Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Pinched, prodded and poked

I am officially a writer now, because I have struggled over a post for 10 days now and just set it aside to begin afresh. "Everything is better when it's a-fresh," said the produce man to the melon-squeezer. Just as I will drink no wine before its time, I shall publish no post before it's fully roas't. Somebody, please, stop me.

Any-hoo, four weeks ago yesterday, I had the worst dental experience of my life. Let me preface this by saying, I have good teeth. Only 2 fillings in my mid-to -late 40 year old mouth. Well, and a little bonding on one of my front teeth from an unfortunate diving incident at the Holidome in Cincinnati, Ohio during a fraternity formal event I attended in 1984. Never mind about that.

We recently got new dental insurance. The pickings were slim for dentists in our area. Basically, we had a choice of DDS in a box (Aspen Dental) or the guy I ended up with. I took the two girls to him first. I know, I know, it sounds bad, even canary-in-the-coal-mine-ish, but they did fine. Cleanings, exams, sealants and all was well. Curiously, I don't think he laid an instrument on them. It was all done by his babe-alicious assistants. All he did was look into their mouths and give me the names of several of his orthodontist cronies to contact, stat.

The same day, after a very brief, impromptu exam, he suggested that my 2 existing fillings, now more than 20 years old and causing me no trouble by the way, should be replaced because it appeared they were beginning to crack.

"Schedule an appointment and we'll take care of them. Plus, the bonding on your front tooth is worn and stained. It needs to be replaced. We can do that while we have you in here."  He was all smiles and charm.

"Okay", I said. Trust the man in white. I scheduled my appointment.

I arrived at the appointed hour a couple of weeks later. Following her rigorous cleaning,  Righteous Babe #1 applied a topical numbing agent to my upper and lower left gums, in anticipation of the Novocaine shots to come. I'd only had Novocaine twice before, and my recollection was that the injections were annoying more than painful; kind of like mosquito bites. "I've had two babies with no anesthesia, I can handle this",  I thought. I'd always prided myself on my non-chalance about medical procedures, shots and blood-draws.

Dr. De Sade (to which he shall hereinafter be referred) strutted into the room with Righteous Babe #2 at his side. He picked up an enormous metal syringe and with no bedside, rather chair side, chit-chat, plunged the infernal thing into my lower gum line. I felt a vibration run through my body and guttural noises came, unbidden, from my mouth, much as you might have heard emanate from convicts strapped to "Old Sparky", Ohio's now-retired electric chair.

As he continued to depress the plunger, Dr. De Sade asked with furrowed brow, "Does it feel like an electric charge? " I nodded. "That's okay, it takes effect really quickly when that happens." Abruptly and with no apology, he picked up a second syringe and injected it into my upper jaw, directly above the lower injection. He stood and announced that he'd be back in a few minutes. Righteous Babe #2 asked if I was okay. I widened my eyes and shrugged. Truthfully, I did not know.

De Sade returned very shortly, picked up the drill and it began to whine. I closed my eyes, imagining myself elsewhere. And then I jumped.

"She's not numb."

"Did you feel that?"

I nodded.  He picked up a syringe and said, "We'll give you a little more Novocaine," and the plunger once again depressed. I felt a cold sensation in my lower jaw and again in my upper.

"Be back in a minute," oozed De Sade.

Righteous Babe #2 patted my shoulder. "Are you okay?"

"I gueth tho."

She giggled and I stabbed her with my eyes.

"Thith ithn't muth fun."

De Sade returned once again, picked up the drill and began to probe. Again, I jumped, involuntarily.

"She's still not numb."

"Did you really feel that?"

"Yeth," I nodded.

He picked up the syringe. I widened my eyes. De Sade dug it into my lower jaw, sawing it in and out. It was like something from Little Shop of Horrors. I could see the end of the syringe in his hand outside my mouth; I could see the in-and-out motion although I couldn't feel it. Then he administered another shot to the upper jaw. He stood up and said, "Let's give it another couple of minutes."

