Lucky Strike

Lucky Strike

I bowled today for the first time in twenty-some years. It seemed like a good way to spend an afternoon with three young boys, my grandsons, who were on spring break. My motive—I wanted to expose them to a sport that I loved as a child.

The dimly lit bowling alley, located up a flight of stairs, seemed more like a hip bar with its giant muted flat-screen TV’s displaying sports news, hockey and basketball games on the far side of each lane.

My grandchildren had never bowled before and knew very little about how the game was played. Since the boys were learning math, I felt that an understanding of how to keep score might assist their number skills. My enthusiasm for a lesson in arithmetic combined with a fun time became squashed by the early awakening of ‘modern bowling alleys.’ Now days, it’s all computerized. No need to understand basic addition or any other scoring rules.

BowlingMontage

When I approached the lane, with a 10-pound bowling ball in hand, I tried not to breathe or think about anything else, except bowling. I wanted my body to perform a series of complex movements that my muscles had memorized years ago. In short, I become a robot, pulling my ball into my chest, performing a quick shimmy with my hips before swinging the ball first backward, then forward. My arm, a pendulum of kinetic energy, as I walked the five measured steps toward the foul line. I released the ball and watched it glide across the oiled wooden planks as if it was floating, hydroplaning, spinning counterclockwise along a trajectory route which took it straight to the left-hand gutter. Oh well, I still have a few frames left.

I tell the kids, “Timing is everything. When your timing is right, when your arms, legs, and torso all move in rhythm toward the lane, you have better balance. When you’re balanced, you’re more accurate. And that’s when the magic begins.”

Three serious young faces looked up at me and one by one they take their turn. The boys did well, considering it was their first try at the game. Of course, they had rubber bumpers on either side to prohibit gutter balls. Why didn’t they have that when I was young?

My final score, a number I frequently ended up with as a 12-year old girl, reflected my ‘out of practice’ status—74. My grandchildren beat me with an 83, 77, and an 89.

I did however have a strike on the sixth frame. The ball neared the edge of the lane, then veered back toward the center, as if guided by remote control. The planned hook carried the ball back just in time. In a heartbeat, what was a wide, sneering mouth of pins was soon nothing.

I have to admit I felt proud in front of the boys. After a bit of pre-game bragging, this strike seemed to make my ‘love of bowling believable.’ I walked back to the table listening to squeals of ‘wow, that was great.’ But instead of feeling good, I was displeased. My one strike wasn’t good enough. With a pencil, I jotted down notes on a folded piece of blue paper and told the kids exactly what I thought I did wrong.

On my last roll something happened. I could tell by the sound of the pins. As the clutter cleared, I saw the nine pin, (the second from the right on the last row) still standing. I watched the chaos of the flying pins, each rotating right past the upright nine. I craned my neck, watched and hoped. But the nine pin never dropped.

I blamed it on the distraction, the music, sport TV’s, and lighting. The kids tried to cheer me up, “At least you got the kingpin.”

The best part of this field trip didn’t involve the score, but the fun I had exposing my grandchildren to a sport I loved and teaching them correct form, sportsmanship, rules of etiquette and scoring, even if they won’t need to put the math to work. They loved outperforming their grandmother and can’t wait to try again. Next time we’ll find an old-fashion bowling alley. Not the kind with teenage ‘pin setters’ in the background that I once swooned over, but a bowling alley that allows you to score and bowl without postmodern technology. A place that serves hot dogs, French fries with ketchup, and delivers it to your lane. The kind that offers a rosin bag to dry your hands to allow for that perfect roll. Just give me a pencil and score sheet and let me keep track of the numbers. It isn’t difficult—even a child can do it.

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Bedtime Stories

Bedtime Stories

I’ve always dreaded sleep. As a child, I’d read with a flashlight under my blanket convinced that turning in meant missing out on fun. I tried to train myself to sleep with my forearm upright, my head propped on my palm, so that if my parents walked by my room, they’d see that I never slept and therefore didn’t need a bedtime. FYI: My favorite TV show, was ‘The Late, Late, Late, Late Show.”

My obsession with sleep began when I became a nurse and started working the night shift—7A to 7P. I had to learn how to trick myself into sleeping during the day. My bedroom had blackout shades, white noise, electrical tape covering LED’s, and two noisy fans. I’d stuff small pieces of a cotton ball into each ear, looking like the Bug Out Bob toy. These tricks never left me—even after I switched to dayshift.

Nowadays, I request my significant other to sing me to sleep with ‘Soft kitty, warm kitty, little ball of fur. Happy kitty, sleepy kitty. Purr, purr, purr.’

I know all the modern remedies for sleepless nights beginning with setting your thermostat at sixty-eight, placing magnets under the pillow, to waking up your partner (jealousy when you hear them snoring and you’re wide awake).

