June 10, 2010

As she rapidly reassessed the mother sitting before her, Dr. Guzman-Yao caught the hint of a twinkle and relaxed. That this was obviously an inside joke between the mother and her lanky son came as a huge relief considering how hard it was to get an adult psych consult in a children’s hospital. Okay. Moving on.


It’s not as if the anesthesiologist had any expertise on the subject—there was no reasonable way for her to knowledgeably answer my question. In retrospect, I can’t imagine what possessed me to divulge such a random and, I’m sure, novel concern. I suppose I’ve been just a wee bit less worried about social norms since being told in February how I will likely die. Not that I was particularly concerned about it before, social norms that is, but since then, I guess I just don’t see why life should be boring. That’s not even it really, at least not all of it. Maybe it was just the lack of laugh-out-loud humor I lived with for so long. Or maybe I just don’t want to be unmemorable. Whatever the case, if something does go wrong, I blame the doctor. After all, she assured me, “It should not be a problem.”


“Hi. You must be Joshua.”


“It’s very nice to meet you Josh. I’m Dr. Guzman-Yao and I’ll be your anesthesiologist during your surgery. Can you tell me what you’re having done today?”

Josh and I sat in the outpatient surgery waiting room at Texas Children’s Hospital. Despite the fact he had been shaving for two years and was now officially taller than me, when instructed to, Josh had obediently changed into the hospital-issue Kelly green pajama short set, announcing when he returned from the bathroom, “I feel like a giant, green apple.” I couldn’t help thinking, ‘More like the Jolly Green Giant,’ but, having not watched TV much in the past few years, I had no idea if the reference was before his time and let it go.

“You’re going to fix my ear?” Josh’s answer sounded more like a question.

“Which one?”

“The left one?…”

Josh’s tone and deliberate articulation spoke volumes. Damn. I forgot to warn him that these questions would do nothing to buoy his confidence in the doctors. Having had a few of these conversations myself lately, I was familiar with the drill and understood that the good doctor was just trying to be as vigilant as possible lest the ‘stupid mistake spotlight’ of the media catch her like a teenager at 2:00am straddling a bedroom window.

“Great. Open your mouth and say ‘Ahhhh’.”

“Great. Do you have any loose teeth, retainers, partials, crowns or dentures?”

“Uhhh, no.”

And that’s when it happened. Right then. It was the vision of a cyanide capsule embedded in a false tooth, bitten into to release the power within. I had been just fine, following along, sitting quietly, admiring my 15-year old and his ability to process information and respond accurately and appropriately, even if with a bit of ‘are you stupid?’ attitude. At least I knew, in a practical sense, he would be fine without me should it come to that. Truth be told, he had exhibited more practical sense than I lately—and certainly more than I felt I was about to.

“Are you taking any medi-“

“Oh!” Looking a bit frightened, I put my hand to my mouth. I cut a somewhat worried glance to my left and Josh, then let my hand drop, straightened, and quickly smiled at the doctor.

“No. Nevermind. It’s okay. I’m sure it’s okay.”  One more quick smile.

Dr. Guzman-Yao lowered Josh’s chart and, giving me her full attention, straightened her stature the little bit her inherently short lineage allowed.

“If there’s anything, any questions…”

“No no no no no,” I said waving my hand in front of my closed eyes. “No. It’s okay.”

I gave Josh a quick smile and put a reassuring hand on his arm with a couple of little pats and a squeeze. He was giving me that ‘is-there-something-you-never-told-me?’ look. I gave him the ‘I’m-so-sorry-but-I’m-cracking-myself-up’ look. He assumed his ‘this-should-be-good’ look, complete with half smile and, without wasting energy trying to guess what was on my mind, he settled in and waited for the punch line.

“Really. Please. Ask.” Dr. Guzman-Yao was earnest in her encouragement. I liked her and she was just about to like me. Or not. It didn’t matter.

“Well… I was just wondering. And like I said, I’m sure it’s not a problem. But, I might as well be sure…” I paused for dramatic effect, scrunched my face a bit and leaned forward. “It’s just… the anesthesia won’t have a negative or harmful effect on Josh’s superhero powers – right?”

I had blurted out that last part looking directly into her eyes. I even bit my lower lip at the end to add a little panache. And then, I watched in amusement as her mind spooled the possibilities of this unexpected encounter.

When she recognized it for what it was, it was clear she appreciated the break in the monotony of the usual at least as much as I enjoyed watching her brain stutter.

What she’ll never know is how serious I was.


I’m guessing that if I hadn’t been diagnosed with cancer Josh and his younger brother, Will, may have continued, day by day, to grow a little less universally indulgent of my nature. One day they might have even found me embarrassing.

The perks of death.


Unbeknownst to one another and some years ago now, Josh and Will’s father and I happened upon what I believe to be one of the greatest gifts we ever gave them. From the day they could put their wondering into words and ask questions, we sought to fill their sturdy cups with every truth we could share. Yet, as any honest parent will admit, inevitably, there are days when your child’s questions catapult beyond that which you know.

Sitting in the car directly behind me in his booster seat, Josh had been quiet a long time. We were both good at this – at reverie – we knew it was not personal. Stopped at the light at 20th and Yale and headed on some errand I could make up today but don’t actually remember he asked, “Mommy. What comes after the sky?”

