ALL THE TIME IN THE WORLD
A serial memoir by Jean Fogelberg
A Year of Grace
We’d made Valentine’s Day dinner reservations at Abe & Louie’s, but those plans were scrapped when a massive winter blizzard hit Boston on February 12th, 2007. For four days, sleet and freezing rain made the streets and sidewalks incredibly dangerous, so we waited the storm out in the apartment. We’d stocked up on groceries ahead of time, and Dan bought me a bouquet of roses. I photographed the roses and made Dan a Valentine’s Day card on the laptop.
In mid-January I had emailed invitations for a Valentine’s Day party I’d been giving for my girlfriends:
Got anything special planned for Valentine's Day? Why not come and hang out with the girls for the 3rd Annual Lady's Valentine's Day Luncheon & Tea?
Place: Jean and Dan's house
Day: Wednesday, February 14th
Time: Noon - 3-ish.......4-ish
What to bring: Hot food, finger food, or dessert.
What's provided: Tea, champagne, chocolate, and other hormone therapies.
What to wear: Something you're comfy in, something outrageous you've wanted to wear for ages, something that will make your tummy and thighs cry, "You like me! You really like me!" (Bat wings welcome too.)
Please RSVP via e-mail and let me know what you are bringing.
I always held the party in the afternoon so those of us with partners could still have our romantic dinner dates. Most of my new friends were women Dan had known for years, or wives of his male friends, so the party was a way for me to get to know them on my own. Potlucks were popular on the island, which worked for me, since there were so many excellent cooks. I loved filling the house with all these talented, amazing women; the good mojo they brought with them lingered for days afterward. At some point in our hospital stay, I reluctantly cancelled the party.
On the 14th, Dan made dinner in the small kitchen. We ate at the coffee table where, two weeks earlier, he had fallen, unleashing a storm that followed us to MGH. Now we toasted with champagne and smiled into each other’s eyes, safe and cozy, while the storm raged outside. Nothing could dim our grateful, victorious spirits. As far as we were concerned, every additional day bestowed on us in the coming year would be a gift; a precious grace period.
Two days later I ventured out for apple strudel and some art supplies while Dan napped. I stopped for lunch at Atlantic Fish Company and waited until a table by the front windows opened up. I loved people-watching while eating. At one point, a woman hurried by, all bundled up in coat and hat. I figured she was on her lunch break since she was walking quickly in her dressy leather boots.
The sidewalks in the mid-section of Marlborough were brick; on Newbury they were concrete. But in this section of Boylston, the old sidewalks were made of large squares of granite, which became incredibly slick in the winter. Sure enough, with no tread to prevent it, her feet went right out from under her, sending her flying backward. She hit the hard, flat surface on her back and head, and passers-by immediately rushed to her aid. Embarrassed, she insisted she was alright, and walked away. I was very glad we had brought our winter boots with us.
The next day, we took the subway to our favorite sushi restaurant in Brookline, a special treat, since we both loved traveling by train. When we returned to the Back Bay area, we cautiously walked to DeLuca’s Market on Newbury Street. The small store was packed with everything we needed, and the pharmacy was just across the intersection, so it was very convenient. We got what we wanted, then headed back to the apartment with our bags, feeling like locals. Dan still tired easily, so there was no singing, but it was a happy fatigue.
That night, I finally sent out an email to our friends and family:
On Saturday, February 17, 2007, at 10:18 PM, jean bean wrote:
Well, thankfully, the drama level in our lives has dropped considerably so I can write a newsy e-mail.
For those of you who haven't heard from us in a while, briefly: we came to Boston on the 29th for a doctor's appt. and that night Dan fell and hit his head and fractured his collar bone. There followed 10 days in the hospital akin to falling down the rabbit hole. I was able to stay there with him, but no cell phones or computers allowed, so not much communication. They released him on the 9th.
We are still in a holding pattern, waiting for our doctors to determine what, when, and where. We are hoping they will agree to a week back home before the next round of treatment, but we'll see. In the meantime we are reading, learning to cook in a Barbie-size kitchen, watching way too much "Frasier" and History Channel (how much does one really need to know about pirates, after all?) walking slowly and carefully on the icy Back Bay sidewalks, and finding interesting ways to exercise in an apartment (Dan did all three flights of stairs today in lieu of a Stairmaster, and I'm using a padded footstool in lieu of my Pilates ball).
Dan is feeling better with each passing day and has resigned himself to a winter without skiing by focusing on the coming sailing season. He is getting along well without the cane now, and wears his sling only occasionally (not as often as he should, of course).
To those wonderful girlfriends who heard about our predicament due to my cancelled Valentine party, thank you for your e-mails and your phone messages, it meant so much to hear from you, it was a great comfort during our darker hours. We are missing home and the cats but managing to keep things in perspective. Lauren continues to "hold the fort" for us while maintaining her Brooklin apartment and the gallery on weekends.
