Whispers

We were driving across town today and, just like that, my cochlear implant died. So instantly, in the space between one stoplight and another, I was back to being deaf.

Not hard of hearing, not hearing impaired, deaf except for maybe 10% of sound. We were picking up our son to go to lunch. He got in the car and I could hear murmurings of conversation between he and my husband but I looked out the window with no sense of what they were saying. None. In minutes, I had become cargo.

This has happened to me only once before. It was at a meeting to discuss kicking off a project to tell the stories of women who are homeless. The person I was meeting with, a long time colleague and wonderful person, was excited to move forward and I was encouraged by her endorsement, her great willingness to be the connection between me and women she was working with. She would be the person who would give me the legitimacy I would need to begin.

But then my implant died. Like today, it was a problem with the battery not charging adequately overnight. And so, right in the middle of our very intense conversation, I went deaf. And I couldn’t continue. I tried to explain but it is so peculiar to be a person whose life in the hearing world is so dependent on a battery. “I’m sorry but my battery died.”

My battery died so I have to run home because I have suddenly become a fawn in a forest full of cougars and bears because I can’t hear them sneaking up on me and I shouldn’t even be driving a car because I can’t hear people beeping their horns or a siren or know where the siren is coming from, I am a hazard to everyone, a witless, unknowing, unaware, incompetent former whole person.

It is just a technical problem.

At home, I switch to another battery, this one perfectly charged. The sound doesn’t immediately activate so I unscrew the battery and try again, all the while imagining that maybe something worse than a battery is broken. Maybe the mechanical stuff in my head is broken and within seconds I am on the operating table while they swap out the defective parts and put in new ones but this time they don’t have to drill a hole in my skull because it is still there, hidden behind my right ear.

All is well now, though. I hear myself typing on my keyboard. I hear the music downstairs, my chair creaking, and the dog standing to rearrange herself in her bed. I don’t take any of it for granted.

Ambition

What a good trip gives me, oddly, is ambition.

And to feel ambitious is wonderful. I love the potential of ambition, the hopefulness of it, the sense that there are things still to be accomplished, the belief that I could do so many things if I decided to. It’s all in the deciding, not in anything else.

Ambition is powerful.

Here’s why this good trip to Alaska gives me ambition. I only have with me the possessions I can carry. I have my jeans and a hoodie and a lot of socks and three pairs of boots and my parka. I don’t have my office, the shelves full of books, and the drawers full of papers. I don’t have the ice on the driveway, the aged dog on the carpet, people wanting me to show up places. So I’m unencumbered except for my traveling companion with whom I am fine being encumbered.

Seeing people doing different things than I have done gives me ambition. The last Iditarod musher to leave the chute yesterday, #53, is a 67-year old nurse practitioner. She’s run the race before, never won, never placed, but she has finished. She’s 67 and she’s going on a 1,000 dog sled journey by herself, stopping at checkpoints for brief periods where she alone has to care for her dogs, and then taking off in the dark across rivers and mountains alone. So, yeah, she makes me feel ambitious, she makes me feel strong, and not old enough to have already reached my full potential. 

Imagining how it would be to live in Alaska makes me feel ambitious, knowing that I could move here if I wanted to, that I have the gear for it, at least, and the weather is no worse than Wisconsin in most places. There is nothing keeping me from becoming an Alaskan. One could say that about becoming an Floridian as well but it would not be relaxing moving here. I would really have to pay attention, this doesn’t seem to be the place for layabouts. 

Ambition is a gift.

I have been making a mental list of my ambitions – writing, publishing, advocacy, service, travel, physical challenges. There are a dozen beautiful things to do and knowing that makes me feel like a million bucks. It’s what a good trip does – charges me up to go be great. It’s magical.

If you are feeling stuck, go somewhere, anywhere, with your phone in your pocket and a change of clothes in a bag. Go remember how to get excited about what comes next, about what you will make happen next. Trust me, new ideas and new goals will sprout everywhere you look and you will need to keep a list.

 

 

Everything I Did Was Extra

I was raised to be secondary.

