Thursday, September 12, 2013
Keeping It to Myself
Although I occasionally write here about my health, I am not comfortable doing so. Far from it. When I was growing up, my parents were highly reserved--especially about corporal matters. One of my earliest memories--from the mid-1950s--is being awakened in the night by the flashing lights of an ambulance. My father had suffered a severe kidney stone attack, and the ambulance whisked him off to St. Mary's Hospital in Enid, Okla., the hospital where my younger brother and I were born. Grandma--who lived just a couple of blocks away from us--came to stay with us three boys while Mom went to the hospital with Dad. I was terrified? Did I sleep that night? Will my father come home again?
Dad had undergone kidney surgery before, during World War II--out in the South Pacific--and he bore a scar that traveled halfway round the equator of his midsection--belly button to spine (it looked--as I think about it now--like the sort of stitches we associate with the head of Frankenstein's creature). And when he came home from St. Mary's in a few days, he had another one, on the other side. His stitches now circled his globe. It took him awhile to get up and going again--and a very fond memory is this: Dad in his bathrobe, out behind the house with me, trying to toss a baseball back and forth. I was 10, maybe. And grieving for my father, who could barely toss the ball six feet--my father, a splendid athlete, high school and college football and track and baseball star. He could run, as they say, like a scalded cat. More appropriate for Okla.: like a cyclone. (He'd broken 10 seconds in the 100-yd. dash in high school. My brothers and I, sadly, inherited the speed of my mother.)
Anyway, my parents did not talk about their medical issues (my mom, 94, still doesn't)--and taught us to suffer in silence, as well. To them, there was something unseemly about public declarations of just about any sort. Be modest. Let your actions speak for themselves. That sort of thing. (Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali bothered my dad enormously.)
Another memory to illustrate ... In the early 1980s son Steve and I flew out to Portland, Ore, then drove west to Cannon Beach, where my parents had recently retired and built their modest retirement home on a cliff overlooking the Pacific--stunning views of Haystack Rock and the mountains off in the other direction. We were seated one night at the dinner table (from which we could see the ocean, the mountains), when Mom went downstairs (they had a little visitors' apartment there) to the freezer to retrieve some ice cream treats for dessert. She apparently banged her ankle/foot horribly down there on an open drawer (or something), and even though she was in terrific pain, she filled the platter with the desserts, and, dragging her lame leg behind her, struggled up the stairs and staggered over to the table. Everyone cried aloud ("What's wrong?!?!" etc.), but Mom got that platter to the table, slumped into her chair, PAIN written in a huge red font on her face. "I'm all right," she smiled, tears running down her cheeks, wetly announcing her lie.
My parents never wanted their three sons to be public about their ills, either. We kept pain to ourselves, illnesses. In seventh grade one day, I felt horrible. Said nothing. Shared my illness by vomiting all over the floor in geography class.
That's my family history, you see.
So when I started this blog, I didn't write much about corporal matters--and when I did, I did so with irony and self-deprecation (my mother still would not have approved, believe me). But as my story darkened a little, so did my prose (and so did some of the "Daily Doggerels" I posted on Facebook).
I generally write these posts the night before. Let them simmer. Do some slight revision(s) in the morning. And every time--every single time--I write about my prostate cancer, I plan to delete the post when I come down in the morning. But then I force myself to upload it.
I know that these posts bother some people (some have said so--in ways direct and indirect), and I'm sorry they feel that way. But I understand. (I might even have agreed with them, at another time.)
But I figure: I'm not forcing anyone to read them. The title says what's on the menu, so a reader can always dine at another restaurant that day.
And besides: I'm not really writing these pieces for anyone else--or for sympathy. (That would be sad.) No, they're for me. I find that words can--temporarily?--confine pain and terror and anxiety in a web of words. Especially public words. (I'm not sure why.) And I think: If I can just keep all this horror locked inside a sentence, maybe it won't get out. Not for a while, anyhow.
For, you see, I am afraid these days. Afraid to lose all that I care about--family, books, the blank page, friends, exercise, mobility, the softened sunlight that, as I type these words, is illuminating the thick trunk of a linden right outside my study window, the grey squirrel across the street, poised, making a decision (moments later he's in our bird bath, drinking in the sunset), the mess in my study, my sourdough bread, going to Stratford--sitting in the dark, watching Shakespeare come alive in the light, the Great Lakes Theater Festival, a good movie--a bad one, my bicycle, Kindle, Hattie's Cafe, Panera (on Sunday morning), Facebook, Daily Doggerel, Starbucks, Kirkus Reviews, the Plain Dealer, the New York Times Book Review, the New York Review of Books, DawnReader, memories of a key base hit, a crucial foul shot, a wicked backhand, our old dog Sooner, the Chilkoot Pass, an appearance on the Hiram High School stage, directing The 8th Grade Farewell-to-Harmon Show, playing Frisbee with Harmon students out at lunch, laughing in class with my students, losing weight (gaining it back), making my grandmother's steamed pudding at Christmas--and the sweet bread shaped like a Christmas tree, memorizing poems, reciting "A Visit from St. Nicholas" for my grandsons, chicken I've grilled outside--and salmon--sourdough pizza crust and muffins, peaches and maple syrup from Monroe's farm in Hiram, my memories of my great-grandfather, my grandparents, my aunts and uncles and cousins, car trips to distant places to see literary sites--yes, and the graves of writers, the houses we've lived in (Kent, Lake Forest, Hudson, Aurora, Hudson again), my teachers (Mrs. Rockwell, Mr. Brunelle, Mrs. Dreisbach, Dr. Ravitz, Dr. McKinley, Dr. Marovitz--and so many others), my mentors and colleagues, Adams Elementary School (in Enid), the Hiram Local Schools, Hiram College, Harmon Middle School, Western Reserve Academy, the thousands of students who sat, hopeful, in my classroom, the books I haven't read, haven't written, my brothers' laughs, my niece's and nephew's kindnesses, my daughter-in-law's devotion, my sister-in-law's candor, my grandsons' energy, my son's soft heart and eyes that redden with emotion ...
... and Joyce.