Archive for July, 2010

The Riddle

UPDATE: One of my readers saw fit to ask me a question that had absolutely nothing to do with this post, so check out the comments if you’re so inclined.

I’ve been awfully quiet lately. Suffice it to say that I’ve had a lot on my plate. But don’t give up on me. Soon, I (and my blog) will be back to normal. In the meanwhile, I got something for you.

Pookie is swimming in the city meet today and Lovie is cheering her on which has left yours truly in charge of the terrible trio. And something happened first thing this morning that left me scratching my head.

The scenario: I walked into the boys’ bedroom and was immediately blown away by an unpleasant odor, near certain there was an accident of epic proportions awaiting me. But there wasn’t. At least not one of epic proportions. Just three separate quarter-sized brown spots in three very different locations.

Puzzled, I walked into their bathroom where the scent intensified. B was sitting ON TOP of the vanity, playing in the bathroom sink wearing only a pull-up and tee shirt. A was in the bathroom, too, wearing nothing but a grin. He was proud to tell me that he had gone poo poo in the potty, and as he made this announcement, I noticed a small amount of, um, you know, on his forehead. A thin, brown line. The potty which A had just used? Nothing in it. The mandatory parental wipe I administered? It yielded nothing that would lead me to believe that A had anything to do with the spots on the bedroom carpet.

So my question for you is what happened?

As I washed A‘s face, I couldn’t figure out how his well-executed, and well-contained scatological effort could have rendered such mass destruction. That’s when it hit me. There was one stone which I had left unturned. And that stone was still playing in the vanity sink.

B‘s diaper was a train wreck, containing a preposterous blowout, and was clearly the source of the aforementioned mass destruction.

One riddle solved. Two boys to bathe. And three spots to sanitize. My day had gotten off to a shitty start (sorry), but I didn’t mind.

Pookie is swimming in the city meet today and Lovie is cheering her on which has left yours truly in charge of the terrible trio. And I love taking care of the terrible trio. No matter what.

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Some Birthday Lovie

It’s a special day, everyone. It’s Lovie’s birthday, and she’s 41 as lovely as ever.

We have a nice little day planned. We’re gonna run a bunch of errands this morning then load everyone up and head to the pool this afternoon where we’ll probably end up eating dinner. Pookie and I have gotten Lovie a few presents and there’ll also be a cake involved which I baked from scratch.

Okay, that’s bullshit. But I did buy it from Kroger. Okay, that’s bullshit, too. But I am about to buy one from Kroger while we run our errands.

But this birthday, Lovie gets more than a handful of presents and a cake. This birthday, Lovie gets a public shoutout on my modest blog. I could go on and on and list the dozens of reasons why she’s so incredible, why she’s the one for me. I could talk about what a wonderful mother she is. I could give you testimonials from her friends that would attest to the unique goodness which abounds from her. I could tell you what a patient and understanding wife she is, and how supportive she is during times of stress, transition, and grief.

But instead, all I’m gonna tell you is this: I love Lovie, y’all. With all of my heart and soul. And as thankful as I am for this wild ride we’re on, I’m even more thankful, still, that I get to sit right next to her for every little part of it.

Happy Birthday, Lovie.

I love you.

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Tidy Little Boxes

This is the fifth post which chronicles my sister’s battle with cancer.

* * *

“Do you know just how incredible your sister is?”

I stared awkwardly at the nurse who had asked me this seemingly rhetorical question. And she stared right back with big brown eyes that sparkled with hope. They told me she believed–the cross hanging around her neck, their echo.

Though well aware that my sister is, indeed, incredible, I had actually been stumbling upon that very question all week. Specifically the just how incredible part. Frankly, it was difficult for me to reconcile the reports I was getting from Mom with the image that was etched in my mind — that of Holliday lying unconscious in her bed in the ICU.

“So she’s talking? Really talking?” I would ask.

“Well of course, she’s talking,” mom would offer flippantly, as if peeved I’d not been paying close enough attention to her.

“So what do y’all talk about?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Normal stuff, I guess.”

Normal stuff. You and your daughter who just regained consciousness after NINE horrifying days discuss… normal stuff?

“Well, how does she seem?”

“Good. Maybe a little tired.”

I’m sure Mom was doing her best, but something wasn’t adding up. Never in a million years did I think that Holliday would come back to us. I had hoped. I had prayed. But I had also tried to be realistic. Call it pessimism, a defense mechanism, a lousy attitude, or whatever you want. But based on everything I had seen and heard, such a scenario seemed as likely as a ride through Camelot on the back of a fire-breathing dragon. So when it actually came to pass, I suppose I expected grandiose answers to my questions. But all I got were replies which contained words like normal, stuff, and tired.

