Monday, July 26, 2010

I Knew the Bride When She Used to Rock and Roll

The bride wore a non-traditional black and white floral print dress. The groom, sans jacket, wore black dress slacks, a blue shirt, and a multicolored silk tie bought by the bride in Italy. Almost 19 years after they were first married on a typically overcast San Francisco summer day in 1991, they renewed their vows before 60 family and friends this past Saturday.

There were already tears in my eyes when Verna’s father guided her, gripping her cane, along the sidewalk outside our home. “Now that you really know me,” I said to her father as they arrived in front of me, “are you sure you want to let her go?”

He sort of smiled, and I clasped Verna’s hand in mine as we walked closer to Marie, our dear friend who also officiated at our wedding ceremony in Golden Gate Park’s Rose Garden on July 28, 1991. Trailing just behind Verna and her dad were our daughter, Maya, clad in a green chiffon dress and holding a bouquet of roses, and our son, Miguel, who was one of my best men, the ring bearer, and the DJ, ‘DJ Miggy’.

The weekend had been a whirlwind for all of us, as family streamed in from Arizona, Central California, Florida, Massachusetts, and Connecticut. I was concerned that all the activity would adversely affect Verna, who tires easily because of all the medication she’s taking from hospice. So, prior to the ceremony, I spoke to the crowd before Verna and her father walked to the strains of “Here Comes the Bride”:

“First, I’d like to thank all of you for being here and sharing this special day with us. Also, since we want to preserve Verna’s health, I ask most of you to use the bathrooms in the park,” about 300 yards away, “or go like Gigi (our dog)”, who was at that point sniffing around the bushes.

As it turned out, Verna and our sister-in-law Donna (wife of Verna’s eldest brother, Marty) sequestered themselves upstairs during the day prior to the ceremony at 4:15 pm. Verna took two naps, got a pedicure and manicure from Donna, and more or less relaxed without anyone bothering her. Maya occasionally squeaked through to be with her mommy, but we’d ordered everyone else to stay away. And they listened.

Marie briefly introduced the ceremony and then shared a story that, she said, aptly demonstrated our strength as a couple. Several years ago, residents in Bernal Heights (a neighborhood in San Francisco) claimed that the stone relief of the Virgin Mary, outside a Church, was crying. Verna, Marie, and I went to investigate, and, sure enough, both Verna and Marie saw tears gently streaming down her eyes. I said, though, “No, it’s the light hitting the wall.”

Marie said that even though Verna and I often had two ways of seeing the world, we were of one mind and heart in terms of our love and commitment and willingness to accept our varying perspectives.

Then in a nod to something we included in our original wedding ceremony, Marie shared some humorous vows I’d written earlier in the week. “Steve, do you promise not to swill any more of Verna’s liquid morphine?” And, “Verna, do you promise to let Steve hop on the back of your wheelchair with you in it and coast downhill in the park?”

While both Verna and I acknowledged her cancer in our renewal vows, we also said almost defiantly that we wouldn’t let it define our relationship or family. Love and our bond are stronger than Verna’s life threatening illness. So the humor was our attempt to accept reality and also playfully attack the incurable enemy that is ravaging her body.

Next we jointly lit a candle our dear, dear friend Amanda recently sent us from Lourdes, a Catholic shrine in France, where many believe the waters are healing and Bernadette saw a vision of Mary, that Verna and her mother visited in 1993 as part of holiness tour sponsored by a local church. She and her mom also toured holy sites in Portugal and Italy, which is where she purchased my tie.

We shared our renewal vows next, with Verna going first, and, unlike 19 years ago when she was nervous and no one could hear her, confidently pronounced how I was still the one for her and how our love has grown stronger amid the past four often horrendous years.

With tears brimming in my eyes and, surprisingly, words catching in my throat, I said, “It took your cancer for me to be able to surpass you on a bike.” I also said, “I am forever yours through all eternity and beyond”, which was similar to Verna’s vows.

Miguel then handed me Verna’s wedding ring and I moved to place it on her finger. But suddenly Maya grabbed the ring and slipped it on Verna’s finger. People giggled at Maya’s gesture. I then gave my ring to Miguel and he imitated his younger sister and put it on my finger.

