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.

Putting It Together — Wednesday Writing Prompt

When my goddaughter was old enough to ride without a car seat, her family let her celebrate by riding home from church in my car. My car doubles, sometimes, as a purse, so in preparation, I had crammed everything that had been in the back seat into the netting behind the driver’s seat, and she was intrigued and pulled something out. “You have a lot of interesting things here! What’s this? Is it lotion?”

I could see that she was holding a tube, but I couldn’t see what it was. “I don’t remember! What does it say?” I asked.

“I don’t know. I can’t read yet.”

“I forgot! Okay, can you tell me the letters and I can spell it out?”

“Okay. I see an A, and a G, and an E, and a D-E-F….”

“This isn’t working. Why don’t you hand it to me at the red light.”

When we stopped for the red light, she handed me the tube. “Age-defying sun screen.”

“Oh!” I said, “This is what I wear in the sun, so I don’t get wrinkles.”

“Oh! I can use that!” she said. “Sometimes the tips of my fingers wrinkle.”

Putting things together from clues is an imprecise art. What one person infers from what another describes can be the catalyst for wonderful stories. The late writer Vasili Aksyonov used this technique brilliantly in his story “Papa, Slozhi,” “Daddy, Put it Together,” where a young girl spending Saturday with her father spells out words for her father to read, and in the process drops clues about another situation he needs to spell out for himself.

In Aksyonov’s work, the revelation is poignant. Modern cartoonist Nathan Pyle uses the technique humorously, referring to familiar body parts as “flavormuscle” and “mouthstones,” while making universal observations about human troubles.

Mystery writers love problems with letters. On “Columbo” the detective solves a mystery by re-arranging the stencils that a slain millionaire was going to use to paint a word on his boat. In other mysteries, a message is typed with the hands three letters off, and ripped pages with words that are incomplete are a trope.

There are also abecedarian essays and poems.  I don’t really care for these, but sometimes having to use a form makes you realize what you really do want to write. 

Writing Prompt: Letters

Write about someone figuring out what a word really is, and thereby figuring out something bigger.

Examples: A person misreads a word in a friend’s post or note in a way that reveals an underlying fear.

The rest of a word or sign is obscured, and the reader reaches a conclusion that is unfounded and debunked.

Parents spell something in front of their children, and the children conclude the wrong thing from it.

In a letter someone spells a word wrong in a way that changes the meaning, and another person reads the letter and reaches a wrong conclusion. (Example: when I was substitute teaching some young readers kept using the word “pride” out of context. It took me a while to realize they were aiming for “pretty.”)

Play around with the idea, see what you come up with and consider having it published if it’s any good.

Don’t Write People Off; Draw Them in.

There is no age at which it doesn’t hurt to be left out. On a mothering group, the question came up when someone’s child was not invited to his friend’s birthday party. In adult life, this comes up when coffee klatches, outings, work parties, PTA planning sessions, or Girls’ Night Out happen without us.

When I was in Kindergarten, I sobbed, broken hearted, when a child told me she was having a birthday party and X and Y were invited and I was not. My teacher gave me paradigm shift. She said that not everyone has enough space or money to invite everyone, and some people can have only a small party with one or two people. Sometimes that’s true.


Other times, people are being exclusionary and even mean. That stinks, and it stinks worse the older the “kids” are.


But we cannot assume the worst, because it makes us look at people funny, and our faces will freeze like that. Elder Thaddeus would say that they will know what we are thinking. So it’s better to assume that it’s economics or space.


That said, I think part of the way that many are saved by childbearing (1 Tim 2:15) is that it gives us a chance to tackle whatever issues we didn’t handle when we were younger. When someone excludes us, we are hurt. When someone excludes our child, we are furious. But sometimes people only want what, or whom, they want. The secret, then, is to find a way to be happy without them.

For parents, redirection is the key. We can give our children something good to think about so they don’t dwell on what they’re missing. Mom used to take my brother to a museum if there was something at school she didn’t want him doing. The St. Herman Conferences began because a bunch of us were not celebrating Christmas yet and some seminarians thought it would be nice if we did something fun and useful during that time. Stay friendly, or friendly enough, with the excluders, and then look for more people to love.


My youngest invited his whole class to his birthday party in our back yard, in fifth grade, and most couldn’t come because they were on sports teams. But all the minority kids came, and said it was the first party they’d been invited to since Kindergarten, when the whole class had to be invited or your couldn’t bring the invitations to school.


There are other people out there whose children also don’t get invited. There are women who don’t get invited. There are men with no family, older people whose kids are grown, new families in the area.

Someone needs to include them. And look, God made you!

