Cancer in the Family

I’m fascinated by the impact our decisions create; some with major historical waves or most with barely noticeable little fluctuations in the air. Does anything really happen for a reason? My short history’s peppered with the lives of my mother and father and their parents. So here I investigate what my father gave me.

Everyone projects their life expectancy with an equation including a family history. Hoping to uncover relevant information, sifting through our historical data sometimes leaves golden nuggets in our miners pans. Some data insists on investigation although the output may never relate to an end result. Pun intended. I found a hand drawn family tree when sorting through my fathers personal notes a few weeks ago. My family going back to pre 1910 Russia, predating Stalin’s takeover and thus you’re reading my words now.

In 1941, my dad came into his life in a Brooklyn, NY posh Jewish walkup. My grandfather, Jack, born Jacob, one of four children, and the middle son of Russian Jewish immigrants. His father, Isaac after whom I am named, was a renowned Rabbinical Cantor who happened to die as the result of vehicular manslaughter committed by a Cuban National in the ‘50s. No breaking tire skid marks were found at the scene, said police, and the driver, a medical doctor, claimed he honked his horn from about a block away when he saw an old man crossing through the next intersection. This Cuban physician, although found preliminarily guilty by a Miami Beach judge and released for trial, was instead extradited and sent running 90 miles south from Miami to Havana.

Not so ironically, Jack had run rum from Cuba to New York during the Prohibition, which in turn led him to a very lucrative career as a purveyor of alcoholic beverages once liquor became a legal substance. Among Jews, four rabbinical groups were approved to purchase wine for services in the temples, which led to some competition for membership. The supervision of sacramental licenses could be used to secure donations to support a religious institution. There were known abuses in this system, with imposters or unauthorized agents using loopholes to purchase wine.

I try not to draw conclusions in the face of such coincidences. But no one ever saw Cantor Kaminsky’s music after he was killed. My grandfather left countless letters from pleading rabbis and cantors for access to the music so it may live on. Jack never relented and all that’s found is one Hanukkah liturgy, still sung today, still felt in the hallowed temples of Orthodox Jews.

His business partnership with his younger brother Morris: stores that sold alcoholism to at risk minority groups in demographically strategic locations around the five boroughs of New York. My grandparents smiled and dressed like movie stars – both good looking and expensively dressed in their photographs: at their cabana at the Fontainebleau pool, in the nightclubs of New York and Miami Beach, holding me as an infant later on in years.

My father took an entirely different approach to Cuba. Instead of capitalizing on the sugar cane fermented sweet rum, my grandfather’s wealth from such profiteering afforded his leftist son (my father was a southpaw as well as a communist) a five year run as a translator who spoke very little Spanish and a decent news caster disguised as a jazz disc jockey (or vice-versa)for Radio Free Cuba. The parallels tantalize even the worst imaginations to seek out commonality in difference. His father looked for any opportunity to show his only son his love and acceptance, while the son looked at these gifts as shadows of something he declared throughout his life as “not quite” what he needed and “never what he [I] really wanted”.

My grandmother, Lee, née Leah Fuchs, born also to Russian immigrant parents, attended high school in Brooklyn at PS 21, graduating in 1921. Leah, a popular and beautiful girl who, after her friends signed her senior autograph book, modeled hats for department stores before marrying Jack in the 1920s. By 1941 when Len, born Leonard arrived, she’d spent her adult life living through innumerable miscarriages and nearly died giving birth to my father.

Amazingly, my father never felt loved enough. Feeling short changed by parents who desperately wanted him, their beloved son experienced the best life could offer a Jewish boy in the 40s and 50s in New York City. A city he loved in return for its embrace of his defiance of his parents’ beliefs. My father became a divorced communist atheist by 1972.

Lee died when I was four years old, and photographs of her in the final years of her shortened life show her embracing me in custom little dresses she had made for me in posh Lincoln Road dressmaker shops. She had found her salvation through grandchild as daughter. I imagine the fact that I spoke full sentences by 6 months helped in allowing her to elevate my young ego and she spent little time without me. She had a radical mastectomy, chemical therapies and eventually died in the hospital and in severe pain, leaving my grandfather heartbroken.

My father eventually died of brain cancer at 71. His personality prior to the ordeal was altered significantly due to chemical changes in his brain. He became incapable of controlling his anger and cursing and mean behavior. The surgeon neglected to tell me what we might expect. Thank you modern medical professionals. Forgetting the closest people to the patient isn’t uncommon with brain surgery, either.

It’s hard not to take such outbursts personally- because it is. It is personal to the one on the receiving end. All of it. When my dad first woke up from his 28 hour brain surgery he cursed at me, yelled and sent me away. We were so close before that yet it took two years for us to repair our scarred relationship enough to have him book a trip out to California which he never got to make.

