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.

Snow Day! A Writing Prompt

Looking Out from My Nice Warm Living Room, photo by the author

When I was a student, we listened to the radio for Jess Cain on WHDH to call no school for Boston, as part of a long list of public, private, and parochial schools who cancelled classes for the day. (The S’s were long, because of all the saints.) Snow days meant shoveling snow first and then playing in it. Other times when school was cancelled, as for the Teacher’s Strike, my parents created assignments for us, forcing my younger brother and me to learn a song in Spanish from an album they checked out from the Boston Public Library. My high school cancelled classes for only ten days during the Great Blizzard of ’78, and then only because the T, Boston’s subway system, was not running. When the trains were running again we were back in class.

We had one snow day when I was at Wellesley. I was supposed to meet with a visiting professor, the ever-memorable Dimitri Obolensky who I only later learned was also a prince and, later, a knight. I was taking two classes, through the Religion Department; “The Making of Eastern Europe, 800 – 1100 AD” and a three hundred level course, “The Mission of Cyril and Methodius to the Slavs.” The meeting was to discuss my paper on the Bogomils. But the snow changed all that.

We had a beautiful, empty day in front of us. I was one of 54 freshmen in Shafer Hall, and we were something of a giddy pack. about to run in five directions. Some students were going to go “traying,” sliding down the hill near Severance. Others were gathering in the rec room with its orange couch to watch television. Some were gathering in the more formal living room, with its good couches, framed paintings, and shelves of books. A group of Hawaiians were going to build their first snowman. I was contemplating having Constant Comment Tea and reading something non-academic, and both thoughts were delicious.

However, I was thwarted. Boston, where my family lived, of course cancelled school. The town of Stoughton, where my father taught high school English, had also cancelled. Dad called to make sure that the dorm had electricity and food — I am pretty sure he would have brought me home otherwise, storm or no. I assured him that I was fine and told him that I guess that means I wouldn’t be meeting with my professor.

Dad exploded. He knew that Professor Obolensky had translated the much beloved “Penguin Book of Russian Verse” which both he and I had both worn out with much reading, and that the professor was visiting from Oxford. “That man,” Dad said, “is a professional. He will not care how much snow there is. He will find a way to get there and you had jolly well better be waiting there when he comes!”

I doubted it, but I knew my father was serious. I grabbed my research materials and bundled up and trudged to the Religion Department, which was empty. But there were cups and tea bags and a means of heating water. I took off my snowy clothes and boots and made a cup of tea, settling into a couch in my stocking feet, when the doorway was blocked by a tall, snowy being. Professor Obolensky had somehow borrowed a pair of snowshoes from another professor, because our meeting was that important to him. He was dressed, as Russians are, appropriately for the weather, with a huge hat, a muffler, gloves, and an appropriate overcoat, all covered with snow. “I am rather proud,” he said, “that I only fell three times.”

I jumped to attention, offered him tea, and scrambled to put my thoughts in order. Later I did write the paper. It turns out that the best book on the Bogomils was written by Prof. Obolensky himself, which made quoting him problematic. Do I write, “As Obolensky writes,” as I would of any other author? That seemed presumptuous. Do I write “As you write?” That would be brown nosing. After much tea, prayer, and thought, I wrote, “As one author puts it,” and put the name of the author and the book in the footnotes. Professor Obolensky returned my paper to me with a good grade and a wry smile.

I got married, had children, moved to Texas, and had more children, and no snow days, although a few days were lost to the after-effect of hurricanes. By then we watched the television for storm coverage, so there was no waiting by the radio. But when we moved to Boston, my children were thrilled with three new discoveries: delayed openings, Jewish holidays off from school, and snow days. I didn’t need to listen to the radio or watch the names of school districts scroll across the television screen. I could lie in bed and listen to the cheers or moans from upstairs.

Then I became a substitute teacher, and I listened to Jerry Kristafer on WELI and then Tony Reno on WICC with the keen interest that I had in Jess Cain’s list. Whatever children were home and I shouted when “Stratford” was read from the list, whether for delayed opening or no school at all. There is no age at which it is not wonderful to be given the unexpected boon of a free day. When everyone was finally launched and we moved to Ohio, I thought those days were behind me.

However, I was supposed to have an operation for cataracts on Thursday, and I spent most of Wednesday going through the pre-op physical, blood work, etc. that surgery entails. I understand that the operation is for the best, that it is a blessing that we live in a place where I can have it done, and that I will be so much happier after it is over. But that is then, and this is now. Now I just try not to think of Locutus of Borg.

But as I drove around from the hospital to the pharmacy to the gas station to the grocery store, signs on the road warned of bad storms ahead. The radio announced that the Governor asked everyone to stay off the road tomorrow. It rained Wednesday. It is supposed to snow, extensively, on Thursday, melt a little on Friday and then re-freeze. Good weather for reading at home.

I had my phone’s ringer off and I try not to check it when I drive. When I got home and looked at the phone, I had a message — surgery is postponed because of the weather. Internally, I did the Happy Snow Day Dance. Externally, I made supper. But I smiled while making it.

