Spring is here, but the green, not so much. the snow is still melting and while some shoots are coming up, nothing is flowering and no crops are growing. In a few weeks, we will be green and flowery. In the meantime, here are greens of years past.
In 2010, I discovered I had cancer in both breasts. Two tumors, unrelated to each other. Just twice lucky. They removed the tumors and the associated breasts, gave me very attractive fake replacements. Much perkier than the old ones in an artificial implant sort of way. I have a little ID card for my breasts, like they have their own personae. Maybe they do. Thus, a little more than seven years after the siege began, I’m officially a survivor. Almost but not quite.
My mother died of metastasized breast cancer. My brother died of pancreatic cancer 10 years ago, having never gotten as old as I am. This is not a reassuring family history.
All chronic illnesses make you paranoid. The thing that’s so insidious about cancer is its absence of symptoms. The possibility that it is growing somewhere in your body and you won’t know it’s there until it’s too late, is about as scary as disease gets. Nor is it a baseless fear. I had no idea I had cancer — much less in both breasts — until it was diagnosed twice during a two-week period. One diagnosis of cancer is hard to handle. A second diagnosis a week later is like getting whacked over the head with a bat. It leaves you stunned, scrambling to find someplace to stand where the earth isn’t falling out from under you.
I don’t think most of us are afraid of dying per se. We are afraid of the journey we will have taken to get there. We’re afraid of pain, suffering, the humiliation of dependence and gradual loss of control of our own bodies. After having one or more close encounters with the dark angel, no one is eager to feel the brush of those wings again.
We are called survivors, which means that we aren’t dead yet. The term is meaningless. Put into perspective, we are all survivors. Anyone could be felled by a heart attack or run over by an out-of-control beer truck tomorrow. The end of the road is identical for all living creatures; it’s only a matter of when it will be and what cause will be assigned. Everyone is in the same boat. If you’ve been very sick, you are more aware of your mortality than those who who’ve been blessed with uneventful health, but no one gets a free pass. The odds of death are 100% for everyone.
Recovering from serious illness is a bumpy road. Each of us has a particular “thing” we find especially bothersome. For me, it’s dealing with well-wishers who ask “How are you?” If they wanted an answer, it might not be so aggravating, but they don’t want to hear about my health or my feelings about my health — which are often as much the issue than anything physical.
They are being polite. So, I give them what they want. I smile brightly and say “Just fine thank you.”
I have no idea how I am. All I know — all I can possibly know — is that for the time being, I am here. To the best of my knowledge, nothing is growing anywhere it’s not supposed to be. Six-and-a-half years after a double mastectomy, I am in remission. That’s as good as it gets.
The real answer for those of us who have had cancer, heart attacks, and other potentially lethal and chronic ailments is “So far, so good.”
That is not what anyone wants to hear. We are supposed to be positive. Upbeat. You are not supposed to suffer from emotional discomfort. Why not? Because if you aren’t fine, maybe they aren’t, either. They have a bizarre and annoying need for you to be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed no matter how you actually feel. It’s their version of a vaccine.
Since cancer, I’ve gone through major heart surgery and having survived that, I figure I’m good to go for a while. None of us are forever, but I’m alive. Presumably I’ll continue to stay that way.
Welcome to surviving. It’s imperfect, but it beats the hell out of the alternative.
Last night, we watched Casablanca. Again. We’ve seen it on TV. We even seen it on the big screen in the movies. Last night, we watched it again and it still has the best dialogue of any movie of its kind.
There are other, more exciting movies, more thrilling movies, though I find Casablanca pretty thrilling. What Casablanca gives us is the reality of war that never was, but which we wanted. Needed.
The passionately dedicated French underground.
The anti-Nazi heroism of ordinary people, willing to put their lives on the line for the greater good.
“What if you killed all of us? From every corner of Europe, hundreds, thousands would rise up to take our places. Even Nazis can’t kill that fast.”
Not the way it was, but the way we wanted (maybe needed) it to be. Even now, we want the grandeur of people at their finest. Truth be damned.
And love. Undying love that lasts through war and loss, no matter what the world brings. As we watched — and we know the movie well enough to hear the line coming — Garry looked at me and I grinned back. Wait for it … wait for it … Ah, there..
“Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine…”
There’s the first of many great lines, There are many more. We went to the movies to see Casablanca on The Big Screen when TCM sponsored a release of the 1943 Oscar-winning classic a few years ago.
“We’ll always have Paris. We didn’t have, we, we lost it until you came to Casablanca. We got it back last night.”
