Sunday, January 30, 2011


When we were living in our first apartment (a second story walk-up bordered on the north by the junior college campus and on the south by twin seedy apartment complexes), Will experienced a brief moment of clarity.

Let me explain.

Will has poor vision, which is putting it kindly. He's worn glasses as long as he can remember, a fact borne out by childhood photos, where he's a happy, tow-headed, four-eyed kid. Contacts don't work for him; ditto, Lasix. He's something of a celebrity when he visits his optometrist. Once I overheard the receptionist whisper to another: "You see that one? He's a negative twelve." She caught my glare and hushed up immediately. Please, there's nothing wrong with his hearing -- or mine, either.

Anyway, this isn't a sob story. Will wears expensive glasses in even more expensive frames, and never thinks about it. He drives, he writes, he makes a fabulous stromboli, he rereads Mario Puzo novels. He's used to his few moments of blindness each day - fumbling for his glasses on the nightstand, reaching for the shampoo in the shower. With his glasses on, we're nearly ocular equals. I only get to show off my perfect vision when I spot road signs miles in advance.

But on one otherwise inauspicious day, Will had his moment of clarity.

He was standing at the bathroom sink in our apartment, his glasses on the vanity. If he had looked out the window over the sink -- if he had been able to see out the window, that is -- he wouldn't have been greeted by a pretty sight. Our bathroom overlooked the corrugated roof of our carport, a huge dumpster that attracted rats, flies and the occasional diver, and the canal where once, after a cerveza-feuled Cinco de Mayo celebration, a dinky Geo Metro missed the turn, crashed through the railing and dangled crazily over the water. All of this was watched over by a massive, seldom-updated billboard which for years boasted 59 cent cheeseburgers on Wednesday. The golden arches were our very own version of Doctor T. J. Eckelburg (fittingly, an oculist).

In other words, Will wasn't missing much.

And then it happened - a chest-wracking, body-shaking cough that rattled him so deeply that for the briefest of moments, he could see clearly. 20/20 vision, without his glasses.

"Wow," I said, when he told me the story, a towel wrapped around his waist, his reapplied glasses fogged. "So, what did you see?"

He had looked out over the canal and spotted the row of delivery trucks for a linen service; he could read every single word detailed on their trucks. As proof, he repeated the company tag line to me.

"Huh," I said, impressed and depressed at the same time. I'd once coughed so hard that I literally saw stars, but this was a new one. In a way, I felt sorry for him. A single moment of clarity, and this was what he saw?

When we talk about it now, we have different theories.

Maybe there hadn't really been clarity -- maybe it was just his memory filling in the blanks. After all, with his glasses on, he'd probably seen those trucks a few hundred times.

"Or it was a mini-stroke," Will suggested.

"Or a mini-stroke," I agreed.

Either way, we both shy away from the word miracle, which today means the moldy figure of Elvis or Mary on a tortilla. But "mini-stroke" seems unlikely and too cold, the clinical explanation of a medical textbook. I like to think of it instead as Will's one moment of clarity.

Sunday, January 23, 2011


From the files:

The summer between my sophomore and junior years in college, I worked at a conference center in the Santa Cruz Mountains, a short drive from the boardwalk and dozens of sorbet flavors at Marianne’s. It was a last-minute decision; the job I’d lined up had fallen through, and I was completely unwilling to spend my summer asking “Would you like fries with that?” a few hundred times a day.

In many ways it was the happiest summer of my life. I made lifelong friends, I wrote daily letters to my roommates and my boyfriend, I reconnected with a man who I would, four years later, marry. I ran the treacherous “Loop” every day and was perfectly content to alternate between three or four t-shirts for an eight-week stretch.

But otherwise, it was the worst summer of my life.

On one of my weekly phone calls home, I learned that my parents were coming to visit – to spend a day in Santa Cruz, to replenish my supply of books, and to bring the things I’d forgotten to pack: aspirin, clothes hangers, my denim jacket. I was excited to see them – but about a week before their visit, I started having The Dream.

In The Dream, there was a car accident, one in which my parents’ navy blue minivan went hurtling off Highway 17 or 101 South, or any of the twists and turns on Lockhart Gulch Road. It was slightly different every time, but the outcome was essentially the same: My oblivious parents were killed on impact. The Dream haunted me, creeping into my subconscious the minute I closed my eyes, making me a nervous wreck during my daytime hours.

I tried to talk my parents out of the visit. It’s halfway through the summer already, I reasoned. I’ll be home soon. I really don’t need the hangers, anyway, and I can mooch the odd aspirin here and there. I could reread all my Chaim Potok books – no problem.

I didn’t know how to say: Don’t come. There will be a car accident. You won’t survive. We don’t believe in things like that, in premonitions.

The day of their visit I sat on the picnic benches at the entrance to the conference center, waiting for the bad news. I wondered how I would find out, how I would in turn call my sisters.

But of course, they were fine. Their minivan came around the bend and we spent a lovely afternoon together. That night I called, and sure enough, they had made it home. It was like 20-pound weight, some massive sack of flour, had been lifted off my chest.

