Sunday, May 27, 2007

Oh, Mom...

Brian Fies has written a graphic novel about his mother's cancer. I hate saying 'graphic novel' because, let's face it, we're all grownups here. A graphic novel is a comic book. I'm willing to acquiese that there are good comic books and mature comic books and of course there's Archie and Jughead and the superhero of your choice wearing long underwear and a mask and maybe a cape. But why don't we just assume that not all things are equal, and if some dude says "I've written a comic book about my mother's cancer," it might actually be something worth reading.

In this case, it is. It's simple, sparce, there are no cute narrative tricks and it's not easy on anyone. There's a thin but real vein of anger towards his mother; she smoked for years, and he illustrates a well nursed grudge along the lines of 'you're designing your own doom' vibe towards smokers of any stripe. He also notes that this isn't fair, it's just something that was felt at the time.

If you're a good writer, you can put material that you're proud of next to stuff you'd rather forget and create a box around it. The box represents the part of you that says "Now, I'm not condoning my actions at the time, but it's what happened and what I felt and right or wrong it's part of the history." If you're really good, the box is invisible, your reader won't need the implied (or stated) provisos.

Mom's Cancer is powerful and blunt, it could easily have been pretentious, sentimental, precious, well-meaning but cloying, or horribly, horribly ill-conceived. The nightmare example of something well-intended but veering way out of control is The Day The Clown Cried, the Jerry Lewis movie (unreleased due to rights issues) where he plays a clown entertaining kids at Auschwitz. Yes, you read that properly. If you're cringing at the thought, you're not alone. Harry Shearer saw a rough cut at one point and said "The closest I can come to describing the effect is if you flew down to Tijuana and suddenly saw a painting on black velvet of Auschwitz. You'd just think, 'My God, wait a minute! It's not funny, and it's not good, and somebody's trying too hard in the wrong direction to convey this strongly held feeling."

Having said that, I don't want to knock anybody's method of dealing with stuff. This is the box that I'm writing myself into, and you may have noticed that it's far from invisible. When my own mother was in chemo, I wrote about it because it was better than worrying. The aformentioned Mom's Cancer was what I would have liked to have written. What I got out was something that, years later, strikes me as somewhat cold, which wasn't the intention. In a crisis, I become methodical, it comes across on the page.

I have a friend who's dealing with the same situation at the moment, I'd told him that he might be interested both in Fies' book and in knowing that somebody else might be (have been) in the same mindset where he finds himself, some kind of solace in shared experience. He asked to see what I was writing while I was watching the same situation, here it is. This was written in November of 1999.


There's a black paper bag over the IV pole, it runs halfway down the length of the tube running into my mother's arm. The chemotherapy is photosensitive. This doesn't mean that it runs away at the sight of a flashbulb going off, yelling "No! I'm fat! That isn't my best side!", although I find that a much more interesting concept than the truth.

The truth is that the two chemicals (interferon and platinum) react to each other in the body quite nicely, and react to each other in bright light just as well. It's a regular orgy as a matter of fact, molecules binding to each other to beat the band. This is not great for the whole idea of an IV tube however, since it could turn essentially into Jell-o on the way down and Jell-o and needles don't get along. Apparently, Bill Cosby notwithstanding, there is not always room for Jell-o.

My mother is lying flat on the cot, waiting for the drip to start. The purpose of the drip is largely mathematical. It is designed to kill more or less everything in its path, over a preordained period of time, before becoming inert. Think of it flowing down a tunnel, killing everything within 5 feet square the whole way down. By the time it reaches the end of the tunnel, the floura and fauna of previous five feet intervals are already regenerating, hopefully minus the less desirable floura and fauna which grew there before. It doesn't kill the whole tunnel at once, just what's around it.

My mother is both the tunnel abd the 'everything around it.' It'll kill a little bit of everything, without killing the patient. If the patient is lucky. But this shouldn't be so grim. My mother was a nurse in palliative care in the past, she knows her odds, what she's in for, the side effects. That's the good news. The bad news is that she knows her odds, what she's in for, the side effects.

It ain't going to be easy. But it will not be fatal. After that sentence, everything else is gravy.

"Don't feel like you have to entertain me," she says not unpleasantly but a little sharply, flipping a magazine in front of her eyes. I'm there as a gofer, a bedside valet in the cancer ward, which is a sensitively painted room filled with warm cozy beds filled with very sick people in varying degrees of discomfort.

Most of those degrees are low. Nobody is too sore. Nobody is screaming. Everything from this point on is gravy, again. There is a lot of gravy today, as a matter of fact I'm drowning in it, I can't find the meat below to stand on, so I'm treading gravy rather than water (no mean feat), doing the backstroke into the hallway from time to time to fetch paper cups of water, lemon-flavoured swabs, new magazines and kleenexes.

Since it's almost Christmas, there are candies and cookies. LOTS of candies and cookies. One woman, who was discreetly retching as we walked into the ward, looked at a tray of fresh chocolate-chip cookies and shrugged. "A moment on the lips," then, gesturing to the bucket on her lap, "temporarily on the hips. What the hell." She winked at me and had a few snacks.

