Gratefully, Slowly Healing

Thank you for your prayers. I had never had surgery before. The doctors are pleased with my rate of healing. The best surprise was that they took the skin for my nose from my shoulder, and not my forehead. It is a huge relief. I still have to keep my nose covered and clean. It took two office visits (my MOHS surgeon worked from eight in the morning till 5:30 at night, after the office closed) and an overnight hospital stay. But I am home, and happy to be here. My plastic surgeon had several young interns observe and even work on me, and the propriatery interest they took after in my stitches was touching. I have rules for four to six weeks:

  1. No CPAP machine. The pressure would crush my nose.
  2. No lying down, not even to sleep.
  3. No lifting anything more than five pounds.
  4. No bending over.
  5. No bowing my head. In the Liturgy, when they say, “Let us bow our heads unto the Lord,” all I can do is meekly lower my eyes.
  6. No blowing my nose.
  7. No scratching.
  8. But if I have to sneeze, I have to hold onto my nose with both hands.

My youngest is getting married soon and I will not be completely healed for the wedding. I am still applying ointment, xerofoam, and gauze. The thread from the xerofoam gets in my eyes and tickles my nostrils. The bandages get soaked if I drink my water or coffee without a straw. And the bandages slip off, causing me to flash people with my healing skin at coffee hour. Not a look.

That said, the doctor is very, very happy. At my first visit, I just thought my nose we congested. I wasn’t allowed to explore. But the doctor had me flip my head back and with plyers and tweezers he extracted something. He was so happy and I was so shocked that I wrote a poem:

The doctor thrust the tweezers
into my nostrils,
from which my departed uncles
had, in my youth,
removed quarters,
to my amazement.

This one, though,
surprised me more.
unfolding splint
after splint
with a flourish of his wrist.

He smiled wide and laughed, 
as had my uncles.
"Bet you didn't know
that THESE were up there," he said.

It explains
just
so much.

My husband tells me that my profile has changed, and he is correct. I have Michael Jackson’s nose from the 1960’s, sort of flat and wide. In another year they can do more surgery. But for now I just want to heal.

I am not taking most of my vitamins or herbal supplements because they might make me bleed more, and even had to dump a cup of willow bark tea because I can’t have asprin, which comes from willow bark.

Friends have spoiled us, sending or bringing me soup, a healthy dinner with zuccinni noodles, and locally sourced eggs from their own chickens. I am grateful.

But I am tired. All I can think of are first lines, not whole poems.

I am amazed at people’s kindness. I have received wooden roses, so I don’t have to water them. Three different monasteries are praying for us. My husband has gone shopping with me, his least favorite thing to do in this life, so I don’t have to lift things. And he has accepted this task with joy and patience which are contagious.

After all, we didn’t cut off my nose to spite my face. We cut off parts to save me. And it’s a miracle. I used to have cancer all over my face and not even know it. Then I knew it but still had it. And now, God has gifted doctors to be able to remove the cancer and restore my face. That is a miracle. It’s worth four more weeks of caution.

Glory be to God for all things.

Nose Goes

Photo credit: Ann McLellan Lardas

The Phrase:

My children introduced me to the concept of “nose goes” when I said, “Someone needs to take out the garbage.” (I used to say “We need to take out the garbage,” but my youngest coined the term “the Communist We” to describe such use of the word.) One son called out, “Nose goes!” and all four children put a finger to the side of his or her nose. Last one to touch his nose had to do the deed.

As a mother I found the concept annoying, because like the allegedly silent game Mum Ball at indoor recess it led to more heated discussions than active cooperation, but it’s a wonderful concept to indicate that there’s something that has to be done, and you don’t want to be the one to do it. I have pulled it on my husband more than once.

The Nose:

The phrase becomes way less whimsical when you apply it to your own nose.

