Tag Archives: reading

“We’ll Die Walking”: Lessons From Reading In a Hospital

Remember when you could sit down and read a book for a couple of hours? Yeah, me too. That was before kids. I read whenever, wherever, and however I can these days.

Percy Fawcett, explorer

Percy Fawcett, explorer

Yesterday morning, I had a strange experience while reading on my walk into work. I’m halfway through “The Lost City of Z,” which my friend Jill loaned to me last January and I’m finally getting around to. I can’t give you any spoilers because I haven’t finished it yet, but it’s really good (thanks, Jilly!). It’s the story of Percy Fawcett, a British explorer in the Amazon who set off in 1925 to search for a city of gold and ended up vanishing into the jungle without a trace. Or maybe there are traces later, but like I said, not finished yet.

I was engrossed in the story of one of Fawcett’s early expeditions, a trek to find the source of the Verde River between Bolivia and Brasil. The expedition hit snags and Fawcett and his men–after a few bad decisions about how much canned food to carry–ended up starving in the jungle next to a poisoned river with nary a fish. Fawcett refused to turn back, even though most of his men were falling ill from the fevers brought by the relentless mosquitos and vampire bats.

There I was, hurrying to the end of the chapter in hopes that I could find out how the party made it out alive before I had to clock in. My face buried in the book, I trekked up the sidewalk, right at the crepe myrtles, left at the rosemary, then I ducked into the building through the side door under the Rehab pool. A wall of icy air-conditioning hit me but I never looked up from the page. Just like Fawcett in the “green hell,” I was confident that I could find my way.

PET scan of the brain

PET scan of the brain

No one is ever in that hallway. The only thing back there is a storage closet and the back entrance to the P.E.T. scan area. What’s a PET scan, you might ask? That’s a kind of radiology test where some highly skilled people put a radioactive tracer in you then take a picture or Positron Emission Tomograph to map out disease activity in your body. It’s the test that shows you if cancer has spread. When cancer survivors say they have to go in for a scan, it’s probably a PET scan to monitor the progress or remission of their disease. A PET scan explores the previously invisible life of our organs. In a way, it’s like Fawcett heading off into the jungle hoping to find treasures and fearing what may be revealed.

Like I said, that hallway is safe for reading because no one is ever back there. But that morning, I had to pull up short before tripping right over a group of three people. They walked out of the PET scan doors in a cluster–the radiology tech in his sage green scrubs, a young woman carrying two purses and a sheaf of papers, and one women of about sixty, who looked to be carrying the world on her shoulders. They didn’t pay me any attention, there behind my book.

“We’ll get these read this afternoon, and your doctor will call you with the results,” he said, looking the older woman right in the eye and nodding gently. Neither woman spoke but they both nodded in return. He smacked the button on the wall that opens the doors to the Radiation Oncology department. They hesitated a second while the doors swung open then he led them through in silence. I waited in the hall for the doors to close behind them.

Walking through that spot, the spot where that woman had stood a second before, I felt like I was walking through a cloud of her fear. It was tangible, buzzing, a gray heaviness like a swarm of jungle mosquitos carrying yellow fever. That fear that a cancer patient feels, coming to the hospital for the scan that will bring good news or the worst news. The scan that reveals the next part of her life and how it will go. That ordinary woman seemed like Fawcett chopping his way into the jungle, one foot at a time, never knowing if the next moment would bring a viper or a city of gold.

I thought about that woman and her daughter, how their afternoon would stretch out before them until the jangle of the phone would send their hearts to the ground. I hoped the news would be good. Please, please, please let that scan be clear. Let her laugh with relief and let the tears that they cry today be tears of joy. I took a couple of breaths, thought about all the times Richard and I had waited for one test or another. Thumbs up, thumbs down–will our life go on?

I pressed the button for the elevator. As I waited, I was struck by this passage in the tale of the Verde River party:

The starving expedition. Fawcett far right.

The starving expedition had a camera but no food. Fawcett front right.

