Saturday, November 12, 2011

Third chemo

It's 6 a.m. Skip is snoring not so peacefully in the bedroom. He had a restless night.
I was at a dinner for a visiting scholar last night, ate and drank a lot of wonderful food and wine, and so spent my own toss- and- turn night, overheated and subliminally aware of all the activity next to me.

Skip tolerated the third chemo treatment pretty well. A little extra fatigue, but not much more than that. He's still eating well. Off oxycontin and now starting to come off of the neurontin he's been taking for nerve pain. He had some discomfort yesterday, and it might be too soon for this new withdraw and detox. At least I'm imagining that might be part of his restlessness. That and dreams.

I spent the day of his third chemo treatment, Wednesday, reading and re-reading Joan Didion. Her new book about death and loss, Blue Nights, is as heartbreaking as you might imagine such a book to be. Detailing the death of her daughter, which occurred so soon after the death of her husband, the book shows a woman who is just reeling. Her sandal strap catches on a street grating one day, and she immediately goes out to buy 2 pairs of sneakers--afraid to wear heels anymore, vulnerable and frail-feeling, afraid of losing her balance. That's as good an analogy as any for the larger emotional state she's in.

The heartbreak surrounding death and loss I had anticipated. What I didn't expect was that the book would be such an unflinching and heart wrenching book about motherhood and adoption. When I first read reviews, I didn't understand why Quintana's status as an adopted child was so continually highlighted. It actually pissed me off, since I thought the reviewers were drawing some kind of distinction between the kind of love you'd feel for an adopted child vs. the kind you'd feel for a child you'd actually carried. But now that I've read the book I understand. So much of it is about the particularities of adoption-- the special fear of loss that both adoptive parents and adopted children live with, the way lives can suddenly upend when birth parents and siblings resurface. The heartbreak of not knowing what kinds of genetic predispositions your child might be carrying (when Quintana falls ill there's no family story for Didion to turn to for information or comfort. No " I remember when Aunt Elizabeth had that and survived" to carry her through. And, of course, Quintana does not survive-- which makes everything all the more heart wrenching).

The book is written in Didion's signature style and prose. I've been something of a Didionista since Play It as It Lays-- and in the 1970s Book of Common Prayer was one of those books that I kept revisiting almost obsessively. Beautiful-- the way she interweaves time frames and I love the almost surgical precision with which she shows you what various emotions look like, sound like. Very cinematic in a way. But if you don't like her style, this book will probably annoy you.

And it does lend itself-- even for me-- to that wrinkling of the class nose. Didion and her family are well to do by most standards. And there's a way in which reading about the trips and teaching Quintana to eat caviar can be wearing (in the same way that class in Woody Allen movies can just distract-- who in the hell has such a huge apartment in Manhattan? Who can afford such a place when half the city is in squats?). But for me it was one of those essential books to read-- particularly now.

My one caveat-- I re-read The Year of Magical Thinking before starting this one. I thought it would be good to have the story she tells there fresh in my mind and also I needed to revisit that earlier, exquisite meditation on marriage. What it means to love someone and live with him for a long time, and then suddenly to lose him. Irrevocably. No fantasy of getting him back or sending the other woman a poisoned box of Godiva chocolates. As you can imagine, there are times now when I look at Skip and feel that my heart is breaking. When I told my friend Tamar recently that I didn't understand my mood swings, she said, "I do. You're losing your husband." And there it was-- the very blunt fact of it. So, I thought it would help in some sort of cathartic way to revisit Didion's memoir of losing her husband.

But there was too much carryover from one book to the next for me. Not just events repeated and retold, but retold in exactly the same way-- often in exactly the same language. As a writer I know the impulse-- once you've found the right metaphor, the right image, that single evocative verb, you don't want to give it up for subsequent retellings. But it can be unsettling if you read the books back to back. As though she were self-plagiarizing in a way.

6:30 a.m now and still dark. I have two black, black bananas to use for muffins this morning and strong French roast to brew. I miss the ocean during this time of year almost more than I do during summer. Miss the long walks along San Francisco's Ocean Beach-- grey sky and seeping fog -cold cutting through even my leather jacket. Fires on the beach at night followed by cold Tequila in the Cliff House bar. Play it as it lays.

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