Sunday, November 27, 2011

86ed from Steroids

I was supposed to go to Ypsilanti, MI, for a tasty vegetarian, almost-vegan Thanksgiving dinner with my mother, father and sister, but, because of the hysterectomy, still am sleeping flat on my back all night every night, which normally would be impossible, but somehow the body cooperates when necessary. But that’s on my own bed, which is reminiscent of a cement sidewalk in firmness.

Sleeping on my parents’ guest cot requires a change of position about every 15 minutes if one is to be able to rise to her feet the following morning. My mother very kindly offered up her own bed, but that seemed like quite an imposition. I don’t know about her, but after about four days of someone else sleeping in my accustomed spot while I slept on the guest bed, I might get crabby.

I was also a little worried about schlepping my suitcase from here to there. I wasn’t supposed to lift more than 20 pounds, and while the suitcase has wheels, I could only too readily picture someone in the airport shrieking, “Miss! Your suitcase is falling,” me instinctively grabbing for it, and hearing a horrible ripping sound.

Nonetheless, I hated the thought of missing my semi-annual trip and only with difficulty decided to postpone. Once I did, my father said he’d been about to call and say not to come: “It sounds like you’re swimming upstream right now.” Mom had said, just once, that Thanksgiving wouldn’t be quite the same with just three, and I very much wanted to be there, but appreciated my father seconding my decision. It made me feel more at peace about the whole thing, and I figured I could reschedule just as soon as I felt better, except that I always book at least six weeks in advance so I can get a seat that is on the left side of the aisle as you look toward the cockpit.

That way the arm I make flamboyant gestures with and turn book pages with can extend into the aisle.

Of course, about one minute after I canceled my trip, I felt well enough to go.

But it all came out fine. Instead I went to Sacramento with Tom for dinner at Steve and Julie’s, which was magnificent. Serious overeating, a big congenial crowd. In the evening, Tom went off with his girlfriend to help with a project at her place, and I stayed overnight at Steve and Julie’s, and then we three went to visit Ann and Mac the next day. I took the train home in the afternoon.

I am back on my bike now and, riding home from work one day, arrived at the red light on Townsend at the Embarcadero. There was a UPS truck ahead of me, and I saw an apparently deranged man step off the curb on the left side of the street and approach the UPS driver and start to tell him, through the driver's window, about when he used to be a UPS driver. “Great,” I thought. “Now we’ll be sitting here for ten minutes waiting for this fellow to move along.”

Another cyclist rolled up and stopped to my right. The light turned green. The UPS truck didn’t move. I thought I’d help the driver out by ringing my bell so he could tell the crazy guy, “Oh, sorry. Gotta go!” So I rang my bell several times just as the truck moved on. The cyclist to my right told me, in just this side of a withering tone, “There was a pedestrian in the crosswalk.”

Sure enough, the mental health gentleman had reached the far side of the street—he hadn’t delayed the UPS truck in the slightest—and he said to me, in what was definitely a withering tone, “No more steroids for you!”

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Biopsy Dukkha

Hey, this is post number 500!

Dr. M. says lying on my stomach won't do any harm, but it might be uncomfortable. She suggested scheduling the biopsy for a couple of weeks out, so it will be December 5.

Toward the end of September, I went to Eugene Cash’s Sunday night sitting group, as was my weekly habit, and in his talk, he mentioned something that caused me to remember that it had been ten years to the day since I'd begun to meditate daily (not since I began to meditate, period, which was 21 years ago). I missed just one day in those ten years, by accident.

It was an Easter. Tom and I went to Sacramento on the train, so my schedule was not per usual, and I kept thinking, “When I get home, I need to meditate.” When I woke up the next morning not having done so, there was a slightly queasy feeling: You may be able to do this or that today, but you can do nothing whatsoever yesterday.

I went up to Eugene at the end of the evening to tell him about my anniversary. That Sunday night group is vast, and many people must want his attention, so this was the very first time I had ever approached him there, though on a handful of retreats, he has been one of the teachers I interviewed with. He’s agreeably irreverent, very well versed in his subject, and very funny. He often makes me laugh.