Two weeks prior, we were urged to fly, not drive, to come see her. A week after that, the doctors considered her recovery so unlikely that they discussed end-of-life scenarios. Yet this past week Holliday was carrying on like business as usual, albeit a bit groggily? Had everyone overreacted? I wondered. Or was this something incredible? And if so, just how incredible?

And suddenly, a nurse wearing purple scrubs was asking me that very question. Could she answer it for me, too?

Do you know just how incredible your sister is?

“Yes,” I said deliberately as my eyes scoured the sterile hospital floors in search of something more. “What happened was truly incredible.

“Right?” I added hesitantly, begging her to tell me for herself.

Which she did. What Holliday had done was one of the most incredible things this woman has ever witnessed in all of her time at MD Anderson.

Clinging to her testimony, I still managed to don my gown and gloves before opening the door to my sister’s room.

“John,” she said softly while looking right at me with a faint smile. I walked over and knelt beside her bed, then gently brought her face closer to mine until our cheeks touched. After a long embrace, I finally pulled away to give her a kiss.

I sat at the foot of her bed under the TV, my eyes damp with emotion. For the next hour, I reveled in the conversation I feared we’d never have, taking full advantage of it by telling her all the things I should have said earlier.

It’s never too late, you know. Assuming you get enough chances, that is.

I told her how ashamed I was that I didn’t fully comprehend the enormity of her very first battle, the one that had begun nearly thirty years ago, the one she finally won five years later when I was an arrogant teenager.

“You were young, John. You’re allowed to be young.”

So why weren’t you?

I told her in no uncertain terms how proud I was of her. How she was a hero to me. What a privilege I consider it to be her brother, regardless of how poorly we’ve kept in touch through the years. Regardless of how separate our lives have been. I told her about the magic I found in the melancholy, the beauty in the struggle. And with those words I broke down. Not in dramatic, wailing sobs. But in silent tears that meandered down my face before splashing upon the paper-thin yellow gown that covered my lap. I wiped them away with the back of my hand, blue latex leveling the salty evidence of my sorrow.

She tried to reassure me. “It’s okay, John. Everyone has to die.”

She said it.

But she didn’t get it. I wasn’t crying because of how she might one day die. I was crying because of how she had already lived.

Minutes later, Holliday couldn’t have been any clearer. “It’s no longer a matter of survival,” she said stoically. “Now it’s a matter of optimizing my life.”

“I understand,” I said, wishing I’d chosen a different word. How could I possibly understand?

Holliday’s kidneys don’t work. She’s on dialysis three times per week. As of this post, she’s still unable to walk. She’s quite sick, her body impossibly weak. As such, now’s not the time to even begin thinking about trying to kill her cancer with the hellishly aggressive chemo that had almost killed her instead.

So she’s stuck. Two weeks ago, it was between worlds. Now it’s between plans. Holliday’s no longer focused on defeating her life-long foe, but rather on returning home to Atlanta. Because that’s all she really wants to do. Is to go home. And optimize her life. Perhaps there, she’ll become strong enough to resume her battle. Perhaps she won’t. But she’ll be home. In her literal house. With her husband and daughter.

That’s what Dad was hoping for, only it didn’t happen for him. But it looks like it will for Holliday. We’re told she’ll be released on Saturday. Not quite under the circumstances for which we had hoped, but released nonetheless.

My wife can literally spend an entire hour in The Container Store shopping for little boxes which she’ll use to better organize the larger ones she already owns. They give her great joy, these magical boxes do. Oh, how she loves to put things in their place. Right where they belong. Sub-containers to further organize her containers. Sub-containers which allow her to eliminate clutter while still enabling her to find whatever it is she might need in a moment’s notice.

It’s not just Caroline. Everyone likes to put things in their place. Including me. That’s why I had asked Mom so many questions, why I couldn’t get my hands around Holliday’s borderline miraculous recovery. Because I knew she had been in a bad box before and I was eager to move her to the good one where I wanted her to belong.

But regardless of what our binary minds trick us into believing, not everything will fit into tidy little boxes, and my sister’s situation is a prime example.

Don’t get me wrong. Holliday’s remarkable recovery is the best possible scenario our family could have ever hoped for. It’s a good thing. But good in this case is a relative term, not an absolute one. And it can’t be written on a label used to broadly categorize her condition. It’s just not that simple. But I’m learning that it’s okay.

