Miracles

Many years ago, A-Gong drove Bernie and me to Staten Island to check on one of their rental properties under renovation. It was a sweltering night, their car’s air conditioning was on the fritz, I was uncomfortably pregnant, exhausted from a prior night on call in the ICU, and really annoyed that I was being shuttled in the opposite direction of home, where there would be ice cream, The Amazing Race, and an adjustable thermostat. Along the way, A-Gong listed all of the things that needed repairing after the (squatting) tenants had finally moved out of the building. When we arrived (eek, a rat?), he continued the story of a family that had fallen on hard times, who couldn’t always pay the rent, whose emotionally labile child had destroyed the place. Everything smelled like pee and something burning. Finally, the grand tour of the ripped-back-to-studs apartment was over and I stuffed myself back into the car and began a bitchy tirade:

“Why didn’t you sell it?”
“Why did you let it go on for so long?”
“How did you get mixed up with these people?”

I wasn’t a particularly glow-y pregnant gal. A-Gong looked at me with a bit of sadness,

“Britt, God puts ‘these people’ in our path so we can help them.”

Oh… that. Duly chastened, right there in the front seat, next to a cup holder full of wasabi peas, I vowed to be a better person, to be more like my in-laws. A-Ma and A-Gong were probably a little troubled that night, wondering if maybe their son had married a sweaty, wasabi-pea-shunning, selfish heathen of a white girl. And maybe he did. But God was right there in a hot sedan full of believers, and finally I… noticed.

How does someone who doesn’t believe, who mocked blind faith wearing a sandwich board championing scientific fact, who needed to insert “love” or “light” into any sermon in place of “Jesus” (deification is so weird!), who dated Jewish boys and fell in love with their mothers… how does that girl become an advocate of prayer, a regular at the communion rail, the co-chair of the Christmas Market? I’m still not entirely sure, but I think it began in the Maxima.

After that hot ride home, my ICU rotation continued and I spent four brutally pregnant weeks caring for the critically ill and dying. I loved it (the doctoring stuff, not the being pregnant bit). Dr. Barie was the scary, brilliant director of the unit and all of us struggled to please and impress him, or failing that, just tried not piss him off or kill his patients. The shifts were long, the work was unrelenting, the call room smelled like tuna fish, and God Was There. It was the oddest thing at the time, to feel so strongly that We Are Not Alone—well, maybe not given Dr. Barie’s obsession with the X-Files. But amid all of the beeping proof that science was keeping the patients alive, what went undocumented in the chart was that prayer, love, and connectedness helps, too. And I don’t think for a minute that it helps in a can-cure-cancer or get-grandpa-off-the-ventilator way. Rather, it strengthens, comforts, and summons beauty.

Recently asked how I morphed into this churchy Jesus girl, I kept returning to the night I found God outside that ransacked rental, and then later in the ICU, at the bedside of a 26-year-old woman whose new husband and family had decided to let go. “We know this is hard for you, too” her aunt told me after I explained that further treatments were futile, “and we’re so grateful.” As I excused myself from rounds to sob unprofessionally (and uncharacteristically) in the fishy call room, A-Gong’s words came back,

“God puts these people in our path so we can help them.”

Was I helping? Ugh, it didn’t feel like it: I couldn’t do anything. So I prayed. I prayed for her sweet, handsome young husband, for her close-knit Catholic family, for all of us in the ICU who (uncharacteristically) were heartbroken, too. In the absence of any possible medical coups, at least there was this. And as Dorsey taught me last year, praying for miracles is allowed. The miracle then wasn’t to cure, but somehow to strengthen, comfort, and summon beauty: to miraculously find these things though a young woman was dying.

This was nearly a decade ago, and though I’ll never forget this patient, she was in my thoughts a bit more the last year. (Taking poisons and reviewing survival statistics couldn’t be separated from morbid rumination about my own end-of-life.) I thought about how she and her family taught me what it means to pray for others, to pray for miracles, to pray for the people God puts in my path.

But, then, the nagging question: does prayer “work?”

No, not in the literal sense, or in any way that my inner skeptic could embrace without feeling ridiculous. I believe in God and His Plan, but not that any amount of focused meditation on miracles could influence either one. However, I do know this: last year I was the one God put in your path, to help, and to remember in your prayers in all of their beautiful and varied forms. This is how Nicole (my old science pal) put it,

“…I have been thinking of you all the time, and if thinking of you and literally begging God to help you means praying, well I’ve been doing that too.”

