Bonnie and Heather. In Rehab.

Since the last post, my vacation in Milwaukee ended and I went home. A week later my sister flew to Austria to accompany me for the first half of my three weeks in an oncological rehabilitation center – a place we affectionately refer to as “the Gulag” and where we have continued to have profound conversations that set off eruptions of giggles for two hours afterwards. (I say two hours, but I just had another one while writing this and it has been two days.) Anyway, here’s the latest one.

So, we are sitting on a bench in front of the center looking up at it, when Bonnie asks:

“What do you suppose the meaning of that logo is?”

“Pff. I don’t know. Maybe ‘Make a wish’?”

“Or maybe ‘He loves me’.

“Or . . . ‘You’ve got a one in eight chance.’

Bonnie and Heather. Reunited.

I just finished the online check-in for my trip to the States. Not the flight over, but the flight home already. It was the first time I even took my laptop out of its case, so I am really glad I lugged the heavy thing all the way across the Atlantic.

A lot of the things we had tentatively planned never got done. I didn’t have a cheeseburger or go to the Streets of Old Milwaukee at the public museum. I didn’t do a lot of shopping or go to the beach. I didn’t restart and begin catching up on my blog.

What I did do was a lot walking with the sister having meaningful conversations such as this:

Her: “I’m glad I have a strong name – did you know Dad wanted to name me “Bonnie”?”

Me: “And Mom wanted to name me Heather!”

Her: “Thought experiment: do you think we would have grown up to be different people if we had had those names?”

Me: “I don’t know. We’d probably be having a different conversation right now. I’d be telling you how I suspected my husband of having an affair with his secretary.”

Her: “And I’d be telling you how much I loved that last romance novel you gave me.”

As usual, we both laughed much too long after this little nugget. It was such a treat to spend three weeks with the person who laughs at all my jokes and knows me best. The perfect therapy.

I will probably be filling out the story of this American vacation in upcoming posts, but for now I am only including the single most important part of the past three weeks:

bonnie and heather

Feuersbrunst

It happened! I got my first blog request! A friend wasn’t satisfied by my second last post’s cryptic allusions to the fire in our house. She wants the whole story.

Who am I to deny one of my 15 loyal readers? So here we go.

Two days before I went in for Chemo 3 – I was resting on the couch in our first-floor guest room. The husband told me he was going running and left the house. A while later I was shaken out of my reverie by a god-awful smell that I couldn’t identify. My first thought was that maybe hubby had come home and was working with some chemical like paint remover in his basement workroom. When I got to the stairwell, I realized the stink was coming from above, so my second thought was the sauna in the upstairs bathroom – which the husband usually turns on before he goes running.

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Sure enough. I went up and opened the bathroom door only to see two walls in flames from floor to ceiling. The sauna wall was burning. So were the wooden cabinet, the towels, the curtains, and a bunch of mostly plastic containers with shampoo, shower gels, sauna oils, toothpaste, creams, and cat food. I guess that explains why the smell first seemed more chemical than fire-like. I slammed the door shut.

What does a person do in this situation? I ran back downstairs, found my cell and dialed for emergency help, but unfortunately, Austria has three different numbers for medical emergencies, fire and police. Was it 122, 133, or 144? I tried to remember the little rhyme we used at school with the young kids and got it totally wrong. I’d love to hear a recording of my talk with the ambulance guy. I only clearly remember telling him “Yes It’s burning! It’s burning!”. Luckily the three emergency numbers are all connected and so the message was passed on.

While talking on the phone, I made my way to the basement to get the fire extinguisher. I can’t say whether distraction or panic made me walk right past it – within a few inches and with it practically being on display, all alone there in the corner of the hallway, where it has been for the past 20 years. Instead, I looked around our messy workroom until my thinking cleared up and I looked again in the hallway. There it was! Like magic!

On my way back upstairs, I wondered how to use a fire extinguisher, having never done it before. All I knew was that there was a pin to pull first – like on a hand grenade. I stopped at the first floor to lock Dog Four outside on the screen porch because the smell was so noxious, and then went upstairs. All the electricity was out up there so I had to feel for the the pin in the dark and pull it out. I opened the bathroom door for a second time and as a big cloud of black smoke washed over me, I grabbed the tube, aimed, and squeezed the trigger.

