I’ll probably get in trouble for this. Or at least be on the receiving end of a cacophony of “You shouldn’t have done that” and “Did you have to?” and “That really wasn’t necessary.” But that’s ok; I rather like living my life on the edge. I’ve been known to stir the pot, to not let sleeping dogs lie, and to eschew the leaving of well enough alone.
So here I go.
He’s going to hate it.
See, Ed is not one for calling a lot of attention to himself. Or any attention, really. But sometimes, like ripping off a Band-Aid, it’s gotta be done.
Ed’s been our best family friend for a long, long time. In fact, it’s been so long, he’s dropped the “friend” and moved right on into “family.” Sometimes family has nothing to do with blood and genes and trees, and everything to do with the contents of one’s hearts and the meshing of like-minded souls. Assuming souls have minds, that is. I don’t think they operate on auto-pilot, do they?
I met Ed while toiling away in the publishing biz many moons ago in Austin. He and Trevor were in grad school at UT (Hook ‘Em!) at the same time, but we didn’t know each other during school; he was reading thick, musty books in the history department while Trevor built up his brain and hung with the geek squad in the computer science world. I hate to think of the years we wasted not knowing each other during that time, but our livers certainly breathe a sigh of relief. There was a fair bit of drinking going on in those days (as opposed to now, when kids’ schedules, middle age, and the threat of recurring cancer tempers my tippling). We did make up for some lost time, though, once we met; happy hours at Trudy’s with multiple Mexican Martinis and extra olives, watermelon margaritas at Maneul’s on South Congress, beers on the roof deck at Waterloo Ice House; and the infamous wine tasting club run by our resident oenophile Anthony King. I hope I never forget the carefree youthful nights spent lifting a glass, enjoying our youth & freedom. None of us will ever forget Trevor puking in the rose bushes at one of the Hess brothers’ houses, then coming back for more. Good times.
But back to work…Ed wrote and I edited. His hair was long back then (mine was too), and he labored over every word, every sentence, every TEKS standard (see how far we go back — long before the TAKS and now the STAR state standardized tests for public schools). I learned real quick that he was smart. Really smart. And he really cared about his work. He had such a high standard for himself that sometimes, just once in a while and not really very often (!), he made me wait for his work. I really don’t like waiting.
See, there was a progression to creation of a textbook, and we were both cogs in the wheel. Schedules were made, which we had to follow. Deadlines were enforced, because if our book wasn’t ready to go to print–back in the day before e-books and widespread Internet use — another publisher would get our spot and the book would be delayed. And we would all be fired. So I learned pretty quick with Ed that some tough love was necessary. I schooled him in the “good enough is good enough” principle that editors must embrace in order to keep the line moving. Oh, how that boy labored over every word, every sentence, every standard. There were days when I was a hair’s breath away from snatching the copy right out of his hands so that I could get my red pen all over it and keep the line moving.
It’s probably no surprise that Ed left publishing and took a rather circuitous route to teaching. A heart-wrenching detour to care for an ailing parent, work for an educational non-profit that trained teachers, a foray into self-employment in the handyman biz, a little time off to determine the color of his parachute (tricky when you’re a little bit color-blind), and finally, he was home.
Ed has a job that not many people would take on: he teaches kids who’ve been sent to the alternative school. Reasons for being sent there vary from fighting to drug use to crimes both petty and serious. The classes are small in number but large in ramifications. Several years ago, when Ed was contemplating whether to enter the teaching profession, I told him that he would be the kind of teacher who made a difference in kids’ lives. It sounds hokey but it’s true: he’s the sort of teacher who kids will remember always, and they’ll look back and say, “Man, Mr C really cared.” It’s true, and he does. He guides kids that a lot of people would cast aside as lost causes. He listens and becomes the sole person who cares. It’s no surprise to me that kids who pass through his class come back to visit, bring him a homemade Christmas treat, and mail him an invitation to their graduation ceremonies.
Those kids are not the only people who benefit from Ed’s unique brand of caring. After enduring the rigors and heartache of watching his dad die of pancreatic cancer, he became my sherpa when my mom got sick. I’ll always remember him telling me that if I thought it was bad now, it was gonna get worse. A lot worse. He was right. It was awful.
