Thursday, December 27, 2012

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Akemi shot me a nervous glance; I knew what she was thinking.  The host of last Saturday night’s Christmas party was going around the room asking everyone to share their favorite Christmas memories.  She and I were in wordless agreement that we hoped he would stop before getting to us.

Certainly we have happy memories of Christmases past.  When put on the spot, we coughed up a couple: me listening to the Dickens carolers at the end of my Christmas Day shift at Disneyland, Akemi listening to her Walkman as we drove Christmas mornings from my family in Anaheim to Bing’s family in Palo Alto.

But Christmas took an irreparable hit exactly ten years ago, and we have been in recovery mode ever since.  I didn’t know it at the time, but Christmas eve 2002 was the last “normal” time I spent with Bing.  I was trying to get him transferred from Huntington Hospital to the City of Hope, but processes were slowing down for the holidays.  I thought Akemi was better off being in Peralta Hills with my family, but I found out much later what a traumatic time she had there, subjected to everyone else’s realizations that Bing was dying.

That Christmas eve night, Randy Huff came by his Huntington Hospital room and we watched “The Sound of Music” on TV.  After Randy left, I knew there was so much Bing and I needed to talk about, but neither of us could.  The next morning, I could tell the impairment to his central nervous system was worse, and from then on, we really weren’t able to have a conversation.  Chris Wong had kindly brought us a Christmas tree and so many others were beside themselves trying to do nice things, but there was no room in the inn for us that year.

As hard as that Christmas was, Akemi and I were to discover that Christmas 2003 would be even harder.   We could not escape the painful reliving of his last days, and could not bear to do the “normal” thing of being with either my family or his.  When Wendy and Craig offered that we spend Christmas with them in Cayucos, we jumped at the invitation.

The first thing Akemi said as we got into our car on our way home from the Saturday night Christmas dinner was that the “best” Christmas was that one in Cayucos, although she couldn’t share that.  I understood, and agreed.  It wasn’t the happiest Christmas for us, clearly, but maybe it was the most meaningful, in that we were given as much of a chance as possible to heal that first Christmas after, and a start to reconciling our sorrow with what should be a time of joy.

I can see that with each Christmas since then, our hearts have become a little less heavy, and the memories of Christmas 2002 a little less painful.  With each Christmas, I have been more willing to be back in the “Christmas spirit,” that is, until last Christmas, when I was feeling so awful.  So as we “wrap” this year’s Christmas, I’m agreeing with Akemi that this has been the “best Christmas ever.”  We have my health mostly regained, and my job retained (at least thus far) through a dean transition.  We have affirmation of love and support from many.  We had a ward Christmas program with music that was described as “epic” and moved the congregation to tears.  We even have heat and cabinet space in the bathroom, and Stanford in the Rose Bowl.  Ten years later, I can say that the joy of the here-and-now finally has overcome grief-filled past.

P.S. This cross-stitched stocking took me a couple of years to finish for Akemi, but I’m so glad I did – I don’t have the eyesight for it now! 

Friday, December 14, 2012

Friday, December 14, 2012

My ace contractor Dave and his team have my master bath remodel on final approach.  The cabinets are getting stained today, and the final installations – countertop, mirror, shower glass, fixtures – are intricately choreographed for Monday and Tuesday.  The guys are taking the goal of having the bathroom “presentation ready” by the time Akemi arrives home from Boston Tuesday night very seriously.

The history behind the almost-joke started when Akemi, a junior high-schooler, came home from a two-week summer orchestra program at Idyllwild to me undertaking a cosmetic up-do of the guest bathroom.  (For those of you who have asked what my next project is, it is the real re-do of that bathroom, although this will not be nearly extensive as this master bath project.)  “I go away and look what got into my mother,” was the gist of her reaction. 

Then a couple of years later, she came home from a long, demanding summer at the Cleveland Institute of Music’s famous Encore program to the kitchen and “big room” completely torn up.  Eager for home-cooked meals after her first exposure to “mystery” dorm food and the Midwest version of Asian and Mexican cuisine, we closed out that summer to her dismay with paper plates, Trader Joe’s, and the toaster oven and microwave on the bathroom counter.

So when Akemi heard that even with a late October start, it would be “no problem” that she would come home for winter break to a new bathroom, she scoffed.  After all, she did grow up with me operating in the real estate development world and her dad being known for taking years to finish a home project.  But as she has maintained her skepticism, Dave and Fred have maintained their sense of contractor’s honor that this will be done on time.  We’ve called a few audibles along the way to keep things on schedule, and truth be told, the Plan Bs have been better than the Plan As. 

