Tom and I both woke up this morning with the conviction that we’ll be returning to our beloved western North Carolina mountains. That’s why I changed the name of this blog from Kicked By a Mule to Writing to the Sunrise. While we did indeed feel “kicked by a mule” after getting a mantle cell lymphoma diagnosis and going through all the changes the past two months have wrought, optimism is deeply rooted in both our natures. Plus, with an indolent and localized strain of MCL, caught early, and one of the best medical teams in the world at Mayo Clinic Florida, there’s ample justification for optimism. So we’ve begun to dream again. And if history is any guide, when the Harpers start to dream, the earth moves. I should probably start stockpiling packing boxes!
We spent all day yesterday surfing real estate for sale in Maggie Valley, Waynesville, Hendersonville, Arden, and Fletcher. All we have to do now is finish two more cycles of R-Benda and roughly a month of external radiation. If the docs are right, and Tom continues to do well, we could be back on the ridge tops by late spring of 2015.
We were only weeks away from putting “the mansion” — our fond name for our home here near Pensacola, Florida — on the market when Tom was diagnosed, so the house is polished and ready for listing whenever we are in a position to pull the trigger. Right now, however, the “biosphere” — one of the nicknames given to the mansion by the grand-kids — is a place of clean, quiet serenity in the middle of a hundred acres of pine woods, where whitetail deer and wild turkeys are regular visitors. Can you imagine a more wonderful place to heal and dream a new dream?
When you or the person you love most in the world pulls a bad diagnosis out of life’s jar of gumballs, it’s all too easy to become overwhelmed by the silty, swirling slew of internet assertions, listservs, support groups, tiny print scientific papers and raw emotion engendered by the hard kernel of fear that pulls you down, down, down into the brackish dark water.
I was so there last week. Tom and I had recently returned from yet another trip to Jacksonville for his second chemo cycle. The nausea and fatigue were hanging on longer than they did after the first treatment. For the first time in our thirty-plus year marriage, I began to feel the small pond of our fourteen-year age difference widening into a gulf. It was a terrible feeling.
The afternoon’s prototypical panhandle Florida late July flash thunderstorms and thick air matched the brewing storm I could feel behind my eyes as I drove to the post office and the grocery store. My throat felt lumpy like I was about to cry or scream. Hoping for distraction, I turned on the car radio. Rather than mere distraction, I found inspiration from the gifted host of the co-produced NPR TED Radio Hour, Guy Raz. The topic for his show that day was an exploration “of the minds and bodies of champions who achieve extraordinary feats.”
In the segment I listened to, he interviewed swimming champion Diana Nyad, who at age 64 became the first person to swim from Cuba to Florida without a protective cage. She attempted the swim four times unsuccessfully over a period of 35 years. It almost cost Nyad her life. But in September of 2013,the year in which her self-described mantra was “find a way,” Diana Nyad succeeded. Her spirit and physical prowess are phenomenal.
The TED Radio Hour interview changed my personal channel altogether and I had an epiphany that I needed to stock my emotional quiver with inspirational arrows. And that I needed to get back on track with my creative projects, to write my way through this storm. I’m grateful to my trusty old car radio, and to Guy Raz and Diana Nyad for guiding me with the touchstones of their words all the way from the bottom of the river back up into the fresh air and light. Because of them and the serendipity of the moment, I figured out how I could write about Tom and my experience with MCL. Because of them, I’m writing again and there’s hardly a better feeling in the world.
So now, to keep that inspirational thang going, I’ve started looking at more TED talks, listening to magnificent music, writing and playing my big old rafter-rattling piano again.
Here’s Diana Nyad’s TED Talk: “Never, Ever Give Up.” Enjoy.
We sent a postcard to ourselves today, a reminder of secret afternoons spent in cool, dark caves. Curved into a comma, I lie on top of our blue Oxford pinstripe sheets, heart beating in rhythm to Tom’s beside me. The feather pillow dressed in softest butter yellow rises and falls over his chest, where he has enfolded it for warmth. One degree too cool and the air-conditioner is nothing if not efficient. I touch a freckle on Tom’s arm and covet the thick fringe of dark eyelashes that tremble with each inhalation and exhalation. I watch his lean left cheek, the one I can see, as it blows out with each breath. Not a snore, but a musical rumble, a ripple of life.
KBAM is a just-right acronym for Kicked By a Mule, and the mission of the KBAM Bar and Grill (also known as the Longleaf Bar & Grill) is one tool we have for kicking back.
