Deadpool. Survivor Spouse.

IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN DEADPOOL OR DON’T KNOW THE STORY LINE, STOP READING NOW.

I made it through Deadpool!

We’re Marvel fans, but I don’t follow like I used to. I’m not turning in my geek card yet, though. I keep my comic store membership, thankyouverymuch. I would totally rock prom with Stan Lee.

The Deadpool plot involves cancer, and since cancer rearranged our lives and Troy’s innards, I’ve not been able to sit though any movie or show that springs cancer on me.

As a survivor spouse, it’s hard for me to know what could be coming onscreen. The hopelessness, the defeat, the brave fight of the co-star/spouse/sig-other. As a writer, however, cancer is perfect. It gives you time to make decisions, get scared, fall apart, get yourself together again, then hopefully get cured – or cured enough – to do whatever is next in the plot.

But it’s beginning to feel like a crutch that writers keep in the corner. Every time somebody needs to overcome something, here comes cancer. Every time somebody gets tired, wan, here comes cancer. Every time somebody needs a six-month montage, here comes cancer. Every time somebody needs a reason to stand and watch tow-headed kids playing around a Christmas tree, guess what. And yes, this is my fear, my bitterness, my own personal PTSD.

So – as a writer – I was mortified last week when I was working on a character, and “he has cancer” popped into my head. Maybe my character DOES have cancer. His friend has MS, and his cousin is an amputee. His mom is a convicted felon. His cat is missing an eye. Those are all real parts of real lives. My characters lead real lives.

But “he has cancer” was like a slap.

Anyway – Deadpool has cancer, and his desperation at having stage four cancer and getting the “don’t make any rash decisions” talk leads him to seek alternative meds. Fully understandable. He wanted to live. Especially understandable. DONE IT ALL. Thank GOD Troy wanted to live.

But after several years of fleeing theaters, yelling at the television, ripping friends for NOT warning me, today I sat in the theater and watched the character fight. I knew how his sig-other felt about loving him for him, despite the scars that treatment left on him. I watched him fight to live and love. I watched him be the same person he was before, only amplified. Just like the man I’m married to.

Yes, it’s the stupid movies.

But I sat through the movie today, a baby step for this survivor spouse. I think Troy was proud.

*Marvel fans: GO SEE DEADPOOL. STAY UNTIL THE VERY VERY END. Die-hard Marvel fans know what I’m taking about.

**Stan Lee, you wanna go to prom, hit me up.

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A line, a verb, an unwanted roommate.

We had been referring to Troy’s cancer as “our roommate.” That roommate who did annoying things at first – didn’t close the fridge door, beat you to the newspaper crossword – but eventually used your razor, slept with your significant other, and his/her mother/father, stole your money, wrecked your car, drowned your cat, and pimp slapped you for simply existing.

But really, cancer is a line of demarcation. It’s before and after, then and now. We speak of many things with a cancer reference.

“We should take a road trip like we did that summer before Daddy got sick.”

“I liked the dress you wore that Christmas after Daddy got sick.”

“Remember that baked ziti we had while Daddy was in the hospital?”*

I can look back at my work and see when I stopped writing, when words would have helped but didn’t come, or hovered in a dream, floating beyond reach. It was during cancer. I can see, also, that I was trying to be careful, and was afraid.

All the years that my children were small and I was exhausted, too tired to write, work and be a good mom, I chose to be a good mom in the way I could be, and I put my words on slow growth. They wouldn’t go away, the words, and nagged me through horrible depression, the characters calling and insisting they would have my attention. I went back to school for writing. My words came back.

Then cancer.

Or maybe cancer isn’t a line but rather, a verb. “To cancer” is to live with chemo, death, radiation, acronyms, meals made by others, carpools run by others, missed tests, bathroom crying jags, Friday nights with insurance papers and fax machines, weeks without showers, breathing machines, frightening nights of a patient’s deep chill despite a smothering of quilts, heating pads, electric blankets, body warmth. Flakes of mustache falling into cereal. Bones protruding. It is to live with knowledge of dilaudid and propofol and epidurals that don’t work, the precision of the morphine timer, the need to have your “he has cancer we are in the hospital the girls are fine yes i will call if we need anything” speech written in a 2-minute press conference.

Or maybe it’s all three. The roommate never totally left, thanks to scars, scar tissue, rerouted and retooled guts and bladders, and our beloved chemo brain. We will never stop thinking in terms of before and after. It will always be before and after. We will never stop cancering. Gratitude and fear and worry and more gratitude put me into crying fits in yoga or at the sight of a bald scalp. We have three-month, then six-month, then yearly checkups. We all know what a person with reddish, peeling skin is doing at least once every three weeks.

