READ ALL ABOUT ME: BIO, PICS, VIDEO. Please see below, following this week's chapter.
FIRST, YOU GET PISSED: A Memoir
by Mary-Ann Tirone Smith
The memoir will be posted every Sunday, one chapter a week, on this page.
If you're getting a late start, you can READ CHAPTERS 1 - 22 by clicking "PREVIOUS CHAPTERS" on the red menu bar above.
IN A BLUR OF HAPPINESS and music and dancing and the sun just before it settles into Long Island Sound, on cue, Jay and Melissa's wedding is perfect except for Charlie's two little granddaughters. Our flower girls extraordinaire have to pee just as the procession is about to launch. Melissa's daughter, the junior bridesmaid, looks at me, and I say, "Go." She steers the little girls out of the line, and is gone and back in less than two minutes. How?—no idea. She's a trooper like her mother. Then we all proceed carefully down a hill on a wood stairway, the Sound shimmering, and across the grass to our seats. We watch Jay watch Melissa until the two meet in front of the Justice of the Peace. They touch hands for the last time as two single people.
My most verklempt moment of so many is when, around midnight, the couple sets off into the night and Melissa looks over her shoulder to me and says, "Bye, Mom."
When they are on Day Two of their honeymoon at the Punta Cana resort where I'm going with Charlie by hook or crook when Starbright is being radiated, Melissa texts us: I didn't know there were places like this. Thank you. (The honeymoon trip is our wedding gift.)
Also on Day Two, Charlie and I are back to Smilow. From now on, Smilow is how we refer to the cancer hospital at Yale. You can only take saying cancer over and over for so long.
Charlie makes the perfect hand-off when he passes the car keys to the Yale-New Haven valet. We now know those valets are under a lot of pressure. Inside the hospital doors, "Admitting," is the first turn to the right. It is 7 a.m.; we are exactly on time because we are sure to give ourselves an extra hour.
"Admitting" is a large dark room that looks like a bus depot only worse. Or maybe the lobby of a non-descript motel along the interstate with its row of free Raisin Bran, Corn Flakes and Fruit Loops, Econo Lodge coming to mind. We sit in the third row of the sad rows of folding chairs. They are mostly full as are the extra chairs lining the wall. I take in the miserable creatures all jammed together on these uncomfortable chairs and I am back to thinking bus depot—a Depression-era bus depot like you see in old black and white movies.
Charlie and I get Alfred Hitchcock's "Rear Window" from Netflix recently, a 50s color film when most are black and white. Turns out the reel someone manages to find in a box of empty tin cans is in terrible shape, so it's "restored." "Rear Window" actually looks like it's re-colorized! The grim backs of the apartment buildings facing James Stewart and Grace Kelly spying on the neighbor who—spoiler alert—murdered his wife are now glowing red like newly-sandblasted brick, and the decrepit garden where the dog digs up the flowers has Technicolor flowers rather than the dried-up weeds they used to look like, which was far more effective to the spirit of the film. Wouldn't you rather have some things not be restored? The movie would be so much better if the reel of film still had jagged tears, and holes, and coffee stains the way whoever found it found it. But that's me.
Yale-New Haven could take a lesson from the city of New Haven, I realize, once we sit down. When you serve on jury duty, you get to wait in a lovely, soothing room right after you walk across fabulous terrazzo floors, admiring the pillars and high marble ceilings that inspire you to stop bitching to yourself and feel glad about performing your civic duty. Yale, on the other hand, takes its cue from the DMV, where you sit for hours like a stupefied idiot waiting for your number to be called so you can go to the back of the first of 10,000 lines.
At the front of "Admitting" three people sit at a long table, a computer in front of each. One by one, patients are called up to the desk. At 8 a.m., an hour after I'm told to report, and two hours after my alarm goes off this morning, I'm still not called, so I approach one of the three people and ask if someone might have accidentally skipped my name.
I get a tight smile unlike the nurse smiles. The person says, "We don't call you until we hear the OR is ready for you."
"The surgery is scheduled for nine. Will they have me ready in time?"
She doesn't believe me, I can tell. "Let's give it a few more minutes," and calls out a name that's not mine.
