Category: Memoirs

Just One More Measly Treatment

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Arizona’s Crosscut Canal connects Scottsdale, Tempe and Phoenix. Depending on the day and the immediate weather, it can carry a trickle of water or channel a deluge of monsoon storm drainage into a network of other canals that irrigate surrounding communities in the Valley of the Sun.

One stretch of the canal winds between Camelback Mountain on the north and the east-west artery of Indian School Road on the south. It’s just steps from the office of Omni Dermatology where, since December 9, I’ve been meeting Amanda (and Claudia, her holiday replacement) three times a week for superficial radiotherapy treatments to bombard the invasive squamous cancer cells on my left hand.

Today was treatment nineteen. I’ll be happy to see it end Thursday morning with session twenty. Certainly, I was ecstatic to hear Dr. R tell me yesterday that my hand has healed beautifully. Still, I’ll admit a strange sense of sadness is creeping into my soul. That’s because I will no longer share stories and perspectives with Amanda.

During each session, we’ve chatted as she applied gel to the back of my hand, rolled a detection device across my skin to monitor the regeneration of healthy cells, taped a square of metal with a hole in the middle over the suspicious spot, placed the blue flak jacket, matching collar and protective goggles on me, and lowered the radiotherapy “gun” until it was secured against my skin.

In the grand scheme of things, perhaps Amanda’s stories were designed initially to distract me from the real reason I was there, the real anxieties I felt at the end of last year. But, over time, we’ve gotten to know each other intimately.

For instance, we’ve engaged in conversations about her son’s ski team excursions to northern Arizona, the identifying southern lilt in her voice that came from her Georgia roots, her part-time job as a real estate agent, my passion for writing and staying relevant in my sixties, and her hope to celebrate her approaching fortieth birthday in Hawaii with her husband. Just today, she told me she purchased my first book From Fertile Ground and was excited to read it.

Shortly after her book-buying revelation, Amanda excused herself for a minute. She left the room. Left me to my devices. Hit the radiotherapy switch. Then, forty-five seconds later–after the quiet hum of the machinery had ended–she reentered the room.

“Just one more measly treatment,” I muttered as she gathered my protective gear.

“It’s so funny you would say that,” Amanda laughed. “Measley, with an additional “e”, was my maiden name.”

At this juncture, I realized the connections before me. The mystical and idiosyncratic language of our lives. The canals in the desert. The tributaries that run through our human interactions without us really ever understanding how and why.

I felt the same synchronicity in St. Louis on July 6, 2017. That’s when Jacob, an EKG technician at Barnes-Jewish Hospital, ran a device and cool gel across my chest. As he performed his duties to determine the magnitude of the obstruction on the left side of my heart, I felt safe in Jacob’s hands. Evidently, he felt secure too, because in the following thirty minutes that day he shared his life story with me … that of a new father protecting his infant son and trying to adjust to a sleep-deprived schedule.

Perhaps because I’m more aware of my mortality in my sixties, I’m predisposed to pondering these present moments … what it felt like to connect with Jacob with my life hanging in the balance … what it will feel like to meet Amanda for just one more “measly” or “Measley” superficial radiotherapy session.

No matter the reason for my acute awareness, I’m ready to put this cancer scare behind me. I’m grateful for what lies ahead along the canal that trails through my desert life.

 

 

A Writer’s Plight and a Dog Named Lassie

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I try to write everyday. Sometimes, with other priorities–frequent doctor appointments, an aggressive exercise schedule, Tuesday night chorus rehearsals, Friday morning gentle yoga, spontaneous outings and coffee catch-ups with friends–there isn’t enough time for Tom and me devote to our literary pursuits or to simply escape the daily demands of our world. (Oh, perhaps you don’t know. My husband’s also a writer and film aficionado too.)

Anyway, we and our creative schemes … our true and false story ideas … persevere. That’s what it means to be an artist of any kind. You’re a romantic soul in it for the long haul and the creative chase. Familiar with both the trauma of the blank page and the exhilarating light bulb inspirations. Always pursuing that glorious day when your first or next book is finally published. For the moments when someone tells you he or she read your book, was moved by it, enlightened by its observations, chuckled a few times, and ultimately felt sad to see it end.

