Yesterday, I discovered Rendezvous, “a digital meeting place for the globally engaged, hosted by the International Herald Tribune.” As such, Rendezvous is a global tribe seeking “to inspire international discussion and intelligent debate that enlivens the global conversation.” Sounds like the perfect place for members of the Irish diaspora, scattered far and wide across the globe. People like me. While my circumstances were different from my grandparents and so many irish before me, who were obliged to leave home because of famine or poverty, or diminished possibilities and broken promises, I can barely remember a time when I did not harbor a desire to come to America, eager to take what Doris Kearns Goodwin calls that “spectacular risk.” And, although I have now spent almost half my life in these United States, there are still unguarded moments of dislocation that bring a crushing loneliness and a cry for “home.”
Before Skype, it was by telephone that bi-continental families like mine delivered and received the most important news of our lives, from tidings that could not be shared soon enough: “I got the job!” “I’m going to have a baby!” “It’s a girl!” to the shrill ring that will startle a slumbering household too early in the morning or too late at night to be anything good. I distinctly recall such a moment, one September morning before dawn broke in Phoenix. Barely awake, I answered the phone to hear the anguish of a lifelong friend calling out from a village in Wales, “My darling is gone! My darling Kev is gone! Gone!” her husband killed outright in a car accident. Then the phone ringing in the hall of my parent’s Castledawson home, so far away, on a Friday night in November, after The Late Late Show. I can imagine my mother glancing at my father, the two of them held momentarily in a kind of dread, fearing the news that might come about my brother or me.
Like me, my mother can tell by the exhalation of the first syllable of “hello,” if something is wrong, so I had avoided her for a week. Taking advantage of the eight hour time difference, I had made myself unavailable ever since I found the lump. Away from our home phone, I could shop or run for miles or do anything other than talk to my mother about the lumpish thing in my right breast, the MRI, the three-then-four tumors, the core needle biopsies, and the pathology report. Across distance and time, avoidance and denial cleverly converged, with me convincing myself that when it all turned out to be nothing, it would unfold as the kind of melodrama that so effortlessly fills up a long distance phone call with my mother on a Saturday morning.
Waiting for the results of those biopsies was excruciating, and it was lonely. More than anything, I wanted to talk to my mother, my best friend; to drive to Sky Harbor airport and hop on a plane; to go “back home” where it was probably raining or about to rain. Home to endless cups of tea or something a wee bit stronger and well-meaning people who love me and don’t want me to die, all of them waxing poetic about how things could be worse. For the uninitiated, a hallmark of growing up in Northern Ireland is that no matter what befalls you, someone is bound to remind you – and it will be strangely comforting – that there is always some poor soul worse off than yourself. That, and you’re not half thankful enough. But I could not bring myself to call my mother without having something definite to tell her. My mother and I don’t care much for loose ends. We like a tidy ending. Of course, I could tell her about the tumors. But what kind? Benign? Malignant? Wait and see. Treatment? Surgery? Chemotherapy? Radiation? All possible. Wait and see. The Breast Patient Navigator had taken over and was beginning to help me navigate a trek through “wait and see” with a team of people that would also wait and see. Being far away from home made the waiting even worse.
If the news was bad, how would it be broken? How would I break it to my mother, and she so far away? My seventy three year old mother who thought her work was done, the real worrying over, her two children well-raised with children of their own, making their way in the world and causing relatively little trouble. I even found the Regional Guidelines for Breaking Bad News published by the Northern Ireland Department of Health, Social Services, and Public Safety. I confess it had never occurred to me that there were so many steps in breaking bad news. The day before my diagnosis, I finally gave in and told someone from home, because someone from home would know what to say, soft albeit shocked and colloquial, funny even. But not my mother. Not yet.
Thus would begin the trail of over 3,000 Facebook messages with my brother whom I adore. My wee brother, now a man. A husband, a father of three, in the middle of his life on the other side of the ocean and on the opposite end of Ireland from my mother. I knew he would make me laugh, and I knew he would keep a secret. As he has always done.
When Rendezvous asks how we expatriates cope with a death or a health crisis on the other side of the ocean, my response is that it is always with a sense of un-reality, with guilt over things that should never have been said, and with promises that it won’t be too long before a visit home, because you’re a long time dead, and then a rush of communication, words tumbling over words, such as this between my brother and me.