I told him about my ten years of sitting (almost) every day and he responded warmly. Looking directly at him, I realized I’d never fully appreciated what lovely caramel-colored eyes he has.

And that was his last Sunday night with us, because the following Saturday, on the Buddhist Bike Pilgrimage, which he had told us he was very excited to go on, he crashed and suffered a traumatic brain injury, and we have not seen him since.

I found out about his accident when I got an email directing me to his Caring Bridge website, a place where people undergoing medical treatment can post updates or have friends do so, so they don’t have to send 500 emails or make 500 phone calls. “Uh oh,” I thought, “Why does Eugene need a Caring Bridge website?”

One of his visitors posted this, which I saved and have thought of often:

“I have also benefited from the dukkha of bike crash recovery and know the long road.”

“Dukkha” means “suffering” or “stress.” It’s considered in Buddhism to be one of the three characteristics of life, but it is certainly not considered to be all of life, despite how frequently one encounters that glib misstatement.

I liked very much the idea of benefiting from dukkha, because we normally think of benefiting from what is agreeable, and we do benefit when we enjoy delightful activities, feelings, sights, sounds and tastes. We also tend to cling to those things, and to assume that if what’s pleasant is good, what’s unpleasant must be bad, so we naturally push away anxiety, pain, anger and sorrow.

I liked this person’s reminder that we also benefit from what is difficult, if we turn toward it and experience it directly. We might also use what’s hard as a starting point for wise reflection, which is not precisely the same as endless obsessing, or telling ourselves once again the story that always ends the very same way: we aren’t good enough, and things definitely won’t work out.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Yes, I Am Sleeping

Yesterday I went back to SFMC (Super Fantastic Medical Center; not its real name) for my mammogram recheck. It would have been sooner, but I had to wait until I’d recuperated a bit from the hysterectomy. The original mammogram was my first at this place and by far the most painful I’ve ever had, so you can imagine my pleasure when I saw the same technician coming for me yesterday. Nice woman, but what a grip on the controls!

The recheck did prove to be quite a trying experience, in terms of pain and emotional upset. I also became nauseous partway through and had to lie down. The recheck involved a variety of mammograms and an ultrasound, and before I left, I was told that two geographical features had been determined by ultrasound to be benign fluid-filled cysts, but that I had a cluster of calcifications in my left breast and would need a biopsy.

Calcifications can form in many places in our bodies and typically are perfectly harmless, but certain configurations are cause for concern. I was told that there was a 22 percent chance my personal cluster of calcifications would prove to be cancer. It was also explained that the biopsy would involve lying face down for 40 minutes or so on a special table—“special table” sounds better than “weird table”—with the afflicted part dangling through a hole.

However, I can’t schedule this quite yet, because post hysterectomy, the only position I can sleep in is flat on my back. It seems to me that lying on my stomach is out, with or without anything dangling through a hole, but I will consult Dr. M. on that point.

Googling has of course ensued, by me and my mother. She sent me a page on calcifications I couldn’t quite make sense of.

She forebore to call me an idiot, under the circumstances—in case I’m about to die—but sent an email saying:

I thought the radiology page explained the calcification patterns clearly, since I had no idea what they were an hour ago.

Pat on head,


I wrote back that part of the problem was that I didn’t know which particular pattern of calcifications I had.

She replied:

Maybe they don't either, exactly, hence the biopsy. 

A friendly tickle in the ribs,



Ha—my pamphlet here says that calcifications can be a “very early” sign of breast cancer. OK, good.

A manly cuff on the shoulder,


When one has calcifications, it helps to have a funny mother.

It also helps to have an overly simple philosophy of life and death.

A few months ago, I was at my Sunday night meditation group and had occasion to mention on a group level that I was feeling worried, though it was embarrassing to say so, about my money: would there be enough to last the rest of my life? What if I ran out? The guest teacher that night, Anna Douglas, asked me, “Do you have everything you need right now?”

I could readily say I did, which was actually comforting, and then I got to thinking that, by definition, we always have what we need to sustain our lives—because when we don’t, we die. 