Whoosh, woosh, woosh, woosh, woosh. In about five seconds, there were no more flames to be seen. I could hardly believe how well it worked! But I also realized then that I was in danger of smoke inhalation, so I closed the door, left the extinguisher standing there, opened up a bunch of windows and ran back downstairs to the porch. I took a bunch of deep breaths of fresh air. Then, very intelligently, I had a cigarette.

What now? The firemen hadn’t arrived and there were no approaching sirens to be heard. So I decided to go up one more time and check if the fire was really out, first wrapping a towel around my face. Opening the door for the third time, there were still no flames, but an even bigger black cloud flew past me. This time I heard water running and very briefly considered how to turn it off. But I knew I didn’t have time to go groping around for . . . that little wheely thing that shuts of the water supply. (Does that thing have a name? Neither the husband nor I can think of one in either German or English.)

I kept holding my breath and bolted again. According to my cell phone log, I then called the husband. Something I don’t remember at all, but he tells me his cell was ringing when he got back from his run and saw the black smoke coming out of the bathroom window. From that same log, I know that just eight minutes had passed since my emergency call and so maybe nine since my first seeing the flames. Nine minutes that now seem like a flash in the pan or a lifetime. I can’t decide which.

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The husband immediately went up to try and turn off the water and at the same time, the fire trucks started coming – four of them! one from each of the four surrounding villages – plus police and ambulance and emergency doctor and fire inspector and sundry other vehicles – at least ten in all. After four months of letting NO ONE in the house without a Covid test, about 20 firemen and women traipsed in, only to find a fire that was already out. They managed to shut off the water and monitored the site. They ripped out some of the wall and ceiling, checking the roof beams and for any ember nests. They took our statements and then two EMT’s took me to the parked ambulance to check for smoke inhalation. At first they figured I would have to go with them to the clinic for a few hours of observation, but I guess I convinced them I was feeling fine. Maybe it was when I happily exclaimed with excitement “Hey! I have never been inside an ambulance before! This is cool!”

So those are the events as best we can remember. Now to the weird stuff:

  • My husband told me I was awesome – twice! And in front of witnesses!
  • Just two days earlier, in a zoom conversation with two dear high school friends, I admitted that – after covid and cancer – yes, I did sometimes ask the cosmos what it had in store for me next. Now I know – it planned to set my house on fire.
  • I learned in the aftermath that the real damage doesn`t necessarily come from the fire, but from the smoke, water and soot that follow. The representative of a professional cleaning and repairing company estimated that we would have to renovate the entire second floor, along with repainting the bathroom, WC and guestroom on the first. They figured it would all come to about $40,000. Included in that estimate were new floors and roof windows. And a deep-cleaning team would come in to deal with the soot. Part of their work would be to take ALL of our clothes for special laundering as well as all of our books, games and DVDs which were packed up and carted off. We will get them all back next week, free of soot and smoke stink.
  • I had made myself a long list of house projects that would keep me busy during my first year of retirement. bty Over the five weeks after the fire, I watched a team of professionals – cleaners, floorers, window installers, plumber, carpenters, electrician and painters – come in and tick off my projects one after another at an amazing tempo. All we had to do was schlepp furniture and our masses of junk from one room to another to clear the way for them. As I followed their progress, I felt almost excited – I caught myself giggling on the inside about how great this all was. All I had really lost was some toiletries and twenty-year-old bath towels, and here I was getting practically a whole new house. And someone else was paying for it all! I joked to people that “if I had known this would happen, I would have torched the bathroom myself!” But then I started to think that I should stop saying that when . . .
  • . . . the household insurance took its sweet time in officially declaring their coverage of the repairs. We had gotten winks and nods and partial okays, but nothing in writing. Then rumors started that our case had been “randomly chosen” for investigation of insurance fraud. We joked that maybe our house was bugged and started having loud, badly delivered and canned conversations about how traumatic and scary the fire was, how lucky we were that it wasn’t worse, how weird it was that an appliance we used almost every day would suddenly go up in flames like that Who would have ever thought . . .?!
  • After 6 weeks of this, we finally got the written confirmation of coverage. And then, yesterday, these letters arrived from the Austrian Ministry of Justice, Criminal Division, addressed to the husband and me separately. It took me a nervous while to decipher the German legalese, but the upshot was this: they were informing us that the investigation of negligent arson . . . not by us two, but by “unknown perpetrators” was being closed. In other words, we weren’t personally charged with anything and those charges were being dropped anyway. A classic Austrian solution to a sticky situation: “No problem! Problem solved!” While reading this letter, I also added a new word to my German vocabulary when they wrote that there was no “Feuersbrunst”. I think they just meant a large fire, but the archaic meaning of “Brunst” has to do with the increased and audibly noticeable excitement in the animal kingdom that comes in the spring. So I first translated this term as “fire horniness” or maybe the less crude “fire giddiness”. It is somehow fitting because . . .
  • . . . my own reactions to this whole experience have been downright bizarre. It is not unusual for me to shut off all emotion during a critical event or moment of crisis, but normally, they come out slowly after the fact in fits and spurts. In this case . . . nope, nothing there. Most of my memories bring no feelings of trauma or panic, but something more like bemusement. I remember using the fire extinguisher as being sort of cool. Made me feel like Rambo. Instead of feeling loss, I keep smiling about all the refurbishing going on in my house. I love redecorating and I get to do just the fun parts, with all the yucky work and heavy lifting being done by someone else. I wonder at the sheer size of the silver lining of this minor, non-disastrous close call. And let’s face it: compared to cancer, this was all just a tiny bump in the road, not to mention an almost welcome distraction from the chemo.