Ostensibly out of the blue, but the day before my diagnosis, I sent a message to him:
November 10, 2011
Can we talk this weekend?
Not sure when we’ll be in the house exactly; we might take the lads out if the weather is fine, because it gets awfully claustrophobic if we’re cooped up inside all day, but I’ll drop you a line on FB and let you know. Is all okay?
No – will know for sure in 16 hours. Do NOT alarm the folks.
Sixteen hours? That means there’s only eight to go. Sounds intriguing. I hope it’s nothing serious. Hopefully your new day will begin with some positive news Drop me a line on FB when you know. I’ll be here until 5pm our time, which is another four hours, so I guess you won’t know by then, but if you’re up and about, let me know what it’s about x
November 11, 2011
So… what in tarnation’s going on Yvonne?
PROMISE you won’t tell ma. You have to promise me. PROMISE you won’t tell mam. PROMISE.
But sure of course I won’t. Unless you’ve murdered someone, natch …
OK … here goes … I found a lump last week. Went to doctor for mammogram. Found two tumors in right breast. Then on Wednesday they found another. Did three biopsies. Find out the results today. Do not tell ma. If you tell her, I will NEVER EVER tell you another thing. EVER.
Fuck. Of course I won’t, Yvonne. Cross my heart. Jesus. I’m shell-shocked here. How are you feeling, if that isn’t the DUMBEST question in the world.
Well … scared. The core needle biopsy wasn’t too bad. kind of sore. just after they say “tumor,” you don’t hear anything else. Sophie doesn’t know. Ken’s being all brave, but I just keep losing it. Want so much to tell ma, but the distance and the worry is too great. So now I’m crying. Again. So scary. It’s the not knowing and the waiting that is so cruel. I hate it.
The last place you want to hear the word ‘tumor’ is in that context. Yvonne I’m stunned. You poor, poor thing. I am hoping and praying and engaged in all manner of ‘offering it up’ here. Telling mam would be SUCH A BAD IDEA, and of course I will not breathe a word. Oh, my dear God.
I know. You’re right about ma. I know you’re right. The waiting would destroy her, and daddy would probably wander the roads, all stoic and stone-faced, while cursing the miles and miles between us. Anyway, I’m trying not to break in pieces … we find out at 1:30. BTW … can I just say every woman I know admits that they do not do self-exams. And what was the bloody point of all those clear mammograms?
Okay, just take a VERY deep breath. It’s out of your control for the next few hours, and there is NOTHING you can do in that time except to remain as positive and strong as you possibly can. So, so easier said that done, but you’re … a tiger, and whatever happens, you can deal with it.
Well thank God you didn’t say cougar.
AND …. I’m pissed off because I’ve been so good at doing the Couch to 5K thing. I was beginning to think I would run in the Belfast Marathon.
And … I got great tickets to the Bob Seger concert. And … even my hair looks better than average these days.
least I’m in America and have good insurance. Saw my doctor the day after I found lump. Had mammogram next day and the biopsy two days after that.
Hello??? Are you still there???
Sorry, I’m still here. Boss just stopped by for “a chat.”
Oops. Sorry. i forgot you were at work. I’ll let you go. will keep you posted. Please, please do not breathe a word. Oh God. Now I have visions of you trapped in a cubicle with a demon boss and our Facebook chat minimized on the screen.
I will not say anything, Yvonne. You have my word, and my prayers. Drop me a line on FB when you know, please, and I’ll see it when I get up. I’m all confused. 1.30 is what time?? Oh god. Hold on, and I’ll work it out…
i think 9:30 at night with you. Oh, Keith, I just want to hear benign, benign, benign. Three benig
Drop me a line if you get a chance, and I’ll give you a call. Please try not to get too distraught until you know. Only knowledge will give you any real power in this situation. And there are all sorts of possibilities. And don’t forget what Thomas Wolfe wrote:
“America — it is a fabulous country, the only fabulous country; it is the only place where miracles not only happen, but where they happen all the time.”
P.S. – I’m not an avid reader of the great Mr Wolfe, but I came across that passage recently when searching for something else, and I just recalled it. Saying prayers for you now, so go do something to take your mind off things for a while. Go for a walk in your favorite place, and focus on something beautiful, instead of being locked into that horrible mental waiting room.