My nose has been bleeding on the outside when I take hot showers since I was fourteen. Since it usually healed by the time I was dressed, I thought nothing of it. As I grew older it took longer to heal, and lately it didn’t heal at all. It took a year and a half for me to see a dermatologist because three of them left their practice, one at a time, within a week of my scheduled appointment. I finally found a dermatologist, on my own, who is on my insurance but not attached to my primary care doctor’s hospital. Her office is beautiful, with purple flowers and green vines painted everywhere and interesting things to look at on the ceiling. And her manner was forthright. She stuck me with needles to numb my nose, scraped off the pesky cells, and cauterized all the points that were bleeding. For a day and a half everything I ate tasted like barbecued me. “It looks like you’ve had this for a long time. It’s probably going to turn out to be cancer. And you will need to talk about what to do next with another dermatologist.” The biopsy proved her right — I had basal cell carcinoma. “You will need MOHS surgery,” she said.

Basal Cell Carinoma

Basal Cell Carcinoma is cancer, but it’s the best kind of cancer, in that they can do something about it. The dermatologist affiliated with the hospital my doctor uses was going to do a simple MOHS procedure, where each layer of skin is scraped and examined. But that morning, I had three new lesions on my nose. So she took biopsies instead. These proved to be more basal cells. And so she set me to the surgeon.

Lack of Sugar

The surgeon she sent me to is young, and attacks cancer ruthlessly. “I don’t sugar coat,” he said. He told me what he would have to do to fix this mess, and what I would have to do to prepare. He will take cartilage from ears and use it to support skin from my cheeks or forehead to cover the nose after the middle doctor removes all the cancer. Day one is removal of cancer in the dermatologist’s office. Day Two is reconstruction of the nose, followed by 23 hours observation, at the surgeon’s hospital. But I would have to do my part to lower my A1c, and furthter he expected me to walk at least an hour every day so I would heal properly, “and not risk the chance of profound disfiguration” from poor healing.

Okay then.

In the days and weeks that followed, I was more careful about what I ate and took what I called “forced marches,” outdoors when the weather was good and indoors at the store or gym when it was too hot or rainy outside. I did this at home. I did this when we went to Honduras to meet my son’s fiancee’s family. I did this at airports. And it worked.

Cleared for Surgery

I am cleared for surgery, removal of the cancerous cells on 8/4 and reconstruction of my nose on 8/5. Prayers most heartily welcome.

With some trepidation, I told the son who is to be married about my upcoming adventures. He put his arm around my shoulder, looked me in the eyes with great empathy, and said, “I’ll give the doctor fifty dollars if, in the middle, he says, ‘I’ve got your nose.”

My Nose, Though…..

I made the mistake of doing an online search of images for this procedure. The before pictures all look rather like me, with more or less damage. The after pictures are truly reassuring, with the faces looking normal, perhaps with a thin scar. But the middle? The photos of faces in the middle of the procedure look like line drawings of gremlins and goblins from German fairy tales from the nineteenth century.

This would all be easier, I suspect, if the cancer were someplace that my clothing hides. This is the nose that my siblings and cousins share. This is the nose that my father stroked and my uncles “stole,” that siblings tried to nurse when Mom was out and which countless wrongdoers have accused me of sticking where it doesn’t belong. (They were, of course, wrong.)

And this is the nose that was beeped.

“A Beep on the Nose”

I won’t give his name, not online or in person over beverages, because he and I are both grandparents now and he is a grizzled clergyman and I cling to whatever gravitas I can still muster. But when I was engaged, almost forty years ago, my fiance took me to the Blini Dinner Dance at a Russian parish near New York City. Blini are the pancakes that Russian Orthodox people make before Lent starts, and the parties surrounding them are often elaborate, with many rich toppings for the pancakes (smoked salmon, caviar, chopped onion, melted butter, sour creme, pickled herring, and more) and the last real parties before Lent. This was a glorious celebration, and by the end not everyone had danced off the vodka they had consumed.

A young seminarian who had been at school with my now husband and my older brother came over to me at the end of the evening. He was very, very earnest, and was weaving a little. “Anna!” he said, “I know that you love George, and you both are getting married, and I respect that, but I, I just have to do this. I’m sorry, but I have to.”

