Monday, March 31, 2008


World N Hands, originally uploaded by bambino333.

It wasn't a trip I wanted to take; there were no beaches or cocktail hours; and the only souvenirs I brought home are carved into my abdomen. And yet, I traveled far, saw things I'd never seen before. I learned more about the internal and external world than I have on any other trip I've ever taken. My love for friends and family has deepened and changed.

If I could go back and refuse the journey, I'm not entirely sure that I would. I'm not the same person I was when I entered the hospital for the first time on November 28th, and I don't think I will be her again. Her preoccupations are not mine. Her sense of time and priorities are different, too.

If you asked her why she wanted to live, her answers would have been theoretical, and would not always have been borne out by the way she spent her time, or the words that flowed from her mouth all too easily.

There's nothing theoretical about my reason for living now. I think before I speak or act now. Do those words, that way of thinking represent who I want to become? Is a given activity really worth doing or am I doing it because it feeds my ego or alleviates my fears?

In the past four months, I've spent a total of five weeks in the hospital. I shared both a room and many intense hours with unknown roommates from the U.S., China, Equador, Monseurrat, Cambodia, and Panama. I found some more congenial than others, but I learned from all of them.

If I had a choice, I would have opted for a private room, but these "strangers," each enduring their own hour of crisis, blessed me with their lives, their stories, their friendship--and above all their courage. They proved again and again that what we think we want--solitude and a chance to control our environment, is good; but rising out of ourselves and the narrowness of our lives is better.

"My" hospital was a teaching hospital, and I came to love the atmosphere of wild learning that pervaded the place. As one resident told me, everyone there was mentoring someone else. It was an atmosphere where no one knew so much that they couldn't learn from someone else; and no one knew so little that they didn't have something to teach.

That's the kind of world where I want to live; it's also the place within myself where I returned to at the end of my trip. If I have something to give, I want to give it--and without reservation. At the same time, I want to keep my eyes, my ears and my heart open to all that I clearly have to learn from the mentors who startle me at every turn.

Saturday, March 29, 2008


Pete_Seeger, originally uploaded by guano.

Last night, I couldn't sleep. Maybe I'd been spoiled by three nights in my own bed. Or maybe as Lisa Kenney once wrote to me, night is just a particularly vulnerable time for people in the hospital.

Around eleven, my roommate, a young woman from Panama, got a call. It seemed her three year old son was having trouble sleeping, too. He needed his mother to sing to him to sleep, just like she always did.

And so she did. It turned out to be a long concert, as the boy continued to beg for one more song, not wanting to let go of the connection to his mother's voice.

I'm not sure how long it took for him to fall asleep, but I slipped off to the sound of her voice after about the third song.

Today, as I was watching the "Power of Song" a documentary about Pete Seeger on PBS, I smiled as I remembered the night before.

At the end of the documentary, Pete said we don't sing enough any more and it's a huge loss. People used to sing when they walked and when they built roads and bridges and when they cleaned their houses; and subtly they lifted up the world around them with their song--or comforted it, as a sick woman, singing to her child stilled and illuminated my hospital room last night.

I've never had a voice as strong as the man I heard singing "Good Morning Heartache" last week, or as light and high as my roommate's, and I can't play the banjo like Pete Seeger. But I can tell you one thing; I will leave this hospital (hopefully
tomorrow) determined to sing my song and to sing it with all the force I have in me.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008


Romantic July, originally uploaded by Meloses (Ladida).

During my twelve days in the hospital, I outlasted five roommates. The last one had attempted suicide in a particularly violent manner, and ended up with abdominal surgery.

Through the curtains, I heard the doctors say it was a miracle she'd missed any major organs. It was a miracle she was alive.

Through the curtains, I heard her awaken, surprisingly greedy for life. She wanted a turkey sandwich. She wanted the 18 karat gold chain that had been taken from her neck in the ER. She wanted the clothes that had been cut from her body. Maybe they could be repaired.

But most of all she wanted her boyfriend. It was a fairly complicated process, but the nurse dialed the long distance number she provided. No answer. They tried the woman's sister, her "best friend," but there were no answers at those numbers either.

The woman slept fitfully, guarded by a paid suicide watch, but she opened her eyes every hour, always with the same words: Call my boyfriend. Please! I need someone to call my boyfriend.

The paid watcher was a young nursing student who busied herself with homework. The only time she spoke to the woman in the bed was to report that there had been no answer. Again. Not from her boyfriend, or her sister either. The friend had apparently taken the phone off the hook.

Had anyone called the hospital to see if she was all right? the patient wanted to know.

No one, the nursing student said and went back to her homework, looking slightly troubled. When her shift was over, she was replaced by a middle-aged woman who liked to watch cartoons--at a loud voiume.

Call my boyfriend, the patient said to her middle-aged watcher--as if it was a new request.

By the time the fourth shift arrived (another college student) I knew that the the boyfriend would never take her calls. Nor would her sister. I also knew she would keep trying.

