Here, There and Everywhere

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Hazel and Goliath

johnsonExcerpt from Don’t Just Sit There, Do Something! Grief’s Wake Up Call. Interview with Hazel Johnson (Born: January 25, 1935 Died: January 12, 2011). Photo of Ms. Johnson holding her Presidential Medal of Freedom.

It started with her husband. Hazel Johnson’s sweetheart of seventeen years died an early death from lung cancer. Within ten weeks of diagnosis he’d passed away. As Mrs. Johnson began to look for answers she discovered she wasn’t alone, a significant number of people in her Southeast Chicago neighborhood were and had been dying from the disease. A high percentage of infants were born with tumors and defects. It wasn’t genetics, it wasn’t lifestyle, it was the very air they were breathing, the water they drank and the homes in which they lived. The environment was silently altering the very bodies within which they lived.

After educating herself about pollution, toxins and contamination, she put her new found knowledge to work and started PFCR (People For Community Recovery). With her leadership, things started to change. Surrounded by toxic dumps, incinerators and disposal sites, PFCR galvanized the community and successfully challenged some of the largest corporations and politicians in America to take notice and clean up the area they’d been ignoring for years.

HAZEL JOHNSON:

Let me start from the beginning. How I really got involved was my husband had died of lung cancer and at the time they didn’t know what was the cause of it. hen a few years later I heard that our area had a high incidence of cancer and I wanted to know why. We had a lot of people being ill and I knew there was something wrong. I didn’t know what it was at the time.

I started making telephone calls to the health department and was fortunate enough to get in touch with Dr. Reginald Jones. He was well abreast about the area. He explained to me what was going on in the South East side of Chicago . . . about all the contaminants and things. He told me of an organization that was dealing with the environment. I made numerous calls and found out about the Environmental Action Foundation. At that time they had a young man whose name was Kent Silva. I questioned him on a lot of things, about different types of chemicals. He sent me a lot of literature so I could read up on it.

PCR (People for Community Recovery) really started in my bedroom. I did a lot of studying to see what the problem was that we were dealing with out here. When I first started a lot of people thought I was crazy. People said I didn’t know what I was talking about, because this was something new to everybody. They weren’t talking about the environment then like they do today.

In our apartment, in the attic, we have what I call angel hair. I called for them to remove the angel hair from the attic of our apartment. The kids would climb up in there and come out crying and stinging, you know, from the fiberglass. We had that removed.

After that we started fighting against Waste Management across the street because the odor was horrible . . . you had the garbage smell. I started doing a little research on Waste Management and learned how they were dealing with chemicals with the incinerator; how they were burning chemicals from many parts of the United States.

And the garbage . . . I’d never been concerned about the garbage before, until I really got involved with the environment and what was going on. This was all in the early eighties. You know, you put your garbage out and you don’t think about it no more. After I got involved dealing with the environment I got to be more concerned about the garbage and the whole recycling bit of it.

The Waste Management over there. (Nods outside.) I waited until my fifties, in July of eighty-seven, before I went to jail for stopping the trucks that were going in there. We had the media . . . we had a lot of people. In fact we had over five hundred people participating with this stopping the trucks from coming in. We had planned it. We had big garbage cans. Some people were out their barbecuing, with sandwiches and stuff. We had a party. After all the media left Waste Management called the police on us and seventeen of us decided to go to jail for “trespassing”.

When it came to court the judge didn’t know what to do, because he complimented us on what we were doing. Then he called the lawyer and talked to her in the back, in the chamber and when he came back he just said, “Stay away from the property for six months.” After that, we were next door to the property, on the expressway, with big signs and truckers and cars passing by were honking, blowing their horns and carrying on. We really had a lot of excitement going along the expressway. Waste Management called the police on us again, but there was really nothing they could do. We weren’t on their property.

We were saying how we didn’t want another landfill right across the street from a high school and everything, because of how it would affect the people.

And at Miller Manor they had some well water, which was so contaminated you couldn’t even drink it. It smelled just like a rotten egg. It was horrible! And they’d been paying taxes for water they couldn’t even use. There were about six families of older people. A lot of people didn’t believe the city of Chicago had wells, because everybody thought they had all the new system. When the EPA came to check they find out the city has over two thousand wells! After they got so much publicity for that the mayor came in and helped those people out. They didn’t even have a hydrant. If they had had a fire the place would have burned down automatically. So they went in and installed a water system and a hydrant and stuff and they started getting regular water, which they didn’t have to pay for since they’d been paying all those years before and couldn’t even use it. It made a big difference.