My younger brother’s teacher taught his class a poem that stayed with us all.


“He drew a circle that shut me out-
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle and took him In!”

Edwin Markham


Sometimes, the only thing to do is to draw more circles.

Departures and Arrivals

In January, 1993, we lived in Texas, and had done so for four years, long enough to know people. My friend Sue had heard from a friend that the Presidential helicopter landing at Ellington Airforce Base would be open to the public. President Bush had not wanted anyone to make a fuss, but members of his family wanted someone to be there.

“I’m going,” she said, “and so should you. This is history. And it’s right down the road.”

The President was someone I had found off-putting, though I prayed for him as I have for the rest of them before and since. But I had felt, at the time, that Barbara Bush and I lived in somewhat parallel universes. We both had attended women’s colleges, and we were both married to men who couldn’t tell us everything by virtue of their jobs. Her husband had headed the CIA before becoming President. Mine worked in aerospace with a security clearance before becoming a priest in the Russian Orthodox Church. We both were expected to be well dressed and diplomatic in our choice of words, and both of us struggled with it. Well, and I wanted my children to see a President, and this might be our only chance, and frankly, they would be just as excited by the chance to leave school early and see a helicopter.

We were not supposed to mention to the school where we were going, because political events were not excused absences, and this was considered political. I did not consider it so. I considered it humanitarian. The man had lost an election in front of God and everyone, and he was coming home changed. Attention must be paid. So I had sent in a note saying the older children had an “appointment,” and the secretary smiled, as she signed us out from Kindergarten and First Grade. “Lots of families signing out. Are you going where I think?” she asked. I smiled and raised my eyebrows. “Wave for me, too,” she said.

Secrets live about as long as ice cream, down in Texas.

You have to drive down Highway Three to get to the airport.  One side of the highway was railroad tracks. The other side were the sort of businesses I had never seen in Boston — bait and gun shops, pawn shops, and the sporadic bodega, which in Boston would have been called a “spa.” There was nothing along the road to indicate that anything special was happening, as befits a former head of a spy agency returning home on a day that is not his. But when we turned into the parking lot, there were people with signs, buttons, and flags. Our children were given some, which I kept for twenty or more years before losing them in a decluttering binge.

I was so homesick during those years. I had thought of Barbara Bush alone with her family in Midland, as I was far from our relatives in Michigan and Boston. I had seen the family photos of Kennebunkport, and thought, “Barbara Bush lived in Texas and did what she was supposed to and was able to move to New England,” and thought perhaps I might to do the same. But in the end, Texas had become home to them. I went to a meeting, years later, in the “hotel” they called home, and it reminded me of the older Wellesley dorms, with nicely appointed common rooms lined with books. “If you don’t have family when you move to Houston, you make family,” my brother-in-law had told me when we moved there in 1989.  He was right. My generous sister-in-law had shared their friends with me, I met mothers through Mothers Day Out and school, we had parishioners and neighbors. People were smart, kind, funny, generous, helpful, and welcoming. I was busy and had a life. I even wrote, and had sold an article to a magazine in California. But sometimes I sniffed the air for a salt breeze, and there was none. I missed lilacs and lily-of-the-valley, and I wanted more than anything to have tea with milk with my grandmother. And I wondered if Mrs. Bush had done the same.

I held my son on my shoulder and people moved so my daughter could see. The first people to emerge from the helicopter were the secret service officers, all impeccably dressed in crisp black suits with matching sun glasses. They had wires in their ears and were communicating to each other. The former President’s tall sons stepped out, looking young and dazed. More relatives emerged, then Mrs. Bush, then George Herbert Walker. Someone had set up a microphone, and President Bush was led to it.

“Well, now I know how little influence I have!” he said, “I said I didn’t want anyone to come, and now I see how well y’all listen!” But his smile was both warm and grateful, and I was glad the children had seen it. He was a wartime president, and my children had been folded into the war effort. My daughter had been sending care packages to the soldiers she’s met through the “any soldier” program, now defunct. She felt very much a part of the effort as she set aside artwork and chose bags of candy to send them. Both children had learned the words to “I’m Proud to Be an American” at school, and yellow ribbons and American flags had been a large part of the backdrop of their childhood. He had engaged the public, and had hired a speech writer, Peggy Noonan, whose style I had admired even before she coined the phrase “kinder, gentler.” I felt that even Clinton’s victory had been a result of the empowerment and involvement of the individual that had been part of the culture of that presidency.

I wanted, too, for my children to see how to lose gracefully, how to walk away from something knowing that you were walking to something else. The newspapers reported the President had bought a fishing license while he was home on election day. He had been away for twelve years. He looked relieved to have landed.