I recently read an article about ancient Romans smearing mouse fat onto the soles of their feet and Dickens’ belief to position oneself in the precise center of a bed that faced north. A Canadian medical journal recommended hemlock–something you’d only try once.

A bedtime-challenged friend used a ‘Glo to Sleep’ mask for a week but confessed that her experiments might be flawed since she also dipped into her calcium, mag, and zinc pills, magnolia bark, chamomile tea, a squirt of extra-strength Benadryl, and Dr. Teal’s Epsom Salts soaking solution which makes me wonder if her problem with sleep was that she had no time for it.

Last year I invested in a ComforPedic mattress, and bought four down pillows, placing them strategically under and around my head. Add to that high thread-count cotton sheets and a mattress protector made from ‘climate-control fabric.’

But before you go out and spend huge sums of money trying to get your eight to ten hours of sleep a night, think about this. Although too little sleep can be deadly, too much of it can be equally dangerous. A recent study suggests that someone who sleeps more than eight or nine hours has a thirty per cent higher mortality rate than the person who sleeps seven hours. You don’t know what to believe these days.

I know you readers are thinking about your own sleep deprivation. Although it’s not my place to call anyone a liar, I have to ask, “Are you sure you were awake all night?” There’s data to show that self-professed poor sleepers often overestimate the extent of nighttime wakefulness. But never fear, there’s a way around that. You can now wear your wrist Sleep Tracker, a chunky gizmo that cost a couple hundred bucks and looks like something Dick Tracy might wear. It calculates calories burned, sweat levels, and restlessness (including bathroom visits). I don’t know about you, but for me, just having a clunky object on my wrist would keep me up all night.

I’d like to close with my latest working solution for a peaceful sleep and the best thing about it is it’s free. Roll over on your side (make sure your back is facing your bedmate) and ask your partner to take his or her forefinger and gently move it vertically up and down the length of your neck. It’s a type of pain free acupressure that works. The only problem is, he or she, has to stay awake to perform this maneuver. My cure for that is each time he begins to fall asleep and his finger quits moving, I jerk my neck just enough to wake him out of his stupor so that he can continue for a full five minutes. It might keep your partner awake, but it’s worth it. I guarantee you’ll sleep like a rock.

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Resurrection

Pasternack

Left to right: Leonard and Evelyn Pasternack; Bubbles and Gerald Rotstein

My mother and her two best friends, Evelyn and Bubbles, were inseparable. They knew each other as young wives in Chicago, having been introduced by their husbands who went to high school together. In the photo, Leonard is leaning in toward Evelyn, his wife. He’s smoking a Lucky Strike and smiling for the photographer.

A number ‘2’ sits on their table, perhaps signifying their turn to be photographed. It’s a fancy restaurant and I strain my eyes to find a hint that might lead me to its name or location, but all I notice is part of an ‘S’ on the wall behind Leonard, which doesn’t answer my questions.

They were still carefree. Only Teddy, Leonard’s oldest son, had been born when the photo was taken.

I remember coming home from grammar school and finding the ladies, my mother, Evelyn, Bubbles, and Ruthie (another friend introduced to the suburban mahjongg clique). They sat around our game table in the den, each with a card of various numbers in front of them and colors arranged like a secret code. They had Bakelite burgundy-brown and cream racks filled with ivory pieces. The click of red dice and tossed tiles filled the room as they shouted out mysterious names like “Four Crak! Three Bam! Eight Dot!” The game lasted until a winner announced, ‘Mahjongg’

I’d walk into the room and let the women hug me while they complemented my long thick ponytail, school outfit, and how much I’d grown. I’d pick at the cashews and eat all the toffee and chocolate-covered turtles sitting in porcelain candy dishes while listening to their gossip about people I didn’t know. They had a sense of familiarity with each other, like an inside joke that only they were privy to.

What they didn’t know that night at the restaurant is that Evelyn would have two more sons­­­­­, Gerry, who played the drums, and Joel, the youngest and most mischievous, or that Bubbles would have a daughter, Lori, with hair the color of night, and a son, Fred, who would later care for their ailing parents. They didn’t know that Evelyn, my mother’s dear friend, would be diagnosed with lymphoma and die at the age of forty-five while her children were still young. That Lorraine, my mother, at age 73 would celebrate Passover with friends and on her way back to the car be struck down by an erratic driver as her husband of 52 years looked on in shock.

Left to right: Lorraine Lewis, Shelly Esko, Iriving Lewis, Ruth Esko

I gaze at the photo of my mother laughing–it’s a wide contagious smile and a healthy blush. They didn’t have a clue then about the Esko-Lewis breakup that would last forever or know how much Ruth Esko would mourn the loss of her dear friend Lorraine for the remainder of her years or what caused the riff between the families.

