Archive for the ‘Personal history’ Category

That Old House

March 31, 2015

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The email came a year ago. The subject line was “Montclair House.” I didn’t recognize the sender. Angie said that she and her husband had bought my childhood home, and hoped to restore it to its original footprint. She had found a blog post I’d written about it. She wanted to talk to me.

I wasn’t sure I wanted to talk to her. But I wasn’t sure why.

The house is a rambling Victorian built in 1900. A landing in the stairs overlooks the living room. The main entrance isn’t at the front, but, quirkily, on the side. When our parents bought the house, in 1958, the shady hemlocks, dark cedar shingles and wrap-around porch reminded our mother of the Adirondacks. I had just turned one – the last of four children. Until our mother died, in 1999, the house was our family’s gravitational center.

It’s where I learned to read. And write. To ride a bike and drive a car. We carried the black-and-white TV into the backyard to watch Bobby Kennedy’s funeral, and onto the porch for the Watergate Hearings. All three sisters crossed the landing and descended the stairs to get married in the living room. Four generations gathered in the dining room for Passover seders. Each of my siblings moved back at some point, as adults. I never moved back, but the house stayed inside me.

For a long time after we sold the house, I found myself waking up at night longing to search through closets and drawers that had long since been emptied of our stuff and refilled with other families’ possessions. I couldn’t believe our childhood drawings weren’t still crammed into the built-in drawers in the master bedroom, that our broken kitchen chairs weren’t stored in the back attic, that my head comics were no longer hidden behind my bed.

The property has changed hands a few times since we sold it. Early on, the sellers held an open house. My brother went, and took pictures. I pored over the photos, trying to reconcile the freshly painted rooms and neatly landscaped yard with the well-worn, lived-in spaces I remembered. Passing through town, I would idle at the curb, trying to mentally replant the lost hemlocks and replace the new blue siding with the old cedar shingles. Eventually, I learned to let go of the physical building. I knew I would never lose the sense of home that endured in my mind.

But Angie’s email revived the old longing. I sent her a quick note, asking for more information. While I waited to hear back, I tried to imagine how anyone could restore our home to what it had been. Would they bring back the clutter? Re-peel the paint? Rewire the light switch outside the bathroom so it only worked when it was jiggled just so?

Four days later, Angie answered. She wanted to know my favorite memory of the house. But the rest of her questions were architectural. Had the “front” door always been at the side? Was the little room off the dining room ever a porch?

I forwarded her email to my siblings. We swapped memories about staging plays on the landing over the living room, and soaking in the claw-foot tub. We told each other how glad we were that the house was back in the hands of people who loved it. And we agreed that the idea of restoring the “original footprint” made no sense. The “front” door had always been on the side. And the little room off the dining room had always been the “sun room,” where our father paid the bills and we kept the Passover haggadahs.

The next time she wrote, Angie attached old photos from when the house was first built – pictures we had never seen.

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There was the front door, at the front of the house. And there, in the corner where the sun room belonged, was an open porch.

As I studied the photos, trying to reconcile the house on my screen with the one I remembered, I realized what I had always known, but never absorbed. For 60 years before the house was ours, other families had already called it home. If the first owners could have seen how the house looked when we lived there, they would have had as much trouble recognizing the place as I do today.

In one of my emails to Angie, I mentioned those haggadahs in the sun room. She replied that at their seder that year, someone in her family had said, “Next year in Montclair.”

That “next year” is this year. I like imagining Angie’s family celebrating  in the Montclair dining room. It doesn’t matter so much if they open the door for Elijah at the side of the house or the front. I do hope, though, that when they pass the house on, they’ll hold memories of home as enduring and enriching as mine.

Ten Books

August 20, 2014

 

Books

A friend tagged me on Facebook to list 10 books that had had an impact on my life. Or words to that effect. I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about my answer. I just stood in front of my book shelves and noted the titles that resonated the most. Then I narrowed the list down from 20 to 10. Here are the ones I choose, and why.

 

Time of Wonder (Robert McCloskey)

Of course I love Make Way for Ducklings, Blueberries for Sal, and Homer Price and the Donut Machine. But none of them got inside me that way this gem did – in large part, I think, because of the way my mother read it to me. I could tell that she loved it, and implicitly understood why: the sound of the language, the wild New England coast, the reverent attention to the sounds and sights that signal shifts in the weather, and in the season. This book is one of the main reasons I write picture books. It’s also the reason so many of the texts that are closest to my heart meet with rejection, always on the grounds that they’re too “quiet.”