I used Hospice services with my dad, also with my best friend who died at 37 of HIV related illness. Same scenario for my maternal grandmother who died years before my father in the same loving facility and in the same exact dimly lit room. Ironically though they hated one another. Also hospice was there with my grandfather Jack at his Miami condo.

In the hospital environment for my best friend Allan and later my dad, they were helpful throughout the entire process including wishes for end of life and all the dirty shit for grieving people who do not have the emotional strength to pull it all together. It’s too much for anyone. They also offered me perspective at a time when I was angry for losing two people who meant nearly everything to me.

How can I go on – I go on. Now I’m angry for different reasons but it seems no one wants to deal with stage 4 cancer and a prolonged state of severe depression that’s taking such a toll on me I cannot keep my anger contained. I seriously don’t understand why C still cannot get out of his own way for a long enough time to give me the emotional or physical support I so desire. Then I remember he can’t help it. I feel ashamed for my lack of patience and the need to be here for him is making me resentful. Until something happens.

I know I’m angry with C for having hereditary depression. I hold out my hope like some stupid flag leading a parade of one. I seem to be the only one left in his life, since he isolated himself from everyone else. Yet he’s so much better and I’m still quite angry. Learning to drop the anger and pick up the baton of gratitude must not get lost as an objective if I’m to live a full and rich life.

You see my point. I am angry with all of them to some degree. I’ve spent too much time crying and not nearly enough time being grateful. You see, cancer takes its victims down into places so dark and ugly sometimes we even hate ourselves – we are not humans we become a cancer in a body of genetic tangles as we, the progeny walk towards the graves our greats and grandparents now and forever inhabit.

Yet we, as their hopes, fade in our dying bodies.

Connections: The impact of terminal illness on relationships

Who wants to die without seeing everyone you’d want to see and saying all the things you want to say to the most precious gifts life has to offer: of friends you make along the “long and winding road,” to quote Lennon and McCartney. I’d venture to guess very few people, if anyone, would pass up such an auspicious opportunity. Or would they?

Receiving a terminal illness diagnosis, like metastatic cancer, can cut the human heart out like a serial killer with a hunting knife. Stunned we watch in horror as in his hand your life quickly fades to black as he shows your heart to you, blood through his fingers right before the light in your eyes burns out, extinguished forever.

Why do I imagine such a vividly gruesome metaphor for what should be a series of happy reunions?

A day in a life

Ahhhh. My bath time. The time of each day when I reflect on my self care and I give myself a physical and mental check up. Some time to meditate, listen to an audio book or music or both. Or do a Zentangle focused drawing tile. If you’re not a visual artist like me but want to learn to draw, try the Zentangle methodology. It’s great for concentration and for relaxation and it truly improved my confidence in my ability to create hand drawn artwork. I’m even proud of a few of my pieces!

Stumbling into my peaceful bath ritual came The C. Innocent as the slightly autistic driven snow, he offered,”If you need to travel to say goodbye to some old friends don’t worry, I will take care of your travel costs,” offered C last night as I sat in a hot bath. I sat with tears falling into a bathtub of steaming water. Such a thoughtful gift brought about a tearful response. He tore at my heart while giving with his own. He left me alone shutting the door, quietly walking away, feeling upset and confused.

Why did I cry instead of showing my gratitude? His generosity shattered me into a hundred little shards of painful fragments. Pieces of sharp broken promises of a future. Another day in my life, post-terminal illness diagnosis. I’d heretofore avoided the subject of visiting old friends. There are people I frequently daydream of seeing again, who pop into my minds eye along witht the feeling that I might not see them befor I die.

Relative mortality survival time with statistics - but I try not to follow numbers since they mean nothing to anyone’s individual cancer.

*See stage 4, that’s my survival chance beyond five years but I could never play by the rules so these numbers are mere poo flung out to scare me from Dr. Mary’s monkey cage. It’s been four years and two months since my diagnosis and likely much longer since I’ve had my chance to begin with before it went raising my body like a pirate.

On our way home

I hesitated due to the ravages of chemotgerapy to visit with an old friend who came from Paris with his 22 year old son to the Bay Area. He and I last saw one another 12 years ago when he dropped me at the train station in a small town down in the southern mountain region of France. We were not too happy with eachother at the time. But maturity and sense took over in the span between then and now. Meeting him for an hour before he had to check in I was not nervous but excited to see him.

Funny how cancer gave me a strange confidence in knowing it didn’t matter how good I looked. It didn’t matter what I wore, because neither of us will remember our relative fashion sensibilities as the highlight of our brief yet meaningful encounter. We will recall how it felt to hug one another and to feel the connection of a true friend and the kind kind of love that’s without beginning or end.

