Tuesday, June 30, 2009

June 30th, 2009: Tomorrow, July 1st will be the 29th anniversary of my move from Portland, Oregon to San Francisco. I had been "kidnapped" by my friend Maria who drove me to California with a modest supply of clothes. The conscious excuses for my move were better job prospects and better opera. I planned to settle in an apartment and find a job as technical writer. The fact that I had no actual experience as a writer was offset by my background as a college English instructor. I figured that I knew my way around a sentence and that would be enough to get me started in my new career. As for the opera, I had been traveling to San Francisco for opera weekends where I would see two or three productions over a two or three day span and then, full to my brim, I would return to Portland. But there were deeper reasons that did not immediately reveal themselves.

Some five months earlier I had been taking an after-dinner cigarette break on the back porch of the home where I lived in the Portland hills. Standing under the eaves of the house, I was puffing in the cold, wet darkness, muttering to myself about the lousy Portland winter weather. I was perched over a ravine far away from any person on a rainy winter night. Into this silence a voice took up my thought and said with distinct clarity, "You might as well enjoy this weather because it's the last winter you'll spend in Portland." I was so startled that I blurted a response of, "But I live here!!" After my quick protest, I realized that the sound was disembodied. There was no one out there, just the voice.

A few months passed and rather abruptly my plans to move to San Francisco came into focus. I moved, and crossed the Bay Bridge into my new home on July 1st, 1980. Years later while I was doing bedside care during the fifth or sixth year into the AIDS epidemic, I remembered that voice in the dark. I realized that if that voice had continued with more context and said, for example, "...this is the last winter you will spend in Portland. Because you need to move to San Francisco and learn about hospice care. There is a serious epidemic that is already spreading through the bodies of people you will care for including many men who will become your friends some of whom will die in front of you..." If the voice had continued, I realized that I would have said, "Epidemic? That's psychotic! We don't have epidemics. There's not going to be an epidemic. There's no reason to move."

Of course, the voice would have been correct, although I would have not been able to comprehend that amount of catastrophe. Fortunately, the voice restrained itself and kept it simple: you will move. And I moved.

I was born in Berkeley across the Bay. I relocated to Oregon when I was a three year old baby. But within the sanctuary of our home when just our family was together, my parents would remind me that I was a Californian. For our neighbors and friends we assimilated as quickly as possible, but within our family agreement we were Californians, unrepentant and unconverted. My move to San Francisco in my mid-30's was to step into my birthright. As events have unfolded over the past three decades, this was the home I was born to move to.

There have been better job prospects and better opera. Of course, if I would have stayed in Portland, the epidemic would have found me there. But in San Francisco, the mobilization for AIDS was so deep and impressive that I have always been grateful to have lived through the epidemic here. I can remember going to hear Elizabeth Kubler-Ross lecture in Portland in the late 1970's. One of my deepest promises to myself was that as soon as I got settled in California, I would find a volunteer hospice program to join. That happened early and with surprising ease. Within eight months of arrival, I was sitting at a scruffy cafeteria table in the dining room at San Francisco General Hospital. Across the table was the woman who would become my mentor: Eileen Lemus. She explained that her new program was designed to match volunteers with terminally ill patients who used the County hospital: often foreign born, always poor, often alone, all needing help in a confusing medical system at the time that their body systems were collapsing. That is precisely the mix that most appealed to me.

I signed up immediately and was trained to give emotional support to the men who I was assigned to. Rodie Alexander, the tiny black guy who abandoned his family in New Orleans and lived a marginal life for decades until bladder cancer brought him into SF General and our program. Amazingly, Rodie's cancer abated and he moved back to New Orleans to rejoin the family he had left years before. Gustavo, the Mexican teenager whose cancer had already cost him his left arm before I met him, and who I sat with during the last night of his life. At the end of that long night I was on my way out of the hospital and wanted to say goodbye to Nancy the nurse who had helped Gustavo to breathe as he died. I found Nancy cleaning up in the room of a guy on the ward named Michael Maletta. Michael was in his late 30's, a very dynamic guy with a mysterious illness that had already landed him in the hospital several times. From caring for Gustavo it was just a few short steps into another hospital room. In that room I found Nancy and Michael, and with Michael AIDS found me. We have been together ever since.