Charlotte’s Web (E.B. White)

Before I could read, I pored over Garth Williams’ illustrations. When I learned to read, I learned to seek out any book in my school library that was illustrated by Williams. He was instantly recognizable, and never steered me wrong. I had a hard time choosing among the many Williams-illustrated books that I loved, but in the end this it was a no-brainer. What’s not to love about Fern’s courageous defense the runt of the litter? Templeton the Rat’s relish of discarded fair food? Wilbur’s hopeful innocence? And then there’s Charlotte. I have re-read this book more times than I can count, and have never failed to weep at the ending. “Wilbur never forgot Charlotte. Although he loved her children and grandchildren dearly, none of the new spiders ever quite took her place in his heart. She was in a class by herself. It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.” That’s what I want them to write on my grave.

 

Animal Family (Randall Jarrell)

Love makes a family. I learned that lesson from this lovely fairy tale about the love between a hunter, a mermaid, a bear, a lynx and a little boy. It’s a lovely story, and also a lovely book, from poet Jarrell’s mesmerizing language, to Maurice Sendak’s lush “decorations,” to the thick, soft paper the pages are printed on and the size and weight of the volume. This is my sister Rachel’s book, but at some point I absconded with it. I hope she doesn’t mind.

Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (Tom Wolfe)

Required reading for 14-year-old aspiring Dead Heads in 1971. Nuff said.

World According to Garp (John Irving)

When I was a student at Hampshire College, Irving was teaching writing up the road, at Mt Holyoke. In my freshman year I took his writing workshop, and in my junior year I did an independent study with him. I would have tried to study with him my sophomore year, too, if he hadn’t been on leave, writing Garp. It’s not my favorite book in the world, but of the various writers I studied with, Irving was hands-down the most encouraging.

 

Machine Dreams (Jayne Anne Phillips)

Housekeeping (Marilynne Robinson)

Pigeon Feathers (John Updike)

Family relationships. Complicated characters. Resonant descriptive details. Utterly absorbing. I read all of these just after college, when I was trying to figure out how to keep writing while holding down a day job. When I’m stuck in my writing, I’ll sometimes pick up one of my favorite books and read a few sentences, to remind myself of what I’m trying to do, and why. These three are among those I go to most often.

 

Street of Crocodiles (Bruno Schultz)

Isaac Bashevis Singer on acid. That big book of mine that’s still searching for a home might be described as a conversation between Schultz and the three writers above.

Kaddish (Leon Wieseltier)

How a book hits you is all in the timing. I started reading this maybe a month before my mother died, and finished it maybe a month after. I’m a slow reader, and it’s a dense read — a personal search for the arcane origins of the Jewish mourners’ prayer. Kaddish was to my 42-year-old self what Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test was to me at 14.

 

What are your 10?

New Picture Book Coming!

November 20, 2013

IMG_20131118_0001_NEWHey! Look what just got announced in Publisher’s Marketplace!

Ruth Horowitz’s BEES IN THE TREES, about an apple grower and a beekeeper, and a misunderstanding that escalates into a feud, to Tracy Mack at Scholastic, by Linda Epstein at the Jennifer DeChiara Literary Agency (World).

I am thrilled that my story has found a home at Scholastic, grateful as all get-out for my wonderful agent and friend Linda Epstein for making it happen, and eager to start working with my editor Tracy Mack, as we polish my words to fit with the pictures. But first Tracy and her team have to find the perfect artist to create those pictures.

Making a picture book takes time. How much time?

I wrote the first version of BEES in 1991. We were living in Vermont. My kids were little, and we’d gone apple picking. I noticed that the orchard also sold honey, and started thinking about how bees need apple trees and apple trees need bees. It seemed like the perfect set-up for a picture book. So I began playing around with the idea, and pretty soon it was about more than just bees and trees. It was also about friendship and fences, fuzzy slippers and funny insults. When it felt just right, I started sending the book out in search of a publisher.

Back then, submitting a picture book manuscript meant mailing a physical object. Even if you had no intention of illustrating the book, yourself, you created a dummy to show how the book might look. That meant literally cutting (with scissors) and pasting (with rubber cement), and going to Kinko’s (because in those days, who had a copier at home?). (The pictures on this post are from that dummy — I got a little carried away.)

My buddy Robert Resnik walked over to Kinko’s with me. On the way, I recited my story to him.

“What will you do if it doesn’t sell?” he asked.

“Oh, it’ll sell.” I said. How could it not? It was so good! And I wasn’t just anyone. I had already published two picture books, Bat Time and Mommy’s Lap.

The next morning I sent BEES out to the first editor. In those days, most children’s book editors would still consider unsolicited manuscripts from writers who didn’t have literary agents. And even if they returned your manuscript, they sometimes included a personal letter telling you why. Over the next 10 years, I sent the story out to and got it back from 26 editors, and accumulated a fat stack of encouraging no-thank-you letters in the process.

At that point, I set the project aside. By now, Crab Moon and Breakout at the Bug Lab had come out, and Big Surprise in the Bug Tank was in the works. But I was starting to get interested in other kinds of writing, for readers who weren’t children. My own kids were nearly grown. I was working for Seven Days newspaper, and had just started on a big, ambitious novel for adults.