That never occurred to me until the other night when I was talking with a friend about his possible retirement. It’s a big challenge for anyone whose work life has been central to their identity.

But I realized that it was less of a challenge for me than I thought it would be. And it wasn’t because I didn’t love my work. I did. Almost more than anything. 

When I quit, I felt like I had nothing left to prove. I’d already exceeded people’s expectations of me. Actually, I’d probably done that five minutes after taking my first professional job forty years ago. 

All I was supposed to do, all I was shaped and raised to do, unwittingly, just naturally because that’s how it was, was this: get married and have children. And maybe help my husband if he was in a situation where my help would be needed which, if I made a decent match, would be unlikely.

Remember I am a person who took shorthand in college. I wasn’t a gal in the aim high club.

So when you think about how I was raised and what was expected of me, I’ve done okay. Moreover, being raised with low expectations gave me a weird kind of freedom. Nobody expected much of anything from me. So in that context, my whole professional life has been gravy. 

In contrast, my male friend, having been raised to be primary, feels burdened by the expectations laid on him by his parents, by society, by himself. Though he has done an extraordinary amount, he can’t be finished yet. There is a pinnacle he thinks he hasn’t yet reached. It’s burdensome, those expectations.

I think things have changed for women and men but I don’t know that to be true.  And until this conversation it never occurred to me really that I was raised to be secondary. But I was. And it has had its peculiar benefits.

 

My Face, My Beautiful Face

It was my first time. I’d never had anyone fuss with my face, shape my eyebrows, those were things other women did, not me.

I lay back on the table and she put a pillow under my knees. As she studied my face, she pulled a bright light down to help her get a closer look like a dentist might do looking for an especially subtle cavity.

After she was done with my eyebrows, the waxing and tweezing, I asked her a question I’d been wanting to ask somebody for a long time. “Do you think anything can be done about my face?” I was sixty then and had long vertical creases in my cheeks, lines across my forehead, and branches of worry on the side of each eye.

She studied me for a long moment and then stood back, returning the examination lamp back to its place.“No,” she said, “I can’t do anything. Maybe a doctor could.” She seemed repelled somehow like she wished she could roll her eyes but it would be unseemly, not appropriate in front of a paying customer, especially one so seemingly unaware, unlearned, so naive. She turned away and then she said this.

“I bet you wash your face with soap.”

The creases in my mother’s face had been even deeper than mine, so deep that it seemed that her skin had been borrowed from a much larger person and hung on her head by mistake. I remember when the creases in her face were made. I watched from a window in the kitchen while she lay on a lawn chair in the backyard.

She wore a tiny halter top, one with no straps, just elastic top and bottom. It was white and maybe just three inches wide, just enough to cover her mastectomy scars. Running from the center of the halter top to the top of her shorts was a long thin scar where surgeons had removed her gallbladder or appendix or had explored. She had had several exploratory surgeries which I envisioned as doctors hunting for something to make real her complaints of illness. There had to be something the matter. We kept asking but she said, “No, nothing’s the matter.” As a child, I probably asked her that question 10,000 times.

She would wait until noon,when it was hottest, to go in the backyard. And then she would lay, first on her back and then on her stomach, always in her white halter top and her blackshorts, the rest of her body bare, offered up to the heat and the sun. She would lie flat on the lawn chair, perfectly flat, until the sun began to set. She didn’t read or converse unless I spoke to her, asked if I could go to my friend’s house or whether I should start dinner. She just baked herself until she became brown, my fair, freckled mother became as brown as the table next to me as I write this. Not mahogany, lighter, but just barely as I remember. But I was a child.

My mother was lovely and soft, not hard, her toughened brown skin notwithstanding, and she was very gentle, all the time gentle, and melancholy, this last thing being what I remember most. She gave me her wisdom as much as she could and one important thing was this, “You don’t have to be pretty as long as you’re neat and clean.”

“I bet you wash your face with soap.”

I was in the bathtub one night. I remember this so clearly because I was concerned about one of my toes and thinking I should ask my mother if something was wrong with my toe and then I heard sirens. The sirens came right at me, right at our house, and I waited for them to pass and go to the house across the street where the dad sometimes hit the mom and then she would come running to our door and my dad would let her in and go talk to the dad and then say he calmed everyone down. But instead the sirens stopped and doors started slamming.