Alright, grand. On old Tom’s very high note, I’ll sign off. Thank you Keith. XXXXXX
Love you and take care and good luck xxx
BTW – I don’t know if it was the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test Man-In-The-White-Suit Tom Wolfe or n the late great early 20th century novelist, Thomas Wolfe. I suspect the latter, but it is a good one nonetheless.
Oh, Yvonne you poor ‘oul divil. What a horrendous day for you, but hopefully, this dark corridor will lead to a better, brighter day. Love you. Talk later. K xxx
Okay — I’m off now to get my bus home, so I won’t be talking to you or be in touch for a while. I don’t want to say anything at home either, because you know how sensitive kids can be to that sort of talk. I’ll say nothing at home until I know more. Fingers, thumbs, legs, toes, all limbs are crossed, and I hope to hear good news from you later. Take care Yvonne. Love to Ken & Sophie. xxx xxx xxx
Thank you!!! So hard to keep it from Sophie … Amanda is taking her out under a babysitting ruse …
Talked to ma.
I have breast cancer.
MRI next, then surgery.
November 12, 2011
Spoke to mam this morning. She’s shocked, but she and dad are fine. Just want you better. I don’t think I’ll be back until late tonight so hopefully talk to you tomorrow. Hope Sophie and ken are okay. Love you xxx ooo
November 14, 2011
Hi Yvonne — how are you doing today? xox
Just got up … can’t find specs so don’t know what I’m writing!! Oh … it ranges from being wildly indignant to feeling just plain sorry for myself. Sophie and I have been making irreverent jokes about it, but then Ken got mad at us. So we have to watch what we say, otherwise there will be a sharp outburst of ‘Goddammit-your- mom’s-sick-it’s-not-funny.’ I need to look for my glasses … will chat later
. Oh Jesus — even with your vision fettered by the lack of spectacles, that’s a pretty clear picture of what’s going on!!! I’m sure you’re on a rollercoaster. Mam said you were going to go to work today. Maybe that’s for the best. Hope Sophie is okay too. Drop me a line later if you’re in work and want to skive. Hope that the work environment is not too stressful. That would be the last thing you need … Talk to you later xxxx
Hey you … I am waiting for Sophie to get out of school. Work was a fabulous distraction. I keep thinking I must be making it all up, so I can’t help being very irreverent about it when I am around people who seem to care about me. Ken is scared and doesn’t understand that I’m not really making a joke about it. I am just coping. Seriously, he might explode with a “Give my daughter the shot!!” a la Shirley McClaine in “Terms of Endearment.” Sophie, on the other hand, is darkly funny. Just today, she raised a haughty eyebrow and gave me a knowing look when the lady at the drugstore asked if we would be at all interested in donating a dollar to cancer research. BTW Where the hell did all those pink ribbons come from? Seems I have seen more pink ribbons since last Friday than in my entire life.
Oh God, I’d say you must be seeing them everywhere you look. I’m sure Ken will be fine, but he’s probably just scared shitless and feeling helpless as there is nothing he can do. I know how I felt last year when Ita was lying in a high dependency unit surrounded by a team of specialists who threw me out of the ward for getting in the way. Not very nice really, especially when it left me at the mercy of nuns loitering in the public waiting area, waiting for their chance to do their good deed for the day!
P.S. Speaking of nuns, I was walloped by a four foot nun in the bus station this morning, because she walked into the umbrella I was carrying under my arm. Silly me. Of all the things I think about on my way to work, I hadn’t considered the etiquette of umbrella transportation, and the inherent dangers to undersized elderly members of the religious orders who don’t look where they are going. She really thumped me too. Drop me a line later.
Accosted by a nun!?! Oh God, that is so funny – I have a great mental image of you being attacked by a little nun. I never see nuns. Where are they kept in Phoenix, I wonder? As for the pink ribbons. Did I tell you about what Sophie calls “the cancer goodie bag?” After the kindly but somewhat annoying nurse (breast care navigation specialist) gives you the worst news of your life along with just a touch of how prayer might help, she sends you off with the kind of tote bag you get at conferences, filled with brochures, a 10 yr planner, books with pithy titles like ‘Finding the Can in Cancer’
I wonder should I start a blog … with a clever title along the lines of staying abreast of a life that used to be scheduled by me.