Fast-forward another decade, to the summer of 2012. My kids have graduated from college, and my husband David and I have moved from Vermont to Rhode Island.  I have finished my big, ambitious novel and signed with an agent, who is shopping it around. I’m a full-time writer now — no day job — but I’m feeling stuck, creatively. I have all the time and energy I could possibly want to devote to my writing, but I can’t seem to settle into my next project.

Linda and I are chatting one day when she asks, “Why aren’t you writing children’s books anymore?”

“I have filing cabinets full of children’s book manuscripts,” I tell her. (That’s a slight exaggeration – it’s more like folders full. But there are a lot of folders.)

She’s like, “So why don’t you pick out the best ones and show them to me?”IMG_20131118_0002_NEW

And I’m like, “Because they’re picture books, and you don’t represent picture books?”

And she’s all like, “I represent you.”

Thank you, Linda. I go home and start combing through my children’s book manuscripts. I have paper folders full of stories printed out on paper from the days before computers, and digital stories in electronic folders from the days since computers. Some of them are garbage, and some of them are promising, and a few of them are pretty damned good — like the one about bees and trees and friendship and fences and fuzzy slippers and funny insults.

That one is really good. But looking at it now, after leaving it alone for those years and honing my writing skills with all those other projects, I can see how it could be better. By a lot.

So I fuss with it and fix it, and when it feels just right, I send it to Linda – no scissors-and- cement dummy, just my text in a Word document attached to an email. And she does the rest.

If my bee story has a moral, it might be, “It’s dumb to pick fights with your friends.” But if the story of my bee story has a moral, it might be, “Never say never.” Or, “Patience makes perfect.” Or — in the case of me and the world of children’s books — “There’s no place like home.”

Mapping Memories

August 18, 2013

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My dad was double jointed. He could lay his palm flat on the kitchen table and fold his hand until the back of it touched the backs of his fingers. He didn’t realize he could do it until one day when he was leaning with his hand on a wall. Someone saw how his hand was folded, and said he should be in the circus.

The tips of the middle and ring fingers of my father’s right hand were missing. A month short of his twentieth birthday, he’d gotten shot during the Battle of Arnhem*, in Holland. He was crossing a field to deliver the message that his infantry unit needed more ammunition. I don’t know why it was his job to deliver the message. Maybe his commanding officer thought he was the one most likely to find his way to where he needed to go. He was his unit’s map reader.

I remember him reading the Times from cover to cover, and mysteries on the beach, and phone books in your hotel rooms (“lots of Polish names in Columbus,” he might say). But I don’t particularly remember him reading maps.

On car trips, he drove while my mother navigated. When they wanted calculate their progress, she would read off the mileage between the towns along the route, and he would respond with the running subtotal. From the backseat, it sounded like this:

M: 10 and 14.

D: 24.

M: 37.

D: 61.

M: 12.

D. 73.

…and so on, call-and-response, neither one missing a beat, until they had added up how much more road lay ahead. Hearing him add all those numbers in his head, I was dazzled.

He could read a map and he could fold back his fingers, but he couldn’t fold a map to save his life. That was also my mother’s job –smoothing the wrinkles, figuring out which way the pleats went, and closing it into a tidy accordion with the pretty tourist picture on the front, like the cover of a book.

In the book I’ve been writing and sending around and rewriting and sending around again and rewriting again since the beginning of this century, a ghost becomes displaced in time and ends up eavesdropping on events that took place before she was born.  At one point, a woman’s perfume stirs memories from times that are in the ghost’s past, but years to come for the people she’s watching, so she’s simultaneously remembering and predicting the jasmine of her mother’s perfume, the woods outside her cabin at camp, the smell of steam rising from a particular pavement in the rain, the skunky must of her husband’s skin.

“Odor by odor, [her] memories unfolded. Fold by fold, they told the forgotten flipsides of stories she’d thought she remembered.”

The flipside of my father’s injury was that it took him out of combat. My mother used to say it may well have saved his life. Another way of putting it is that those two fingertips was the price he paid so that my siblings and I might be born.

It boggles the brain. As another character in my book puts it, “The gears that grind God’s universe are beyond my understanding.”

Tuesday is the anniversary of my father’s death. On the secular calendar, the date was August 20, 1994. That’s the date I remember each year as I try to grab one more beach day before summer winds down. On the Jewish calendar, the date was 14 Elul, 5754. That’s the date I remember each year when I stand up to say Kaddish for him for in synagogue.

Sometimes 14 Elul falls closer to the end of August, sometimes it comes in early September, and sometimes it comes within a day or two of August 20. As a Jew, I’m used to tracking time on two not-quite-aligned systems. The surprise is that this year, for the first time since my father died, the calendars converge. It will happen again in 2032.