For all of these reasons and motivations, I like to keep my mind greased and oiled. A scribble on a sticky note. An entry in a journal. A brief blog post. One hour of writing and editing here. Two hours squeezed in there. A kernel of an idea that could only be a poem. A prolonged dive into a piece of fiction that needs nurturing. Three hours of uninterrupted time away from the world to expand and refine story ideas for a book about living in Arizona, which I hope to publish in the next year or so.

When I really tunnel into my writing universe, you’d be hard pressed to capture my attention unless our condo’s on fire, the St. Louis Cardinals are playing a game on TV or there’s a Breaking News item that is actually breaking and truly newsworthy.

Yet there are personal unplanned moments–life itself–outside the normal course of any day that take precedence. Like last Wednesday evening, when our neighbor Rhea called to say she and her husband Dan had made a difficult decision. They realized it was time to put down their beloved Lassie, a senior Sheltie with an indomitable heart and spirit. The dog with a checkered past had finally lost its fight with an inoperable tumor.

I didn’t take long for Tom or me to remember what it felt like to lose a pet, a helpless member of the family. Nearly twelve years ago, on Groundhog Day 2008, we made that same difficult decision when our basset hound Maggie succumbed to a series of seizures. We knew it was her time to go when she wouldn’t eat or lift her head to lick the pancake syrup off a plate on the floor. Just as it was Lassie’s time to cross the Rainbow Bridge on January 15, 2020.

So, on the morning of January 16 … a cloudy day in the Valley of the Sun after my seventeenth of twenty superficial radiotherapy sessions to treat that spot on my left hand which appears to be healing nicely … we stopped everything else in our lives for two minutes to arrive on Rhea’s and Dan’s doorstep, give them a few hugs, a plate of muffins, much-needed encouragement, and a pat or two for their remaining sweet Maltese named Mickey.

We were happy to be there for our neighbors in need. They’re full-time Arizona neighbors … an older couple in our community of snowbird friends … who hosted us for a  Christmas Day dinner last month and continually support my literary exploits. More important, they gave years of unconditional love to a forlorn and frightened Lassie after her previous owner had passed away several years ago and left the dog behind.

But true to their caring and considerate natures, Rhea and Dan stepped in and solved that problem. They rescued Lassie, helped ease her pain, lavished her with treats and kisses, adorned her fur with bows, and miraculously rekindled her trusting personality during her last years so that she would eventually approach and greet passersby and enjoy their company.

As you can see, as much as I need to continue to write about writing … and I will from time to time … what started as a story of an author’s quest to manage his time has really become a more meaningful tale about two dog lovers and the positive impact that an animal can have in an otherwise complicated and harsh world.

Here’s to all the courageous and compassionate animal lovers in our world. Especially Rhea and Dan, who gave late-in-life shelter to a Sheltie named Lassie: a loyal and lovable friend they will never forget.

 

 

 

 

Another January

There are few certainties in life, but certainly January will always be a difficult month for me. It will always be the dreaded thirty-one days at the start of the year when grief reappears. When grief rattles my brain and reminds me of the final moments of my mother’s life on January 26, 2013, when grief introduced the real culprit: the void that took her place.

Strangely writing these sentences comforts me, just as writing From Fertile Ground–the story of my journey with grief–comforted me in 2015 when I needed it most. Just as reading this passage from my book (written nearly five years ago on January 27, 2015) comforted me this morning when I woke up at 3:30 and couldn’t fall back to sleep.

***

Chapter 12: Helen Came Home Today

My mother was cremated. About a week after she died in January 2013, I drove to pick up her remains.

When I arrived at the Illinois Cremation Society in Downers Grove, the attendant greeted me with a sheepish smile and carefully handed me the mahogany urn. You would think this experience would have cued tears and deep sadness within me, but it didn’t. Instead, I felt a quiet sense of purpose and a strange jolt of adrenalin. Maybe that was just another side effect of my grief.

Without hesitating, I tucked Mom’s remains under my arm, left the building, opened the passenger door of my 2012 Hyundai Sonata, and placed the container on the floor of the front seat. I couldn’t imagine the tragedy of putting Mom’s ashes on the seat itself and then facing the possibility that they might spill everywhere if I had to stop suddenly.

