nonBlog: April 2007

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Inhospiceable—Sunday, April 29, 2007

When my father isn’t dying, he is a giant pain in the ass. My father isn’t dying.
 
After it became clear that he had pulled off a miracle and beaten back his MRSA staph infection, the question arose, what next? Now completely bedridden with no hope of improvement, and still without a knee, upper calf bone, and lower thigh bone in his left leg, my father would need 24-hour care for the rest of his life. Which might actually be long, considering he is only 69. So the possibility he will outlive his money is frighteningly real. The only thing to do is get him into a nursing home because once he’s in, the state is obliged to assume responsibility for his care after he can no longer pay.
 
My sister Sharon thought she had the answer: get Dad into a nice nursing home right now, while he’s still a hospice patient. Once he loses that designation they’d be inclined to reject him because of his relative youth.
Otherwise they’d be inclined to reject him because of his relative youth. But my father wanted to know his prognosis. He mentioned to Sharon that he was going to call his hospice doctor and ask for a re-evaluation. Don’t! Sharon begged. She explained that making that call would get Dad kicked out of hospice faster and ruin her plan. So of course my father made the call anyway, and as of next week he will no longer be a hospice patient.
 
Beside herself, Sharon called my father’s coordinating physician, the one who signed him into hospice in the first place. He informed her that he wouldn’t take my father back as a patient because he doesn’t make house calls. “Who is going to be his doctor?” Sharon asked. “Who is going to prescribe his painkillers?” The doctor replied, “I don’t know. What do you want me to do about it?”
 
The social worker Sharon contacted said she’s never heard a story like this. As a post-hospice patient my father will be permitted only a third of the dosage of the morphine-like painkiller he’s been taking to keep him comfortable. This is to make sure he won’t become addicted, as if that should matter for a man in his condition. Now, without a prescribing physician, he is facing complete withdrawal, overnight. With a health care system like this, it’s better to be dead than alive.
 

A Whale of a Swim—Sunday, April 22, 2007

Yesterday I swam from Alcatraz to nearly the Golden Gate Bridge in 52-degree water with a whale. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
 
I miss everything about being a marathon runner. I miss seeing the first light of morning. I miss the feeling of pushing myself past the discomfort to the endorphin high. I miss being in exceptional physical condition. I miss eating whatever the heck I want and still being able to button my itty Escada suits. But most of all I miss my old identity: athlete. This moniker is especially meaningful to those of us who were picked last every single time the kids chose teams in gym class.
 
But I can’t run anymore, not even a mile—not if I want to keep my injured hip joint pain-free. My physiatrist said he thought I would enjoy the extremity of open-water swimming, but when I tried it I couldn’t seem to catch the bug. For one thing, and pardon my language, it is fucking cold in San Francisco Bay. I don’t groove on cold. For another, who knows what could be swimming around in that green soup with you? And for a third, swimming is a high-maintenance sport. You have to get to the pool, you have to change, you have to get wet, you have to get dry, and you have to go home. I am a low-maintenance person. Swimming may be the only sport in which I have any natural ability, but it doesn’t really work for me.
 
So after not enough preparation I attempted to swim from Alcatraz yesterday. It was a South End Rowing Club test swim to see where club members would end up the next day when they did a much bigger swim beginning at the Bay Bridge in a similar current. I was not conscious of this little detail. All I knew was that it was an Alcatraz swim sponsored by my club and I needed to do something drastic in an attempt to get bitten by the swimming bug. Maybe getting the marathon feeling from swimming would do it.
 
I woke up every hour the night before. Should I really go? Should I turn off my alarm? Am I doing something stupid? I was up for good starting at 4am. At 5:30 I got up and at 6 I headed for the club. I parked my car and started walking along the beach. It was as quiet as the country, and on the horizon was a string of pink light. Suddenly I was in Central Park at dawn on a chilly spring morning, feeling, well, the marathon feeling. Maybe swimming could give me what I can’t get anymore from running.
 
As I walked toward the club door and looked down Jefferson Street at the line of two-story wood and brick buildings, I remembered a scene from when Tom and I drove across the country to move to San Francisco and spent a night in Livingston, Montana. The small-town silence and big sky were exactly that convincing. I was transported, and frightened. And ashamed of myself. Scared does not work for me; it’s not my style. I can be standing on top of a fourteener, a two-thousand-foot drop not a yard from my right foot, and not feel “scared.” I feel nice and sticky, like nothing is going to peel me off that mountain. But with nothing between me and 52-degree water but a bathing suit and a cap, would I feel safe? Sticky?
 