I’ll be 75—older than either of my parents lived to be. I have no road map to predict what will unfold between now and then—just two syncopated calendars to help me count how far I’m come, and enough memories to keep me writing.

*Also known as Operation Market Garden, and dramatized in the film “A Bridge to Far.” Thanks to my brother Ben for clarifying this detail.

Getting the Treatment

May 30, 2013

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A couple of weeks back, I taught a class at my synagogue about prayer without God. We discussed the Mi Sheberach, the healing prayer. How can it be meaningful to ask an entity you consider imaginary to take care of a real person with an all-too-real illness? The question sparked some lively discussion. And it really hit home with me.

At the beginning of April, I was diagnosed with polycythemia vera — a congenital condition in which the body produces too many red blood cells. I began my treatments right away, giving up a pint of blood once a week. Some of these blood-lettings have gone perfectly smoothly—a gentle poke of the needle, twenty minutes in the chair, and I’m done. Other sessions have been more problematic—hardened veins, thick blood, operator error. Between procedures, I felt washed out for a few days, and have watched sores and bruises develop and disappear on my arms. I have also seen my hemoglobin count inch down, from its high starting point of just over 19, towards its target, somewhere between 14 and 15.

I didn’t talk about my condition in class. But it sure was on my mind. And both the class and my condition were on my mind the next time I was in synagogue and the rabbi invited congregants to come forward for the Mi Sheberach and mention the names of friends and loved ones who were ill.

I’m pretty sure my name wasn’t mentioned. I’m pretty sure I didn’t want it to be. But standing at my pew, I decided to pray for myself, following the advice I had offered in class.

I started by bringing to mind the people I have shared waiting rooms and elevators and treatment rooms with at the different cancer centers where I have seen various hematologists. I always feel a bit sheepish, accepting the extra kindness I’m offered at these places, even though I’m dealing with so much less than so many other people there.

I pictured the woman in the wheelchair, weeping in the arms of her grown son. The young man with skeletal limbs. The kid as pale as parchment leaning on his walker as he chatted with his mother, his breath shallow and labored, his voice muffled by his surgical mask. The dazed expressions of patients new to their conditions. The turbans and hats and wigs. I don’t know any of these people’s names, or very much at all about what they’re going through. But I pictured them in turn, and wished them well.

Next, I thought about the doctors who diagnosed me and prescribed my treatment, who monitor my progress and answer my questions. The nurses who carry out the actual blood-letting. The woman in the blood labs. The one who checks my weight and blood pressure. The one who brings around juice and snacks. The receptionists who check me in and snap the ID around my wrist. The valets who park my car.

By the time the Mi Sheberach had ended, I felt myself surrounded by a network of people whose days are devoted to caring for those who are ill, providing cures or health when it’s possible, and when it’s not, offering comfort. I felt profoundly comforted, and more spiritually uplifted than I had in a long time.

On Wednesday I drove back to the hospital for what would be my last treatment before our long-planned trip to Slovenia and Austria. My doctor would be stopping by the treatment room to give me the final go-ahead.

I left my car with the valet. Checked in with the receptionist. Went to the blood lab for my weekly test. Had my weight and blood pressure measured. At each step in the now familiar routine, I remembered my Mi Sheberach.

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I settled into my treatment room to wait for the lab results. Kate, the same compassionate, highly competent nurse who has been drawing my blood for the last six weeks, topped off my water bottle .

Fifteen minutes later, my doctor arrived. He perched on the window sill, and Kate pulled up a chair. My labs had come back and my hemoglobin was 14. “We’re not going to take any blood today,” my doctor said. “The treatment worked. I told you Kate could do it!”

This is hardly the end of it. I’ll go back in two weeks. I expect that my numbers will have inched back up, and I’ll need to have my blood drawn. After that I’ll be getting regular blood tests, and phlebotomies as needed.

But this respite feels like a gift. This time tomorrow, I’ll be on my way to the airport.

Nursing My Diagnosis

May 9, 2013

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“Are you writing this down?” my mother used to say, when I described something strange and irksome that had happened to me. My husband has since picked up the chorus. And when another writer tells me about some disagreeable experience, I have been known to say, “It’s all material.”

I have been using this line on myself a lot lately, since I received the surprise of my bizarre diagnosis. It’s been a lot to deal with, physically and emotionally. But it also offers a lot of material.

For example, phlebotomists and nurses. I have been spending a lot of time with both, the phlebotomists as they draw relatively small amounts of my blood for lab tests, and the nurses as they draw a pint each week—standard treatment for my condition. Because I want to distract myself from those unpleasant needles, I like to talk during these procedures. And because as a writer I’m always eager to poke my nose in other people’s business, I mine these moments for whatever slices of human drama or character-defining details I’m able to extract. Because who knows when I might be able to use them?

So far, I have filed away:

–The nurse who claims, as she’s sticking me for my very first blood drawing, that she’s afraid of needles.

