February 28, 2005

All fall down

In addition to last week's spate of horrific events, another high school friend close to Nell and me has stage 3 breast cancer and faces additional surgery next week. Two other friends have herniated disks; one has a bad hip; and another walks only with a cane. My back feels best when I am prone, and my sister-in-law is recovering from a hysterectomy.

All in all, reports on the health front (save for my mother, who is stronger and in better shape than anyone I know) are not pretty. Welcome to middle age. The line for minor tranquilizers is to the left; narcotics to the right.

It's enough to make me take up smoking again. This afternoon, I could think of nothing more satisfying than to have a cigarette. So I did.

I took one from the half-emply pack that I stored in the freezer the day I had my last cigarette, in mid-October 2002. October 14, 2002 was the day I received Serena's e-mail announcing that she had undergone cancer surgery and would have her baby delivered early, by C-section, so that her chemo could commence.

Smoking may not have been the most constructive activity I could have undertaken this afternoon; however, short of making love, it was the most comforting. (Later in the day, still shaking, frightened, and unnerved, I asked an old friend to visit, and we had a great time in bed. Sex took his and my minds away from real life for a greatly needed interval.)

I react, however belatedly, to illness with self-destructive behavior, to death with life-affirming sex.

I think, I hope, I can start to pick myself up again.

February 21, 2005

The age of grief

The saying is, "live fast; die young; and leave a pretty corpse."

The problem is, those who live sensibly are the ones who are dying.

My friend Nell's* 47-year-old brother, Matthew, collapsed on his way to work last Thursday and died instantly of a heart attack. He was married, had 3 kids, was in decent shape and had a good health history.

Nell and I were great friends in high school and through most of college, then we lost touch until about a year and a half ago, when we re-met at our 25th high school reunion. In the preceding five years, she had had lymphoma, been hospitalized on and off for more than a year, and came very close to dying. (She's in remission/recovery now.)

I found out about Matthew's death on Sunday, and planned to make a shiva call (their family is Orthodox Jewish) on Monday. When I got up that day, the weather was crappy, and the forecast called for Tuesday to be much nicer.

Before I decided whether to trek across the park in snowy/sleeting/windy weather, I checked my e-mail: my friend Serena, whom I've known since freshman year in college, fall 1978, had sent an omnibus e-mail, that her stage 4 breast cancer, diagnosed 2 1/2 years ago, had recurred. Serena has been doing chemo the whole time, but her liver metastases aren't shrinking; they're growing. Serena has a five-year, 16% chance of survival. We buried her best friend, also dead of breast cancer, about three years ago.

This isn't how it's supposed to happen, is it? Did the age of grief creep up on me when I wasn't looking? I still mourn my father, but he died 14 years ago in what seemed like a time frame when other people's parents were also dying. Now, my generation seems to have taken up that torch. Our own age of grief has arrived.

I waited until Tuesday to make the shiva call, and found out how religious Jews mourn, something I'd never experienced. They cover the mirrors, sit on low chairs made for mourners, tear their collars, have religious services (Kaddish) twice a day, and don't leave the house for a week, except to attend Shabbat (Sabbath) services.

I wondered how Nell's parents, whom I had not seen in more than 25 years, would make it through this experience, especially after having come so close with Nell. I am not good with rituals about death: I go to console, but I end up crying.

At Nell's parents, the largest group paying shiva was in the living room. It is a room I knew well, for Nell threw the best New Year's parties I've ever attended. It is a place I remembered as a happy one, with a wonderful view of Central Park and the annual New Year's fireworks, with good friends, smoking way too much dope and drinking champagne, perhaps dancing, always laughing, being the entertainer or the entertainee.

Death recast the room's image for me.

Last night, I dreamt that I was swimming in an Adirondack lake where, in real life, my father's ashes are scattered. I was with another college friend, DeeDee. In college she was the most self-destructive woman I have ever known, and she scared most people, but I loved her. We were friends, taking turns on our self-appointed rescue squad.