From the moment that I connected that voice in the winter darkness with my destiny to move to San Francisco and become a caregiver, I have trusted that my life was guided with purpose and intention. That isn't to say that I haven't gotten lost since then or made mistakes or regretted some actions. But fundamentally, I have felt well used in my life and San Francisco was the container for my work. Gratitude doesn't begin to describe how much I love and appreciate this City.

June 29th, 2009: Today I had an appointment with Dr. Jahan, my oncologist. Even though I have a daily assault of pains and limitations, I am also in pretty good shape. I made a list of health issues to talk about: muscle pain in my upper right shoulder (probably from too much mouse activity rather than a tumor inside my lung) and a couple of questions about pain medication. We dispensed with those questions in a few minutes. Then on to the more exciting topics which turned out to focus on french restaurants in Paris and in the countryside. I certainly have my favorites in Paris and know nothing about dining outside the city. It was a vibrant, exciting chat, and a luxury to be able to walk away from the grim realities of my illness and get down to the serious pleasures of memorable dining.

Given my current ablility to think, feel and generally be in the world, I won't have to go back for another appointment for at least two months. If anything weird happens, I will call Dr. Jahan right away or hustle to the nearest emergency room. Conclusion: I am on a health plateau right now. My pain is reasonably managed and if I get uncomfortable, I can take more morphine. I'm seldom uncomfortable, I walk pretty adeptly. I go into work five days a week. The sun is shining right now.

And the sun shone yesterday over the crowd too big to count accurately (450,000? Half a million?) gathered along Market St. for the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall riots; the kickoff party for Gay Liberation. Although there was not a cloud in the sky, there was a chill on the breeze as Ken, Gaetano and I watched the parade from the shady South side of Market St. An hour or so before it arrived, I imagined having a meltdown at the curbside as the Maitri cable car went past. But no. When they appeared, I waved, I shouted, I felt a huge connection, but my own health issues and Maitri's emerging presence as my final home didn't overwhelm me. My, the parade lasted for a long time! After three hours, I needed a break so I headed off to the gym for some exercise and a pause from the intense color and input from all that celebrating.

Most inspiring moments: cheering for the group of gay Middle Eastern Muslims waving flags from Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Palestine knowing that those countries do not hand out merit badges to gay people; seeing women I know in the dykes on bikes; seeing Mayor Newsom walking to the edge of the crowd slapping palms and shaking hands rather than sitting in rather removed splendor on the back of the Packard convertible that normally carries him along the parade route. I went to a high school reunion some 15 years ago and talked with a classmate who had just returned from Israel. She said that it amazed her to be in crowds and restaurants and public transportation where most of the people around her were Jewish. After a lifetime of living as a minority, suddenly she was surrounded by Jews. That's the way I feel on Gay Pride Day at the parade. I know that there are a lot of gay people in San Francisco, but at the parade it feels to me like most people are gay and there's a healing in that for me. Yesterday was fun, bright, poignant and healing.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

June 27th, 2009: Over the past two weeks, my big effort has been to draft a project plan for the rest of my life. It's a list of tasks that I'd like to accomplish between now and after my death. The tasks are grouped into categories such as: Finances, Distribution of Property, After End-of-Life, Travel, etc. Some of these tasks are dependent on other tasks being started or completed. Many of the tasks are stand-alone events.

One of the task categories is: Moving into Maitri. A couple of months ago during dinner with my friends Bob, Bill, Eileen and Kirsten, the subject came up about me moving into Maitri. during the final stretch of my illness. As most of you know, I did bedside care at Maitri starting in 1988 when there was just one resident. I've been part of the institution's growth and evolution from the beginning. To say that I love the place is an understatement. I am very proud of the quality of care that has been provided there over the years, but particularly since the move to the current location at 401 Duboce St.