–The nurse whose husband complains that she spends too much on the novelty cakes she bakes for her friends’ celebrations.

–The two nurses at the office where they put in my PICC Line. One at my head and one at my feet, they roll my gurney to the operating room, a route that takes us down narrow hallways, around tight corners and through just-wide-enough doors. Throughout the journey, they gossip as if I’m not there—only, because I am, they talk around all the actual content.

“I’m not surprised she didn’t come back,” says the nurse at my head.

“Yeah? How come?” asks the nurse at my feet.

“Because remember what happened?”

“Oh, yeah.”

“Right?”

“Right.”

“Sounds like a great story,” I pipe up from my prone position. “Wish I could hear the details.”

I’m not trying to scold them; I really do want to hear more. But they shut up.

–The nurse who comes to my home to change the dressing on my PICC line, dropping by on Saturday afternoon, between one son’s karate class and another son’s violin lesson. She’s a slight, sweet-faced woman, who talks to me tenderly and handles my wounded arm as gently as anyone has ever handled any part of me.

When I tell her that my condition is interfering with my running, she says, “You should take up kickboxing. I love it.”

“What do you love about it?” I ask.

“It’s a perfect workout,” she says. “Cardio and strength-training combined. Plus you get to hit people and you don’t get in trouble.”

–The phlebotomist in Boston who plays Gospel music and never cracks a smile. When I ask her to spare my big veins for my next blood-letting, she says, “If you’re doing this for the long-term they’ll probably put in a port, anyway.”

–The phlebotomist in Providence who smiles constantly. When I ask her to spare my big veins for my next blood-letting, she nods sympathetically.

“I’ll just use a butterfly,” she says.

As the tube fills, she says she likes the way my purple cardigan looks with my yellow t-shirt. “I wouldn’t have thought of putting those colors together, but it works!” she says. “I’m always wearing purple with green. My husband says they don’t go, but I like them.”

“They’re Mardi Gras colors,” I tell her. “It’s your inner party girl coming out.”

–The highly competent nurse who has been drawing a pint of my blood each week for the last three weeks, and who I hope will draw all my pints forevermore. She is kind, careful, competent, and so relentlessly serious that I feel compelled to make wisecracks, and chalk up a personal victory each time she cracks a smile.

“That’s where my garden attacked me,” I tell her as we survey my inner arms on my third visit.

Her face lights up. “You garden?” she asks. “Flowers or vegetables?”

I tell her about my salad greens and radishes, and she talks about her raised beds, her kale that wintered over, the volunteer arugula that sprouts in her compost, her favorite heirloom tomatoes, and this year’s asparagus.

“The first time I saw asparagus growing I thought it was a joke,” I say. “It’s like a kid’s drawing of how vegetables grow.”

“I know,” she says, laughing. “Right?”


Let It Bleed

May 3, 2013

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I’m on the operating table at the Rhode Island Vascular Institute, getting a Peripherally Inserted Central Catheter (“PICC line” to its friends), installed in my left arm. It’s a quick procedure, done under local anesthesia, and Dr. A chats reassuringly as he works. I need reassuring. I’m a queasy wimp around needles and flesh. Especially my flesh.

I’m doing pretty well, though, until Dr. A says, “This vein isn’t cooperating. I’m going to have to go in again.”

“Okay,” I agree. As if I have a choice.

“Getting tense?” he asks.

“A little.”

“Do you want to talk?”

“Okay.”

“What do you want to talk about?”

“I don’t know.”

“Do you want to talk about Boston?”

“Okay.”

It’s Friday morning, April 19. By “Boston,” Dr. A doesn’t mean Red Sox or Sam Adams or Faneuil Hall. He means the surreal situation unfolding as we speak—the whole area under lockdown as police search for the surviving suspect of the Boston Marathon bombing, a man described as, “armed and dangerous.”

“My daughter lives in Cambridge,” I say.

Sophie and her husband Henry are graduate students at MIT. The security guard shot dead last night died outside Sophie’s building. On the phone this morning, she sounded rattled and exhausted. She and Henry had been up until three.

“Crazy stuff,” the nurse says.

“Really crazy,” says Dr A.

And the procedure is over.

I’m here because I have polycythemia vera—my body produces too many red cells. (I wrote about it here.) Standard treatment is to withdraw a pint of blood once or twice a week until the blood count reaches the right level, and then continue to phlebotomize several times a year for the rest of your life.

“You’re a textbook case,” my hematologist said when she diagnosed me, ten days ago. I felt reassured.

The following Tuesday, I had my first phlebotomy.

“I’ll be your nurse every time,” Nurse B reassured me as she led me to my room in the infusion center. “I’m the only one here who does these.” One quick stick and 20 minutes later, she had collected her pint.

I felt the difference right away—less itchy after my shower, not as flushed in the face, fewer of those weird pulsing sensations rippling through my body as I lay awake at night.