Shortly into our conversation, Holliday described the first things she remembered as she began to regain consciousness. She then casually mentioned something she remembered that happened just before she came to.

“I saw Dad,” she said.

“Really,” I answered, my matter-of-fact tone belying the spark which had suddenly ignited my soul. “How was he?”

“Good,” she answered with a smile.

“Did he say anything?”

“Yeah. He did.” Her eyes left the Food Network long enough to lock into mine. And at once, she looked old and young, defeated and victorious, naive and wise. And beautiful.

“He said This, too, shall pass.

Though clearly one of Dad’s sound bites, the phrase is not one that would immediately come to mind if I were ever to recount the more memorable of his oft-repeated sayings. His words? Undeniably. Ones I’d easily attach to him? No.

Holliday later told Graham that the encounter might have been a figment of her imagination, but Graham and I aren’t so sure. We tend to believe that she actually did see him. Regardless, whether in her mind or between worlds, Holliday’s meeting with Dad is proof that the things which matter most cannot easily be placed into tidy little boxes.

And it’s better that way. Because if they were in tidy little boxes, those things would be unable to roam wherever they need to be. Wherever they’re meant to be. And if that were the case, how would we ever find them? More importantly, how would they ever find us?

Holliday’s coming home this weekend and while this is the best possible scenario our family could have ever hoped for, I’m still unable to tell you what, exactly, it means. But I can tell you one thing. I wouldn’t be quick to rule anything out if I were you. She’s capable of anything.

Of that I’m certain.


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Mind Over Matter

This post is a continuation from the last three.

* * *

I don’t think the nighttime nurse liked us very much. She had a valid reason. Generally speaking, shaking martinis in a hospital room is a no-no. But we didn’t care. Not because we’re raging alcoholics, but simply because that’s what we do. We drink two martinis before dinner. Well, I don’t. I mean I sometimes do, but only when I’m with my parents. Because that’s what they do.

With Dad withering away in his hospital bed, the task of shaking our drinks fell to yours truly. I brought in the ice needed via a large Styrofoam cup and smuggled the vodka, vermouth, olives, and glasses in my backpack. When the nurse caught me red-handed, she gave me a look of admonishment, one that all but asked me to stop. Before she could articulate her thoughts, I shot her a look of my own.

“He’s dying,” I told her with my eyes while slowly shaking my head. “So why don’t you let him live a little?”

Dad’s behavior had become increasingly erratic. He had rummaged through his bed covers for five continuous minutes earlier that day, as if looking for something before seemingly finding it, scooping it up, and showing it to Mom.

“Look, Martha Lee. A diamond,” he said, proudly displaying cupped hands which contained nothing.

In spite of such episodes, that fiercely intelligent man fought hard to maintain control of his mind. You could actually see him willing it to perform like it was supposed to.

“What’s the date, Dr. Osborne?” one of his nurses had asked earlier.

“Oh, c’mon, lady,” he said with disgust, if not embarrassment.

“What about the year? What year are we in?”

“1959,” he answered confidently.

“Not quite. Can you try again?”

“Look,” he began, his voice just on the cordial side of angry, “maybe I don’t know what year it is, but I sure as hell know this. UT plays Miami this weekend.”

You’re damn right we do, Dad. You tell her.

I wasn’t sure if he’d even be able to drink the martini I was shaking for him. He wasn’t in good shape. His speech had become quite slurred, his off-and-on dementia even worse than before. And he was silent as a mouse. The sound of ice slamming against stainless steel felt good to me. Hearing something was better than hearing nothing. So I kept doing it. When I finally stopped and poured our drinks, the quiet came back. I broke it nervously by asking Dad a question which I didn’t expect him to have the energy, or perhaps even the capacity, to answer.

“Do you think I bruised the vodka by shaking it too much?”

“Es ball-shet. Yu kahnt bwooze vong-ka. Yu kahnt. Es ball-shet. Bwooze gin? Yus. Bwooze vong-ka? No.”

He took his glass with an unsteady hand and held it to his mouth which was opening and closing uncontrollably, even spastically. I was amazed he didn’t spill it. Not even a drop. It wasn’t pretty, but after nearly a minute of trying, he managed to get a sip down.

“Ahh. Dots goood. So goood.”

Way back when, my dad made me my very first martini. That night, I made him his very last. It was obvious that he was but a shell of himself. Yet he still managed to teach me something I didn’t know. You can’t bruise vodka. My dad had a mind like a steel trap. And he fought to keep it until the very end.

