|Edward Hopper Morning Sun|
Recently I had to have an invasive procedure combined with a biopsy. Cancer is the slow-moving but implacable nightmare ogre stalking my family. I grew up on my mother's accounts of my Slovak grandmother Mary dying young.
"She was in so much pain. They never gave her enough pain killer. They claimed she shouldn't have felt so much pain."
I lived those scenes, in a white-walled, fluorescent-lit, merciless and cold American hospital, where my tough-as-nails, refined-as-spun-glass grandmother, who was born in a peasant village in Slovakia, breathed her last. It all transpired before I was born, but through my mother's obsessively repeated and broken-hearted accounts, I lived those scenes, and I hated the white-coated, robotic, stiff Americans who refused my grandmother adequate pain-killing drugs, and I have never come to terms with the God who smote my family.
And I have always known that it would happen to me, right down to the robotic doctors refusing me pain killing drugs, and I have always known that it was just a matter of time.
My brother Mike, of course, died at 34, while I was in Nepal. Antoinette, just four years ago. I've been a shredded, mourning wreck ever since, though I don't think I show it. Joe, last year. Me next, I guess.
So, I had to have an invasive procedure with biopsy the other day. Haven't gotten the results back yet. Hoping for the best.
The facility I went to was wonderful. Everyone was beautifully present, gracious and professional, from the intake person, to the nurses; even the anesthesiologist behaved like a mensch, which is rare.
The chief nurse chatted with me enthusiastically about the Marcal Paper Plant, once a landmark on route 80 near Paterson, that burned down in January, 2019. That distracted me from the procedure, as did her charming personality.
She then stared at a computer screen and said, in a getting-down-to-business voice, "I'm going to ask you some questions that I must ask you by law."
"Okay," I said.
"Is anyone trying to hurt you, or is anyone threatening you?"
No, I said, thinking wow, what an absurd question. What has that got to do with this biopsy?
"Do you have thoughts of hurting yourself?"
I can be a contrarian person and I resolve, when receiving health care, to be as cooperative as possible. For that reason, though it would have been easy enough to say "No," I said, "Yes."
The nurse stopped. She looked shocked. "Really?" she said, looking down at me in my hospital gown, all hooked up to machines and tubes, lying on the wheeled and barred hospital bed.
"Yeah," I said.
Well, everything changed after that. And of course I have come to regret being honest.
New personnel arrived. They informed me that life is worth living. One had the courage to encourage me to pray. I was grateful for that.
Belligerent atheist activists have so stripped our communal life of the sacred. I had no problem with being encouraged to pray, and if you have a problem with it, you can go jump in a lake. But pray about it first. :-)
By the way, "You can go jump in a lake" is not real encouragement to jump in a lake. It's a way of saying, via an idiom, that I am sick to death of the cranky, humorless, jack-booted, fascistic New Atheists, and I wish they'd not go into a tizzy when a kindly health care professional, trying to save a life, encourages a patient to pray. And if that explanation doesn't work, really, you can go jump in a lake.
I think about it daily. If I didn't think about it, I'd be crazy.
I've never mattered to anyone. Oh, for the love of God, please don't feel the need to insist that I matter to you. I don't. I'm not talking about someone liking a Facebook post.
I'm talking about this. I am alone every holiday and every birthday, and I almost always have been with the exception of Peace Corps, when holidays and my birthday were glitter-colored phantasmagorias of communal hugging and kissing, drinking and singing and dancing. There's something to be said for being a member of a cult.
When I have to fill out the form that says, "Who should we inform if you faint or die or need a ride home?" You don't want to know how many times I've had to make up names and phone numbers for those forms.
Uncle John loved me, I think, but he spoke no English and we shared three weeks together in Slovakia when I was a child and he was an old man. That's a pretty slender thread to be holding on to all these years.
And, no, "I like your Facebook posts" is not the same thing as "I love you" so don't say it is or I'll be forced to smack you.
