Death, chemo, and puppy shopping. (by JD . . . What? God, sorry people!)

Written by John.

Nina had her first round of Chemo Part Deux today. It went pretty much as planned. Except before treatment she made sure to ask her doctor if it was OK to go ahead with chemo, because her mother just died a little over a week ago and her husband and both children have come down with hand, foot, and mouth disease.

Maybe I should back that up a little: Nina’s mom, Janet Riggs, died in the middle of the night/morning of August 21. It was the end of a long (almost 9 year) battle with multiple myeloma. She died pretty much on her terms, though,and she was surrounded by family when she died. We held a service last Thursday in Greensboro and we’ll do another for more remote family and friends in Massachusetts this coming Sunday. We all knew it was imminent, but that did not make it one bit easier.

The thing is, having laid her mother to rest, there was literally no rest in store for Nina, because her doctor (have we mentioned that we ALWAYS listen to this doctor?) did indeed think it was a good idea to go ahead with treatment. Much to my chagrin, I wasn’t able to go with Nina this time because of the aforementioned pestilence: both kids and I were home from school/work. So Nina was going it very, very alone. Without her mom for the first time, without a functional husbandesque figure at chemo.

But, tough New England cookie that she is, of course everything went fine.The new chemo drug is heavier duty in terms of the nausea and so they gave her Ativan, along with the other anti-nausea drugs. And she prescribed herself part of a beer when she got home. So she’s sleeping SOUNDLY right now. And won’t get to proofread this. Heh, heh, heh…

Nina’s dad Pete and her brother Charlie picked her up from Duke so she would not have to ride the Ati-Van home. Ha! Get it? Anyhow, point is she got home safely thanks to them.

What I managed to do in Nina’s absence today was mostly look online at adoptable rescue dogs. I know you’re supposed to focus on one breed,so you can say they match your personality and get those cute decals for your car and whatnot, but I just like ALL the rescue organizations. So I may or may not be in the process of adopting and Australian Cattle Dog, Boxer, German Shepherd, Lab, or other sort of mutt in need of a home. We thought in the wake of death and disorder, it might be good to add some vivaciousness and disorder to our lives. Plus Ellie needs a younger sibling. We’ll keep you posted on that, too, as things develop.

Speaking of updates, Nina wanted me to say sorry she has been so long absent from updating this. She’s just been overwhelmed with her mom’s illness, her passing, the funeral, etc. We’ve had lots to think (and write)about, including the legions of people who have been helpful and supportive through all the sundry cancer woes. So thanks to all of you. And hopefully Nina will return to her updating soon and things will return to the level of quality writing you all have come to expect around here.

The nearsighted hunters.

In the Massachusetts town where I was a kid there is a picturesque polo and hunt club called Myopia.

The place had nothing to do with my life—we didn’t really ride, even though my dad’s family was “horsey,” and we definitely didn’t hunt. But I remember driving by the discreet sign and long mysterious drive along Rt. 1A with some regularity and my decidedly un-horsey mother often unable to stop herself from tittering over the name.

“A la-ti-da club called Myopia!” she would snark, “It doesn’t get any better than that!”

My mom worked for years as a medical transcriptionist and she always knew all the good medical terms: fistula, ketoacidosis, decompensating, myocardial infarction. I vaguely understood the eccentric discontinuity of a fox hunting club named after the condition of being near-sighted, but I didn’t really get the bigger social class implications of not seeing the forest for the trees until decades later.

A couple weeks ago, as John and the kids and I drove north to seize the opportunity of a few days of vacation on the Cape before chemo starts up again at the end of this month, I was overwhelmed thinking about how easy it is to fall into the traps of myopia, to become the nearsighted hunter.

For weeks and months I have watched my mom’s health decline. We trundle back and forth to Duke and spend long hours awaiting lab work and blood transfusions, we adjust schedules, we administer water and pills, we greet hospice nurses, we sit at the bedside, we confer in the hallway outside her room, we wait.