My eyes riveted to the blue dome that settled over us outside my window. My mind transported to the ever-luxuriant and heady grass of the side yard of my childhood in Virginia. I had lain in that grass not knowing I would never again be so sure that the grinding sound I heard in my molars was the slow turn of the Earth—never again so cognizant of its gentle bow beneath my spine. I too saw the blue dome lowered to its place above us. I too wondered at what lay beyond, at what or who decided we should not see. I imagined a small wizard of Oz concealed and pulling levers to perpetuate the magnitude of the myth to which he was now enslaved.


It was all I could think of to say. ‘What comes after the sky?’ was the stuff of gods and dreams. ‘What comes after the sky?’— beyond the skin of our habitat, beyond our terrarium—was infinite possibility. ‘What comes after the sky?’ was that languid ache that never goes away, that just eventually cries itself out, but always returns.


What I didn’t know at the time was that for every question that flew unfettered from the reach of my husband’s knowledge, he answered, “Love.”

And so, from within this magical and loving kingdom, my children built a world.


I remember when the boys were both old enough that we had to spring for their own seats on an airplane. As a child, I had always been held in rapt attention by the synchronized gesticulations of the flight attendants—stewardesses in my day—in the throes of their pre-flight safety demonstration. I recognize now that both my mother and grandmother would have been rendered mute had they lost their hands or arms and, while not as eloquent, I was simply delighted to find this mysterious language was not yet another oddity exclusive to my family. Nevertheless, on my first flight in a long time without a child in my lap, I was suddenly horrified by the suggestion that I should, as so explicitly instructed were we to suddenly ‘experience a loss of cabin pressure’, secure my own yellow, dangling oxygen mask first while my children looked at me in desperation while gasping for air.

It wasn’t until my separation from my husband that I understood what must also elude so many other parents when they revisit this aisle-way speech. You must first be alive if you intend to save anyone else.


Saturday. No, actually Sunday. 4:45 AM. My youngest, Will, springs up to cross-legged in my bed. We have been talking now for two hours. We are undiminished—in fact, we have hit our stride.

“Here’s what I’m worried about. Well, worried is the wrong word. Here’s what I hope. I really, really hope.” Will’s wiry body seems spring-loaded from all the tension of how much he hopes.

“I really, really hope that, when I grow up, I can figure out what makes me happy so I can do it.” His eyes fix on mine with an intensity of connection and moment I recall only in childbirth, great sex and LSD trips.

“You know? Do you?”

I realize he could only know to want this after watching the majority of the world servicing life with as much passion as a motor vehicles department employee issuing another driver’s license. I realize he could only know to want this after rooting for a movie hero to risk everything—to risk death itself—in pursuit of the righteous. I realize he could only know this after shuttling between his father and myself for two years and bearing witness to our commitment to happiness on our own terms and at any cost.

“This conversation is going to require doughnuts. Find your shoes and let’s go to Shipley’s.” And in our pajamas, our intensity and laughter unhampered by the crowding disappointments of those now sleeping, filled empty miles.


I have always taken a lot of pride in my ability to attack any relationship, event, or circumstance with logic. In my mind, I have justified and forgiven the actions of everyone. I do not believe there is a person—living, dead, or imagined—that was born evil, or petty, or spineless, or bitter. I believe those people were made that way by lives I am thankful to have not lived.

In my mind I have retraced every step, every turn, every choice, and I have reconciled that, were it the wrong choice, I would not be where I am sitting today. And where I am sitting today is exactly where I am supposed to be. Otherwise, I would be elsewhere.

Yet, in my mind there is no logic for my diagnosis. I have never seen such a tangle. I tell myself the tangle is normal—that even I am not exempt. I tell myself the tangle is not there—just a hallucination, the asphalt radiance of a hot day. I tell myself the tangle was always on the spool yet only just revealed as I let my kite out further—my nod to the daring of Icarus.

But most days I recognize the purpose of my diagnosis—the lessons of humility and fortitude, the gift of perspective—may ultimately not be for me at all.


It completely befuddles and exasperates Will when anyone asks whether I believe in God and I respond, “I don’t believe the existence or non-existence of God is relevant. Were God to be definitively proven or disproven tomorrow, it would not change who I am.”

Further frustrating his very real, yet of indeterminate origin, piety, I do however believe I have a burgeoning menagerie of angels. Angels, given the ‘big picture’ but denied any medium with which to simply tell me what I need to know, that remain steadfast in their resolve to ensure my nose is pointing in the right direction and my feet keep moving. Mute angels with perfect vision reduced to playing charades with the blind. “Regis, I think we’re gonna need to use a lifeline for this one.”

Shortly after my first surgery, sitting at Josh’s birthday dinner, Will asked me, “If you knew you were walking into a dangerous and unpredictable situation with two friends, and one of you was blind, another was deaf and the third could not speak, in what order would you enter?”

It still hurts my brain to try to figure out in which scenario I am less likely to end up dead.


There are particular memories that, without photos, would be rendered inaccessible. That the inside lining of my favorite and oh-so-70s purple striped corduroy pants were without the rigid texture of the outside. The tug and press of a barrette on the top of my head. The coolness of the Lincoln Memorial’s white Colorado marble refreshing the backs of my pudgy three-year old thighs.

In the same manner, I hold a visceral memory attached to a photograph of Josh, Will and I at a graduation ceremony—I flanked by my boys, now two men, our joy, the smell of magnolias—a photo I have only captured in my imagination. That I know this photo as easily as I know sleep and laughter, that I hold this memory that has not yet occurred, ensures there is much more yet to come.

After all. What the hell good is all this love and magic and superhero power if we can’t use it to save ourselves?

 (The names of the innocent have been changed for no particular reason.)



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