If you’re new around here, you may want to read this first: http://www.jaxworx.com/musings/rain-dog/
Context is where you find it, but sometimes a guide is useful.
Twenty-two years ago, I bought a black armband. It was a ridiculous frilly thing, a garter actually. Every 17th of January, I wore it above my left elbow.
People would kid me about moonlighting as a Vegas dealer or bartender or pimp (“Nah — don’t have nice enough shirts”), or smirk and tell me I should hang my trophy from the rear view mirror, but it wasn’t my freak flag or a Zero painted on my cockpit cowl. It was just a small memorial emblem, one for a small person.
Reluctant to explain, I took to wearing it under my shirt. For three days every year, the 17th through the 19th, I’d keep it on like a watch or a wedding ring unless I was in the shower.
On my birthday, I’d take it off. No need to black-flag the party. My friends might understand, but why pass pain around like an offering plate?
It got lost a lot, in the manner of Seattle sunglasses that go too long between wearings and are replaced annually, and transmuted as it went. Two of them were garters, one a Velcro band stolen from a costume. There was a black-elasticked TOC pass holder for Task Force Freedom. For the past few years, I haven’t replaced it. That black slash lately only lives in my head, or maybe in my heart, depending on how you look at such things.
The year 2012 showed us the nicest, and hardest, holiday season in a bunch of years.
When I asked the VA shrink, around Halloween, why I had this overwhelming feeling that I was gonna die, he assured me it wasn’t predictive. Being who I am, I had to contradict him: “Actually, in my population, it’s statistically related to shorter life expectancy.”
We laughed about that. It was a good visit. In the parking lot afterward, my crappy Chinese phone lit up with messages. I need to get a better phone, one that only gets the good stuff, but that day hadn’t come yet and I don’t expect it soon. The vet called, too.
We lost friends, and friends of friends. One died of liver failure due to Hepatitis A. Who the hell dies of Hep A? It’s like being struck and killed by a Big Wheel. Other folks had heart attacks, strokes; one a hip replacement that went bad and led to a second-round diagnosis of a spinal cord tumor. The funniest guy in my physical therapy cohort was diagnosed with leukemia after his third bypass operation, and the VA docs liquidated his red blood cells with prejudice. My back did me the mercy of slipping a disk, which effectively drowned out the pain of a slow-healing shoulder.
My dog, the too-skinny big tall fuzzbuddy who sometimes held me up when I slipped on wet metal or sometimes just when I was too damned sad to see through the fog, was diagnosed with bone cancer — the kind that kills in weeks, maybe months. Standing there in the VA hospital parking lot, waiting for my car, I started spewing fluids and squawking like a helo going down. Very late home that day.
“I’ll call you later,” my text read, over that bad news phone with the scratched glass. “Can’t drive yet.
“Can’t talk, either.”
My oldest friend’s dad, the step-in father figure who showed me how to be a man during the years between when my dad left when I was in kindergarten and my stepdad showed up just before I enlisted, quietly expired in a VA medical facility. When I called Mom to let her know, my stepdad answered and told me Mom had fallen and broken her pelvis that afternoon.
“I’ll… uh, I’ll… I’ll–”
“Jack? Did you hear me?”
“I’ll call you back.”
Again with the roaring in my head. Mom…!
Fluids, again. Like a high-mileage car, I seem to hemorrhage more of them than I used to. Every needling memory jabs a new hole, and there is loss from every artificial pore.
Back at the shrink’s office, I told him he’d been wrong by the numbers. Death and despair and then my dog–
“I have a meeting upstairs,” he reminded me. “We’ll need to cut this short.” Effortfully, he restrained himself from tapping his watch.
Standing up silently, I retrieved my hat and entered the hallway, shut his door as softly. as. possible. and walked away forever. He had stuff on his mind, important things. No point in keeping him.
We were better off than our friends. News is easier to bear when it’s not yours. Funerals are like that, too. Still, kind of a tough year — albeit not without reprieves.