I’m glad the words are back again. Maybe they’ll help me, or you, or someone you know.

And here’s hoping the line, the roommate and the verb are all far enough away that I can look for new ones.

*it was some ahhhh-mazing ziti, because Daddy was in the hospital 10 times, not counting chemo, and we STILL remember that ziti. We ate it straight from the pan, on the living room floor. The kids were 10th grade and 8th grade. They’re now a college freshman and a high school junior.

The Ask Fast

I found this in my Lost Ark-esque archives of the unedited and unfinished…It’s from 2012? Geez. What else is in this here vat? Looking around to see. In the meantime, I’m grateful for words and that you’re reading mine.

My buddy Loris, a minister, is taking a new approach to praying.

It’s interesting being pals with a pastor. I catch myself thinking before dropping the f bomb. Not that I don’t drop it, I just think beforehand and let it rip. Or before ordering the shot of brown liquor.

Back in, oh, June or so, Loris started an “ask fast.” She stopped praying for what she wanted and needed, and decided to be thankful for what is.

Sometimes I question prayer. If the all-mighty knows my needs, why do I have to ask for them? If I am an imperfect, un-allknowing beast of a person, what makes me think I have the gall to tell the all-mighty “hey, do this.”

That’s audacity. I’m fairly audacious. But I’ll give it a whirl.

At the end of thirty days, you look at requests and gratitude in a different way.

So, ahead of my fast, I’m writing my short list of what makes me say “thanks.”

I am thankful for my new job. A year ago, I was working three jobs for a lot less pay. Three years ago, I was working one job for about the same money (before they started furloughs and pay reductions), more stress, and less flexibility. At my new place, the people have a mission to care for those around them, and that includes employees. I feel ridiculously humbled in the genuine concern everyone shows.

I am thankful for Miss Donna’s orange cake. The only thing she did wrong was cut the slices too small.

I am thankful that my debit card worked tonight at the Teeter.

I am thankful for my favorite Vietnam vet’s stories about being in the trenches, and thankful he is here to do the telling.

I am thankful that Grandma calls me and still sounds confrontational at 91.*

I am thankful for R-CHOP, the cruel scarlet-colored chemical mix that turned my husband’s face ruddy, stripped his cells, and saved his life.

I am thankful for two loud-mouthed, talk-back surprises, named Alex and Mackenzie.

I am thankful for words. They have saved my life.

D.

 

Red-clay mud

When we moved here, I felt guilty for putting a house on what had recently been part of a sprawling farm. I am  a preservationist, loving old houses, original paintings, wide-open fields and close family roots. My roots are deep in Carolina red-clay mud. It’s not the fancy pluff mud of the haunted Lowcountry. It’s not the rare blackjack soil that my grandma relishes for its minerals and its richness. It’s tough, unyielding, sticky and blobbish dirt, iron-rich but stubborn – it does what it wants, when it wants, and however it wants – or not. It breaks new shovels. It traps cars. It shuns anything but the hardiest weeds.

I wanted to stay in the small town that we first moved to, but a big country club sprang up, knocking house prices out of reach for us. We drove around all summer, looking at places, until the hubs said “let’s go north.” North of uptown was foreign land to me. But north we went, and I fell in love.

This part of town was Mayberry, only with diversity. On national holidays, the local veterans of all hues lined the streets with American flags. My neighbors occasionally run up and down the street with home-baked pies and fresh tomatoes. My kids, even, will bake a batch of muffins and take them to somebody, just because. The trains run at 7 am and 7 pm. On the main drag, the kids still wave to the conductor.

The post office smells like the dust of times past, and was slated for closure a few years ago, but we managed to save it. It is dated but lovely, with gilded windows on the boxes and a plaque that reads “1962.”

There’s a bar here that used to be a tractor parts store, and they still have the tractor parts in it and a ubiquitous, necessary hound that chases flies in the summer. The bar has the best acoustics in town for live music. We were there one night and I was dancing with a guy who sang, quite well, into my ear. At this place, if you don’t drink your beer fast enough, a man in overalls buses your table and tosses the bottle.

The farm, diminished somewhat because of our subdivision, butted up against our back yard. We picked this lot for that reason. We still have cows to feed, if they’ll come to us. We watch yearly for the new calves and lambs; this year, we actually have a black lamb. The roosters occasionally prance past us. The coyotes dwell in the woods that hide a bubbling creek and all sorts of snakes.