The media really picked up a lot of things I’ve been doing. I think that’s made a lot of these success stories that I talk about. The media participated a lot in it too. One little girl, I like her very much, her name is Deborah Nargent and she’s on ABC. She was a great help with the asbestos problem and gave me little tips of what to do and how to be successful with what we were doing.

Sometimes it gets frustrating getting folks to do what they should have in the first place. Like I’m telling my daughter and everybody right now, I am worn out. I am tired. At one point I’d never get home until ten or eleven o’clock at night. I’m working here during the day, then in the evenings we’d have meeting after meeting. Now I’m exhausted. I’m an older woman. At one point I was in the air two or three times a month, going to universities and speaking to meetings or before congress talking about the environment.

I’m on the CSI (Common Sense Initiative), dealing with the industry people in Washington. I asked my daughter Josephine if she’d like to be on the board for that because I’m tired. I don’t want to do no more running around here and there. A lot of people think that’s pleasure. To me it’s not because when I come back I’m worn out. I have to rest two or three days returning from wherever.

But I’m fortunate to say that the majority of the things I’ve fought for are real successful. When I first started a newsman from the local ABC came and asked me, “How do you think a small minority group like yours can buck up against a Multi-million dollar corporation?” I said, “You never know what you can do until you try.” About a year or two later I wrote him a letter outlining all my accomplishments, but he never returned or called saying he’d received the letter. Later on, when we were having a protest about the airport they were talking about building, he was there. I asked him, “Did you receive my letter?” He said, “Yeah, I received it.” But he made no comment on it.

Then we fought for the lagoons to be cleaned up and they cleaned up three of them. They had over 30,000 contaminants in them. Some of the stuff that was put in there had been in so long that they couldn’t tell what it was. A few barrels had paint solvent; some had baby sharks and baby pigs that had been used for medical research, that were in formaldehyde. They had problems trying to clean it all up because whatever was down there was such a mess it would clog up the trucks taking it out. They had to go back and get more money because it took a lot longer than they’d expected. The South side of Chicago was a forgotten area. Nobody was saying anything about the South East side until I got involved.

I’ve discovered that there are more waste sites and dumps around people of color and in poor areas than in other communities; not just here, but all around the country. We’ve brought this issue to national and international attention. I went to the world summit in Brazil. e had women from around the world discussing the problems in our communities. They had people from more than a hundred and twenty five countries. It was the first time they’d ever gotten so many dignitaries from different countries to sit down and take a picture together.

Complete profile of Ms. Johnson and others at Don’t Just Sit There, Do Something! Grief’s Wake Up Call

A Sister’s Promise

imagesInterview with Nancy Goodman Brinker. An excerpt from the book Don’t Just Sit There, Do Something! Grief’s Wake Up Call.

Susan G. Komen was married, with two small children, when she was given a diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer. She fought a valiant fight with every known treatment at the time, until her body could withstand no more, and died in 1980. Before she passed away she had her younger sister, Nancy, promise to find a cure for the disease that was afflicting so many women across the country. Nancy thought the world of her “big sister” and though she was in the depths of despair, and “utter hopelessness”, she promised “Susie” that she would do everything within her power to find a cure.

Two years later, Susie’s little sister, Nancy Goodman Brinker, started the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation and brought breast cancer to national attention, becoming the largest private nonprofit group in the world devoted solely to funding breast cancer research. Since 1982 the foundation has raised over 100 million dollars! Over half a million people now run in their annual 5K “Race for the Cure” in cities across America. They were instrumental in getting the U.S. Postal Service to issue a stamp for Breast Cancer Awareness; have galvanized the undergarment industry to provide labels on their clothing which advocate breast self-examinations; and inspired countless well known politicians and celebrities to publicly speak about their personal encounters with the disease. 

NANCY: I came from a large extended family. My mother has been my greatest role model. She was very close to her family. She weathered losing so many she has loved. She was the only child in a family where there were several uncles and aunts. Many of these uncles and aunts were more like older brothers and sisters, because she was an only child. My Mom had nine aunts and uncles combined, who had a total of four children between them.

Mother ended up being a caretaker and very close to these uncles and aunts. Except for one or two, she literally nursed them all until they died. I use to spend a lot of time with her when I was growing up, taking care of some of them, going to see how some were doing; watching her suffer many losses and then of course my sister. Mother always had the most optimistic attitude, you know, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” She lost her mother when she was only twenty, so she taught me about loss. I still find it so very sad.To tell you the truth, even now I don’t know if I have learned to really deal with it. There must come a point in your life where you never stop grieving but you just take action, you just go forward.