Tucker the Miracle Dane (aka “Dorkosaurus Rex”) is a bumbling tripod now and, even if his lightsome Twinklepaws dance has degenerated into a lumbering hop, he leans his warm shoulder into us as devotedly as ever. Tucker’s diagnosis changed from kill-ya-now osteosarcoma to non-metastasized chondrosarcoma and he is fat, happy and cancer-free as far as we know, even if he does spray blood all over our walls whenever he shakes his head, snapping the perennial scabs from his ear tips with vigorous, supersonic arcs.
Our friend with the spinal cord tumor is up and around, learning to walk again, fierce and smart and dangerous as ever if only for a few hours a day.
Seeing my second family again, after decades between visits, restored my faith in latent goodness.
What do you do yourself, though, to make it better? How do you whiffle open those dark curtains, and bring in the life? Waiting around for happy news is a risky proposition when you can’t afford the good phone. So we set out to make some. Pretty Wife metastasized her normal holiday baking regimen to send special breads and cookies to people who couldn’t make their own, who needed to feel cared about; who needed, perhaps, special stuff for special requirements. I ran gifts, groceries, and occasional small items out of the shop. I tried to help, but she did the heavy lifting as she always does. We talked about what else there could be.
Bone marrow transplant came up. When your friends — and even your pets — start rusting out like cornfield-planted Buick LaSalles, it’s time to think about how best to ante into the community kitty. Turns out, they want to get you young and it was too late in the game for me. Pretty Wife, once again, does the heavy lifting.
And now here it is January 17th again. Every year, it takes me by surprise. It’s wired so deep under my dashboard that I’ve never been ready for it, and only remembered it was coming this year because PW put my nose into the mess and reminded me gently that it was indeed my mess, and would require personal attention… from me.
No black armband around the house. Still lost, all of them lost, each buried in some old imported box of memories. On the way home today, though, I remembered a telephone call from last week. Though it came over the cheap phone, it wasn’t bad news; only a simple request.
“Could you come in and donate blood, Mr. Lewis?”
Why, yes. Yes, I can.
It doesn’t take much, pun possibly intended. People who are afraid of needles should probably make it a point to go — pun definitely intended. We expect every little detail of experience to be as comfortable as casket lining these days. In the luxury of contemporary living, mild discomfort and tiny fears magnify into lifetime anxieties and chronic illnesses, but it doesn’t hurt so very much to give a little.
It didn’t get me back any part of my little one, of course. It never works that way. You give to others and wait for the rain to fall, hoping for growth, staving off death with the quiet prayer of your blood.
On a dedicated little electronic pad, they asked me all those questions calculated to make you feel unaccountably healthy. Donating blood is like walking through a nursing home as a teenager: relatively speaking, you are Supermensch. Nope, you can murmur to yourself as the stylus ticks off the boxes, no babesiosis. No Creutzfeld-Jakob, either.
Your life objectively is charmed in proportion to the extent to which you can shake your head in utter ignorance of medical terminology.
There’s no big, dramatic point here. Sorry for that. Grey Seattle days only grow greyer through a foggy mind like mine, and personal blogs labor under an intractable, well-earned reputation for featuring the dribbling mental incontinence of people who should know better. Nice to meet you, too.
We’d been joking back and forth, partly about how the easiest thing I do is give blood. It’s not all that demanding. If you can manage to lie there and leak into a bag, they give you cookies.
I always kid around with the phlebotomist, mostly because I’m deathly afraid of needles. Not table saws or chainsaws or bandsaws or hunting knives or machetes, just needles. Little jabs. Things that have hurt me before. After four-plus gallons of donations, I’ve learned not to look at the site or think about what’s happening down there on the junkie’s playfield. And then my bag was full, my time up; the chime rang softly; she bustled over to pop out the needle and patch my little drain hole.
“Band-Aid or wrap?”
“Wrap it, please.”
“You got it. What color?” They have banana yellow, cougar crimson, royal blue…
She cocked her head over to the side, looking to see if I was kidding.
“Oh. Um, because it matches your shirt, right?”
Three more days to my birthday. It’s all downhill from here, just as it always has been.