I've done a lot of waiting in my life. These last few months, I've had a lot of practice at it but it's not helping. There is measurable evidence that I'm not any better at it than I ever was.
There are lots of places in life you end up waiting, for lots of reasons. Doctor's office, DMV, in line at the grocery store, stuck in traffic. The reasons shift with each place, but there's a common thread. These places are synonymous with helplessness. Whatever's going on, you can't actually do anything about it. All you can do is sit and wait for someone you hope knows better than you to do whatever needs done. Doctor's offices in particular.
I'm home right now, but tomorrow I'll be writing from one again. It's a special lounge provided for family members of people in the cancer unit at OHSU.
It's a pleasant room, decorated like the rest of the facility in that faux-Swedish-modern style medical buildings seem to be designed around these days. Since I consider even fake birch panelling a huge improvement over institutional beige tile, I approve of the move. It's just outside the unit so I am right there if she needs me but still off where I won't bother people. It's setup for what I need; it has several power outlets and tables some of the chairs aren't too bad. I'm grateful for that. It's far enough out of the way I can do my job from there while she's napping and stuff but close enough I can be there for her. If you're careful not to think too hard, you could feel like you were sitting here waiting for just about any sort of professional visit.
But it's not an accident that all the chairs and tables are faced away from one wall; it's covered in informational pamphlets about how to deal with the symptoms of various types of cancer and the accompanying chemo and radiation treatements.
I've been here a lot this last month, and that's where the measurement comes in. It shows in the trashbins full of empty cafeteria coffee cups and crumpled, damp tissues. You count it out in laps paced when I couldn't stand that chair or the contents of my own head anymore or the percentage of charge I've gotten on my plugged-in phone since the last time someone called for an update on her condition I don't have.
There are too many uncertainties for my mind. I mean, in the grocery store you can see the front of the line and you have a pretty good idea of the outcome. I stand here behind that lady with the squalling baby for X amount of time. Then that kid in the polo shirt will do his chants and dances with the point-of-sale system, and if the gods of the inventory control system are kind I leave with an empty wallet and full trunk. That will let me cook meals and run my household for X amount of time. There are complexities to it, but I've
worked those out over the years. Here you got nothing. I know people aren't cars, with interchangable parts. But when you don't know precisely what's wrong, have no real way of knowing what needs to be done about it (or, say it softly, if there is anything at all that can be done), and don't know where you'll end up afterward it's maddening.
I'm trying to blame this on the room and I know that's not fair. But it's not just the terrible things. Even waiting for the best stuff ever like babies to be born drives me straight up the wall, and for very similar reasons. The stakes are just too high and I can't do anything but sit there like a jackass in a hailstorm and take it.
And sometimes knowing doesn't help. You try to keep hope alive, but I can tell you exactly when that took what may be a critical hit. 1:12pm today, when I was staring at my iPad when they told us the tumor they took out of her was pancreatic cancer and had already spread to her colon, stomach, and lymph nodes
rather than starting in her duadanum and just filling in the available space inside the digestive tract both directions from there like they had hoped. I've got stage numbers and stuff now. It's not the worst it could be, but it's a lot worse than we'd all hoped. From what they said, they'd taken the hit to theirs earlier in the day and were trying to figure out how to tell us as kindly as they could.
So I'm sitting here trying to figure out where a new line between "keep your chin up" and "STFU Pollyanna" should be drawn based on this information as I prepare to head back to that room for a couple days to try to help her weather the news and keep going. I have to figure that out for myself first, though. I've got a long drive ahead of me to work on it and I will do it. She and her boyfriend who has been with her and helped her all this time need me to. And I need to know that, whatever comes, I at least managed to do this.
I'm typing this post on a new acquisition - a Dell netbook running the latest version of Ubuntu. I got it because the company I work for has decided it's time for us to start properly thinking about the mobile space. That means looking at iPad, Android, and Windows 7 apps.
Outside of it's tiny form factor (what is the DEAL with this keyboard!?) and the way my brain refuses to gracefully switch between the Touch interface and the more usual world of keyboards and mice, this one is necessary because I need a machine that can emulate the Android operating system. I have to design for it, and I've never even see the thing run. I played with some RedHat (or RedHate, as I and some of my colleagues referred to it) quite a few years ago but I'm way behind the times. So here I go, starting over yet again.
That is one thing about this business. You never just get set into a groove. Every couple years the whole thing re-imagines itself. You get to make the solemn decision between letting yourself drift into a sort of technological eddy, or putting forth the skull-sweat to catch up with the times and hoping your boss agrees it's worth investing in it. Your whole career consists of a delicate balancing act between those two forces.
I was swept into a deep, weedy corner when the kids and I got left on our own, and I've been sort of rescue-floating there until I could get the kids raised. That's done. Nice thing is, whether you want it or not, it all comes back around. Even that far out in the cattails the water doesn't completely stop moving. and I've drifted back out to the edge of the current.