However, we (at least I think this is true) will never know we are dead, because we won’t be there to know it. I don’t think there will be a moment where I can accurately say, “Dad blast it, I’m dead as a doornail.” Ergo, we’re always alive, at least from our own point of view, and we always have everything we need.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

The Perfect Sickroom Cat

The surgery began at 2, concluded at 4, and Tom fetched me home in a CarShare car about 6:15 that same evening. Rather amazing. In the operating room, Carole King was playing, and I grumbled, “I forgot to bring my Metallica CD.” Dr. M. said, “You don’t mind if we listen to Carole King, do you?” I said, “If it makes you calm, go right ahead,” and behind me, I could hear someone, perhaps the anesthesiologist, singing along.

I had the driest mouth of my life during the short car ride home. Tom saw me inside and unlaced and removed my shoes, which I could no longer reach, way down there on the floor. For the next 36 hours, I lay in bed a lot and took either Vicodin or three Advil every three hours, and then figured out that the Vicodin itself was probably the main thing making me feel terrible. I also was taking this, that and the other hippie supplement, based on advice from various sources, and decided most of that was also a mistake; some of them made my head swim.

One thing I did right: Going to the library in the days before surgery and bringing home a big stack of memoirs and novels. It’s ended up being rather pleasant, having such a short to-do list for each day. All I really have to do is a tiny amount of stretching, meditate for a token five minutes (lying down if necessary), feed Hammett, and clean his cat box. He has proven to be the perfect sickroom cat, sitting quietly at the periphery of the room with a grave expression on his face, until I ease myself into bed, when he slithers in between my arm and my body and goes to  sleep. He’s also refrained from walking on my incisions.

Besides the few required activities, I’ve been reading, being on the computer some, talking to people on the phone. My mother has been very helpful, having had nearly the same surgery in April. Carol Joy sent a big bunch of carnations, which smell and look wonderful. David and Lisa called from Seattle both before and after surgery day, and sent a card.

As early as two days after surgery, I went outside and slowly hobbled a few blocks with Tom. Yesterday evening I went on a particularly nice walk in the balmy early evening, a splendid breeze blowing. This walk took me past every apartment I’ve lived in since 1983, and also past the Bi-Rite Creamery on 18th Street, which for the first time didn’t have a line out the door and nearly to the end of the block. I’ve always thought that it must be very good ice cream, but not worth standing in that kind of line, and I don’t think I ever will stand in that line, but since I could walk right in (about 5:30 on a Tuesday, if you want to know the magic time of week), I did, and got a scoop of ice cream, and it was actually the best ice cream I’ve ever had, the most intensely rich and flavorful.

I got to thinking that there are those who live in this neighborhood and those (very, very many) who visit and spend money, and it is largely because of the latter that we have such an incredible profusion of wonderful places to eat and drink, and for the first time, I felt grateful to them rather than vaguely resentful.

As for Anthrax, I’ve completed listening to the samples on Amazon and plan to obtain seven of their 10 studio albums in electronic form, plus a few songs from the remaining three. It’s surprising that their music is so consistently enjoyable given the extreme amount of personnel churn they’ve had. Wikipedia has a nice bar chart showing the comings and goings.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

I'll Take Two (Laparoscopic Supracervical Hysterectomies)!

I’m still here!

Today I set myself a research project: to gain familiarity with the oeuvre of the band Anthrax, one of the “Big Four” of American metal, until today completely unheard by me. After I receive Megadeth’s latest, released yesterday, I’ll have every one of their studio albums, and I have every one of Metallica’s studio albums. (You might like to know that Metallica has nine studio albums; Anthrax, 10; Slayer, 11; and Megadeth—the winner!—has 13.) Odd that I had managed to so completely miss Anthrax.

It turns out that Anthrax is fantastic! I’m almost thinking they will end up being my favorite band of the group. Judging from their cover art, they don’t take themselves particularly seriously, and, of the four, they sound most like a hair band. I hear a little Rob Zombie, too, or perhaps it’s vice versa.

I’ve also been listening to Apple, Mother Love Bone’s one and only album, which came out just after lead singer Andy Wood had died of a drug overdose, and also to the album then made by his friends in tribute, Temple of the Dog.