I've failed at everything. I had so much hope for God through Binoculars. I sent copies of it to various authors, many of them bestselling, before its publication, in order to get blurbs. The blurbs were over-the-top positive. "Beautiful … profound … important."
I worked fulltime the entire month after it was published begging outlets to publicize it, review it, invite me to speak. I got, what, three, four reviews? All of them terrific, followed by zero sales. My writing has gone nowhere and it will never go anywhere.
As mentioned, since the second to last surgery, I have been dealing with torture-level pain. The bursts of pain are, for the most part, short-lived. The pain can last anywhere from a minute or two to, in the longest instance, 24 hours. I've been to five doctors. Tests show I'm not making it up – my body is breaking down. No one knows why, or how to make it stop.
Losing every member of the only family I've ever been part of is overwhelming. You really can't convey it to people who have relations with whom they have contact. The only way I can begin to communicate it is thus: I have a few family photos. Mike, me, Tramp, Lady, Artie, Benjie, Antoinette, Phil, Aunt Phyllis, my parents, all of us. I have recordings of them speaking. And there is a story with each photo. No one wants to see those photos or listen to these recordings. No one wants to hear the stories. I am the sole remnant of the living in a city of the dead.
Alone, in pain, and a failure.
I received a follow-up phone call from a very officious sounding woman. She gave her name and rattled off fifteen numbers, that she bade me to jot down. It was a weird conversation. "Hello? Ms Goska?" Now, see, if they knew anything about me, even if they just asked, they'd know that I prefer "Dr Goska." I worked hard for that PhD.
"Ms Goska, your response to the survey questionnaire made its way to me. Please jot down these numbers." I did, dutifully. I have them in my notebook. What are they code for? I just googled them. They are billing codes. I found a seven page document about billing. I didn't understand much of it.
The woman who phoned me sounded bored, uninterested, and unhappy. She immediately brought up drugs. I did not bring up drugs. She named two doctors who might authorize her prescribing mind-altering drugs to me. Neither was a psychiatrist. I never asked for mind-altering drugs. I don't want mind-altering drugs. At no point in the conversation did she ask anything about me or my life. Nothing.
She just phoned back. I won't return the call.
I think next time I'm asked this question I'll duck it. I don't like to lie, not even when a Trader Joe's cashier asks, "Find everything you were looking for?" I don't want to say "No," even if that is the answer because then it would be his or her job to "help" me – emphasis on the quotation marks – to find what I've given up hope of finding. No, I just want to pay and go. So I don't answer. I don't lie, I just say, "No bag, please." No Trader Joe's employee has pressed me after that.
The way people talk about suicide and euthanasia really pisses me off.
When people post "Repost this suicide hotline number to prove that someone is always listening." Somehow these memes are always posted by impersonal, argumentative, self-righteous Facebook posters who never engage in any substantive or warm dialogue with anyone. If the goal is to prove that someone is really listening, why not listen? And engage with someone who wants someone else to talk to?
Someone posts a personal triumph. Congratulate that person.
Someone posts a cute puppy picture. Say, "Oh, how cute."
Someone posts a picture of their nephew graduating high school. Type, "Congratulations!"
*That's* how you convince people that someone is listening. By *listening.* And *respoinding.* Not by posting impersonal, coercive memes about suicide hotlines. You know what those memes prove? Not that someone is listening. That someone is virtue signaling.
See? The basic common humanity is sucked out of interactions and replaced by partisan memes. "I hate Trump … If you voted for Trump you are an asshole … If you are feeling suicidal, phone this number." What if the suicidal person was a Trump supporter, and you just posted fifteen posts calling Trump supporters halfwit knuckle-draggers? Sheesh.
I also reject the all too easy equation that suicide = mental illness. People I know who have committed suicide (and I write about them in God through Binoculars, the book no one is buying) had real life problems. One had a dead-end academic career he had poured the best years of his life into. He was constantly put down by his superiors.
Another had just been rejected by a man she loved, and she was at an age when, for many women, it is make-it or break-it for marriage and family. I loved how she looked, but I could see where men might look right past her. The old biological clock was clanging loudly.