The week after my trip to Houston, I was obsessed with the state of Holliday’s mind. Where was it leading her during her time away from us? What was it telling her? Peaceful things, I hoped. Things that made her happy. Would it ever let her wake up? As of last Friday, the answer was still no. It was that day we got some devastating news. If Holliday didn’t come back to us by the upcoming weekend (the one that is now nearly upon us), it would be time to consider pulling all of her life-sustating tubes. Even if she did wake up before then, the doctors feared her brain may have been damaged by what they described as “seizure-like activity.”

That night I was despondent. I suddenly worried that if Holliday’s brain was, indeed, damaged, perhaps it was unable to take my sister to the peaceful and happy places I had hoped. At midnight, after hours of waffling, I finally made a difficult decision. I wouldn’t accompany Mom the following day to Houston. I would wait until the next weekend to go. After all, from what the experts were saying, that’s when it sounded like the end might be upon us.

But Mom phoned on Sunday with some incredible news. Holliday opened her eyes! Mom had just entered the room, and Holliday clearly opened her eyes and fluttered them about and even tried to lift her hand! The nurses were blown away. This was, by far, the most encouraging signs Holliday had shown since she had been moved to the ICU.

We tried not to read too much into it, but it was hard not to. You have to remember that my sister had been unconscious for almost NINE days. Initially, we were all but told she wouldn’t make it through the holiday weekend. But Holliday, true to form, did just that. Then forty-eight hours after talk of brain damage, and bleak discussions pertaining to end-of-life scenarios, she opened her eyes.

I went to bed Sunday night with hope, though, realistically, I knew the situation was still dire. Yet Monday night, Mom reported more good news. Holliday was able to nod her head to answer yes and no to simple questions. She was still sleeping the vast majority of the time, but able, nonetheless, to open her eyes and actually communicate.

Tuesday, Holliday upped the ante and was trying to speak. Sometimes she’d move her mouth, but no sound would come out. Other times, she’d not move her mouth at all, yet still emit faint sounds. Then, on Tuesday afternoon, Mom returned from lunch only to find Holliday’s room empty. She feared the worst. When she asked the nurses where her daughter was, she couldn’t believe their response.

Holliday had been moved out of the ICU and was back in her old hospital room.

Today is Friday, and my brave sister has continued her slow but steady improvement. She’s now able to put together entire sentences at a time. She’s no longer on a feeding tube, but rather ingesting a liquid diet. The physical therapist helped her sit up for a few moments, and even had her doing arm exercises. It’s now clear that the doctors were wrong about the horrific forecast of potential damage to her brain. Holliday’s mind remains as beautiful as ever.

Still, much unknown remains. The doctors aren’t yet able to tell us what, exactly, happened to her. If and when they ever can pinpoint a cause, it still won’t make Holliday’s cancer magically go away. What’s more, she’s in such a weakened state, there’s no clear-cut plan as to how they should proceed to attack it. So she hasn’t exactly won the battle of her life just yet.

But the fight is still on.

I know that some things aren’t supposed to make sense, but that never stops me from trying. As I ponder these borderline miraculous developments, my mind keeps taking me back to my dad. And his mind. The one he kept fighting to maintain. The one that refused to go quietly into that good night. The one that told me that bruising vodka was “bullshit” mere hours before he died.

When asked what year we were in, Dad had thrown out 1959–a year which represents the prime of his life. I get it now. When you’re fighting as hard as he was, there’s nothing but now. For without it, both your past and your future would cease to exist. So by default, each passing moment is the prime of your life. No matter how old or how sick you are.

Holliday, both literally and figuratively, is in the prime of her life. And tomorrow I’ll catch a flight to Houston where I’ll have the privilege of living some of it with her. And I’m so thankful to have that opportunity. Because people like her know more about living than the rest of us could ever even hope to know.

I think it’s something about the way their mind works. I’m proud of my sister, y’all.

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The Beautiful Fight

This post is the third installment of Holliday’s story. Part I is called The Club and part II is called The Class.

* * *

Early one morning in 2002, my brother picked me up from the airport and drove me to the hospital to see my dad who had been unresponsive since the afternoon before. His rapid turn for the worse was what had prompted the phone calls urging me to catch a cross-country flight that very night if I ever wanted to see him alive again. The second I walked into his room, I knew that though he was technically still with us, he was gone nonetheless. But I was wrong. He came back to us later that day. Shortly after he regained consciousness, he told Mom something she’ll never forget.

“I died last night, Martha Lee.”