I volunteered as an emotional support caregiver until 1995, then I took a year off from directly visiting with residents. Instead, I took care of the garden. In 1996, I joined the board as a member with a background in residential care. I've been on the board ever since, serving with the architectural planning committee as we developed the layout for the new Maitri. I've chaired the program committee, and been vice president and secretary at various times. In the past five years, I've delivered a pre-history of Maitri talk that I deliver to incoming groups of volunteers. In that presentation, I gather far-flung influences--the discovery of penicillin, the American teachings of Suzuki Roshi, the civil rights movement, gay rights, feminism, hippie values, the advent of the drug culture and the growth of the hospice movement--all of which have sourced Maitri as a unique and successful home for end-of-life care.

Because Maitri has always been dedicated to serving people with HIV, I have never thought of moving in there. However, it seems that 14 of the beds in the residence are mandated for people with HIV and the 15th bed does not have that condition. After that discussion at dinner, I imagined moving into Maitri and what a fine place that would be to receive care during my last days. I know the staff there, and I trust their skills. Also, I have always felt close to the residents, although I don't know them as closely now that I'm on the board. A month ago, after our board meeting, I had dinner with Tim Patriarca, the Executive Director. As I was about to bring up the subject of moving into Maitri, he said, "I hope you don't take this the wrong way, but have you thought about coming to Maitri toward the end of your illness?" I laughed and replied, "I was just going to bring up that subject." We talked. I told Tim how much I hope that I could move in. Tim said that there needed to be a careful search through the legal contracts with HOPWA (Housing Opportunity for People With AIDS) who provided our initial funding, but he thought that it could be possible.

On Thursday of this week, I received a phone call from Tim saying the the HOPWA team concluded that I would be able to stay at Maitri. Happily, this 15th bed isn't just for me. It can be given to others who want to be cared for at Maitri. Also, just because the bed is available doesn't mean I will move in. There may be someone else using that bed at the time I'm ready for admission. What the decision means is that I can legally move into Maitri if and when the bed is available.

I can't tell you what a relief it is to know that I will be taken care of during my last days by a community that I already know and love. The weight off my mind is huge. It wasn't until I woke up the following morning and hear the first though in my head, "I can move into Maitri!" that I realized how important this is in the whole trajectory of my illness. I am very, very grateful. It is truly a grace note for me in this already full Gay Pride Week.

A curious footnote: Several years ago, there was a calendar published with pictures of gardens in San Francisco. One of the gardens for a now-forgotten month was of the inner courtyard at Maitri which had been lavishly filled with petunias, black bamboo and other vigorous plants by Peter, one of the residents. I liked the picture so much that I took it out of the calendar and hung it at my desk at work. As I've moved around as a consultant, from Schwab, to Wells Fargo to PG&E, the picture of the garden has come with me. Sometimes I'm not aware of it for days on end. But it has been there for several years now, facing me as I work. In the many hundreds of times I've looked at that garden, it never occurred to me that it was my destination. Now, I understand differently.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

June 23rd, 2009: Since I have started to refer to myself as terminally ill, I have heard the same concern from many people which can be summarized as: "I don't know what to say." I'd like to address that dilemma which is very real and which will not be going away over time. In fact, as my health declines, it may well increase.

First, you can always step right through the confusion by writing and simply saying, "I am thinking of you." That's all. Just, "Thinking of you." To me, that's a very full communication. Also, it gets you out of the conundrum of not knowing what to say. You've just said it simply and clearly. I will know that we are connected. I know that anyway, but direct communication makes it more real. Most of us have lost family or friends in a manner that has remained painful. Now I am joining that community of people who are leaving or have left you. It's hard to know what to say. In my case there will probably be time to unfold many of the feelings that we carry and express them to each other. I hope for that. As my friend Betsy said recently, "You don't have weeks and you don't have years." Exactly.