De Sade announced that Righteous Babe #3 would remove the bonding from my front tooth, since it required no Novocaine and he would come back to do the rest.

Righteous Babe #3 drilled away at my front tooth, periodically squirting water into my mouth and stabbing me in the tonsils with the spit-sucking probe that hissed like an angry copperhead inside my cranium. I prayed silently for it to all be over soon.

When she was finished, Righteous Babe #3 asked how I was doing. I attempted to answer but the whole left side of my face was immobile

"Cah I geh a dink oh wah-eh?"

Righteous Babes #2 and #3 both nodded. I got up and went to the sink. I turned on the tap and filled a cup. I held it to my lips, as is customary, yet it trickled right out of my mouth. I attempted to swish. It was fruitless. Then I looked in the mirror. A good portion of my right front tooth was gone, giving me a jack-o-lantern-like look, but the left side of my face would not move. At all.  I could only laugh. Hysterically.

"I'm tho thaky," I said, as I climbed back into the chaise-du-torture.

Righteous Babe #2 said, "Oh, that's the epinephrine in the shots. It makes you shaky. It'll wear off."

For the last time, De Sade returned.

"You've got to be numb now!" he insisted.

He drilled. And drilled. And drilled. Above the whine of the instruments, I felt nothing. I briefly wondered if I was ingesting dangerous amounts of mercury from the amalgam fillings he was pulverizing, but I wasn't about to stop him and ask. It was obvious that he wanted this over with as much as I did. Plus, I was not at all confident in my ability to make myself understood, which to be honest, is not a concern I have ever had since I acquired the gift of gab well before age 2.

Righteous Babe #3 reappeared. "She'll do the fillings," De Sade announced as he hurried from the room.

She packed and poked while I held my mouth open. She sanded and polished. My jaws ached from holding them open for so long.

"How do they feel?"

"I haf no fucking ithea."

She giggled. "I guess not. Well, you're all done!" She handed me a mirror. I examined my lovely, newly bonded front tooth and the paralyzed left side of my face, along with the drool spilling over my lower lip.

"Any inthructhionth?"

"You probably shouldn't eat anything until the Novocaine wears off because you could bite your tongue."

"How lonh?"

She looked at her watch. "It's 4 o'clock now." She mused.

(I had been there 2 and a half hours.)

"Probably until 6 or so."

I got up to leave, feeling distinctly violated. I went to the front desk to "check out", only to discover how little my insurance actually covered for the expense of the afternoon's fun. As I wrote my check, De Sade passed by, well beyond the reception desk, in a hurry to somewhere else. He looked at me and smirked. "It'll probably be closer to 7 by the time it wears off."

Like hell. It's 4 weeks later and while my face is back to normal, my tongue is still numb. I still can't tell if the fillings are smooth, or how hot my coffee is until it hits the back of my throat. The numbness alternates with the pins-and-needles feeling you get as blood flow returns to a foot you've been sitting on.

I don't mean to complain. I know I'm lucky to even be able to afford regular dental care. I know it could be worse. It's not life-threatening. Rather, it's like having a pebble in your shoe. A pebble in your shoe every single hour of every single day. It won't kill you, but it will drive you stark. raving. mad. This is the theory behind Chinese water torture.

So yesterday I went to the dermatologist. After an embarrassingly thorough examination of the entire expanse of my pasty Midwestern skin, she announced that a spot on my right (facial) cheek should come off.

"It's a little suspicious. We should have it biopsied. It's no big deal, just a little scrape."

"Okay," I said. Family history being what it is, I'm taking no chances with the Big C.

Her nurse came in, bearing a tray.

"Okay", she chirped, "Let's numb you!"

"Topical?" I asked.

"Oh, no; you'll need a lidocaine injection. Why? Are you scared of needles?"