So much for premonitions.

Later that summer, I became horribly sick. I spent four days sweating and delirious on my twin bed before I was helped to a clinic in Scotts Valley. I had lost fifteen pounds and needed to be pumped full of fluids. Still later, a friend and I were in a car accident of our own in Capitola; when I stepped out of the car, unhurt, a BMW zoomed around the corner, missing me by inches. A week before I was scheduled to head back to college, a phone call was patched through to me at the gift shop. It was the single worst phone call of my life: Jeff, a good friend, had died. A freak thing: an asthma attack. I spent the next days in tears; I couldn’t get a hold of myself until a friend suggested, kindly, “Paula, honey? Why don’t you try to write about it?”

When I did, I could see that I had changed. I wasn’t the same person I had been. I had shed the skin off the old me. What was left was hard and raw and tight, like a fist.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

History Lesson

And so, the moment I've dreaded has come: my eighth grade students are writing research papers.

It's a painful experience, full of blonde hairs in the shower drain and nagging headaches. Sometimes I feel like the personal cheerleader of all 105 of them; on those days, my throat is hoarse by second period. The rest of the time I'm a doomsday prophet, warning them that the end (Rough!Draft!Due!Friday!) is coming and that right soon.

Don't, I remind them for the 100th time, write this paper like you're texting your BFF. I don't want '&' or 'UR' or 'cuz. I also refuse on moral grounds to read any paper that begins "My essay is about..."

When they leave the room, I clear a head-sized hole in the debris on my desk and wait for a sign.

But we press on, through hooks and transitions and thesis statements and supporting details. There are private moments of victory: A student who has rewritten his thesis statement seven times gets my blessing to move ahead. There are staggering moments of defeat: Suddenly, a girl in my fifth period gets teary-eyed when I suggest that it's probably best to mention historical facts in chronological order. What's this? I want to tell her, Tom Hanks-style: There's no crying!

After school, the students in my English-learner tutorial continue slogging through their drafts. I can help them one-on-one in this setting, so it's a slow but ultimately more rewarding process. Their topics all somehow connect to World War II: Iwo Jima, Pearl Harbor, the Manhattan Project, Kristallnacht. Half the struggle is getting them to understand and/or care about something that happened sixty-five years ago, before even their grandparents were born.

I shudder when one asks, "What's the big deal about an atomic bomb?"

He might not mean anything by this; eighth graders often say things just to be saying things. Witness the thirty-five voices that scream, "Telephone! Telephone!" even after I've answered. "Yes, thank you," I always say, dismissing them. But I can't dismiss this boy.

Well, it is a big deal, I say. It's an incredibly big deal. Thousands of people died instantly. Others died later, sick in all sorts of ways from the radiation. Those who survived were susceptible to cancers, leukemia, horrible tumors. Even today, nothing grows on that land.

Suddenly, I realize it's deathly quiet. The boy writing about the Treaty of Versailles is watching me. The girl who has misspelled "Kristallnacht" ten different ways in her essay has turned around completely in her seat.

"What's radiation?" someone asks.

I'm no Einstein, but I try my best.

"So, is that all the stuff in the mushroom cloud?"

Basically, yes, I tell them.

We're all quiet for a minute.

"I saw a picture online of a girl with all her skin burned off," one of the boys says, reverently.

"I don't understand it," says the Kristallnacht girl, her pencil point digging stubbornly in a hole on her desk. "Who does it help that that girl died?"

For this I don't have an answer. Or I do, but it's one of those "in the wider scope of history" answers that doesn't really explain anything.

It's 3:50 and officially time to go, but everyone lingers. The moment feels so real, that for just a second, I want to grab them by their t-shirts and tell them everything I know, every single thing, every crazy fact and bit of trivia and "book knowledge" I've been accumulating for thirty-odd years.

But instead, I smile. "See you tomorrow," I say, and with a wave, I release them.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Sickboy, Redux

"Hey, come here a minute. Look at this," Will says. Fresh out of the shower, he stands in front of me.

"Um..." I say, frowning. His entire body seems to be glowing, like he just performed some serious exfoliation. "Come into the light."

He stands in front of the floor lamp, and in a sharper light I see that his entire body is red, bad sunburn red.

"Any chance that's from golfing?"


A quick check of WebM.D. (never, never look at this site) convinces Will that he's come down with a vicious case of scarlet fever.

Scarlet fever? This rings a bell, but in my mind it's in the same category as the plague - as in, something that died out years ago. "I think that's what the little boy in The Velveteen Rabbit had," I tell Will.

"What happened to him?"

I grin. "They had to burn all his toys."

Fifteen minutes later we're at the urgent care center, signing in. I've packed a bag of goodies - sudoku, two books, some knitting and a journal, the basic necessities for a minimum two-hour wait. We settle into chairs in the reception area, trying to gauge the various complaints and syndromes of our fellow occupants. Safer to sit by the person with an ice pack on his head than the woman with a ferocious cough, for instance.

