Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Monsters and Men

I knew something wasn't quite right the moment we got off the plane from Charlotte. We had landed at PBI after connecting in Charlotte. We were flying back to the United States after spending two years living and working in Chennai, India. We had stopped in London for a few days which was alternatively a disorienting return to Western civilization and a complete disaster.

The next few weeks would prove no less discombobulating. At some point we decided it sounded like fun to stay in my dad's vacant ocean front condo. In retrospect, the sparseness of the accommodations -- though oceanfront -- only served to exacerbate our sense of dislocation. The reverse culture shock was nearly debilitating. I am not exaggerating. We missed India. All of us. It had been our home for two years. For the kids, it was all they had ever known. We had been surrounded by kind and warm strangers, and though we were now surrounded by family, the strangers were no longer as kind and warm. There was an appalling lack of kindness toward fellow man.

How did I know something wasn't right?

My mom didn't meet us at the airport.

I actually did not look forward to her meeting us at the airport as she had done upon every other arrival. She would meet us in the terminal, accompany us as we picked up our checked luggage and picked up the rental car. She would even ride with us in the rental car shuttle to the remote lot and if not try to help us install car seats in the rental car, then help in corralling the kids so they didn't get run over while we wrestled the car seats into the rental car. She only wanted to help. That's all she wanted to do. But I dreaded her being there, because I thought her presence would be more of a burden as Elise and I tried to manage three thoroughly exhausted, jet-lagged kids through the terminal, baggage claim, and the car rental pick-up.

But when she wasn't there, I was disappointed.

Then, I was pissed.

Where was she? We just flew all the way back from India to see her and she didn't even come to the airport?! What the f*$&!

I remember calling her after we had landed. She would be waiting for us at the house. I told her that was fine, of course, and when we did arrive, the customary meal of Publix fried chicken and cold beer was waiting for us. You really couldn't ask for a better first meal upon returning to the United States after a few years. Mac 'n' cheese for the kids. Ruffles potato chips.

Part of that visit was a trip to Disney. Nanny paid for everyone's ticket. Aunt Jackie and Uncle Bill offered up there two bedroom timeshare for all of us. They even babysat one night, so Elise and I could enjoy a much needed and long overdue night out together.

We rode the monorail from the parking lot to the front gate. (Is there really any other way to arrive at the Magic Kingdom? Take the ferryboat? No way!) I remember disembarking from the monorail. I ran down the ramp to keep up with Peter and Sam, both excited and running. At some point, we all sprinted ahead before realizing my mother, aunt, and uncle were lagging.

Because know one had still really told me what was going on, I didn't understand why she was moving so slowly. Her lower abdomen was filling with fluid and was distended, but in her effort to keep us from worrying, she never told us what the matter was or what was going on. This would continue over the course of the next 18 months, a separation of reality and what my mom chose to share with us. She always chose her words carefully when she talked to us. For example, using the word "treatment" instead of "chemo". She didn't want us to worry. She didn't want to inconvenience us or be a burden to anyone.

The biggest challenge for me personally in dealing with her illness was navigating between these two dimensions: reality and my mother's perception of it. Their divergence was greater at times, but they never came together until the day before she died, when she finally admitted to Carlton and I she was dying, something we knew 18 months ago, but she refused to believe.

Even when she asked me to drive her to a doctor's appointment to have a port installed, I don't think at the time I really knew what was going on. I didn't know what a port was or what it was for. I must have known she was sick, but I didn't grasp at the time how serious it was. A procedure she assured me would take about an hour ended up taking all day. We drove back that evening after the sun had set, me starving because I hadn't eaten anything since early in the morning, if even then.

On the drive down, she talked about a  friend from Chalmette who was killed in Vietnam. He must have been a boyfriend the way she talked about him or an unrequited love. She had been talking about him more recently, it seemed. I didn't think much of it at the time, but soon came to understand as I came to understand the seriousness of her illness why she was thinking about him so much.

On the drive home, seemingly blinded by the sea of red blinking stream of tail lights on I-95, I remember her talking about her brother, Andy, and Cousin Joe. Again, only in hindsight, did I recall the in her words the way she were coming to terms with those relationships.

I can't write about either of these interactions with the clarity I want. I can capture neither the same way I captured her last moments, though I wanted to. I couldn't write about them here. Not when she read the blog. One of the most pervasive themes of our last year and half -- Elise and I dealing with my mom's illness -- I couldn't share here at all, because she would read it. I regret not writing it down then and sharing at a late date, but that didn't occur to me until much later. By then, it was too late. I didn't begin writing about the cancer until my mom was too sick to read about it, the tale of her and her monster.

I remember constantly being frustrated by my mom's denial. The denial was so acute, I felt like shaking her to tell her, "You're dying!" It wasn't until Elise told me you can't take the denial away, because it will only be replaced with depression and hopelessness, that I finally gave up trying to figure out the "truth", what was really going on, gave up trying to decipher and decode the real meaning behind her words.

