Thursday, April 2, 2020

Life in the Time of Coronavirus...

The head of the CDC (Center for Disease Control), Dr. Robert Redfield, estimates that one out of four Americans has Covid 19. But, because we have inadequate testing, there is no way to verify this estimate. It includes asymptomatic carriers as well as people who are only mildly symptomatic, like me. I have a mild case of the virus which has included a cough and shortness of breath, some aches and tiredness, but no fever at all.

I called my doctor who informed me that no tests were available for those who don't require hospitalization. At this juncture, I would like to take the antibody test which, rumor has it, will be coming out soon. The importance of testing for antibodies produced by the immune system is twofold. First, it will help us understand the scope of infection and how close we are to the concept medical people call "herd immunity." That is the point when the virus runs out of new bodies to infect, the same way a wildfire eventually runs out of the fuel that keeps it burning. The second reason is that, in the past, the plasma of those whose antibodies have defeated the virus, has been used in vaccines that could potentially save lives.

As with all of us, this dystopian scenario has been the most dramatic public emergency I've ever lived through. Yet there are those who claim that this is just a dry run for the really big pandemics to come. Just as we were told the earthquake of 1989 was only a dress rehearsal for the really big one, this could be the beginning of a new era of mass disease. Considering our global climate crisis, I believe them, I just don't want to think about it. 

The drama, however, is interspersed with boredom and stir-craziness. Like so many others, I am watching movies, walking alone, going to zoom meetings and meditations, reading and writing. And I'm sure I watch way too much news for my mental health. I just keep on keepin' on, putting one foot in front of the other into the uncertain future. 

The Buddhists claim our biggest challenges are our greatest teachers. If so, my experiences of the past year and a half would make me a bodhisattva.  I have learned to restart my life after the demise of a twenty-year relationship, to survive major surgery and cancer and now how to navigate this strange landscape of disease and fear.

But today the sun is shining, melting much of my anxiety away. Ironically. I feel more connected to fellow citizens than I did before. We are all in this together. I am sheltering inside my body, my home, my community, my planet. I am so fortunate to have a place to live, food, friends and my computer, everything I need to get through this trying time. The sorrow will come later. In this moment I am safe, I am alive. I am at peace. 

Thursday, October 10, 2019

An Unexpected Reprieve

My taped wound is healing. 
They said it was the size of a grapefruit or a small cantaloupe. Why must tumors always invoke fruit? I can sit at a computer now without much pain. I have a vertical scar down my abdomen at the scene of the attempted cellular coup. I spent five days recovering at the new California Pacific Hospital on Van Ness in San Francisco where my skilled surgeon, Dr. Lejla Delic works her magic. It is a great state-of the art new hospital where all rooms are singles and many have amazing views of the city.

My primary care doctor discovered this growth during a routine physical. After an ultrasound, PET scan and blood tests the results were terrifyingly routine. The mass was large and seemed solid. It was surrounded by fluid and giving me symptoms that I thought were related to irritable bowel. It wasn't a fibroid and my CA 125 levels (an antigen used as a cancer marker) were through the roof. Is this a metastasis of the melanoma I had twenty-eight years ago? My doctors agreed and my own research came to the same conclusion. I had ovarian cancer, like my mother and so many Ashkenazi Jewish relatives who proceeded me. I found Dr. Delic, a gynecological oncologist, and pushed for the soonest surgery date she could give me.

A friend dropped me off and another friend met me at the hospital that morning. We were wheeled into a curtained room in the surgery waiting area. She had brought with her a special prayer to the Virgen de Guadeloupe that she said always works. She held my hand. I had so many people praying for me and sending me healing energy, I'm embarrassed by the riches. Before I was wheeled into the operating room my doctor stopped by. She said, "It's ovarian cancer, we just need to take it out and stage it." They installed a fusion port in my neck in case I needed an early start on chemotherapy.

