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Monday, July 25, 2016

Encounter on a Suburban Sidewalk

Artwork by Kenton Nelson.
Check out his site; he is amazing.
Surgery coming up tomorrow. Feeling down.

After I broke my arm, my heart, and was diagnosed with cancer, strange things started happening to my body.

The first thing: I couldn't close my hands. I type a lot. I thought it was carpal tunnel. I bought a brace at CVS and soaked my hands in hot and cold water. Didn't help.

The second thing: my eyes let me know how badly eyes can hurt.

Eyes can hurt so badly that the pain wakes you up at night.

I went days wearing dark glasses to hide the constant goo weeping from my eyes.

I went to the orthopedic surgeon who had treated my broken arm. He said that any number of conditions could be preventing me from being able to close my hands. It would take tests and time.

I went to an eye doctor. She said I needed to close my eyes after long stretches at the computer.

More weird, bad stuff happened to my body, but then my sister was diagnosed with glioblastoma and Obamacare screwed up my application badly, leaving me with no coverage at all. Doctors who had previously been willing to treat me at a reduced rate I would pay out of pocket suddenly refused. "You have Obamacare!!!"

And I needed to take care of my sister, so I let everything slide. But eventually I found a doctor who told me: you have a serious illness. It's easy to treat. We need to get rid of another part of your body.

And I really didn't want to do that. But I will, tomorrow.

This is what made me decide to do it. I lost my body hair, which makes me very sad. I liked my eyelashes. I miss them.

I've been going around, looking at people's eyelashes. If they have long eyelashes, I am so jealous. If they have short eyelashes, I remind myself: you are not alone.

Too, I was starting to lose vision, and I really don't want to go blind.

I woke up yesterday morning feeling like worthless garbage because I inhabit this very battered and very flawed body, which was about to have yet another hole in it, another discarded part.

I began doing my morning exercises, hoping I could complete them before the heat downed me.

My apartment, which I do love, is huge. It's in a two-hundred-year-old textile mill. My windows, about ten feet high – I'm not really sure how high because they stretch so high over my head – face south. The building is red brick. No cross ventilation. Very efficient at trapping hot air. In winter I don't have to turn on the heat. In summer I can't put chocolate chips in the cupboard or they melt to a sloppy mass.

When I'm writing, I wear as little as possible, including a sleeveless cotton shirt that I drench in cold water, and then wear, while sitting in front of a fan. As soon as the shirt dries out, I drench it in cold water again, and put it back on. I also listen to "Winter Storm Sound Effects" on YouTube.

Yesterday morning, I turned on the radio and Krista Tippett's NPR show, "On Being," was rebroadcasting her interview with Xavier Le Pichon, a scholar of plate tectonics, and a lifelong, devout Catholic who attends daily mass.

Le Pichon insists on the importance of wounded, afflicted and handicapped people to human community. In fact, Le Pichon, a world class scholar, has gone out of his way to live with handicapped people. You can hear this interview here.

I was so touched by this interview, which I had heard a few times before. Yes, even people who have had to have various body parts chopped out still are essential parts of the human family – even for someone as successful as Xavier Le Pichon.

I got my exercises done, but the heat overwhelmed me. I realized I had to leave the apartment. I plopped my computer into my Kelty external frame backpack and strapped the backpack on. I began walking to campus, where I knew I could find an air conditioned room.

As I walked my normal route along a suburban sidewalk, a woman walking a beagle approached me. I love dogs and always ask permission to pet. The woman was generous and let me pet her dog. The beagle had a few gray hairs and looked pooped by the heat. He or she was grateful for my tireless scratching behind the ears.

The woman looked to be about my age. She looked Italian, as do many women around here, but a different kind of Italian. This was the kind of Italian woman of hillsides of vineyards, and cinematic neorealist classic films, not the kind of Italian woman found in nail salons. She radiated that je ne sais crois that is the signature of a person of great intelligence and integrity who had walked her own walk in life. I don't often encounter such women on my walk to work. I wish I did.

I do walk past the Brownstone, co-owned by Caroline Manzo, of the reality TV show "The Real Housewives of NJ."

The woman with the beagle had to ask. "Hiking in this weather?"

"Well, I love to hike," I said.

"Me too!" She said. "I want to do the Appalachian Trail!"

Something told me that she was about to say that she also wanted to do the trail that I have long wanted to walk, Spain's legendary Camino de Santiago de Compostela. She did.

"…and I also want to walk the Camino…"

"De Santiago de Compostela!" I said, finishing her sentence. "Do it," I said. "Even blind people have done it," I said. "You only live once!" As I exhorted her I exhorted myself. Why have I not yet done the Camino?

"I'm not hiking today," I said. "I live in Paterson."

She didn't recoil. She *was* cool. Many people recoil at "Paterson." They just write you off and stop talking to you, even if their lips are still moving as they walk away.

"Where in Paterson?" she asked. I liked that. Maybe she knew the area and its landmarks.

"Near the Falls. I'm just walking up to campus. I teach up there. My computer is in my backpack."

"I teach, too," she said.

"Oh? What? Where?"

She mentioned an out-of-state college.

"Oh," I said. "So you're not from around here?" But something told me that she was from around here – the Italian look, the familiarity with Paterson, the dog – and that she had left, as many such women do, and was pulled back for some family reason.

"No," she said. She gestured toward a health care facility that I pass daily. "My mother is in hospice."

I choked up. I am still so not over Antoinette.

I pulled my rosary out of my pocket and showed it to her. My rosary is always in my pocket as I walk.

"May I ask your mother's name?" I said. "I will pray for her as I walk. I will pray for her by name."

She told me. She told me her name as well. "She's very close," the woman said. "This could be the day." Her face, previously cheery, crumpled into sadness. Her face is a strong face and this was a hard thing to see.

"Listen," I said. "I just met you and this is none of my business, but I want to tell you this.

"My sister died of a brain tumor on April 10, 2015. She hated forsythia. I used to tease her about that. I would send her emails with photos of forsythia. She would write back, 'You are torturing me!'

Year after year, as I am walking, I always note as flowers come into bloom. Before Antoinette died last year, I didn't see any forsythia blossoms. As I was walking to work on Monday, April 13, a forsythia twig brushed my shoulder. I looked up and saw the blossoms and said, 'Well played, Antoinette. You made it out of Dodge before the forsythia came into bloom.'

"Within five minutes of saying that, I was walking across the parking lot of the funeral parlor down there." I gestured toward the funeral parlor whose parking lot I walk through on my commute.

"There beneath my feet," I said, "in this completely empty funeral parlor parking lot, was a pristine sprig of forsythia. There was nothing else anywhere around. I've walked through that parking lot five hundred times. That's the only time I've ever found flowers there.

"Your mother may leave you today, but you will discover that she is with you all the time."

I was crying. She was crying.

"I know," she said. "I lost someone close to me in May, 2015. I know of the communion of saints."

She was quoting the Apostles Creed.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic and apostolic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen

"May I hug you?" we hugged.

I asked her what she teaches.

She said, "I teach Catholic ethics in relation to handicapped people. That handicapped people must be a full part of the church. Handicapped people have often gotten the short end of the stick. And yet archaeological finds have shown that handicapped people can play a great role in society. In one find, there was a woman who was very handicapped for years, and yet she was a leader, who contributed greatly to her people."

Oh, I started crying again.

We had moved into the shade by that point.

I realized that it had been a while and this might be the day that she would see her mother in the flesh for the last time.

We said our goodbyes.

"I will look for you on the Camino!" I shouted out, as I continued uphill. 

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