Whether there's direct gratitude for the warmth of our friendship or a more restrained withdrawl, everyone can witness. You are in complete control of what witness means for you. If you read this blog or not. If you send me an email or not. If you call or not. If we have lunch or not. All of that is witnessing, including the "not" portions. "Not" is part of how we all manage our feelings as my illness progresses. After living through the AIDS epidemic, I have experienced not going to a memorial service because my grief was too big. I have experienced not helping someone who needed help because I couldn't endure more suffering in someone I cared for. What I am saying here is that I learned to fit what I could do with what I couldn't do. There was only one of me.

As my illness progresses, all of us will make many decisions about what we can do and what we won't do about staying in touch. I would like that to be OK and part of the agreement between us. Also, I know how to use the phone and connect via email. I won't be calling everyone on a regular basis but if I need to get in touch, I'll be responsible.

Moving forward, I want to acknowledge the challenge of staying in touch. For my part, there's a point where I won't have the energy to reach out any more. I'm not there yet! Please know that each of us experiences confusion about saying goodbye, and we all evolve our our own ways of living with this discomfort.

Now for a totally different subject: This Sunday is the Gay Pride Parade in San Francisco which is a high holy day on my calendar. Every year, I go to the parade and get hugely energized by the diversity of being out in my community. In the decades I've gone to the parade, I always stand on the curbside cheering the marchers since that's the best way to see all the participating groups. This year, I have plans to go to the parade with my friends Ed, Gaetano and Ken. However, this evening at the Maitri board meeting, I heard that Maitri is sponsoring a contingent. There will be 30 to 50 marchers plus a motorized cable car with residents who will sit a wave from the moving vehicle.

For the first time, I am seriously torn: stand on the curb and see all the groups or be inside the parade and see all the spectators? I've been told that walking up Market St. for blocks and blocks of cheering love is a very powerful upper. What to do? Since this may be my last parade, the decision has a certain urgency and excitement. Win, win. I'll lt you know the outcome. Let me add that I am grateful in my lifetime I can make such a luxurious decision because there IS a parade.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

June 17th, 2009: When she was in San Francisco visiting from Chicago, my friend Laura asked, “Where is your anger about having being sick?” I've given this question intermittent thought ever since I found out I had cancer. I could easily locate my sorrow and my fear. But anger?

Today, I posed the question to Susan, my therapist. I said, “I just don’t know where it is…maybe I don’t have any.” “Well, what about the tumors,” she asked. “Aren’t you angry at the tumors?” Bingo!

It took me seconds to realize that I am furious with the tumors, for what they are doing to my health and my life, for being such selfish, greedy cells that care only about themselves. They aren’t team players! And talk about stupid! They’ll kill all of me in their blind frenzy to grow at the expense of everything else. Another therapist friend, Philip, had told me about some work he had done recently. When he got mad at someone from the past, rather than talk about the issues, he cut right to the chase and asked himself, “How do I want to kill them?” As often happens in a great therapy session, shortly after the big issue reveals itself, it was time to end.

I came home and thought about Philip killing his adversaries and my tumors. What came up for me, was an image of being able to remove each tumor: the big one in the pelvis plus the smaller ones in the liver and lungs. I removed them without harming my body and put them on the cutting board I use to prep my vegetables and other food. And then, I took my claw hammer and beat the living crap out of those ugly lumps. My rage was huge, and each time the hammer came down on the tissue and broke the membranes and cells, I felt better. As the pulp got bloodier and more mashed, I felt happier. “Trying to kill me!” WHAM. “How dare you?” WHAM. And so on for quite a vigorous while.

Afterward, I realized how much I’ve been avoiding contacting the tumors over the past weeks. I have been co-existing with them. Like a bad, bad roommate who you avoid and don’t speak to, but guess what? They haven’t moved out. Occasionally, I touch the tumor in my pelvis to get a sense of how much it’s grown. So far, I can’t feel the tumors in my lungs or liver, so they are even less noticeable to me. But they are inside me, growing with a vengeance. For today, just bashing them to bits is refreshing. No more Mr. Nice Guy.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

June 14th, 2009: Several months ago, I referenced in this blog one of my favorite personal truths: Coming Out Never Stops. Then, it was about facing having cancer. Now that has shifted to coming out as a person who is terminally ill. I’ve found myself doing that over the past few days. I never know when it’s going to happen, or when it will feel appropriate.