One spring, my little sister got my kids a gigantic airplane kite; it was too big to fly without a huge amount of space. We asked the farmer if we could use the big field, and he graciously said yes. One day, a day like today when the wind was just right, the grass only about knee-high and the cows were in another field, we took the kite down the dirt path and into the meadow. We tipped around cow patties. I got my older daughter to hold the roll of string, and I went running through the field with the biggest kite you’ve ever seen. It took about five tries, but the wind finally caught it.

I kept running, back and forth over the red clay and the grass that would eventually become food for the cows, until the kite became steady in the wind and my daughter needed help holding the roll of string.

I watched the kite rise and dip, rise and dip.

My children laughed and laughed.

I wanted to cry.

The room with the dying fan

The office at the kids’ school is an old house with yellow aluminum siding, a real front porch and gleaming hardwood floors that announce one’s every step. Recently, when I popped in, it was pleasant to stomp along on the woods and inhale old-house scent. But I had a surprise.

There were fans everywhere, pushing the heavy morning air around in warm waves.

“The air is broken,” the office manager said, fanning herself with a folder. “We hope to have it fixed soon.”

I stood there with a grin on my face, feeling oddly at peace with the breeze and the warmth.

The house sounded, smelled and felt like summertime at my great-grandmother’s house.

In the summer, Mama’s house was cool and comfortable from maybe 10, 11 p.m. until about 9 a.m. We didn’t have central air. Many of our friends didn’t, either, but at least their air conditioners worked. Our pitiful window unit didn’t do anything but run up the electric bill, so it hung quietly in the dining room window and we sweltered, leaving damp spots where ever we perched for more than five minutes.

And the window fan ran constantly.

The fan in my bedroom was a 1950s-era window-mounted metal clunker that began losing steam somewhere around the Summer of Love and slowed yearly through the straggling end of Vietnam and Watergate, disco and Marvin Gaye’s shooting, until finally, around the time my mom gave up her green satin disco pants, it refused to do anything but hum.

Every summer, my great-grandmother would debate getting the fan serviced. “It WORKS,” she’d say, watching the blades as though staring them down would convince them to work. “But perhaps we could get Old Man Barber up here to look at it.” Old Man Barber, the local cross between Fred Sanford and your friendly handyman, told us to ditch it between disco and Marvin Gaye. But we didn’t.

As a semi-responsible mom, this fan was not a fan I’d allow into my house. The plug was worn from more than 30 years of use, and the wires would give a shock if you touched them with sweaty fingers. The motor, a daunting, cup-sized collection of fraying wires and mesh, began to spark upon occasion, which didn’t worry Mama nearly as much as it did me. If the fan eventually cranked, it had to be OK. I’d lie awake nights, worrying that the sparks would torch the curtains, figuring the amount of time it would take to gather my clarinet and chihuahua and get out in case of fire. I’d listen to the strobed night sounds. If you’ve never heard outside through the filter of a window fan, you’re missing out. The blades distort the sounds, giving noisy cars and crickets and feisty birds a steady, mechanical sputter. Back in the day, when we didn’t have major electronic distraction, sitting in front of the fan and talking through the strobe was simple fun.

The fan, however, didn’t help anything in the worst heat and humidity of summer. It pushed hot air into the house or pulled it from the front of the house, leaving us miserable and moist and cranky, twisting in damp bed linens. Outside felt better than inside. My mom and great-grandmom argued more than usual on those days, hurling slurs and insults back and forth until my mom would get into the equally hot purple Toyota and leave or my great-grandmother would pound the table or pull at her damp gray hair and break dishes.

But on the nights that the temperatures and mugginess dropped, the reluctant old fan worked magic, cooling our house gradually until it hit a delicious chill, making it necessary for me to sleep with a blanket. On those following mornings, my bare feet hit cold wood  floors instead of warm and we rushed to finish chores in the cool: we swept, made our tea for the day, gathered whatever vegetables were ripe in the garden, mopped and dusted and waited for the sun to again turn the cottage on Miller Street into a brick oven. We talked. We listened to the old radio. We prayed for cooling storms.

We eventually bought dime-store floor units, positioned to work best with the flow of air from the window fan and screened doors, and we held our breath yearly when we cranked the old unit. One year, it took about five minutes to get the weakened fan to spin, but close to the end, we waited and watched the clock for a few hours, hoping the dirty blades and the sparking motor would get the idea. Finally, my mom sadly gave permission to dismantle the fan and replace it with a bright new unit, $10 at the dime store. I spent a long while trying to unscrew the myriad parts of the fan: the blades, wire frame and wall mounts all had been in the same place since mom’s childhood, and they weren’t ready, it seemed, to go. But we got it out and put it on the trash pile. The romantic in me hopes Old Man Barber found it and restored it to its pre-disco ability.