Not me. I'm not scared of needles. Not one little bit, Dammit.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The $64,000 Question

We knew over two weeks ago that Mom's cancer was back. We knew it was in the lymph nodes in her neck. Last week, we learned that it was not in her stomach. Yesterday we found out that it is in lymph nodes not only in her neck, but her sternum, her abdomen and her adrenal glands. There are suspicious nodules in her lung, as well. "Stage 4 metastatic cancer"; that's what the doctor called it.

He's a good egg, this oncologist; a nice Irish boy. As Mom, Dad, my brother and I sat in the tiny exam room, he enthusiastically described a variety of chemotherapy treatments. Taxotere and carboplatin (what my Dad is getting) are too harsh for her. But there are other treatment regimens to consider. He talks about studies and a drug called 5FU (yes, really) and antibody treatment if the tumors are HER-positive.

We ask questions and he answers them. Mom's system is very sensitive; she has reactions to lots of medications, including most antibiotics. She takes coumadin. She doesn't tolerate codeine-based pain medications. He says the good news is that no cancer showed up in the liver. "If it was in her liver, there wouldn't be much we could do at all and I wouldn't recommend chemo in that situation." He almost makes it sound like things could be worse.

He tells us that we can choose to forgo chemo: "It's a perfectly reasonable choice", he says. He would, however, radiate the tumor in her neck to minimize discomfort, because without chemo it will most certainly continue to grow and will press upon nerves and blood vessels.

What he does not talk about is life expectancy. When I ask about "progression", he carefully skirts the issue. I know there is no crystal ball and if there were, I probably wouldn't like what I would see in it, anyway. When I finally pin him down, asking if he can give us any sort of timeline (he seems to like this term better than "life expectancy"), he says 6 to 13 months. I ask if that is with or without treatment. He says, "With and without."

Dad, a man of quick decisions and goals and action, is ready to commit to something. For him, a plan is a necessary thing; inaction and indecision are torture. My brother and I pull him back.

"Let's discuss this, Dad. It's a big decision."

The doctor agrees. "I will be seeing you on Tuesday for your next treatment. We can finalize our plans then. We have time."

We decide to schedule an appointment with the radiation oncologist right away, to have a look at what can be done for the large tumor in her neck and book the appointment before we leave.

After hugs all around, we start to separate in the lobby, heading off in our different directions. And then I reconsider. I look at my brother. He meets my gaze and nods.

"Let's find a place to talk a bit before we go."

There is an empty room, right off the lobby. Chairs surround a table near a cooler filled with Ensure and there several wigs on stands perched on nearby book shelves. We pass by the magazine rack and Mom stops to look.

"Hey, there's the Field & Stream you were reading the last time we were here, Mom!"

She chuckles. I don't know if she actually remembers or not, but she plays along, lingering at the rack. She picks up a magazine and starts flipping the pages. I take her arm.

"Mom, let's leave the magazines. We need to talk about what the doctor told us. Let's go in here and sit down for a few minutes."

We sit at the table and all that's missing is a deck of cards. Dad looks over at the cooler.

"Have you ever tried that Ensure? God, it's awful stuff. I tried it when I was trying to get my strength back after the surgery, but I couldn't get the stuff down."

Mom fusses with the silk flower centerpiece.

"So, Mom, what do you think about what the doctor had to say?"

She shrugs. "I don't know what to think."

I go into lawyer-counseling-client mode.

"Mom, the decision about whether to have chemo is up to you. For some people, they want to know they tried everything; for other people, the chance of more time just isn't worth feeling rotten.  We have to balance out what is the up side and what is the down side of treatment."

"I just don't know." She pauses, looking down and then back up, at Dad.

"I would hate to think I could have done something about it and didn't, but I have lived a long time. I have had a good, long life."

"Mom," my brother says, "You can always stop the chemo if you start it and it makes you miserable. You don't have to continue it just because you started it."

"I just want her to be comfortable," Dad says, looking across the table at her.