You know how the responses to trauma are flight, flight, or freeze? Reader, I froze, wide-eyed paralysis. I had no idea what would happen next.

He gazed at me steadily. He leaned in closer. He stuck out his index finger and reached for the tip of my nose.

“BEEEEEEEP!” he said.

I didn’t think I could open my eyes any wider, but I did.

“You don’t get it?” he asked. “A beep on the nose is a sign of very great affection.”

And then I did get the reference. He was a dear boy. And now he’s a dear man.

But, my father was careful not to let me spend too much time with the seminarians, and I didn’t know all the names of my brother’s classmates and friends. And I couldn’t tell, at the time, who this one was.

Fast forward several years. I was very married, and pregnant with our second child in three years; I felt like an ugly troll. My oldest was still a baby herself. But the youngest of the bishops had come to our parish in Boston for a feast, bringing with him the youngest of the deacons, newly ordained. I didn’t get to spend a lot of time in the service, between my daughter and the usual pregnancy complaints, but at the end of the meal after I stared hard at the deacon. If I could picture him with a little less beard, he might have been the one who beeped me. But I couldn’t be sure.

The bishop blessed us all and left, and the deacon was still gathering the bishop’s things to load into the car for the ride back to New York. He came over and spoke to me kindly, with greetings and kind things to say about my daughter and husband and parish. And he paused.

“You don’t remember me, do you?” he asked.

“I…. I don’t know,” I stammered.

“That’s okay,” he said, good natured. “Just one more thing.”

His eyes flashed. He reached in.

“BEEEEEP!”

Well, glory be to God for all things.

So, nobody should beep my nose for a while after the surgery. I can’t use my CPAP mask and for now I can’t take any pills or vitamins that are blood thinners and I am sure I will receive new restrictions in the days to come.

And frankly, I am not sure if I will be healed by my son’s wedding in September. I offered to reschedule the surgery, but he said, “Mom, it’s cancer. We want it gone. And we want you around for a long time.”

I offered to stay home but he scoffed at that. So now I am playing with ideas for what to do to hide the healing process, if I still look like a troll in September. Etruscan helmet? Face mask? Veil? Fabulous hat with a blusher veil? The answer will come. (I do have some friends who are beekeepers…..)

There are things we get to choose in this life — whom to marry, what to read, how to look at a problem — and there are things where our choices are limited. The cancer is there. I don’t want it there. It has to come off. And if it means surgery, thank God I can have the surgery. And if, in the end, I am changed, it could be for the better. And yes, I do know that I could look like Voldermort if this goes way wrong or like a Bejoran if the worry lines on my forehead are too deep. But I can’t afford to think about it. Sometimes thinking makes things better. But sometimes it’s not good. The late Fr. Theodore Shevzov told me, “I got to be a certain age by keeping straight in my mind two very different things — things over which I have some — SOME control, and things over which I have no control whatsoever. For things over which I have some control, I have a duty to exert myself. But for me to concern myself over things over which I have absolutely no control whatsover — already, this borders on sin.”

Nobody wants to border on sin. Especially when one is going to have real surgery for the first time. And so let me focus on getting exercise, preparing for surgery, keeping my sugar levels down, and saying something kind to everyone before the doctors get started, just in case.

Thank you for your patience with me and my sporadic and often rambling writing. God bless. We will keep you posted.

The Day My Thesis Was Printed

Not my thesis, but it looks good.

Facebook shared this memory with me. I forgot how good it felt to see my words in print. I share it because sometimes these things do not go as we would wish.

===============================================

I waited a long time at Staples, in line behind someone who was coming up with what he wanted on a banner while I and increasingly more other people waited. “I do not wish to be an angry person, Lord. And yet here I am,” I prayed. “Help me to be patient, at least, even if I don’t feel that way.”

The lady at the counter continued to help the man ahead of me, but the man who had helped me two days ago came over from the self-serve copiers, where life was temporarily going as it should, and said, “May I help you?”

“Yes, thank you! I’m waiting for my two copies of my thesis?”

I spelled our name, and he tried three times and found it at last.