“Fawcett soon noticed that one of the men had vanished. He eventually came upon him sitting collapsed against a tree. Fawcett ordered the man to get up, but he begged Fawcett to let him die there. He refused to move, and Fawcett took out his knife. The blade gleamed before the man’s eyes; Fawcett ached with hunger. Waving the knife, Fawcett forced him to his feet. If we die, Fawcett said, we’ll die walking.”

– David Grann, The Lost City of Z

I thought of that woman and how her shoulders stooped. I had assumed she was carrying her fear of dying. But really, she wasn’t like the starving man who wanted to surrender to death. She wasn’t rolling over and giving up–she was still walking, still consulting with her doctors, still LIVING. Regardless of the results of her scan.

I don’t remember if Richard ever had a PET scan. With blood cancers, your cancer is everywhere from the get go, metastatic from square one.

I do know that he never gave up. The man looked at me not twelve hours before he died and mumbled through cracked and bloody lips: “I’m just going through a rough patch.” He insisted on living, right up until the moment he died. He never quit walking, and I followed him right through that jungle, right up to the gate of the golden city.

“If we die, we’ll die walking.”

Want to read it for yourself? Here’s a link!


alphabet-150781_1280We have a Sunday morning tradition at our house. Vivi and Carlos pile on to The Big Bed and snuggle up with G and me. (Victoria outgrew this a few years back and opts for a good ole teenaged sleep in until noon.)

Carlos climbs up from the bench at the foot of the bed then folds himself quietly into my side. Vivi pounces onto the bed with her Pengy then settles under G’s arm. They kick and wiggle and make up games about the cave (under the covers) or the waves (over the covers). It’s delightful.

I sat up and swung my legs over the side of the bed. Carlos said, “No, Mommy! Cover up your feet, Mommy! Go to sleep, Mommy!” so that I wouldn’t leave The Big Bed. I promised him that I wasn’t leaving, I just wanted to sit up for a minute. This morning, I was wearing my Heart Month t-shirt–the one that says “Keep Calm and Go Red.” Carlos saw the message on the back of my shirt and started naming letters. He’s been doing that for a year now–no interest in writing them, but he knows all the letters and the sounds they make.

But today, something magical happened, right there on The Big Bed.

I felt his little finger poking the back of my shirt. He chirped, “R-E-D…RED!”

alphabet-150768_1280G and I shared that look, that “Is it OK to freak out a little right now or would we scare him?” look. We kept calm and let him carry on.

“R-E-D spells RED! Exactly right, buddy! You are so smart!”

He read each letter.

“K-E-E-P….” He didn’t know what to make of these, so I said, “Keep!” He echoed, “Keep!”

“C-A-L-M…” I jumped right in with, “Calm!” He repeated it.

“G-O!” He waited for me to tell him the word. I said, “What’s the opposite of stop?”

Vivi shouted, “GO!” before she could stop herself and we all chimed in, “GO!”

Then he stopped. No pressure. But the moment happened and we had been there to see him take letters and pull them together to read a word. RED. R-E-D.

This afternoon, I had crept off to a quiet corner to read a few chapters of a wonderful book that my friends Abby and Rachel recommended: The Storied Life of AJ Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin. Get it. Read it. Love it. Thank me later.

Anyway, there’s a young girl in the book, Maya, who grows up in a bookstore, surrounded by people who love letters and words and stories. Yes, I cried a couple of joyful tears when I read this passage:

A.J. reads, “. . . on the very top, a bunch of red caps.”

The picture shows a man in many colored caps.

Maya puts her hand over A.J.’s to stop him from turning the page just yet. She scans her eyes from the picture to the page and back again. All at once, she knows that r-e-d is red, knows it like she knows her name is Maya, like she knows A.J. Fikry is her father, like she knows the best place in the world is Island Books.

“What is it?” he asks.

“Red,” she says. She takes his hand and moves it so it is pointing to the word.

alphabet-150767_1280When I made my bucket list all those years ago, one of the items on it was “Teach someone to read.” I didn’t know then that it doesn’t work that way. We don’t set out to learn how to read as something separate from our lives. We just grow up around letters and one day, they click in place and we realize that R-E-D is the way of expressing the idea that is the color RED. So my bucket list item should have been, “Watch while someone makes the leap from letters to words.”