I honestly don’t know how my mother has dealt with all the losses in her life, particularly one uncle who she loved very much and was like a brother to her. That was the one time I really saw her fall apart. It took her a long time to get over that one. I saw her crying in bed, grieving. Ordinarily my mother is compassionate and full of feelings, yet also stoic and able to go on. This one took a lot of her . . . this one uncle’s death. He loved, supported, helped and listened. He was just wonderful to her. He was gentle and kind and I think that he rounded out her life, gave her the comfort that a parent would give a child. He was her mainstay.

She had a supportive family with all her uncles and aunts around. She was an only child so I think she was a little more used to being alone then some of us are. But this one uncle’s death was very sudden and it was tough for her. She weathered through it. She is a very special person, my mother.

Loss was a part of our life. We’re Jewish and mother had lost family in Germany during the war. I wasn’t old enough to know about it when the war was going on per se, but I knew to the extent that we had relatives who were lost in Europe and the war. We talked a lot about that and how precious life is.

When Susan died the thing that helped me the most was focusing all of my energy on fulfilling her dream and last request, which was to cure breast cancer. I had to do this in her memory. I really wanted to do it. We had been through such a siege.

Luckily, I had met and married a wonderful man just after having gone through an awful divorce. I think focusing all my energy and working as hard as I could on the Komen Foundation, raising my son, and being a wife, helped me get through a lot.

I don’t really remember anything specific that people said or did, except one person who helped a lot. He was a Rabbi that we had in Peoria at the time. We went to see him towards the end of Susan’s illness. We wanted to know how to deal with the children and how to deal with her. He told me what to say and how to say it. He said, “Don’t lie and tell her everything is going to be OK . . . she’ll be OK. She is not going to be OK. What you have to do is learn to be sympathetic and it is awful, you don’t know why it is happening. You wish it weren’t happening. You don’t know what to do about it. And that you love her very much and you’ll be there till the end and do everything you can.”

As the years have passed I don’t think I miss her any less. I probably miss her more. I’m getting older and would love to have my sister with me. We were best friends. I think in one way your circle of friends and people narrows, it doesn’t grow it narrows. What’s important in my life now is different then it was. I have learned that there are very few people in life who love you unconditionally. I think sisters are like second mothers if you will. There was unconditional love there. We could say anything we wanted and be totally frank.

In a lot of ways the Komen Foundation has fulfilled a lot of what we had hoped for. It’s funny. I’m not a person with supernatural beliefs but we have always said that we have a Komen angel and it’s Susie! When things start to go wrong she’s there, something turns and it goes right. I can’t explain what I mean but believe me it’s there. I don’t believe in angels in the traditional sense, but I do believe in angels. I don’t know what it is, but there is some spiritual holdover. It’s certainly not in the normal body, but there is something to this and I just can’t quantify it. I have felt her presence on several occasions, so I know it’s there. I don’t know how to describe it to you.

One day I was driving in my car, looked up and there was golden light everywhere in the car. It was like a shower of golden light and I knew she was there. It was very, very interesting. In fact, I was driving down to one of our big Komen events, one of our big luncheon events. It was about four or five years after we’d started and I just had this feeling. It was amazing. There have been other times, particularly at the Races for the Cure, when I felt she was there watching. She’s there, sitting up there watching. I don’t mean to say it’s a different world or inhabiting a different world.

There have been many times when I have almost quit this work. I’ll say, “I can’t do it anymore, it is too hard.” Then something will happen, something very satisfying will happen. I have asked for guidance, “Show me what I am doing.” If I listen and watch the cues it always happens that I find what I am after. There is something very spiritual about this work. There is something almost other worldly about it.

I think it is God’s will and I think there is a lot of randomness in life too. I think that if you are chosen to do something or if you put yourself in the path of being chosen to do something, somehow the circumstances all fall into place. Then you have an obligation to do it. I have been very well fed. I am well taken care of. There is no reason for me to do anything else. There is no reason for me not to do this. I must do it. For me to spend my time at anything else would be wrong, just not right.

Just playing and having a life of leisure is not my style. But it isn’t that it is just not my style, it’s also the fact that there is a lot of work to be done. I wasn’t given the opportunity to do what I do without a reason.

Sometimes I get back a lot from the work and other times I don’t. But it isn’t what I get back from it, it’s what happens, it is how well I do my job. If I do my job well and at the end of the day people’s lives have been saved and we have moved along, then I feel good. It keeps refueling the reason for why I’m here. It’s like I am on a mission.

I don’t understand why Susan died and I lived through my cancer. I have no reason to understand it, except that she was born premature and for some reason her immune system may not have functioned as well. I may have been given a longer period of time to do this work. I don’t know. Believe me, there were times I wish I could have fought her battle for her. I think I was diagnosed with this disease to unfortunately understand, on a very personal level, besides everything she went through, what it was.