Last week, I admit, was not ideal scheduling, to deal with the combination of treatment aftermath, drywall dust, and primer fumes.  I ended up spending more time in the office than I otherwise would have, because there wasn’t much point in being at home with all the construction commotion going on.

 I may not be moved into all the luxurious amount of new cabinet space when I return home with Akemi from LAX next Tuesday night, but this scene with the hole in the ceiling from a burst pipe repair, the rusted sink, and non-functioning toilet of the old bathroom now receding into the past to be added to the family folklore.  Some finish work might be underway while Akemi’s plane is on final approach, but everything is going to be looking very good by then.  Film at 11 for her reaction. 

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

It’s 4 am, and I haven't been able to sleep because the steroids they give me to help the IV keeps me awake the first night.  Other patients on the WM talk-list have written about their experiences with the time-altering effects of treatments, especially as they wreck havoc with sleep patterns the first few days.

Susan Gubar’s November 20th New York Times essay entitled “With Cancer, a Different Rhythm to Life” struck many chords with me.  Gubar, a distinguished emeriti professor of English and ovarian cancer patient, reflects on “the oddity of cancer temporality.”’ She writes, “Every facet of cancer and its treatments transforms times.”  Into year three, I couldn’t agree more.

As I finish a treatment and schedule my next appointment, I think, “A three-month reprieve!” Plenty of time to live life to its fullest, and, of course, that time flies by.  All too soon Barbara is arranging my hospital rides.  All too soon I’m fending off encroachments on my work calendar, as the assistants of other deans ignore the holds I’ve placed on treatment and post-treatment days.  All too soon I’m activating my “prep plan,” so familiar now I operate by memory: pack the hospital bag, stock the frig with soups and juices; clean the house so I’m not tempted to get up and vacuum when I should be resting.  Hey, at least I know myself.

But at the hospital, time seems to slow down.  Gubar nails this when she refers to the interminable tick-tock of waiting, “especially when you are anxiously waiting for test results.”  When we were on this roller coaster with Bing, I tried to tell myself that we can’t live by test results, but that was, and is, futile.  It’s as if you’re going into a play-off game with a celebration standing by off-field in anticipation of a victory.  Everyone hopes for a cause to celebrate and no one wants to contemplate the possibility of defeat. 

I usually get the immunology report from the nurses by mid-day; today Dr. Weitz delivered the good news of another drop, right on the downward trend line.  She was very happy, and so am I.  Every drop in the IgM count is a victory of more time, yet that is tempered by the unpredictability of the unknown.  With the benefit comes the cost, the continual degradation of my immune system, evidenced by the concomitant continual drop in the “good” immunoglobulins and white cells.  The docs remind me that I must skate along one serious infection away from catastrophe.   

I live with the realization that, if this protocol hadn’t kicked in, by now I could have been serious ill, perhaps dying, or even dead.  I live grateful for medical and spiritual advice, a job with excellent health insurance and a national cancer institute in its plan, and ever-ready helpful friends.  Like Gubar, I doubt I will ever escape the feeling of living on borrowed time, “that numinous period beyond the predicted end, like a stay of execution, which must be fraught with its own blessings and curses.” 

Time again to try to sleep, or at least nap.

P.S.  This statue is “The Spirit of Life” by Daniel Chester French is in Congress Park, designed by my urban planning hero Frederick Law Olsted in Saratoga Springs, New York.  The area’s famous natural spring water feeds the streams and this and other fountains in the park.  I was there for last year’s AGLSP conference. 

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

I came home yesterday with sand still in my shoe.  I happen to love this, especially when it is Cape Cod sand.  The sand came from the Thanksgiving day walk which Akemi and I took on the beach in Falmouth, Massachusetts.  Akemi snapped this and other photographic momentos of another relaxing, enjoyable holiday at the Cape with the extended Green clan.

She and I returned to Boston to honor some other Thanksgiving weekend traditions we’ve developed beginning with her freshman year.  There’s the 40%-off-everything-in-the-Cambridge-Ann-Taylor-store-sale, Saturday dinner with her friends in Harvard Square, church in her Cambridge University Ward, and a Sunday home-cooked dinner, this year with a lemon cake for her birthday. 

For me, the trip also included my third visit to Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.  I expected Dr. Treon to be pleased about the results of this past year’s treatment, and he did not disappoint.   What I am getting my head around is that treatment at this stage is not just about beating the Waldenstrom’s back; it’s also about keeping it at bay.  He’s therefore recommending I continue the maintenance Rituxan regime another year, to spring  2014.  Big sigh; I was hoping to be “done” for a while. Until there’s a cure, the best I can hope for is ongoing treatment which forestalls a relapse. 