A couple sessions of shopping therapy this week coincided perfectly with some big sales, which was great since we have been here for 20 days now but had only packed for three ("a three hour tour........ a three hour tour......") I went out yesterday and bought a sketch pad and some pencils - I found myself photographing the television (I'm not kidding) and realized my creative juices were fermenting and probably needed some release. It's been too cold and windy and slushy and icy to photograph outside, but things are finally warming up ("Hello Mudder, hello Fadder....") so we'll be getting out more. I also bought a warm hat yesterday which I love: it's tan felt, and looks like something a flapper at the Mad Hatter's Tea Party might wear. It's classic enough that Dan likes it, but quirky enough that it makes me smile when I put it on my head.
Well, that's all I can think of for now, and besides I've worn out the computer’s parenthesis keys.
Dan was scheduled to receive targeted radiation five days a week for the next month. They would zap the recent collar bone break and the major points weakened by cancer, to “cool” the bone pain. He would also begin Zometa infusions, to strengthen his bones and further reduce pain.
While I felt a wave of emotional relief upon entering MGH, Dan experienced his own shift in reality. Walking through the lobbies and down the long corridors, we passed people in all manner of physical distress. Dan would squeeze my hand and whisper, “It can always be worse.”
On Monday, we walked to the Cox building and found a seat in the Radiation Oncology waiting room. As hospital spaces went, it was nice; the lights seemed warmer and dimmer, making it feel less institutional. Brightly-colored fish moved languidly about in a giant aquarium. The room was usually crowded, but there always seemed to be a few chairs available.
Small dots of permanent ink were drawn on Dan’s body, to mark the points that were to be radiated each day. Looking at the people surrounding us in the waiting room, I felt sure most of them had the same ink tattoos, as discreetly concealed as their fears for the future. Some read books or magazines, others talked softly with the person sitting next to them. Some would live for many years; others would die before the ink faded from their skin. So much quiet dignity; we could have been waiting for a train in Paddington station.
During our second week of radiation, a frail, elderly Asian man joined our coterie. He stood out for me because he was always on his own, always frowning, and always staring at the floor in front of his chair. When his name was called, he would rise uneasily and follow the technician without glancing around. Each day he sat, alone, and when he left I found myself worrying about him, walking the uneven sidewalks with no arm to lean on.
The next week, his name was called, and he rose. Dan and I were sitting near the door to the treatment rooms so he was going to walk right by us. Just before he reached our chairs, I looked up. The movement caught his eye and when he saw me, I smiled at him. He quickly looked back at the retreating head of the technician and disappeared into a back room. Before long, Dan’s name was called and he went through the door, leaving his coat and cane with me.
After about fifteen minutes, the door opened and I looked up from my book. It was the old man. He looked at me and nodded once, then he was gone. I think of him whenever I hear the term, “nodding acquaintance,” because that’s what we became. Whenever he arrived, he would find a seat and, after a moment, he’d look around until he saw me. I’d smile and he’d nod. His frown had softened, and his gaze now rested on the floor across the room, occasionally rising and settling on the aquarium. When his name was called, he rose, nodded at me again, then went for his radiation. If I was still there when he came out, I would smile and he would nod before leaving. On our last day of radiation, Dan and I left before my nodding acquaintance emerged from his treatment and I felt a bit like I was abandoning him.
The following day, we were sitting in the Lexus, driving north on I-95 in Maine. As Dan signaled to exit, I glanced at the clock. I realized the old man was probably sitting in the waiting room just then, and I silently wished him well. I marveled at what magical beings we humans are, when we wield our powers of empathy. Without wand, weapon, or word, we can communicate with just an ounce of compassion and a nod or a smile.
On April 8th, we celebrated our wedding anniversary with dinner at Arborvine Restaurant, in Blue Hill. We toasted our marriage, I with champagne, Dan with an Italian red. Five years, and still madly in love: it was a milestone for us both. Starting in 1996, we had dated for two years, lived together for two more, and been engaged for one, so we were going on eleven years, a relationship record that Dan seemed particularly proud of.
Ever the romantic, he had looked up anniversary gifts by year and found that the traditional gift for five years was wood, a symbol of strong roots and an enduring bond. He gave me a beautiful Italian music box decorated with inlaid wood. The discs Dan chose were the traditional Italian song, “Santa Lucia,” Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” Schubert’s “Serenade,” and Maurice Jarre’s “Lara’s Theme,” from Dr. Zhivago.
I smiled at “Lara’s Theme,” and reminded Dan how, in the first year of our relationship, I’d impressed him by knowing the lyrics to “Lara’s Theme,” as well as the Nino Rota love themes, “Speak Softly, Love,” from The Godfather, and “A Time for Us,” from Romeo and Juliet. He knew and loved the instrumental themes from the films, but hadn’t known there were lyrics.
“I remember,” he said, smiling.
“Ah,” I sighed, “back in the good old days, when I could impress you with a few lyrics.”
Pulling me into a hug, he said, “You still impress me. Every day.” We both knew it had been a shameless ploy, and it had worked brilliantly. I may have impressed Dan, but he astounded me, with his steadfast determination and stamina. Each new symptom and side effect was just one more obstacle to be confronted and pushed aside. I constantly found myself wondering how he did it, and how well I would fare, if the tables were turned.