Various things that have happened since June 15: A visit or two to Carol Joy in Novato; several lunches at Mehfil with my co-worker and now friend, Venkata; Tuesday night meditating with Howie and Sunday night meditating with Eugene Cash; five trillion visits to the dentist/endodontist/oral surgeon; a move to a new floor at work.

Oh, here’s a highlight: On July 21, I saw Soundgarden! They were here at the Civic Center auditorium. The sound wasn’t great, and I thought the place was almost alarmingly understaffed, but I was in the very same room as Chris Cornell—the only person on this earth who really understands my problems, meaning that everything he touches is beautiful, that he was at times endearingly dorky when he spoke from the stage, that he clearly knows all about sorrow and loss. When I feel sad, I often listen to his music, either his solo CDs or Audioslave. It doesn’t cheer me up, but it reminds me I’m not alone.

On a splendid warm night in July, Tom’s mother, Ann, treated us to a lovely party in Sacramento celebrating several birthdays. Tom and I and his girlfriend drove from San Francisco together in a CarShare car.

After having taken a break from hospice volunteering while my own mother was ill, I have started again, now visiting a nice man who used to be a teacher.

At work, the particular piece of software I work with is being retired, and the retirement is moving ahead quickly.

We were advised that “when the music stops, there won’t be chairs for everyone.” My boss may as well have said, “Linda, after 13 years in which the world has changed completely, you will lose your job in the next months or year. You will not have health insurance. You will never get another job. You will end up starving to death on the streets.”

My company is also changing its “approach” to health care coverage so that it will cost employees much, much more starting next year.

I considered a health situation whose symptoms themselves didn’t really bother me (but which others might not enjoy reading about), the management of which required an endless stream of office visits, ultrasounds, biopsies, and three surgeries prior to this year.  I pictured myself either unemployed and shopping for my own coverage with this expensive (due to the amount of intervention required) pre-existing condition, or, perhaps, still employed, but spending way, way more on tests and procedures starting in January, and I decided it might be prudent to have the troublesome organ, the uterus, plucked from my abdomen and relocated to a medical compost bin during the current calendar year.

I hated making such a decision even partly for financial reasons, though it is a reasonable consideration, and there was a good deal of agonizing for several weeks. I called my doctor/surgeon early on and said I had decided not to go ahead. She said, “That’s fine—you’re not committed until you’re actually on the operating room table. But I’ll leave it on the calendar just in case.”

I checked into the specifics of the cost and was kind of astonished to find that, if I’d had two uteruses, I could have had them both removed for the cost of one root canal, or, then again, the cost of one dental crown, both of which I paid for out of pocket for this year (not to mention the dental implant, a completely separate matter, still in progress).

In the end, my mind wasn’t really at ease until I arrived at the hospital on surgery day, after a thoroughly unenjoyable day beforehand where a colonoscopy-style bowel prep was required. One mistake I made was changing my diet to include a lot more protein, in the form of eggs and tofu, per the advice of the Internet. This made me generally feel less well, and was hard to digest, complicating the required emptying of the intestines.

During that lousy day, the phone rang and I thought, “Ah, perhaps a well-wisher calling to say she or he hopes surgery goes well.” In fact, it was the mammogram people calling to say they’d seen something that needed follow-up in both breasts. I was quite disheartened for an hour or so there, fearing that just as one medical hassle finally was ending, another was to start. I pictured my sisters at my funeral and had a good cry; I may have listened to a little Chris Cornell.

But then I remembered that cancer is found in only four out of a thousand such rechecks, and my doctor/surgeon, while offering me the option to postpone surgery in favor of having the mammogram recheck right away, pointed out that, while she couldn’t assure me of this, it could be a case of magnifying a digital image enough to see something that is not a problem and has always been there, just never seen before. My mood returned abruptly to just bowel prep mood, rather than bowel prep plus dying of cancer mood, and the day went on unpleasantly enough.

The next day, which was last Thursday, I took a cab to the hospital at noon and soon I was lying on a bed in the “Come & Go” department, with a nurse struggling to start an IV in the back of my hand. It came over me then that, unless I was in the mood to make a semi-dramatic last-minute decision, I no longer had to think about whether I was going to have this surgery or not, which was a relief.