Looking back there are few regrets. I wish that I had had a little more time to be, well . . . I would have liked to have had another child. At the time they advised me not to. With breast cancer they weren’t suggesting that people go on and have more children. Today it would be different. I missed out on a lot of things with my son when he was young. He’s turned out, thank God. There are times I wished I had had a little more time and hadn’t had to stay up all night worrying about things. I have been so intensely involved in my cause.

I have some wonderful friends, but I don’t think I’m particularly popular on a personal level. I think people like me, basically view me as strong, you know? But there are things, that because I am an agent of change, I’m not the person you would just call to go play with. My friends are wonderful and they tend to include me, but I know they don’t think of me as being a cozy person. I’m intense about everything I do. I’m sure they feel uncomfortable. I wish I were more low key. I’m just not. No matter how hard I try I’m not wired that way. So I try to cope and handle it, but it just doesn’t seem to work out for me.

On the other hand I’ve learned to not be afraid to take something on that seems impossible. My father was my role model for success and achievement. With enough commitment, courage and persistence, especially persistence, you can overcome almost everything. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist. I’m not. I have largely been successful because I surround myself with extremely bright people who are much better at everything then I am. Don’t be afraid.

More inspiring stories at Don’t Just Sit There, Do Something! Grief’s Wake Up Call

Smack Dab In the Middle

Smack Dab in the Middle

My name is Donna Branham and I live in Mingo County, WV — smack dab in the middle of coal mining country. I’m a registered nurse and I’ve seen firsthand how mining hurts the health of my community. I’ve seen how it is making my community sick1 and year after year it’s only getting worse.

Mountaintop-removal coal mining blows off the tops of mountains to extract the coal that fuels our nation’s power plants. It has already leveled 500 mountains and buried over 1,200 miles of streams — but it gets worse. It raises my community’s risk of birth defects, cancer, and heart disease.

Right now, dozens of permits are pending for new mines and the Obama Administration could approve them any day. If they get approved, it will mean more people get sick and more mountains get destroyed. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want any more families to suffer the effects of Big Coal’s pollution.

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Send a message to the White House before it’s too late. I’m tired of seeing families get sick just so Big Coal can increase its profits. Tell the Obama Administration to put our health first: no more mountaintop-removal coal mines.

A few years ago, Island Creek Coal Company opened a mountaintop-removal coal mine two miles from the house where I grew up and where my Mom and Dad still lived. Because of the danger, my parents had to leave their home so that they could have a reasonable life. My Mom never felt at home again.

After that, I knew I had to act. The coal companies are putting a burden on us, and it isn’t fair. I’ve got grandchildren, and I want them to live in a better world. That’s why I’m calling on the Obama Administration to put our health first, and why I’m asking you to take action.

There have been many times where folks, like us, worked together to make change happen. If it weren’t for mothers demanding a right to vote, women would still not be allowed at the polls. It takes people like you and me who get fed up enough to take action to make a change.

I can’t do it alone, but I know that if we stand together we can create a better life for our children and grandchildren! Tell the Obama Administration to protect families from mountaintop-removal coal mining today.

Thanks for all you do to protect our environment!

Sincerely,

Donna Branham
Sierra Club Volunteer
Mingo County, WV

Eve Ensler – Personal Is Global

A brief review of another intimate and vital work by Eve Ensler.

In the Body of the World
by Eve Ensler. Metropolitan.
Reviewed on 3/11/2013 Publisher’s Weekly

In this extraordinarily riveting, graphic story of survival, Ensler, an accomplished playwright (The Vagina Monologues) and activist in international groups such as V-Day, which works to end violence against women, depicts her shattering battle with uterine cancer. Having felt estranged from her body for a lifetime, and 9780805095180been molested as a girl by her father and enthralled by alcohol and promiscuity early on, Ensler as a playwright was seized with a political awareness of the dire violence committed against women across the globe. At the age of 57, she was blindsided when she discovered that her own health emergency mimicked the ones that women were enduring in the developing countries she had visited: “the cancer of cruelty, the cancer of greed… the cancer of buried trauma.” Her narrative, she writes, is like a CAT scan, “a roving examination—capturing images,” recording in minute, raw detail the ordeals she underwent over seven months. These include her crazed, “hysterical” response to the diagnosis and her treatment at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., as well as extensive surgery, chemo, radiation, and caring by a “posse” of companions in misery, like her estranged sister, Lu, and far-flung friends such as Mama C, the head of the City of Joy women’s center in the Congo.

Read entire review and others at Publisher’s Weekly.