Round Two, that Friday, took two sticks and 40 minutes. But that was okay. Nurse B and I discussed local restaurants. My hematologist dropped by, brought me more water, and hung around chatting until I was done.

I felt washed out for a few days. But my symptoms continued to improve.

Round Three got postponed from Tuesday to Wednesday, because Nurse B was sick. When I showed up on Wednesday, she was still out.

“I’ve done this before,” Nurse R reassured me as she settled me into my chair.

I was not reassured—and rightfully so. Three sticks and one hour later, Nurse R apologized profusely and sent me on my way. Both my arms were bruised, and she had extracted less than a tablespoon.

Driving home, I could already feel my face getting flushed. That night, the pulsing was worse than ever, compounded by heart palpations.

“It could just be panic,” David reassured me, and the palpations gradually diminished.

On Thursday, my hematologist called. “Your blood is so thick,” she said. “It’s really hard to get it out. The only thing I can think of is to put in a PICC line.”

Installing it would be no big deal, she said. They would simply thread a tiny tube through my vein. A cap on my arm would keep my vein permanently accessible. And once we’d gotten my blood count down, they would just pull the thing out. No more getting stuck! No more failed phlebotomies! From now on, I thought, blood-letting would be as easy as charging a laptop.

“What are the drawbacks?” I thought to ask.

“You can’t swim while it’s in,” she said.

Or shower, says the nurse at RIVI—unless I cover it with a special rubber sleeve or Saran Wrap, say, or the wrapper from the Providence Journal and Scotch tape. I absolutely do not want to get the bandages wet, because moisture breeds bacteria, and the catheter goes straight to my heart. Call the office if there’s swelling, she instructs, measuring my arm’s circumference just above the bandage. Call if the wound keeps bleeding. Call if it still hurts after a week. A nurse will come to my home tomorrow to change the dressing and teach me how to flush the line. She gives me a stretchy fishnet cuff to hold the cap (which turns out to be a two-inch nozzle) snuggled in place.

This PICC Line is a bigger deal more than I expected. But it’s worth it, because from now on, my phlebotomies will be a breeze.

The TV in the waiting room is tuned to Fox News. “Let’s see how those gun control people feel after this bombing,” someone in saying. I collect David and we drive around the corner to the hematologist’s office, where the TV is tuned to NBC. “They have defamed the entire Chechen ethnicity!” the Tsarnaev brothers’ uncle is telling reporters.

We watch that same footage over and over again as we wait for my name to be called. When someone finally comes to fetch me, it’s Nurse R again.

“B is still out?” I ask.

She smiles apologetically. “I’m trying to reach someone who can tell me how to draw blood through the PICC line,” she says. “I didn’t want you think we’d forgotten you.”

I have a roommate today, a woman young enough to be my daughter. She has the TV tuned to MSNBC, but has turned off the sound. The screen shows the face of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev—disturbingly young and surreally innocent.

“Good looking kid,” I say.

“This whole thing is so crazy,” says my roommate.

She tells us about her illness and her job. Today is her second-to-last treatment, and a steady stream of well-wishers come to see her. The snack lady brings around juice, sandwiches and chips. More visitors crowd into the tiny room. I’m still waiting for my phlebotomy. Every now and then, Nurse R stops by and says, “Still working on it.”

My hematologist arrives. “I’ve got some calls out,” she tells me.

A second hematologist comes in. He shakes his head.

The problem has to do with vacuums. Standard phlebotomy needles have them, and that’s what starts the blood off. What we need is a plumber. Or a syringe, my hematologist suggests.

Nurse R is dubious. “We’d have to constantly pull on it,” she says.

“I’ll do it,” my hematologist tells her.

And she does. For the greater part of an hour she sits beside me, slowly drawing back on the plunger of one after another 65-cc syringe, and tossing the filled syringes into the trash can labeled “Blood Products.” We talk about our children. David’s work. The viscosity of my blood. The beautiful cakes Nurse R bakes for my hematologist’s sons’ birthdays. When Nurse R takes a turn, we talk about batter and frosting. “It’s a labor of love,” she says—meaning baking fancy cakes.

It’s almost 3:30 when we finally get home. My hematologist talked about giving me two phlebotomies next week, but I don’t have even one appointment. The scheduling nurse will call, I’m told. We turn on the radio to hear the latest on the manhunt in Boston. We turn it off again when it becomes clear that announcers are just filling air time as they wait for something to happen.

We call Sophie, who’s still on lockdown.

“My apartment is as clean as it has ever been,” she says.

Before the day ends, lockdown will be lifted and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev will be arrested. Before the week ends, I will have returned to RIVI three times – first to have them check on the bleeding, and then on what I will think is swelling, and then to see how soon they can take the PICC line out. By the time I make that last visit, I will have a new hematologist, with a crew of nurses who have lots of experience phlebotomizing people like me.