My mom knew Ed well, and when she moved in with me after retiring and moving away from Houston, it was Ed — not me — who she wanted as her caregiver for the icky parts of her cancer battle. She wanted him to sit through the class at MD Anderson on how to care for a PICC line, not me. I didn’t know it at the time, but she was trying to shield me from the routine horrors that make up a cancer patient’s life. When she was too frail and weak to step into my deep bathtub, it was Ed she asked for help. She would rather have had him see her in that state, to spare me from the eternal impression of being able to count each rib in her battle-weary, wasted body. It was Ed who she requested, not me. He made many food runs in the maddening game of “What can we get her to eat?” only to see her take 2 bites and be done. So much for that. But he never got frustrated, he never pressured her to eat. It was Ed who bore the brunt of the fallout from her radiated bowels. And that’s all I’m going to say about that.
It takes a special kind of person to volunteer for such service, but that’s just the kind of person he is. My mom knew it, and so do I. Ed’s the kind of guy who sets up the ladder and willingly allows grafitti in his garage. No project is too big, no mess too messy.
He’s the kind of guy who gives a little kid his watch to wear while patience runs short and naptime runs on by during sight-seeing in DC. He knows how to make a little kid feel like the most important person in the world.
He digs the deepest sand-pit every year at Salisbury Beach every year, even when he’d rather be reading his book, and waves off the old-man critics who pass by and warn of the pit’s collapse and threat of said pit swallowing little kids whole. He knows what he’s doing.
He knew Maddy, the best dog on Earth. Ever. In the history of dogs. He loved her with his whole heart, and finally gave in to my years-long pestering that he needed a dog of his own. Not once, but twice. And he let my kids name both dogs. Hence, a female chocolate lab named Snoopy, and a wily basenji-mix named Sugar.
We have Ed to thank for the Red Sox fever that exists in our lives. A native Mass-hole, Ed is a Sox fan for life, and he taught Payton the joys and heartbreak that is Red Sox nation. When Payton was four years old, at his first trip to Fenway, Ed showed his devious side when he made Pay think that Nomar Garciaparra hit a foul ball right into Payton’s lap. Eight years later, I think Pay still believes it really happened.
When Macy came along, a new bond was forged, and the strength of that bond sometimes startles and always amazes me. Mrs Dally, Macy’s first-grade teacher, told me in confidence one day that I might want to be careful because Macy told the class, during an exercise about friends, that her best friend is a 42-year-old man. In the case of anyone but Ed, this might raise a few eyebrows. But spend two minutes with him and you get it. In third grade, Macy filled out the “getting to know you” questionnaire from the teacher on the first day of school. For the question about her best friend’s favorite activity, Macy wrote: landscaping. Those two are tight.
You’d think that having a friend going through the worst thing you’ve ever faced would be a comfort. And it is, kind of. It’s also really hard and really sucky, because as great as it is to know that she truly gets what I’m feeling, it means that she’s probably feeling it too, because she’s in the trenches herself.
Does that even make sense?
It does to me, but if you’re having trouble following along, bear with me. My friend in the trenches is staring this vicious beast in the eye, going toe-to-toe with the roughest part of the “cancer journey.” (I really hate how that phrase conjures up a nature walk or space travel or anything other than what it is, which is hell. For lack of a better phrase, I’ll continue to use “cancer journey,” but I insist on taking away some of its power by using quotation marks.)
She and I had a great day together yesterday. I took her to her appointment with Dr S., which is always fun for me because I’m not the one sitting on his exam table. She was getting her tissue expanders filled, and I’m going to risk embarrassing her a little here by saying that girl is starting to become stacked (yes, I’m envious, but so so so happy for her at the same time). I also had gotten my tissue expanders filled a few times this past summer, before the *&$% hit the fan and “mycobacterium” became part of my lexicon, so I knew what to expect from the procedure.
What I didn’t expect was to get to be Dr S’s assistant. Nurse Nancy in the house! Dr S’s lovely nurse Brenda was on vacation, so Dr S told me to glove up and earn my keep. I couldn’t resist asking him if the gloves were latex-free, even though I don’t have a latex allergy. It’s not much, but it’s all part of how I drive him batty.