She believed him. And so did I.

In the days that followed, Dad made incredible progress, so much so that the doctors even contemplated his release, though it never came to fruition. If it had, it likely would have been only so Dad could die in the ivy-covered stone house. With his stereo on. Listening to opera. Near his books. Near us. No beeps from machines. No lukewarm cafeteria meals served upon brown plastic trays. No nurses whose last names we’d never know.

Just us.

Dad gave everyone in our family quite a gift that last fortnight of his life. I’m sure, in light of how different we are, that we each had our own takeaway as to what that gift meant. Mine? I learned that there’s much magic in the melancholy, much beauty in the struggle. Which is why you bravely fight on, no matter what. Not for you. But for everyone else. So they can see that beauty. Beauty which will live long after you’re dead and gone. Beauty that looks like hope. And determination. And strength. And dignity.

And perhaps most notably, love.

It was that love I pondered as I stood outside Holliday’s ICU room and washed my trembling hands. I had a hard time tying a knot behind my back to secure the gown which I was required to wear, not to mention putting on those impossibly thin latex gloves which were also mandatory. I experienced an eerily similar routine nearly three years before, outside the doors of a different ICU, the neonatal ICU, each and every time I visited Kirby, the tiniest and last of our triplets to be born.

The circle of life? I wondered.

The calls had started the day before, on Saturday. My sister, Graham, had been in Houston since Wednesday with an important but simple objective — to help Holliday get through the second round of chemotherapy before transporting her back to the apartment she had rented where she would recuperate until the next round. The first one had been so difficult that Holliday remained in the hospital throughout. The same thing had held true this time, but she was doing okay. A bit loopy from the morphine (which was largely ineffectively in easing her pain), my sister still knew who she was, where she was, and what was going on–an improvement, believe it or not, from the first time.

On Friday I had spoken to Graham at length about the logistics moving forward. I was eager to clear some things off my plate such that I could fly to Houston and lend my assistance. But by late Saturday night, I realized that instead of leaving for MD Anderson in a few weeks to help Holliday live, I’d be leaving in a few hours just to reach her before she died.

The doctor was holding Graham’s hand when he had delivered the news. Our sister had multiple life-threatening situations going on. In spite of the hellishly aggressive chemo, the tumors had actually grown. And they were bleeding which was particularly troublesome because her blood contained next-to-zero platelets. What’s more, Holliday’s white blood cell count was virtually non-existant which meant that even the smallest infection could cause her demise.

Graham suddenly had a new objective — to relay the grim report to the rest of us. The doctor warned her that Holliday’s husband, who had planned on driving over the next day, had better fly instead. That was all I needed to hear.

Holliday’s husband and daughter were already in the room visiting with Graham when Mom and I arrived. I wasn’t sure which was more surreal — the sight of my sister on what I assumed to be her literal deathbed, or the fact that idiomatic pleasantries are actually exchanged in front of such a backdrop. I walked to her bedside, unsure of what to say. So I said nothing, I think. Except maybe her name. But I’m not even sure I said that. All I do know is that I hoped to have some time alone with her.

Which I did for forty-five minutes. Silent minutes at first, until I decided to speak. I talked about our common past which had created such different people — ones who would, in many ways, forever be exactly alike. I told her that we still wanted her to fight, but only if she wanted to. I sensed that she did, though I also knew that a pitcher only holds so much water. At some point, if you continue to pour it out, there’s simply nothing left. Not even a drop.

The cacophony of beeps and buzzes belonging to the medical machinery which surrounded us was distracting, especially when an alarm-type noise sounded for what felt like an entire minute. I allowed it to interrupt our one-sided conversation, as if whatever it had to announce took precedent over what I was saying, at which point I politely looked away, so as not to offend it, before gazing down at my phone to check email until it had finished. Once certain it was through, I scooted my chair right next to Holliday and continued again. Hesitant at first, I slowly reached my hand out to touch her arm. Though she had been twitching off and on for the entire visit, the intensity of those motions picked up notably just seconds after I made contact.

Skeptics won’t believe me and I’m sad for them. Because it’s true. And so’s this — Holliday knew I was there. If not her unconscious mind, then certainly her undying spirit.

That night, Graham, Mom and I ate dinner at a restaurant in the lobby of the Marriott. We spoke of our little club between bites, fondly reminisced between sips. Dad was alive, again. He was right there with us, if only until we got our check. In fact, we were all there though you could only see three of us.