He ducked under the counter and stood up again.

“Here!” he said triumphantly, and handed me the folder with my original thesis. No box, no bag, no remaining paper. He beamed at me as if he wrote it himself. And at first I start to smile back. It is a lovely thesis. But there seemed to be too few pages.

“Wait. That’s my thesis.”

“Yes!” he said, happily.

I shuffled through the pages. Only one copy. *The* one copy that I dropped off.

I took a deep breath and didn’t let all of it out.

“I had asked that you make two copies on the paper that I bought? And I wanted the leftover paper?”

“Ah!” he said, and dug under the counter.

“Here!” he said, once again triumphant.

It was the work order and the leftover paper in a box with no lid.

I channeled the person I have to become to substitute for Kindergarten, where their intentions are always good, always, one tells oneself. Always.

“This is the extra paper, which is good, but I had wanted the thesis? Two copies? And could I have a box for this, please?”

“We took your lid for the paper box?”

“Yes, apparently, ” I said, with a regretful little nod, as if I were the one who lost it.

He looked around, and could not find the lid, so he took out another box for copies, giving me a look that bordered on reproachful

“Could we find the copies of the thesis?” At this point, it was a real question.

Once more he looked under the counter.

“Ah!” he said, and handed me two boxes.

With no small amount of trepidation, I opened them. Yes. Both had one copy each of “Words So Far from Roslindale.”

“Thank you!” I said, smiling at last.

“You’re welcome,” he said, and seemed genuinely pleased.

“And, could I have a bag?”

His face fell.

Apparently, I could not.

“We don’t have one the right size,” he said. “But wait! Would this do?”

“This” was a large box, somewhat crushed, one foot by two, maybe four inches tall, missing a flap.

It did do. Close enough. If I took the box and smiled, I could leave the store.

I took the box, thanked him, smiled, and left, oh, I got to leave, I left the store.

And now my thesis is handed in.

And glory be to God.

Writing prompt:  The words don’t do anyone else any good while they are still in your head.

Write something.

Print it.

Share it.

 

Unraveling

Please forgive my absence from this page. My eyes have been wonky, which is terrifying, for someone who entered Kindergarten able to read with fluidity, but is normal for someone who just had two cataract surgeries. The doctors assure me that my progress is within the realm of the normal. In church at night, I can read well because the surroundings are dark and the type is big. At home, I struggle, relying on my own version of “predictive text” for the prayers that I’ve memorized, sometimes launching into parts of morning prayers in the evening or vice versa. When I have to read a menu, the words come out slowly and in syllables. It is maddening.

I decided that I would work on my granddaughter’s hat. a work in progress but not much. The pattern is simple — cast on sixty stitches, knit four and purl four back and forth across the rows until the thing is ten inches long, then drop one stitch per group and knit three, purl three, until it’s another three inches, then taper down to two stitches per clump, then one, then bind it off and stitch the sides together. Easy, unless you are having trouble seeing. I mixed up with stitches were supposed to be knit and which were supposed to be purled. And I didn’t see what I had done until the next day’s eyedrops wore off.

My work was going to have to be unraveled.

Unraveling the written word

Writers can relate. At some point in the editorial process, a writer discovers a past error, an inconsistency, and infelicity, or worse, just changes his mind. That which was written has to be unraveled and reconstructed. And the process is fraught with peril, because removing one thing shifts everything else around it.

“Books aren’t written – they’re rewritten. Including your own. It is one of the hardest things to accept, especially after the seventh rewrite hasn’t quite done it.”

Michael Crichton

When I started taking out the false stitches of my knitting, I found that I had accidentally dropped a stitch or two along the way. This meant going back many rows further than I’d intended and dredging up stitches using a hairpin and carefully counting everything by holding the knitting at a variety of distances from my face like an air trombone. The same thing happens when you change something in a poem.

The rhyme scheme changes, the meter gets messed up, the meaning shifts, and all of the sudden you no longer have what you had. I am convinced that Keats left “Cortez” where “Balboa” should have been in “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” because one more syllable, and one that ended with a vowel, was simply too much. (You can read more about it here.)