They didn’t know then that I would become a nurse and a writer who wrote about old photographs. They never knew my talent for sleuthing beginning in my thirties—a proclivity for bringing ghosts back to life with a clearer understanding of who they were and what influences they left behind. If only I appreciated their presence as a young child. If only I had talked with them about their lives. Maybe then I wouldn’t miss them so much.

From the time I became a teenager, I couldn’t wait to escape my home and be on my own. I wanted to be born again. I wanted to be new. I felt trapped and needed my own life without everyone’s stories in it–one that gave me a clean break from where I came from.

Now I crave for a deeper understanding of my earlier existence with the people who I ran away from.

I study the photo once more. I look at Gerald sitting next to Bubbles, looking like a hero in his army jacket. Bubbles, with her blue-black hair, tanned face and slender legs, always dressed exotically–always in the latest fashions looking like a movie star.

My eyes focus on Evelyn and I wonder why she never let on that she was ill. If I close my eyes, I can hear her voice asking me, “How was school today? Come over and give me a big hug.” Then she’d cup my face with her delicate hands, pinch my cheek and say, “You get cuter every day.”

As much as the couples were different, they were also similar.

Both Leonard and my father were devastated after their wives died. They were lost. Their spouses doted on them for years–cooking, shopping, and helping them choose the right suit or tie to wear. The two men were lonely widowers. They both married their secretaries within a year–women who were young enough to be daughters. Women who were childless alcoholics who distanced the men from their children.

They have all passed away—only the children are left. Some of us get together for dinners, sharing appetizers and talking about our parents, their friendships, quirks, and secrets like the collection of fortunes from Chinese cookies stashed in a kitchen drawer. Or a needlepoint my mother gave Ruthie after her death which her son found with my mom’s obituary taped to the back of the frame. Or the fact that Leonard was a great photographer later in life and that my mother and Ruthie’s friendship broke up in later years because of a rift between the husbands.

We sit around a large game table examining photos we have sorted through—studying them with the same concentration one has before taking an exam. Snacking on chocolates and cashews, we laugh, wanting to uncover, remember, and resurrect our loved ones.

 

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SELFIES

SELFIES

What do you really look like? Aren’t you the world’s leading authority on the subject? After all, we’ve looked at ourselves and studied our faces for years, not to mention with a life-or-death intensity, in all magnifications—lighted car visors and rearview mirrors, unrippled ponds, and old photos. I’ve even glanced at my face through an oven’s mirrored trim, the rim of my washing machine, and once I turned on my iPhone camera to take a peek after applying a new shade of hair color.

We are the keen observers of our looks, familiar with our individual faces with the exception of recent rhinoplasties, facelifts, injections, or just plain aging. That’s when the familiar becomes something of a surprise each time we glance at our reflection. Think of it as this: We’re all scientists interested in the laws of motion, particularly of gravity.

You are also the least qualified person to know what you look like—you’re too close to the subject, too prejudiced about the possible outcome; a new blemish, a rash on your forehead, or pink hive surfacing on your left cheek.

The amazing part is this: you have no idea as to how you look from the outside, the way others see you because you have to use your face to view you—a non-negotiable quirk of the human anatomy. You are both the observer and the observed.

Everywhere you look, people are whipping out their phones and snapping ‘selfies.’ Girls gathered at the edge of the ocean turn to each other and begin organizing the best shot of the group, oblivious to the beauty of the waves crashing on shore, or the changing of the ocean’s color from deep gray to neon blue. They’re focused in a different direction—on themselves.

Selfies

 

Go to an exotic place of your choice and observe what is being recorded for the sake of history. It isn’t the Japanese gardens in Portland, or the beauty of the Grand Canyon in Arizona, nor the uniqueness of D.H. Lawrence’s home in Eastwood, Nottinghamshire England—it’s the face or faces of individuals gathered there.

Why are we so fixated on our faces, together or alone? What are we recording? Are photos from our phones some sort of proof that we are capable of relationships with friends and family even if we aren’t able to communicate with one another? Or is it just another diversion from one-on-one interplay, intimacy, or connection?

We can easily switch from one photo to another whenever we feel the need. We bond with our selfies like they were people flying in for a visit, stopping by for tea; folks we haven’t seen or heard from in a while. Do we really believe our Facebook friends posting photos, happy birthday messages, or short anecdotes are actually our friends? If you’re lucky, a small percentage might qualify as bona fide friends. Do we think we can send a selfie to someone and connect with them in a meaningful way? Perhaps it’s considered a prelude to actual bonding and allows us to continue to ignore opportunities to grow closer—in a way that may take time, thought, effort, and energy. It’s easier to Instagram, text, tweet, or Facebook for hours at a time, never thinking about the recipient with any degree of understanding.