Twenty minutes later, wearing a borrowed fleece-lined swim coat, I climbed into the Zodiac—my bathing suit, my cap, my goggles, and me. I tried to appear calm. Everyone else was laughing and joking. The sun was dipping behind the rosy clouds. We approached the rocks at the base of Alcatraz and the pilots synchronized their watches. It was 7:14am. “Jump time” was 7:15. We took off our coats and sat on the inflated edges of the boat. The pilot sounded the horn and everyone slid into the water, including me.
 
It felt like falling into a vat of ice water, and I fought to catch my breath from the shock. The other ten swimmers were blithely stroking away from me and I hadn’t even started swimming yet. Then a wave hit me square in the face and seawater went down my throat and up my nose. Instantly I began throwing up, which made me feel colder, if that was possible. As I choked and vomited I tried to breast-stroke, but I couldn’t manage to breathe without coughing. Soon I was the only swimmer I could see, and my only protection was the rower charged with bringing up the rear. He kept a respectful distance and seemed to offer no judgment on the fact that I had not managed to put my face in or pull together anything resembling a stroke.
 
For a moment it occurred to me that I might not be able to swim at all and might instead be pulled along like a dead body by the stiff current, but suddenly I realized that I was witnessing a view of the city that few people have ever seen: the one from one foot above the waves and smack in the middle of the Bay. Looking toward the ocean it seemed I could detect the actual curvature of the earth, and I was so frightened by my smallness that I started stroking. First three strokes in a row, then five, then ten. I was swimming, truly swimming, and making actual progress.
 
Minutes passed. The rower checked in with me: was I in good shape? I said I was. I knew that he was listening for the slurred speech of hypothermia, but the water no longer felt painful to my skin. I stroked along. And there it was, the endorphin high which in my mind I refer to as The Thing. Anyone who loves endurance exercise knows well The Thing, which takes quite a bit of effort to reach. The Thing is the reason why endurance freaks go to such lengths—once you get The Thing, you know the trouble was worth it. And there I was, deep within myself, checking my position against the Golden Gate Bridge as I breathed on my right, me and The Thing. Maybe I can do this, I thought. Maybe I could like this.
 
I was past the St. Francis Yacht Club, the first point of re-entry. The current had dragged me too far west. Maybe I could hit land at Crissy Field. Was I past Crissy Field? The Golden Gate Bridge loomed over me. I should be able to touch land somewhere. I pictured telling Tom I had successfully swum from Alcatraz. Suddenly the Zodiac pulled up. The people in the boat were speaking to me, but I couldn’t understand them. I could hear them, but I couldn’t make sense of their words. “Do you want me to come in?” I said. They were nodding yes. Someone said something about 55 minutes. I guessed that was how long I had been swimming. That is too long in 52-degree water. Maybe I should get out now. “Okay,” I said. I reached up to pull myself into the boat, but my arms were not working. I could hear the men talking to each other, and counting to three. They would have to pull me into the boat without my help.
 
Once in the boat I couldn’t make my legs move to get them under my body. Somebody helped me. A woman put a towel around me and a man handed me a swim coat. It struck me as too much trouble to wear, so I put it around my shoulders. “Are you okay?” they said. I tried to speak, but my mouth wouldn’t move right. My jaw was set. I shook my head. “She’s hypothermic,” someone said, and the group went into action. A man wrapped his arms around me and kept them there. Another man poured me hot tea from a thermos. I couldn’t hold it, so he helped me put it to my mouth. Everyone was talking to me but their words struck me as uninteresting. We pulled into a beach; there was another swimmer finishing. We couldn’t head back to the club just yet. We waited for him to take his last few strokes. Cold, I thought. Cold. Cold. “Look!” someone shouted, pointing to a spot a couple hundred yards away. “Did you see the spouting?” I didn’t have my glasses on. “Maybe it’s a dolphin, is it a dolphin?” someone asked. Later I would find out that it was a young whale, separated from its pod. The next day it would rise out of the water not 10 feet in front of another swimmer near the Bay Bridge. He described it as terrifying.