Thursday I get to sleep in, eat breakfast, wash my hair, get water in my eyes, and, yes, help dig out the cars. The surgery will be rescheduled and then I will enjoy the benefits that come from no longer having cloudy vision. But I can hear the rain outside my window getting ready to transition. The thermostat is dropping. By the time the sun is up, I can sit inside and watch the flakes fall out there, where I will not be. It is a huge inconvenience and a big disruption. But it is a glorious boon.

Writing Prompt: Write about a snow day in your past. You could write a poem, like “Snow-Bound” by John Greenleaf Whittier, set in a time when the snow plows were pulled by oxen. You could write prose for children, like “The Long Winter” by Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Use detail. What did you wear in the snow? Mittens or gloves? Or unmatched socks on your hands, because you had no gloves? Were you allowed to frolic or forced to stay inside — or did you have to shovel?

Did you shovel for money? What did you do when you came in? Did you miss school or were you glad for one day of respite?

Use details, colors, textures, smells.

If you have never seen snow, you could write about what you imagine doing.

Writing Prompt: Fever Dreams

 

This is late because I am sick.

I do not feel like a truck hit me.

I feel like I was out in a field some place warm, picking flowers, and a friendly but distracted bovine knocked me over.

I am lying on the grass, not in a cow plop but near enough to smell it, and grateful to be able to smell, staring up at the sky and thinking of all the things the clouds look like.

Yeah, I may just have a fever.

I don’t think I have the disease that is going around, I think I got ground down. My list of newly departed to pray for is unusually long, and includes two priests and two strong women of prayer whom I really love. I think when I get too sad my body makes me go rest. My brain doesn’t know how to do that, and I have weird dreams.

When my brother died, I got swine flu. My husband and all the sons who were home brought me liquids and pain relief and folded damp face cloths to put on my forehead, and a Cuba Libre, at my request, when I couldn’t get warm any other way, and things to read, which I let sit near me as once did my dolls and teddy bear.

My husband is also sick, this time, and we are taking turns being the one who is up. I was able to make pot roast and beef and barley soup. He was able to get the dishes into the dishwasher. We are a team.

But for something to write about, you really can’t beat fever dreams. We are not supposed to put too much stock in dreams. but I find they can show me what’s on my mind. When we lived in Texas, where there were cows near all the oil pumps for tax reasons, we didn’t have a dining room, my sister-in-law\s family moved from Houston to Palestine, and our parents were in Boston and Michigan. Then my dad died. Some time thereafter, when I was sick, I had a dream that all my relatives were coming in the door carrying chairs, for Sunday dinner in my dining room. I could not be happy. My aunt Rita was among the last to arrive and said, “Aren’t you going in?” I told her that if I went in there, I would have to remember all over that my dad had died. She shrugged and went into the dining room and I woke up and sobbed.

I needed to sob. I hadn’t done that.

Nobody handles dreams like “The Sopranos.” The show is brutal and their language is terrible. It is a series about how being in the mob ruins everyone in it and around it, and so some of the dreams are about hell. I used to watch the show to learn about good writing, and then I took to writing about it when I was angry at someone, to remind me where anger and vengeance lead. When I am sick and can’t talk to friends about books or movies, I watch YouTube videos that discuss aspects of plot and character development from the series. Also, it reminds me that I might be sick but at least I don’t work for the mob in New Jersey, so there’s that.

As I mentioned, I may have a fever.

Writing prompt: What weird dreams have you had, and what have them led you to realize?

Dreams can lead to change.

When I was pregnant with my first child, we bought one dozen cloth diapers, and my husband thought that would do. I didn’t. I had a dream that I had sextuplets and they were crying and I realized that I could change each child once and then we’d be in trouble. So we bought more diapers.

Dreams can be nightmares, but they can be refuge.

If your dreams take you to a good place, and bring back good memories, write about it so you will have something to think about in bad times. The martyred Tsarina Alexandra kept a scrap book of poems and thoughts to read over during difficult times. I have a “comforting images” section of photos on my personal Facebook page, icons and photos that remind me of what is good.

If your dreams are scary, what are you afraid of? With whom can you examine it? Never go swimming or spelunking alone. Have a friend, a counselor, a priest, or someone else whom you trust go in with you.

If you write fiction, what do your characters dream of? 

In “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader,” the ship goes through a fog where everyone’s dreams seem real. It sounds like a beautiful thought, until you remember what you have actually dreamed.

On the Julian Calendar, 2022 has not yet began. There is still time to think about what you want to change in the new year. Keep a notebook and pen by your bed and write about the dreams that come of their own accord. And then, do some editing. You don’t have to believe everything you think, or accept every thought that knocks on your door. Keep what is good and laugh off the rest. Write about the dreams you really want to pursue. God endowed us with free will. Think about what you want to work toward, and what you wish would go away. God gave us all gifts. Sometimes we have to hunt for the best place to use them.