Another friend who made a serious attempt at suicide, one I, clumsily, aborted, was a brilliant lesbian living in a less-than-brilliant New Jersey suburb, working at a less-than-brilliant community college job. Her frustration, loneliness and alienation were palpable.
I don't think any of these folks were nuts. I think they were hitting very hard brick walls. Insisting that they were crazy, and that drugs were the solution, trivializes the very real life challenges they faced, all of them, as far as I could see, without support from philosophies that emphasize persistence against very tough odds.
And speaking of philosophies that emphasis persistence against very tough odds. I am still here because of the Catholic Church and the models of my ethnic heritage. Poles and Slovaks march on through the worst. Quitting is not allowed. But if you really can't take it anymore, you go quietly, not asking for anything before you go, like a recent Polish immigrant, a hard-working husband and father, who hanged himself at home down the street from me not too long ago, and a very lovely Polish immigrant, with an advanced degree, who, without any fuss, drowned in the Passaic River.
Can you not understand her story? She got an advanced degree. Her parents probably witnessed the worst of communism and the dregs of the Nazi crucifixion of Poland during WW II. She immigrated here with high hopes. Maybe she ended up cleaning houses. There is no Alexandria Ocasio Cortez to sing dirges for such Polak immigrants. We are somehow not as poignant as Central Americans. We write our own stories, and if the plot peters out, there is nothing left for us but the denouement offered by rope or river.
There is visual documentation of the retrieval of her body from the river. The light is late winter dusk grey. The snow on the ground looks fluorescent. There is a dark gash, a path through the snow to the river. Men in clunky rescue gear gouged this path to the river. Red and white lights flash on adjacent suburban roads slipping into darkness. A firetruck towing a rowboat drives by. There is, of course, yellow tape, as if yellow tape could hold the evil out or the despair in.
The reporter of her story has a Dutch last name. The Dutch first settled this state. I've had college professors who were Dutch. I have bought fresh corn at Dutch-owned stands. My Bohunk brothers used to sell raw fur to a Dutch roadside stand. I could never afford their pumpkins, huge, aesthetically perfect, and always had to settle for smaller, cheaper, and more pinched, asymmetrical supermarket pumpkins. What could a Dutch American reporter, his ancestors in this county for four hundred years, know of the passions and agonies of a recent Polish immigrant?
The video ends in darkness, the only light flashlights pointing toward the ground, perhaps the body, the weight to be dragged away from the river, flown to Poland, prayed over there, and settled as cremated ash in the Polish earth that, perhaps, she should never have left.
So, no. I don't like the number codes. I don't like the drugs. I don't like the insistence that this choice is about mental illness and not about real life challenges that the one making the choice is sure he or she can't solve.
There are a lot of us. Alone, unimportant to others, dealing with health issues that make every day life increasingly hard. The simple truth is, no number code, no prescription, and no hotline number will change any of that. Death is inevitable. It may as well occur before things get too messy / painful / humiliating.
What do I mean by messy? The guy across the hall from me had always been odd; his comments became less and less tethered to consensus reality. He always used a cane; he switched to two, and then a wheelchair. He lost at least fifty pounds, seemingly overnight.
Official-seeming people came and pounded on his door. I got no sense that they knew him at all, or cared about him, but, rather, that they had been dispatched by some social service agency. There were rumors.
Before he was finally wheeled out on a stretcher, there was an eruption of flies of every kind. They entered my apartment. On some days I had a hundred dead flies on my bottom refrigerator shelf. The smell from him was overwhelming. I don't know what this African immigrant, who appeared to have no local family or friends, died of. I know it was a mess.
Mind. I'm not arguing for suicide. And, again, when presented with a suicidal person, I've done everything I can to be a roadblock. I'm arguing for respect for those who choose it.
Final comments. I am not, right now, close. My cognitive functions are still pretty good. I can still lift weights. I can still work. So no need to hurl your body between me and the Passaic River. Thanks.