Thanks, Abby and Rachel, for sharing this book with me. Thank you, Carlos, for sharing your world with me. I promise you a life of letters and words and stories.

Do you remember the first time the letters lined up into a word?


She Won’t Remember Any of This

Last night, we kept the TV on Max & Ruby.  I grilled hamburgers and boiled up some corn on the cob.  Carlos stomped around in one shoe while saying, “Cars!  Shoe!  Banana!  Hug!  All Done!”  Vivi and I made banana muffins with the new mixer.  She and G read a book called “100 Ways to Make Your Dog Smile.”  She asked the difference between a terrier and a bird dog, so I told her all about hunting dogs–terriers, pointers, sight hounds, retrievers.  I told her about the German Shorthair Pointer we had when I was her age, a dog named “Circles” for the three aligned spots at the base of her tail.  The TV sat silent.  Vivi made up songs about my favorite colors and belted them into a plastic Dora the Explorer microphone.  We packed her lunch for camp the next day–she chose strawberry milk, sour cream and onion potato chips, carrots, applesauce, ham and cheese sandwich and a couple of banana muffins for snack.

We didn’t talk about tornadoes.  Just like after Boston, when we didn’t talk about bombs, or Newtown when we didn’t talk about guns.  Or all the other days before that, when we kept the TV silent, those days where G and I shared long looks over the top of the children’s heads and whispered sadnesses behind closed doors.

lairFriday was her last day of kindergarten.  When I asked her what she thinks is her biggest accomplishment this year, she chirped, “READING!”  This weekend, G bought her a big stack of Junie B Jones books about kindergarten and first grade.  I think we both assumed that we would be reading them to her, but Vivi has other ideas, grand ideas.  She built herself a hidey hole under my desk on Saturday morning.  She filled it with two warm blankets, a pack of gum, a box for treasures, a couple of stuffed animals and her stack of books.  She calls it her “lair.”  She’s already tearing up the books and I am online ordering more, like feeding coal into a roaring furnace.  The Magic School Bus is in the mail.

Our town has sirens.  Our brick house has a basement.  There is a small room down there with cinder block walls and no windows.  She knows that when storms get dangerous, we all sit in there.  She needs to know that, but she doesn’t need to know…this.

I see her reading in her lair, cozy in her Sonic pajamas, with Pengy tucked under her arm and a bountiful lunch in the fridge, all waiting on tomorrow.  One phrase comes to mind:  “Shield the joyous.”

I haven’t participated in any kind of religion for 20 years, but after Richard died, my friend Robin gave me a red leather Book of Common Prayer from the Episcopal church.  She knows how I love words and poetry.  She wanted me to have the words that were said at our wedding and at his memorial.  What a gift Robin has been to my life.  There is one prayer in particular that she gifted to me, as I had spent so many sad nights alone in my house.

“Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, sooth the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love’s sake. Amen.”

Many times (even if I edited it some to match my beliefs), I have read this prayer for Compline before bedtime and choked upon the words “weep,” “sick,” “dying,” depending on the time of my life.  Now I read it and choke back tears on “shield the joyous.”  This night, I am a mother and one of the few things I can do in this life is shield the joy of my children from the weary truths of this suffering world.

It can’t last forever.  There will be a time when Vivi and Carlos are old enough to know.  There will be times when we turn the TV on and set them in front of it so that they can KNOW.  I remember a time like that when I was 10 years old–1978 and the Jonestown Massacre.  My parents watching the news, as cameras panned over silent fields of corpses, bloating in the jungle heat.  Poisoned by their own hands because their leader told them to.  My mother thought that they should turn the TV off, that we were too young to watch.  I vividly remember my father saying firmly, “No.  You kids need to know this can happen.  You need to know about this kind of bullshit so you don’t get caught up in it.  Sit down and watch.”  He was right.  I’ve never forgotten it.