Marie said, “Then by the power vested in me by this community of love I pronounce you still married.” I leaned over and Verna and I kissed twice as our family and friends clapped. I felt a mixed wave of sadness and profound joy. There was nothing better than renewing vows with my soul partner and the mother of our children while our Miguel and Maya had such active roles in the ceremony. But I also wondered if Verna and I would celebrate together our 20th wedding anniversary next summer.

Verna and I admitted to each other in 1991, weeks before our ceremony, that there are no guarantees in life. We wholeheartedly pledged ourselves to each other, but knew that love ebbs and flows and only time would tell if we’d survive the journey of love and life. We acknowledged, though didn’t really expect, that our love might someday cease. Yes, we said over and over, there are no guarantees, but we’re going to try, try, try and work, work, work.

We just didn’t know then that cancer would prove us right in a way we never expected.

To love and life. And to eternity and beyond.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Father's Day

Father’s Day is Maya thumping on the end of the bed at 6:30 in the morning on June 20, and then climbing in without an invitation. After a whisper or two with Verna, Maya said, “Happy Father’s Day, daddy.” It was pretty hard to get upset about having my slumber interrupted after that sweet greeting.

Father’s Day is mountain biking with Miguel. We decided about six weeks ago to hit the twisty trails of Marin County, where mountain biking was born, and bond even further as males. The morning of our first ride I had my weekly phone call with my mother, who lives about 3000 miles away in Connecticut.

“What are your plans for the day?” she asked.

“I’m going mountain biking with Miguel.”

She went on about how he’d gain so much because of my extensive cycling experience. I’ve been a fairly avid road biker since 1994.

“But, Mom,” I said, “I’ve never been mountain biking before.”

“Well, I hope you’re going to wear elbow and knee pads,” she said in true Jewish mother fashion.

Yeah, right, I thought. “No, Mom, I’ll be OK.”


I don’t even own a mountain bike. Our neighbor, Ken, who works tirelessly as a regional manager for Kentucky Fried Chicken, bought a high-end mountain bike a decade ago that he hasn’t ridden in two years. “Borrow it anytime,” he said. “Store it in your garage. No one is using it.”

So Miguel and I unloaded the bikes from our minivan and headed toward one of several China Camp trails, a series of dirt-packed paths along the shore of San Pablo Bay. In deference to my not yet pubescent son, I decided to hang back a bit and not show him up with my superior bike riding skills.

“Where should we go?” he asked.

“Your choice,” I said, not realizing the Frostian option I was offering. I just assumed he would choose the flatter and more popular trail near the parking lot. But he went literally for the trail less traveled and we made a hard right onto a bumpy path with exposed tree roots. He was already well ahead of me and looked quite comfortable.

I felt anything but comfortable as the bike fishtailed around corners and I lurched forward as if I was about to be hurtled into space. The brakes were damn good. I pulled into another switchback turn and lost control of the bike, falling forward into a thicket of poison oak.

“Hey, Miguel,” I shouted. “Hold up, I fell off the bike.”

After chugging uphill for about 20 minutes, one of us (probably me) suggested we turn around and sample the flatter terrain on the populous trail. Much to my slightly battered ego and bruised shins, Miguel agreed.

We finished the ride sweaty and satisfied, each of us having drained our hydration packs of all water. I was completely excited that my teenager to be not only kept up with me (OK, surpassed me), but also enjoyed an athletic experience with his middle-aged father.

“Let’s do this every weekend,” he said as we climbed (OK, I limped) back into the minivan.

Father’s Day is painting Maya’s fingernails and toenails. Maya is our princess and total girlie-girl, who is obsessed, no, enamored with all things princess (Belle, Snow White, Jasmine, Ariel, Aurora, and Cinderella). She loves frilly dresses, necklaces, rings, bracelets, hair bands, and twirling like a ballerina. Last week she asked me to polish her nails right away.

“I’m having a Girl’s Day with Daddy,” she said as I applied bright pink polish. It may have been the fumes, but I wasn’t sure if was going to hug her or cry. Or both.