Eve Ensler’s other books include:

Necessary Targets: A Story of Women and War
Insecure at Last: Losing It in Our Security-Obsessed World
Vagina Warriors
The Vagina Monologues
I Am an Emotional Creature: The Secret Life of Girls Around the World

Curing Cancers In A Decade

From Technology Review
21 September, 2012

Oncology’s Moon Shot
by Susan Young

A large cancer research center in Texas announced today it will launch a “$3 billion fight” to reduce the death rates of eight cancers. The so-called Moon Shots program at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center will focus on forms of lung, prostate, ovarian, skin and blood cancers. According to the Houston Chronicle, the program follows a pledge last year by then-new MD Anderson president Ronald DePinho, who at the time said he wanted the hospital to develop a “bold and ambitious plan for curing several cancers.”

The Moon Shots program will include a focus on genomics to understand the genetic and molecular basis of cancers and to identify patient-specific treatments (for more information on these ideas, see “Cancer Genomics” and “Making Genomics Routine in Cancer Care”). “Humanity urgently needs bold action to defeat cancer. I believe that we have many of the tools we need to pick the fight of the 21st century. Let’s focus our energies on approaching cancer comprehensively and systematically, with the precision of an engineer, always asking … ‘What can we do to directly impact patients?'” said DePinho in a released statement.

Read complete story and other informative articles at Technology Review.

Light Replaces Chemo

From Technology Review. Published by MIT

Biomedicine
Light-Based Therapy Destroys Cancer Cells

The new approach, which features a heat-sensitive fluorescent dye, could eventually replace standard chemotherapy.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011
By Erica Westly

For more than two decades, researchers have tried to develop a light-activated cancer therapy that could replace standard chemotherapy, which is effective but causes serious negative side effects. Despite those efforts, they’ve struggled to come up with a light-activated approach that would target only cancer cells.

Now scientists at the National Cancer Institute have developed a possible solution that involves pairing cancer-specific antibodies with a heat-sensitive fluorescent dye. The dye is nontoxic on its own, but when it comes into contact with near-infrared light, it heats up and essentially burns a small hole in the cell membrane it has attached to, killing the cell.

To target the tumor cells, the researchers used antibodies that bind to proteins that are overexpressed in cancer cells. “Normal cells may have a hundred copies of these antibodies, but cancer cells have millions of copies. That’s a big difference,” says Hisataka Kobayashi, a molecular imaging researcher at the National Cancer Institute and the lead author of the new study, published this week in Nature Medicine. The result is that only cancer cells are vulnerable to the light-activated cascade.

The researchers tested the new treatment in mice and found that it reduced tumor growth and prolonged survival.
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There are a few kinks to work out before the system can be adapted for humans, though. For instance, the researchers couldn’t test the treatment’s effect on large tumors, since killing off too many cells at once caused cardiovascular problems in the mice. Finding the right cancer-cell markers to pair with the dye may also prove difficult. For example, HER-2, one of the proteins targeted in the study, is only expressed in 40 percent of breast-cancer cells in humans.

Read complete article at Technology Reivew

Viruses Can Kill Cancer?

From Technology Review.

Biomedicine Engineered Viruses Selectively Kill Cancer Cells: The experimental therapy could ultimately serve as a seek-and-destroy treatment for metastatic cancer.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011 By Alla Katsnelson.

A single injection of a virus that has been genetically engineered to kill cancer cells can reliably infect tumors and leave healthy tissue unharmed, according to an early stage trial of 23 patients with metastatic cancers. The findings help lay the groundwork for a new type of cancer medicine using cancer-killing viruses.

Researchers injected different doses of the virus into patients with different types of metastatic cancers. After eight to 10 days, they biopsied tumor tissue from each patient and found that the virus was replicating itself in the tumors of seven of the eight patients who had received the highest dose, with no serious side effects. Several weeks after the injection, tumors in about half of the patients seemed to stop growing, and shrunk in one patient. The study is published today in the journal Nature.

While the study is not the first to test a cancer-killing viral therapy, it is the first to thoroughly document the behavior of the virus in patients’ biopsy tissue. The results confirm that viruses can be used to selectively target these cells.

One reason tumors can grow unchecked is that they suppress the immune system. However, this also makes tumor cells more susceptible to viruses, which replicate inside the infected cell until it bursts. Physicians have known for more than a century that viral infection slows tumor growth, and in recent years they’ve used molecular biology techniques to reëngineer more effective cancer-killing viruses.

Most such viruses now in trials are injected directly into the tumor. But what researchers really need is a therapy that could be injected into the bloodstream and seek out metastasized cancer cells throughout the body, says David Kirn, chief executive officer at Jennerex, the San Francisco-based biotech company that funded the study.

Read entire story at TECHNOLOGY REVIEW.

Don’t Die!

From Angie’s Diary. Excerpt from Good Grief: Love, Loss and Laughter by Gabriel Constans.

Don’t Die!

