Tuesday, June 27, 2006

One of Life’s Perfect Moments

We went up to Orcas Island on Saturday to camp overnight and maybe do some work. I had big plans—dig out the fire pit until it was the island-safe six feet in diameter and pave it with cement bricks; clear more area in the willow copse and build shady rustic stairs with some of the boulders strewn around the base of the trunks; water and prune and generally care for the plantings we put in last fall. I was tired, though, presumably from the oceans of stress hormones I’d been bathing in for weeks, and so was easily convinced that the current fire pit, once the thistles and snake were removed (me: A SNAKE!” Ian: “Is it a garter snake?” me: “Uh . . . it’s brown.” Ian: “It’s a brown garter snake.” Me: “There aren’t poisonous snakes here, are there?” Our friend Erik: “Not native ones.” ha ha, Erik. Me for the next ten minutes: “Oh! Was that a snake? Aagh! Was that a snake?”), was entirely safe enough for our purposes.

Late in the afternoon, having leaned over our deer cages to water the plants (instead of the infinitely more laborious removing of the deer cages to water the plants) and having recovered from the snake scare, we three humans and our two dogs hopped into the 4-Runner and drove up to the north end of the property, to see about clearing space in the copse. Throughout the afternoon Ian and Erik had been discussing, considering that we didn’t have refrigeration yet, nor ice, the most effective way to cool three of the pounders of Rainier Ale we had stored in the outhouse. Each can in a wet sock, held in a breeze (i.e. from the motion of the car) was deemed to be the most effective way, using the magical powers of evaporation. Ian duly sacrificed three of his socks (the clean ones) to the cause and we bounced slowly away over deceptively lumpy ground and through five-foot-tall grasses, almost running over a young buck that apparently assumed, until the 4-Runner was breathing down his back, that if he just lay still we wouldn’t see him. Well, it’s true, we didn’t. In the nick of time, he leapt up from under our right front bumper and vaulted away over the grass. We pulled up by our pear tree, absolutely laden with pears after the rudimentary pruning we gave it last fall.

As I roamed around marveling at the fruit (a plum tree was also bearing, evidently also due to our bumbling attempts at plant husbandry), Ian managed to sneak into the copse and thus set up my Perfect Moment.

And here is where I’ll, for only the space of a few lines, lapse into full-on travel blogger descriptive language ridiculousness.

When I arrived in the center of the copse, having pushed my way through sun-warmed Vitamin C-and-rose-scented clinging vines, Ian was standing next to our hammock, which he’d smuggled up from Seattle and strung in the dappled shade between two old willow trunks. “Here, sweetie-pie, do you want to try it out?” he asked. Uh, hello! Yes! All thought of heavy labor, of clearing brush and building boulder staircases, fled from my mind.

I climbed into the hammock, lay back, and felt myself—body, mind and soul—ease into bliss, a fear-free bliss I hadn’t felt in a long time. Fresh green leaves trembled in the breeze above my head, irregularly framing a cerulean sky. The temperature was perfect—not a hint of hot nor cold. The hammock, a brightly-colored, tightly-woven one Ian had brought from Brazil three years ago, supported my body completely and gently—no rope mesh digging into my tender flesh. I lay there in a pool of shade in a lambent afternoon, surrounded by love, surrounded by peace, surrounded by quiet land and birdsong, in a bit of nature that I have somehow had the extraordinary good fortune to call my own.

And then someone handed me a—well, if not perfectly chilled, at least somewhat less warm than the afternoon—can of stale Rainier Ale, and my satisfaction was complete.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

And Just Like That . . .