When we look at received photos, it’s as if we’re gazing at an exhibition at a gallery; a place where we can only guess at the artist’s motives for taking the photo, similar to what we do when we view paintings. But there is still that profound distance, disconnect, loneliness that lurks between us and the photo; a space in time, a longing to know more, to listen in, to stand closer, to hear a distinct voice with all its inflections, feel a gentle touch, lean over to kiss them, or reach out to someone human with our phones tucked away in a purse or a pocket, ringer off.

Those of us who are unhappy with selfies, myself included, distain them not for the reasons they say they do—the vanity, narcissism, primping necessary for perfection, but more because they isolate this basic discomfort at the center of human life. We not only present ourselves, but we think about the presentation.

Now when I’m tempted to post a selfie on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram, I refuse to pose and instead unleash myself (unselfies) to the world with a face obscured, by a mask, a mist, unexpected motion, or a blurred vision of myself forcing the observer to look a little harder.

 

UnselfieMontage

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My Addiction

My Addiction

I’m addicted to ancestry.com. It started innocently with a free two-week membership and an occasional quick search every couple of days. But then an hour or two of researching turned into five, six, or seven. It became a compulsion—my fix for the day. That was nine months ago.

This obsession began after my father died. I wanted to fill in the blanks concerning his life. I had heard stories about his childhood, but wasn’t privy to any details. I never thought about probing into ‘the rest of the story’ while we lived under one roof and when I left home at an early age, I was too angry to care. His childhood circumstances were deferred by my own perceived injustices while growing up.

I had the basic facts: Before his first birthday, he became an orphan. His father left his mother shortly after he was born and she was unable to care for him. As a small boy in Chicago, he lived in a variety of foster homes. “Couples would take me in for the money, but I felt only one couple, the Wagoner’s, really loved me.” He only mentioned this once to me, but I never forgot it.

Why aren’t we more curious at a young age? Why don’t we ask pressing questions when family members are still alive? Are we, as children and young adults, so consumed with living that we have no interest in those who came before us, or is it self-absorption that consumes our daily life and prevents us from exploring family secrets?

My first search in ancestry began with my paternal grandmother Elizabeth Samuelson. I quickly learned her real name, Louisa, from an online birth certificate and that she had a twin sister, Margareta, whom I never met. They were born on June 18, 1897. My grandmother Elizabeth died on my thirteenth birthday. That fact connected us through the years even though I hardly knew her.

 

AddictionMontageOctober28

I found a marriage certificate for Margareta to a man named Jack James, from Missouri. They were both 23-years old. From his death certificate, I learned he was a bartender in San Francisco who died years later from tuberculosis. No trace of Margareta until I open up a 1940 census showing her current residence in a boarding house in L.A., and listing her work as ‘hotel maid.’ The same year census trace of Louisa (alias Grandma Elizabeth) placed her in Chicago living with my father, who was 25-years old at the time. Next to my father’s name under ‘occupation’ was the word ‘Lawyer’ printed in black bold letters. I gathered from that information he was supporting his mother.

My searches often followed trails not planned and received answers that were never expected.  One clue led to another and more twists and turns followed. My grandmother had four sisters and three brothers from her mother’s first marriage. It turned out that my great grandmother married twice and had an additional four children with her second husband. And all along I thought I had come from a small family!

I’ve met a few of my new cousins who are amazed at my findings. I took the time to compose a family tree for my new relatives. They were astonished by my discoveries—family history and faded photos. My favorite find: a photo of my great grandmother Rose as a young girl, with mischief in her eyes. And yes, there is a definite resemblance.

I remembered the early clue about the Wagoner’s and decided to search them out. I confess to looking them up while on a roll. After a few hours of searching, I found Percy Evan Wagner’s obituary and verified dates and names. From his wife’s obit, I found a nephew, Chip, who lived in the Midwest and I emailed him my story. He quickly responded and asked for details about my father: date of birth and where he lived in Chicago. Chip told me, “Yes, my aunt and uncle had a foster child when they were first married. I’ll look through some of their photos and get back to you.”

Ancestry, with the help of Google, created a detective who cannot be stopped. I do this for my father and for my own piece of mind. I want to create a real family for him and an extended family for me and whoever else needs one.

My addiction never leaves me, although it can stay dormant for weeks at a time. Now is not one of those times. My sister-in-law recently asked me to find her biological parents. Turns out her father was in the Detroit Giacalone family running the gambling operations out of the Anchor Bar during the 50s and 60s. Her biological mother was a dancer and bartender who had an affair with ‘Good Looking Solly’ before he was murdered in 1971. I felt as if I struck gold, I found the missing jewel, I pieced the puzzle together.

I wonder what I’ll uncover next.

 

 

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HOMAGE TO MY FATHER

HOMAGE TO MY FATHER

The last time I wished my father dead, I meant it. I was on a plane home to Phoenix after visiting him in Buffalo Grove, Illinois, where he was in his final stage of life.