Moved to feel the connections we make along the way with those who travel along life’s path with us, authentic and deeply touched and indelibly changed by that very beautiful place only we know while joined with another spirit. Through the years we expand on our experiences together and fold them in on our consciousness. Our expression then takes on a higher power, two squared if you will. We better ourselves because of an instinct to find other souls in a sea of possibility. This I believe is where our instincts must take over.

I trust my instincts more than ever because sometimes that in and of itself is what was changed by another person. The innstinct infuses us with life and light and love. For what is love but the purest form of human instinct.

Ticket to Ride

Try as I could I couldn’t but cry for being happy to have seen him… knowing it may be the last time. But perhaps not so until we meet again…I am here and as long as I am alive there is hope. With hope comes possibility. And I have hope there will come a day when we can hug again.

Yet we can only live in this moment. It’s all anyone can do. And I ripped the bandaid off of my fear of the next time I see an old friend, perhaps being the last time we may see eachother. Maybe C’s right and it’s time to get traveling and live again to see those people who have meant so much to me over the years, and to the person I’ve become. Because whether or not they know it, I would never have the strength of spirit to dig up the tenacity required to go the distance with metastatic cancer.

Never underestimate how you’re loved. It’s more than you think and never too late to find out.

Playing the Cat

Scene 1: Enter Stage Right, Cat

This year Cat knocked Mary down.
Mother of Jesus, Carpets, Jews.
Last year, Cat ran off with the Husband—
Taking Joseph’s coat, too.
Not seen since the incident,
Neither man, nor carpet, nor cape.
Cat, exit stage.
Three years now since,
Cat, spuriously,
Dragged down a turkey.
Bigger than his head, feasts Cat,
Dinner of greasy fowl, used and
Orphaned. All shiny fat prickly sinews
Cold kitchen floor decor.
We retired in living color,
Cat waits on sock rugs,
Chasing bugs and saints.

Eyes devour the Lollipop Guild,
Feasting on colorful Witches brews
Enter Wizard. Sleep in straw
The tin cans sending queues
Heads with curlers, spitting nails—
Shake and roar, black as night.
White pictures of spoiled babies.
“My,” gasping grandmother
Hungry, yet we search the air.
Relief, at long last,
A manger all in tact,
Still missing:
Carpentry’s first common
Union worker.
Cat stole him three years past.
In stretches morning, you gripe
“Such an imprint for a wife.”
(I am the knife.)
Cat, please take leave —
Please leave, leave the coffee.
Four years back, for I
Then me. We sighed, “no cat.”
Dreams of dances on tippy toes,
A vision of homes built round,
All trees and ornaments and we’s.
Petting slowly, backhanded
Head to tail.

Cat purrs waltzing,
Jesus asleep now, Joseph
Warmly herd sheep sows, Mary
Wailed and cried still.
Windows shuttered,
Elbows under chins, on sills.
We keep all the straw for a manger.
We each pull out one for luck:
I forgot to count the flock tonight —
Up to number 10 to silence
My weeping, I shivered.
The Egyptian visions,
The escaping slaves —
The sundown desert —
They eyed green knaves.
The riddle the answer the
Four Footed beastly things.
The long tail sweeping
Dust up on wings.

Nestled pyramids, soldiers of sand,
No servants hand, no strangers.
No one died today, no saints
Made. Cat wore the Ankh,
Carried the dog headed staff,
Drawing along the sea crooked to
And fro on the sand, wand dragging
Wagging a tail — Happy in now,
Yet name him Memento.
Cat, built it all alone, he meant
To say, “I made that,” in peace
Aligning November’s
Surrendering sun.
Cat dreams of Cat things:
Play, sleep, sun, warm, eat.

Return to your lines, to track back
Over three years, to four.
In scene two: sorrow and worry,
Cat pictures Mary, Joe, and the baby boy.
Rejoice, back in the trunk
Running for the fifth term monks.
Cat: teeth glitter with hope
Of centurions and scarabs run.
Cat, to you surrendered or given
From your own meaty dinner,
pulled. Drowned asunder
All in a Dead Sea, deep
Asleep, dreaming wonder.

Swaying, overhead wire flying
Cat awake and wicked green
Snipped, he nips at grass.
His game — Cricket.
Slow, moribund, drying spice scent.
Boring holes, hearing voices.
Charming. Then crack —
A bat. Eyes followed us
On western war bliss.
Then rob the sun, beaming
Warm like a kiss.
The Queens pearls go dark.
Yet to remember:
Do not face
Anything larger than you
May forget
To enter: open this moment.
Exit the Cat.