I’m done. Today was supposed to be a long day—my last long day of cancer treatment. I was supposed to be at the clinic from, essentially, 10:30 am to 7:00 pm (with a lunch break, of course). I’ve been going to the clinic for five years now; every week for the first six months, and every three weeks for the past 4 ½ years. That’s a long time. In fact, it’s a longer amount of time than Ian and I have been married. It’s more time than Spackle, our dog, has been alive. It’s more time than I spent in college, almost (but not quite) counting my MA. It’s half a decade. I’ve been in treatment in two decades in my life—my twenties and my thirties. In fact, if you count my first round of cancer treatments, which, to my utter disbelief and bafflement, started in 1999 when I was twenty-six, well then, my time in treatment has spanned two millennia.

And now it’s done. After a fitful night of sleep, I awoke this morning, attempted (badly) the Thursday New York Times crossword puzzle, and then restlessly roamed the house waiting for 10:10 when I could leave to get to my blood drawn. Ian came in at one point and suggested something, I don’t know what, and I lashed out at him, tears in my eyes. “I’m going to be a little snappy today,” I told him unnecessarily.

At 10:30 at the clinic I had an IV poked into my left forearm and blood drawn. An hour later, after Ian had met me in a waiting room, and we’d sat around well, waiting, me with my heart in my throat, the proverbial weight on my chest, making it hard to breathe normally so that I occasionally took a giant conscious breath, I finally got in for my chest CT. As soon as I was done, we rushed off, ignoring the request that I stay around 10 minutes in case I developed a reaction to the radioactive iodine. Well, I had developed a reaction, and it told me to get the hell out of that clinic, at least for a while.

I felt like a bug put in a jar by a benevolent but clueless giant. There were airholes, but all around me I was bumping against invisible barriers between me and the life I wanted to lead, and I’d been in the jar for five years. For the last several weeks my feelings have been an exhausting mixture of euphoria and dread—when I reached the 22nd of June, I’d be set free! But what if that killed me? What if I couldn’t go it alone? But what if I didn’t have the chance to be set free, anyway? Maybe the cancer had come back in the last few months since my last meeting with the doctor. But maybe I’d just be free—free to travel when I wanted to, instead of planning out, months in advance, trips that would fit within my three week grid. Free to rock climb any day I wanted, instead of having to wait 4 days after every infusion until my body expelled the extra saline and my fingers returned to normal size, and didn’t feel like popping when I hauled myself up walls. Free to feel like any other healthy 33-year-old.

At 1:00 pm, Dr Livingston would let me know.

We had an hour to kill, so Ian and I went to lunch, meeting Mom, at a lovely Italian place called Serafina, 3 minutes from the clinic. I think I behaved moderately respectably; I hadn’t been able to eat anything in the morning, but I knew my tenuous hold on my composure would become nonexistent if I met the doctor on an entirely empty stomach, no matter what the news. So I ate, excellent bread and olive oil and salt, ravioli with ricotta and pine nuts, a cup of decaf. A salad. I think my table manners were passable; it’s a nice restaurant and our server (who, albeit, had dreadlocks) never looked at me askance. I probably behaved okay, although I felt, dimly, that I was stuffing bread into my mouth as if I hadn’t had a meal in days.

And then it was time to go, and within minutes we were at the clinic, then I was getting weighed (even in the throws of almost blinding anxiety I was able to joke about taking off my flip flops because they’d add so many significant ounces to the never acceptable total), then they took my blood pressure, my temperature, checked my pulse, and suddenly the doctor was there.

“You look fine,” he said. “Your CT is normal.”

And I burst into tears.

He comforted me, then left while I got undressed for the physical part of the exam; when that was done, we sat around and talked. About birth control (not the Pill; barrier methods). About nutrition (“Your brain needs sugar. Your heart needs sugar.”). About alcohol (“There seems to be legitimate evidence supporting the use of alcohol for heart health”). About the fact that Dr Livingston is leaving, moving to Tucson in August (“You stayed around just long enough to make sure I’d be alright, right?” “Of course I did,” smiling at me).

Finally, he stood up. “Are you accessed?” he asked, wondering if I had an IV in my port.

“No, I’m not,” I said.

“Well, then, you’re free to go home!”