For my dad, this is an ongoing 24-hour cycle; for me it is one of my several day jobs. For the last month my brother Charlie and his wife Amelia have been here, too—problem solving, tending, comforting—helping around the clock.

It’s very easy to become near-sighted about the whole thing, to lose the ability to take stock of what all these efforts are about and what they portend. Our most animated conversations are around the topic of toothbrush alternatives and the log of opiates. Sometimes I genuinely forget what “problem” we are solving.

It wasn’t until getting a couple hours outside of Greensboro, cruising up through the Shenandoah Valley, that I was struck by what this flurry of nonstop activity has all been about, what enormous stillness awaits us at the end of it, whenever that is. In the last year, I have been envious of Charlie’s easier access to his emotions around it. Mine feel stilted and unpredictable. Of course, as soon as Charlie got here and starting living it fulltime, I saw some myopia kick in for him too—we are all consumed by it. But driving north, just one state away from it all, I was suddenly filled with easy tears and grief.

About a month ago, I read The Death of Ivan Ilyich. At the same time, Charlie read it aloud to our mom, who at that point was cognizant enough to absorb parts—if not all—of it.

“Well, one thing I know is that definitely won’t be me,” Charlie reported that she said of Ivan Ilyich’s brutal penultimate moments raging against the perceived darkness, drowning in the disbelief of life’s finitude.

Charlie and I wondered about this. I mean, at one level, of course she’s right: she’s the opposite of Ivan Ilyich. Her life’s work has been looking straight at things—including death—and calling a spade a spade. And she’s lived with coming to terms with a terminal illness for nearly nine years.

Still: “Do you find it unsettling that mom hasn’t had more violent reactions to all of this?” Charlie texted me shortly after her decision to stop treatment. We had both recently seen the movie After the Wedding, where one of the main characters—faced with a brutal diagnosis—completely loses it, sobbing and thrashing dramatically about on the floor. “Not that I wish she was, obviously, just that I’m a little suspicious of her serenity about it all,” he wrote.

“I know!” I wrote back, “Sometimes I think she’s more of a Yankee than Dad.”

Of course, that’s not really true. I’ve been reading the collected stories of John Cheever all summer, and I’m pretty sure a real Yankee would never snigger at the longstanding name of a prestigious hunting club. But she has a kind of emotional toughness to her that I find pretty remarkable. She embodies some of that stoicism that Montaigne admired so much—not repression but a kind of fearless acceptance.

So far, her deathbed has been a scene out of a Victorian utopia—we sit vigil, we say all the toughest things, we laugh, grandchildren squabble in a distant room, sunlight sneaks in through the drawn blinds casting odd patterns on the wood floor. She sees visions—whispy entities whirling around her, the Pope squatting perilously on the curtain in the corner, the lilies on the mantle turning inside out to reveal their beautiful innards. She has an aura of incredible peacefulness and grace, despite her obvious discomfort. She has moments of great clarity. She still has her sense of humor.

I am writing this from a chair near her bedside. Just now she woke up when a spirited Gershwin piece came on the radio. “I know this song—it’s from my childhood,” she said. “It is the music of a man and a woman arguing.” Then she slipped back into sleep.

But, who among us is NOT Ivan Ilyich–absolutely creamed at times by all the missteps we have taken, stunned by where these steps have led us? Surely there must be some wild stocktaking that is still to come for her? Or is that just the work of those who love her now—to loosen our hot pursuit of the fox, to pull in the reins and admire the peacefulness of the forest, to be aimless in it, to stop and look up and notice the way the light filters down through the canopy.

I googled the Myopia Hunt Club a few days ago to try to figure out what their deal was. Was I misremembering the name? Who are these fox hunters with poor vision? It turns out it was founded in 1882 by one of my forebearers on my dad’s side, John Murray Forbes. And I was not misremembering: the original club was named for four brothers, the club’s original members, who were all plagued by nearsightedness. Maybe the old Yankees were having a bit of a laugh after all.