I went in to have my teeth cleaned last Thursday. I have been going to this dentist practice for the past 22 years. Seems that it was time for new X-rays, and I thought, “What for? My teeth feel OK. I’m not going to live long enough to need advanced dental work.” Then I reconsidered; if I have a tooth emergency (not that this has ever happened), it would be good to have recent scans. So I agreed to the X-rays. As they were being administered, I thought, “This is the last time my teeth will be X-rayed.” Such a tiny detail, but an example of a mind set that is increasingly asserting itself in me. I am starting to anticipate and remark on the end of things in this world for me in this life. I have to say, it’s pretty gentle most of the time. Not having any more X-rays did not unleash a wave of grief. However, when it came time to talk to Dr. Gregory about my future dental needs, I came out to him as a person who’s terminally ill. He was shocked and very gracious. We cried and thanked each other for taking such good care of each other. In a good doctor/patient relationship, caretaking goes both ways. When he asked if this was goodbye, I considered and said, “No, I will need to have my teeth cleaned in four months. See you in October. Which will probably happen.

I have been struggling with and giving in to the exhaustion that cancels much of my time these days. I’ve always had a good energy level and often my only question was: “Can I get to the next place fast enough?” Not so anymore. Yesterday, Saturday, I got up at around 9:30 after a sleep of some 10 hours. By eleven in the morning, I was back on my bed, ready for a nap, which lasted until 2:30. Then, I got up for most of the afternoon and evening.

I have never experienced anything like this fatigue. I lie prone without moving. No need to move. If I’m awake, I may have slow threads of thoughts, but they are of secondary interest and seldom urgent. My mind is in the background. There is no pain. It’s rather like a paralysis, but without anxiety. Since this can take up most of a day but without providing a deep, fulfilling rest, I am concerned. I also let it happen. This need for rest is so overwhelming, that I can’t imagine fighting it. Instead I occassionally fight it afterward when I regret the time lost.

From habit, I spend a great deal of time trying to normalize my circumstances. I still eat meals at the same time. Put on my socks. Brush my teeth. Go into work. Read the NY-er, etc. I still do all those things, but inside my body where I can scarcely feel it, there is a huge battle going on. I can’t appreciate how overwhelming this struggle is, but I am starting to feel the long-range depletions of the fight. Sleeping or lying on my bed in a dormant state for half the day is a sign that I am exhausted. Exhausted just from being alive. That seems so hard to believe after a lifetime of zipping around.

I want to thank everyone for responding to my request that you ask for my treasures that you enjoy. People have responded in such different ways! There’s the obvious response where someone says, “I’d like to have the prayer rug in your living room.” Other people have said, “I don’t want to talk about it.” To which I say, “OK for now. But I would like you to have some thing of mine as a memory.” It can be a slippery road to navigate. Just as many people don’t make wills in the mistaken belief that they won’t die, so asking for one of my objects won’t cause me to die. I will die, but not from giving away my things.

Along these lines, my therapist made the observation that I was a lucky guy to be able to give away the things I’d accumulated. “What do you mean?” I asked. “Well,” she answered, some people would be in the position of having to sell their things to raise money.” I’d never thought of that. So I am a lucky guy, that I can make this decision to give away my worldly goods without a thought to their cost or value. I have loved them, and I trust that you will also.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

June 6th, 2009: Today I took an important first step in dispersing my worldly goods. Mary Lawrence Hicks, who I met on the HIV Planning Council had asked me if I would donate some items to her fundraiser for the Sojourn Chaplaincy Program at San Francisco General Hospital. I immediately said yes, but it wasn’t until later that I realized that most of what I would donate should come from my home in Glen Ellen.