We would soon leave Florida for Washington state and to see Elise's parents in Spokane. After we left, the distension grew worse and my mom had to have surgery. Over the last year and a half I've had trouble keeping track of all the surgeries, medications, and treatments. I tried, but there were so many of them it was hard. But I do remember this was the first one. This was the moment the suspicions I'd been harboring since we first got off the plane at PBI were confirmed.

Josh called and told me he met with the surgeon after the procedure. The oncologist would never give a prognosis. He said it wasn't his practice to do so, but the surgeon obviously not constrained by the same scruples told Josh he gave her 18 months. As Josh told it, he said it as a matter of course, as though he were stating the obvious. The oncologist would never confirm nor deny this. That was when I first heard the terms "Stage IV" and "terminal". After I hung up the phone with Josh, I stood in the middle of Elise's parents kitchen and cried the hardest I would until the day I told the kids Nanny was dying. That night, I woke up in the middle of the night, next to Elise, screaming, waking myself up from a nightmare. It was the first time I had ever done that and I haven't done it again since. 

Medal Ceremony

We are reaching the end of the the soccer season. I have mixed emotions. On one hand, I'm going to miss watching the kids play, the wind running through their hair. On the other, I am looking forward to greeting a Saturday morning without having to wrestle Clementine into her shin guards and knee high-socks, "When I push, you have to push back!" It's like putting a sock on a wet spaghetti noodle!

Sam's season ended on a last-second, game-winning goal (very literally last-second...the goal rolled into the net and the whistle blew almost simultaneously!). Peter and Clementine both have one more game this weekend. Though Peter has one more game, he received his medal for the season at a brief ceremony following last Saturday's game.

The kids watched "Mighty Ducks" Sunday night after our hike. Now, Peter is asking me if they have ice hockey in Jordan. I told him we'll just have to wait and see.....

Monday, June 12, 2017

Escaping the Heat

It was forecast to be 95 today in the nation's capital, so we headed for the mountains. One of our favorite things to do as a family is hike. And one of our favorite place's to go since we moved to Washington, D.C. is go to Shenandoah. We really wanted to make sure we got to go one more time before we packed out.

We scouted out a new trail, the Rose River Loop. It was a 4 mile hike along the Rose River with waterfalls along the way. 

When we started the hike, it was a lovely 70 degrees. But by the time we finished around 3:00, the mercury had definitely soared. 

From a bridge over the river. Photo taken by Sam. 

We came upon a few watering holes among the falls perfect for cooling off. Fortunately, we packed the kids' swimsuits and towels for lounging on the rocks and exploring the falls. 

We suffered only one minor casualty....Sam got a little too close to the edge of one of the falls and slipped on the slick algae. He fell into one of the tide pools (he has a history of falling in water...since he was a toddler and fell into fountains), but he did so deftly and without hurting himself. He almost made it look like he did it on purpose!

On the way out of the park, we stopped for ice cream and milkshakes. The kids had a blast. All in all, we made a pretty good case for pulling the kids out of school, buying a camper van, and living off the land!

Sick Day

I took a much needed week off when I got back from Florida. While I was in Florida, Pete came down with strep throat. He bounced back quickly, but not before he took a day off for himself, too.

Unlike most kids who are sick, however, he did not lie around the house, watching TV. He was much more industrious, building the chalet below out of legos.

Front door. 

Back door. 

Friday, June 9, 2017

Whiskey and Fireflies

It seems as though I may have been somewhat premature in announcing the departure of the fireflies.

Two nights ago, as I was sitting in the dining room, looking out over the backyard at dusk (which comes late this time of year...almost 9:00), I glimpsed the familiar spark lighting through the grass. The past week has been remarkably, wondrously cool, and it seems as though everything is running a little late these days. The summer is late in relieving spring, and the hosta-- a tall orange flower that blooms in our backyard-- are late to open. As I sit here, I invariably find a relationship between the hosts and the fireflies; they are intrinsically linked in my memories of last spring and early summers grilling on the back deck; I can still remember the amber glow of the sun filtered through my Bell's Oberon wheat. Elise seems to find me obsessed lately with both the fireflies and the hosta. But I tell her I am just being a dutiful researcher, the James Comey of fireflies, observing their behaviors and meticulously recording my notes, collecting data.

Last night, Elise accused me of arranging the dining room chairs in such a way as to resemble stadium seating. We bought a new bottle of whiskey, and I opened it and poured us both a whiskey and we sat and watched the fireflies which I thought were gone but, thankfully, were not. They were just late like everything else this spring. Maybe they were waiting for the hostas, too. At least, that's what my notes tell me.