That’s what people do, you know. They gather somewhere and remember and sometimes say things with their eyes, even if their lips don’t quite push the literal words out. Which is okay, because they don’t have to — their minds already know it. Those things are true. That’s why they gathered in the first place.

Mom and I flew back the next morning, Monday, July 5th. Holliday’s husband and daughter would be staying with her until the next Saturday, which would give us time to figure out a game plan from that point forward. The terrifying turn of events which had beckoned us had seemingly stabilized, but, ultimately, Holliday was still caught between worlds. It’s our hope that she’ll find her way back to ours, if only to give us a similar gift to the one Dad gave us nearly eight years ago. Regardless, her fight has spanned decades and contains more beauty than she’ll ever know. Why didn’t I ever tell her that before?

Maybe I’ll get another chance.

I dropped Mom off a little past five and headed home, staring blankly out my windshield, negotiating the final leg of an exhausting round-trip commute to the sounds of sports radio. I received a call from my Lovie’s brother which prompted me to turn down the stereo so I could deliver him the bleak update in peace and quiet. Our conversation ended as I pulled into my neighborhood.

For no reason, I turned the radio back up for the final quarter mile of my trip. The sound of music confused me until I finally realized that I was tuned in to a different frequency, one I must have accidentally landed on while adjusting the volume just minutes earlier. I heard the introduction to a song that was familiar, but one I couldn’t immediately place. Until the first two words.

It was Madonna.

Holiday. Celebrate.

I froze in disbelief, sitting quietly in my driveway covered in goosebumps, before finally turning off the ignition and getting out of the car. I wiped a tear from my eye and made my way to the door, excited to see everyone.

The triplets were all fired up. They knew that Daddy had been on an airplane.

They love airplanes.

To be continued.

Thanks so much to everyone who has commented, tweeted, facebooked, emailed, texted, or called me with kind words of support. I’m happy to say that Holliday is still with us, and ask that you continue to hold her close in both thought and prayer. I’ll post an update that will catch us up to the present by no later than Thursday. Hopefully it will contain some encouraging news.

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The Class

This is a continuation of my last post, The Club.

* * *

I didn’t take much. Everything fit into a small backpack, even the laptop which I carefully got out and placed inside the gray plastic tub. As I watched it glide away, I was overtaken with déjà vu. It was just like the last time.

Well, not really, I suppose. The last time I was a bachelor. That day I was the married father of four. The last time I was unemployed. That day I was a small business principal. The last time I was flying back to a home I had abandoned right after college. That day I was leaving the same home I had eventually reclaimed. The last time it was right after Halloween. That day was the Fourth of July. The last time I was lost as a bat and searching for answers. That day I knew exactly where I was, but not because I had found those answers. I just better understood where to look for them.

The last time I was going to see my dad. That day I was going to see my sister.

Maybe it wasn’t exactly alike. But it sure felt the same. Bits and pieces of 2002 flowed through me. I closed my eyes and walked through the ICU, then into his room again for the first time. So that’s what it looks like I thought with equal amounts of fear and awe. It was dehumanizing. Which made sense to me, though I’m not sure why. Except, I guess, because what was happening to Dad was what sets our spirit free. And our spirit isn’t human.

“Sir. SIR. You can come through now, please.”

For once, the metal detector didn’t go off, but my mind was going off like never before. On a reflective and psychological journey to the past. I brought it back to the present in part by assuring myself that it was okay. To think about it, that is. After all, these occurrences are rare. Shit. They’re more than rare. They’re watershed moments, and it only makes sense that each successive one evokes feelings from those prior. To move forward, sometimes you gotta look back. If for no other reason than to get an idea of what lies ahead.

The flight to Dallas was a short one. Especially compared to the layover. Mom dozed in a leather chair across from me and I tried to do the same, but couldn’t. I kept thinking about our club and the common experiences thereof — the ones which had molded us into such different people. Yet each of us would attest that we are who we are because of those common experiences. That’s always been difficult for me to reconcile. But I think I’m starting to figure it out.

Gone was the odd but beautiful childhood we had spent in the ivy-covered stone house, unable to be seen except with the mind’s eye which sees only what you want it to see. Unless you train it to see everything, which is a lot of hard work. But even then you can never be sure. Still, the footprint remains. I know because I saw it with my real eyes just an hour and a half earlier. When it stubbornly rose above the blanket of darkness to vividly remind me of everything and nothing all at once. Maybe that’s why I didn’t see Mom when she had first come out. I was too busy looking at it. And in turn, us.

We’re grownups now. I was always the baby, and at forty, even I am creeping toward middle age, if not firmly occupying it altogether. Which means the other four are there, too. But none of us are old. Enough.