As I look around and start to plan how to divest, the property in Glen Ellen stands out as a place that is no longer a part of my shrinking life. It’s hard for me to drive up there, and once there, my home has been rented and is now happily occupied by someone else. Although my land partner Ann has expressed every welcome for me to stay, I don’t participate there anymore. I look at the grounds and see a beautiful piece of property. I can remember working on that land, but now there’s not a twinge of desire to get started with the gardening, wood splitting, koi pond cleaning or any of the other tasks that once bound me to the place. I look around my house and remember the plans I had to remodel the rooms. That won’t be happening; at least not by me. I am very glad that Francine, the mosaic artist who rents my house, is happy there. She’s settled in well.

After moving furniture down to Glen Ellen when my parents left their home last summer, I will now be moving that same furniture up to my sister’s home near Seattle. But hey, it’s easy to find a good person to move furniture.

But Glen Ellen is hardly the sum of my worldly goods. There are also the rugs, photographs, textiles, etc. that I’ve accumulated in San Francisco. It isn’t a large quantity of stuff because I’ve collected to fill a limited number of rooms. Still, it needs to be disbursed. I am not taking anything with me.

I have some thoughts about giving things away. But I would also appreciate it if you would let me know if you want something. I can’t promise that you’ll get it. I may have already told someone else that they may have it. However, if you have always wanted to live with my wonderful red leather chair that faces the park, please let me know that. I bought the chair so that my friend Betsy could look at the trees while we were visiting. Betsy, would you like the chair?

I am counting on you to speak up. I am not clairvoyant. Again, I can’t promise you will get what you ask for, but you have a much better chance if you say something. You will not be rude, premature or presumptuous. This blog posting gives you license to ask. Otherwise, I’ll just donate it. By the way, this dispersion is about giving. My things are not for sale. I would like you to have them if they give you some of the pleasure that they have given me. I don’t need to get rid of everything by the end of this week. I’ll keep you posted on when it’s a good time to get things. I’m guessing four to six months from now. I’ll keep a list of who asks for what, and it will help me feel better knowing that I have organized this part of getting lighter.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

June 4th, 2009: After more than a week and a half of pain-free health, I went to work on Wednesday and promptly did a U-turn. I couldn’t concentrate, and although I was not in pain, I could only imagine returning to bed. The rest of the day and night I slept, punctuated by a couple of phone calls. Thursday, I got up and went to work. After an hour at my desk, same thing: I returned home mid-morning and went directly to bed. I couldn’t figure it out. I wasn’t in pain. And I had incentive to stay awake: a lunch with my friend Betsy at Zuni and a late afternoon visit with my friend Jeremy. I felt a bit like Monserrat Caballe; as her career progressed and her health crises forced her to abandon many engagements, she earned the nickname of La Cancelatta. Mid-afternoon, I felt a twinge of pain in my left temple and immediately understood: I was having a migraine headache. So slight on the pain scale that I hadn’t associated my two days of fatigue with migraine symptoms, nevertheless that’s what it was. I took one of my pills that make them go away and sure enough, within an hour I awoke from a light nap saying, “Hey, it’s me. I’m back.” And so I am.

Since this weekend’s performances of Handel’s L’Allegro, etc. I’ve been listening at home to the oratorio (which includes the same soprano—Christine Brendes—on both the CD and in the Zellerbach Hall performances). Over the past six or seven years, I have become increasingly Handel-devoted. It’s a great time to do this, because at no other time in history except for living in London during Handel’s reign could you hear so many of his works in performance.

Although today we miss the exceptional voices that animated Handel’s productions, we do have some notable advantages as well. We now have countertenors. We have very talented singers who increasingly include the baroque in their repertoires. We have more productions of Handel’s works than ever before. And, perhaps most important to me: we have records, tapes, CDs, DVDs and iPod technology that allows for repeated listenings and viewings. The latter has been indispensable to me. For example, I have seen six productions of Giulio Cesare, but thanks to records and CDs, I have listened to it hundreds of times and that repetition has allowed it to settle into the marrow of my memory.