As Vivi was dancing off to bed last night, a thought hit me:  “She won’t remember any of this.”  She is turning six in a couple of weeks.  When I think back to six, I don’t remember much, just a general idea about life and how it was.  A couple of school memories.  A few friends.  There are a few pictures, somewhere at my mom’s house.  So Vivi won’t remember this day, those banana muffins, the songs we sang.  She won’t remember the tornadoes in Oklahoma because I shielded her from that.  I hope that she remembers that she was loved every second of her life by people who put a lot of effort into keeping her safe and healthy and happy.  I hope she knows that we kept watch over her while she slept, all for love’s sake.

The Reverend Lauren McDonald has written a lovely meditation on “Shield the Joyous” on her blog, Leaping Greenly Spirits.  She’s another one of those super awesome kids from the Governor’s Honors 1985!

The Country Bunny

Did you know that DuBose Heyward wrote the story behind "Porgy and Bess" 14 years before he wrote "The Country Bunny?"

Did you know that DuBose Heyward wrote the story behind “Porgy and Bess” 14 years before he wrote “The Country Bunny?”

Did anyone ever read this book to you?  Someone who loved you very much and wanted you to believe you could be anything you want to be?  Mrs. Carol Fowler read this book to me and I have never forgotten it.  One afternoon a week, our class walked down to the library at Flint River Academy and filed in quietly.  On top of the low shelves filled with children’s books, one book would be lying face down and near her chair–the book she had chosen for us.  Oh, the excitement of that first peek!

We sat in a semi-circle on the thin carpet–back then we called it “indian style” instead of “criss cross apple sauce.”  Mrs. Fowler wouldn’t say a word until we were all sitting down and paying attention.  I can still remember the crackle of the plastic covers that she put on the books to protect their beautiful covers.  She was magical–Mrs. Fowler could read upside down and knew exactly when to turn the page without even looking.  Library time was the best hour of the week.

When I was in seventh grade, long after the days of story hour, I got to assist Mrs. Fowler in the library during my free period.  As I straightened the books in the elementary section, I rediscovered “The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes” and read it many times.  When Mrs. Fowler had first held the book up for us to see, I was a little disappointed because the cover doesn’t look like much.  The colors were too old-fashioned, some book my grandmother would pull out of a dusty box in the attic.

young bunnyOh, the story!  A little brown bunny named Cottontail wants to be an Easter Bunny but no one believes in her.  Those jobs go to the swift jack rabbits or the giant white bunnies.  When Cottontail finds herself all grown up with 21 babies to chase after, her dream seems even further out of reach.  But lo and behold, Cottontail’s experience as a mother translates into just the “skill set” that a busy Easter Bunny needs.  She is selected and gets to live her dream, thanks to the help of her children and her own belief in her dream.   Even when the job seems to be too much, she finds the strength to do the impossible…thanks to a pair of magic shoes.

When I was all grown up, I bought a copy of “The Country Bunny” for myself.  One Easter, when my nephew, Grant, was about two and a half, I decided to share it with him.  His dad was busy fixing something around our parents’ house and asked me to keep Grant out of the way.  We snuggled into a comfy chair and I told him about this wonderful book that I had loved for so many years and how excited I was to share it with him.  Papa was snoozing in the other chair.  I opened the book, read the first page in breathless awe.  Grant reached across my lap, closed the book and chirped “The End!” He slid off my lap and went off to find out what all the hammering was about.  My dad STILL laughs about that moment!  So much for that.

tired bunnyThis is my favorite illustration from the book.  Cottontail has one very special egg to deliver to a sick boy who lives atop a mountain.  She is exhausted from her night’s work.  There isn’t much night left–the pink dawn of Easter breaks behind the mountain.  Cottontail doesn’t want to give up.    She makes it…SPOILER ALERT!

I think I love this painting because I’ve felt this way so many times as a mother.  You spend so much effort trying to get everything done, trying to make the magic happen and there doesn’t seem to be enough time.  You’re worn out.  You just need that little boost of magic.  The night wasn’t long enough.

Go get this book and read it to yourself.  Give yourself the same gift that Mrs. Fowler gave me all those years ago.  I still appreciate it.