When the nurses came in, the watcher told them that he wouldn't take these shifts again. They were too boring.

Slowly the patient and I began to talk. She told a story about children born and vaguely "lost"--like a misplaced passport or a wallet. About a life that began in a distant country and had wended its way through many exotic locales, leaving little but chaos and loss in its wake. About the boyfriend who drank too much and couldn't work because he was haunted by the ghost of his dead mother.

Her suicide attempt was "a stupid mistake," she said. But it was "over" now. Besides, she needed to get home. If she didn't get to work on Monday, she might lose her job.

The watcher, who was being paid to care about her life continued to underline his text book in yellow marker. I wondered if he was listening, and what he thought about this turbulent life so different from his own. I wondered what I thought. It was a story I couldn't completely understand, and certainly could not judge.

How had she ended up so alone? Why didn't one person care if she was alive or dead? But one thing I understood was her desperate need for connection.

Do you have a cell phone? she asked me. Because you know, I really need to call my boyfriend.

I knew that once I gave her the phone, she'd use it incessantly. And of course, I also knew her quest was futile, but I tossed her the phone anyway. As she clutched it to her ear, I felt the endless ringing in my brain, in the pit of my stomach, in my heart.

No, her boyfriend said to her. No, her family.

She left at the same time I did. Left in an oversized sweat suit that had been given to her by the hospital and a pair of padded socks on her feet. Left in a cab she couldn't pay for that would take her to the place where the phone had continued to ring in emptiness. Despite her violent effort to hurt herself, she seemed remarkably resilient--both to the psychiatrist who released her back to her old life and to me.

People have told me I've been courageous in dealing with my ordeal, but I haven't been. Not particularly. All of you would do the same. You would hear the most challenging news, as some of my roommates did, and then an hour later, you would be on the phone finding a way to explain it to your family and to yourself, looking for the bliss. You WOULD.

But I wonder if I would have the kind of courage my abandoned roommate had. I wondered if I would comb my hair, and put on my make-up, wanting to be attractive even in the sweatsuit that didn't fit, in an impervious world. I wonder if I would have waved as cheerily as she did when she left.

Good luck to ya, I told her. It was what my grandfather used to say in place of goodbye; and he always managed to imbue the words with such deep sincerity it makes me cry to think on it now. I tried to do the same.

You, she said, almost like an accusation. You already have good luck. After two surgeries in a week--the last one tenuous at best-- and twelve days in the hospital, I wasn't feeling particularly fortunate at that moment. My smile was probably pretty weak.

She glanced at Ted before looking back at me pointedly. Your kids come to see you and your boyfriend is here night and day. You think there's better luck in the world than that?

No, I suppose there's not. How could I have forgotten?

Saturday, March 22, 2008


The Letter Writer, originally uploaded by rita banerji.

This morning, after ten days in the hospital, my nurse told me I had become the official mayor of the floor. But if f they're going to hang a sign outside my room, I would prefer it say "Writer in Residence." . I never was much for politics. As a writer, I tend to grow empathy for even the darkest of characters. Clearly, I'm unfit to govern--even among my own creations.

So. After days of sipping clear liquids, watching TV, surfing the net, reading books and emails ( which I can't answer from the hospital for some reason) a strange urge came over me. It was the urge that has dominated my life. Stories bubbled up; a poem began to form. I thought of the novel I would begin after the one I'm working on was finished, and behind that, I glimped the shadow of another.

How strange, how marvelous that it should follow me here! Even when my brain is still thick with anesthesia! Even when I ignored it in favor of TV and magazines! Still it follows. Still it comes.

As for my medical status, I'm well enough to walk to the kitchen and make tea, well enough to joke with the staff, and to get excited about the new "surgical soft" diet that's been ordered for lunch. (It's been a long ten days on jello and broth.) Now it's pretty much a waiting game. Waiting to learn if the surgery will hold. Waiting to eat normally again. Waiting, waiting to see the imperfect incredible place known as home.

Thanks to all who have continued to check in on me, who have left such wise, caring comments, who have kept up the "hope watch" with me. I send smiles and hugs to each of you.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008


Billie-holiday.jpg, originally uploaded by poirpom.

Well, it's a good thing I didn't worry before my surgery. It's a good thing that I reveled in every moment of being at home, rather than spoiling it by mentally leaping into "what might happen." Because as it turns out what might happen arrived all on its own.

My recovery was on track until Sunday when I became serioiusly ill. Doctors were summoned (one even racing down the hallway), tests were taken, conferences were had. The consensus was even more desperate than the way I felt. My surgery had failed, and would need to be repeated (today at 1:30.)

Fortunately, by yesterday, I was feeling much better. A young Vietnamese man arrived to take me by wheelchair to radiology. It felt like a real outing. Running 3 and a half minutes late, and obsessively punctual, my high spirited driver gave me the kind of thrill ride I haven't had in years. We practically did wheelies around the corners.