I stared blankly for a minute. “Um . . . I’m not going to get the last infusion?”

“Well, why bother?” he asked. “Of course, you can always go up and say goodbye to the nurses. I’ll send someone up to tell them you won’t be having your infusion.” Then, smiling, he gave me a big hug.

A little dazed, Ian and I made our way up to the fifth floor, where my nurse for the day, who had given me the IV and blood draw in the morning and had waited for hours to give me my last infusion, insisted on flushing my port anyway (I’m going to keep it for the time being; and it needs to be flushed every 4 weeks—but that’s flexible!—to make sure blood clots don’t form), and when she was done and we pulled back our curtain, a choir of nurses flung a pink and silver feather boa around my neck and sang a “You’ve finished chemo!” song that someone wrote. Ian teared up, and I teared up, and then they took pictures of us, and then the song finished and everyone cheered, including the lady in the infusion chair next to me.

And I hugged everyone and walked out with Ian, feeling much the way I did upon arrival in SeaTac last December after the ten hours of trans-Pacific turbulence hell, namely, a sort of grateful—and yes, euphoric—disbelief that I am still alive.

I’m very much looking forward to living the rest of my life outside the jar.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

A Day Out of the Past

I grew up in King County, and from the time I was a toddler, my family had boats. The first was an 18-foot Larson bowrider ski boat that my dad and my uncle bought together. Every summer for a few years, we rented a cabin on Shoal Bay on the north end of Lopez Island, hauled the boat up, and for a month a parade of aunts and uncles and cousins tramped through, clamming, crabbing, and whizzing with us around the 450 or so San Juan Islands.

When I was a little older, maybe nine, we bought a new boat, a 26-foot Fiberform cabin cruiser that “slept five” (or would’ve if we’d all been between the ages of seven and nine like me and Deane. But it did sleep the four of us more or less comfortably). We named it the Rusty Duck, after a restaurant in Edmonds that went out of business soon after (a coincidence I’m sure). The Rusty Duck had, as a tender, an 8-foot Livingston dinghy with the sail package—center board, rudder, and small triangular red, white and blue-striped sail. In a fit of 9-year-old inspiration I suggested calling it the Rusty Duckling (or Deane did?) and it was so baptized.

In 8th or 9th grade, we upgraded again, to the Finnish Maiden (named by the previous owners) a 36-foot aft cab Uniflite which slept, comfortably, six, and had all the accoutrements of luxury—two showers with hot water, flushing toilets (after a fashion), blender, wet bar, and an 11-foot Boston Whaler dinghy , the Flying Viking, Coast Guard approved for a 10-horse outboard, but outfitted with a 35, which gave it enough power to pull a water skier. Yeah, we kids, and our friends Sonja and Erik, and I daresay my dad, and even frequently my mom (when she wasn’t worried about kids capsizing, anchors drifting in the night, and the cost of fuel) were in heaven.

After my father passed away in 1992, we sold the Finnish Maiden and for the last 14 years my trips on private boats have been achingly few and far between.

It’s torture living six blocks from Lake Union, having the skill, the desire, and even, if I were to so choose, the money to own a boat, and not having one. The reason I don’t is that I’m just barely too practical. The 4-Runner could, if necessary, tow a ski boat, but we really have no place to park it. Moorage is possible to secure, but it’s $300 per month on Lake Union, and, frankly, I know I couldn’t possibly use the boat enough to justify that. Larger boats cost more for fuel and moorage and, really, are RVs on the water . . . and I’m only 33. And so, I’m boatless.
But yesterday I was invited to help move a boat—a 32-foot Bayliner—from a yacht brokerage on Lake Union to one in La Conner. A friend of ours is selling it . . . and about six hours in, by the time we were nearing Oak Harbor, I was almost convinced I needed to buy it.