While I was in Florida, Clementine and the boys had taken the rest of the bird seed and dumped out over the top of the grill. They also made a bird bath out of a plastic blueberries container. When I got home, our back deck was like "Snow White" with rabbits and chipmunks and squirrels and robins and blue jays fluttering all around. All that was missing was a fawn eating out of my palm. The cardinals are my favorite; I get excited every time I see one. I'm from Florida by way of Colorado, Brazil, and India. I'm not used to seeing cardinals. And am taken with them every time I see a flash of red swoop across my field of vision. I imagine people not from Florida would react similarly to pelicans.

I'm still getting used to the fact that my mom died. I hadn't felt much since her passing. The process had been so long and so grueling--a year and a half--I didn't think I had many emotions left related to the cancer. I was anxious to come home, to see Elise and the kids, to get back to some sense of normalcy (though we would be quickly thrown into the throes of moving...which is far from normal). The emotion I was feeling the most was relief. Without feeling guilty about it. I was relieved my mom was no longer in pain. But perhaps with a pang of guilt, I was also relieved I didn't have to worry about flying down to Florida, leaving Elise and the kids and taking time off work, arranging last minute travel reservations. When I came home and told the kids Nanny had died, they didn't cry. Much like myself perhaps, they had already grieved, and the actual passing was anticlimactic.

This morning, Elise, Clementine, and I took a load of stuff from the basement to the consignment store. We're selling our bikes and the bicycle trailer we pulled the kids in and would take those over to Lauren's house in Takoma later in the day, stopping for a lunch of raw oysters, noon-day pints, and burgers at Republic before picking up the boys from school. Mom would want to know how preparations for the move were coming. She would want to know about the kids' soccer games this weekend. The last time I talked to her on the phone, she was tired and couldn't talk much, rather just wanted to listen, to hear me talk about what was going on with the kids and what was new in our lives when all I wanted to do was hear her talk. Even when she could no longer talk, the nurse encouraged us to talk to her. It's not easy to talk to someone who isn't awake; you don't know if they can hear you and show no response to your words. It's hard to keep talking under those conditions and it is easy to lapse into silence or just walk away, justifying your absence by saying you need to stretch your legs or get a drink of water.

I stood at the sink thinking of how I would fill her in on our move and felt the inability to call her for the first time. I cried. Elise was in the other room and didn't know. Clementine saw me. She grew uncharacteristically quiet and just looked at. I beckoned her toward me with open arms, and she drifted closer to me reluctantly.

I realize the importance of staying in touch with my brothers. My mom had been the primary mediator between us. With her gone, I don't know exactly how I will keep in touch with them. This may seem like a ridiculously minor fix, but I've never called, emailed, or texted them before. I'm hung up on the mechanics of it. Carlton emailed Josh and I my mother's wishes, or what he was able to pull from her in her last two weeks. I still haven't read it. She hadn't put them on paper or otherwise communicated them to us. Her denial was so acute, I am convinced she was never able to articulate a need for them. In her mind--up until the very end--she was going to get better.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

The Color of Passing

I spent the following day by her bed. Carlton returned from an early morning trip to the gym, showered, and joined me. Josh came, too. Then, Aunt Jackie around noon and a Uncle Charlie an hour or two later. We took turns holding her hand, reassuring her she wasn't alone, though she didn't respond. She said nothing else, having said all she needed or wanted to say the day before.

I sat looking at her, waiting, not believing it was possible to be there the moment she passed. Watching as her breathing quickened and the moans came and went with every exhalation. Wondering, for hours, if this would be her last breath. Then, she would take another, then wondering all over again if that was the last breath, only to have another come, over and over again for hours, the countless wondering.

Around 3:00, the nurse arrived. She lifted the sheet and looked at her toes. She took her hand, a skeleton, a prop, and squinted at the tips of her fingers. "Have they always been this color?" She asked me.

"What color?"

"This blueish."

I shrugged my shoulders. I hadn't been paying attention to the color of her fingertips.

The nurse put her stethoscope to her ears and the end on my mom's chest. She grasped her wrist with one hand and looked at her wristwatch on the other, then reached across her body to feel her other wrist. She told me she couldn't feel her pulse. "It's very weak." she said.

I found that hard to believe. Just the day before, when I hugged my mom, I could feel her heart pounding in her chest and recall thinking she was never going to die with a heart this strong. I didn't know if her heart were really as strong as I thought it was or if there just wasn't anything between me and her heart to muffle the beating.

The nurse left the room, and Carlton and Josh came in. I moved over on the edge of the bed upon which I was perched to make room for him. Josh took watch on the other side, standing.

Her breathing slowed. Slower. To not more than a whisper. I kept looking at her eyes. Her eyebrows would occasionally twitch imperceptibly as though she were perceiving, thinking, or even seeing something, and I wanted to see if in the moment before she passed she saw something....I don't know what...a light....something. But her eyes never changed, and if she saw something, her eyes didn't show it.