I insist Charlie go and get some coffee so at least one of us isn't going through caffeine withdrawal. I'm not supposed to have anything after seven last night— thirteen hours ago—and I'm now starting to obsess; visions of Uncle Sam cereal, which I love and have every morning pass before me. I mix no-fat Fage (pronounced Fi-Yeh! as is helpfully stated on the packaging) Greek yogurt with no-fat milk until it's of a consistency where it will sink into the Uncle Sam but remain yogurt-like. Then I sprinkle on top Planters Nuts and Seeds trail mix I combine in a large jar with almonds and crushed walnuts. Scattered over all, as you know, a handful of the traitorous blueberries. I'm over my fury with blueberries even though I eat the world's healthiest breakfast and still get breast cancer, giving me the right to remain furious forever. But lately, forever takes on new meaning—it's not as long as it used to be.
Charlie doesn't go for coffee. At 9 a.m., he takes a turn asking one of the computer people, again, what's happening with me because the cavernous, depressed room is now empty except for us and them. Turns out, there is an error. I never get a late-night voice mail: Dr. Quigley has to take care of an emergency situation and my surgery is rescheduled for eleven. I stay calm because shit happens. I stay calm for one more hour and then, stomach wildly growling, I approach the long table and ask a computer person if Dr. Quigley is out of her emergency surgery yet, and if so, could I be removed to whatever pre-op place I'm supposed to go to so I can get my mind off food, and so Charlie can go get a bagel at the food court. He is refusing to leave me until we both know what's what.
I say, "If my husband faints from hunger, he will hit his head on the floor and you will have to get a neurosurgeon down here, but they're all in surgery, which means you will have to take care of him."
The woman takes pity. She should. I'm willing to eat Fruit Loops if I have to. She makes a phone call. Then: "You can go to pre-op now. Someone will come for you in a few minutes."
Right. But someone does. I have no recollection of the walk through the web of corridors, and doors, and elevators, or the wheelchair driver except that it isn't Hank Aaron. But I do remember the feel of Charlie's hand in mine the whole time. He has warm strong hands, lucky me. (Oh, his massages!) He will not let me go until forced.
I do remember where we end up, I remember precisely. We're in a hallway lined on both sides with cubicles, bright and white like a hospital is supposed to be. I don't know how many cubicles because I can't see the end of the hallway. Suffice it to say, a lot of them. In each cubicle is a patient along with one to six hangers-on, plus a hospital bed. Imagine, if you're a Catholic, six people in the confessional along with a bed. You can tell which of the people are patients because they are into their surgical gowns and flimsy robes and are nervous wrecks, which is what I am.
I experience a camaraderie because we are a collective that we didn't join of our own free will. A collective of misery trapped in a nightmare, mine not so bad, I'm told, again, as you know. Forgive me, dear reader, for repeating myself.
The nurse has me out of the wheelchair, tells Charlie and me to have a seat, smiles, wishes me well, and then another nurse arrives with a clipboard. She smiles, pulls my cubicle's curtain closed, introduces herself, and I introduce her to Charlie as she already knows my name from the chart.
She says to me, "Everything off and put these on—gown, robe, and slippers." She holds out a cellophane package. I take it. "The doctor will be in to examine you shortly."
"No. A resident who will be with you during surgery."
Then she says to me while looking at Charlie, "Would you like your husband to remain with you while you change?"
I say to Charlie, "Do you mind staying, honey?"
He says, "Does a bear shit in the woods?"
He's getting a little punchy but who isn't?
The nurse leaves. When Charlie has his knee replacement surgery a year earlier, after he takes a flyer over a line (that would be a rope to you land-lubbers), the pre-op room at the hospital is more like what you see on Grey's Anatomy—big room, a lot of commotion, patients separated by curtains, several of them blood-stained, the curtains and the patients. Charlie, looking at the splash stain on his curtain, says, "Maybe someone dropped a chocolate milkshake."
He grins at me. I love him.
We are left alone, him prone on a narrow bed. He is so brave, so sure to grin at me so I won't worry, lol. I get on the bed with him and we wrap our arms around each other and make out a little. A nurse pops her head in, and says, "Whoops!" She pulls the curtain closed, making sure it covers the entire opening. She says to us from the other side of the curtain, "I promise next time I'll announce myself. You doin' okay, Mr. Bimmler?"
He still has his hearing aids in and says, "Yes," instead of my having to say it.
"Dr. Komninakus will be here in a few minutes."
Then we laugh just the way we do when we are in the quiet car on Amtrak from Boston after a ballgame and don't know it's a quiet car. A conductor interrupts us making out, giggling, etc. and tells us the quiet car should have noise no higher than the noise level of a library. He says, "That means none." We apologize. I say, "We usually drive," as if he cares. We wanted to experience the Acela. (The Acela travels at its greatest velocity on the eastern seaboard starting at the Connecticut/Rhode Island border and until it arrives just a few miles north at Kingston, where the University of Rhode Island is. If you take the Acela to Boston, make sure to never be in the bathroom during this leg of the trip or you will fly into the wall, etc. when the train decelerates in Kingston.)
