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May 29, 2007

Notes from California

I woke with a start at 5:30, thanks to mild jet lag.  My mind was immediately flooded with thoughts of yesterday: the waiting, the difficulty of seeing my father right out of surgery, awake and in so much pain. The wave of relief upon seeing him a few hours later, sitting up and talking to us, the pain more manageable. This makes the ups and downs of my day-to-day parenting seem like a walk in the park.  When I turned over in my parents' guest room bed, I was facing my father's desk. His Starbucks tea cup stood to the right of his computer where he had placed it Tuesday afternoon.

I remember when he walked into the house that afternoon, fresh from the hair salon where he'd gotten his pre-surgery crew cut. I hadn't seen him since we were here with the kids at Christmas, not a glimpse of him through his chemotherapy and radiation treatments or during his hospitalization for heart issues, and wasn't sure what to expect. He looked terrific: fit and healthy. However, he was uncharacteristically quiet, having been through his pre-op appointment that morning.  I supposed that the step-by-step description of the surgery would have been harder to handle the day before surgery was to take place than it had been months earlier. I tried not to look at that Starbucks cup because to me it was fraught with meaning. I could imagine him stopping in for some chai, knowing that in less than 24 hours he would be recovering from surgery at Stanford Medical Center and unable to eat or drink for the next five days. And his favorite chai might not be on the menu for quite some time. I can't bring myself to throw out that cup.

7:30 AM found me heading out my parents' front door into a sunny California morning. I popped in my iPod headphones, scrolling down to find Andrew Bird's Armchair Apocrypha as I walked down the path in my shorts, t-shirt, and running shoes. I love this new album and in particular the second track "Imitosis", which I listened to twice.

I lived in the Bay Area for 9 years and have only been in Chicago for 11 months. And yet the vegetation - the eucalyptus and palm trees, the flowers, even the ground cover - already looks as foreign to me as it did when I first arrived here in 1997. The plants and trees of Chicago more closely resemble those of my childhood and early adulthood in New England and Minnesota. But the scent of the air here: it's herbal. It smells like nowhere else and reminded me this morning of so many hikes in the Marin Headlands and Glen Park Canyon, of this place that was home for a long, long while.

As I made my way along the wide street up here in the hills of San Carlos, I looked at the stunning view of the Bay and thought about things. I was considering this idea of the Wonderwheel, or Ferris Wheel, as a metaphor for life, and how it captures the never-ending ups and downs but doesn't account for those moments in life when the universe plucks you out of your gracefully rising or falling seat and drops you onto that other ride, the one that I literally cannot stomach: the roller coaster. You know, when life is on cruise control until the phone rings with bad news or the doctor gives you a shocking diagnosis. Like cancer of the esophagus. And suddenly the floor gives out beneath you and you are on a ride, a faster, more aggressive, sometimes panicky ride where the highs and lows are so much higher and lower and also come rapidly, leaving you feeling out of control.

I have watched as friends and family have each handled my father's cancer in their own ways. Most of us have dealt with it without having to get on the roller coaster, at least not for more than a few hours or a day here and there, and I'd say that even my father himself has managed to stay off the roller coaster a good bit of the time. On Tuesday evening I felt that I was seeing him on the roller coaster car, starting to make its way to the top of the rise - you know, where you can already start to feel your stomach lurch in fear before the drop - and yet he appeared to command the inner strength to find his center again, stand up, and demand that the ride be stopped. He was plucked off and placed back on the Wonderwheel where he calmly rode down, all the way down to its lowest point, knowing that once he got there, he had nowhere to go but up.

For the sake of my children, may I handle the roller coaster rides of my future with such grace.
(Modified from the original post at The Wonderwheel.)


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