Buck and I were already hard-core by many peoples’ lights when mantle cell reared its ugly little head. We haven’t darkened the drive-through window of a fast-food joint in more than twenty years. Except for a day boat fresh mullet run through the skillet of a local marina restaurant every blue moon, fried food has been off our list for decades, as well.
We’ve eaten more than our share of grilled and roasted beef and pork over the years. It was great. But our final hunk of roast beast on a plate came last Christmas. Leftovers sat. And sat. The final pork tenderloin, rubbed with garlic, rosemary and olive oil, sat. And sat. Before 2014 dawned, Buck and I realized that we had lost our taste for beef and pork. And that was it. Seven months later, and neither of us can imagine ever going back. Buck’s long-standing IBS has almost gone away.
We eat plenty of turkey, chicken, and fish, but the emphasis has totally changed. My trusty old Cameron stovetop smokes fresh turkey drumsticks, and then I use them to flavor a pot of beans or collards and kale. I flake off the meat and make sure all those little cartilage swords are discarded, then return the turkey to the pot. That (+beans or +greens) becomes the protein course. We add a pan of cornbread, a baked sweet potato and maybe a sliced tomato or some yellow squash, and have a wonderful, simple dinner.
Special challenges to ensure Buck gets enough calories and nutrients have arisen now that he is experiencing the immuno-chemotherapy of Rituxan (rituximab) and Treanda (bendamustine) every 28 days. Our trend toward whole grains and mostly-organic vegetables and fruits has accelerated. Our kitchen has become a first line of defense in our determination to be part of the team that restores Buck to health, and (oh by the way) keeps me strong and healthy along the way.
Strategies and tactics, baby. We got ’em. Would love to hear about yours. What helps you make it through the chemo?
“Solo. Solo,” the women called in subdued, but urgent tones.
“Well, okay,” the old man said, rounding a time-softened gray fedora in his thin, elegant fingers. “I don’t know how it got to be five years from now.” He sat on a low ottoman in the parlor room of the small community library, surrounded by four calm-faced women of indeterminate ages. A single ray of sunlight cut through the morning shadows and fell onto his scarred arm.
It was a dream. I stumbled out of bed shortly after six to my study, found a mechanical pencil stuck in an antique heavy glass “flower frog” and began to scrawl on a legal pad. Didn’t even turn on a lamp. You know how it is with dreams. Even the most vivid ones. If you can write down a scrap of it, or in a pinch say it out loud, you stand a chance of capturing an exotic bug in a bottle.
Buck came in, found me in the darkened study, standing up, scribbling furiously. I wondered what he was doing there. This is not a man who has ever voluntarily gotten out of bed before the chickens. He moved on toward the kitchen and returned balancing half a slice of bread on a short glass of skim milk. He eyed me curiously. I mumbled something, held up my left hand in an inarticulate “wait” signal, but continued to write.
“I’m going back to bed,” he said, and was gone. Nausea, I thought. It’s still hanging on from last week’s chemo, and he’s trying to smooth it down with milk and bread and put together enough sleep from the fragmented night. Between my restless dreams and his discomfort, a solid six or seven hours of sleep is rare as precious myrrh.
Tired and nervous as a cat, I am sitting in Room 138 of the Courtyard Marriott adjacent to the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville. Tom is in the shower, preparing for a routine EKG at 11:50, then an appointment with head and neck surgeon and otolaryngologist, Dr. John D. Casler at 1:15, then a 3 p.m. with a nurse practitioner to go over labs and clear him for general anesthesia tomorrow morning for Dr. Casler to remove the enlarged lymph nodes from the left side of Tom’s neck.
11:45 now, and we’re in the Davis Building. Tom has gone in for the EKG, which we are well-accustomed to, since we both get one every year as part of our physicals.
It’s been so many months since I kept a regular journal the very act of putting ink onto paper feels strange, revolutionary.
I’m so anxious about Tom’s health I can barely focus my eyes. He would say I am hollering before we’ve been hit and of course he is right about that. Nonetheless, I feel half-paralyzed, jerky, spastic. Much too distracted to read a book.
I see that I am in no-way prepared for our “real” aging, possible illnesses and eventual death. Not his. Not my own. And it’s coming one-eyed and fast, like a freight train out of a tunnel.
The online class I’m taking through Creative Nonfiction calls on participants to write a minimum 300 word piece each day (Monday – Friday) and a 1,000-word piece that can be separate and new or culled and compiled from the week’s work. It’s a 10-week course: 2 down, 8 to go. Worth it, in case you’re interested. Excellent instructor and the finest group of writer-classmates I’ve run into yet in an online course. Lots of feedback and discussion. It’s called “Bootcamp for Writers.” Here’s a piece I submitted today. The prompt was: “Why I Write.”