Once I got off the ward, I marveled at the healthy people I saw, and all the incredible things they could do without a second thought. They walked fast, carrying backpacks or heavy satchels, while nattering on their cell phones about what they were doing that night.
A woman enjoyed a bagel and coffee at her desk. Then around the next turn, a frustrated young mother, chased a toddler, while balancing a baby on her hip. A man, talking in the hallway complained that his supervisor was compelled "to micro-manage everything."

In another time, I have done all these things, I have been all these people (though I don't think I've ever used the word micro-manage.")
(Remind me to try it.)

My popular driver was greeted enthusiastically by co-workers everywhere. "How ya doin?" they asked.

"Same old. Same old," he responded the first three times.

That was when I spoke up. "Look at you. You're racing. You're whistling. You're calling out to your friends. You're not Same Old anything. You're WONDERFUL."

He laughed out loud. When he met the next friend, he didn't even wait to be asked how he was.

"You know how I am today? I'm WONDERFUL."

My destination was a spot in an empty hallway where I was to wait for the radiologist. I was sitting there thinking of everything I'd seen on my ride when unexpectedly, someone behind me belted out the old Billie Holiday classic, Good Morning Heartache. It was a damn good rendition.

I turned around and saw an old man in a wheel chair, waiting as I was. He continued to sing, and when he was finished, I clapped.

"Do you know that song?" he asked.

Oh yes, I know that song. All too well.

But then I thought about all the people I'd seen that day. I thought about how blessed they were. All of them. And how blessed I was, too. Blessed to be loved by my family and friends, to be cared for by an amazing team of doctors and nurses. Blessed to meet my buoyant young wheel chair driver, and to be able to see the world around me as I traveled. And especially blessed by an old man, sitting alone in a hallway, who had the fortitude to turn his troubles into a song.


Thanks to all of you who have left such beautiful messages of support in this past week. Some days, though you may not have known it, you have held me up.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008


Worry Beads, originally uploaded by pfong.

Surgery is scheduled for tomorrow at 8 a.m. so the other night, lying in bed, I started to relive my recent experiences. It was easier not to contemplate what was about to happen to me before my first operation. These days I know too much.

My heart did a jumpy thing. Was it palpitations? A sign of undetected heart disease? Was I really fit for surgery? After all, I've done nothing but much but hang out on my couch the last couple of months--not very good training for another marathon in the OR.

Then I realized that I was worrying, and that worrying is optional. Phew! I turned out the light, put the worry beads under my pillow and slept like a child.

See you all in a few days.

Saturday, March 08, 2008


"We're Open", originally uploaded by Digital Agent.

When he was growing up, my son, Gabe, always requested the same dinner on his birthday: lasagna and mashed potatoes. These days we skip the mashed potatoes, but still honor the tradition.Forget the gifts; don't worry about the cake. The only thing Gabe really wants for his birthday is a meal worth remembering. An Italian meal.

And since he lives in Rhode Island, we have a lot of choices. If there's anywhere outside Bologna that has more or better Italian restaurants than they do in Rhode Island, I'd like to hear about it. This year, a small, unpretentious place in Smithfield served up the most awesome bruschetta with cannellini beans and eggplant rollatini I've ever had.

But the best part of the meal was fervent conversation we always have. We are the kind of family who talks so much, each excitedly waiting for a turn to speak, that when we finally look up, there's no one left in the restaurant but the employees. (As a waitress, I hated people like us, but we at least, we always tip well.)

Right now Gabe and Nicola are hard at work promoting their new business, RentProv. That means going out and getting to know the communities they want to serve. It means walking the streets of various towns and neighborhoods, talking to people about what they do, and what they hope to do. Or just talking to people, which has always been Gabe's favorite activity.

In the smallest state in the country, are still a lot ofof small family-run coffee shops and bakeries, sub shops and delis; and Gabe is determined to sample the food and meet the regulars in all of them. He's also learned that it's those small businesses, the heart of any community, who are willing to post his flyers, to take an interest in his dream, and offer to spread the word.

Last week he was walking through a somewhat downtrodden, but friendly neighborhood in Providence when he noticed a barber shop. The windows looked as if they hadn't been washed in a decade, and there were no lights on, but when Gabe tried the door, it was open.

The first thing he noticed in the empty shop was the overwhelming scent of urine. The second thing was the barber snoozing in chair, with a very large, tabby in his lap, one mistrustful eye open. Gabe estimated the barber's age at somewhere between eighty-five and ninety.

A lot of people would have slipped out before the man woke up, but Gabe decided on the spot that what he needed most in the world was a haircut from an octogenarian barber.

He had to poke the poor man three times before the barber leaped off the chair, blinking in bewilderment. "A haircut? What? Well, sure!"

So for six bucks, Gabe got himself a haircut that was reminiscent of the ones I used to give him when I bought my first set of crazy clippers, and an hour of talk about the history of the neighborhood where the barber had done business for over fifty years.

It's the kind of deal that is becoming all too rare.