My mother doesn't look scared. She looks inconvenienced and pissed off and more than a little fragile and woozy. That's different than scared. She is losing a few bits of life, they will be re-grown after a time. This is not yet a cycle of losing. This is not yet a controlled descent.
My mother survived, flourished, nursed my father when he was diagnosed. And life goes on.

Fies' book deals beautifully with a 'difficult' figure, his new-age stepfather who he is convinced is trying to position himself to point a soothing, accepting and appropriately cozy path to death's door and help Mom into that good night with chants of affirmation. The door's not slammed in his face exactly, but Fies' explanation of how he literally couldn't carry on a conversation with his father is both heartfelt and not without respect. The well-written invisible box holds everything the reader needs.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Other People's Nostalgia

There's a car in the parking lot of my townhouse, which is a good 500 yards away from my kitchen. The sound coming out of that car has to travel over 3 rooftops or sneak magic-bullet style around a few curves to pass through the glass of my kitchen window. I've heard the same song coming out of that car for the last 45 minutes or so, perhaps due to a skipping CD or an MP3 riff with the repeat function nailed down, or maybe this is a somebody's little statement of some kind. It's Martha and the Muffins' 'Echo Beach.'


'Echo Beach' merely sounds like 1980 or so to me, which makes it one of my sister's 45's that she played on a small turntable in her bedroom. I have no sentimental attachment to it aside from than the fact it reminded me of the beaches for years, and I now live in the beaches. Or the beach. Or whatever it's been branded this week.

There's something intensely claustrophobic about getting stuck in somebody else's resonant song - I was once trapped in a club on College St. waiting to see a friend perform when a woman come in to sing 'Four Strong Winds' (which I've always hated) and spent a good 10 minutes discussing how she feels that song is HER song since (and this is the boiled down version) she made out with this guy once at the end of summer (in 1971 or so) and he said he'd call and HE NEVER DID and that song really means a lot to her because she feels she's been carried by those four strong winds through this lifetime and...it went on. You get my point.

Honourable Mention in the trapped-in-somebody-else's-moment competition; Cynthia Dale on CBC discussing her recent CD of showtune standards, saying that there are some songs that you can't record until after your thirties, when you've gotten "Some scars on your back, and..." (a meaningful, sweet sigh was inserted here),"...some scars on your heart." And my skin crawls. She only gets an honourable mention since I could (and did) turn off the radio and avoid buying the CD, I wasn't trapped in a room with the baggage and dubious musical talent.

An unknown driver in my parking lot seems to love 'Echo Beach' deeply. If it isn't just an 80's tribute night on CFNY (again), or a CD auto-program gone wrong, and if somebody has decided that this is their poetic moment, the message ain't subtle. The lyrics spell it out like this;

"On a silent summer evening
The sky's alive with light
Building in the distance
Surrealistic sight
On Echo Beach
Far away in time
Echo Beach
Far away in time"
Repeat and fade.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Not of This World - Part II

Part I is here, for those who don't care for scrolling.


Dreams can be surreal, where one bit of dislocated this ends up in your otherwise fully-formed that. Fastest example I can think of is that for months after my father died he would wander through my dreams emaciated, wearing a green housecoat. I’m going to classify this under the surreal banner since nobody else in the dream seemed to mind that he was padding through whatever landscape I had literally dreamed up. It didn’t disturb me exactly – I would usually think “Ah, this must be taking place when was dad was sick” – and it felt more surreal than nightmarish. It didn’t have the seemingly deliberate nonsense of a nightmare that taps into something when you’re a captive audience in sleep.

For me, the most effective nightmares have always had a twist towards the inevitable. I had genuine, shot-for-shot nightmares for months about something I saw a few years ago, when my wife and I were heading out for dinner. We heard loud chirps and flapping feathers coming from one of the bushes at the side of our very old apartment building. There was an agitated sparrow dive-bombing around the bush shrieking, but clearly not making all of the chirping noises.

It took a few moments to figure out what was happening – a nest had fallen from the tree above the bush. The chirps were from the chicks that were lost in the bush. The dive bombing mother was trying to fight off the silent cats that were circling the bush, with each circle getting smaller. They kept close to the ground, avoiding the sparrow’s wings and patiently gazing and listening at the chirping chicks inside.

This stuck with me, replaying itself in the deep lockup of sleep from time to time, always with the same image of the slowly encroaching cats. There was nothing to be done, cats are cats and sparrows fall from their nests. I considered chasing them off and rummaging through the bush, but it was thick enough that I’d never find a thing. There were far worse events happening in the world at the time, but it’s the bird and the cats that remained in my dreams.

While it happened, it just looked unfortunate (except for the cats, of course). In dreams, it felt portentous. Maybe it was helped along with dim memories of Sunday school – “Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father” (Matthew 10:29 for the completists), a quote that always sticks with me at hard times. Or maybe it just replayed itself because it felt cinematic; Hitchcock would have loved it. He would have found it quite funny. Don’t worry about the little birdies, he would have drawled to his audience. I’m sure the pussycats will find them soon enough. And that will take care of the noise.