I’ve witnessed him bossing Brenda around plenty, and it was funny to be on the receiving end of that. We were in the midst of a heated discussion about something or other, and he started ordering me around right away. I reminded him that it’s nice to be important, but it’s important to be nice. He loved that one. Really. My poor sweet friend asked us to stop fighting and please talk about something sweet, like puppies or Easter bunnies, since Dr S was waving a giant needle around as she lay helpless in his wake.
He told me to hold the bag of saline a certain way, so he could jam the giant needle into it and fill up the king-size syringe to then insert into her tissue expanders and fill them up, and I couldn’t resist doing it the wrong way, just to tweak him. Then I realized he was pointing the giant needle at me, coming toward the saline bag, so I decided to shape up. It’s all good fun.
Before we made it into the exam room, she and I waited quite a while in the waiting area (I sure hope this isn’t becoming a trend with Dr S, because I hate to be kept waiting). We were chatting and laughing, and an older lady was watching us. She finally interrupted our conversation to tell me she liked my boots, and to ask if she’d seen me in Dr Darcourt’s office earlier that week. She and I apparently have the same oncologist and plastic surgeon. Small world! She asked my friend and I where we both are in the reconstruction phase, and we compared notes as girls in our situation tend to do.
This sweet lady shared that Dr S had done the TRAM-flap procedure on her 5 weeks ago. I said, hmmm, that’s the procedure he thinks he wants to do on me and I’d love to talk to you about that. Good grief, did that open the gates to a gush-fest on how wonderful Dr S is. This lady and her husband both couldn’t say enough nice things about him. If they said it once, they said it 100 times: “He’s not a surgeon, he’s an artist.”
That’s sure nice to hear. I’ve heard it before, actually, from lots of different people. But it’s still nice to hear. Especially just before my friend and I got called back into the exam room for her turn. It made me give him a little bit of extra grief, just because I know he’s so full of himself. And because I know it makes him nervous to know that I’m talking to his other patients. He’s asked me not to mention the whole infection thing, just in case that unfortunate event is associated with him. Easy enough, as I’d like to forget it ever happened. And easy enough because never in a million lifetimes would I ever believe that it was his fault. I’ve said before and will say again, repeatedly, that man drives me crazy but he took good care of me. The problem is that when someone asks why I haven’t started moving forward on reconstruction, as this sweet lady did, it’s kinda hard to answer honestly. I can always lie and say I’m a big chicken who can’t face another surgery, or I’m indecisive and can’t figure out which option to choose. But neither of those are nearly as compelling a story.
After we concluded our business with Dr S, we ran a couple of errands before meeting some other friends for lunch. And by “ran a couple of errands” of course I mean shopping. We were on a mission to find her a new pair of black boots and I’m proud to say that we found not only the boots but also two other pairs of shoes. I’ve written before about the healing power of new shoes. It’s a force unto itself. She and I both really believe in the power of great shoes. The rest of our worlds may be a crumbly mess, but we’re gonna face it in great shoes.
We spent a lot of time laughing so hard we hurt, and more than one person stopped to look at us and probably wonder what in the world could be so funny. She’s not the sort of person who snorts when she laughs real hard, but I am, and I did it a few times. That’s how you know you’re really laughing. I’ll bet that to the outside world, we look like two normal women: hanging out, enjoying each other’s company and relentlessly pursuing the perfect pair of black riding boots. Probably no one notices that we both have a port bulging out from under our skin, or that we have a much different profile than we used to. I know that no one can see the scars under our shirts, and the newly-etched worry lines on our faces could be from any number of stresses. No one knows that the landscape of our daily lives has a completely different topography now. Instead of just being filled with carpool and tennis and such, it now revolves around doctor appointments, procedures, and research. When we’re out in public, running our errands and getting stuff done, we look like normal people. We get through our days, cross things off our “to do” lists, and take care of our families, just like everyone else. But we do it with a heavy burden. That’s why it was so great to spend the day together, and to ease each other’s burden, if only for an afternoon.