Father’s Day (and Mother’s Day) is every day. Thanks goodness.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Stayin' Alive

One of the songs playing lately on the soundtrack that loops endlessly in my brain has been “Stayin’ Alive” by the Bee Gees. I close my eyes and visualize John Travolta strutting his disco king stuff to the high-pitched warbling of Barry, Maurice, and the other brother.

Aye-aye-aye-aye, stain’ alive…”

Staying alive has been on my mind because Verna’s oncologist told us last Tuesday that we should contact hospice.

“Are you saying this is the beginning of the end?” we asked.

“Yes,” she said. “Now, I don’t know how long we’re talking about. Could be a few months, two or three, but we just don’t know.”

I tried to pose a few more questions, but the words came haltingly as the tears welled in my eyes. I looked over at Verna in her hospital bed and she was also crying.

So we cried, tried to breath, and cried some more as the reality of the doctor’s words seeped into our consciousnesses. The cancer support manager, who no longer even cares for breast cancer patients but sees Verna because she adores her, asked Verna to share her understanding of what the oncologist had said.

“But I’m not ready to die,” Verna said after she answered the cancer support manager. “I have a lot left to do.”

“And that’s OK,” said the manager. “But sometimes it doesn’t matter how hard we want to live.”
Verna mentioned our renewal of wedding vows, planned for July 24, the wedding of our nephew (for a date to be determined), and the wedding ceremony of one of our closest friends in late October.

As the anxiety and anguish of the moment dissipated and we retreated to the comfortable confines of sarcasm and dark humor, I said we were definitely having the renewal of vows ceremony. “I can always do it alone.”

But I am pretty sure Verna will be there. Physically there, that is. Maybe that’s the hardest part of this latest body blow, the highly unnerving uncertainty. There is no way for anyone to predict how long Verna has left to live. All her doctor can offer is, “We don’t know.” On the other hand, not knowing is less definite.

The latest chapter in our journey began late last Sunday night just before midnight. Verna’s full body pain had been escalating for a few hours before she finally declared, “We need to go to the hospital.” She was unable to move. She later said, “It feels as if my legs are in vise clamps.”

So I quickly wrote Miguel a note that I’d be back soon (though I doubted he or Maya would wake up) and drove Verna to the hospital, which is 2 miles away. After she was admitted to the emergency room and we met her nurse, Glen, a Filipino native we’ve known from previous visits, I returned home and tried to fall asleep.

Monday was a nightmare. Verna was sedated in a fog of narcotics, wracked with pain. She mumbled half sentences, had trouble swallowing, and her normally golden glow was pale. We met her hospitalist, the doctor in charge of her case while on the 5th floor, and a palliative care nurse, who offered suggestions to further control Verna’s pain. The cancer support manager and a Reverend with the spiritual support team visited and quickly arranged a single room for Verna.

I left to feed the kids and came back later. The nurse was just hooking up Verna to an IV blood transfusion when I split for the evening around 8:45. I was seriously afraid that Kaiser was going to call me in the middle of the night to say Verna had died. She looked that ill.

I dragged myself out of bed a 6 am and hopped on the Life Cycle. I stuffed the iPod ear buds in and opened my book as I pedaled into a relative state of escape and relief. Suddenly the phone rang. The caller ID read ‘Kaiser’, and I gulped. It was Verna.

“I feel much better,” she blurted out as I finally started breathing again. “The blood transfusion worked.”

Maybe Dracula and his ilk were on to something. The transformation in 10 hours was miraculous. The hospitalist had explained to us that if the transfusion worked it would provide lubrication for her bones, which were rubbing up against each other and causing the intense pain, and re-energize her anemic body.

By Tuesday afternoon we were ready to host Verna’s oncologist and the cancer support manager, both of whom shed nearly as many tears as we did. The oncologist explained that hospice would make it easier for Verna to manage her pain and avoid returning to the hospital.

“And we’re going to put you on a low dose chemotherapy pill because we’re not giving up,” the oncologist added. “I would love for you to prove me wrong by living a lot longer.”
So Verna’s challenge is anything but simple. She needs to stall death by staying alive. Somehow I know and feel she’s up to the challenge.

Aye-aye-aye-aye, stayin’ alive…”