So, in the end, if I had to describe my feelings about this entire event in one word, it would have to be “fire-giddy”.

And I’m very glad that the insurance company and Justice Ministry don’t know this.

On Bodies

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While surfing around for something to watch, I checked out Ted Talks. I clicked on “25 Most Popular” and was surprised to see the 15-year-old talk by Sir Ken Robinson still at the top of the list. I loved that talk from the first time (of many, many times) I listened to it. There was one part – and not a really central one – that has stuck with me for some reason. Robinson asserts that “the purpose of the education system is to produce university professors” and then goes off a bit sideways on that group . . . one that I belonged to more than any other at that time.

And I like university professors, but, you know, we shouldn’t hold them up as the high-water mark of all human achievement. They’re just a form of life. Another form of life. But they’re rather curious. And I say this out of affection for them: there’s something curious about professors. In my experience — not all of them, but typically — they live in their heads. They live up there and slightly to one side. They’re disembodied, you know, in a kind of literal way. They look upon their body as a form of transport for their heads. (Laughter) Don’t they? It’s a way of getting their head to meetings. (Laughter) If you want real evidence of out-of-body experiences, by the way, get yourself along to a residential conference of senior academics and pop into the discotheque on the final night. (Laughter) And there, you will see it. Grown men and women writhing uncontrollably, off the beat. (Laughter) Waiting until it ends, so they can go home and write a paper about it.

This section of the talk struck me so deeply because – except for the bad dancing part – I completely recognized my own relationship to my body. I lived mostly in my head, taking my body for granted and ignoring it as much as possible. It was basically just my head’s means of transport. I needed it to get my mind back and forth to work, to get my dog walked around the cornfield every day and to take my mind and heart on travels to different places. If my body ever needed my attention for some reason, it had to yell pretty loudly before I would listen.

And yell loudly it did last December.

One major change that has come from dealing with serious illness is that it has forced a realignment in the relationship between my body and mind. I have had to focus on my health and learn about every organ and system inside me. At the same time, I unavoidably and unfortunately discovered something else:

The human body is revolting.

Seriously, the body seems to have a hundred ways to shed and spread little pieces of itself all day long and every day. To continually eject its detritus out into the world in various forms.

Put aside the Big Five (Blood, Sweat & Tears, Number One and Number Two) and it turns out there are all these other ways for the body to get rid of stuff – from dandruff, to ear wax, to eye gunk. There are boogers and snot – sometimes aerosolized by sneezes. There is spit and drool and phlegm coughed up from the lungs. There are scabs and puss. There is burping and farting. There are secretions, menstruation, ejaculation, regurgitation. Hundreds of hairs and thousands (millions?) of skin particles departing every day. There are fingernail cuttings and callous scrapings. There is toe jam.