I stood in my pajamas, wet and dripping because I’d jumped out of the bathtub and dressed so fast, wanting to see what was the matter. The firemen were in the living room and my mother was on the couch. She was breathing into a brown paper bag and one of the firemen was patting her on the back. “Just breathe, ma’am, just breathe.” And she did just breathe while the revolving lights of the fire truck flashed through the window and I realized the truck was on our lawn, not even on the street. It was such a terrible thing, I thought, that they had to drive on the lawn and not even use the driveway.

The next morning, I took my Girl Scout sash and my new badges into my mom’s bedroom. It was dark in there, she was still sleeping although my dad had left hours before to go to work. I wanted her to sew my badges on, she sewed everything, drew patterns for dresses on newspaper, and made curtains out of old skirts. But she said I should find some safety pins to fasten my badges because she couldn’t sew them now. That would have to do, she said. And so I went downstairs to her sewing table and found safety pins but I couldn’t make the badges look like they’d been sewn on because they hadn’t.

“I bet you wash your face with soap.”

When I got older, I understood why my mother had roasted in the sun day after scorching day, why she sometimes lay on the couch, facing the wall, for hours on end, so long sometimes I would stop what I was doing to watch her breathing. Was she still breathing, I would wonder, sometimes sitting on the slimmest edge of the couch to rub her shoulder and ask if she wanted me to turn on the television or make her some tea. She always said no, she was fine. But she was not fine, she was never fine, but eventually I left home and I didn’t think about it all the time.

The lines in my face deepened every year. They weren’t as extreme as my mother’s, no, but the time I’d spent in the sun, the afternoons swimming in lakes and then lying still on a towel, so pleased to feel the sun on my face, all those times added up to a time and sun-worn face so dramatic that only a doctor’s intervention could repair the damage. I considered that, I thought about plastic surgery and Botox shots, wondered what might be possible to restore my face to an earlier version and I emailed my daughter in California and told her of my thinking.

I told her how my face was bothering me and I thought I should try to fix it and what she wrote back made me decide to do nothing. She wrote, “Your face, your beautiful face.”

I still wash my face with soap. I stand in the shower with the hot water streaming and I lather up and wash myself, my arms and legs and chest, and then my face and I let the water run on my face like it is rain falling on grass that has been parched by the sun.

The Fall

I fell. I fell on a boat ramp that had jagged rows of bumpy concrete intended to prevent falling. I gripped the end of the kayak in my right hand, faced up the ramp like I had done so often before, and waited for my husband, Howard, to give the signal that he was lifting the other end and we should walk the kayak up the ramp. He signaled, I pulled hard, and then I fell.

We had been kayaking along the shore of Islamorada in a double-seat, heavy plastic sea kayak. We started from the old resort where we had stayed nearly every year for thirty years. There was just the two of us now, our kids were grown, so we stayed in the resort’s smallest room, in the back near busy U.S. 1, the only highway in the Florida Keys. I missed the old days when we drove from Wisconsin over spring break with our carload of children. Then we stayed in the front unit, a cabin with a sliding glass door across the entire side facing the Florida Bay. After our first day there, the concrete stoop by the cabin door would be littered with snorkel gear, swim fins, and fishing poles with tangled lines. Our kids ran in and out of the ocean like they’d been born there.

Our family’s history in this place is long and deep. Howard had stayed in the same cabin with his family when he was a child and had told the story a dozen times of breaking his arm falling off the roof of the adjoining building playing tag with the owner’s kids. His grandmother, an immigrant from Ukraine, made gefilte fish from their daily catch. Her name was Bertha, but Howard called her Moy. When we stayed in the same cabin years later, I could imagine Moy latching an old cast iron meat grinder to the side of the kitchen counter and grinding snapper and yellowtail into the paste that is gefilte fish. All of this history, his and ours, made this small, old-fashioned Florida Keys resort a beloved place for me, a place I yearned for quietly nearly all the time but visited only every couple of years now that it was just the two of us.