Oh God… truth is stranger than fiction. Your encounter with the ‘breast care navigation specialist’ (are you serious with that title, or being sarcastic??) is straight from the surgery of Dr Julius Hibbert from The Simpsons. Sounds like young Sophie has the right attitude about all of that (what mam calls) ‘trumpery’. it’s just bloody trinkets, isn’t it, and a bit of a growth industry. The Can In Cancer is right up there with ‘There Is No “I” In Team’… or, again, are you being acerbic again. ‘Tis hard to tell… But even if you are, you’re absolutely right. Whoops, better go, will write later…
Acerbic … and I kid you not.
I’ll bet… God I’d forgotten how hairy it is trying to have a conversation on Facebook in an open-plan office. But definitely not as difficult or full of Esperanto and code words as a telephone conversation, though, eh?
Hey Yvonne — just a quick note to wish you well for later today. Will be thinking of you, Big Sis. Really wish there was something I could do to help. xxx
You already are helping. Thank you for just staying in touch. It is a wonderful byproduct of an otherwise screwed up situation.
I know. Anyway, I’m rooting for you. Are you not terrified? Ken and Sophie must be out of their minds, but you’re in great hands there, and, that, even more than the medical intervention, is what counts. Okey doke, am in work, so I’d better get back to it, but keep in touch as soon as you know anything, and hopefully we’ll get a chance to talk on the phone again soon. Work usually turns everything upside down during the week, because of the commute to and from Cork, so sorry I can’t talk, but will have a chat this weekend? That’s it for now. Fingers crossed, and deep breaths, now… xxx
yeah …Ken cracked a bit last night. It made me feel very sad. It’s our 20th anniversary today. Twist the knife some more, right? surgeon already wants to see me on Monday morning and hasn’t even seen the MRI yet so that makes me scared. I will send you a note later.
Ah Jeez… happy anniversary.
Talk to you later. Am going to catch bus soon, so drop me a line if you get around to it later, or if not, don’t worry about it, just do so sometime in the next 24 hours, cos I don’t want to be hassling you on the phone like a big galumphing lummox. Love you x
Hey … my Breast Care Navigation Specialist will have the results of MRI tomorrow. Had a large G&T earlier following minor breakdown when I had to check the YES box on the form ‘Have you ever had a cancer diagnosis?’
Oh Jesus. Mind the gin, otherwise it’ll lead to more tears, if I know my gin. Oh good God, the official form ‘leveler’ as well. There’s nothing like that to lay you low. Keep on top of things, Big Sister. It will all come out in the wash. I know that patience is not something you’ve EVER had much time for, but try to hang in there, because you’ll tie yourself up in a knot.
In other news, well, it’s not really news, but just to let you know I was thinking of you in a much more positive context earlier on. On the bus. I was looking out at the pissing rain streaming down the window, pleasantly surprised when ‘Main Street’ came up on a shuffled playlist on my iPod. God bless Bob Seger. Do you know what I love about that song? The way he manages to take a multi-syllabic line like “I remember standing on the corner at midnight trying to get my courage up”, and render it thusly: ‘Imema’stannin’thecawnnat’midnite (death-defying pause)T
ryn’ta get mah courage up.’
Fantastic. That’s like a cross between Sinatra and Ernest Hemingway. Genius delivery. Sorry for the diversion. Just reminded me of your old turntable on the floor of your bedroom on the Dublin Road (and our Penny the poodle growing dizzy as she watched the LP revolve to its conclusion). Anyway, “laters”, as ‘the youth’ would say these days. Love xxx
i dont’ care what state I’m in, but I am bound and determined to see Bob Seger on December 23rd and to have some sort of Christmas. Admittedly, I may have to play the cancer card with a bit of guilt to get Sophie to come along, but whatever it takes . . . surely, one day, she will tell her friends that her mother was very hip and cool with great taste in music?
Oh, the forms are laughable …. today I had to fill out one which asked if I’d ever had cancer (other than present) on the same page as “What is your chief complaint/reason for coming to our office today?”
Anyway …. have you ever read anything by Sherman Alexie?? I met him at a book-signing recently after he gave a very funny talk during which he read from War Dances. Anyway, he talks about how cool it was to watch the screening of his Smoke Signals, a very cool little indie film, sitting next to Bruce Springsteen. Can you imagine sitting at the screening of a film based on a book you wrote with The Boss beside you?? Anyway, he wrote a poem about how, like me, he used to make a great mix tape, the way we have done so many times. Here it is:
Ode to Mix Tapes By Sherman Alexie
These days, it’s too easy to make mix tapes.