It is uncharacteristic of me to even talk about such gross things, much less write about them. In fact, words like “booger” in the paragraph above are probably making their debuts on this blog. I’m quite sure that “ejaculation” is.  But almost all of these bodily expulsions have become issues at one point or the other in the past three months. And with dignity being one of the first casualties of a cancer diagnosis, they have become topics of open conversation in my household. (It reminds me of our first days with Mitzi when we could spend hours discussing with fascination the changing color, volume, form, and consistency of her poop.) I haven’t been able to just ignore it all. And I sooooo want to. I want to get back to my more professorially distanced relationship to my body. But I am not sure that is possible.

In a therapy session I heard the theory that cancer patients see their lives as split into two – the Before and After Times, so to speak, separated by the day of the original discovery and preliminary diagnosis. I have been chewing on that nugget ever since. I have met cancer survivors who have called their tumors “a gift” because they were propelled into a whole new set of priorities and attitudes that changed their lives for the better somehow. My problem is that my Before Times Life was a pretty great one and not particularly in need of big changes. I don’t want to let it go – or to let go of the hope that I can get back to it someday.

And then there is my Trek* blog – a weird eclectic mix of memoir, reflection, musings, travel experiences, moments in parenting and teaching, silly daily life stuff, and the occasional rant about politics or religion. And chickens, of course. Goats sometimes too. The thing is – I like it the way it is. I don’t want it to turn into Cancer Blog. I don’t want to keep polluting it (like I have done here) with talk of disease and detritus, littering and splattering it with all the little undignified turds of the cancer experience.

So even though I have been writing and writing and writing, I haven’t been doing much posting. And I miss it! I need a solution. One where I can keep this Trek* the way it is and still share my cancer story with those who may be interested in that.

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So here is my little announcement . . .

I just set up a separate page where I will post all of the health-related stuff and where I will tell my whole cancer story from the beginning, one chapter at a time. You can get to that by clicking on “Let Loose the Kraken” up in the menu line. (I’m still working out the technical side, so expect some hiccups.) You can also get to it by clicking on this link:

https://circumstance227.wordpress.com/let-loose-the-kraken/

You can also ignore the page altogether, which, believe me, I will understand. Especially after this post, which gives you a little taste of what to expect there. It’s not all pretty.

Fifty-nine

My birthday was almost two weeks ago, but keeping with the procrastination subtext of this blog, I am just getting to the subject now. Each year I do a little birthday post in which I take stock of the state of my life. This year was a doozy.

I began almost three years ago to prepare for my impending retirement – originally slated for September 2021. I wanted to make sure that I didn’t fall into a confused funk, unable to enjoy filling out each day with whatever projects struck my fancy at that particular moment. I didn’t think I would do well with structureless time or the end of gaining new insights and stories through work. I started a mental list of retirement projects – new things to try out or tackle once I finally had the time for them.

It turns out all that worry was unnecessary. The list of “new experiences” I’ve had in just the past three months is already long. I was on an operating table for the first time and was “put under”. I got my first incision and scar. I spent my first night in a hospital. I had to use a diaper for the first time since potty training and smoked pot for the first time since high school. I had my daughter cut my hair off – the shortest it has ever been. I dialled the Austrian version of 911 for the first time in my life and then used a fire extinguisher to put out a wall of flames in my upstairs bathroom. I sat in an ambulance while they checked me for smoke inhalation. I had my first therapy session with a psychologist. I realized suddenly that I am already retired, and so far, it has not been at all what I expected.

Before you all start envying me, let me add that I also had two Christmases this year. With so many people worried about me, with all the packages and flowers showing up at the door, with all the cards and letters and messages and calls and wishes and presents, I got overwhelmed by it all. I experienced a new insight that I am surrounded and blessed by so many friends and family members who made an extra point of expressing their love and concern this year. I felt the warm wave of their support buoying me through these hard times. It keeps me going. It makes me wonder, not with trepidation, but with hopefulness and determination, what I will be writing in next year’s birthday post titled “Sixty”.

 

Founding Fathers 2.0

“C! Come here quick! You gotta see this!”