As a nurse, I knew when I first saw him and noticed his left facial droop and partially closed eye that he had suffered several minor strokes. I tended to be kept out of the loop, as far as getting information about his medical needs. His wife Sue, 35 years his junior who he married shortly after my mother’s death, didn’t like to share him with his children.

Father sat on a couch staring into space while Sue watched a golf tournament on a large screen TV, using terms like ‘backspin and banana-ball,’ cheering for the golfers as if she knew each one personally. I sat uneasy next to Father, touching him gently, wondering if this might be the last time I’d ever see him. His eyes looked empty as though he was looking through me. His behavior wasn’t entirely new, since he had treated me in a distant manner for years. But this separation between us was no longer intentional—it was due to aging. Father had just turned 98.

I asked Sue, “What’s the latest on my Dad’s health?”

“He’s just fine,” she said in a monotone.

“Has he recently seen a doctor?”

“Yes,” she answered without looking my way.

In less than two years, Father had gone from being a tall and lanky self-made man, who in his prime resembled Richard Deacon (Lumpy’s dad on Leave it to Beaver), and an entertainer with the dry humor of Bob Hope, to a shut-eyed, unresponsive, forgetful man with fingers now balled in arthritic pain.

Terry&Dad

He knew who I was, but couldn’t carry on a discussion without long silences between words and then giving up before he finished a thought. There wasn’t much dialogue during my visit, except for the sports announcer on TV and Sue interjecting ‘good shot’ now and then.

This wasn’t surprising since I had talked with him weekly, sometimes twice a week. The one positive to surface during his decline lay in our closing conversations—words I seldom heard from him. “I love you.”

Father used to be a man of energy. He practiced law for 54 years, stayed in the military reserves for 40 years, until he became a Lieutenant Colonel. He played golf on weekends, bridge on Tuesdays, poker on Thursdays, and read two newspapers on Sunday.

His intense love for me as a young child was like a wool blanket in July; he wanted me to be his little brown pig-tailed girl forever.

“If only I could keep you at age four or five.” He’d been saying that since I was six.

I never lived up to his high expectations. I felt he set me up for failure with his demanding perfection. But when I didn’t act like his idealized image of me, the eruption of his wrath could cause after-shocks in an otherwise peaceful home. So over the years I tried to shove those other versions of me—creative writer, dreamer, poet, democrat, free spirit—out of sight to make sure I’d never lose his love, which was my first addiction. My second was writing.

After graduate school, Father asked me in his usual teasing manner, “Just what is creative nonfiction? Is it made-up, a kind of fiction, or the real thing?” I tried to explain it on many occasions, but he’d just laugh and say, “I don’t get it.

It wasn’t until I hugged him goodbye after my last visit and he clamped my forearm in a vise grip, that I realized how much he loved me and how he didn’t want me to leave him. I think he knew it might be the last time we’d see each other.

Father died on Christmas day, ‘peacefully in his sleep,’ is the way Sue announced it two days later on December 27. Father’s military funeral was set for January 15. I wondered why it wasn’t immediate, but I never found out the reason.

I was wrong about his death. It didn’t set me free of his love. I’ll never be, nor do I want to be. But his death liberated me—it gave me license to write about our bittersweet relationship, to examine it, gain new perspectives, and understand and accept it for all it represents.

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Sliver of Sky

Sliver of Sky

by Terry Ratner, RN, MFA

Send comments to info@terryratner.com

I knew ahead of time the exact route I’d take that evening. I needed no GPS or verbal directions to the restaurant where a group of writers were meeting to critique each other’s work. In fact, it was as if my vehicle knew exactly what road to take, intersections to turn at, and which side of the street I’d find the eatery. When I spotted it, my car kept going, as if programed for a certain destination I needed to revisit—a place I hadn’t seen for twelve years. A part of my earlier life crowded with memories obscured by choice.

Rush hour traffic gave me time to examine the landscape along Thunderbird. I noted the Fry’s supermarket I used to shop at had become a Super Fry’s.  A group of condos, Valle Venato, still looked the same. I remember going door-to-door on a Saturday morning with my son, Sky, to pass out flyers advertising my new business: Cinderella Cleaning Service, Clean in a Day, Queen for a Day. After we distributed the ads, we stopped at a pond to catch frogs that had surfaced after a night’s rain.

Turning north on 31st avenue, I noticed rundown homes, dying desert landscapes and dehydrated lawns that could be mistaken for dirt lots. No children played outside, perhaps because it’s chilly, or maybe they were eating dinner with their parents, talking about their day.