To die.

Holliday grew up the fastest. She lost her mom to cancer when she was just a toddler. Then, at age twenty, my sister was diagnosed with a leiomyosarcoma near her thyroid. She was treated off and on for the next five years. It was during that era when I became defiant. I blew off authority figures, grew my hair out, stayed up late, and chased girls. It was during that same era when Holliday became compliant. She listened carefully to authority figures, watched her hair fall out, went to bed early, and chased life.

And she caught it.

Naturally, I was proud of her. She had beaten it. But I had no idea just how incredible her accomplishment was. Her odds hadn’t been good. But she was just glad to have had them, no matter how slim they were. Me? I was arrogantly be-bopping around like the Head Motherfucker In Charge, living to the very fullest a life I arrogantly assumed was mine to craft however I saw fit. So while, on the one hand, her victory thoroughly impressed me, on another it was nothing more than pearls before swine.

My sister, I’m certain, could teach the class we all eventually take. The one in which we learn about our mortality. She’d taken it twice by age twenty. Once as a toddler who was less aware but very affected, and once as a young woman who was incredibly scared but bravely determined. Though she passed both times with flying colors, she would be forced to enroll yet again. Unbelievably, Holliday went on to be diagnosed with melanoma.

Wouldn’t you know it? She kicked its ass, too. So when she found out last year that her nemesis had returned for a third time, it simply didn’t seem fair. But Holliday never concerned herself with getting a fair shake. She knew, for whatever reason, such was not her fate. Instead, she concerned herself with life. And all she knew was she’d be required to fight for hers once again.

Holliday and I don’t chat on the phone very often, but each time we do, I wonder why we don’t speak more. During one such conversation, she was explaining to me just what a beast this latest brand of cancer was. Her toughest foe yet. I reminded her that she was undefeated, and told her I had all the confidence in the world that she would prevail. And I meant it.

Was it her grownup brother talking? Or the arrogant, rebellious, and defiant teen? Tough to say, but whoever it was, he meant well. And he spoke out of love.

Back in my white-collar days, I traveled just about everywhere, but I never made it to Houston. It wasn’t as hot as I had expected. Probably because they had received epic amounts of rainfall the entire two days prior to my arrival. The vegetation was lush and green. Filled with life. It taunted me through the window of the shuttle which transported my mom and me to the hospital.

The glass doors opened automatically as Mom and I approached, and the next instant, I entered MD Anderson for the first time, something Holliday had done nearly thirty years prior. It was there where she had waged her first successful battle.

MD Anderson’s slogan is “MD Anderson Cancer Center. Making Cancer History.” Usually, I’m a sucker for a good double entendre, but that one seemed cruel. Because cancer, in many ways, is Holliday’s history.

Defeat it? Yes. Cross it out like it doesn’t exist?

You can’t.

I walked exaggeratedly slow so my mom could keep up as we made our way through the labyrinth of carpeted hallways. Though Mom’s the one with COPD, it was me who was short of breath — my brow moist with perspiration, my hands clammy with angst.

Once finally on the elevator, I pressed the button for the seventh floor and watched the doors close with a tear in my eye, a lump in my throat, and a hole in my heart. We were going up.

To see Holliday.

Only she wouldn’t be able to see us. Even though we planned on sitting right next to her. She’d be too busy with her class to even notice.

To be continued.

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The Club

I pulled up around back just past 5:30. The blanket of pre-dawn darkness concealed virtually everything, except, of course, the ivy-covered stone house of my youth. The one in which my old yet beautiful mom still lives. Nothing could ever conceal it.

That’s where the five of us grew up. Only my brother and I still call our hometown home, and neither one of us moved back until we were well into our thirties. Before that, my siblings and I were spread all over the country. Atlanta, Seattle, New Orleans, Dalton, GA, and Oakland, MN — geographical evidence of an undeniable fact: we were never a very cohesive unit.

Still, we always did the best we could. As my 5:30 arrival would attest.

Growing up, I wasn’t exactly sure what passed as “normal”, though I was certain that our family didn’t qualify. We were a blended bunch created when a widow with a young son and daughter married a widower with two young daughters. I came along three years later when Mom and Dad were both 42. Old, no doubt, to have a child today, but downright ancient in 1969. I was the only family member who was related to everyone else — our common denominator, if you will. But I was much younger than the other four, and as such would never serve as the galvanizing force which you might expect such a common denominator to be. Not that galvanization was ever in the cards for us.