Fiction

In fiction writing, authors change names, and before computers it was much harder. Margaret Mitchell could not use the search feature to change “Pansy” to “Scarlett” when she was writing “Gone with the Wind.” Some of your work is easier. But some isn’t. Every writer needs an editor to make sure that changed locations, marital situations, number of children, and occupations in their novels are consistent.

Nonfiction

In nonfiction, things have to change when the writer learns new facts. A family lie about where an ancestor was born, the true identity of the board of directors for a shady corporation, the true side effects of a medication and the research used to defend it, all should cause the author to rewrite and, if need be, re-issue.

Other times, you change your mind about something write writing. Part of my research for my third-semester project involved reading “The House of Happy Endings,” the ironically named story of the son of the authors of the Uncle Wiggly stories. The book documents the author’s father’s mental breakdown over time. But I read it just as I had been diagnosed with diabetes, and what looked to the author like mental illness struck me as a classic case of low blood sugar. A doctor’s look at the memoir would make a fascinating read.

Entertainment

Television is notorious for changing plots and re-casting shows without warning. One of the most notorious examples when the dream scene from Dallas that succeeded in bringing back a popular character from the dead, but at the cost of an entire season’s plot development. The thirty-one episodes between the death and reappearance of Bobby Eweing were wiped away like mist from a shower. Fans were elated. Writers were busy!

Change Something

In our lives, one change can provoke so many more. In my case, I can leave the house without my bifocals, but not without my sunglasses. When you move a piece of furniture or move up a grade in school, paradigm shift follows. You have to re-examine old routines and establish new ones. This can be bad, this can be frustrating, yes, but it can also be very good.

Writing Prompt — Unravel Something!

Take a piece of writing that you are almost satisfied with, and change something from an early part of it. See what that does to the rest,

In a poem, does it change the rhyme scheme? Good. Maybe the whole meter needs to be changed.

In non-fiction, ask a what-if question. How would you have felt if you knew, at the time, featured, the things that you learned later? How does a new scientific development affect our understanding in other ways? When Pluto ceased to be a planet, school children had to learn a disappointing new phrase — “My Very Educated Mother Just Made Us Nothing!”

Change something in your fictions. Move your characters to another place or time. This will affect their diction and their dress. Change a character’s sex or speech pattern. Make a taciturn character loquacious and switch long paragraphs into pithy sentences to see what else changes as a result.

Not Just Writing

And, in your life, make a change. Drive a different way to work. Visit a different grocery store. Dig through your Facebook friends and check on someone whose news you don’t usually follow. Then, write about how this changes you. You might have an essay. You might have a novel. Or you may learn that you love better what you already do and have.

But you won’t know until you unravel the fabric of your normal day.

Wednesday Writing Prompt — What Will They Sing at Your Funeral?

+Metropolitan Laurus (Skurla) reading from the Great Canon of St. Andrew before his repose in 2008

All over the world, Orthodox Christians are gathering in dark churches to sing and read the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete. The hymns are especially moving, focusing on repentance and using the people of the Bible for examples, both good and bad. But when your husband is an Orthodox priest, the hymns have another layer of meaning. The eirmosi of this canon are what the clergy sing as they carry a priest around the church, in his open coffin, at the conclusion of the funeral service.

I appreciate that in the Orthodox Church, the services are already laid out for you. You don’t have to write your own wedding vows. You don’t have to dream up an appropriate celebration of life when someone dies. At the wedding, everyone prays for the establishment of the marriage and the Church lists good examples from the Bible. At a funeral, everyone prays for the departed, and we remember that we, too, will die, so we should be prepared, by growing closer to God and being kind to each other.

An Orthodox funeral is not short, but a priest’s funeral is like a layman’s funeral on steroids. There are five Gospel readings instead of one. The entire Kontakion for the departed is read, with all twenty-four verses, instead of the shorter form used at every lay funeral and memorial service. And at the end of the service the priest, vested and in his coffin, is hoisted by his fellow clergy and carried around the church that he served, not unlike the athlete in Housman’s poem:

And home we brought you shoulder-high.