When I was wheeled into the intensive care recovery room, three friends were there waiting. My doctors told me that, unbelievably, it was not cancer. The tumor was fibrous inside and most certainly benign. I was heavily drugged still but still aware enough to be overwhelmed by the news. They had said the chances of malignancy were 95 to 98%. I have never won anything. How I slipped into a statistical category of 2-5%,  I'll never know.

All things considered, it's been quite an ordeal. I'm still not back emotionally, but physically I'm feeling okay.  I felt I was in a game of musical chairs without a seat at the moment the music stopped. I was totally prepared to begin fighting for my life.Not that cancer is an automatic death sentence, but it's always a challenging reminder of impermanence as an opportunity for spiritual growth as well as simple all-out panic. Now that I have returned temporarily to the land of the living, I'm trying to keep my focus on the myriad of possibilities before me.  I hope to make good use of the extra time I've been given. I don't know what form this rebirth will take. Opportunity beckons and I am at its center. Like spokes of a wheel, its paths stretch outward in all directions.

Monday, July 15, 2019

Rebuilding a Single Self

It has been almost nine months since I broke off communication with my partner of twenty years and began building a life of my own. I've been doing a lot of rewarding and difficult work. I have joined a gym and a book group, started a writing critique group and have signed on for volunteer work around preserving lesbian history. I've attended all kinds of hiking meet-ups and social groups. There is so much more conscious effort involved in being single than being married. It revolves around scheduling and balancing appointments, emailing, texting and researching activities. Meeting new people requires a great deal of conversation as well. Fortunately, I enjoy this. Having done this before after a fifteen year relationship, I know things will change and change again. I can't help wondering who, among the new folks I am adding to my life, will be there a year from now.

If I had one question to ask my ex it would be are you happy now? But then I wonder, was I happy then? I was content to live with some level of discord in return for dinners together, sleepovers and watching Netflix. I'm the kind of person who never thinks of herself as truly happy, I'm too much of a realist for that. But I’d accepted my life with all its limitations. Now, I have the potential to create a more productive, enjoyable life with folks who genuinely appreciate and look forward to spending time with me. It's taking shape, but it is still a work in progress.

My ex wants to be my friend. I'm not opposed to that eventuality but I believe it's too soon. Do I want to hear about her new partner? To be fitted into a time slot in her new life? If she were also single I could probably do it. But when I think about going to a gathering with her and the one she gave up our relationship for, I can't see it happening. I guess only time will tell. 

I am meeting new women to hang out with to go to music and events. They are invariably single, although not necessarily potential lovers or partners. I am trying to form something more vital, a support system. I have lost friends to the break-up and I grieve for them too. Some chose my partner over me because she was the one they met first. Some try to walk a line between us both, not talking about one with the other. Some were couple friends who have no idea how to fit me in now. Am I a threat or just a hassle? Mostly, I assume that time is limited, and relationships take a lot of work. Genuine emotional intimacy between two couples or three people is nearly impossible. It's hard enough between two.

Now, I can choose to do things with people, or I can stay home alone and write again. For a while it was just too depressing to sit quietly in the space in front of a keyboard. Now, once again, I look forward to it. The time I feel the most lonely now is Sunday morning. I miss company over coffee and the New York Times.

I am starting to feel my age. Time is short and I have no idea where this journey will take me or when it will end. I'm glad for the opportunity to restructure something that wasn't working and to be singularly engaged in the world once more. I have a few pressing things to pull together in my life before that unknown moment when the umpire calls time. So I better hurry. I am finally experiencing the phrase, I'm on deadline, in its most literal sense.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Joyce Schon: My First Long-term Partner

Joyce Schon (1952-2016)
I seem to be standing at a crossroads where past, present and future intersect. Being on the receiving end of a nasty ending of a twenty year relationship has left me feeling sad and nostalgic so I looked up an old ex partner online. Our relationship was one that lasted fifteen years from 1980 to 1995. I’d heard more recently she’d moved to her home city, Detroit and became a civil rights and immigration attorney. Last I heard she was still a member of Revolutionary Workers League, the Marxist-Leninist group to which she had always belonged.