And here I am all fabulous-looking-and-feeling and writing up a storm about faith, and thankfulness, ancient neighbors, moon cakes, and yoga… still very much here and very much me. I’m not sure I’d be so fabulous-feeling in the absence of this connectedness, the shared notion of “prayer” that took the form of a thousand messages of love and countless acts of kindness. Atheist Brother Patrick swearing at God to stop fucking with me was as dear as Zealot Sister’s continued insistence that He never was. Both of these sentiments communicate the same thing: God exists and I am loved. These are the reasons I feel fabulous. And they are miracles, indeed.

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The Tall and Short of It

It’s darling of you to entertain me while I wait for the Norwegians. After a long week of do-gooding, fancy dinners, and committee meetings, I’m spent. I don’t have the stamina that accompanied my original parts, so I’m hoping there’s one more bottle of celebratory Veuve Cliquot in the ‘fridge, (ooh, Sharffenberger!) and that the children continue to be entranced by creating dragon villages on the computer. Accompany me now as I dip into the gift bubbles and tell you every little thing.

I saw Debby Gammons Thursday night. She was at her post at Zegna, all super-smart looking in her I-buy-for-Tom-Brady outfit. April and I were passing through the expensive stores on our way to a swanky shoe event because April knows people who collect swanky shoes and believe 5 inch platforms are equally suited for hora dancing and Whole Food shopping. (They lie.) Seeing Debby was a feel-good moment for oodles of reasons. First of all, Debby is adorable. As Grandma Karen would say, “…she’s no bigger than a minute,” and her Monica Geller-ness imbues her teeny tininess with a commanding competence. (Debby probably has eleven categories of towels.) Debby also has been my champion for the past year: reading, messaging, and praying. Having someone who is so hospital-corners in my corner felt good… feels good. We will always tease her for her pin straight ways, for running 26.2 miles more often than I floss, and for involving Ralph Lauren cable knits, Hunter wellies, and a toggled coat in one outfit. But Debby is as constant and loyal as she is preppy. Seeing Debby reminded me that many more of these sweet moments are coming: when I get to lay eyes on you good people who have kept in touch with thoughts, words, and deeds. The short quips via social networking were my lifeline last year, but face-to-face is better… especially when that face is Debby Gammons.

Two bottles of wine later, the Norwegians have arrived with Advent Aquavit, milk chocolate, and their sweet Scandinavian faces. Tormod is another friend I’m happy to see in person. Though he hasn’t shown up on these Pages yet, Tormod will be a part of The Family Lee forever. When it was time to assemble a team of surgeons for my care (mutilation), I was mostly concerned about “the help.” Because surgery is best performed assisted, Adam needed to find someone with deft hands and unruffled professionalism. The whole people-I-know-seeing-me-naked aspect of last year ranked high on the List of Things That Unfairly Suck. Tormod was the obvious choice. He’s an excellent surgeon. He’s a husband and dad. He’s Norwegian. It must have been (possibly still is) weird for him to straddle all the imaginary lines drawn between resident and attending, friend and colleague, boss’s wife and patient. But somehow it’s not weird to share duty-free chocolates with him now. That’s a good friend, indeed.

As we close in on the one-year anniversary of my life-changing journey (the dreaded call, December 16th, April’s living room), Maria recently described what it was like for all of those people on the other side of the operating room door. In those moments, I was drugged, terrified, and shielded from their forced involvement in my scary tragedy. I hadn’t thought about how necessary, but how difficult, it must have been for them to wheel me around the hospital without cursing, crying, or calling in sick. But they didn’t. I see Tormod now as my friend, my surgeon, a little bit my hero. He’s so tall and stoic and Norwegian and that made all of the difference.

This week I had the opportunity to pay forward the kindness of the Debbys and Tormods in my life. Dr. Miller was admitted to the hospital and so I spent a few days shuttling Maida around and then, thankfully, driving them both home after he was discharged. It was a privilege to watch these ancient people charming the pants off of everyone and making it home in time to take out the recyclables. They now feel beholden and terribly, terribly guilty about troubling me… even though the only trouble at all is that they won’t stop calling to thank me. But I think it’s wonderful that Maida called for help when she really needed it. In fact, we’re not entirely certain how Maida was able to transmit an “urgent” message into Bernie’s operating room to request a ride home. The ER staff is probably still wondering about the VIP status of this 90-year-old woman who can page the chief of the division for taxi service (and probably shocked that that is exactly how Maida got home). So now I’m feeling a bit like Maida: beholden to the sweet people in my life. Now I have enough distance (and hair!) away from the horror to reflect on the many people who helped make it less awful. And while Maida is likely to thank me with some truly awful trinket from the china cabinet, I’ll use this forum, to tell 300 people about two people at polar opposite ends of the height chart and globe, who I’m so happy to see, who made all the difference.