The filming of the movie was a crazy time. The script was written — and it’s a great script — page by page. The actors didn’t know what they’d be doing any day until the pages arrived. The set was chaotic and Ingrid Bergman wasn’t happy. Bogie was underpaid — a bad contract with Warner’s he had signed before he was a big star. Casablanca went a long way to fix that. Claude Rains earned more than Bogie, and he was arguable worth it.
(Standing in front of the plane in the fog.) “I’m saying this because it’s true. Inside of us, we both know you belong with Victor. You’re part of his work, the thing that keeps him going. If that plane leaves the ground and you’re not with him, you’ll regret it. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life.”
“…But what about us?”
However it happened, Casablanca is movie magic. Brilliant, witty script that plays even better on the big screen than it does at home.
“…When I said I would never leave you…”
“And you never will. But I’ve got a job to do, too. Where I’m going, you can’t follow. What I’ve got to do, you can’t be any part of. Ilsa, I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday you’ll understand that.”
(Ilsa lowers her head and begins to cry.)
(Rick gently places his hand under her chin and raises it so their eyes meet, and he repeats–)
“Here’s looking at you, kid.”
Maybe it’s something about how differently we focus when we watch it in a theater than when we see it at home, with the dogs, the refrigerator, and a “pause” button. A difference in the “presence” of the film. The clarity of the visual presentation.
“Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
I’m sure it was and somewhere, it still is.
It’s one of the things you learn getting older. You really can’t fight all the battles because there are too many battles and too few of you. So you accept that the plow driver knocked down half a wall and dug up a big chunk of garden … which someone is going to have to fix because it’s like hideous mud and rock central on the driveway.
You look at the door, realize it’s begun to rot a bit under the sill. You shrug. It’ll get dealt with, eventually. Not by me, of course. I don’t do sills.
The garden is a mess. The trees are breeding caterpillars. The dogs need a haircut and, for that matter, so do I. It’ll get sorted out. Or not. The places I plan to go, but the drive is too long — or the directions too complicated. The places I ought to go, but don’t want to, at least not enough to make such an effort.
When I was 30, I went. Regardless. For the adventure, if nothing else. At 70? Adventure is great if I don’t have to walk over rough ground to experience it. So I know in advance of plans that I might go, but maybe I really won’t. Even if not doing so involves guilt and regret.
There’s a lot of acceptance going around. It’s not all that bad. After all those years of doing everything I was supposed to do and 50% more because I believed I should go that extra “mile,” I would have expected the changeover from “must” to “I’ll get to it” to be … more intense maybe?
Turns out, many of the things I did were not half as important as they seemed at the time. Can’t even remember most of them. But my brain screamed: “YOU MUST DO THAT NOW!” Phumf.
Now, I don’t even think about the why of it all. If it’s a doctor, I will deal with it, though I may defer the visit a couple of times until I get to it. Taxes? Well, you have to do them, at least if you want your money back. Visiting friends or having them visit? No question, I want to do it … if it will just please stop snowing. Vacations if reservations are involved and dates for dogs to be attended get worked out. We go.
On the “it’s almost work” front, writing a piece that’s bouncing around in my head. Checking in on friends, internet and otherwise.
Wondering why Gibbs was staring at the wall in the kitchen and growling ferociously. What did he see that I probably should know about?
Thinking I’d like to buy a video game, but wondering if I’d have the time to play it because my hobby (Serendipity) has become increasingly intense as the years have marched on. Or, as I said to Garry just last night: “Yes, it is a bit like work, but it’s writing. If I weren’t writing for Serendipity, I’d be writing for no one. I am going to write. Might as well write so other people can read it.”
Everything else can wait. Possibly until the next life rolls around.
Garry has written his own version of this story, though it’s completely different. And a little bit the same. For him, it’s Hollywood. For me, it is memories.
In 1962, I was 15 years old, at the beginning of my senior year of high school. The school I attended was a giant of a school in Jamaica, Queens, New York. Five stories high (including the bell tower which was where the choir worked), it was shaped like a giant H. Most of the classrooms were on either end of the H with offices, bathroom, closets and all that stuff along the hallways.
There were no elevators. I suppose it never occurred to the designer of high schools that anyone might have a broken leg or something like that.
Jamaica High School was administered by the New York City Department of Education, which closed the school in 2014. The school’s landmark campus, located at the corner of 167th Street and Gothic Drive, remains open. It is now officially known as the Jamaica Educational Campus. It houses four smaller separately administered public high schools that share facilities and sports teams.
It was September 1962 when I noticed a big lump on my ankle. Pretty big. Hard, and it didn’t hurt. At all. Nothing to indicate it was from a bump or a fall. I ran my hand up and down my leg and thought about it. Probably nothing. At 15, everything is no big deal. But, because I also knew my mother had long and ugly bout with cancer (cancer? kids don’t get cancer!), I called her.