You won’t put too much faith in dream interpretation unless you’re a diehard Freudian or Jungian on one side, or into the whole ‘the universe speaks to us as we sleep’ types, and none of those camps appeal to me. Some people get into it - my grandfather on my dad’s side would allegedly buy and sell stock based on the content of his dreams. Exactly how he reasoned these decisions has been lost to the ages, he might have taken the old Greek pantomancing approach and treated the dream as a series of omens to be taken seriously.

Which I can’t take too seriously, myself. Since most dreams are nonsensical, I can’t imagine my conservative Baptist grandfather saying “I dreamt that a green chicken was pecking at a mattress filled with chocolate chips while a flatbed truck drove circles around them as the driver sang ‘Great is Thy Faithfulness.’ Therefore, I must sell my Bell Canada stock and invest heavily in commodities this month” to his broker.

Let me add a proviso to the previous scenario- I have just realized that I don’t remember if my father told me that my grandfather sold stock based on his dreams, or put stock in the content of dreams. So much for the green chicken. Either way, it comes down to a reading of omens, or to be more precise, a reading of images or events that are construed as omens. I got tagged with the nickname ‘pantomancer’ for awhile either due to a friend’s left-brained-word-fetishist attachment to the word, or because I was using the phrase ‘That’s a good omen/bad omen’ too often (a case could be made on both sides).

My rational brain doesn’t care for omens, nor does it put any serious significance in dreams. The irrational brain has attached itself to a few incidents that are invariably no less random than anything else that happens on a given day, but felt like portents of something, of reality either framed or twisted to give a hint of events to come. Otherwise known as the Dead Squirrel scenario.

It was August, hot as hell in 2002. My wife was making soap for a small company at the time, so our apartment was already hot from pots of olive oil and water with lye added; she’d pour them together at the right temperature for soponfication. She’d then pour the soap into tall molds that we’d put in a floor freezer that was more or less hidden by a skirt in our dining room.

To get the freezer working, my father had come down to the apartment a few days before to change a wall socket from 2 to 3 prongs. It had taken him a good 5 minutes to get up the stairs, no more than 8 steps. I'd know that his back had been hurting, but I didn’t know that it was that bad.

I’m mentioning this to supply context – watching my father in such a state was enough to put me into a mood. When he left the apartment slowly, I remember thinking “He can’t handle those stairs anymore,” as if I had seen the degeneration from day one. But it had been a shock, and when I thought “This is the last time he’s going to set foot in this apartment,” I put it out of my mind as worried melodrama.

Days later, the squirrel. The apartment smelled like hot soap. The floor freezer and an air conditioner were plugged into a power bar which would trip if the drain got too intense. It had rained intensely for a few minutes, plunging the already curtained apartment into further darkness. The sky was both black and contoured, if that makes any sense – you could see the shape and shadows on the the rolling clouds. The thunder had been deafening and the power had flickered a few times, tripping the power bar. I turned off the air conditioner until the storm was over.

The rain was just stopping as Abby was pouring soap and I was trying to download something when we heard a sickeningly loud THUD from outside, something percussive enough to rattle the dishes on our kitchen wall. We spent a minute runnng around the apartment looking for whatever large heavy object had fallen over before we heard scratching at our window.

I lifted the curtain to see a chubby baby squirrel lying near the edge of the air conditioner. There was an active colony that lived in our roof and travelled over the power lines, this one had obviously fallen. It was moving very slowly, unrolling itself from an unnaturally twisted shape towards the edge. There looked to be blood on its muzzle and there was a perfectly small yellow puddle that stood out from the clear raindrops on the white air conditioner. It had literally knocked the piss out of itself on impact.

The mother – father? – arrived a few seconds later, scrambling down the wall and rushing to sniff the body of its young. The little one was still moving (if barely) when the parent stood on the legs for a second, staring at the window to discern if Abby or I was a threat. I saw its mouth open and, for reasons I will never know, it held our gaze for a few long seconds. We didn’t hear a thing, but it looked like it was screaming.

A moment later, the young one fell over the edge. We heard it hit the ground. Abby winced and I, despite years of priding myself of not being squeamish, dropped the curtain and turned away. We heard a scrambling of claws and it was done.

The sky was beginning to lighten. I turned the air conditioner on so there would at least be something other the silence. We both said a few things about squirrels being tough, they’re built to deal with things like that. But the pall over the afternoon hung heavy. And against my better judgement, the slow nightmarish quality of it all felt like an omen. The message was simple, straightforward, unapologetic and horrible; Things are going to get bad, there is going to be pain and death.

Any armchair psychologist can figure this one out – it was a bad day, I was worried about my father, something unpleasant happened and it seared itself to the memories of everything that followed. This one played out in the nightmares as well, as cinematic as Hitchcock but without his barely under-the-surface chortle at what fools these mortals be. It brought with it the inevitability of a horror – something is going to happen. You won't like it. You can’t stop it. And you have to watch it all.

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