The Other End of Sunset

Monday, May 15, 2006

Elegies and energies and effervescence, part one

Sometimes just talking is hard. This is one of those times.

For those of you seeking humor, skip this post. Seriously, redirect now. I'd suggest some comics for something completely different.

Has anyone ever written anything for you?
In all your darkest hours,
Have you ever heard me sing?
Has anyone ever given anything to you?
I have given that to you
If it’s all I ever do.
This is your song.

--Stevie Nicks

This post is an elegy to JR. This is my song for her, of her, and of us.

I shall write it over a period of several weeks. If, that is, the story lasts several weeks. I shall write this until the story ends.

This is the first part. There will be lots more parts, I hope. As a result of writing this in multiple parts, the verb tenses will be all wrong, but you grammarians, including me, will just have to deal with it.

An elegy is a formal, poetic celebration of someone’s life. Kind of like a eulogy, but not necessarily given at a funeral. And the world “elegy” is really beautiful, in some creepy way.

This post is about Jeanne Michele Russell, a.k.a., “JR”. There, I gave her a name. Maybe I'll even include some pictures.

JR was born in Evansville, Indiana, on an April 27th a few years ago. She’s quite young, but probably wouldn’t want me to say her birth year. She’s the first daughter of Walter and Margaret.

She worked her way though college, at the local state school, and did very well. Education was always important to her. She did so well that she was selected to attend one of the best graduate schools in the country in her chosen field, learning and development. She got a Ph.D., and went on to a successful career that included stops at Andersen Consulting, General Electric, and Charles Schwab.

She was married, and divorced, and fell in love with me. We had a several year relationship.

Jeanne was a beautiful blonde, with bright blue eyes, pearl white skin, a ready smile, and a more-than-healthy sense of sarcasm. She was stunning, and well dressed. A young coworker recently described her as a blonde bimbo – she LOVED that, since she spent most of her life working, not playing, and the idea that some twenty-something would be jealous (and thus catty) thrilled her.

In February of 2006, JR was diagnosed with bile duct cancer. The real name of the cancer is really long, and I can’t spell it, but whatever. It’s the same thing.

It’s May. She’s outlived her initial prognosis. She’s lost about 20 pounds, her skin is mottled and yellow from the jaundice, and she’s not quite as ready to smile. But she’s still got bright blue eyes, and I still think she’s beautiful.

Last week, JR ended her chemotherapy. It’s not working. Now we worry about managing her discomfort, and keeping her from feeling pain, any more than must exist.

And I start writing, for real, my OtherEnders.

It’s surreal. She’s going to die, and fairly soon. I mean, everyone is going to die, right? But rarely do we know when it is going to happen. Some people think that’s a gift. I wonder what I'll think at the end of this story.

I just realized that it’s probably going to be important to capture the date, not just the month. It’s May 7th.

Jeanne and I spent some time last night remembering things. She wants me to remember. Don’t worry, I shall never forget her. We lay in bed and told each other stories about our time together. It was sad, and happy, and we simultaneously laughed and cried.

I'll tell some of them here, as the story continues.

We met at work. I had just transferred into a new department; I was totally unqualified for the job. I met her at a large meeting. She waved at me, although we didn’t know each other. She was so cute – waved, and then ducked back behind the person she was sitting next to, because she was too shy to wave at some random person.

We became friends, and ultimately more than that.

Our first date was typically me. We went out for hamburgers at a place in San Francisco that serves great hamburgers. I'm kind of a cheeseburger-and-fries kind of guy, all appearances to the contrary. She had a cheeseburger the way she liked it – ketchup and mustard only, please – and a milkshake. We laughed the entire time, about people, and places, and things. And the fact that milkshakes SUCK.

I kissed her on a future date – not on the first one, although I found out later she had really wanted me to. I was uncharacteristically shy.

She liked my Porsche, and the way it simultaneously exhilarated and frightened her. She liked how I am this weird mix of introversion and attention seeking behaviors. She says she fell in love with me at first sight. Maybe, but whatever, we spent several years together, and they were life. Love, anger, fear, support, disappointments, and the touch of humanity.

That’s going away now.

Spend all your time waiting
For that second chance
For a break that would make it okay
There’s always one reason
To feel not good enough
And it’s hard at the end of the day
I need some distraction

--Sarah McLachlan

It’s May 9. JR had surgery yesterday to put a stent into her inferior vena cava, to open up a blockage caused by a blood clot there. The blood clot isn’t (currently) life threatening, but was causing fluid to pool in her legs and abdomen. The fluid build-up, a.k.a. edema, is causing her great discomfort. We hope the surgery will reduce her swelling, and, by extension, her discomfort.