The last swimmer climbed into the boat with much less help than I needed. Instantly we were whizzing toward the club. A woman was trying to explain to me what would happen when we reached the dock. People would help me out of the boat, people would get me warm. The man with the warm arms took them away for a moment, and more cold rushed in. I looked at him, not even knowing who he was. He put them back. We pulled up to the dock and someone grabbed each of my arms and pulled me to standing. A woman was guiding me up the ramp. “My glasses,” I said. It sounded like “ma rassa,” but she understood me. “Your glasses? Are they in the Zodiac?” I nodded. “Don’t worry, they’ll take all the stuff out of the boat and put it on the benches here. You’ll get your glasses back.” Later she would tell me that she knew I was going to be okay when I worried about my glasses.
 
We entered the women’s locker room. Women I did not know were pulling off my suit and cap. I lay on wood in the sauna, naked. They brought me a cup of warm water, then a cup of warmer water. Cold, cold, I was still thinking, if you can call it that. I sat up, dizzy. One of them gave me a tube of Gu. I shook my head; my stomach was roiling. Cold, cold. I began shivering uncontrollably. “She’s shivering!” someone said. “That’s a good sign.” They walked me into the shower and turned the water on lukewarm, then warmer. They asked me where my swim bag was so I could wash up. I described its location; my pronunciation still a mess. But slowly I started to warm up. I spent 25 minutes under the hot water, lamenting my carbon expenditure. Then I went back into the sauna. Eventually I slowly dressed, and called Tom. He would have to come and get me. It was 15 minutes until Greta was supposed to go to a birthday party, but there was no way he would be able to leave me. Greta was going to have to miss her party. Poor Greta, I thought. I messed up.

For the rest of the day I was sick—nauseated and dizzy, covered with abrasions from the straps on my bathing suit and swim cap, sore from head to toe. I couldn’t imagine doing this again. From somewhere far away a little voice said, that’s how you used to feel after every marathon, but then you would start training for another one. I ignored the voice. On Monday I would find out about the whale, and on Tuesday I would put it all together and think, with a small but perceptible thrill, I swam from Alcatraz to nearly the Golden Gate Bridge in 52-degree water with a whale.
 

Catastrophe en Route—Thursday, April 12, 2007

We are at our family’s country house in the Berkshire Hills of Massachusetts with the grandparents, attempting vacation. This, as my six loyal readers know, is not possible. Not only because of the usual deadlines, both mine and Tom’s, but because of disasters natural and otherwise that conspire to keep relaxation out of reach.
 
I could mention the two-hour delay between landing in JFK and being given the keys to our rental car, but that would be petty. I could discuss the 29-degree weather or the messy wet snow on the ground in mid-April, but that is not terrifically edifying. Instead I will tell you about the rolling horse. We have in our possession a blue plastic rolling horse (which shall henceforth be called The Destroyer) that we used to have in our apartment on 81st and Lex. It came to live here in the country when we moved to California, and when we arrived on Monday night I observed that it had taken up residence in the garret playroom. I recognized The Destroyer immediately as the source of inevitable future injury. In the morning I brought it downstairs and announced, “Let’s keep this downstairs because if Ava rides this thing in the garret she’s going to go careening down the stairs and bash herself in the head.” Ava rode it happily downstairs for the rest of the day.
 
This afternoon I heard a crash and that terrible, terrible scream that means a child is genuinely hurt. Ava had indeed gone careening down the garret stairs and bashed herself in the head. Her right eye had a cut and was swollen half-shut with an impressive shiner. I started yelling at whomever would listen to find out the identity of the fiend who thought it was more important to clean up than to protect Ava. Turns out the fiend was Tom, trying to prevent his seventysomething parents from tripping over the horse and breaking a hip. So I couldn’t direct my hate and fear at him. Instead I cried hard and quietly while holding Ava as she wailed.
 
I don’t know why we persist in going on these “family vacations.” At this stage our young family is nothing other than a disaster flying somewhere to happen.


 

 

 

     
   



  • KQED Radio
    Perspective about my father's desire, and inability, to die.
  • Story in the San Francisco Chronicle Magazine about English Channel swimmers who train in the Bay area.
  • KQED Radio
    Perspective about how Florida has gone into the bumper-sticker business with "Choose Life" license plates.
 

  • Horse Crazy readings at Borders Books
    in Corvallis, Oregon on March
    17th, in Eugene on March 18th, and in
    Vancouver, Washington on March 19th.
  • Story to appear in the San Francisco
    Chronicle Magazine
    April 15th.
  • Office Mate: Why Work Just Might Be The Perfect Place to Find True Love, due out fall
    2007 from Adams Media.
  • Story to be published in the book Cup
    of Comfort for Writers
    , due out fall 2007.
  • Fame and fortune; date TBA

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