The point of all this is that my musical enthusiasm has gravitated to Handel over the past few years. His music has become, increasingly, the most beautiful sound that I am able to hear at this point in my life. In my teens and twenties, it was Mozart and Beethoven that I loved and listened to. Mozart was my path into opera and Beethoven anchored my understanding of the symphonic and sonata form. Then, in my thirties, I moved into Wagner and Richard Strauss. This took some work, but I worked and was vastly rewarded. In my forties, I discovered Verdi, Rossini and the bel canto tradition. My fifties mixed everything plus the addition of Handel. It’s interesting to see not only what I’ve had time to absorb but also what’s missing. Bach. In conversation with my friend Bob Graham a couple of weeks ago, I totally related when he said, “I don’t think I’ve been grown up enough for Bach until now.” Yes, I would echo that. There is some Bach that I’ve known for a long time: the Brandenburgs, the Goldberg Variations, St. Matthew Passion, the cello suites. But that’s it. For now, Handel nurtures me at a very profound level, and I am grateful.

Several years ago, when I was doing my series of past life regressions with Marilyn Zschau, I retrieved a lifetime from turn of the 19th Century Russia. I was a secularized Russian Jew, a law student in St. Petersburg. I hated living in Czarist Russia, so I emigrated to America. At the time, I thought I was following my girlfriend who had similarly moved with her family, but the larger reason was to experience more freedom and to come to the melting pot to contribute my talents and enthusiasm. I started a legal publishing company, married my girlfriend, had three kids and went to the opera, dined at Delmonico’s on special occasions and visited Niagara Falls. I taught English as a second language and was a deep believer in the American Dream. Then, in September, 1918, I got a cold and was dead within a few days. I died young in my life; my children weren’t grown yet. After I came out of the hypnosis session, Marilyn asked, “Why did you die so young?” I immediately knew the answer, and said, “I died young in that life so that in this life when the AIDS epidemic came along, I would have empathy for guys who were leaving in the middle of their lives. I would understand the poignancy and sadness of their early passing, and I would be a better caregiver. Just in the past week that knowledge has come back to me as I contemplate dying early again. Not as early as the last time (I was in my early 50’s during my American émigré lifetime). But still, this current leaving seems young to me. So what am I learning this time? And to what purposes will it serve in my future?

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

June 2nd, 2009: Sitting at my desk this morning, I realized that I needed a serious treat. Easily done! That would mean going to lunch at Boulette’s Larder, my favorite place to savor interesting food. I wanted to catch up with Lori and Amaryll who run Boulette’s; I had talked with them during the intermission of Mark Morris Dance Group’s Sunday performance of L’Allegro. Such a treat to see both of these accomplished women in a totally different context. They are both so friendly and gracious. I consider Amaryll a highly accomplished chef. She has done far more to educate my palate at this time in my life than anyone else, and I am grateful.

It turned out to be a wise decision. I had a chilled avocado and cucumber soup with the freshest hand-patted tortillas with thin crispy outsides and soft centers of heated corn. Then, poached salmon that was light and custardy, almost like a mousseline. Although I had no room for dessert, Taquin my waitperson brought a tasting of lemon verbena ice cream with strawberries. Yummmmmmm!

Then a quick check-in with Amaryll. We compared notes about what moved us during the dance performance; both of us were thrilled by the use of scrims early on to create layers of dancers on stage, and then a static period close to the end when the entire company was motionless, looking up to the back of the stage, enraptured by full-throttle organ music. No dancers moved, and yet the action was expansive and profound.

This evening I talked with my Dad about my cancer. Fortunately, my sister had spoken with him recently, giving him news about the tumors’ growth. His ability to grasp my condition ebbed and clarified and ebbed again. He kept asking what he could do. I said, “Love me.” He assured me that he did. Many tears. I hope to go up to see him in July as well as saying goodbye to the other people I know in Portland. That will probably be the last time I see my Dad and many of the people I grew up with and went to school with. It’s a trip I really want to make.