She came through the surgery with flying colors – they put a 2x8cm stent in her. That’s huge! She’s feeling better, but having a bit of shortness of breath today. That’s pretty worrisome, since it could indicate infection, or pressure on the lungs, or an embolism. Or it could just be that she’s tired from the surgery. Who knows.

They say that symptoms of liver failure include difficulty breathing and tiredness. I wonder if her liver is failing now.

She’s not very communicative today. I'm worried. I'm way more interested in talking to her, a lot, now, than I was when we were dating.

There were times when we were together that we didn’t communicate well, at all. There was one weekend, early on, when we had just started living together. I spent the weekend in LA, with a friend of mine, and didn’t call, even once. I wanted to be alone, and get some quiet time. I needed to find my center again, and get rebalanced. My friend is easy to be with, and didn’t disturb my search-for-center. JR, however, wasn’t so easy, she was always advanced relationship work.

Anyway, I didn’t call, or talk to her, and she (understandably) freaked out. She packed up my stuff and put it in the garage for when I got home. I walked in and said “Hmm, got something to tell me?”

We talked for hours. I ended up staying that night, and the next, and… well, you get the picture. I didn’t understand that my lack of communication had an impact on anyone else – dude, I'm the guy who shows up for work and doesn’t say hello to my officemate – and she didn’t understand that she was pushing me off balance and triggering introvert-force-fields around me.

It was a great conversation. We had it, or a close order analogue, a few times. I recently lost another friend, in part because my friend felt invisible, not communicated with enough, and generally not supported enough. Perhaps I didn’t learn it all well enough from JR. But I tried. And she’s a good teacher. I think I'm a poor student.

An update: We just transported her, via ambulance, to the local hospital. Her breathing has gotten very bad. They are giving her pain medication and about to do a CT scan to see what is going on. I'm not home. I'm not there. I'm stuck in that lovely city in the Southwest, several hundred miles away, and I can’t get home to help her. Luckily, her family is with her and they are all awesome. It sucks to be so far away, and so powerless, when someone needs you.

All of you reading this, stop, take a break, and go hug someone you love. I'll be here when you get back.

What did you hope to learn about here?
If I were someone else, will this all fall apart?
Strange, where were you when we all started this gig…

-- Matchbox 20

It’s now May 10. JR is in Intensive Care in a hospital in the east bay – not exactly Stanford. She’s getting good pain medication, but the doctors seem a bit clueless, and she’s getting nervous. I'm trying to get her shipped to Stanford. To that end, I spent a lot of this morning tracking down doctors at two different hospitals, and answering the same questions, over and over again. I did all this during my staff meeting. I suspect my staff is quite tired of me right now. Oh, well, they’ll get a few week break from me when I go on family leave this weekend.

I don’t exactly know what to do when we are on leave together. But she wants to see a beach, so we’re headed for Santa Monica.

Let me take a brief side journey at this point.

A huge number of people have appeared to help me, to care for me, to make sure that I'm ok. I'm not even sick! It’s awesome, and frightening, and touching.

Let’s use this upcoming Santa Monica trip, alone, as an example. One friend has done all the legwork to help me get JR to LA, if she’s strong enough to go. All I did was pick dates. Another cajoled hotel reservations for me at the place I wanted to take JR. Another has arranged her vacation time so she will be close to LA in case I need help while we are there.

This is only one example. There have been dozens of others. I was sitting at a dinner the other night, when a friend of mine leaned over and said “I'm only going to say this once, I know you don’t want to talk about it. I have been through what you are feeling. Call me if you need help”. On the way down the elevator this morning, another friend told me “I'm here for anything. Want me to come water your plants?” Made me laugh. What a gift.

We’re in the arms of the angels,
May you find some comfort there
--Sarah McLachlan

Not sure what I ever did to deserve gifts like these. But I'm grateful. It’s hard even to write this sentence without crying.

I'm on a plane, it would be better not to cry right now. So let’s go back to our previous plotline.

JR and I took a lot of trips together when she was healthy. One of our first trips together was to Phoenix. She had a work meeting there, and I was taking some time off. I flew down to join her. We stayed at a resort near 24th and Camelback. It was summer – hot, sunny – and I had jeans and long sleeve shirts.

Smart, I'm not. She took me shopping, and bought me some short sleeve shirts and these silk shorts.

I have since learned that it is largely impossible to look cool in shorts. But I felt far cooler, and never would have bought them without her pressure.