CD burners, iPods, and iTunes
Have taken the place
Of vinyl and cassette. And, soon
Enough, clever introverts will create
Quicker point-and-click ways to declare
One’s love, lust, friendship, and favor.
But I miss the labor
Of making old school mix tapes– the mid air
Acrobatics of recording one song
At a time. It sometimes took days
To play, choose, pause,
Ponder, record, replay, erase,
And replace. But there was no magic wand.
It was blue-collar work. A great mix tape
Was sculpture designed to seduce
And let the hounds loose.
A great mix tape was a three-chord parade
Led by the first song, something bold and brave,
A heat-seeker like Prince with “Cream,”
Or “Let’s Get It on,” by Marvin Gaye.
The next song was always Patsy Cline’s “Sweet Dreams,”
or something by Hank. But O, the last track
Was the vessel that contained
The most devotion and pain
And made promises that you couldn’t take back.
November 18, 2011
Have never heard of him, Yvonne. But will check him out. He sounds intriguing. No more intriguing than the forms you’re having to fill in. It’s worse than The Office.
You have cancer. Do you (a) strongly agree; (b) agree); (c) disagree; (d) strongly disagree; or (e) Don’t know. Grrrr.
BTW Limerick is not the place to see cool little indie movies. The recession has wiped out the home DVD rental stores, and at the two omniplexes (omniplexi?) they only put on the kinds of things that are guaranteed to fill seats. Was just looking at the link on Wikipedia though. Sounds good, so I’ll have to see if I can get my hands on it. How you feeling today?
Much better. Not quite a Woo Hoo, but so happy that chemotherapy is not in my immediate future. I just don’t know if I could have handled it. Keith, you must, must read Sherman Alexie’s work. He is a fab writer. “White people gave us Custer, but they also gave us Bruce Springsteen!”
November 21, 2011
Well … they cannot save the breast. Had genetic testing, result of which will determine whether to take left breast and ovaries as well. Just like that!!! One stop shopping. Didn’t cry all day until I called ma, and then I lost it.
Oh Christ Jesus. You poor thing, Yvonne. When will you know the results of the test? What an awful thing to have to deal with. I just don’t know what to say. Drop me a line later if you’re up to it. xxx
In retrospect and in response to the question posed by Rendezvous, it was this Facebook chat with my brother over the course of ten days that kept much of the fear at bay. During the scariest time of my life, I was fed by these tiny snippets of humor and nostalgia and sorrow and fear traveling at lightening speed from one continent to another. Connected in an ephemeral, electric silence but with nothing to hold on to, grown children far away from their mother, vulnerable once more, seeking shelter from the storm and long distance love.
. . which takes me back to the summer of 1988 when my
brother came to see me in Phoenix.
That visit coincided with one of the many reunions of my favorite band, Little Feat, then riding a comeback wave, unimaginably without the growl of the late Lowell George and his mean slide guitar, but still with the inimitable Bill Payne on keyboard.
At the time, I had all Little Feat’s albums. I loved the cover art which was as funky as their music.
In the same way that it was important for me to stand on the actual corner of Winslow, Arizona – not necessarily a fine sight to see – I have also driven from Tucson to Tucumcare and Tehachape to Tonopah – because Little Feat sang about these places in Willin’. While they turned out not to be dream holiday destinations, nor did I see Dallas Alice in every headlight, I heard Billy Payne’s grace notes on the piano and Lowell George singing about her every mile that we covered. In this vein, what was I thinking when I visited Memphis? Inexplicably, I visited Graceland and was down in the jungle room, but I forgot to make it to the lobby of the Commodore Hotel where I like to think I would indeed have asked the bartender for a light, even though I don’t smoke, immediately cueing everyone at the bar to start humming, “If you’ll be my Dixie Chicken.”
Anyway, that summer night in Phoenix, twenty-five years ago, t
he lead singer of the Pure Prairie League, Craig Fuller, would take the place of Lowell George. I remember sitting in the Celebrity Theater with my brother, wondering if Fuller could possibly pull it off, and when the band opened with “Fat Man in the Bathtub,” the crowd rose to its feet, and we knew we were in for a funky musical feast that I think would have made Lowell George happy.
From a long distance.