My eyes were no surprise--I have been blind as a bat forever. I was born in 1947, started school in 1952, and at that time no one bothered to obsess over children's growth and development. We were here--we were loved--but for the most part no one, in my family at least--paid any attention to us. So, I probably occasionally stumbled through my house and wandered through my neighborhood without anyone thinking it was strange--I was just another clumsy kid. Maybe the fact that I learned how to read by the time I was three should have clued someone--my dad, my mother, my grandmother Ruby--that I might be a little nearsighted, but it didn't. In fact, I still remember the first book I could read, and in my head I can see the pictures. The book, whose title escapes me now, was about a little girl named Susan Samantha, who must have been around 6 or 7 in the story. She lived somewhere on an anonymous but picturesque Midwestern farm, where it had been raining for days. She is despondent at being housebound, but suddenly a truck pulls up to her house (white, of course) and delivers a package. The package is for Susan Samantha! And it contains a red rain slicker and a red slick hat. She quickly pulls them on and out she goes, to splash in puddles and wander in the farmyard. Her wise mother tells her, "We need the rain to water the crops and makes things grow, like green beet tops." And she lives happily ever after, for a while, I mean. I must have read the book over and over.
But by second grade, someone, no doubt an observant teacher, must have noticed that I was having trouble seeing. I don't remember going to Dr. Bernstein to get my eyes checked, and I don't remember going back to Dr Bernstein to get my glasses, but I do remember going to school, the only child in the only second grade at Elm Street School wearing glasses. The next thing I remember is opening the top to my small wooden desk, taking my glasses off, and stowing them inside where no one could see them. Eventually, I guess, I reconciled myself to the fact that I would be four-eyed, because all my elementary school class pictures after that showed me in glasses. (Of course there were very few other pictures of me from that time--parents then did not take pictures of their children on a daily or hourly basis. Picture taking was reserved for special occasions--birthdays, holidays, maybe the rare trip to Presque Isle in Erie or to relatives.) The best record I have of those times remains inside my head.
Now, naturally, I am thrilled to have glasses and I only remove them to sleep. My vision can still be corrected to 20/25 with glasses, despite the 5 surgeries that I had for a detached retina, and while I have a troublesome cataract in my "good eye," that will come out next summer with little fuss.
And cancer--right now I am a survivor of breast cancer, which cropped up when I was sixty. I was an unlikely candidate to contract this disease: there is no family history, I am not an alcoholic or heavy smoker, I exercise a lot, I am thin. I did, however, take hormone replacement pills for five years. Stats now suggest that 24% of women who took these pills get breast cancer. During a routine annual mammogram an odd (though beautiful) series of random white tiny stars appeared in a duct of my right breast, looking just like an undiscovered constellation in a dark night sky. After a biopsy--the worst part of the whole thing--the diagnosis was confirmed. And I had all high grade cells. Because the disease was confined to a duct, though, I was at stage zero. The oncologist recommended a lumpectomy. So I had one. The worst part of that was having black wires inserted in the breast--"x marks the spot"--and then having to find my way from the breast cancer imaging center in my bathrobe, my husband pushing me in a wheel chair.
So, the lump came out and my surgeon, who by then had become a friend because he liked Henry James and envied me my career as a scholar (who knew?), called me at six am from his conference in New York to tell me I was cancer free--with a 1 millimeter margin with no cancer cells around the spot. Well, I don't know much about metric measurements, but that didn't seem like much of a margin. In fact, my oncologist contradicted him. She wanted me to have another lumpectomy and then weeks of radiation. I went and talked to a radiologist: I would be fatigued, the skin on my back would burn, I had to go every day to the hospital for weeks (I was still working full time then), and this whole procedure might not work, because all the cells that they removed turned out to be high grade ones.
I went to Moab, Utah, for a weekend to think about all this. Hiking in the desert air and running on paths around town, I came to the decision that I had to fight harder to overcome this disease. I needed to remove the entire breast. I called Jim on Monday morning and he scheduled me for surgery the next week. For some reason, one of the things that bothered me most during all the tests and procedures had been the ugly gowns they made me wear while they were sticking things in me, cutting me up, and making me lie on a table face down for an hour and a half without moving. Enough already. I decided to make myself a pretty gown to wear in my hospital bed. Only Walmart sells material in Park City and I don't like most of what they have, but I found a pretty soft pink flannel and a pink flowered flannel for trim. I bought a basic pattern and sewed frantically, finishing this long gown the day before the surgery.
If I could do one thing for women going through this now, I would organize a group to make pretty gowns for these patients. I asked several people at the Huntsman Cancer Center about this, but all indicated that the homemade gowns would not pass the sanitation/laundry requirements--I was so tired by the end of it all that I gave up. But that might be a door I could try to go through later, as after Christmas I will not teach again. There is just too much left to do, I have decided, that I don't have time to go to work.
So, I started with doors and look where I have gone!.Frankly I don't like it when people talk about their medical problems. It can become a hallmark of conversations among seniors, and unless we are exchanging helpful advice on doctors, procedures, etc. it is probably better to talk about something else--like what doors we might go through next.
I have gone through another door learning about painting. Maybe doors have always interested me because I am curious about what lies behind them, particularly when I am in another country where the language and culture are strange to me. How do these people view the world? What mysteries to they have? What have they lived through? All of us follow the same trajectory from birth to death, we just take different paths.
At some point I would like to think that most of us come together, realizing toward the end of our lives that it isn't money, fame, or fortune that matter. It doesn't matter where we live and it doesn't really matter what our work was (though mine did bring me enormous satisfaction). It is that we loved someone, that someone loved us, and that we were in places where the planet is still beautiful. Whatever our achievements were, we will leave them behind. It is Lucretius in his De Rerum Nature [The Nature of Things] who said it best: in the fourth century A.D.: “We are each of us angels with only one wing, and we can only fly by embracing one another.”
― Titus Lucretius Carus