I pass Acacia grade school on my right. The grass field, swing-sets and chain-link fence look the same. I remember taking Sky on his first day of kindergarten, watching him dart into the classroom with a quick wave goodbye and none of that crying that some kids exhibit. I flashback Halloween parades around the school parking lot where I’d try to identify children under their costumes, waving to mine as they pass by. My thoughts turn to Marty, the custodian, his smile, and how much the kids loved him. I wonder if he’s still alive.

Turning down Banff, I spot a basketball court housed inside a park. A teenager climbs up an elaborate colorful slide and sits under a blue awning talking on his cell hoping not to be seen. This is where my children and I played. It’s where I’d roller skate when they were in school and play basketball with my son or daughters on weekends. We often packed a picnic lunch and sunbathed while watching Sky play soccer. His team nicknamed him ‘lead foot.’ The park appears empty except for a mother and her young son playing catch and smiling at one another.

 

Park

As I turn right on my street, Mauna Loa Lane, I think about the name. It stands for one of five volcanoes that form the Island of Hawaii. Mauna Loa is the largest volcano in both mass and volume, and has historically been considered the largest volcano on earth. It’s a name I never thought about when we first bought the house—a name that didn’t mean much until my life erupted years later. It wasn’t until my son died at the age of 25 that I disconnected myself with our home and all it represented.

This is the house my children and I grew up in. It’s where memories of youth and young mothering are imbedded. There’s the Eucalyptus in the front yard that my son planted when he was ten and the yellow rusted awnings I installed to shade the house from a western exposure. A cactus sits surrounded by desert landscape with sprouting weeds that peek through black plastic sheeting. My eyes focus on the imprint of children’s shoes leaving their mark on the gravel.  A garbage bag blows into the yard and sticks to the front stucco wall like a ghost. I don’t hear the sound of children anywhere.

 

House

I peer into what used to be my son’s window through the gap of the Eucalyptus tree that was hit by lightning a year after we moved. I imagine his small face peeking out the blue and red race car print curtains.

No one comes to the window. No one notices me taking photographs. No one sees my tears.

The visit is like coming back to an old friend, something familiar. My faith in the firmness of time seems to be slipping away. Memories flash by like clips of film from unrelated movies. Somewhere in the nooks and crannies of memories, there are clues. As I chase them down, a kind of understanding and hope comes with it.

 

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Driving Ms. Gracie

 

GracieInCarSeatOn the Tuesday before New Year’s Eve, we packed up the car with two duffel bags, one cosmetic case, a hanging bag, cooler for snacks, and one Bedlington terrier named Gracie. But before you feel sorry for her, picture a sheepskin lined doggie seat with a safety belt, plenty of snacks, toys, and her water bottle.

Road-tripping from Phoenix to Santa Barbara, our first destination, covered 468.2 miles which included   two brief pit stops. Driving with a dog, rather than a child, has its pluses: they never whine, wiggle, or wheedle for treats. They never smack a sibling or ask every five minutes, “are we almost there.” They need no entertainment other than a few kind words and treats along the way.

But I took the doggie vacation one step further. I admit to being one of those animal lovers who sometimes abuse the law. Gracie’s change of status from pet to an ESA (Emotional Support Animal) came about as a result of researching pet friendly versus upscale hotels and restaurants. That’s why I decided to go undercover as a person with an anxiety disorder (not a big stretch) and drive, dine, and sleep with my service pet.

Before you berate me, take a look around. Did you ever see the French bulldog slobbering over bananas in Trader Joe’s? Isn’t that a St. Bernard sitting in the balcony at the Orpheum Theater in downtown Phoenix? You’ve probably observed an increased number of your neighbors keeping company with their pets in human-only establishments, calling them their roommate in animal-unfriendly apartment buildings, and taking them on airplanes for free—simply by claiming them as licensed companion animals necessary to their well-being.

My service dog, Gracie, fits the bill with her quiet demeanor, the look of a gentle lamb with soft curls. She seldom barks, never sheds, walks on tiptoes, and has a vocabulary of 50 words. Her long face with fancy white tasseled ears cause grumpy old men to smile, young girls to squeal, and homeless people to forget about asking for spare change.

GracieOrderingCrepes

When you check into the pet friendly Fess Parker hotel in Santa Barbara, don’t expect a parade of show dogs strolling along the 24-acre property. The hotel, with its Spanish mission architecture and white painted buildings with archways, wasn’t quite fancy enough for an uppity service dog like Gracie, but we settled in for the night because I had made the reservation two weeks ahead of time—before Gracie’s change of status.

Like parents wanting a break, we fed and walked our dog before tucking her in and leaving to dine at   the Four Seasons hotel. Now, there’s a pet friendly hotel fit for a snobby service animal. But who knew?