A picture of Debby and Tormod would illustrate the same effect…(except the effect of seeing a picture of Tom Brady)

Laughter

Guest blogging: a brilliant idea! Here’s something fantastic I didn’t write at all. Most of you know (or are familiar with the hilarious rantings of) Steve Safran. Though a self-proclaimed curmudgeon, he’s really more of a teddy bear… a grumpy, Jewish teddy bear. Must learn lyrics to “A Little Bit of Soul” as only a small payment for the giggly diversion Steve provided me (and all of us). Enjoy this dose of Stevie Medicine: read, laugh, repeat.

Laughter is the Best Way to Get Sick People Mad at You… by Steve Safran
When Britt first told us out she had cancer, like everyone I was stunned, angry, shocked and sad. Also: thirsty and a little cranky. The trouble is I’m a bit of a wiseass. And I work in news, so I deal with horrid situations through gallows humor. There’s a lot of stress when you report on sad stories every day. But I can’t blame my career entirely. I am, after all, me. Lots of people will vouch for that.

Britt notified us, the Trinity Friends, via Facebook, on December 17, 2011. This meant that my usual afternoon of Photoshopping dirty pictures was suddenly and rudely interrupted. There’s something incongruous about getting bad news via Facebook. It’s like getting a singing Peanuts Hallmark card offering deepest condolences. (“Good Grief” would, in fact, be somewhat appropriate.) Some conversation ensued, with me confusingly offering to run something in pink or do something to raise something or other. Fortunately, good friend and actual runner Deb Gammons stepped up to the plate to get my 10K and half-marathon facts straight. This was a relief, and was the last time I was required to do math in the name of science. I have since learned a 10K is not a retirement fund for those on a budget.

The absurdity of Britt’s Facebook notice is that it came about an hour before I was to inform the same crowd that I had moved out of the family home en route to divorcing my wife of 18 years. Alas, my lead was buried, confined to the back pages of the “News & Notes” section of the crappy Metro section. I was incensed:

Well, shit. I was planning on telling you all how my wife and I separated this week, how I moved out and how I’m living alone in Wayland now. I was going to get all sorts of womanly sympathy and, quite possibly, cash and gifts. But forget it now. Way to put things in perspective.

Still, I had to dig down deep, as friends do:

Brittle, I will do whatever you need. I will sit with you while you get that horrid chemo shit, smoke cigars and tell you dirty jokes. They say, “laughter is the best medicine.” That’s bullshit. Get the medicine. I’m witty, but I’m not a cure for anything other than excess happiness.

Confession: I was hurt nobody was offering me a Hermes scarf.

Moving from Facebook, Britt wisely opened her world to her caring friends and family through the use of the inspiring and moving CarePages. This is a wonderful and, well, caring way patients can connect. The problem, of course, is that I have a mentality that hears “Care Pages” and automatically reacts inappropriately. I absolutely believe Britt would have had the same reaction to a CarePage set up for me. As Britt has quoted me on my reply, I have no problem stealing from her stealing from me:

Here are several problems I have with this:

1. It being “Care Pages” makes me feel I need to be sincere. As you know, this is a character defect of mine.
2. There will be caring, loving statements on this page.
3. While I care and love, I express those emotions in somewhat different ways. As in a total lack of caring and loving.
4, Those who care and love are bound to see my statements and feel I am wishing terrible things upon you.
5. I am not. I am wishing terrible things upon most non-Jews, but not you, a TOTAL Shiksa Goddess.

This, I am told, was received in both the spirit it was intended (“great love and sympathy”) and the spirit in which it is written (“heartless bastard”). As a journalist, I have come to accept both, preferring the latter as I am part of the great left-wing-conservative-liberal-tea-party-lamestream media conspiracy. (Hint: We just want free beer.)

After a few of Britt’s remarkable, charming and deeply touching CarePages, I was hooked. Still, as a newsman and consultant, I thought it might help to offer some advice so she could grow her base:

March 10, 2012:

Dear Britt:

I am enjoying your regular Care Pages updates. As a longtime newsman, I recommend you add horoscopes, Soduku and, perhaps, “Ziggy.” This would expand your appeal and open you to a wider, more sophisticated audience.

