrapping up their cardio on the ellipticals. Cute Gay Guy was there too, with his friend, and he’d gotten a new haircut—and it looked good! I walked on by my early morning comrades and approached the bicep curl machine, my typical starting place.

I sat down, unstrapped my iPod from its shoulder holster, and popped the buds into my ears. I hadn’t listened to my workout mix in ages—I wasn’t even sure what I would hear. Loud music filled my head and drowned out the gym’s pathetic excuse for “radio.” All the talking around me disappeared. I gripped the handles of the machine and started curling. I did about ten reps without much effort, but thought I was being too easy on myself. I increased the weight by twenty pounds and did it again. And again. And again.

Freud—that old bastion of mental health—wrote about the experience of grief in his 1917 book Mourning and Melancholia. In the discussion, Freud postulated that persons who are grieving must constantly confront the reality of their loss in order to reconcile their former reality (like being in love) to the new reality (being out of love). Among his other works, Freud frequently touched on love and intimacy, describing the way we become connected to other people as a process of internalizing them into our psyche. This is never more obvious than in romantic relationships, where couples move from two distinct “I”s into a collective “we.” That destruction of the “we,” in which the lover becomes so invested, is traumatizing.

To constantly confront the reality of the loss is no easy task. In my early stages of grief, mourning the relationship feels much like losing an arm—and truly, investing ourselves, our identity in another person can become as critical to us as a limb. This is probably why many people start at denial—this isn’t happening; I am still whole—because no one wants to be an emotional amputee.

In his consideration of traumatic events, such as the shock of a sudden loss, Freud says the mind turns toward repetition—reliving the loss again and again until it is understood and mastered. By “mastery,” Freud implies that the ego overcomes the loss, works around the loss or through it, and no longer suffers the pain of losing.

In exercise, repetition (or “reps”) leads to physical mastery. Because it is generally not possible to make one’s self experience an actual break-up over and over again, maybe the repetition becomes displaced—we turn to repetitive behavior because, in the end, we’ll feel like we mastered something. In grief, people may say the same phrases over and over again, might put on a familiar music album and listen to the same tracks on repeat—or they go to the gym, forcing their body to work through the same motions again and again until their bodies have mastered the physical burden that is a metaphor for their emotional loss.

There are pockets of early morning work out folks who band together at the gym. Women generally tend to work out with a friend or group of friends, while men congregate around the more advanced weightlifting devices, like the flat bench and the machines that use the enormous flat plates. Typically, in groups larger than just two, one man will spot another man while he does his reps; the others look on and chide him or encourage him or just tell each other jokes. This was the case with the group of men in front of me as I sat at the bicep machine lifting the most weight I’ve ever lifted (also known as “grief weight”) to offset the greatest level of grief I’d ever experienced. I held the curls for a few seconds at the height of the curl to increase the amount of damage—and ultimate repair—they’d make to my muscles. I thought about my boyfriend—ex-boyfriend—and shrouded myself in grief.

Even after two months away from the gym, my body—and my mind—were ready to work. What used to feel like an insurmountable amount of weight to lift was, today, sort of boring. I had actually lost eight pounds in my time away from the gym due to stress and poor eating habits, but my muscles seemed undiminished. A vein appeared in my right bicep, crooked, meandering its way around my arm and disappearing underneath. My hands, which used to develop callouses from gripping weight bars, were soft and still painless. I stared straight ahead and watched myself, blurred, in the mirror on the far wall. I felt resolve. I felt productive.

The grief was a great motivator. With grief comes both self-pity and self-loathing, for as the grieving party feels sadness and disappointment, there, for me, is also the frustration of having out-of-control emotions. But feelings were sneaking up on me even there at the gym, tapping me on the shoulder, and jumping into my head. The song on my iPod switched to Dannii Minogue’s “I Begin to Wonder,” a song I picked up after hearing it at my boyfriend’s place one weekend, and I clenched my curl just a little tighter. Yet another unfortunate trait of grief is that it causes you to locate deep and existential meaning in pop song lyrics:

And every time I think I’m breaking free
These thoughts return to trouble me
Hanging on to love has left me empty
You’re a sinner but you told me you’re a saint
Too fast I tripped and lost my way
Can’t believe what’s happened to me lately

I pressed the “skip” button on my iPod and moved on.

The group of men in front of me seemed to have a leader, a forties-ish man with yellow-blond hair who walked with a bit of a hunch. It was probably from working out his chest muscles too much and his back muscles not at all, I thought to myself, and reminded myself that the next day I’d have to give equal time to my lats. I gathered up my water bottle, towel, and car keys, and walked over to the chest press machines. They come in three varieties—decline, incline, and bench—and supposedly give your chest a full range of workout motion. The big group of men, about five of them, all of varying sizes and shapes, were working at a flat bench. One of the men was large and round. I thought he was just overweight until I saw him bench press six 45-pound plates at once, bouncing the bar off his chest at the sternum with each lift. I realized I had a lot of work to do.

It was only a few weeks ago that I was at this machine, doing these chest presses, when I saw a man I very briefly dated during the summer months. We’d gotten along great and I enjoyed his company, but there was something off about it. At the time, I was going on dates with several men, trying to see if I could be the kind of person who just went on dates. I’ve never been good at dating; I’ve been good—despite my track record described here—at having relationships. Dating seemed torturous, almost cruel, in its repetitiveness. Anyway this guy, let’s call him Rick (also blond, I might add), went away for a week to visit his family in California. While he was gone, I got a single text message from him, which was nice, but in the meantime I’d met and started hanging out with another guy who said he wasn’t keen on me seeing other people.

Except that I never got a chance to tell Rick that I couldn’t see him anymore. Before I could call him, he walked into the restaurant where the new guy and I were having drinks, looked right at me, and kept walking. The other guy’s arm was around me and I’m sure it was pretty clear what it all meant. Guilt stung me and I yelled at myself for not being more proactive. Rick was followed into the restaurant by a friend who, as they vanished behind a nearby wall, turned and gave me a shocked and offended expression. It was done.

On the day I saw him, I wasn’t wearing my glasses. For about ten minutes, I just thought I saw him—or someone sized and shaped very similarly to him, so I pretended not to notice. He and his friends moved to a weight bench closer to me and from that distance, even I couldn’t mistake him. He looked much the same—a bit smaller than I remembered, but generally like the Rick from last summer. I felt like he and his friends were circling me like emotional vultures, waiting for my discomfort to peak so they could dive in and pick away the tightening muscles I was working so hard to develop.