The next morning we checked out of the Fess Parker and strolled down State Street looking for a great breakfast.  Temperatures had dipped down to the 50s that morning, so eating on the patio wasn’t an option. We walked into Esau’s café and I asked the hostess if she welcomed service dogs. “Of course, bring her in,” she replied while stooping down to pet her. She sat us in a corner booth by the window so we could people watch while eating.

It helped that Gracie played the part so naturally. She never barked, begged, or bit anyone during the trip, but then again she never does any of those things.

We spent the rest of the day shopping and exploring Santa Barbara. Gracie continued to be welcomed in every establishment, no questions asked, not for proof of service documentation or information about my disability. But then again, I prepared for the worse and read up on the subject before making the decision to go undercover. If I had a struggle being let in somewhere with my dog, I’d come up with a disorder that sounded like a nightmare. I like to be creative.

Our trip continued through Paso Robles, Sausalito, Marin County, down to Santa Cruz, to Palm Springs and back to Phoenix—a total of 1624.6 miles. Over eight days, we stayed at four upscale hotels, dined at a dozen restaurants, and shopped in twelve stores. Although Gracie, our unofficial designated service dog didn’t perform specific tasks, such as pulling a wheelchair and responding to seizures, she became a comfort to everyone she met.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Turning Sixty

Over the past few years, I’ve begun to feel age. I feel it when I turn my left arm sideways to grab something or when I extend it over my over my head (torn rotator cuff), but I decided to live with the discomfort until the pain gets unbearable. I feel it when I set my feet down on the pavement after sitting in a car for an hour or so. After standing, I exhibit an embarrassing arthritic hobble that takes me seven seconds to walk off. I look around and wonder if others my age are thinking about their health—having the same feelings about their bodies. I paste a smile on my face, hoping they don’t notice my slightly hunched position as I attempt to straighten my back into a model-like stance. I lift my head high ignoring the discomfort and pretend I’m balancing a book on top of it—all for show.

Up until sixty, I could have fooled even myself into believing I possessed some kind of immunity to aging. I repeat a simple mantra: My muscles may be weakening and my joints stiffening, but I’m not ill. In fact, most people refer to me as younger than my years. I hit the gym four times a week and work out with twenty-something girls—ballet classes practicing my demi plié, Port de bras, demi pointe, and of course, all of it with attitude. I compete with girls decades younger than myself and I come out shining.

Ballet1

When I work out with weights, it’s the same type of competition——only this time it’s with men and women. If they are climbing Jacob’s ladder, I have to climb longer and harder. If they are playing racquet ball for an hour, I have to keep up the pace. When they are out on the court with a basketball, I grab my tallest girlfriend and join in. A win is celebrated by jumping up and down like a school girl. A loss is felt deeply and expressed freely. After my work outs, I’m never sure if I’m sore because of a particular sport, or if it’s just my advanced age.

 

When I was thirty, I felt sure that a reward awaited me when I turned sixty—if I made it that far. Having never considered myself a real beauty, I’d be exempt from mourning its loss. But upon aging, looking through photos, and hearing my oldest friends refer to me as being beautiful, I understood that I possessed some beauty, and because I had so little, I couldn’t afford to lose it. So at this period in my life, I realize I care about my looks. I find myself spending more energy trying to compensate for my inadequacies than I used to, amusing myself for hours shopping for clothes, rifling through racks, looking at labels, sliding my fingers along the fabric, determining the quality of each item. I color and condition my long locks. I experiment, in subtle ways, with makeup. I expect those methods don’t do a lot to improve my deficiencies, but they do give me a boost and let people know I’m trying.

 

 

But it’s not easy to judge success or failure in aging because the reference class itself is collapsing. There are so many women who have fallen victim to disqualifying conditions; it’s hardly a consolation to congratulate oneself on having escaped the ones I’ve managed to avoid. After sixty, almost every blessing is hinged on a curse that has fallen on someone else. When you count these blessings, it takes the form of reminding yourself, at least I don’t have a serious weight problem, or a bald spot on my head, or at least I don’t have bulging varicose veins or a double chin. These types of comparison don’t have positive attributes. They start with a type of minor gloating and grow rapidly in size. At least I still have my mind. At least I’m not alone.

 

My fear of death has somewhat diminished, or maybe it’s mixed together with other elements of my subjectivity. I no longer bolt upright in bed at the thought of dying. Perhaps the process of aging is what gets me used to the idea—limbering me up for it. What depresses me these days isn’t the idea of my extinction, but the thought of losing another loved one.

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Esophageal Cancer 101: In 850 Words or Less

 

 

by Terry Ratner, RN, MFA

 
…..in the seventh month, on the tenth of the month, you shall starve your vital energies and do no manner of work…. For on this day it shall bring atonement upon you, to purify you, before God shall you become pure of all your aberrations. (Leviticus) 16: 29-30)

 

A day to remember

 

It was a Thursday, October 9—Yom Kippur, Day of Atonement, the most solemn day on the Hebrew calendar, when my husband, Michael, underwent an endoscopic procedure. He laughed the day before when the doctor said, “Nothing to eat or drink before the test. Can you manage that?” Michael smiled as if he had a secret. “I always fast during the high holidays and this one isn’t going to be any different.”