Sincerely,
Steve Safran
Natick, MA

I am a creature of social media. Ostensibly, it is my job to teach journalists how to use it. It’s a crime, of course, to be paid to stand in front of a room of people and say “Tweet!” But this is America, and people have made far more money off far worse advice. Britt and I stayed in touch via Facebook.

Our Girl has made a comeback. While this is something of a slowdown for my borderline-offensive patter, it is nonetheless a tremendous relief. You see, I come back to that first Facebook note I wrote Britt on The December Night, where I showed the briefest glimpse of the man I might be:

Stay witty and upbeat. You don’t really have a choice but to heal; I have you on the list of people who will be singing at my funeral. The selection has to be “A Little Bit of Soul” by Music Explosion. This is not optional, and neither is your attendance.

Can’t wait to have you there.

Britt and Steve: wearing black… and sharing gallows humor.

Awareness

“These things aren’t tied with a pink ribbon”

This is a raw, sad, and honest poem written by Lisa Bonchek Adams. She published it nearly two years ago… when her treatments were over, but their effects were not (and would never be). This is the part that tugs at me:

Beneath the pretty lies ugly,
the ugly truth of cancer
and what it has taken from me.
While some may be able to go on,
move on,
forget,
I cannot.
My body will not let me.
These things are not tied with a pink ribbon.
These things last longer than a month.
This is part of awareness.
This is part of what breast cancer can do.
This is what it has done to me.

Unless you are blind, shopping-averse, or trapped beneath something heavy, you’ve noticed that October has become shrouded in pink. Billboards are plastered with beautiful celebrity survivors, sporting Cancer-didn’t-beat-me! smiles and cascading hair atop their plunging necklines. And all of us are hen pecked with requests to donate, walk, buy, carry, wear, and otherwise marinate in the rosy mindfulness that Breast Cancer Exists. I’d been warned that I might have an unusually strong reaction to all of this Awareness, but it was the brutal honesty of this poem that informed my urge to yell at the telemarketers.

“Did you know that there currently is NO cure for breast cancer?”

Awesome reminder. Could you leave it on the answering machine again to frighten the children? And 5pm is a super time to call moms with short hair, implants, and smallish, hungry boys with homework.

You might think I’d want to transfer our entire 401K to the scientists in charge of my unknown future. But, you know, I think I’ve given quite enough… and sometimes, I’m still angry. That 7mm aggregate of evil cells robbed me of my body, and my Peace. Chemo has made list-making necessary, and finding the car a challenge. Of course, every day gets a teensy bit easier. At least, as Kelli said, “… until I take off my shirt… then the PTSD kicks in and a few days of Xanax is called for…” I do think these pink promotions are a good and great thing, but for millions of us (and many millions more who experienced the fallout while baking us muffins, driving our kids around, and reading our blogs) we’re Aware, thank you very much. The Frying Pan of Breast Cancer has collectively conked us over the head, and the birdies are still circling. Can you see them? They’re fucking pink.

Of course, there are oodles of other ways that Pink-tober is heart-warming. Seeing a picture of my ninth grade cousin and her girlfriends devote every Wednesday this month to Awareness makes me smile. And I went on a survivor-entitled Bloomies shopping spree under the guise of supporting Pink causes. But because everything is a little cuter, a little prettier in ruddy hues, practically any household item can be found as a Pepto Bismol-dipped nod to the not-so-cute or pretty struggle it supports. The scars, fear, cold, nightmares, loss… these Halloween-y sentiments match up more closely to any Awareness I’m feeling. And these things… these things aren’t tied with a pink ribbon.

Lisa, the brave writer, mom, survivor… Lisa just went public with the news that her Cancer is back, in the treatable-not-curable way (www.lisabadams.com). I’ve never met Lisa, but her news leaves me sad and scared. I found a website entitled “F**K AWARENESS, Find a Cure” with nary a pink ribbon embellishment. I’d like to throw a few back with those guys. Buying the pink crap isn’t going to help Lisa, although our “awareness” of her devastating diagnosis just might. I have great faith in the medicines that will keep Lisa living to tell, and even more in the Peace that comes from our prayers. Mine are headed her way, tied up with love and hope that transcend all sense or science (or color).

 

Freshman in Oviedo, FL for The Cure:  adorable awareness