From start to finish it was a true Northwest boating experience, minus any of the trouble like blowers that don’t work, bumpers falling overboard without being tied on or fishing line getting tangled in the props. We went through the Ship Canal, we crowded into the small locks with two other boats and slowly bobbed down to sea level (and much to my relief, the lock operators didn’t yell at me; they were only mildly condescending when I passed the 50-foot bow line under the rail the wrong way, then tangled it up trying to undo my error). We stopped for fuel in Shilshole and I got to jump for the dock, then we stopped for fuel again in Edmonds and again I got to jump for the dock (the pump moving gasoline from the shore to the dock having broken down in Shilshole). We looked at charts to make sure we went between Whidbey and Camano Islands (D: “This is my least favorite stretch of water in Puget Sound.” Me: “Because it looks like suburbia.” D: “You’re right! It’s the 405 of Puget Sound!”) instead of between Camano and the shore—a big, long, inconvenient dead end. It was a little rainy for a while, a little gray, a little sunny. We drove from the fly bridge, and from the cabin. The water was almost calm, no whitecaps, barely even any swells from shipping. We saw a bald eagle and many seals. We drank beer and wine and water, we ate chips and cheese and Pirate’s Booty (for the nautical flavor) and sang along with Dire Straits.

And today, I was back to my tortured, humdrum existence with no boat.

Monday, June 05, 2006

A Toast to Friendship

For twelve years now, since 1994 (with a trip in 1991 that we call “The Pilot”), my college girlfriends and I have been spending Memorial Day Weekend together. The first few years were all on the Oregon coast (we went to Lewis and Clark), and included many people—both boys and girls—besides the core group. The first year we brought—and finished—a keg, and we had to (had to!) buy more beer. Since then, the amount of alcohol intake has gone steadily down (although we still drink more beer than during, say, an average three-day period), and the quality (and quantity I daresay) of food intake has gone exponentially up—including not just chips and salsa and a large pan of lasagna and Tootsie Pops, but gourmet made-from-scratch mac and cheese with greens, grilled salmon and veggies and chicken, breakfast casserole and fruit salad, homemade split pea soup and black bean-rice salad, homemade apple pies and lemon pound cake . . . and the list goes on.

A few years after college, most of us had left Portland and scattered ourselves around the US, so we started scattering our Memorial Day Weekend trips too, and reduced participants to the current seven. We went to New York City a couple times, Las Vegas (no one lives there, but you gotta do it once), Arizona (a mountainy part), Lake Michigan, Point Reyes, Seattle. We have one main rule, namely, everyone has to be able to come. About five years back this meant that we actually celebrated over a weekend in June, but celebrate we did. It just wouldn’t be the same without the seven.

This year we returned to Lincoln City for the first time since 1997, which meant that Laura and I didn’t have to fly anywhere—which, for reasons I’ve gone into before, made me very, very happy. Still, it meant that after six hours of driving from Jerome Creek to Seattle and one hour at home, I had another six hours mostly in the car (traffic traffic) until we reached the Portland airport and met everyone/collected arriving out-of-towners, and it was midnight before I was bedded down on my couch. By the next afternoon when we’d driven another few hours and arrived safely at our beachside rental, I was exhausted.

Part of my exhaustion was, of course, simply the fact of 15 hours of alert travel the day before, but that wasn’t all.

In the past when I’ve taken care of Jerome Creek, it’s been almost exclusively idyllic—in fact, the spare peppering of “incidents”—i.e. a corral rail that needs a nail, a tumble off the side of a horse into soft bushes—make the trip all the more perfect because I’ve been given a few minor ways to practice my problem solving. I’m also usually alone much of the time, so I have plenty of space to recharge my social batteries and putter around writing.

This time, I had only three days alone out of 15; many, many “incidents” cropped up day after day; and I started my country idyll already drained—dear friends have been going through a separation, and it’s been very, very difficult for everyone involved, which of course is not just the couple in question.