I scooted around to the driver’s side, opened my door, turned the key to start the engine, and sighed. This would be my final drive with my mother. Now some sadness was beginning to creep in.

Ironically, Mom never rode in this car when she was alive. I had bought it just eight months before, when she was already sliding deep into her physical decline. However, I remember one warm Saturday morning in the summer of 2012.

I was pushing Mom in her wheelchair, circling the Brighton Gardens grounds where she lived. She was wearing her powder blue baseball cap and green, cable-knit cardigan sweater. We completed one or two laps around the building and paused a few times to reflect and chat about my job, my sons, where I might be traveling next on business.

Before we headed back inside, I took a slight detour to the other side of the parking lot where my new car was parked. As we approached the car, I stopped near the right rear bumper and applied the wheelchair brake, so she could get a closer look within the limits of her macular degeneration.

We had a brief, but happy exchange:

“I bought a new car, Mom.”

“You did? What color is it?”

“Indigo.”

***

Tom and I still drive our 2012 Hyundai Sonata. It’s served us well over the past seven-and-a-half years. Most important, it got us to Arizona in July 2017 when everything else in our life seemed to go haywire.

Mom lived to be eighty-nine. Ironically, the odometer on our trusty indigo sedan is about to surpass 89,000 miles. I don’t know how many more years it will last. Though we change the oil regularly and do a decent job maintaining it, the upholstery is showing wear. The steering column creaks whenever we hit a bump. I need to take it to the dealer to check that out. It probably needs new shock absorbers too.

But other than a few hours of sleep, all isn’t lost. I have a good life in Arizona. Mom would have been happy for Tom and me … living in a warmer climate, sharing the joys and pains together, making new friends, holding onto those who’ve been with us all along the way, watching my sons evolve into the kind and productive adults their grandmother always knew they would be, telling my stories from the desert, coping with life’s misfortunes and maladies, doing my best to survive another January without her.

 

 

 

 

Farewell, Ticket Stubs

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Tom gave me a ticket stub organizer for Christmas. It’s a handy, dandy place for me to keep and reflect on the remnants of events we’ve attended and enjoyed over the years.

You probably aren’t surprised to learn I like this sort of thing. After all, I’m a memoir writer. Though early in 2020 the events of 2019 are indelible in my brain, it will really help to have a physical representation–a photo, a program, a ticket stub–something to jog my memory years from now.

I’ll need that physical representation when the nuances of personal and performance highlights aren’t as vivid and precise:  Kirk’s commencement at DePaul University in mid-June; the matinee performance of Hamilton we saw the following day in Chicago; the second time I sang The Star Spangled Banner with the Phoenix Metropolitan Men’s Chorus on the field at an Arizona Diamondbacks ballgame; and our spectacular New Year’s Eve on the main floor at the Phoenix Symphony with friends Len and Adele.

But I have this sinking feeling that ticket stubs are quickly becoming passe. So 2019, you might say. Sure, they aren’t gone entirely. Yet I don’t imagine we’ll be seeing many in 2020 and beyond. I think it’s likely that someday in the not-too-distant future the ticket stubs of 2019 will become relics, dinosaurs, dust collectors. The “dance cards” of 1919. The “flash cubes” of 1969.

My hunch is based on a few recent online ticket purchases. One for a performance of Beautiful, The Carole King Musical at ASU Gammage in Tempe. The other for a Major League Baseball Cactus League game later in February in the Valley of the Sun. In both instances, physical tickets (to be mailed or picked up at Will Call) weren’t offered as an option. I was required to purchase mobile tickets and keep them in two separate apps on my phone in two virtual wallets where they can be scanned and accessed securely.

Of course, I recognize the value of mobile, as long as I don’t lose my phone. I also recognize I’m old school or old-fashioned. Perhaps just plain old. (For instance, it won’t astonish you to learn I prefer to read a book in hardback or paperback versus on a Kindle.)

Still, it feels like a loss. Say goodbye to our paper trail to the past for the sake of convenience and progress in the present. Rest assured, I’ll do my best to adjust, stay relevant and smile … while I hold onto what’s left. Torn ticket stubs. Melting memories. All of it.

When Life Gives You Lemons

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Generations have insisted there is something wrong with lemons: When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. In other words, stop your whining and make the best of a bad situation.