Maybe it was because our professor parents weren’t exactly the nurturing types, but rather the wind-them-up-and-let-them-go types, as their liberal, Laissez-faire approach to child rearing would attest. Honestly? I always thought it was kinda cool. Nowadays, parents cater way too much to their kids. Walk into most homes and you’ll find the children’s media dominating the television, computer, or radio. And it doesn’t stop there. Most families can’t even go for a ten-minute car ride without throwing in an Underdog DVD. And if they do, it’s only because they’ve chosen to crank up Disney XM instead.

Truth be told, all that stuff is a big pet peeve of mine. I’ve always believed that too much catering yields the tail that wags the dog. Not to mention the fact that if you’re not careful, you’ll accidentally create children who mistake privilege for entitlement. No such worries were to be had in the ivy-covered stone house, however. The five of us never considered ourselves privileged, much less entitled.

We seldom vacationed as a family. In fact, I can only remember one such outing, and I’m pretty sure my oldest sibling didn’t even go. Yep. Just one. Unless, of course, you count the times we all piled in the station wagon and embarked upon semi-obligatory jaunts to visit either set of grandparents. Maybe that’s why there were so few pictures of us around the house. Not much sense in taking pictures unless you’re somewhere to take them. That would certainly explain the lack of Kodak moments. Well, except the yearly school photos. There were always plenty of them. Even the outdated ones.

We were light on toys, but heavy on textbooks. Tight on Sesame Street, but wide open on the MacNeil-Lehrer Report. The stereo was never tuned in to our stations, but rather to the one that featured the classical music which constantly emanated from the speakers. Even during dinners. The ones that were served under a canopy of smoke from the Benson and Hedges 100s that had accompanied the pre-meal martinis our parents regularly tossed back. Not a lot of Romper Room going on. The five of us were raised in an adult-centric environment.

The aforementioned are facts, mind you. Not complaints. After all, there was nothing to complain about. I love my mom and dad dearly. They did the best they could, and looking back, they did very well, indeed. We always had a roof over our heads. We had plenty to eat as well as warm clothes, even if mine were flat-out atrocities disguised as prudent, decade-old hand-me-downs. We all attended the same private school. In fact, my parents had a child in that school for eighteen consecutive years. We all have degrees from colleges like Emory, Tulane, Vanderbilt, and Yale. Three of us went on to earn graduate degrees, yet not a single one of us were ever asked to contribute even so much as a penny toward any of those degrees. “The education’s on us,” our parents always said. Everyone knows you don’t become rich by being a professor, yet my parents still managed to fork over a small fortune to make good on their offer, thanks, no doubt, to countless sacrifices. Maybe that’s why we never went on fancy vacations.

My parents did well on the intangibles, too. Unlike so many, my siblings and I are immune to the intoxication of wealth. We’ve never confused our net worth with our self worth, nor anyone else’s for that matter. All of which is proof that Mom and Dad did a wonderful job regardless of how nurturing they were. They gave us everything we needed to succeed in this world, and all of us have done just that.

It’s just we did it without each other.

I sometimes wonder why. Happenstance? An unintended result of our upbringing? Or God’s will, maybe? I suppose it really doesn’t matter. Because our very separate lives can’t ever change one simple truth. The five of us are a club. One that my parents founded. And if you don’t get it, then I can’t help you. Because I can’t explain it any better than I already have. We’re a club. There’s no secret handshake, no special knock, but we’re still a club. Even if there aren’t any meetings. Well, except the spontaneous ones that take place every decade or so. The ones that fate calls to order. Like the one that went down in November of 2002.

Looking out the window of my Chevy Tahoe, I couldn’t tell if Mom had made it outside yet or not. All I could see was the florescent, built-in light of her old-school General Electric stove which shone through the back-door window. She eventually emerged from the darkness, making her way up the sidewalk steps and slowly coming into the dim glow of the streetlight as she approached the gate. She looked tired. I wondered if she had gotten any sleep. I had managed an hour. Maybe two. I doubted if she had even done that well.

“Oh damn,” she said just as we pulled away. I knew what she was going to say next. “I hope I didn’t leave the oven on.”  She didn’t. She never does, yet she always wonders if she did. It’s nothing more than a defense mechanism, one which takes her mind off of whatever it is that should be causing her anxiety and redirects it instead to a less serious, and, in fact, non-existent scenario.

But I doubt if it worked this time.

For we were off to catch a flight that neither one of us wanted to take. And nothing could ever take her mind off of that. Not even for a second.

To be continued.

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