The kayaking before the fall was smooth and almost effortless. It was hot, though, and I wished I’d brought a water bottle. The water was still except for soft lobs from the powerful wakes of speeding fishing boats far out in the bay. We paddled past old Keys houses and new mansions, sometimes a dog would run to the end of a dock to bark at us. We looked for the parrot fish and barracuda that we often saw when we snorkeled, but the water seemed empty, like everything had left to find deeper, cooler places.

We watched a helicopter hovering over houses on shore. It was so close to earth that I worried it would crash. I thought maybe there was an escaped criminal. The copter’s blade- slapping roar alarmed me, maybe because it was all I could hear. Knowing we would be on the water, I’d taken off my hearing aid and the receiver for my cochlear implant Without them, I was deaf except for the helicopter noise which rattled me with its loudness.

We turned around about two miles down the shore. We paddled back, next to the resort’s dock and then to the base of the boat ramp. I got out in waist deep water and steadied the kayak for Howard to negotiate getting out. We positioned the kayak to hoist out of the water, so we could put it back in its storage place along the bamboo fence.

And then I fell. It hurt. It hurt in the shocking, painful way that it hurt when I fell off my bike as a kid skidding around a corner on the dirt road near our house, the scrapes on my elbows and knees thick with gravel. Falling stunned me like I had suddenly become infirm, unable to do the simple thing of bringing a kayak out of the water. I gathered myself, stood up, and looked over my shoulder at Howard, “It’s just too heavy for me.” He nodded, shrugged as if to say, “no big deal.”

Two young men who had been watching came to help him with the kayak. Still dazed, I walked across the boat ramp, up a small hill, and sat in a white plastic chair at the resort’s little tiki hut where I’d sat a hundred times reading The Miami Herald and drinking Bustelo, watching my kids fishing or swimming. Sitting there felt like sitting in my living room, it was that familiar. Except now it wasn’t.

I sat still with my hands folded in my lap like I was at church waiting for the homily.  Howard walked by taking the life preservers and paddles back to the resort office. He disappeared, and I imagined him having a nice chat with the lady at the desk. Maybe he was telling her about the helicopter. I put my head on the table.

A man and a woman on their way to the dock looked at me concerned, they mouthed the words “Are you alright?” and I nodded yes, I was fine, and put my head back down on the table, looking at the door of the resort office, praying that it would open soon, and Howard would come back. I couldn’t talk to anyone else. They would ask me questions I couldn’t answer. He was the only person I could understand when I didn’t have my hearing equipment, when I was deaf. We had our own language, hand signals and lip reading. I could tell him I was in trouble with just my eyes if he would only come back.

When Howard finally returned, he suggested we move to better lounge chairs for a while and enjoy the sun. He doesn’t know I’m hurt, I thought. “No, no. I’m really sick,” I mouthed, not wanting anyone to hear me. Somehow, it was important for only him to know. He looked at me, baffled, and then called out for someone to call 911. Later, he said I was gurgling when I talked, and my eyes were glazed and seeming to roll up in my head. I remember it being strange that he was so concerned but trying hard to look nonchalant, gesturing to other resort guests to move them to action but keeping his eyes on me all the while. I sank into the chair and surrendered myself to his care. Everything would be all right now that he was here.

From nowhere, a young, handsome Latino man took my wrist and felt my pulse. He decided I should lie down on a lounge chair and he and Howard pulled one over. Then he put his arms around my waist and hoisted me from my plastic chair to the lounge chair and felt my pulse again. “Her blood pressure is very low,” he said. I heard him although I didn’t; his lips were easy to read. He smoothed my hair off my forehead. He looked in my eyes and stroked my face, first one cheek with the palm of his hand, then the other with the back of his hand. He smiled at me, nodded gently, and kept stroking my face. I felt like his dying mother, his beloved mother, his touch was so tender. Later, I learned he was a pharmacist from Peru. Did he learn to be so kind in pharmacy school, so reassuring and gentle or had his mother taught him before she died? Of course, I didn’t know if his mother had died. I was only guessing from his touch that she might have.