I fell in love with Robin the first day we met. She was playing her role, as a recently admitted hospice patient, with great style and flair, while I lumbered through my part as the experienced “seasoned” social worker.

She wasn’t nominated for an Academy Award and didn’t give a damn about her looks. Her body looked like a skeleton with a layer of skin painted on with a thick brush. A blue and green scarf covered her almond-shaped, balding head. Her eyes sparkled like diamonds and her smile hung in the air like the Cheshire cat.

She had a warmth and graciousness that the worst ravages of metastatic breast cancer could not hide. Entering her small, low-income apartment by the sea, felt like entering a sanctuary or coming home for the holidays.

Her one-woman play about a terminal disease had about a two year run.

She talked openly about dying, but more about living. She wasn’t afraid of death, but she loved life. She loved her mother, her boyfriend, her family and friends. She loved music, art, beauty and nature. She was thirty-eight years old and she wanted to live until she was an old woman with grandchildren. She kept waiting for a new treatment, another remission, some kind of hope or miracle. It almost came twice.

An experimental trial with a new drug regime was supposed to be available through her HMO but kept getting put off, then delayed, eventually fizzling away into the land of false promises. Then came the dream of a cure with Angiostatin and similar therapies, which exploded across the media and public airwaves as “extremely hopeful cures for cancer tumors.” Again she was told of some local trials and assured that she was eligible to participate, but this too seemed to fade into oblivion as time slipped by, leaving her to use whatever means she had at her disposal – blood transfusions, medications, hospitalization, intravenous therapy, diet, herbs, detoxification, prayer, meditation, visualization – she tried it all, but the cancer kept chipping away.

STORIES CONCLUSION AT ANGIE’S DIARY

The Window Cleaner – Part 2

from Saint Catherine’s Baby – Stories. By Gabriel Constans.

The Window Cleaner – Part 2 (Conclusion)

As Rob’s outrage about his mother’s cancer and subsequent death raged on, Steven waited for a pause, a cue, a sliver of an opening to address the pain that boiled below the surface. It came suddenly, when Rob abruptly stopped speaking, placed his hands on his knees and glared at Steven.

“Well?” Rob asked bitterly, “Now what?”

“I’m sorry you had to witness such suffering,” Steven said. “What an awful ordeal.” Rob waited. “You must love your mother very much.”

Every instinct of pride and privacy in Rob’s body strained to keep composure. It felt like his ligaments were tearing apart; his protective shell, of time and distance from his mother’s passing, stripped bare. Repressed liquids of loss and abandonment leaked like a broken faucet. He tried holding back the tears, by covering his runny eyes and nose with his hands, but it was as useless as trying to stop a tidal wave with a bucket. He felt dizzy, his cheeks burned and his stomach ached. He questioned his sanity and wondered how he had let his well-meaning wife convince him to attend this torture. “I must be a masochist or a nut case,” he reasoned.

Sure, he’d had some scattered days since his adoptive mother had passed on. “Who wouldn’t?” he figured. “She was only fifty-one.”

Her name was Nadine. She’d adopted him, as a single parent, when he was five years old. Everything he knew about love, security or life had come from her. She’d taken him on faith; not knowing what complications might arise as he got older. Her devotion ran deep. She had spoiled him with attention and confidence.

“How could she leave?!” his mind demanded, not able or willing to match the reality of her death with his belief in how the world should work.

He had admitted to his wife, Soledad, that he wasn’t sleeping well and didn’t feel like doing anything. “It doesn’t make sense; nothing matters anymore.”

Anxiety about the future knocked day and night. He frequently asked Soledad if they were OK; if she was sure she wanted to stay with him being so “messed up and all?” She’d smile reassuringly and tell him their love hadn’t changed since they’d met in high school. He was and always would be, “her man . . . her sweetheart. I’m not going anywhere.”

It was during one of these moments of insecurity that she suggested he call these people for help. She had promised that they wouldn’t do any touchy-feely, therapy kind of stuff on him. Now, here he was, wondering what kind of mess he was in. All he’d done so far was babble on about his private life and cry like a wet baby in front of a perfect stranger.

He should have seen the trap the minute he walked in the little claustrophobic compartment. Soft music; candles; a warm and friendly atmosphere – all there to seduce him into making a fool of himself! And there was something unnerving about this guy, like he could see right through you.

“It’s not fair!” Rob shouted, between chest splitting sobs, “Why’d she have to suffer; why not me?!”

Steven handed him some Kleenex from the conveniently placed box sitting on the glass table, waiting patiently to be of service and discarded. Rob wiped his contorted face.

“You’d want your mother to go through the pain your feeling?”

“No, but why; how could this happen?”