 

On the Day of Atonement, we went to synagogue for the morning service. Michael’s procedure was scheduled for 12:45 PM. “Perfect timing,” he said stroking his two day whisker growth. “I’m able to immerse myself in prayer and in between undergo a medical test before returning to temple and breaking the fast.”

 

For thirty long minutes, I sat in the outpatient waiting area, looking around at the starkly decorated walls, half listening to the conversation between two receptionists as they talked about restaurants and dating, wondering how everything happened so fast. I noticed his mild symptoms four days ago: some difficulty swallowing, a dry cough when drinking liquids, a slight hoarseness, and an early feeling of fullness while eating a meal. A variety of diagnosis crossed my mind; hiatal hernia, a narrowing of the esophagus, or perhaps a nerve involvement. As a nurse, my imagination went wild.

 

On October 8th, our internist had scheduled Michael for a barium swallow and US (ultrasound) of his abdomen which showed a suspicious area at the bottom of his esophagus. The gastroenterologist urged him to undergo the endoscopy the next day—that was my second hint that something was very wrong. I wondered what all the hurry was about. I tried to stay calm, but my stomach felt skittish, light, like it was being forced up to my neck and then down into my chest cavity.

 

A nurse holding a clip board poked her head out the double doors. “You can come back now, Mrs. Ratner,” she said without looking up at me. “Your husband’s in recovery.” I asked her how it went and suddenly this friendly preop nurse didn’t want to talk. “The doctor will be out shortly to explain his findings,” she said without looking me in the eye.

 

The Diagnosis

 

“Your husband has a tumor at the junction of the stomach and the esophagus. I sent several biopsies to pathology. It looks like cancer.”

 

Being a nurse, it wasn’t necessary for any further explanation to understand the doctor was saying the unspeakable—telling me my husband has cancer, a fast growing cancer in the esophagus. My head started to spin and my legs felt like rubber as I tried to keep them from shifting side to side.

 

“Maybe you need to sit down and discuss this,” I replied as I stared at the doctor’s white coat focusing on his last name embroidered in black thread above the pocket. I glanced at my husband’s face; his eyes were closed and he looked relaxed for the first time since his symptoms began to surface—six days ago. His body lay hidden under a cream-colored blanket and I wondered if he heard the word, “cancer.” I needed to let him rest for a while and not worry about anything, as there would be plenty of time to agonize in the weeks to come.

 

The talk

 

The gastroenterologist had biopsied enough tissue from the tumor site to feel confident about his diagnosis of esophageal cancer. “The pathology report will be her in a couple of days,” he told me, giving me a slim hope that he might be mistaken.

 

“This is not a good time,” came out of my mouth as I began to sob. “There never is a good time for this type of diagnosis,” he told me with compassionate eyes. I must have asked him three times, “What is the size of the tumor?” His response was a number I won’t likely forget—2.5 centimeters.

 

I drove my groggy husband home. He asked me a few questions about the procedure and told him we’d talk later and he needed to rest. The truth was I didn’t want to tell him what I knew, what the doctor had told me. When he woke from a short nap, he refused any food or water even after I assured him God would permit it under the circumstances. But instead he waited until sundown to break the fast, after the evening service with a few slices of Challah, some herring, and a glass of wine.

 

My husband I lived with a secret for the weekend—Michael had esophageal cancer. It was one of those secrets I chose to keep to myself until we had a definitive diagnosis. We played word games Saturday and Sunday, never once uttering the unspeakable word—cancer. Our lips formed the words tumor, swallowing disorder, and hiatus hernia, but we shied away from the ‘C’ word.

 

We continued to pray throughout the weekend, long after the evening service, long after the Sabbath, long after the Kol Nidrei and the Yizkor, in an attempt to elevate our spiritual being and thwart away this vile disease.

 

The pathology report came back on that Monday. When the gastroenterologist phoned me at home, I already knew what he was about to say—our life, as we knew it, was about to change.

 

Risk Factors:

 

 

GERD ( gastroesophageal acid reflux)

Alcohol Consumption

Cigarette Smoking

Chewing Tobacco

Barrett Esophagus (patients with chronic reflux should undergo regular endoscopic exams and biopsies).

 

Signs & Symptoms

 

Difficulty swallowing

Substernal pain

Hiccups

Respiratory difficulty,

Heartburn, halitosis,

Significant weight loss (a later sign)

Hoarseness

Halitosis

Coughing

Excessive salivation

Nocturnal aspiration

 

Send your comments to info@terryratner.com

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