“I didn’t want anyone to come,” he continued, “but I am touched and grateful that you did. Thank you, and God bless America.”

There were cheers, and handshakes, politically connected people greeting each other and the rest of us starting to walk toward our cars.

It was a departure.

It was an arrival.

And so was today.

Rest in peace, Mister President.

Someone has been waiting for you.

 

Put That Thing Down

The new school year is starting, and parents have bought their children cell phones to bring to school because the world is scary and unpredictable. I get it. But as a substitute teacher, I spend so much time bringing my students back to the classroom from wherever it is they would rather be. Our district has a very clear policy, but kids are kids, and the allure of a little box that can reunite you with your boyfriend, let you play a game, or keep you from missing your favorite show is strong.

It’s not just students. I’ve seen clergy take out their cell phones to take pictures during a service or check a message while talking to someone, a busy doctor texts as he explains diagnoses, young babies are handed the shiny devices when their parents want a patch of quiet, and even in choirs when it’s not their time to sing singers who in another time would be chided for whispering text, instead.

The problem is this: when you are there, you are not here. If a student has half an eye on the cell phone (“Miss, I have to take this call, it’s my mother,” I’ve been told more than once), that much of his brain is not engaged in the lesson. If you’re shopping for a prom dress or great sneakers, you’re not learning the vocabulary words you’re supposed to be looking up. It’s a small thing but a big thing — it drags down your grade and limits your understanding of the material. But more than that, it’s a message to the people around you that the people on the other end of the little box are more important, more interesting, and your relationship with them will be longer lasting. And that’s a serious problem.

Boredom, you see, is a catalyst for change. As a mother, I learned this. We moved to Texas from my native Boston, where I was one of six children, forty grandchildren, a small parish, and had two close-knit academic communities from my high school and college. Suddenly I didn’t know much of anyone. Then my kids started school.

I hate Hundred Day. But when you sit with other mothers putting one hundred stickers on crowns and making 100 shaped eyeglass frames from oaktag folders, you talk and you bond. You get to know your fellow volunteers for Math and Reading Centers as you play bingo with the kids and help with the plant sale and play. You stand with the other parents and guardians in the predawn hours loading buses for band trips and waiting for the students to come home again, hungry. Both the high schools in our town have Post Prom, and at my kids’ school, I joke that it’s occupational therapy for the over-committed. The band moms and the drama mamas and the parents of athletes and the moms of the SPED kids (and some of these are all one person) all paint and glue things, decorate, and solve the town’s problems. Improvements are suggested, the administrators who hang out with us gain new insight, and we go home covered with glitter but knowing more people and feeling better connected to the town.

I think part of the allure of summer camp is the limited exposure to screens and the greater exposure to the outdoors and new friends. When everyone is far from home and in a strange place, there is an opportunity for growth and kindness. Little things like walking a friend to the latrine in the dark or cowering together in a storm become bonding moments that people talk about in wedding toasts fifteen years down the line.

Life is especially hard for students who transfer. I know my first year of college, all of us talked about what various of our high school friends would have said about each new thing we saw. And then, we tapered off. We started identifying with the people around us, and they became the friends that we thought of and quoted in our new lives and jobs.

But, if you always have the people you are comfortable with literally in the palm of your hand, how are you ever going to feel the need to open your life to someone new? Part of it is learning about other people. Part of it is discovering that you have something to offer — the answer to a question, a color for an art project, a spin on the book you are reading. You don’t always know what’s inside you until it has a chance to come out.

Lin-Manuel Miranda, in “Hamilton,” has various characters sing, “Look around! How great it is to be alive right now!” And this is true of high school. Not everything about it is wonderful, but the people who stand up for you during the bad times there are the ones you call later: when you meet the right person, when you are in labor, when your cat is sick, when your father dies. And when your friends go through these things, you will be the person whose voice they will want to hear. Yes, in some ways they become the new faces in the box in your hand. But your back bench of friends will be so much stronger and richer for spending time doing things you have to do graciously with people who are not like you.

I am not condemning cell phones. The world without cell phones could be dangerous, and keeping in touch was expensive. In an emergency, you’d have to find a pay phone, and you’d have to have money for it. To stay in touch with family when we moved to Texas, we were charged ten cents per minute to call out of State and twenty-five cents per minute to talk across Texas. Cell phones can be good, useful, bring people together. They allow me to see my granddaughter in Virginia, show the people at Home Depot the part that I need, and text the exact address of the place that I’m seeking. That said, please, don’t let the little box take you from the moment. Be where you are, with the people around you. You can’t know what it is you will learn from and offer them if you don’t make eye contact and talk.