If you’re here from Counting Chickens, welcome (or welcome back) and know that these posts are more about death and dying than life and love. Or maybe it’s both.

I’m the one who cleaned out your hospice room. I took down each photo carefully, saying names aloud like a litany. Your two brothers, both silver haired and older than you are. Your best friend, clad in denim and plaid, standing next to you against a desert cliff. You were smiling at me, watching me aim your old 36 millimeter, getting the focus just right. Your youngest and her family; her husband, their white-blond three year old, and brand new infant. I know you remember the day this one was taken, you with your arm slung over mom’s shoulders, settled deep into a couch in the 1980s. She looks happy here, dad. Like she hasn’t been in awhile. This one’s of me. I miss you dad, so so much. And here is my other sister, sunglasses and a hat at your old house in Wyoming. Your grandkids, here and here, and here. And RR, of course, she loves you so much. I take them down one at a time, fold up the ones in frames, tuck them into a canvas bag to take home.

Moving to your few possessions, I name the things I touch. Mom won’t want this blanket for a few days, I’ll put it in my bag. We ate almost all those jellybeans, didn’t we? I’ll leave your comb here and put your toothbrush with your phone and slippers. These are pretty flowers, dad, but you wouldn’t have liked their scent. I unstick my daughter’s drawings, folding her artwork into the trash, along with the hospice literature that helpfully told us what to expect while you died in front of our eyes.

I’m keeping my back to you and I feel ashamed for doing it. I’m a coward for not looking into your face again, taking your hand, and telling you I love you. In my defense, I don’t believe you are here, but that doesn’t stop me from talking to you. My hands are deliberate and steady even though I’m quivering inside and out. I tell you how I’m feeling, and I notice that my voice is higher, but quiet, with a definite shake, words strung end to end. I’m going to miss you dad. It’s too soon but I’m so glad you’re done. It was time to stop fighting.

I’ll just put the rest of your things here. And, well, dad, it looks like that’s everything. Not much was there? But so much.



Avoid Media on 9/11

Posted: 8 September 2011 in observations

Americans have a “where were you” moment.  Oh, your sister says, I was folding laundry in front of the TV.  Your neighbor was trying to get through traffic to work (and then home again – no easy feat).  Buying flowers.  In a meeting.  On an airplane.  That doesn’t begin to cover the other half (and you know who I mean).  I can’t speak for them.  I wouldn’t.  I’m not eloquent enough.

I speak for myself.  If you want to listen, I can tell you where I was (at my desk in a warehouse in Africa) and how I found out (the phone rang; the Embassy called an emergency meeting) and what I did then.
Lost my temper.
Slammed my hand down on my desk.
Looked out the window at the crisp blue sky.
Cried.  So angry.

And then I just stopped remembering.

Missing: the reaction of my coworkers, the meeting at the Embassy, the drive home, sharing the news with my partner.  I assume the guards at my house had words of sympathy.  I gather I got more information as the evening wore on.  Probably I didn’t eat dinner, or sleep well.  And here’s something I wish was missing: watching my friends drink bottled and bottles of wine and the same one minute clip of a plane flying and then crashing over and over on the only three news stations we got – one in French, two in Arabic.

I think I had it easy.  I know I did.

As hard as it was to cope with the shock in a small community far from the States, doing it in the context of a small community far from the States might have been a blessing.  We grieved together and leaned heavily toward one another both then and in the anthrax scare following (and the death of two of our friends, two marines, after that).  We had the same limited collection of images and the same French and Arabic news.  The internet in Africa in 2001 was not the internet of today.  My wife, in Virginia that day, tells a very different story.  Videos, pictures, audio, personal interviews, different angles, repetition, misinformation, chaos.

I will tune out on Sunday (probably Monday, too).  I won’t look at the internet or watch the news.  It isn’t the memorial and the recognition of the victims, it’s the replaying of the day.  It’s the news station that will – you know one of them will – rebroadcast events in real time.  The newspapers that will publish images I haven’t seen.  It’s the graphic blitzkrieg that I was protected from that day (and the days that followed).

Today over lunch, I saw a picture of people running down a street covered in dust and I thought, “why are those evacuees from flooded areas so dusty?”  It wasn’t current flood footage, obviously, but I haven’t ever seen pictures like that from that day.  I don’t want to.  My heart hurts enough without it.