Charlie and I snuggle up again and I'm almost asleep when we hear his nurse say, "Knock, knock."
Charlie says, "Yes?" as we disentangle.
"I'm back. With Dr. Komninakas."
Charlie says, "C'mon in, Doc."
The nurse…uh…gingerly, I'd have to say, parts the curtain. Both of them sport expressions on their faces I would interpret as: Please don't let these two be screwing their brains out.
Then, Dr. Komninakas takes over, eventually chain-sawing Charlie's kneecap out, and somehow, some way, fits a stainless steel one into the blank space. It works!
Today, here at Yale, in another pre-op room, Charlie helps me get into the "gown" and "robe," and then up onto the end of the examining table. He hangs the slippers on my feet. These slippers would be a perfect if I had fallen arches and wore a size 12 triple E. Then Charlie tells Starbright she will be fine. But he is looking into my eyes.
He takes a chair. I ask him to open the curtain because I am feeling a little close in addition to starving and freezing. He hops up and swirls the curtain to one side, reminding me of a matador. I am in the direct line of vision of the patient across the way and her six guests, but they are not seeing me. They are seeing what is in their heads and wishing they were seeing something else—anything else.
And then, zoom, here's Jene in her blue scrubs. She puts her arms around me, then lets me go, turns to Charlie and says, "Hi, Charlie," and hugs him, too. While he's off to find another chair, I suddenly think about Jene in a new light. She is now one of those women who goes to the doctor and has to answer the question, Is there breast cancer in your family? with, Yes, my mother. I scrunch back my tears. There's a lot of things now that make me cry rather get pissed.
She says, "Are you crying, Mom?"
She knows I'm lying and will cheer me up. "Salty is now playing with Ninjie, Mom."
Ninjie is one of Salty's two girlfriends at doggie day care. Ninjie is a rescued greyhound. She wears faux leopard jackets and jeweled collars when she makes her entrances. Salty, that little rapscallion, has a second girlfriend, Tia, a black lab who is so old she can't keep up with him and Ninjie, but is content to sit under a shady tree and watch their Greco-Roman wrestling.
How I wish I could be there right now—with a gang of dogs expecting humans to throw balls across the lawn for them to retrieve, and do this over and over till they drop. I'm often tempted to ask Dr. Cieplik and Dr. Beers, our vets at East Shore Veterinary Hospital in Branford, if they might consider allowing people who need assisted living to go to their doggie day care instead and play with all the happy dogs or sit with Tia and just enjoy the shenanigans.
Charlie's back with an extra chair, and Jene sits down. We three chat, trying to act like we are at Twin Pines Diner having coffee and bagels, even though an MA arrives to take my vitals. (MA is not someone with a master's, it is a Medical Assistant, someone who now does the stuff nurses used to do. Scary, isn't it? PAs and MAs instead of doctors and nurses.)
Jene then says, "We're really short-staffed today, Mom. My supervisor took over for me. She said to tell you that the clinic staff wishes you well. So does the patient I need to get back to. He told the supervisor he didn't want her, he wanted me. I told him about you. He said to tell you to give the doctors hell."
She smiles, but she's got tears in her eyes. She will fight crying, too, because she says next, "Then he told me to get my bad ass back as fast as I could." She quotes him, "'I don't trust nobody but you, sugar.'"
Now, we can laugh. She's a good daughter and she's a good nurse, too. She knows I've got Charlie, and her patient in community health is probably a homeless, drug-addicted alcoholic with hepatitis or worse. And who does he have? She says to Charlie, "Call me the minute my mom is back from surgery."
He says, "I will," and then they hug each other for a long time. When she hugs me, she is trembling.
I say, "I'll be fine…sugar."
Big Jene smile. "I know you will, Mom."
"And I'll give the doctors hell."
Charlie says, "She'll do that even if your guy didn't say to."
The original nurse is back. She's overhearing this conversation. She says to Charlie, "Time for you to be off too, sir. You can go to the family waiting room. There's coffee and muffins—stuff like that."
Then she says to Jene, "Go there with your dad if you like. Grab something while you've got the chance."
Nurses watch out for their own. They'd better. But Jene is disconcerted for a second. Charlie recognizes her feelings and says to the nurse, "Jene's my stepdaughter."