But none of that has happened yet. Right now, on Friday afternoon, April 19, everything is on hold, waiting to resume its normal flow.

Flushed

April 9, 2013

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I took this picture on the Santa Monica Pier in 1987. For years it hung above my desk. I always wanted to work it into a story, but could never find one where it fit. I’d forgotten all about until last week, when it turned up among the hundreds of old photos I’ve been diligently digitizing, creating an archive for my family. Resurfacing when it did, the pun of “palms red” seemed like an omen, even though it’s not my palms that are red. It’s my face.

My face has been getting really, really red recently, as if I’m really, really embarrassed. Or sunburned. Or allergic. To wine? To those little green chilies from the Indian store on Hope Street? It was a mystery, and weird, and also a little, well, embarrassing, especially when it made everyone stare at me and start asking what was wrong. But it didn’t strike me as particularly worrisome. It certainly wasn’t the sort of thing I’d think to mention to a doctor.

I felt the same way about this other odd thing that’s been happening. About ten minutes after a hot shower, my legs begin to itch. A lot. Crawl-out-of-my skin itch. Lotion helps. Sort of.  But not as much as remembering that the itching will go away in about fifteen minutes, and that I should keep my feet and legs bare until it does.

I’m good at working around problems. Why call the plumber when you can jiggle the toilet handle? Why mend the hole in the elbow when you can wear your sweater with the sleeves pushed up? Why go to all the trouble of fixing something that’s not really broken, but just not working exactly right? You can probably guess where this is headed.

Last week I had some matter-of-course blood work done for something relatively minor and entirely unrelated to blushing or itching. The results came back…interesting. Come-back-for-more-tests interesting. Condition-you-never-heard-of-with-name-it-took-me-three-days-to-get-straight interesting.

They’re still not positively, absolutely sure, but it looks like I’ve got a thing called polycythemia vera. Basically, too many red blood cells. Poly as in lots. Cyt as in cells. Hemia as in blood. Vera as in true, as opposed to derived from something else. Meaning I was born with this. Each year in the United States, about 3,500 new cases of polycythemia vera are diagnosed. The condition is slow to develop. It usually shows up in folks when they’re between 60 and 80 (I turn 56 next month), and more often among Ashkenazic Jews (like me) than in the general population.

Too much blood isn’t good. Think strokes, blood clots, heart attacks. And so far no one’s found a cure. They do know how to manage it, though. Not by jiggling the toilet handle, but by pushing up your sleeve for periodic phlebotomies. I’ve never been too good about needles. But I’m about to get great at them. I get my first shot at it this afternoon.

It’s weird to think that I’ve spent my whole, healthy life with this mutation sitting there, waiting to be revealed. It’s like understanding, decades later, what the psychic advisor at the beach meant by her cryptic divination. Or like finding the crucial clue in the corner of the snapshot you took of something else. It’s finally figuring out that the disparate details you’ve been fiddling around with forever really do fit into the same story.

Wrecked

January 20, 2013

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My first thought was that Zeus had knocked over the refrigerator. The crash was that loud, and my sister-in-law’s dog is that big. But the only sound that followed was the jingle of Zeus’s tags as he resettled in the bedroom above us. I tried to resettle, too, but was jolted back awake almost immediately by the sounds of barking and honking. The clock read 1:30.

“Better go see what’s happening,” David said.

Upstairs, we found David’s sister at the kitchen window, on the phone with the 911 dispatcher. “I can hear a woman shouting, ‘Help me,’” Sarah was saying, “but I’m afraid to go outside.”

David and I got a better look from the front bedroom. David’s parents’ Honda, which we had driven from their condo and parked in front of Sarah’s house, had been shoved askew, its front end smashed. Nearby, a second car was on its side, with a woman trapped inside.

David pulled his coat over his pajamas, stepped into his boots with bare feet, and hurried out to help. I found jeans and a shirt and followed, expecting blood. But the woman seemed to be okay. She was standing with her head and shoulders sticking up through the passenger-side window.

“Can you help me get out?” she was saying. “I’m claustrophobic and I’m having a panic attack.”

David helped her get her leg through the window, and then spotted her as she climbed down onto the street. “Would you like to come inside where it’s warm?” he asked.

“I just need to sit down,” she said. She was very shook up and awfully young, wearing a puffy winter jacket with squiggly designs that looked like something you’d see on a high school kid, or even someone in middle school.

“I’m sorry. I’m such a fuck-up,” she kept saying, as we sat on the wall in front of Sarah’s house, waiting for help to arrive. She told us she’d been drinking. She’d had a fight with her boyfriend, and decided to go for a drive and cool off. Her name was Jessica. She was twenty-four. Sam’s age, I thought.