It was my husband yelling out to me from the kitchen and, of course, I immediately came. That was how my own personal experience of January 6th, 2021 began. I stared at the images on the TV screen in confusion for a while as my husband filled me in on whatever sketchy information he knew. After a long silence, the first thought popped out of my mouth.

“This is going to backfire.”

Over the next few days, like most Americans, I assume, I underestimated the seriousness and violence of the event. The fact that the Congresspeople were able to reconvene and finish their business gave me a false impression of what they had all just gone through. More videos began to emerge with some of them including almost comical elements. In particular, the scene of some rioters entering the Senate chamber included this little gem when you can hear one of them saying:

“While we’re here we might as well set up a government.”

I confess, I laughed out loud. So much that I had to wipe my eyes and blow my nose. I allowed my imagination to embark on an absurd whimsical journey. I pictured these clowns attempting to hammer out the finer points of their new constitution on the fly, while their maskless moron compatriots in other parts of the building were sharing helpful clues for the FBI and evidence for their future criminal trials to social media. I imagined these drafters of America 2.0 pulling it off and how someday, far off into the future, history books would replace that stuffy old painting of men in their silly wigs with this image of our new Founding Fathers:

The World’s Greatest Deliberative Body

While watching those first videos, I discovered something else within the swirl of my emotions. What was it about this crowd that disturbed me most? It was not their rage or frustration, their willingness to commit acts of violence or their bent for conspiracy theories. It was the fact that they all seem so . . . DUMB. Anyone can fall prey to extreme emotions or manipulation at times in their lives. Those are universal human weaknesses. But something can always be done about dumb.

Now, after watching the first two days of the Impeachment Managers’ presentation, laughter is no longer possible. They have been doing their very best to provide some education, but it is not clear that the walls of the Capitol breaching brains are penetrable. I can imagine that as these people watch the very same, very disturbing videos, their reactions are the polar opposite of my own: where I feel sadness, they feel exhilaration, my fears are their empowerment, my humiliation is their pride.

Letter to 2020

Based on all the videos and memes being bounced around the internet, all the cards and Christmas letters and text messages I have gotten, there seems to be an absolutely universal agreement that the year 2020 was the worst. thing. ever. and can only be despised. “Good Riddance!” is attitude of the whole world. I was on that wavelength, too, beginning my own Christmas New Year`s letter with a note to 2020 that no one will miss it (except maybe that one guy, whom no one will miss either).

But then something happened.

On the very last day of the year, December 31st, 2020, I got some very good news. I’m talking life-changing news. Suddenly, my heart began to soften. I started feeling sorry for the year. I mean, Coronavirus is not 2020’s fault! The pwesident was not 2020’s fault – in fact it was the year we got rid of him! It was time break with the herd and find something nice to say. I added an epilogue to my letter:

 Dear 2020,

As much as you sucked, you WERE a year of spectacular sunsets. I still won’t miss you, but I am thankful that you – in contrast to that other guy – clearly know how to make a beautiful exit.

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The Ghost of Christmas Present

I am late in sending out my customary blogworld Christmas greetings this year due to an unexpected family emergency. Gingerbread Man (of “My Velveteen Rabbit” fame) had to go to the hospital.

One week beforehand a problem had been discovered and all thoughts of work or Christmas preparations or Covid lockdowns dissipated. The focus turned entirely to health issues.

Last Wednesday, Gingerbread Man arrived at the clinic and was admitted. A whirlwind ensued. Two procedures were done on Thursday and Friday, the doped-up recovery began on Saturday. On Sunday, he was already allowed to go home – with a list of medications and a little less stuffing.  He’s a bit blurry about the whole experience but remembers A LOT of needles and that the food there really sucked.

The early release was lucky, because it gave us all enough time to do any neglected preparations and pull off – somewhat contrary to earlier expectations – a wonderful Christmas Eve.

I’m happy to be able to tell you that Gingerbread Man is feeling a little better each day. He spends a lot of his time now in the new recliner with his new electric blanket. Here he is,  staring at the Christmas tree lights, basking in nice memories and hopeful feelings for the future.