In the triage center, Will fails to impress the nurse with stories of a rash that went away and an unwarranted sunburn. "So, other than the rash, you have basically no symptoms?" she says, her pen poised over an NCR form. It's possible she has just a hint of a smirk in her voice. Can she not see Lobster Boy??

With nothing better to do, I tag along when Will is called in to see the doctor. Dressed in a paper-thin smock, his "sun"burn is shocking -- his skin blotched red and purple. When he puts his hands on his knees, he leaves white palm prints that linger for several seconds.

We get Dr. M -- our lucky day, the nurse proclaims, since Dr. M. is an expert on rashes -- and several possible diagnoses. One possibility is scarletina, which results from strep. (This is not -- Dr. M stresses -- scarlet fever, although he does chuckle at my Velveteen Rabbit anecdote.) Another is erythema infectiosum (aka Fifth Disease or "slapface syndrome"), although this is most commonly found in children. Or it could be a case of roseola - another disease more common to infants. Is it possible this is related to a person's level of maturity?

Dr. M runs the tests, and Will is cleared for strep. Unfortunately, if it's Fifth Disease it's simply viral, and will just have to run its course. There's no telling how long Will is going to look like a burn victim. Dr. M orders a blood draw, just in case, and tells us he'll call with the results.

Sometime during this conversation, my sister in Washington calls, frantic for news of Will's scarlet fever. Sigh. My mother -- who has no cell phone and has forgotten her Facebook password -- still finds ways to communicate.

At home, we order a pizza. I'm thinking of Will, sure, and the fact that he hasn't eaten anything more than two pieces of toast in the last 24 hours, but also, frankly, of me. It's been seven hours since breakfast at this point, and I'm ready to nibble on my pinky finger.

Dr. M calls with good news -- the bloodwork was normal, meaning he found nothing bacterial like scarletina and Will's kidneys appear to be functioning. His official diagnosis: slapface syndrome. He'll be contagious for a couple of days and it's possible that if his temperature rises, he'll break out in a rash again. Will grins, pocketing this get-out-of-all-physical-labor-free card. In other news, he does have a "basically harmless" genetic condition called Gilbert's syndrome (French: gil-bears), which means his body doesn't process bilirubin.

This wait-and-it-will-get-better approach is somewhat comforting, but also somewhat of a drain on Will's sole caregiver, I must admit. When the pizza comes, I almost cry from its comfort. I even convince Will to eat a bite or two.


Will is sick.

Driving home from work on Tuesday, he called to say that he wasn't feeling well. He was weak... he was tired... he was, I judged, basically incoherent.

"Use the Zicam," I ordered. And then I dosed myself - a few spritzes to the tongue, the gums, the teeth -- just in case. Immediate sensation = awful. Aftertaste? Not too bad, as long as you don't mind the deadened taste buds.

It seemed to do the trick for me, but Will is a tough bugger. When he's sick (18 hour days on the couch sick), he's really sick. None of this cough and sniffle business, oh no.

"Let me check your throat," I ordered, taking up the Mag light. "Lay your tongue flat. No, flat. Flatter. Your tongue is in the way. Nope, still in the way. Would you like me to report on the status of your tongue instead?"

Wednesday, after drifting in and out of a Bones marathon, he pronounced himself, grudgingly, a fan. I whooped with joy. Usually I have to ration my Bones intake when he's around, flipping quietly from ESPN when he leaves the room.

Thursday he decided he was feeling better and therefore golfing 18 holes was simply unavoidable. I objected: You'll be tired. You can barely stand up as it is. You probably need one more day of re-runs.

Thursday night, he pronounced that I was probably right. He felt miserable, but managed to cook Chicken Parmesan nonetheless, while I ran circles around him with the mashed potatoes and garlic bread.

Friday, he called me into the bedroom. "Look at this -- what is this?" he demanded, thrusting his arm in front of my face. His skin was spotted with a million red dots, like someone had taken a fine-point red Sharpie to his body while he slept.

"Flea bites?" I suggested hopefully. No, not flea bites - our pets are flea-free, and besides, I'd be covered with them too.

"Hives," he said grimly.

"Probably a rash," I soothed, but checked the cupboards anyway for Benadryl. All I could find was a generic children's version, which I'd been prescribed for a canker sore. (Liquid Benadryl +liquid Kaopectate = canker sore magic.)

"I'll go to the store and get it," he offered, which I took as a good sign.

The rest of the day I stood by for hourly hives reports (Bigger! About the same! Going down a little!), temperature checks (108! No, I guess it's 100.8!), toast and orange juice runs, and general CNA duties. I listened to his snores, shifted him regularly to avoid couchsores, plied him with offers of a drive to the clinic, and in general played the role of long-suffering wife.

"I'm feeling better," he announced this morning, rolling up his flannel PJ pants for a shot of pale, hive-free legs.

"Oh, good! Maybe we can..." I consider my unfinished vacation to-do list, a sad reminder of my high expectations. "Well..."

But when I looked over, he was snoring again.