“We tell ourselves stories in order to live. ”
~ Joan Didion, The White Album
I know everything about my own narrative until I know nothing. I can answer all the questions anyone might ask until I can’t answer any of them.
Before seven this morning, I could tell you with certainty, verve and passion, why I write. By ten, I don’t have a clue. By Noon, I’m pretty sure I don’t want to know.
It was the photographs that did it. And the old letters. The newspaper stories didn’t help, either. By one o’clock I was a teary mess, and it took two hours of walking alone in the woods with the sun on my back and a northeast wind in my face to regain some semblance of equilibrium and perspective.
I was mostly looking at pictures of dead people. Oh, they were alive and seemingly immortal when the camera caught the moment. The baby, James Clyde Pelfrey, wore a lacy white christening dress and shoes that looked like brown combat boots. He was born in 1908 and died in a house fire on Pensacola Beach in 1974. His wife, Anne, my husband’s aunt, survived. Their new candy apple red Cadillac melted in the garage. The only intact papers that weren’t burned up were a Western Union Telegram notifying Anne and Clyde of Buck’s birth on December 11, 1937 and a stunning love letter sent from Clyde to Anne while he was serving overseas during World War II.
The last photos of me with my mother, from 1989, catch me off-guard. I look like I am posing with my arm around a total stranger, smiling an insincere smile as though everything is fine and dandy. Mother, who hated to be touched even before Alzheimer’s, draws away, her pinched face showing she wants to get away from this pushy person.
Almost done. And almost undone. The last photo is an arty black and white of my three step-children when they were toddlers. Two boys and a girl. I didn’t meet them until they were 18, 21 and 22, more than 32 years ago. The middle child’s white blond hair, bright eyes, and smile full of a little boy’s mischief, takes my breath. Who could ever have put a finger on this angel and said: Darryl will die of a heart attack in 2005 at the age of 45 and his death will nearly kill his dad?
Some of the photos don’t cut me. They are several generations removed. My husband’s people. Ones I never met. I interleave their stiff dressed-up black and white photos with acid-free tissue paper, put the lid on the box and stagger down the stairs, feeling like I’ve been run over by a truck.
Maybe I write out of fear, out of a belief that a fit brain that can juggle, retrieve and play with words cannot succumb to a nightmare organic brain disease that destroys memory and personality. Maybe I write so I can go back to last week or last year or ten years ago and recognize the writer as myself — the same “me” I see in the mirror every day. Maybe I write to add my voice to the infinite line of pilgrims scrawling on the cave wall “We were here.”
THE GOOD OLD BOYS deep in these panhandle Florida pine woods couldn’t wait until 11:59 to kick up a fuss. It’s only 9:15 when I hear the first muffled whumps and booms of roman candles, aerial repeaters and shells, and firecrackers. When I step outside I feel a frisson of electricity in the air and hear the crackle of sparklers. The cloudy night sky erupts into a poor-man’s kaleidoscope.
Buck is writing at his desk in a bright circle. I’m already in bed, leaning against a stack of pillows, listening to a Spotify playlist for a random search of the word “Talisman,” and typing on the extension of my fingers also known as a Surface Pro 2, my all-time favorite gadget tool.
Ah, here he comes now with our treat for the evening, a bag of Dove dark chocolates.
Earlier this evening we lightly steamed a pound of blue crab claws (the little, cocktail size) and nearly two pounds of sweet and tender Pensacola Bay shrimp. Buck stirred up his special dipping sauce, a mix of horseradish, Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, ketchup and a smidgen of mayonnaise. I doused a small plate of sliced Feta cheese, Kalamata olives, and house-roasted meaty red peppers with olive oil, ground pepper and oregano. We took our feast to the room we call the Snow Porch (the naming of that room is a story for another time), along with a bowl of Naked Pita chips and our drinks, and fell to.
Tonight is merely an arbitrary convention to delineate one measure of time from the next, but I welcome it as a conscious pause button, a mindful thumb on the scale.
I washed our bed linens today, the Oxford stripe blue sheets and the warm gold duvet cover. The serene blue and burnished gold please me.
I’ve moved past the Talisman music and have gone to a favorite created playlist for my characters, Grace and Jess. They still have a lot of mountains to climb, a lot of growing to do.