In the dream I was telling DeeDee about Matthew, and we were both laughing hysterically.

When I woke up I thought of it as laughter in the face of death, of the irony of DeeDee and I being the survivors, since she and I were both of the "live fast" school, and yet we were still here, when people who had life histories of being far more sensible were either dead or dying.

All I know right now is I am here.

* for privacy reasons, all names have been changed

February 15, 2005

Could you be my mother?

Part II
Subject: Looking for information


I am looking for someone who I believe graduated from [the Westchester city] area around 1978. I was hoping that you could help me by providing any information you may have.

My name is Bill and I am looking for my birth mother. I have tried searching through State of New York agencies and through Internet registries, but I have only been able to determine that I was born to a 17 year old woman in July 1977 in [the city where I had lived]. I am assuming that she graduated the following year. Unfortunately, the non-ID information provided by the state also mentioned that my adoption records were destroyed in a fire.

I also wanted to provide a little information about myself. First off, I'm not searching to establish a new family or because I am in any kind of trouble. My adoptive parents raised me well and I have an excellent relationship with them. I am also a college graduate with a professional job and a comfortable life. I became interested in searching because I want to know where I came from. It is the knowledge that I am most after.

Because I have been requested for this in the past, I am of Caucasian descent, have brown hair and eyes and I am 6'2".

Any help would be greatly appreciated. If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me.

Thank you for any and all help.


This query is unique in my experience. I expect I will receive none like it.

As I have never been pregnant, the answer is, I'm not anyone's biological mother.

I spent most of my elementary and junior high school years in public school in a town in Westchester. When I came across classmates.com, I added my name to my then-town's high school class, not the prep school from which I graduated. Private schools always know where to find you. (They share this trait with bill collectors.) Public schools are less interested. But Bill wanted to know: could I be, was I, his mother?

I wanted to make myself available via the classmates Web site if the public school had any reunions scheduled. I want to see what happened to the children I knew when I was small, the ones who saw me from learning to read through learning to drink Boones Farm Strawberry Hill Country Fresh wine in the deserted football field of my junior high school. I never anticipated this missive from Bill.

By the time I got to prep school, I had already learned useful life lessons: how to lie, cheat, steal, act sober -- even to tell the truth, although I could not do so, at least not to my parents, without giggling.

I was more polished at 15 than at 5. I am not fascinated by my prep school classmates. I remain curious about the children with whom I was a child. They are a diverse lot; my prep school group is homogenous. I don't profess to condemn one and condone the other. I am, however, well aware of the differences.

I attended sixth grade with a boy who grew up to be a gas station attendant and/or owner. I suspect my prep school acquaintances might know how to self-serve, but their careers -- heaven forbid they had "jobs" -- would have them analyzing or owning stock in the gas company or heading up one of its subsidiaries.

The mothers of my acquaintance from prep school would never find the term "housewife" in their personal lexicons, while the many of the girls who became mothers from the town in which I lived probably would not take the description amiss.

As it happens, I am not Bill's mother. I was in France that summer, a virgin of 16. I e-mailed a brief reply, that I was not his mother, and I wished him the best of luck in his search.

If you are Bill's birth mother, he's searching for you.

February 12, 2005

Are you my mother?

Part I
It must be very strange, one of my friends reminded me, to look at your reflection and not recognize yourself. I'm not quite sure that's how my mother feels. I gather she recognizes herself, but in the most unflattering of lights. When she asked me, four weeks post-op, I told her she looked like a younger version of herself, very pretty, but with traces of battered wife syndrome.

The swelling is supposed to go down completely in three to six months. I can't wait. Until then, to see it scares me. My mom's face looks as puffy as if someone attacked her. You can cover bruises with makeup (and well concealed the purpling and green marks are), but you can't make the swelling disappear.