"I guess you just do what you have to do," she says as she shrugs her shoulders again, looking rather lost. She rotates the flower arrangement and examines the container it is in.

Mom looks pretty. She recently had her hair permed and it's short and curly; mostly silver. Her eyes are the same pale aquamarine they have always been. She is wearing her favorite blue print silk blouse. But for the lump on the side of her neck, which really isn't very obvious, she looks fine. You would never know she has cancer.

We finish our discussion with no clear resolution, only the agreement that we will talk among the family and finalize plans by Tuesday.

I shouldn't be writing. I have too much to do. Everyday stuff: laundry; cleaning; parent-teacher conferences this afternoon; preparing for my book club hostessing duties tonight. But I can't; not until I process this latest twist in the road.

I wish she had a strong opinion about what she wanted. I wish she felt one way or another. I don't feel right steering her. It should be her choice. But what if she can't make the decision? Could she ever forgive us if we said,  "no chemo" and she went quickly? Would she forgive us if we said "yes" and she got sicker and felt awful? And what about Dad? He is beating the cancer that attacked him and he needs our support, too.

Yesterday was a hard day, but it was also a day for celebration. It was Mom and Dad's 62nd wedding anniversary.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Pull

A week or so ago, I was at my Mom and Dad's condo, which is about an hour and a half from home. We had just gotten in the door from Dad's most recent chemo treatment, when my cell phone rang. It was 2:45, so I knew my 6th grade daughter was calling to let me know she got home and in the house okay.

"Hi Mom, I'm home."

"Thanks for calling, honey."
(I can tell something is wrong.)

"Are you going to work on your reading project, now, before your sister gets home?"
(She starts to cry. Actually, she starts to wail.)

"Mom. I accidentally left my poster in homeroom and then I was getting my bag all packed up at my locker and this kid hit me in the nose with his lunchbox. He said it was an accident but I don't believe him. I know I had my planner and my supply pouch in my bag but they're not there! I don't know what to do!"
(More wailing)

"Okay, it's okay," I say in my most soothing voice, hopefully low enough that my parents don't hear.

"Get a piece of paper and quickly write down what you remember is due tomorrow while it's still fresh in your mind, okay?"

"Okay, but Mom!"

I scan my mind, trying to recall the assignments we discussed last night.

"You have your final reading log due tomorrow, right?"

"Yes! That's what I mean - my jump drive is in my supply pouch and I don't have it and I worked on it today at school and all my work is on it!"
(More wailing.)

This is not the first time that there has been a crisis of some sort while I have been away from home, but this is the first one that was not resolvable entirely with words of wisdom or a quick call to a mom-friend for a ride to or from somewhere.

"It's going to be okay, honey. Let's get this figured out. The big assignments are all for one teacher, right?"

"Yes, but-"

"Okay; her email address is on the school website, right?"

"Yes, but-"

"So, why don't you start by sending her an email right away and tell her what happened?"

"Mom, she won't give me extra time. She won't. She said so today in class. She said the projects have to be turned in tomorrow and there's no way I can get it done!"
(More wailing)

"Don't ask her for extra time. Just let her know what happened, right away. At least she will know that  your project might be late and she will know why and she won't think you were just goofing off, right? She knows you; she knows you are good student and that you always turn your work in on time, right?"

"Okay, Mom. I'll do it. But this is my most important project this grading period!"

"Just give it a try. Then call me back."

I went back to the table where my parents were sitting, eating a snack after the long appointment at the cancer treatment center.

"Who was that?"

"Oh, It was B, letting me know she's home."

"Have the girls already started back to school?"

"Oh, yeah, Mom - it's October. They've been back for a while."

"Oh, of course! I forgot."

"Is everything okay, Margaret?"

"Yes, Dad; she forgot a couple of things at school. She's a little upset."

My Dad looks pained:  "I'm sorry you have to be here. I hate to be a burden on you kids."

"It's okay, Dad. She'll be fine."