So by the time we arrived at our beach house and unpacked the cars, all I could imagine doing was lying down and taking a nap. I don’t sleep easily, however, and I couldn’t sleep then. I lay on my back in the blue and white room, listening to the crash of the waves, tears leaking out of my eyes, thinking over and over about attacked horses, dog fights, divorce, and the end of cancer treatments, trying to calm my mind, trying to get some rest. Finally, I gave up. I can promise to be a safe driver, I thought to myself, but I don’t have the energy to be anything more this year. I got up and wiped my face, went downstairs and curled up in the corner of the couch at the other end from Lee, across from Laura on the other couch.

“How are you, Ducky?” said Lee.

“Okay,” I responded, hugging my knees into my chest. It was all I could say.

“Did you sleep?” asked Laura.

“No, not at all.”

Lee looked at me carefully. “Would you like a backrub?” she asked.

“Oh, yes,” I said, starting to tear up.

“Can I get you a beer?” Laura asked, standing up.

“That would be great.”

And there you have it, folks. I was at the end of my rope, and they saw that, and they didn’t just pull me back in; they came out to get me. I didn’t have to say that I only had the strength left to not commit vehicular homicide; that I couldn’t be counted on to counsel anyone through their current challenges, that I didn’t have the wherewithal to cook a meal, or really even to clean up after one. They knew because they love me.

I didn’t have to say anything at all.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Jerome Creek Wrap-Up

These “last things” entries are always longer than I expect them to be, and this one will be no different, I’m sure. And so, diving in:

Doucely. Doucely, it turns out, was never gone. Well, she may have been gone for a couple days because I definitely went to the loft more than once and didn’t see her, but she returned and it was definitely her. When A. called from Barcelona the day before I left, I cleared up the two main mysteries, namely 1) Doucely is a small, black cat. 2) She has never worn a collar. I have no more information about gray cats or collared cats. I suspect that my own personal memory of petting a collared cat was merely my brain retrofitting Doucely with a collar when circumstances led me to believe she’d had one.

Toby. Toby is fine, and will be ready to ride any day now (in fact, has maybe been ridden already). Shadow has attacked her before in close quarters, long ago. A. very kindly comforted me with a bit of advice from her vet, shared long ago when Shadow had bullied Toby up a bulkhead and scraped all the hair of Toby’s legs—“They are independent creatures, and try as you might, you cannot always control everything they do.” Too true. Oh, too true.

Janet. Janet is fine as well, none the worse for wear from her fall. In fact, the morning after, as she was packing up to go, she kept swinging her arms and saying “I’m euphoric! I can’t believe I was ever scared of accidents! This was great! I can’t wait to tell everyone at co-housing!” And, to answer the obvious question, no, she had not fallen on her head.

Me. I, too, am physically more or less fine. I have an appointment with a body worker next week to work out the remaining spine-crushing (metaphorically speaking of course) kinks from my fall, undoubtedly exacerbated by the 2,000 miles I put on my car in 17 days. That makes me sound crippled and really I’m not.

Until next time . . . I remember something more to write about, that is.

Two experiences which, together, reminded me that my bright ideas don’t always translate into good animal behaviors

The last full day that I was in Idaho, I brought out the three pieces of rawhide I’d been saving up for the three dogs, and distributed them, one to each, which is fair. Of course the dogs all wanted each others rawhide, and the tenuous truce established between Kit and Loper wore to a ragged thread that I, unfortunately, didn’t notice until Kit cornered Loper in Sikem’s stall, which had only one exit, and proceeded to attack him, snarling and screeching and baring his teeth and biting. I threw a horse brush into the fray, which did a total of no good at all, then ran in kicking indiscriminately. I caught Kit in the flank, which surprised him enough to let Loper go, and Loper high-tailed it out of there (actually, Loper, like most dogs, slunk away, tail between his legs. The phrase “high-tailed it” could refer to the local deer, however, who do leap away with their enormous fluffy brush tails pointing straight up). I marched up to Kit and got down in his face and said “NO. You know that’s NOT OKAY,” and he looked up at me defiantly and he growled at me. Boy was I not going to stand for that, not even for an instant. I grabbed him by the collar and marched him to the porch and made him lie on his bed, and I left him in time out for about ten minutes, while I collected the rawhides I could find and put them safely out of reach. The next morning when dogs, people and horses were wandering around outside, I heard a low growl and looked over to see Kit with the rawhide I hadn’t been able to find. I strode over and took it from him—he did not argue—and put it out of reach. The dogs were perfectly fine from then on, even in the car for the six hours until I dropped off Loper.