I have picked up friends from much stranger places than the cosmetic surgeons' office. It's almost all out-patient these days. I never ask any medical questions, for I don't want to hear the gory commentary. I ask about the pain pills instead.

What gives me away as an amateur doctor is that although I have pharmaceutical knowledge by the ton and through the ages, actual surgical situations that require incisions, blood loss and stitches are ones I have never experienced. Should I ever be in such a predicament, I have five words of instruction: "wake me when it's over." Make that eight: "more medication, please."

I know the vocabulary: years of TV shows from Ben Casey and Marcus Welby to ER, Chicago Hope, and Strong Medicine, plus reruns have taught me how to identify a subdermal hepatoma, stop a patient from bleeding out (and what the proximate causes might be), revive one who is in defib, recognize malignant spots and complex fractures exhibited on X-rays, find a fetus, dead or alive, on the sonogram, and cite indications of a possible head injury, among other things.

I've learned the Latin for anatomical terms and procedures, and when to call in more specialists than I previously knew existed. I would not, however, do well as a Lamaze coach, harkening back to my more-medication plea and the historical knowledge that Queen Victoria considered anesthesia a great scientific advance for women in labor.

(I neglected Latin during my academic career, and, with my lab partner, refused to dissect our etherized frog in high school biology. We claimed that dissecting an animal constituted cruelty to the species. We neglected to say we were carnivores who coveted our mothers' mink coats -- then again, no one was asking.)

I joke that my next college reunion will be the Botox one. There's a wrinkle bisecting my forehead that I wouldn't mind losing, at least for a short time. I can see where, ten years from now, a tuck or two wouldn't be amiss. Yet my 25+ year migraine history causes me to make it a point never to volunteer for pain. At the same time, the French have summed up the female dilemma for eternity: Il faut souffrier pour etre belle. The question for me is, how much?

February 01, 2005

Drive, she said.

So I did. My friend who has relocated to Tucson has had her license for six weeks, total, and her sense of direction is what you would expect from a virginal driver, a transplanted New Yorker in her 50s.

The faith with which she entrusted me to drive also belied a certain lack of experience behind the wheel. No one, apart from my Tucsonian friend, has ever described my driving as "fabulous." It is usually deemed somewhere between "serviceable," and "don't get on the road if I'm driving."

She and I are both of the four-right-turns equals one left school of driving, which worked well in the grid that is Tucson. I drove into the mountains; I drove into the desert; I drove us around town. I didn't get too lost and I didn't hit anyone or anything, so I'd say the rental car venture was a success. I was happy when her husband returned and I could send the car back to Hertz; I've completed my mileage quota for the year, clocking in at 190 miles driven.

Didn't do much sightseeing. We ate mostly in restaurants (she prepares less food than do I), and at friends' houses. Lovely houses, very Southwestern, very full of Indian elements and the gemstones for which the town is known. Great sunsets, a point of civic pride.

At a dinner party I was the youngest guest, with the fewest ailments, though I could certainly keep up my end of the medical maladies conversation. Everyone was very friendly; all the women I met did enough crafts -- from knitting to glass-making, jewelry-making, needlepoint, and more -- to convince me that I was in a summer camp for the middle aged retiree. The men had applied their engineering and chemist skills to learn cooking and master gardening.

We did see an old Spanish mission on an Indian reservation, where all the captions in the attached museum were from the Indian point of view, unlike the mission I saw in California, where there was a distinct we-saved-the-heathens mentality. We also visited the Botanical Gardens, previously the home of the mother and grandmother of one of my oldest college friends.

Very strange, to know my friend and her family history so well, yet see it edited for public consumption -- the fate of the little girls who swam in the water tower, what else remains unexposed, how this particular family drama has played out. I know so many stories from so many lives that I will not reveal, and this is one of those.

I thought of my college friend, and her family, and I wished them well. I also thought how strange it must be, for my friend or her mother to return to Tucson, where what was once the family dining room is now a gift shop.