As for the China trip, I don’t know if I’ll be able to do that. I would probably go in September or October and that’s a long way off. Yesterday morning as I woke up I was musing about how I want to see China before I die, and I realized that I might have another option. This strange, pleasant and very forceful concentration on being in China that has been surging from my very center may, in fact, be a yearning that focuses on that country as the place where I am born next. I feel so drawn to China and there are many things that I’ve learned in this life that could be useful there. Also, I know from past experience that there is much that China has to teach me. We’ll see. And who knows about the time factor; will I be born into the future or the past? So much to learn, and I do enjoy the speculation.

Monday, June 1, 2009

June 1st, 2009: What a fine weekend, thanks to Mark Morris Dance Group, the Café at Chez Panisse and all the people I spent time with over the weekend who enriched my life at dinners or tea at my home. My two visits to L’Allegro, Il Penseroso ed Il Moderato left deep impressions on my soul.

My primary care physician Lisa also went to a performance and I wrote to her earlier today, “I am sorry that I missed you at the Saturday performance of L'Allegro. I went on Friday night and Sunday matinee. I thought Christine Brendes really distinguished herself as the soprano in the vocal quartet. Her final duet accompanying the line dance is probably the high point in the piece for me; it is so stately, dignified and full of feeling for the natural world. How Mark was able to translate the beat in the music by having the dancers slightly drop with a bend in the knee while traversing those linear patterns is one of the 10,000 miracles of that piece for me. It is a masterful work. The hunting scene comes out of nowhere and suddenly teaches us how to see dancers as trees, shrubs, foxes, dogs, aristocrats, and we learn how to do this within seconds. It's astonishing. This time, I was particularly moved by Julie Worden, long blond hair, green dress. The long lines of her arms were particularly expressive. And David Leventhal's lark is always a joy He is so twittery, so gay, so eternally youthful. David was the first dancer in the company that really got my attention. And now, thanks to repeated viewings, I know all the performers. I have to say it was poignant, at times overwhelmingly so, to see this piece again, quite probably for the last time. It is so beautiful. It gives me so much. I receive so much from it. Of course, I want more.”

Yes, I want more. That’s been a big motif of the past few days. The visit with Dr. Jahan on Friday really clarified for me that I am into my terminal illness. As people remind me, miracles do happen, and maybe I’ll get better. That would be lovely. It’s not, however, something I am going to plan on happening. I sense there’s such a balance between being realistic about my health and at the same time not wanting to call in suffering and pain. So my reality checks are: am I depressed? Do I push away life’s surprises and daily gifts? Am I sabotaging myself? I was depressed in the early 90’s for several months, and I can happily say that none of that dreadful mix of extreme agitation and physical paralysis is present now. I am episodically sad more than I used to be. My sadness feels deep, and appropriate when it arrives. Most of the time, I’m not sad at all. I love my life, and it’s been a very rich, exciting life. It’s painful to know that it will end soon. But I’m still engaged by my friends’ lives. I continue to read with avidity, listen to music and go through the ups and downs of daily living. I still enjoy being me. My affect doesn’t feel flat or forced.

I am starting to plan, and this week’s effort is to draft a list of the things that I want to complete in the next months. Some of the things are dependent on other events happening first. Some tasks simply have to be done. I am so grateful for my experience with project management. List the tasks, put them in order, assign dates and contingencies. Enlist other people to help when needed. As my friend Eileen observed this afternoon. “You can put together a plan and then watch it change.” True enough. My reason for planning is that my mind is starting to work on lists of things to do. Get rid of Bianca, my car. Sort out papers. Give away rugs, glass, books, photographs, textiles. Divest, divest, divest! My plan is a counterbalance to feeling overwhelmed by so much to do. When I have a plan, the tasks get done.

It’s astonishing to move this fast, psychologically. A few weeks ago, I regarded myself as someone with an illness who was dedicated to getting better. Now, I see myself as a having an illness that will end my life sooner than later. With this new perspective, come new priorities. During the L’Allegro Sunday matinee, I watched with awe as Mark Morris led me through the hunt sequence where two foxes hid from a pack of dogs in a forest of dancers frozen to simulate trees. As the foxes outwitted the pack and a smile broke across their faces, I suddenly burst into tears. I will never see this again. I will never see this again.