So here I go, paddling out into the full flow again. We'll see what this river looks like downstream. I gotta find some way to work with this thing in the jumble of hardware on my desk, and study up. Just getting this far has let me understand a couple of the "sudo" jokes I've heard. That's progress, right?
I love my Mom. Getting a package from her is always an experience. She's lived in Alaska since she was 9. Back in the days when TV was two weeks behind the rest of the country if you got it at all because they had to ground-ship the tapes up there. Moving stuff around wasn't quite as easy as today, so when you shipped something you made damned skippy sure that the thing was properly wrapped and taped. It had to be able to stand freezing, bumps, mashing and all sorts of indignities. She's never got over the habit, I'm afraid, even in these days of FedEx.
I received a vaguely cube-shaped box that looked like it was wearing a space-suit. You could have shipped the thing to the Moon, at any rate. It was wrapped in white paper with the shipping information written on it in 200pt Sharpie-script, and then entirely mummy-wrapped in clear strapping tape. Once you hacked your way through the epidermis, you discovered a dermal layer of yet another complete wrapping of white paper and tape. Under that, lay a layer of duct tape, completely covering the box. Then you actually get to the box. Which contained another box, and several of those packing things that look like blown-up Baggies. Opening that last box revealed the treasure - six books. I kid you not, she armor-plated books to ship them.
Not that I'm complaining. You see, these books are special. I sometimes think she wonders exactly what kind of cuckoo brought me to her nest. She's very proud of me, but she really doesn't get this whole computer thing, and most of the rest of the stuff I do. But she went out and found something that I will cherish.
Among others, it was E.E. Smith's "Lensmen" series that was read and re-read all through my jr high years. The librarian used to have to order me to turn them in so someone else could have a turn (but no one ever did). I'd let them sit for a week as per our deal, and then I'd go and get them again. I had a set of them I got when I was grown, but I lost them in the move to Seattle. Since I've gotten down here, I've only been able to find one - a first paperback edition of the last book, printed in 1966. It's the same edition our library had, except theirs was a library edition. I hardly dare to read the thing because it's fragile, but I like knowing it's there. I had bragged about finding that one a couple years ago, but we hadn't really talked about it since. She found that an obscure publishing house had re-printed the whole thing in trade-paperback editions with new forwards by such lights as Michael Straczynski, but with all the original artwork from the 1954 hard-bound editions. That's what she sent to me in that space suit.
I love them, but I don't expect a lot of others to.
If you're looking for complex characterization, don't read Lensmen. They are some of my favorite books precisely because they are anything but. Sometimes you have to believe there are real white hats in the world, at least for as long as it takes to turn those pages. Men are men, women are women, and the bad guys are big and nasty. With all that is good and bad about that. For the times they were progressive; nowadays they're offensively backwards in spots. Reading them can be like a bit of an archeology dig.
When they were written, wire recorders and phonographs were the hottest things around. Electromagnetic radiation outside the visible spectrum and the weakest radio was new and daring. Power was palpable stuff; electricity ran through big copper wires and if you wanted a lot of it, big hunks of hardware were involved. Computers were rare and the size of rooms, and the few out there were run by punched cards.
Everything in the books is touched by this, and it's fun to me to read it and decipher what technology he was trying to stretch with his imagination and think about where we're still basically working with Bakelite, and where we've gone far ahead instead.
I'm staring down the barrel of an eight-hour wait outside an operating room, and being in that world instead of this one seems like a good way to get through it. So, you'll have to excuse me. I have to pack. And tomorrow, I have Gharlane the Eddorian to vanquish.
The morning of the fourth day is tough. The veil between the life all around you and your own doing and being has been getting thicker and now it's almost opaque. You feel like that time when someone spiked the punch with Everclear at that office party. Everyone was suddenly much more wasted than they had planned on, and everyone was sitting around trying very hard to pretend to be sober so as not to get the boss mad at them.
You sit in your chair in the correct posture at work and you very carefully try to pretend to care about that one customer who can't get into the site, or that one project that just seems to never go completely away. Start at the top. One thing at a time, over and over. The arms of the clock above the receptionist's head sweep around in strange fits and starts to some rhythm that you can't seem to catch. You get to the end of the day's presto finally, though. It's time to go.
You walk down the street towards the parking lot, fumbling for your keys like usual. Someone catches your eye. You feel the shadow sweep over you. You were hoping to skip the scherzo on this piece but that's not going to happen. You sink a little into your shoes, knowing what's coming. Sometimes you can't even tell what it is about them that makes the connection, but sometimes you can. A flash of stance, a glance of hazel eye, those ugly khaki pants he adored. It's hard to know which is worse - you not knowing if you're crazy, or having that particular bit of him dredged up again. You want nothing more than to kneel at their feet and start to bargain. You want to beg and plead that you'll give them the world if they can somehow give you yours back.