The shirts were important – they were very bright colors. I was uncomfortable, thought they looked weird on me. She convinced me that they did not, that in fact it was a great look for me. Thus it began – the bright shirts that have since become my trademark. A gift from JR.

We sat around a pool for 3 days. There were misters – those things that spray water into the air to cool it off. She loved misters -- they made her so happy she actually clapped. We sat under the misters, and in the pool, and talked about life and love, hope and dreams, my childhood, my fears, and her needs.

She made me go to the spa that was attached to the resort. I was really freaked out – dude, what guy goes to a spa? I didn’t know how to do the whole spa thing – I get really anxious when I don’t know what to do. She held my hand, and told me it was ok, “just grab some water, sit down, and wait here until they call your name.” She was always ready to calm me down. A secret? I loved the spa. I got a massage and a manicure. And I'm a bit hooked now.

We had drinks the last night, watching the stars. She drank Scotch – aged single malt, Macallan’s. I drank beer. I'm a philistine. But I had a couple of hits off of a cigar – Romeo y Julietta, I believe. She thought it was awesome – the smell didn’t bother her, and she liked to see me so happy. I can’t have cigars anymore, since my personal health issue prevents it. But they make me think of her. I'll have one soon, and smile, despite feeling ill – thinking of her is good.

Heaven bent to take my hand
And lead me through the fire
Truth be told, I tried my best,
But somewhere along the way
I got caught up in all there was to offer
And the cost was so much more than I could bear
-- Sarah McLachlan

It’s now May 11th. We transferred her to Stanford last night. I screwed up and didn’t go with her to get her settled in – major mistake. I took her clothes and purse with me, which meant she didn’t have her patient medication card, nor was she carrying her Power of Attorney form. Without those two pieces of paper, checking her in was harder. Also, she had a bad nurse last night.

So she’s totally freaked out this morning. I can’t blame her. And I feel SO guilty. But she’s back at the hospital where the doctors are good, even though her nurse wasn’t so great at first. It’ll be ok.

Well, as ok as anything is now, I guess.

Her family is on their way to her – Stanford is about an hour from home. I'll see her tonight, and have already talked to her a few times this morning. She’s anxious, but calming down. I'm glad for that.

She’s always been anxious. It’s one of the things that connects us. She took some time off between Schwab and the job that she had when she was diagnosed. She was on Schwab salary the entire time, with their benefits – a nice problem to have, I guess, unless you are a Schwab shareholder, but whatever. She took every last minute of the time off (a little over a year) before she started working again.

She volunteered a few times at Best Friends (an animal rescue place in Utah). She spent some time at home, she exercised. Sounds idyllic, right?

Except she went into these phases where she couldn’t deal with not working. That was hard for her. She got lots of job offers, and turned them down – one in Dallas, one on the East coast. But she found one she liked – and then another she liked, at the same time. She went from no jobs to a very hard decision in a matter of days. She chose one of the two – it turned out to be a good decision, although she regrets aspects of it.

We did some cool things together while she was not working, including a quick trip to London, where I was giving a talk. She loves theater. She saw two or maybe three plays without me. And we saw a couple together. We saw my favorite play – Anouilh’s play Beckett – and a terrible play – Phantom. It was awful. So awful we talked about leaving at the intermission. I mean, really, awful. We also saw Sweeney Todd together – I love that musical!!

Mostly we had fun. We stayed at the Savoy, which is a beautiful hotel, with really bad elevators and carpet. We walked to Piccadilly Circus, and bought tickets at those discount ticket booths. They are these little tiny store fronts, with a desk, and these 10 foot tall doors, each door with a bunch of fliers, advertising different movies. She was an expert at those places, she’d compare the seats they had and the prices. I don’t know how the places get tickets, and it seems that they have different seats, so there must be an active secondary market. I wonder if there are market makers?

That trip was funny for other reasons too. Like, it was about November. And I forgot to bring a coat. And I also didn’t bring a suit belt. So on the first day, I basically held my pants up, whilst shivering, and she went out to a few stores and got me a coat and a belt. Was a great investment on her part. The belt was great – I still wear it. The coat? Not so much, but I think it’s cute, in a Harry Potter-esque way. I can’t really pull off the British schoolboy look, but I like the coat. And I was less miserable with it on than before I had it.

This was the first trip where I haven’t hated London. Thanks for that JR!

JR has asked me to post this in pieces, rather than one long post after the story finishes. Thus, here’s the first component for your enjoyment, or … well… whatever.