I remember my demonstrative dad, a long-time salesman, declaring this in the 1960s. Perhaps he picked up this phrase from Missouri-born author and salesmanship lecturer Dale Carnegie’s 1948 book How to Stop Worrying and Start Living.

Although, according to Wikipedia, writer Elbert Hubbard originally coined the phrase in 1915 for an obituary he wrote to honor Marshall Pinckney Wilder, an actor who overcame physical disabilities to lead a fruitful life.

Anyway, I know lemons are sour, but what’s so horrible about having a luscious lemon tree outside your front door? Nothing as far as this Midwestern boy can tell. It’s laden with ripe-and-ready fruits every January, cascading a clean citrus scent (think Lemon Pledge furniture polish), whenever I walk past it.

Last Saturday, I snagged eight lemons from our condo complex tree, reached to the top shelf in our kitchen cabinet for our juicer, found a lemonade recipe on line and made fresh lemonade. (By the way, in my previous lives … in Missouri, Illinois or even on my grandfather’s North Carolina From Fertile Ground farm … the climate would have never permitted this.)

Of course, I added more than a gallon of water and a cup and a half of sugar to the lemon juice to neutralize the sour fruit flavor. I poured it all into our retro Kool-Aid-style glass pitcher and found space in our refrigerator to let the liquid contents cool.

Then on Sunday, Tom and I, along with Nick and Aida (my older son and his girlfriend), each enjoyed a tall glass of cold lemonade to celebrate the fruits of our fortunate Valley of the Sun existence.

I love luscious lemons. When life gives you them (on neighborhood trees in January or otherwise), make lemonade.

 

 

 

What Remains

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I stroll past January leaves, what clings to deciduous trees.

I count the crackles and rustles, what whispers to be heard.

I recall the quest of the fallen, what paths they chose to follow.

I know which stories are true, what remains in the autumn of life.

 

By Mark Johnson, January 5, 2020

 

 

Saguaro Scars

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I don’t expect to live 150 or 200 years, the span of a saguaro cactus. Yet it inspires me to follow its lead. To reach for the Sonoran sky. To transcend the inevitable scars of life that appear on exposed appendages. Perhaps perpetuated by a thirsty woodpecker. In my case, it’s a spot of invasive squamous cancer cells on my left hand. A patch that’s beginning to heal.

***

The temperature gauge in my Sonata read forty-one degrees as I pulled into the Omni Dermatology parking lot at eight this morning. Chilly for us desert rats. Though my Midwestern sensibility reminded me of January mornings in arctic Illinois when the cilia in my nostrils froze as I shoveled snow and inhaled subzero oxygen.  A badge of honor for what I endured to earn a living.

Kind Claudia greeted me. Amanda’s replacement for the holidays. First treatment of 2020. Number eleven of twenty overall. More than halfway home. I handed her my blended bifocals in exchange for a less stylish pair of protective goggles, blue flak jacket and matching collar. Ready for another round in the radiotherapy barcalounger.

Claudia applied cool gel for the ultrasound. More flecks of green gremlins on the screen than before. Healthy cells populating where the darkness had been. Cheering from the sidelines. Newfangled therapy bowl game. All that matters is the final score.

Next stop. Secured square metal plate with a hole in the middle. Taped and surrounding the culprit. Quiet conversation with Claudia to hold us in place. No pain. Just procedure. Left hand gripped the padded recliner. Magical mechanical machine lowered tight on my hand like an intimate crane from construction crew captain Claudia. Excused for forty-five seconds. Out of the room.

Just the two of us: me and the humming machine. Less-sinister HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Cold comfort. Scanning the wall through blurred vision. Amanda’s family photos. Notes and files on her desk. Radiation warning sign. Authorized personnel only.

Away-less-than-a-minute Claudia. Three sessions in our week-long radiotherapy affair over. Goggles and gear gone. Blue windbreaker and bifocals with me where they belong.

Back in my Sonata. Two degrees warmer than twenty minutes before. Ten new minutes in the car. East on Indian School Road. South on North 68th Street. Home in time to help Tom fold the laundry on January’s first Thursday.

I’ll do it all over again Monday. Next time, Amanda will greet me. Saguaro scars and all.