“To an Athlete Dying Young” by A. E. Housman
Source: The Norton Anthology of Poetry Third Edition (1983)

All of which brings me to the question: what will they sing at your funeral?

Or, rather, since this is a writing prompt, “What will they sing at your character’s funeral?”

Is there a song that epitomizes your life, or the life of your hero, or the life of your villain?

Conflict

The conflict behind the scenes and even overtly at funerals that can be such heartache in the life of people can be gold in the life of a book. What is there that the deceased wants that someone else does not want?

When the Diocese of Providence told Roman Catholics that they could not play “Danny Boy” on bagpipes at funerals, one wag said, “I want ‘Danny Boy’ sung at my funeral Mass, and if I don’t hear it, I’m going to get up and walk out!”

Hearing Songs Again

Because I am not Roman Catholic, I do not attend Mass on a regular basis. But there are hymns that are sung at many funerals, like “Be Not Afraid,” that I hear only at christenings, baptisms, and funerals. Hearing the hymn at the wedding of a friend’s grandchildren whom I last saw at her funeral, where this was sung, has two different effects. It makes me miss my friend more. And it sort of makes it feel like she has been included.

Funerals are great for writers.

The possibilities for fiction are endless. We see them in movies and television — the funeral designed by one set of friends or relatives and attended and critiqued, by others, in ‘The Kominsky Method;” the modern children at a traditional funeral who don’t know what to do in “Grand Torino;” Data’s choice of a New Orleans Jazz funeral for Geordi and Ro’s funeral on “Star Trek, The Next Generation” are all examples of how a funeral can force characters together to underscore their differences and further the plot.

For non-fiction, you can write about a funeral you were at, or a funeral you missed. You can write speculatively about the service you envisioned or in an expository manner about the one you actually did attend.

But music…..

But music is something special. Just as the sports teams, television shows, and movies have theme songs, your funeral music, like your wedding music, is a reflection on your life, and when people hear it again, in another context, it can bring you to mind the way the eirmosi of the Great Canon remind me of standing with a tear-stained face with friends and family at the funerals of priests and bishops whom we love.

In “Hamilton,” the big music question is, “Who lives? Who dies? Who tells your story?”

All of us die. Most funerals have music (and if they don’t, that’s worth writing about also.)

Where did you hear a song that you also heard (before or after) at a loved ones funeral?

What did you sing at your father’s funeral?

What song or hymn would you want people to sing for you?

Writing prompt: Remember a funeral you attended. Make a connection between the deceased and the music. Or write about the disconnect between the deceased and the service.

We had a parishioner who was a pioneer in nuclear physics. She and her husband were childless, and toward the end of her life, she lived with her nephews, who loved her very much. The nephews’ wives also loved her, but were constantly after her to try something different with her hair, with her make-up, and with her clothes. When this lady died, the nephews’ girlfriends made the arrangements, including choosing a new stylist and make-up artist for the funeral. This somber, scholarly woman who always wore her hair in a discreet gray bun lay in her coffin with bold make-up, blond hair, and a jewel toned blouse.

I could have sworn I saw her wink at me.

The Great Canon

Coming back to the Great Canon, I think I know some of the reasons why we sing what we do at the funeral of a priest. We pray for the dead always, but especially in the first forty days after their repose, when the soul is judged. And so we use the hymns with which we launch Great Lent, a journey of forty days, for launching the clergy we love on this journey. We hope that, like Great Lent, the priest’s forty days’ journey will end also with a glorious resurrection.

But also, the words of the canon profess deep faith, and hope, and love. As we stand behind the priest in church when these words are sung, so we stand behind him in procession, when they are sung again. It is goodbye. It is an honor guard. It is our battle hymn.

I will leave you with the first ode eiromos:

He is my Helper and Protector, and has become my salvation.
This is my God and I will glorify Him. My father’s God and I will exalt Him. For gloriously has He been glorified.

(Exodus 15:2,1; Psalm 117:14