“Her dying or the emptiness you’re feeling?”

“I don’t know. I don’t know anything anymore.”

“Doesn’t make sense, does it?”

Rob nodded, blew his nose again and tossed the tissue towards the small plastic can peaking out from under the table.

Steven said, “It can be painful and confusing. The feelings are so overwhelming; it seems like you’re out of control; nothing fits together anymore.”

“That’s for sure.” Rob dabbed his wet cheeks with another willing tissue. “But why does it have to hurt so bad?” Salt water oozed from the corner of his eye and dripped on to the front of his pressed shirt.

“I don’t know. Maybe it’s the price we have to pay for loving somebody.”

“Pretty stiff price.”

“Sure is,” Steven leaned forward. “You’d have to be a masochist to choose this kind of pain.”

Rob nodded, “So why go through it?”

“Grief seems to be the one kind of pain that doesn’t change or go away, unless we let ourselves face it, feel it . . . almost embrace it. Most kinds of pain are good to get rid of; put a bandage on it, fix it or avoid it, right?” Rob’s river of tears trickled to a small brook as he threw his last drenched tissue toward the seemingly elusive wastebasket. “With grief there is no easy, quick fix; it’s not something you ‘get over’ or ‘recover from.’”

Steven wondered if Rob was making any connections. He was never sure. Even if the client said they understood, felt heard or thanked him for his time, there was no guarantee that his presence or words had any beneficial effect at all. There was no tangible, physical sign or material exchange, no finished product or sutured wound.

“But,” Steven emphasized, “if you allow yourself to experience it, with people you trust and at times and places that feel safe, it will lesson in duration and frequency.”
Rob shook his head in disbelief. Steven added, “Right now it doesn’t feel like it will ever change, right?”

“You got that right.”

Rob’s apprehension and anxiety flew around in his head like manic butterflies, while Steven, this quiet middle aged man with specs and out of date shoes, continued to provide his attention and seemingly sincere concern. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, Rob’s fears subsided, as he realized he was safe and could allow his heart’s storms to rage.

He told Steven all about Nadine. He talked about their favorite holidays, Thanksgiving and Halloween; about where they had lived, in Providence; what she did for a living, working as a home care attendant; how he bought her a home, after working in real estate for several years. He told him about the difficult times they’d had when he was a teenager, when he was embarrassed to be around her; how he had pushed her away and his remorse at having done so. He talked about his wife Soledad; how she felt closer to his mother than to her own. He talked and talked and cried and cried and remembered.

As Rob told him about his mother, Steven thought fondly of his own. She’d had a heart attack and surgery about six years ago, coming precipitously close to death’s door. She was in her seventies now and doing well, but the thought of her dying still gave him the chills. It wasn’t like he was a stranger to loss. Various family members, friends and acquaintances had gasped their last breaths; but there was something about his mother, her solid, life-long presence and care, that struck close to the bone. The thought of her dying and disappearing from this material life, made him feel vulnerable and alone. He prayed it would never happen, knowing full well that such prayers were a futile exercise in self-delusion.

“Yeah, she was, I mean is, an amazing woman,” Rob concluded fondly, an imperceptible smile kissing his lips.

Hearing Rob pause and having a sense that their time was coming to a close, Steven asked Rob if they could meet again in a week or two. He noticed the strained expression, of someone trying to hold together a broken glass, had been replaced with a smile, a smile that said, “Thank God. I’m not going crazy. This is all to be expected. It will change. There is hope.”

“If it’s not too much trouble,” Rob replied. “Would you write down the time and date? I’ve been a little forgetful lately.”

“Sure.” He wrote down the appointment, as slowly and carefully as possible, so someone beside himself could read it and handed it to Rob.

Rob checked the time and date, then turned the card over. “Steven Rice, Ph.D.,” he read silently, “Bereavement Counselor.” He stuffed it in his front pocket, stood and firmly shook Steven’s hand. “Thank you. Thank you very much.”

“You’re welcome.”

“I know this sounds crazy, but I think it helped.”

“I hope so,” Steven smiled. “I look forward to seeing you next week.”

Steven watched Robert walk down the red-stained ramp, back into his life, a life without the woman who had taught him how to live. He went over to the miniature desk, sat on the rolling office chair, took out a pink form that read, “Progress Note”, grabbed his pen and began to write.

The last hour was fresh in his memory as he looked out the dirty windowpane and felt the air through the screen cooling as the sun undressed to put on its nightgown of darkness. The old knotted pine trees stood gallantly in the gully, impervious to the suns disrobing. They stood without feelings of love, loss, joy or sorrow; without consciousness of there own existence or approaching demise.