Eons ago when I worked as Director of Communications for the Pensacola Chamber of Commerce, we began each year with what we called a “Program of Work.” I have a loose program of work of my own to start the year off with a bang that includes a challenging ten-week online course hosted by Creative Nonfiction, called Boot Camp for Writers. It begins next week. Mid-month brings a six-week online course, Advanced Fiction. I’m fired up and ready to go.
So am I blogging again? The title is The Do-It-Yourself Writer, subhead Elizabeth Westmark’s Scribble Space. Maybe the sub-subhead should be Making It Up As I Go Along.
Hope you chase down or get covered up by clouds of bliss this year.
SALLY HARPER HAS DECIDED SHE WANTS A BIGGER ROLE in Eye of the Storm. She was going to be a bit player, the grandmother of Jess Harper (Grace Ann Ringer’s main squeeze — that sounds tacky but I don’t know what to call him). Anyway, Sally and her husband, Tom, live out in the north end of the county in a pine forest not unlike Longleaf. Just about every morning at dawn, Sally takes a thermos of coffee down to a little spring-fed stream where she has created her own private shrine to her deceased daughter, Kathryn Powell Harper. It’s a small round concrete table and bench, hidden from view. Here, and on her daily walks in the woods, is where Sally reflects on life, the family, passage of time, and many other things. She is a woman with something to say. I am listening.
Last night, from my nine years of printed blog archives, I made copies of the narratives of my own walks in our woods, as reminder and resource for Sally’s ruminations. I discovered a piece called “Child of Small Waters” posted back in March of 2004. Dave Bonta may remember it — it was originally posted on the Ecotone wiki when they were still up and running. (I note UNC at Willmington publishes what looks to be a fine print journal called Ecotone: Reimagining Place, but there doesn’t appear to be a connection with the original wiki.) Seems like an appropriate homily for this crystal clear Sunday morning in the pine woods. Hope you enjoy the flashback.
I am a child of small waters.
The magnificence of oceans and seas unnerves me. I love to walk the sugar white sands of Pensacola Beach. Small, translucent crabs tickle my feet as they scuttle into their holes when I bend to examine tiny pastel coquina shells. But if the goal is swimming, give me a cement pond, please, where I can see through the chlorinated water all the way to the bottom, where the edges are no farther than I can gracelessly dog-paddle in any direction
The last time I swam in the warm Gulf of Mexico was a few months before Buck and I married, more than twenty years ago. It was a Sunday afternoon. We frolicked like porpoises. Buck swam away from me in a fast line underwater, playing, showing off like a boy. Unfortunately, his trajectory took him straight into the middle of a small group of women treading water, where he surfaced, a sinner in a school of nuns! The good sisters were having a day retreat on the beach. Some were in the water and others were rowed up in a line of folding chairs on the shore, wimples on their heads, their noses an impenetrable blob of thick white sunblock. They looked like big, placid sea gulls.
I am a true child of ponds, small lakes, streams and natural springs. As a young girl, I spent many early mornings and late afternoons dreaming into the dusk while I sat on a dock on Lake Valrico. That pretty little lake was in a rural area of central Florida, near Tampa, where I spent most of my childhood and adolescence. Barefoot, a skinny kid in shorts, I loved sitting on that old dock, conversing silently with my mirrored reflection, dark fish shapes darting just under the waters’ murky surface. The tree-lined shore on the far side seemed a world away. In fact, it wasn’t very far at all. My first piano teacher, Mrs. Medard, lived there in a big white house nestled among those trees.
Mrs. Medard scared me a little. She was formal, stern, and seemed quite old to my nine year old self. She had a method designed to teach me how to hold my hands in proper alignment with the keyboard. It involved putting a quarter in the middle of the flat surface of the backs of both of my hands, and then instructing me to play an exercise. Inevitably, I would get rattled and jerk my hands to the side, and the coins would roll off, lost inside my teacher’s grand piano. Thinking about it now, the logistics don’t seem to work. I can’t figure out how quarters could roll off my little child hands and somehow fall into the bowels of Mrs. Medard’s piano. . . but it’s my memory, and I’m sticking with it. I fear I must have bothered Mrs. Medard, too. She died of a heart attack shortly after my lesson one Saturday afternoon.
Lake Valrico received my tears, both flash floods and the slow, constant drip from my eyes into the eyes of my reflection, in those dreadful weeks and months after my father died. I was twelve. Small waters have always been there to comfort me.
My thoughts are not grand, not oceanic. They meander like a brook, crossing fields, woods and swampy areas. Sometimes they submerge beneath the earth’s surface, and become subterranean, cold.