This has happened before. You know what to do. Just set the face on the "Social Smile 3" configuration, and choose a point to aim at that's way past them. Breath carefully through the nose, so the mouth forming the words doesn't get a chance to breathe them out for the wind to play with. Just keep going. Wipe any tears once you get to the point you chose to anchor on.
Another anchor-point or two later, you can start to let the body handle the breathing again. Now comes all the recriminations. The voice that tells you how stupid this all is that you're still doing this all this time later. How he doesn't care and he probably never really did. It starts listing off all the stuff he missed and the lipstick stains on the undershorts and those emails to the other women and the things he said about you in them, but you've stopped listening. It's going to rant on like that for a while and you have to get home and get dinner on the stove. It's right, but it's been right for a long time and it's not going to get any more or less right. As long as you can keep it from bringing up the girls you'll get through the evening.
You get to the car, and by carefully reciting each step as you accomplish it you manage to get into the driver's seat. Sort of like a preflight checklist. Car key in ignition. No, that's the house key. CAR key in ignition. Check. Your phone starts to buzz where you dumped it on the console, vibrating the loose change that's been gravitating into the cup holders. You have a quick flash of annoyed thought that you need to clean this mess up again. You pick the phone up and your heart sinks. It's Aunt Cathy. You close your eyes and answer it before it starts ringing in earnest.
They're at it again. She explains the latest thing Mom won't let her do that the doctor said she was supposed to do and I ask her to hand the phone to Mom. On the third or fourth try she does. Mom gives me her side of it. Go back and forth between the two of them until they realize that they're not in Jr. High anymore. Aunt Cathy's parting shot ringing in your ears blots out the jerk shouting how stupid you are and listing flaws, so that's one blessing at any rate.
You pick your forehead up off the steering wheel where it had fallen during the soi disant conversation, finish the checklist and join the flow of metal down the street towards the house. It's not "home". You don't know where that is. You're not sure you ever really did. Adagio swells under the mundanities of accellerator pedals and gas gauges.
You arrive, but it becomes clear that the director has another movement in mind. The first few bars stomp in through the front door with a gust of cool wind and muddy footprints. The cell phone buzz on the counter rings counterpoint. You pick it up to shut it up while the allegro begins. You tread the measures, restating the themes again and again until they resolve into a single bare tone.
You find yourself back at the start again, staring at the same screen that had bounced the morning sun's glare into your eyes. Finale, you hope. Time to go see what the ceiling has to say about the matter.
For a very quick referent to the start of this conversation, I had some drinks the other night. Like way too many. Then I posted on a forum where I usually hang out. Oy vey!
I was talking to a friend of mine who lurks around there and ran into me at the store yesterday and checked up on me. In response to my self-deprecating apology, he said some things that made me think awful hard when we parted ways. I looked like heck. On top of the hangover (which was still somewhat going on) I
have been fighting low blood sugars since then (today is doing much better). He didn't notice, and from what he said he never had.
It struck me it wasn't just that people don't notice stuff. I mean, they don't. I've been weeping openly in front of people and they didn't see it. Back in 2003 and 2004 I was such a mess I did a sort of boundary study about what seems to indicate to people "crying" and what you can get away with right in front of them that they won't notice. I should dig that up - it might make an interesting popular science piece. I have a story about losing a 2" in diameter button off the front of my blouse right where he -- along with many other men -- rested his eyes as a matter of course right in the middle of a job interview. I got the job, and a couple years later I brought it up jokingly and he honestly didn't notice. The man is an architect noted for his eye for details.
This person I had been talking to yesterday, who I have worked with off and on for more than 10 years and have been friends as well for that long has probably never physically seen me when I wasn't a mess to one degree or another. He knew me during my divorce, the mess with my ex afterward, dealing with my younger son's problems and raising my kids on my own.
I realize he's not alone. Those of you I've met at PAX have only seen me when I haven't slept for three days, stressed to the max, out of my element on every level, and in the second-most unflattering garment I own. The PAXEast Enforcer shirt is incredibly comfortable and easy to work with. It does it's job of being noticeable very well, but that color under those lights does not flatter me at all. (In case you're wondering, the first is a bright yellow sweatshirt with sunflowers all over it my monster-in-law bought me for
Christmas in like 1989 or something. I won't even wear that one to the mailbox.) Particularly by the time we get to evening boardgames; I'll be under-caffeinated, overwhelmed, under-the-weather, and over this whole thing.
I've been like this for years and I never frelling noticed. Well, I mean I did. But I never really thought about what it means for my life, and my relationships with others.
It's been a awful yet somehow liberating realization. It's going to take more thinking to figure out what I want to do about it.