The evening after my first riding lesson I thought, instead of taking a long ride around the area, I’d bridle Shadow in the pasture and just meander around there a bit, before catching the other horses and bringing everyone down to bed. Knowing that, if I didn’t come up with something more enticing than carrots, she’d just run down the hill and leave me to carry both the halter and the bridle down myself, I put some grain in a small bucket and took that with me up the hill.

First problem—it’s hard to halter one horse when she and two others all have their heads deep in the bucket of grain you’re holding over your arm. Still, I managed to grab Shadow, who knew what I was up to but still couldn’t resist the siren song of that sweet, nutty grain. She was moderately surprised when I quickly picked her hooves, exchanged halter for bridle, and hopped on, but she was willing enough to canter around a bit. Toby eventually flung the empty grain bucket, in a huff, away from her, and she and Sikem drifted back up toward the baby trees where they’d been grazing before I lured Shadow in.

After about 30 minutes I’d had enough and decided to catch Sikem, who I would lead while riding Shadow, trusting Toby to follow. And then I realized, yeah, there wasn’t any grain left. Or carrots, or anything but me, and I know from experience that I’m only interesting when I’m letting the horses out. I rode Shadow down to where I’d left the halter and the bucket, led her over to a pile of logs so I could jump on easier, and made my one good move of the afternoon: I carefully placed the bucket on a tall round of firewood so that, did I manage to collect Sikem, I could then collect the bucket without having to get off the horse.

So, holding Sikem’s halter in one hand and my reins in the other, I rode up the hill. Of course, as soon as I hopped off by Sikem and Toby, they turned away, just barely fast enough that I didn’t stand a chance of catching them. I sighed, jumped back on Shadow, and headed back down the hill, suddenly wondering how I was going to carry bucket and halter and reins and how, in fact, I had meant to lead a horse and carry a bucket and hold my reins, all bareback.

When I reached the bucket, I leaned over and dropped the halter in, then picked up the bucket. I gave an experimental shake—yes, to my ears, the buckles on the halter sounded more or less like grain swirling in the bucket. Maybe this would still work, and I would not find myself trudging back up the hill for the other horses once I’d deposited Shadow in her stall.

Shaking the bucket, I rode Shadow off down the hill toward home. I glanced back hopefully once or twice, but Toby and Sikem continued to graze, unperturbed, ignoring me as I rode away. Ah well. We dropped down out of view and continued along.

Suddenly, I heard a deep, quiet thunder. I turned to look over my shoulder. Nothing. The thunder grew louder, and became clear—galloping hooves. I glanced over my shoulder again, and saw Sikem and Toby cresting the hill, running flat out after me. Shadow tensed up, flicked an ear at me can I run too? I kept my seat loose, calm, and tapped the reins. No, not right now. Not with the bucket!. Sikem pulled abreast of us and slowed down to a wiggly trot, and immediately tried to stick his head in the bucket. Of course he did, because he thought it was full of grain. Shadow danced around, I gripped with my legs and shooed Sikem away, and eventually made it to the corrals without further incident, and Sikem and Toby didn’t race back up the hill and were easy to catch.

Which, I agree, makes for a rather mundane ending to a story, but with all the other drama going on, I was happy to be able to learn a lesson—i.e. think things through from the horse perspective if you intend to include horses in your plans—without danger to life, limb, or liberty (mine, that is).