The EMTs came with their boxes. One with a full sleeve of tattoos took my blood pressure and inspected my left arm which by then was throbbing. It wasn’t broken but it hurt in a powerful way and seemed to be swelling while I watched. The EMTs had me drink water and stand up, then shepherded me to our tiny room where I lie on the white comforter and looked out the window, a plastic bag full of ice on my elbow. They never said what was wrong with me, just that I needed to rest, and I’d be okay.

When I got up after a few hours, there were tiny drops of blood on the sheets, but I felt better, dreamy, though, like a person feels after an accident, delicate, fragile, adrift. Old and unwell but still living. I missed being robust, missed being a person who could haul a kayak out of the water.

Hours later, we decided to go for a drive. Traveling up and down U.S. 1 in the Florida Keys is what people do. It’s about seeing both the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico at the same time, the weightlessness of speeding over bridges, white fishing boats below, making out dolphins in the distance, the possibility and freedom of it all. The drive would be a healing thing, I knew that from experience.

Before we left, we saw a group of people near the resort office. On his knees trying to entice a squirrel with small pieces of bread was the pharmacist. I wanted to thank him, so we moved near the group to watch and as we did, the squirrel started to eat out of the pharmacist’s hand. A woman, maybe his girlfriend, took pictures on her phone. The squirrel was perched in the bougainvillea, red flowers framing his tiny, knowing face. It was entrancing, and I wondered if it was the pharmacist’s magic or the squirrel’s habit that brought them so close together.            

“Sir,” Howard said. The pharmacist looked up, then recognized me as the woman with the weak pulse. He reached out and I hugged him. “Thank you for being so kind,” I said, remembering how he had stroked my face when I was so ill. He asked how I was feeling and for the first time I heard his soft Spanish accent. I told him my arm ached a little and he took my arm in both hands and stroked it softly like it was a bundle of orchids that would wilt with too harsh a touch.

We said goodbye and got in our car for our drive down the Keys. In the rear-view mirror, I saw the pharmacist walking with his friends down to the dock. They were laughing and chatting, luckiness and gladness dancing around them like fireflies.

Once Upon a Time

My friend of forty years laughed and said “Did you ever think 35 years ago that we’d be talking about who has the Alzheimer’s gene?” to which I answered, “No, we were always talking about sex,” which was true because we spent a fair amount of time behaving badly and then lamenting with each other before and after swimming very early morning laps in a cold pool where we went religiously but pointlessly, it all being part of her plan for us to avoid aging, a condition so abstract and far away as to be part of a fairy tale we only partly believed.

Risky Business

Alzheimer’s Disease is just drenched in stigma. It’s the leprosy of our time, the worst possible thing that could happen. Your hands will fall off, your nose, parts of you will drop to the ground, strewn about the landscape, and people will run away when they see you coming. No, they won’t even look at you, won’t see you because you’ll be living on an island that spares them the trouble.

Yes. Alzheimer’s has that kind of stigma. Mega-stigma.

It has so much stigma that, after each sentence, I want to say “I don’t have Alzheimer’s.” I don’t want anyone thinking my every lost key or forgotten name is a symptom in search of a disease. I’m as sharp as they make ’em, don’t you know.

Today, I got an email from a national Alzheimer’s prevention registry. This is something that I signed up for in one of my over-zealous moments about how I should do more about Alzheimer’s Disease because it killed my mother.

Participation in the registry begins with submitting a DNA test. This is so, down the road, the registry can match a person with a study or drug trial that, for instance, compares outcomes for people predisposed to Alzheimer’s to those not so unfortunate.

It’s all about the APOE4 gene. If you have it, your chances of developing Alzheimer’s Disease later in life are way higher than people who have APOE2 or APOE3. Way higher. I’d say radioactive but that would sound hysterical and that’s uncalled for this early in the game.

So I don’t know if I have the APOE4 gene but the registry folks do. I gave them my DNA, remember? And they’ll tell me if I decide to participate in the study described in the email. Wait, let me clarify. They’ll tell me if I have the high risk gene if I want them to.

I’m thinking about it.