Just Visiting

While Stephen Zimmer is unnerved by his own frightful symptoms of possible illness, he shares at the same time an ongoing grief over his younger brother’s untimely and eventually mortal condition.

The Blue Mosque at once dominating and enchanting is the view from our Istanbul hotel window and the last thing I see before I lay down and try to sleep. But I am preoccupied by an irregular growth the size of a furry caterpillar in the center of my chest; a slowly growing rough edged slightly raised area of gray skin, which I noticed last week. Frightened into action I phoned the first five dermatologists on the insurance company list, but no one could see me. This thing had been there for years but smaller, innocuous. Now it is aching and the ache goes deep into my chest, the way a melanoma would. Great. We’re traveling. Sans children, sans work worries. We’re actually doing what we always wanted. Now, first night out, I may be dying.

Carole is six inches from me in bed. She’s not asleep either; her breathing still slightly uneven, but I say nothing. She’s the worrier and I’d like to keep it that way. Lung disease, heart attacks, brain tumors, she wakes with a list. Not only illnesses, her worries cast a wide net: what’s wrong, what might go wrong, what needs to be fixed, what we’ve run out of, that sort of thing. And she is anxious to fill me in as if my knowing brings her a modicum of relief. I guess there’s a compliment in there somewhere. When I’m feeling particularly good humored the first thing I say when I walk in the door is not “hi,“ or “I’m home,” its: “Honey, what’s wrong.” She starts right in, as if that’s the way everyone says hello: “We need to get that chair put down into the basement. It doesn’t fit anywhere.” Love the “we.”

So I keep my cancer to myself. I don’t want to be The Whiner; The Hypochondriac; The Big Baby. If I don’t say it maybe it’s not real, or not yet real. Once you know, the clock starts ticking. That’s not quite right. In fact, my ticking started on 5/4/48, but once you think you know, you hear the ticking. Not that hearing the ticking itself is the thing. That happens fairly often these days. Some one you know dies and there’s the ticking. But it’s temporary. Like when you land on jail in Monopoly but are “just visiting.” When you get the Diagnosis, you transfer from visitor to inmate. You hear the ticking, it doesn’t disappear, and your normal life is over. Death sentence.

Listen to me: Just visiting,/not just visiting. When I was 26 I thought when you’re old, you can take it easy. But these waking nightmares never happened when I was twenty-six or even fifty-six. I’ve got to get some sleep.

Sleep will not come. There is a thing on my chest. It is not temporary and will not be going anywhere without the aid of a surgeons scalpel. It’s raised, rough, has irregular borders and is getting bigger. What if it’s been growing for years unnoticed and it’s too late?

Like Joel.

In September 2008 my little brother emailed me this: “Yo bro-I just went to see an oncologist about a swollen lymph node. He didn’t like the way it felt and I’m going for an MRI tonight to see if I have head and neck cancer. Oy Veh, Jobo.”

It was already too late for him. Four years later the ordeal that had replaced his normal life was finally over. Perhaps this terror of mine is Joel inspired.

I think about him nearly every day. Either I remember something I associate with him, like eating crab after blue crab and making an incredible mess, or me cringing while he practiced the West Coast Swing standing in the foyer of his house waiting to go out to dinner; or else I think about what he’s missing, like going sailing, or Thanksgiving this year. Two years ago he was there at the table rhapsodizing over our mother’s brisket but not all there. He knew he was leaving the party so in a way he’d already left and you could tell by the terrible sadness in his eyes.

Giving up on sleep I stand in front of the open window and let the cool air envelop me. It’s still there, the Blue Mosque, in all its glory, glowing purple, bathed in the barely visible light of the rising sun. It will still be there when I’m long gone.

If this is it, if my normal life is over maybe I should get that Corvette I’ve yearned for ever since my teacher Mr. “D” showed up at my elementary school parking lot with a new ’61 ‘Vette. It was probably the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen and cemented his reputation as the coolest cat around. So what if I need a second garage space? The idea of retirement savings suddenly sounds like the punch line of a bad joke. Midnight black. Red’s safer, easier to see, but safety has lost its relevance. Black is badass. Drive that beauty across the U.S.A. and go down guns blazing.

But if I’m dying, what’s the point of living out one more fantasy? What is the point of dying with a Corvette in the garage? Will my last days be any happier? No, my last days will suck because I’ll never want to leave the party.

A piercing wail blasts through the dark interrupting my thoughts. I realize It’s the early morning call to prayer booming from enormous loudspeakers mounted on the six minarets of the Blue Mosque. It would be charming if it weren’t screaming at me. I’m exhausted. When I get home I’m going directly to a doctor but today, assuming I’m not too tired to go anywhere, we’ll take the ferry up the Bosporus all the way to the Black Sea and tonight after dinner we’ll watch the Dervishes whirl. Have fun, stay busy. I could be “just visiting.”

The gusts of sadness that come out of nowhere

It hits me at the most unexpected of times… at the public pool proudly watching my granddaughter mustering up the courage to jump off the high dive… at a sidewalk café when the glow of a fading twilight peeks past a cloud and backlights my wife’s face in a halo of gold… at the wedding of a friend’s daughter as she looks lovingly into the eyes of her betrothed and recites the vows she has written.

I am flushed with sheer joy, when suddenly, without warning, tears steeped in utter sadness wet my cheeks.

I know what is behind this yin and yang. As I open my heart to embracing the rapture of life I can’t close my eyes to its unalterable transience. Accepting this reality is the gift and the millstone of growing older.

When my granddaughter jumps into my arms yelling “Papa, Papa,” my breath is washed with pure oxygen, enhancing my capacity to love tenfold. But there is no escaping what is inexorable: Life and Death oppose each other and contain each other, each complementing the other.

I make a choice. I can be in the present moment, fully appreciative of an instant of time that has touched me deeply; or absorbed in the thrall of melancholy grieving for a future moment that I will never know.

I decide to be cheerful or to be sad. You would think the choice is a no-brainer. Oddly enough, it is not so cut and dried. Although more often than not I opt for the exhilaration of the heartfelt moment, there is something seductive about sinking into the gentle sadness of the ‘pathos of things.’

Because I know the moment is fleeting, my appreciation of its significance is enhanced. But at the same time, I feel sadness at how quickly the actual experience becomes an anecdote of memory. The sadness deepens knowing that the transient moment is a reminder that life itself is impermanent.

The Japanese call this Mono no aware: an awareness that the transience of all things heightens appreciation of their beauty and evokes a gentle sadness at their passing.

I’ve come to accept the gusts of sadness that come out of nowhere. When tears accompany the feelings I try to find the source of the grief they speak to, uncovering the unresolved issues of the past. It’s helpful for me to do that because I know that putting to rest whatever remains unsettled from my past will ease my trepidation about what is to come.