I came home with another visit’s worth of notes on new drugs coming out of clinical trials and more positive reinforcement in living well the immune-compromised life.  I came home to substantial progress with the bathroom reconstruction.  Like the sand clinging to the bottom of my shoe as a reminder of a cherished good time, I’m focusing on the prospect of more Rituxan and drywall dust not as much as annoyances, but as promises of good things to come.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

As a child, I sometimes accompanied my mother on her weekly Saturday trips into Little Tokyo.  My mom had her routine.  First stop was Evergreen Cemetery in Boyle Heights, where my grandparents and many aunts and uncles rest.  When my mother’s mother was still alive, the next stop was her apartment to deliver food and whatever, along with the report that we already had paid our respects at the cemetery.  At that point, my mom left our car parked there and she and I took the street car across the Fourth Street bridge into J-town for the rest of my mother’s errands.

Back in the day before tofu and shoga – fresh ginger root – became stock items in every Vons, she considered the effort to get to the grocery store on First Street mandatory.  But back in those days when every storefront was owned by people who knew my grandparents and mother, you just couldn’t run, pick up a few things, and split.  Shopping meant stopping into each store to say hello to the proprietors, bowing deeply and constantly while keeping up some chit-chat, usually buying a little something, bowing deeply and constantly while receiving the purchased item with great ceremony, and backing out of the store while expressing great regret for not staying longer.  I learned to stand quietly by my mother’s side, bow when she did, and smile through the Japanese.

I was not bored by this.  Everyone always was so happy to see my mother.  The grocery store owner was some kind of Kamei relative, and the friendships went back to the 1920s and 1930s, certainly pre-war days.  Botan candy with a real toy or a manju at Fugetsu-do usually was my reward for good behavior.  Maybe this explains why my mother still buys me packets of manju.  Mostly I was mystified by the different retail world presented by the First Street stores – not quite a Diagon Alley, but the analogous otherworldy concept.  My absolute favorite was a store then near the end of the street almost to San Pedro Street: Anzen Hardware. 

Anzen Hardware has everything you’d ever need for household maintenance, Japanese-style, a little store jammed to the rafters with what to me were odd wondrous things.  I could only guess at what most of the kitchen and other items were for.  The knife display was almost frightening.  My dad got his nasu plants and seeds here for many years, and I got my gardening scissors here when we first moved into this Howard Street house. 

One afternoon my Paul, Hastings phone rang; it was my mother, back home in Anaheim from her J-town run.   A small cast iron tea pot for tea ceremony use in the shape of a kabocha, a Japanese pumpkin, had caught her eye in Anzen.  She thought it was so cute and took a liking to it, but couldn't bring herself to buy something unnecessary.  The next week, I got the same phone call and report that she stood in Anzen pondering whether to buy it or not, and again decided against it.  Ah-ha! I thought, a Christmas present, and I hustled down to Anzen to buy it myself before she bought it for herself, or before someone else did.

The following week, my mother called again, so disappointed that the little kabocha teapot was no longer there.  “Someone must have bought it,” kicking herself for not buying it.  “Shigata ga nai,” one of her favorite phrases – “it can’t be helped.”  I was sorry she was disappointed, but her regret reinforced me in my hopes that she would be all the more happy with the Christmas surprise.

And she was.  It was fun to watch her to open the box and realize she was reunited with this little teapot.  For years it has been in the cabinet my father had custom-built in their family room, until this past summer when she insisted I take it, along with the painting now by my piano. 

Whenever I walk down First Street, I see in my mind’s-eye that grocery store instead of a video store, and Iseri Men’s Clothing instead of a bail bond establishment.  Anzen, along with Fugetsu-do and Rafu Bussan, are among the few remaining stores from my childhood which have managed to hang on.  I must have done something right in raising Akemi, because she, too, loves shopping at Rafu Bussan.

Tonight I will accompany one of the classes in my Master of Liberal Studies Program on a field trip to Little Tokyo.  In this course “East Asian Humanities,” students are reading classic literary works from China, Japan, and Korea in translation, such as excerpts from Tales of the Genji.  The professor, a blond, blue-eyed specialist in Buddhism who speaks impeccable Japanese, has arranged for us to have an insider’s-look at Zenshuji temple and a tea ceremony.  My dad’s family’s temple is Koyasan, so I actually haven’t ever been inside Zenshuji. 

Although part of me continues to be dismayed at J-Town’s uninteresting commercial iterations, I’m glad to see a whole new community of urban dwellers living there, and I always like to accompany friends as they experience parts of J-Town for themselves.  Maybe some of the class will be willing to catch some dinner at Aoi after our temple visit, and there might be some willing takers for manju at Fugestsu-do.