My children do not remember life sans air conditioning. They believe freon and ceiling vents are among inalienable constitutional rights.

To this day – much as I am thankful for the hum of the central air  – I cannot sleep without a fan going. I love the slight sound and the breeze, even if it competes with the heat in the winter, and I’ll occasionally open the windows in the mornings, let the house warm up a touch and give our ceiling-mounted fans a moment in the spotlight. It makes me feel honest, this ritual. Because as far as I hope to go and as much as I want to be, bottom line is I’m a girl from Rock Hill, and I used to sleep in the room with the dying fan.

Sweet potato pie is the one for me

Granddaddy knew.

Granddaddy Simpson wasn’t my natural grandfather. Grandma was good at marrying, and even though Granddaddy had loved Grandma as a young person, they’d each married other people, raised families, and met up again later in life, years after Grandma had stopped chasing Liz Taylor’s title of most married.

Of all the grandfathers, he was the only person I ever called Grandaddy.

Granddaddy loved cooking. A cook in the Navy during WWII, he knew how to prepare food on deadline, for large groups, for fancy soirees and down-home dinners. But he loved, LOVED cooking for us, and he loved making sweet potato pie for us. He had wanted grandchildren for years, somebody to bake for and cook with, somebody to keep him company in the kitchen, on rides to the old family farm, on trips to the country church for all-day Sunday revival, and he picked up where my great-grandmom left off when she could no longer bake her famous sweet potato pies. During summer revival, when we spent the lunch hour outside at picnic tables, he’d top off lunches of cold fried chicken, potato salad, tea and biscuits with a huge sweet potato pie. I didn’t get birthday cake from him; I got birthday sweet potato pie. When my kids were born, Granddaddy baked celebratory pies. High school, college graduations – we ate at my favorite Chinese restaurant, but back home, we had sweet potato pie. Occasionally, he would drive the 45 minutes to our house, bearing a pie, and turn right back around and go home.

Granddaddy eyeballed everything and measured nothing for his pies. He knew when a recipe was right, remembered each list of ingredients, and never, ever wrote down anything. When I first made spaghetti, he tasted it and told me to add a tiny dollop of beef fat to the sauce. I did. It tasted better. I haven’t ever forgotten that direction.

One year at Thanksgiving, I asked Granddaddy to bake a pumpkin pie instead of a sweet potato pie. They looked the same, and a lot of my friends talked about pumpkin pie.

He laughed at me. “Why do you want a pumpkin pie? It won’t taste the same.” But I insisted, and he baked one.

For me, raised on sweet potato – custard, pie, casserole and just plain baked – pumpkin was the worst thing ever. It was simply wrong. That first taste caused me to frown, and the second bite nearly had me in tears. It was so disappointing. I sat at the table, afraid somebody would force me to eat the whole piece of pie, but Granddaddy reached over, slid the plate to his spot and picked up his fork. He winked at me. Nothing else was said. I’m certain the pie was as good as anything you’d get at a fancy dessert place, but he’d cemented my love of the sweet potato.

His recipe for sweet potato pie was simple. Get about 7, 8 fresh sweet potatoes from good Carolina blackjack dirt. Cook ’em down – either bake them or boil them. Granddaddy baked his; my great-grandmom boiled hers. I prefer baked. Peel them and mash them up in a bowl. Get out the mixer and blend with a stick of softened butter, some sugar, a little nutmeg, a few eggs (three, four, depends on the size of the potatoes) and cinnamon, a sprinkle of salt, and the condensed milk. Using a mixer gets the strings out. Add more milk for a custardy pie, less for a firmer pie. Add a tiny bit of baking powder for fluffiness. Or not.

Lay out the pie crust in a greased, floured pan, and prick it with a fork (roll it, prick it). Pour the sweet potato mixture into the crust, and bake at 400 until it looks right. Serve with coffee and eat in the warm, quiet kitchen, beside the old iron stove and away from the fancy crowd in the living room.

Granddaddy passed away in 2001. I don’t often attempt to bake his pies, even though my younger kid loves baking. She doesn’t know it yet, but tomorrow, we are going to visit cousins in McConnells, and I’m bringing home some sweet potatoes.