Steven put on his alma mater’s long sleeve blue sweater and placed his notes in Mr. Hartman’s file. He put the file inside the four-foot high, rusted metal cabinet and attached the combination lock. Picking up his frayed, black-leather briefcase and bottled water, he looked outside once more, before turning off the light, radio and sound machine.

“I’ll have to wash that window tomorrow,” he said to himself. “It’s filthy.”

Steven Rice walked outside, closed the vacuum-sucking door with a bang, inserted his copper key and turned the latch. The flimsy box trailer and its precarious contents were safe for another day. He walked down the shaky ramp and wondered how we keep living with all our scars and open wounds.

THE END

PART 1

MORE STORIES

Just Around The Corner

Excerpt from Good Grief: Love, Loss and Laughter
by Gabriel Constans.

Just Around The Corner: Hope and Healing

I fell in love with Robin the first day we met. She was playing her role, as a recently admitted hospice patient, with great style and flair, while I lumbered through my part as the experienced “seasoned” social worker.

She wasn’t nominated for an Academy Award and didn’t give a damn about her looks. Her body looked like a skeleton with a layer of skin painted on with a thick brush. A blue and green scarf covered her almond-shaped, balding head. Her eyes sparkled like diamonds and her smile hung in the air like the Cheshire cat.

She had a warmth and graciousness that the worst ravages of metastatic breast cancer could not hide. Entering her small, low-income apartment by the sea, felt like entering a sanctuary or coming home for the holidays.

Her one-woman play about a terminal disease had about a two year run.

She talked openly about dying, but more about living. She wasn’t afraid of death, but she loved life. She loved her mother, her boyfriend, her family and friends. She loved music, art, beauty and nature. She was thirty-eight years old and she wanted to live until she was an old woman with grandchildren. She kept waiting for a new treatment, another remission, some kind of hope or miracle. It almost came twice.

An experimental trial with a new drug regime was supposed to be available through her HMO but kept getting put off, then delayed, eventually fizzling away into the land of false promises. Then came the dream of a cure with Angiostatin and similar therapies, which exploded across the media and public airwaves as “extremely hopeful cures for cancer tumors.” Again she was told of some local trials and assured that she was eligible to participate, but this too seemed to fade into oblivion as time slipped by, leaving her to use whatever means she had at her disposal – blood transfusions, medications, hospitalization, intravenous therapy, diet, herbs, detoxification, prayer, meditation, visualization – she tried it all, but the cancer kept chipping away.

She went to the hospital for one final assault, then returned home. It was a glorious Indian Summer when I saw her for the last time. I knocked on her weathered door, heard her call out “Come in.” and entered her tiny sunlit living room, which was also her bedroom, library and dining area.

Moving towards the head of her hospital bed, I saw that she’d been through the ringer and was losing ground fast. Her face was black, blue and yellow, as if she’d just been in a bar room brawl. Her skin was almost translucent, stretched over her frame like a sheet of white plastic. Her arms were as thin as straws and she struggled to breathe deeply. In spite of her frailty and obvious diminishing returns, her eyes still danced and she spoke vibrantly about life and healing.

“I hope my life made a difference,” she said softly.

“You know it has,” I reassured. “You’ve given such love.”

“Yes, I guess so,” she said and touched my cheek gently with her fingers. “That’s been the best part.”

“What’s next?” I asked tentatively, wondering what she planned to do with her remaining days.

She turned away, looked out her large window and watched a mother and daughter lean against the cliff side railing, their hair blowing in the wind, the child laughing, screaming with delight. Without changing position, she replied, “I don’t know. What do you think?”

Part of me wanted to run. My many years of listening and learning how to be present seemed to slip out the door. “I don’t know,” I said lamely. “Part of me doesn’t want to believe this day has come.” I followed her gaze, not really focusing on anything. My hopeless grasping continued. “I don’t want you to die.”

“Nice thought,” she smiled, “but just a wee bit unrealistic.” She rolled her eyes and grinned with amusement.

“Yeah,” I blushed. “It’s just . . . I don’t know . . .” I struggled to find the right words then looked her way. “How do you let go of everything you’ve known with such dignity and grace?”

“I don’t have any choice,” she said without hesitation.

“I know we don’t always have a choice over what happens to us,” I blundered along, “but we have a choice in how we respond to what happens, don’t we? If I was in your position, I’d be screaming and yelling to my last breath.”

Without blinking, she reiterated, “Like I said, I don’t have a choice. This is who I am.”

Robin died two days later. She died like she lived, tenderly and peacefully. I, on the other hand, keep wailing away at the ravages of cancer, thinking I have more choices in life than are probable and hoping a cure for cancer is “just around the corner.”

MORE GOOD GRIEF: LOVE, LOSS AND LAUGHTER.

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