Posted: 2 August 2011 in other folks
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I work in one of those sorts of places where the toilets are automated.  I walk in, take a seat and, when I stand again, voila!  Magic happens.  That toilet flushes like that’s it’s job.

Wait a minute!  You mean you’re supposed to flush after use?  Why yes, gentlemen using this building, you ARE!

We are not of the if it’s yellow let it mellow crowd.  And in the unisex, you may find that you don’t trigger the auto-flush doing whatever it is you’re doing.  But why, WHY, don’t you go ahead and hit that spiffy black button that makes it go manually?  Let me tell you, I don’t need to see your business first hand.  And, while I appreciate your effort to save water, you’re failing since no person in their right mind would want to sit down there and risk encountering your splash back.

Really.  Just hit the button.

Awesomely, I am cancer-free.  I’d call for a hallelujah but I’m not religious like that.  Oh come on, HALLELUJAH!

After hacking most of my arm off (no, not really) at the end of June and taking the sentinel lymph nodes to task for falling asleep on the job, I got a clean bill of health, well, at least as far as that no-good-piece-of-crap cancer is concerned.

The scar is nasty – pic at the bottom for you ewwwing pleasure – but I’m posting it as a service.  When they say “wide excision” and your general practice doc says “you’ll be a bit disfigured” and “your career, ha, as an arm model is out the door!” she’s actually NOT KIDDING.

So melanoma patients: I was a scaredy cat.  I read the survival rates online, got the shit scared out of me and ran for the hills.  I relied on my surgeon and dermatologist to provide the information about the cancer and methods of treatment.  That worked for me.  I DID try to research what a “wide excision of the arm” would look like with little luck.  I need more pictures people!  So it’s a public service to all you other searchers.  Look.

So, to recap, that mid-may diagnosis of melanoma turned out to be The Real McCoy but I am now cancer-free.  The follow-up for me is dermatologist visits every six months and the oncologist for chest x-rays and blood work once a year.  I can’t quite believe I’m a cancer patient, albeit the very best sort.  My last words on the topic?  You’re not too young to get it so get yourself to a skin-check.  It’s worth the 15 minutes of being stared at with a magnifying glass.  And some of you might enjoy that!


Posted: 15 July 2011 in the fantastic
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Today I taught a class of six Saudi women on a short exchange program to the university.  I had a glimpse of my old life, the one that remembers how to pronounce Riyadh, and though I missed it, I was delighted to be right where I was watching them peel back the edges of research.

We slipped into the stacks searching for a book on Princess Nora and when they found it their faces lit up.  They didn’t have the casual “that’s cool, whatever” attitude my regular groups of 18 years old have, which was a teensy reward in itself.  As I stood there, watching them search for books on the fly with shiny new ipads, I was struck at how far I was from every other place I’ve ever been.  From the six year old who swore she’d be an ambassador, from the college student who never used the library once in 4 years, from the foreign service officer who swore she’d never look back, from the grad student who was baffled that all of this information was online and yes, from the librarian who just wanted to spend the afternoon finishing her staff evaluations.

Today, I used an ipad to find a book on Princess Nora, watched a short video about her, found a biography and searched for a review about the book while I stood in the stacks, took a picture of a book I wanted to read later and cleared the holds from my account so I could check it out before I went upstairs.  My daughter has been born into a world of awesome.




Posted: 7 July 2011 in observations

You guys, we are doing so great.  According to every stress score/therapist/person with common sense everywhere, my wife and I should have crumpled under the weight of our own lives lately. No, not even crumpled, steamrolled by our life.  But you want to know if you’re also doing exceedingly well, right?  Well here you go: Misters Holmes and Rahe have a scale that will tell you just how dangerously you’ve been living.  I know, just look at that*.