I was dismayed to discover that Joyce Schon died of metastatic breast cancer in 2016 at 64 years of age. We had totally lost touch by that time, but I did wonder why she changed her email suddenly and was no longer active. She was still a Facebook friend so I knew I could message her there. We are all immortal online. I located only a perfunctory obituary that was geared toward straight, conventional family only. 

The fact she was a lesbian was missing from the obit. All her years of union activism and leftist organizing had been erased. It was appalling to see Joyce reduced to a traditional woman without spouses, children or interests.

What can I say about our time together? I remember the early days when I was 29 and she was 28. It was a wild, passionate time. We went to political meetings constantly. We also had sex everywhere. In parks, on beaches in every room of our apartments. She lived in Berkeley and I in San Francisco and we were each too poor to own cars but fortunately, there was BART.

Politically we were quite different. Joyce was a member of RWL, a group I referred to as Really Weird Leftists. They were a vanguard Trotskyist party. I, on the other hand, was involved in groups like Lesbians Against Police Violence and Revolting Lesbians. That made us a mixed marriage of sorts.

Joyce worked as a Ward Clerk at SF General in those days and was one of the first to work on the newly created Aids Ward. She was also a shop steward and union activist extraordinaire. Thirty for forty was her slogan for workers there: thirty hours of work a week for forty hours pay. She spoke Spanish with such an authentic accent that whenever she used it her conversation partner would deluge her in the language so rapidly that she couldn’t understand a word. 

She was committed to getting the message of socialism out into the world. I remember when the SF Chronicle was on strike. At the time, I was a research librarian there, a member of the Newspaper Guild. Joyce spoke at a strikers meeting in the Warehouse district of San Francisco. There were about 7,000 people in attendance, members of the Newspaper Guild, the Printers Union and the Teamsters. She addressed the huge crowd without wavering. She spoke with passion and determination. 

Joyce had a beautiful voice and played guitar. She sang both union songs and “women’s music.” “The Woman in Your Life,” was a particular favorite of mine.

In 1991 when I was diagnosed with melanoma and scheduled to have an intensive skin graft on my leg, she took my tumor, floating in its vial, to the head of the melanoma clinic at Mt. Zion for a second opinion. That experienced doctor said that the major disfiguring surgery I was scheduled for in two days, was unnecessary for a forty-year old. He recommended a much less destructive re-excision procedure instead. I have the full use of my leg now because of that decision.

Joyce always wanted to return to her home city of Detroit. In 1995, by mutual decision, we broke off our relationship. Our paths had diverged. My cancer experience had changed me. I became a Buddhist and a more spiritual person. She was still devoutly political and wanted more freedom. We parted ways like two adults who cared for each other. It was an ethical, mutually agreed upon decision that didn’t involve one party sleeping with someone else. Joyce was always an ethical person with a high degree of integrity. I look back on that breakup fondly now, aware of how bitter and ugly things can get.  

After we split I'd given her a check for a thousand dollars as a promise to make good on buying out her share of our home. A couple weeks later, without speaking to me first, she went to the title company and legally took her name off the title, literally giving me the house. She did this because of her Marxist convictions. She knew that my family members were all dead or remarried and that I would probably never be able to buy a house again. She, on the other hand, was from an upper middle class family and her parents were still alive. The magnitude of this gift still makes me cry. Because of Joyce I believe in genuine kindness and compassion that transcends romantic love. 

I am old enough to feel death gaining ground. My life is beginning its final chapter. I must seek out the person I used to be. She is still alive inside me and has grown older, wiser, stronger, less afraid. I speak through her voice now. When I open my mouth the only words I'm able to utter are the unadulterated, unmitigated, unapologetic truth. Joyce Schon you taught me well. I miss you. 

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

"Weary of Life," Dignitas Helped Her Die

Spring Friedlander
We were not friends. She was an acquaintance of mine. We were in a group together OLOC ( Old Lesbians Organizing for Change). I also remember Spring Friedlander when she was a plumber and active in Tradeswomen. A couple months ago at an OLOC gathering,  Spring announced that her plans were set and she would exit this world soon. I took the news with a grain of salt. Spring was 75 and moved, looked and acted as though she was in good physical health. Mental health was another issue. She was clearly not okay and had been suffering quite a while. She often dominated meetings with rambling diatribes about her life as well as her plan to die.