Pride Goeth

It was a Saturday three weeks ago, when I finally reserved the whole afternoon to start catching up on blog reading. I started, of course, with Ly and was horrified to discover that I had to scroll all the way back to early September to find where I had left off. (Yes, I am a terrible friend.) I spent an enjoyable few hours until being interrupted by a press conference. All schools were closing till the second week of December. I switched immediately into work mode and basically stayed there till . . . well . . . till yesterday. My cushy, reduced-to-two-days work week, now extended to seven days. For non-educators out there, I can tell you that distance-teaching is about three times as time intensive. It is also relentless and exhausting.

So, everyone was happy to hear that the schools were reopening next week. To celebrate our final online English lesson, I made a special quiz game for my class that they seemed to really enjoy. After gathering on the learning platform, all the kids turned on the “Chat” function. I asked a question and they all typed in their answers as quickly as they could. I awarded points to the first three correct ones. Minor spelling mistakes were allowed.

For the final question in the quiz, I decided to ask something really simple. I said, “Question Number 20. Ready? What is today’s date?”  The answers started rolling in:

After the first 10 or so tries, the shock and horror began bubbling up inside of me. I started giving them little tips about ordinal numbers and capitalization. They kept trying.

At this point I was holding my head in my hands. Tiny whimpering noises were escaping from me. Finally, one girl wrote an answer that I could technically accept. I ended the response period and typed in a few possible correct variations. Two more guesses straggled in as I was doing so.

After 39 years of teaching English, my memory houses a fairly large collection of meaningful moments, nice memories, special experiences, highlights . . .

December 3rd, 2020 will not be one of them.

Confessions of an Incompetent IT Administrator

It is Friday the 13th the 2nd in the 2020. Somehow, I don’t think those numbers can possibly portend anything good. The first lockdown in this country began on a Friday the 13th in March – a date I will never forget – and lasted into May. Summer was pretty chill but in Fall, signs started popping up that the predicted second wave was coming. After foolishly bragging just two weeks ago on this blog that I was in the only green spot on Austria’s Covid Map, things here immediately exploded, and we are now considered a hotspot. I fully expect that a new lockdown will be decided on today, Friday, November 13th, and that it may very well include the country-wide switch to distance learning for all age groups.

Good thing our Hummingbird School has a crack IT team (me) and a nearly functioning virtual learning platform almost set up with nearly all the kids now registered on it and a teaching team who have agreed to find time to learn how to use it – eventually.

I had been banging on this particular drum – our school’s need to have a functioning learning platform ready in case of closure – since the very beginning of the year. Being generally considered the most computer-savvy member of the team (which, believe me, says nothing good about our collective skills), I suddenly found myself in the unofficial/official role of “IT Designee”. I sighed for a week and then got down to work.

The team agreed to using the free platform provided by the Ministry of Education and the core set of teachers all registered. I learned my way around the program and then wrote up simple step-by-step instructions for the parents to register their kids (a ten-minute activity) and presented it to them at our kick-off weekend. I impressed upon them our need for their cooperation. From the serious nodding in the audience, I figured we would have all the kids signed up by early October.

Here’s what I know now that I didn’t realize then:

  1. Most parents don’t read their emails.
  2. Many parents who read their emails don’t understand them.
  3. When parents don’t read or understand an email, they simply delete or forget about it.
  4. Of those who actually reacted to the emails, many had difficulty following simple instructions.
  5. Of those who succeeded in signing their kids up, a significant percentage could not log in again later because:
    • they couldn’t find the website again
    • they had registered themselves instead of their kids
    • they typed in the wrong username
    • they forgot their password

The upshot of my experiences over the past three months as IT Administrator is that I am having serious doubts about the . . . “thoughtfulness” . . . of mankind in general. I continually regather my patience as I individually talk someone through the process, explain to them where their problem lies, or send out the fifth or sixth reminder to someone. I sigh a lot.

In hindsight, I think it would have saved me a lot of time and nerves if I had just registered and signed in all 38 kids myself (although, I am not sure if this would have been possible, technically speaking.) Whatever.

It’s now Saturday the 14th and a press conference is scheduled for 5:00 pm, when government officials will announce yesterday’s decisions. Serious media outlets have already reported that all schools will be closing, but other in-the-know people say it is not true. In any case, that gives me about 9 more hours to get the last two stragglers on board before we (potentially) launch. I should probably drop the patient approach and try some good old-fashioned harassing.

Sigh.