Jene says, "It's okay," and to her stepfather, "C'mon, Charlie, I'll walk you to the food court instead. You can have serious food. Lunch."
She knows the family waiting room will not be a party scene.
Then I am buried in Charlie's arms, and a moment later he and my daughter are waving to me over their shoulders, stiff upper lips all around.
I say to the nurse, "I don't want to be alone."
My nurse, as it turns out, can be authoritative when need be. She says to me, "You're not alone. I'm here and I'll take care of you." She kind of looks past me. "And here comes one of your doctors, I think. It's hard to tell—these residents all look twelve years old."
NEXT SUNDAY, September 23, CHAPTER 24.
A BIOGRAPHICAL ESSAY (with pics and video to follow)
I was born and raised in Hartford, Connecticut and have lived in Connecticut until I served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Cameroon. There, I lived in Buea, a town situated on a series of ledges five thousand feet up the side of Mt. Cameroon, an active volcano, its peak nearly 14,000 feet above the equatorial sea. Having aspired to be a beach bum, I am happy to say I now live a half-block from the Gulf of Mexico in the town of Fort Myers Beach, a barrier island that takes the brunt of any hurricane leveled at the city of Fort Myers. Most fortunately, I have a water-loving family and a labradoodle named Saltalamacchia, also a water-lover. Salty is my first dog.
My grandparents on my father's side emigrated from the Italian Piedmont, and on my mother's, Quebec. My fondest childhood memories are of sweltering summers blue-crabbing with my French-speaking grandfather from 5 a.m. until 5 p.m., my grandfather wearing a worn three-piece suit and cap, and me, my underpants. When I told my Italian grandfather that I would be going to Cameroon as a Peace Corps volunteer he told me there were very good grapes grown in Africa.
My brother was autistic, a savant, who would not allow singing, laughing, sneezing, electronic sound (including television, radio and anything that produced music), and the flushing of the toilet except when he was asleep and he never seemed to be asleep. He had a library of over two thousand books all on WWII. As his adjutant, I attained a vast pool of knowledge on such things as identifying fighter bombers from their silhouettes and why we dropped the atomic bomb. "To win the war," Tyler told me. "But it didn't work so we dropped another one. Victory at last."
The relationship with my brother was one of three influences on my writing; the second, my father's bedtime poetry and prose following the Our Father and Hail Mary: "My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings. Look upon my works ye mighty and despair!" The third influence was the shelf of classic children's literature my mother kept stocked with such gems as The Swiss Family Robinson, Bambi, Tom the Water-Boy, Silver Pennies, King Arthur and the Round Table, The Child's Odyssey. Somehow, The Bedside Esquire (1936) found its way to the shelf and I read the extraordinary short fiction within, including Hemingway's "The Snows of Kilimanjaro," Gallico's Keeping "Cool in Conneaut," Salinger's "For "Esmé with Love and Squalor," Hecht's "Snowfall in Childhood," and my favorite, "Latins Make Lousy Lovers," by Anonymous who turned out to be Helen Lawrenson, the only woman with a piece in the collection. (Sheesh.) There was also an excerpt from the novel, Christ in Concrete, by Pietro Di Donato, that so bowled me over I decided I would be a writer, too, just like all the writers who wrote fiction for Esquire Magazine in 1936.
After Peace Corps service, I taught, worked as a librarian and got my first freelance writing job with Reader's Digest. The Digest editor assigned me sports and games for How to Do Just about Anything, a book which sold 50 million copies world-wide. Reader's Digest made a vast fortune on that book alone, while the writers earned $25 to $75 dollars per article. I learned economy of language writing such pieces as "How to Play Tennis" in fifty words.
In 2010, I was awarded the Diana Bennett Fellowship at the Black Mountain Institute at UNLV, where I wrote my most recent novel, The Honoured Guest: Anne Alger Craven, Witness to Sumter, in Her Words.
My work has been reprinted in several foreign languages. I have taught fiction and memoir writing at many venues including the Mark Twain House in Hartford, CT, and on the Aran Islands through the National University of Ireland, Galway, and online via this website.
Presently, I spend time in Fall River, MA, where I went on a tour of the Lizzie Borden house. By the time the tour had ended, I knew who killed Lizzie's parents and it surely wasn't Lizzie. The competition, however, is stiff. Since I started writing this novel, another novel with an entirely different take on the crime was published. And there is a film presently in the works, again, with another take altogether. I'll keep up my work on my own version, which, I'm convinced, is the real one.