Longleaf has a series of natural springs. They bubble up into a sandy stream bed. The water flows with the tilt of the land, through a mixed pine and hardwood forest, trickling deep into a swamp where it is almost dark even in the middle of the day. Treetops form a high canopy, and only a little light filters through in spots. It is one of my favorite places to wander. The stream is close to two feet wide in most places, with musical rills created where logs have fallen and formed makeshift miniature waterfalls. Gorgeous ferns drape along the banks, together with unusual plants like Neverwet (also known as Golden Club or Orantium). The occasional wild lily shows bright yellow, even in the gloom. The damp earth is heavy, black and fragrant. Animal tracks abound. Wrenching “dry cork in a bottle” woodpecker sounds split the silence, and the beating of a large owl’s wings may be heard.
It is a place of mysteries; of answers and questions.
I don’t think I could ever get my mind around oceans and seas. But ponds, small lakes, streams and natural springs have a human scale that suits me. I can poke along our stream bed, exploring, and watch minnows as they dart from sunlight to shadow at my approach.
Give me a pocket full of pecan halves, a tangerine and a native plant reference guide. I’ll be home in time for supper.
Buck and I saw the older model gun-metal bronze pick-up truck first. It sat between the path to Back Beach and the rocks Maine folk call a beach. It is a beach, of course, just not the barefoot-friendly confectioner’s sugar I know in Pensacola. Some might call it a beach with character.
The old man wasn’t tall or short. He wore faded dark navy twill long-sleeved coveralls. He stood holding the rim of a barrel, staring inside.
We found a large boulder built for two and sat. We listened to the sussurant surf. We talked quietly. I watched the old man pick up an armful of kelp. He moved slowly and dropped it in the barrel. I saw him move from the line of seaweed to the barrel several times. Then he twisted the barrel over to the truck, put his arms around it, slung the barrel upward onto the tailgate, and pushed it into the truck bed beside a second one.
After awhile, our bottoms grew numb and cold from sitting on the round rock. We moved toward the water, picking our way carefully among the rocks, the broken urchins, the lone thick rubber glove, the mussel shells and bits of shattered light bulbs. We watched a great blue heron take up a place by a tidal pool with the stolid gulls and preening cormorants.
Approaching twilight brought no-seeums. We turned back toward the path to the main road and the cottage.
The old man had three plastic crates on the rocks. He filled each one with kelp, then trudged back and forth to the truck and dumped them into the second barrel. Just as we passed, he looked up and spoke. “It’s fertilizer.”
Buck and I stopped, turned back toward the man. The three of us converged at his truck.
“Lots of minerals in seaweed,” I said, admiring the glistening green-gold brimming from the full barrels.
Buck spoke to the man. “You use it for compost?”
“Yes,” the man said, “The soil here is thin, so you have to . . .”
“Amend it.” I thought this sentence, not realizing I had spoken aloud.
He nodded. “Yes. Amend it.” He took his time with the word, as though it was one he liked, but hadn’t heard for a long time.
A bug landed on the man’s forehead. Buck said, “There’s a mosquito on your forehead,” and reached as if to brush it away.
The man waved it from his face. “That’s the least of my problems, but thank you.” He and Buck were like old dogs greeting one another. “Where are you folks from?”
“Pensacola, Florida,” Buck said.
“I played football once in Tallahassee at Florida State University. It was hot. The humidity made everything wet. We lost.” He almost smiled.
He was on the South Carolina team at Furman University in 1956. I tried to identify the man’s accent, or rather lack of one. He told us he and his wife had come to this “godforsaken island” from North Georgia, up near Chattanooga, Tennessee. They planned to stay for a little while, maybe two years. He smiled this time, a pretty good one that revealed the young man.
“That was forty years ago. We raised all our kids here. It was a good place for kids. Great schools. Safe.”
“That’s no small thing in this world,” I said.
He had a penetrating way of looking at a person. He nodded. “Yes, that’s true.”
We three talked about nearby Flying Mountain and Echo Lake.
Another mosquito landed on the man’s temple. Buck reached out in a gesture full of a sort of masculine tenderness. The man inclined his head. Buck pressed the mosquito against the man’s skin with the palm of his hand and killed it. Buck looked at the smear of the man’s blood on his hand.
“Thank you,” the man said.
“I’m afraid I bloodied your hair,” Buck said, then wiped his hand slowly, almost a pat, on the front shoulder of the man’s worn coveralls. “Blood brothers,” Buck said. They chuckled.
“Yes,” the old man said.
We stood together without speaking for several seconds. The man spoke first. “Well, I guess I’ll finish my work.”
We pivoted to find our way home in the gathering dusk.