 

 

Writing Prompt: Creatures of Habit

In the eighties, I worked summers on the eleven to seven shift in nursing homes as a nurse’s aid. Alzheimer’s was newly discovered, and part of the treatment was severe reality therapy, with huge calendars everywhere and patients constantly being re-told the current circumstances of their lives. The therapy had a harsh side, with women re-living afresh the death of their husbands and men being told over and over that they were not at work, that they no longer had a job. Treatment has changed for the better. But even then, in a home where reality was the rule, there was one room where we were told not to change the date on the calendar when the month was nearing an end. Bob’s room (not his real name) was exempt. Why?

On the first of the month, Bob went back to Roxbury to collect the rent. He had owned an apartment builing that he lost when he lost his memory and his wife. But for so long, going door to door to collect the rent envelopes was part of his life, that he could not lose the habit even when he had lost everything else. The head nurse on the shift had a soft spot for Bob, and had given her number to the new tenants, so if Bob managed to escape supervision (and he was creative!) and take the bus to his former home, she could go get him. Seeing her triggered him to remember the year. But Bob’s calendar sat on the 28th for two days and the 29th for three and then was switched to the proper date a few days into the new month, for safety’s sake.

Writing: What routine do you still have burned in your brain, even though circumstances have changed? My husband was rector of various parishes for more than two decades, and I was in charge of editing his monthly bulletin. As the first of the month draws near, I share Bob’s anxiety — there is a job that I haven’t done yet! The email hasn’t arrived for me to look over! Then I remember that we have moved on, our current rector has that taken care of already, I don’t need to do anything, and I relax.

If you write fiction, one way to open your story is for a creature of habit to realize that habit is no longer required. Like Mole abandoning his white-washing in “Wind in the Willows,” a character can reject a habit. A former monastic can hear a chime and consider that it is time for prayer. A retired teacher can enjoy a second cup of coffee and look out on the school bus arriving for the neighbor kids on the first snowy day of the year.

Or the habit can be different. In Bible class with Mr. Merrill at Commonwealth School, he pointed out that the Jewish custom of shaving the heads of women who were enslaved meant that every time a woman reached for her hair and it wasn’t there to tuck behind her ear, she had to remember and adjust, once more, to her new reality. A patient who has had something amputated may go to wash or dress that limb.

Writing prompt: A habit or routine has ended. What happens when your narrator hears the traditional prompt?

Wednesday Writing Prompt — Time Travel Field Trip

Why yes, I do kind of want to go on a time travel field trip to my grandmother’s backyard and run through the sprinkler with my brothers and cousins.

West Medford, MA is about eleven miles from Roslindale, the part of Boston where we lived. My grandparents house was on a hill, and the backyard had Grandpa’s garden, a shrine to the Virgin, a tree, and the roof of the garage, which was built into the hill. There was a small greenhouse off the dining room, and through its windows the adults could see us as we played and we could see them, sitting at the table and talking over tea. My cousins and I, who in cold weather would be inside, singing into hair brushes as if they were microphones or trying on my grandmother’s hats, in the summer instead shrieked under the arcing ice cold water. When the sun was just right, we saw the miracle of a rainbow. Then we went back to shrieking.

That house has been sold twice since and I have moved to three different States. But on a day like this, hot and humid, I can almost taste that hot-rubber flavored water and feel the grass, so much longer than ours in Roslindale.

And I want to look through the window and see my aunts and parents and Mimi and Grandpa, all casually glancing to make sure that the noises they hear are good shrieks. Afterwards, we can have tea with milk and sugar.

You may want to go on a similar field trip of the brain. Choose a time and space where you are not, but where you have been.

Writing prompt:

Choose a year and write about what you would be doing on this day — melting in a classroom with no a.c.; nursing a baby who now is grown; freezing in Australia; working in the garden.

If your present is better than your past, you could write about what was vs. what is.

If your present is worse than you thought it would be, write about where you were and where you are.

Write about what someone else was doing while you were in the place of your reverie. For example, if I chose this day in 1977, I would be graduating from the Mary E. Curley Middle School. My husband, not quite ten years my senior, was just home from a semester abroad from grad school, and was looking for work. We both found ourselves in strange places shortly after — he found a job drafting, and my father leased a variety store, where my brother and I worked, to help pay for our high school tuition.

When you’re done….

These short pieces could become a poem or could be part of something longer. In a longer piece of writing, you want to give a character in transition a chance to reflect. My one time mentor, the late writer Da Chen, said in an interview:

Younger writers feel compelled to have their characters do one thing after another in an almost commercial, cinematic vision. But a novel is different. Your writing should in some way reflect the rhythm of life. If your character is being chased, riding a horse through the desert from one oasis to another, okay, that’s great, but the sun comes up and goes down, he stops sometimes, he has to eat, and he has to sleep. Let the writing reflect that a little. Sometimes you need to take a break. The break can be thoughts, in the heart, in the soul. Sometimes you need a spatial break. Pad the passage with an additional three lines. That is enough to make a difference.

The guy goes from one oasis to another drinking water, you should let him sleep. He’s sitting on his horse, give him a break, let him look up at the moon. Write about the moon for a few sentences. Otherwise it’s just fatiguing. And you will run out of deserts.

            If you want your writing to be lyrical, pause. Sometimes the man has to get off of the freaking horse.

The moment in time that you choose to revisit could be just such a passage. The next part is also a challenge: Where was your freaking horse taking you?