“I’ve got a lump on my leg,” I explained. “Here.” She ran her fingers over it.
“Does it hurt?”
“Not even a little bit?”
“Nope. Just a lump. I was going to forget about it, but … you know. What do you think?”
“I think we need a doctor,” she said and promptly arranged for me to see the chief resident surgeon at NewYork Presbyterian Hospital. I should mention it was a great hospital. Compassionate, caring and very concerned for its patients. My mother had excellent taste in hospitals, something that would eventually serve me well as time caught up with me.
I was in the hospital in the middle of September. The surgeon — Dr. Waugh, I believe … many years ago and names slip away with time — said I had a tumor. What kind of tumor, he didn’t know and couldn’t know until surgery. If it was benign, they would just remove it and off I’d go into the world, none the worse for wear. If it was the other kind, I would likely lose my leg. The whole leg. I was not happy about that, but at least he didn’t mince words or make me feel like a moron.
A week later, I was in surgery. It wasn’t cancer. Benign but a really big tumor. It had wrapped itself around my tibia and femur. It had crawled up the leg and was in the process of pulling apart the two bones. So not cancer, but also, not nothing. They could not simply remove it. There was too much of it, so they took out a piece of my femur and replaced it with a very hard plastic bone. Packed the leg in whatever that stuff is they use and for two weeks, I slept with that leg on a huge pack of ice.
No getting out of bed for anything. At all. I was not to use that leg for a full six months because the implanted bone needed to set. The nurses used to hang out with me in the evening. They were my pals when I watched Invasion of the Body Snatchers. They checked under my bed to make sure there were no pods waiting for me. Then, it was time to go home.
My high school was gigantic and there was no way I could attend school until my leg finished healing. The school called the home teachers unit. There were, even back then, a lot of students who couldn’t attend regular school. Some had emotional issues. Others had physical problems. Some, like me, were having a temporary setback — broken legs or broken something or other — and needed someone to help them stay up to date. I doubted my absence would make that big a difference, but I worried if I didn’t take the exams as expected, I wouldn’t be able to graduate on time.
I got a teacher.
Are you still with me? Because it gets more complicated from here on.
My new teacher had other students. One of them, a young woman, lived nearby. She was schizophrenic, but also a nice young woman and a talented artist. My teacher thought that I would be good for her. She didn’t have any friends, being out of school. Thus we were introduced.
Mary was seventeen and I was fifteen. For fifteen, I was mature. As a mature person, I was still fifteen. I liked Mary, though she had the strangest eyes. She would look at me and it was as if she were seeing through me. Her pictures looked like that too.
One night, just after What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? was released, she suggested we go to the movies. I have never been a fan of horror movies. Not even the terribly fake, silly ones with giant lizards and moths. I would get nightmares, so I wasn’t allowed to go to any of them. It was the screaming in the night thing. It ruined everyone’s sleep.
Mary wanted to see it. Said it would be a hoot. I was amenable. I figured I was not a tiny kid. I could watch a horror movie. I’d be fine, right? Of course I would.
I didn’t go to movies often. They were expensive. My allowance was enough so I could get to school and come home. If I walked rather than taking a bus, I could save the 15 cents each way. If I did it a lot, I could hoard enough cash to go to a movie and even have a coke. Since I hadn’t been going to school at all, I had money saved. We went to the movies.
I was uncomfortable. It wasn’t as icky as things with giant lizards, but bad enough. Yet, the night wasn’t over. Mary said: “There’s this wonderful place I like to go at night. It’s really cool. Wanna come?” What teenager could turn down a great invitation like that? We went.
It was a nice little grave yard. My friend Mary danced through it, her scarf flowing in the breeze. Then, she ran about, gently kissing the tombstones. She was happy.
Garry and I are watching Feud – Bette and Joan. It’s about the making of that particular movie. Garry rather likes it. He knows it’s not a great movie. Probably not even a good one, but he likes it anyway. He knew a lot about the feud of the co-stars because he is into movies big time. This show has juicy bits above and beyond his own juicy bits. Also, he had done a piece with Gary Merrill (one of Bette Davis’ husbands) who had a son in Boston politics. Garry had a few juicy stories of his own.
I merely repeated I didn’t much like the movie, though I admitted I’d seen it in 1962, so I could change my mind. Garry finally asked me what I had against it? “Really,” he said. “It’s just a campy movie with two feuding actresses.”
I explained I had a different take on it. “Didn’t I tell you this already?” I asked him. I was sure we’d told each other everything. How could I have omitted this gem? But I had.
When I was done (and this is not the whole story … there’s more), he said: “You should write that.” And now, I have. This was one of the evenings I can clearly remember — fifty-five years later.
There’s no moral to this story, except that my feelings about What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? are uniquely mine.