A kiss on my forehead

Younger Kid was cool from minute one.  When she was born, she opened her eyes for two seconds, SCREAMED, then shut her eyes for the better part of a week. When she opened them, finally, she looked at us and smiled, and I lost my heart.

Younger Kid is snarky, funny and kind. She has a soft spot for babies and older people; if you can take care of yourself, you’re on your own and she will tell you as much. She likes sitting with her adopted grandma in church because they share candy and watch the clock together. She calls both grandmas, her aunties and her great-grandma every Saturday morning. Her idea of fun is an afternoon trip to the Michael’s and a stop at the cooking supply store.

She asks me about my day and really listens. She steals my shoes. She speaks Spanish, Mac and PC. She despises snobs and people who mistreat the less fortunate, the not-as-talented, the ones who need more. She can discuss, quite well, music theory.

At 12, she still wants me to tuck her in and give her a kiss. Sometimes, I’m already in bed when she makes this request. I’ve been fighting what could be the onset of depression, so I’m tired early and can’t always get up immediately. But I do, eventually, and kiss her if she’s already asleep. I mumble “Mommy loves you.” On weekends, she stays up much later, and I will feel her kiss my forehead and tuck me in.

But …

The year before last, she spiraled downward. Grades fell. Her sensory processing disorder seemed to increase, reducing her to a shivering,wailing lump of misery almost daily. She couldn’t understand anything, couldn’t get any information from inside her brain to outside on her test paper, her theses. She snarled at us about everything: chores, homework, medicine, friends. She became obsessed with eating. She sniped at her pals, lost patience with everything, couldn’t follow lists of directions, couldn’t focus. She faked taking her medicine, which made her seizures increase from once every three months to once every six weeks and no doubt made the sensory processing disorder worse simply because of the toll on her brain. She talked about death and suicide. We looked for a counselor.

And she cut herself. One day, she took a tack and carved her initials into her arm. When she told me about it and showed me her arm, I couldn’t do anything but gather her into a hug and pray. A friend says the kid punked me. I say, ploy or not, she did something that screamed out for help.

We found somebody for her to talk to. We switched her seizure meds and her diet, steering us all toward an organic menu. The hubby began disappearing with her more often, taking her to visit his mom, his friends, giving her jobs to do with him. She came home with camera cards full of gorgeous photos. Slowly, her good days began to outnumber the bad; not one was perfect, but she saw a pleasing difference and leaned into the joy of feeling better. She talked to us more and more about her feelings, her thoughts, her attitude. She turned from needing negative reinforcement from us to wanting positive reinforcement from herself. She remained snarky, but she’s working on that. It’s hereditary.

Younger Kid smiled and meant it, a change because for a while, she was simply making muscle movements. Joy didn’t reach her eyes. And she cooked: Chicken cacciatore, red velvet cupcakes, fruit salad, strawberry trifle, rich chocolate brownies, banana pudding, salads, salsas. She tasted a bit of each and gave the rest to neighbors, who began asking for more, which meant that she cooked more – a great thing because it helped her with her sensory issues. She coached and played soccer like her life depended on it. I think it did. We stopped tip-toeing around her and breathed easier.

A few weeks ago, while the hubs was at a weekend gig and the older kid at a sleepover, she decided she wanted to bake something. She went through her stash of ideas, found a simple cookie recipe, and we set out for Target.

When we got back home, we cleared the kitchen counter and I let her take the lead on the cookies while I turned on my my iTunes. As she worked under the kitchen light, we began to talk about how much the evening reminded me of the Saturday nights I spent with my great-grandmom. Mother and my great-grandmom argued constantly when I was a kid – nasty fights that led to slammed doors, threats, police calls and forced me to keep a suitcase packed, just in case I needed to run. On Saturday nights, when Mother went out to party, my great-grandmom would let me turn the radio to the heavy metal and she’d cringe at the Ozzy, but she’d lead me through recipes: egg custards, sweet potato pies, tea cakes, pound cakes. She would talk about growing up in rural S.C. in the early 1900s. She told me about cousins long dead, farm that stretched into two counties, ghosts that lurked.

And I have told those stories to the kids, over and again. This night, Younger Kid listened once more as she measured, mixed and kneaded, dropped flour on the floor, then remeasured without having a meltdown.

“I’m sorry they argued,” she said. “Is that why you don’t like yelling now?”

“Yep,” I replied.

She turned the cookie dough onto waxed paper.

“You know,” she said, “I like having our family together, but this is a good night, Mommy. I’ve got you all to myself.”

She leaned over to kiss my forehead, and 12 years after meeting this smiling wonder, I lost my heart once again.