My cell phone rang again. It's B.

"Mom, I sent the email. I checked my bag three times to make sure the jump drive wasn't in there and it's not. I don't know where it could be!"
(Hysteria rising.)

"Okay, good. Let's think. If someone found it, they would take it to the office, right?  Why don't you call the school office and ask if someone turned it in?"

"But, Mom, even if somebody turned it in I can't get it today and tomorrow will be too late!"
(crying resumes)

I look at my watch. She's right. Even if I left right then, I would not be able to get over to the middle school before it closed.

"Let's try it anyway. What have we got to lose? When you call, ask how late someone will be there, okay? Just tell the secretary what happened and ask if someone turned anything in, okay? Give it a try."

"Okay, Mom, but I don't think it will do any good."
(Grumbling under breath.)

"Is everything okay? Was that B again?" my Mom asks.

"Yes, it was. She's fine. Working through it."

Mom and Dad continued their snack. Dad got up to check his email, which is mostly dirty jokes from his geezer buddies.

My phone rang again.

"Hi, honey. Did you get a hold of someone in the office?"
(Projecting chipper optimism.)

"Finally. No one answered the first two times I called, but the third time the secretary answered. She said no one brought anything in yet, but there is a lost and found box that things are put in and I can check it in the morning."
(Heavy sigh.)

"Well, it seems to me you have done all you can. Sweetie, we know what a hard worker you are. If one assignment is late, it won't be because you didn't do your best work. These things happen. No one is upset with you about this, okay?"

"I know. I just really wanted to get an A+ in honors reading. It's my favorite class."

"You may still get an A+. And if you don't, you don't. It won't be the end of the world. I promise."

"I know."
(Heavy sigh)

"Guess what?"


"You don't have any homework you can do, do you?"


"I guess that means you can goof off the rest of the afternoon. See - it's not all bad!"

"Oh..... yeah! Tell Papa and Gram I hope they feel better soon! Bye Mom!"

And that was that.

I sent her off to school the next morning, worried. She bounced in the door after school, smiling.

"So - how did it go today? Did your stuff get turned in?"

"Yeah; Mr. Williams found the poster and took it to the office and Mrs. Miller got my email and found my stuff in the hallway right by my locker. She let me eat lunch in her room and finish my assignments before class."


"What can I have for a snack? I'm starved to death!"

I told her later how impressed I was that she solved this problem for herself and that she held it together even though I wasn't there to help. She laughed and said she didn't; she said she cried all afternoon but her smile told me she was proud of herself.

I think scientists have gotten it all wrong. They shouldn't be focused on cloning farm animals. They should be cloning mothers, so we can be everywhere at once.

Sunday, October 2, 2011


When I was a kid, I wanted desperately to be Jewish. I read every one of the All of a Kind Family books multiple times. I knew the characters like they were my own family and I liked them much better. The holidays! The cooking! The traditions! It seemed like such a comforting life compared to mine, which included daily mass, nasty-tempered nuns and catechism that left little open to interpretation, if you know what I mean.

The only Jew I knew firsthand back then was my sister-in-law, who was so much nicer to me than my actual sisters were, that I was certain there was something special about Jews. As far as I know, there was only one Jewish family in the little southern Ohio town where I grew up. Since I went to the Catholic schools, we never had much of an opportunity to mix. Once we started having holidays that included my sister-in-law's family, I discovered wondrous new foods like creamed herring, noodle kugel and lox. This only added to the allure of Judaism.

As I worked my way through 12 years of Catholic school, I never lost that fascination. And Catholic school for me was no bed of roses, either. I never really got the "sit down, be quiet and play along" part. Couldn't keep my big mouth shut.

I was busted in 5th grade for trying have a seance under the fire escape on the playground at recess.

"But I was trying to summon the ghost of Bloody Mary! She was Catholic."