Her face twisted up. Three times.

And she was gone.

I sat a long time, holding her hand. In the background, I heard one of the nurses say, "3:20." June 4.

I turned to Carlton. I looked at him and gave him a hug. He hugged me back. Hard. And in that moment maybe...just maybe...in her passing my mother achieved something she had never been able to do living...make us reconcile, make us see each other for the men we were now and not as the children we were a long time ago.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Beauty in Twilight, Part Three

It was oozing a hot tropical rain when I landed in West Palm. My brother picked me up at the airport in my mom's white Mini Cooper and took me straight to my mom's house.

I walked in, set my bag down, and went directly to her bedside. Since I'd been here two weeks ago, she had been moved from her bed to a hospital bed. Her face was even more sunken; I hadn't thought that possible.

I took her hand. "Say something," my aunt encouraged. "Let her know you're here."

"Hi," I said. "It's me, Paul."

My aunt leaned over and said louder, "Celeste. Paul's here. They're all three here."

Her eyes drifted open. She looked up at me and smiled. "Everybody's here." It was somewhere between a question and  statement. "Everyone's here," my aunt assured her.

She looked at my brother, Carlton, and she looked at me. "I'm dying," she told us.

It was 7:00, and before the day nurse left, my mom asked her for a hug. I hugged her, too. We all did. We sat and held her hands. I told her that Elise wished she could be here and that she loves her. I told her Sam and Peter and Clementine all send their love.

A little while later, the nurse gave her morphine. I moved to the couch in the living room to let her rest.

"Gofrane!" She shouted from her bed. We all stood to see what she needed. Was she saying 'girlfriend', asking for my aunt.

"Gofrane!" She repeated.

"Zofraine?" Jackie offered, the name of the anti-nausea medication.

"I WANT TO GO," she said.

My aunt, Jackie, leaned in, "Celeste, let go. You can let go."


I moved to the far side of the bed and took her hand. I bent down to her ear and told her, "We're all here and we're happy and healthy and safe. And we all have someone who loves us and will take care of us just like you did all these years. You don't have to fight anymore. We're going to be okay."


She gradually drifted to sleep, her wish made clear and her arms crossed on her chest. There was nothing else she could do....nothing else any of us could do but wait.

Flight of the Fireflies, Part Four

For the past couple of nights, I would turn the lights off in the kitchen and dining room and go to the window overlooking the backyard. I would cup my hands around my eyes and look out into the twilight. But I hadn't seen the fireflies since the night when we first saw the telltale streaks of ephemeral lighting shimmer over the grass and through the bushes. There was nothing there now. Except darkness.

Earlier in the day, my brother called to tell me they were taking my mom off fluids. I would have to fly back down to Florida. I didn't want to go, but knew I had to, yet postponed actually purchasing the ticket until the last possible moment.

The kids has finished their bowls of ice cream, brushed teeth, and were now in their beds. I read somewhere the best time to break bad news to kids was late in the day. Initially, I thought this sounded like a terrible idea, but the more I thought about it, it started to make sense. Worst case they could just cry themselves to sleep. Better than ruining their whole day. And let their subconscious work it out in the dreamworld.

I sat on the floor in their room and told them I had to go back down to Florida. We had recently told them Nanny was in the hospital but it's hard to tell how much they know or understand. Undoubtedly, more than we give them credit for.

"Remember how I told you Nanny was sick in the hospital?"

Elise heard me from our room and came in then, climbing the bunk bed and curling up next to Sam.

They nodded their heads slowly.

"Well...she's not getting better."

Peter asked, "Is she going to die?"


"Tell her 'hi' from me," Clementine chirped.

"Tell her 'bye' from me," Peter said before his face melted in sorrow, heavy with tears.

I leapt into bed next to him and wrapped him up, him in his all-black pajamas that makes him look like Steve Jobs or a ninja. I held him next to me and we sobbed. I hadn't cried this hard since January the year before in the kitchen at Elise's parents house when I first understood how serious it was. When words like "terminal" and "stage IV" are thrown about. Words you know but have never really had to use, so you look them up in the dictionary because their meanings are important now and you hope to find some nuance or prescience in their definitions, as though by defining these words you can parse the future from them.

Elise held Sam, and he and Clementine quickly fell asleep.

I walked back into the dining room and sat down. Elise came a few moments later and hugged my shoulders. I looked out the window.

It was still dark. No fireflies.

In the end, they only came by one night. It's better than not having seen them at all, but it's hard not to think maybe this spring was too much for them or to find some other meaning in their absence. Hopefully, they'll come back next year and stick around longer for the new tenants. Us? We'll be long gone. Headed, I hope, for greener pastures. With or without fireflies. Though something tells me I'll see them again.