Here’s how it works, you get a point for every major life event you encounter and as your points rise you are considered at greater risk for stress-induced illness.  I am in fine health for a person who has racked up 358 points – well into the highest bracket – for the year. And, since I’m a person who has 453 points for the last two years ( the time which some interpreters of the scale allot) I’m doing fucking awesome.  Let’s break it down:

I’ve earned points for:
Death of a close family member (Well, two but I only gave myself points for one.  I was being generous.)
Personal injury or illness (I suppose cancer and subsequent surgery gets full points here)
Change in health of family member (Check.  My mother’s mental illness has spiraled out of control but I didn’t count my sister’s regular calls as she copes with infertility, the arthritis suddenly crippling my father’s hands, my wife’s root canal and other dental work and my mother-in-law’s stroke and heart attack.  Don’t worry – I included that in “trouble with in-laws”)
Sexual difficulties (Let’s be honest, having a kid cramps your style but what they don’t tell you is how difficult it’s going to be to get back on the same page)
Change in financial state (All of our savings?  Funeral trips and major home repairs)
Trouble with in-laws (Mother-in-law’s health, sister-in-law’s criminal behavior both actually and in her relationship with my wife)
Change in social activities (Yep, having a baby makes this automatic)
Change in sleeping habits (See above)
Change in number of family reunions (See death, illness, dying, and so forth)
Change in eating habits (See baby)
Vacation (One week from day.  You wouldn’t think this causes stress, but believe me)
Christmas (Well, yes.)

Here are the things that didn’t get me points, just for the record (THANK GOODNESS) –Death of a spouse, Divorce, Marital separation, Imprisonment, Marriage, Dismissal from work, Marital reconciliation, Retirement, Business readjustment, Change to different line of work, Change in frequency of arguments, Foreclosure of mortgage or loan, Change in responsibilities at work, Child leaving home, Outstanding personal achievement, Spouse starts or stops work, Begin or end school, Change in living conditions, Trouble with boss, Change in working hours or conditions, Change in schools, Change in recreation, Change in church activities, Minor violation of law.

And I think we can get a hallelujah for all that.

And if we take in the last two years like some folks do, I “get” to claim these extras –Pregnancy (wife’s, check), Gain a new family member (RR, check), Death of a close friend (in the past year, two folks that have had a significant impact on my life), Major mortgage (gorgeous, if rotting, house), and Change in residence (see gorgeous and rotting house).

Amazingly, this doesn’t mean there haven’t been 500 points of average, non-stress causing happiness and success.  In fact, I’m pretty damn lucky.  However, at this point I’m wondering if I need to be a little LESS lucky.

*Frankly, I’m disappointed by the lack of a Foreign Service-modified scale, since every single last one of you is living hard and fast in the scale, but we’ll just assume you get extra points just for staying alive.

I’ve taken to saying holy cow! when what I really want to say is Fuck.

What I want to say is that I’ve been hurtling through this year, but that doesn’t quite fit.  I feel like I’m moving slowly, taking measured steps forward while huge barrels of icy water crash down around me.  What I want to say is that this has been an outstanding year.  But it isn’t really true either.  I’d count my blessings for you but you’d be bored – the list is so long.

On the other hand, since my daughter was born in June, I have watched my mother change from a person I recognized (no matter how I felt about that) to a woman who is a rather unpleasant stranger.  I’ve attributed this to the death of my maternal grandmother in November but really it could be something entirely mental health related.  My grandmother lived with my parents and the fall that precipitated her death was dramatic.  In the end, it wrung my mother dry.  We flew cross-country with our 6 month old in the winter for the memorial and that was the last time I saw any familiar part of my mother.  In April, my paternal grandmother died.  My parents handled this as they characteristically do; in an effort not to upset my sisters and I in any way, they downplayed her imminent death and eventual funeral.  Within 24 hours of hearing she had just days, I was on the opposite coast with my hand on her shoulder as she passed away.  I think there’s a lot I want to say about that.  I know that if I had told my parents I was going prior to rather than after my arrival, they would have discouraged me and been disappointed that I’d gone.  As it was, I felt disobedient for skulking around.  It was important.  That’s what I want to say.  Last week, I learned that the menacing looking black patch on my arm was melanoma and I’ll be heading in for a biopsy of my lymph nodes.  While I keep saying it’s nothing, the odds are unlikely, we caught it early enough, what I want to say is this sort of thing wouldn’t happen to me.  Cancer is just not what I see happening.  I’m pretty sure though, that saying that is a good way to get kicked in the teeth.

It’s a lot for one year.  Even if it’s a health scare and not a health crisis, it’s still two grandmothers (three if you throw in D’s Annabelle in early fall) and one mother short than when I started.  I catch myself trying not to hold still, moving forward steadily, hoping not to get drenched again.