Like any quasi-political group, especially one of old women, we were not equipped to address her needs. There was not a lot more to do than tell her when she used too much time that her turn was over. We failed her but we were not alone. Alienation and suicide are at record numbers in this country right now. Getting old is not fun, especially when you are alone.

I believe in assisted suicide. In 1973, at twenty-two, my father, myself and a dentist friend helped my mother die. She had terminal ovarian cancer. She was in pain and was being used to try out experimental drugs and procedures. She had no hope of survival. Euthanasia is mercy. It is now legal in many states including California. But what about legal suicide for depression? There are drugs. There is therapy. There is always tomorrow.

That's why I was so upset to find out that Spring had gone to Switzerland and, with the help of an organization called Dignitas, had made her final exit of this world. Her reason was short and simple: She was "weary of life."

Her memorial page is extensive. She expounds on her life, her motivation for ending it, her accomplishments etc. Spring was obviously a prolific writer. She could have at least had the goal of publishing this work as a memoir.

I don't know how I feel about this kind of suicide. It seems a shame, feels like a waste. Anyone at anytime may feel weary of life. But then it passes. There is always one more pizza. One more movie. One more beautiful spring day. I cannot provide any pat answers. I pass on this information simply as food for thought. Life is long, hard and convoluted. Death is an experience we are all assured of having. Morals and ethics are for pontificators and philosophers not for me. Rest in peace Spring Friedlander. I'm so sorry we failed you.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

After Twenty Years...

I can’t say I didn’t see it coming. Things between us had been bad for a while, a long while. But sometimes I can be like the deer in the headlights, stunned into paralysis, mesmerized by the oncoming car, yet unable to get out of its way. Perhaps my expectations of this life have always been too low. Being from a family of alcoholics who had no real use for the dynamics of child-rearing, my sister and I learned, by trial and error, to parent ourselves. We did okay. Financially, each of us has made her own way through this world, held on to civil service jobs, bought our own houses without help, basically held her own. The things we were unable to incorporate have to do with self-esteem and relationships, things we were never shown. Like how to have faith in our own worth, how to give and receive love.

Time matters. Especially at sixty-seven years old. I sense denouement in the wings as my entire generation nears the end of our earthly sojourn. It makes sense to be kinder to each other in this chapter, but often, it doesn’t work that way. My parents had an open relationship and I stretched my limits to be flexible with a partner, who described her onset of sexual changes as just one component of a late-in-life crisis. She had my blessing to do tantric workshops, orgasmic meditation, anything within a structured sexual environment was not threatening to me. She said that she’s trying to get in touch with her “inner gay man,” but gay men have a host of opportunities for casual sex that are not open to lesbians. A quick b-j in a parking lot or bathroom stall and a visit to a sex club with private rooms and “glory holes” are not options in the lesbian community.

My parents’ first rule of non-monogamy was that each of them could do whatever they wanted provided they didn’t talk about it. The polyamorous community is the opposite. The bylaws are fundamental honesty combined with mutual consent. My partner started by attempting to follow those rules, but the problem was when I felt I couldn’t handle her having a sexual/romantic relationship with no guidelines whatsoever, there was nowhere to go from there.We all have limits to what we can withstand. 

I can’t help feeling betrayed. Although the responsibility for this split is my partner’s, it is upsetting that her new paramour knows me and was peripherally part of our friendship circle. I don’t understand why anyone would make this decision. Aren’t there enough lesbian strangers out there? Now I must worry about running into a person harboring negative, or worse indifferent, feelings regarding my well-being in this tumultuous world.   

Today, in this toxic soup of ash and particulate waste around me, I feel discarded, alone. When your world is burning, you are without choice, you must save yourself. Letting go of this relationship is not the path I would have chosen, but, like so many things beyond my control, it has chosen me. It remains to be seen where it will lead.