We could already hear the sirens approaching, and one by one they arrived—fire, ambulance, two or three police cruisers, vehicle after vehicle converging on the narrow residential road, a crowd of uniformed personnel shining flashlights and asking questions, a confusion of red and blue lights pulsing through the black night.

“Have you consumed any drugs or alcohol?” a firefighter asked.

“No,” Jessica answered.

“She told me she’s been drinking,” David volunteered, and I found myself thinking, Really? We’re ratting her out? And then, Why would I cover for her?

“Anything to drink?” the firefighter repeated.

“I had a couple of beers earlier,” she said. “I won’t lie to you.” And I thought, That’s okay then. Just a couple of beers. And she’s not underage. It didn’t occur to me that she could be—probably was—lying. That I had just considered lying, myself.

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A second firefighter pricked her finger. “Your blood sugar’s too low,” he told her. “Are you diabetic? When did you last eat?”

“I had a fried-egg sandwich at lunch time,” she answered.

He held out a little tube, like a travel-sized toothpaste. “Squeeze this into your cheek,” he told her. “It will raise your blood-sugar level. It tastes pretty bad.”

A baby-faced cop wearing only short sleeves, even though the night was frigid, walked right up to Jessica. “You’re supposed to be in bed.” He said it in a sing-song, condescending way, the sort of tone that pisses me off when people use it to talk to pets and toddlers. How dare you speak to her like that? I thought.

But Jessica just answered, “I was upset. I had to get out, so I thought I’d drive around,” as if they were simply continuing an ongoing conversation. The baby-faced cop told Sarah, separately, that he had seen Jessica earlier that evening, when he was called in to break up a domestic dispute. Jessica and her boyfriend had agreed to sleep it off in separate rooms.

“She doesn’t have any insurance,” a second police officer told me, after Jessica was sitting in back of one of the cruisers. “Her car has Oregon plates, but the person it’s registered to lives in Washington, and has a Hispanic last name. Neither Jessica nor her boyfriend is Hispanic.” This second cop was a tall, handsome woman. “I’m sorry,” she kept saying. “I’m sorry this has happened,” as if the whole mess were her fault.

A tow truck came. The driver tipped Jessica’s car back upright, hoisted it onto its flatbed, and drove it away, impounded. We cleared David’s parents’ stuff from the Honda—sunglasses, Benny Goodman CDs, Werther’s caramels, Whole Foods canvas bags, an armload of hiking sticks. Then we sat in Sarah’s living room, sipping Armagnac and debriefing, while Zeus dozed at our feet. By now it was after 3.

“That lady cop told me she couldn’t believe how well we were taking it,” Sarah said.

“I guess most people she sees are angry,” David said.

None of us was angry.

“I kept thinking, She’s somebody’s daughter,” I said.

In the morning, we called the insurance company and arranged for the Honda to get towed to a body shop. Then we called David’s parents and told them what had happened to their car. While we waited for this second tow truck, we looked around, seeing what we’d missed in the darkness and confusion of the night. We found the wrapper from the swab the firefighter had used before he’d pricked Jessica’s finger, studied the skid marks on the road that showed where Jessica had turned too fast and too sharp, saw the strewn bricks, where Jessica’s car had hit Sarah’s retaining wall and skimmed it before it tipped on its side, surveyed the pile of broken glass and plastic shards where she’d hit the Honda and come to rest.

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She was lucky she’d hit the Honda, instead of turning completely over. Lucky the Honda wasn’t occupied when she hit it. Lucky that when she’d stormed out of the apartment and climbed into the car, she’d remembered to buckle her seat belt.

All that was clear, but there was so much I didn’t know. Who was her boyfriend? What had they been fighting about? What were they doing in Colorado Springs? How did she come to be driving that car, with its shady history? What would become of her? Who were her parents? Did they know where she was? Did they care?

The day before, we had walked up Red Rocks Canyon Trail with David’s parents. I had lagged behind, as I tend to do, taking pictures. I’d been focusing on the patterns of snow melt, fascinated by the way each stone and stick preserved, within the cool of its small shadow, a smaller residue of snow. It seemed like a metaphor for something, and I fallen asleep wondering what.

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Now, as I studied the damaged Honda, I pulled my camera out once again. I focused on the layers of plastic and metal and tubes and wires that had been peeled apart and exposed. This was damage, yes. But it was only the residue of a greater disaster, whose nature and extent I could only begin to guess at.

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Happy New Year!

December 31, 2012
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East Jewett, NY

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Colorado Spring, CO

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Syracuse, NY

Lofoten Islands, Norway

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Cranston, RI

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Upper Brookville, NY

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Mountain Shadows, Colorado Springs, CO

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Ninigret, RI

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Cranston, RI

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Cranston, RI

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Washington Square, NYC, NY

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Stillhouse Cove, Cranston, RI

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Cranston, RI

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Cranston, RI

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Colgate Lake, East Jewett, NY

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Pawtuxet Harbor, Cranston, RI