Oddly, that argument did not help my case. That may have been the time I was ordered to kneel in the hallway in front of a life size, technicolor replica of the Pieta and hold my hands out at shoulder height,  "So you can see how Jesus felt when he was dying for your sins."
The nuns had discovered that writing out lines, over and over, hundreds of times ("I will not argue with Sister Cecelia. I will not argue with Sister Cecelia. I will not argue with Sister Cecelia.") didn't have much of an effect on me.

Then there was the time that Sister Jude found my tarot cards. That didn't go over particularly well, either, as I recall.

Things were a little better in high school, but not much. In 10th grade, we had a unit in our religion class titled "Respecting Ourselves" (Hah!), taught by a handsome young priest. I will never forget his apoplectic look when I raised my hand and said, "Can we just cut to the chase here? Exactly how far can you go without it being a sin?" I knew it was the question on everyone's minds and I was less afraid of hell than the others, so I had to be the one to ask. I knew they would all thank me later.

I think it was in 11th grade that we covered history of the church. They left a few things out in our curriculum, focusing more on martyrs and less on inquistors. I never bought into the whole stigmata thing. In my mind, the poor hygiene of the Middle Ages probably explained it. Still, I remember one exchange with my religion teacher, a priest, quite vividly. Thinking like the salesperson I was later destined to become, I noted,

"Father, the church could attract a lot more members if it would just be little more flexible about certain things."

"Miss Pauken, the Church does not need to be flexible because it is the CHURCH. The ONE, HOLY,  CATHOLIC, CHURCH."

(Well, if you want to be that way, I'll just save my marketing strategy for someone else. Sniff.)

Now that the Catholic Church is facing massive church closures and dwindling membership, maybe the Vatican would like to hear my latest idea. (Drumroll, please.)


Yes, I said accessorize.

For too long, all the good stuff has been reserved for the priests - the chalices, candelabras, vestments - you name it. If you want to generate enthusiasm, get the bling out to the people! Once again, Jews have gotten it right. Take a look at the The Source for Everything Jewish catalog. I have purchased gift items for friends and family from it; it's a great resource. There is so much cool stuff. Catholics need an equivalent. Make being Catholic fun again!

There is a game called "Kosherland" in the catalog. Why couldn't Catholics have something similar, say, "Martyrland"? You select a little avatar and make your way through a treacherous, winding path, beset by blood-thirsty monsignors, helpful saints and nuns wielding rulers. Collect rosaries, crucifixes and prayer cards as you go along. Draw cards to see what happens next:

"Burn mark on the back of your hand mistaken for stigmata - move 10 spaces ahead."

"Caught staring at Colleen Gallagher's bustline - go back 5 spaces for impure thoughts."

"Prayed the rosary every night for a week, move 5 spaces ahead."

"Accidentally bit down on the communion host - go back to start."

The focus always seems to be on the "major" holidays. Christmas is over-commercialized already, but what about the other holy days? Maybe an "Immaculate Conception" special edition set of champagne flutes? Pentecost fireworks? Feast of the Assumption "cloudlike" pavlova dessert mix? Spread the joy throughout the year.

One local Judaic store in Cleveland used to stock "Famous Jew" trading cards. Why not "All Saints" bubblegum cards? I can see it now:

"I'll trade you a Saint Dymphna for a Saint Anselm; I've got 3 of her already."

"Oh, man, I got Saint Francis of Assisi! The gum is shaped like a lamb!"

For the lady of the house, there is china. The Lenten dishware set would include mismatched, cracked and chipped plates, while the four-week Advent set would have three weeks of purple dishes and one week of pink.

The possibilities are truly endless.

I am still fascinated by and respectful of Judaism, with its emphasis on family, tradition, self-reflection and compassion. Although I no longer attend mass and don't identify myself as Catholic, I still respond to the beauty and mystery of its rituals and value its tradition of outreach to the poor. Plus, there are some pretty fabulous religious educators out there, too, like this one.

I don't know if I need the Catholic Church at this point, but I am pretty sure it needs me.