One of the drugs Dan was taking now made him gain weight and caused his feet and ankles to swell now and then. While his feet were swollen, walking in Boston during our monthly treatments was almost impossible. The only footwear that fit were his fleece scuffs, which were no good for any distances.
I was walking down Charles Street one day to pick up a prescription and, on a whim, I stopped in at Nahals Shoes, a tiny store we liked. The owner and his son ran the place, but it was usually the father who worked there during the week. As usual, he barely looked up when I came in. Normally, Dan and I would browse the wall-mounted shelves until we found a shoe we wanted to try on. Lifting it in the air, we’d say “May I try this on?” and the old man would grunt from behind the small register counter and bark, “What size?” Then he’d open a tall sliding door and disappear into a narrow stock room that ran between his shop and the next. His moods seemed to run from uninterested to cranky. But we liked his shoes, and preferred his sales technique to the watch-you-like-a-hawk strategy employed at other stores.
Gathering my courage now, I walked right up to Mr. Nahal and explained what I needed. He thought for a few seconds, then he motioned for me to follow him up a small set of stairs to a platform at the back of the store. Spinning a circular Crocs display rack, he said, “What size does your husband wear?” I was astounded to hear him speak such a long sentence and said, “Well, normally, an eleven. But with the swelling...” He pulled a pair of black, size thirteen Crocs from the bottom of the rack and handed them to me. Oh good lord, I thought, Dan will never wear these ugly things! But they were inexpensive, and I didn’t want to ruin this pleasant exchange by nit picking, so I bought them.
When I pulled them from the bag at the apartment, they were even bigger and uglier than I remembered. They looked like clogs formed by molten lava. I showed them to Dan, who reacted with the revulsion I’d expected. But, he had the courtesy to at least try them on. After flipping the heel strap up, he did the loop through the kitchen and bedroom, returning to the living room with a look of astonishment on his face. “They feel great!” he said, smiling like a delighted little boy. My heart soared.
They looked absolutely awful with everything, but Dan didn’t care; he was able to walk around the city in comfort again. One night, after a stroll through the park, we stopped into the bar at the Four Season’s Hotel on Boylston. In 1985, Dan and his band had been one of the first big acts to stay there, and he still liked the vibe.
Another problem he was having with drug side effects occurred after he’d been sitting for a while. If he sat straight up, he was okay, but if he leaned back, it took a long time to recover his equilibrium.
We’d been sitting and talking in the hotel’s Bristol Bar for over an hour, me on the couch, and Dan leaning back in a big comfy upholstered armchair. After two drinks, we were ready to leave. Dan sat forward and allowed himself a few minutes. When he was ready, I gave him my hand and helped him up. He took two steps, around the side of the chair, then he seemed to slowly deflate. It was so slow and subtle, I didn’t realize he was about to pass out. Once I did, I grabbed his jacket and lowered him to the wide arm of the chair, semi-conscious.
The bar was empty, save for two customers with their backs to us at the bar and the manager and waiter who were standing near the entrance to the restaurant, talking. I looked to them and tried to motion for help, but the lights were dim and, in true Four Season’s fashion, they tactfully looked away, assuming my husband had drunk one too many martinis. Straddling his legs, I held Dan against me for a few minutes until he regained full consciousness and was fit to stand. As I pulled him to his feet, those ugly Crocs gripped the carpet, ensuring his feet didn’t go out from under him. I silently thanked wise, grumpy Mr. Nahal once again.
In May the weather began to warm up, which was a blessing and a curse. The gardens around the house in Maine were full of bright green buds, which thrilled us, but we were both experiencing major hormonal hot flashes. In the wintertime we could just step outside, melting the snow on the porch beneath our slippers, and creating enough steam to trigger fog alerts on the Reach. As the temperatures rose, though, the outdoors provided less relief.
I went online and bought the biggest paper fans I could find and put one in each room. When a mild flash occurred, we’d cool each other’s faces with quick, short strokes. Three-alarm flashes required standing up and moving as much air as possible over the prone body of the sufferer, with long horizontal passes of the fan from head to toe.
We loved our beautiful home, the ever-changing ocean views, and the kitties.
Note the previously mentioned "green lobster print" on the kitchen wall.
Dan’s boat was moored in the cove now, and he had a couple of weeks to do some sailing before our next Boston appointment on May 15th. After that, we were bound for Colorado to pack up clothes, books, and art to send back to Maine. I needed my paints and art supplies, and Dan wanted to go through boxes and file drawers full of old letters, photos, and press clippings. We would fly to Albuquerque, then drive to Santa Fe for a couple of days before continuing on to the ranch.
I couldn’t wait to be back in New Mexico and Colorado. It had been just three years since the diagnosis, but the euphoric years that preceded it were already starting to fade like a series of wonderful dreams. I wanted to reconnect with the places we’d wandered together when our love was new, and time was an open road that stretched out in front of us forever. The cancer diagnosis had exploded like a landmine, turning that part of our road into a deep chasm. We were on the other side of the abyss now, wounded but united; our illusions hanging from us like tattered finery. There was no going back, but I never wanted to lose sight of the blissful, young-hearted lovers we’d left behind.
Posted May 8th, 2021 Copyright ©Jean Fogelberg 2021