Thursday, March 31, 2011

God and The Cancer

"I am grumpy because of what the cancer did to Mommy," declared Maya on the sidewalk next to our car as twilight deepened yesterday. "I miss Mommy and I don't like the cancer."

"I miss her, too," I said. "Cancer is bad and evil."

Last week she asked me why God had made Verna die. I said, "God didn't make Mommy die. She died because she had cancer, and sometimes cancer makes you die."

A week or so before Verna's funeral, I met with Father Paul, the Catholic priest Verna personally asked to officiate at the ceremony. He is active in social justice issues in the community, especially in the Latino neighborhoods. Somehow the issue of death and God and the unfairness of it all came up.

"I hate it when people say 'God wanted her more'," Father Paul admitted as we sat across from one another. "God didn't want her more. She died because she was too sick."

"Yes," I agreed, as I contemplated hugging him, "the cancer won out this time."

Father Paul's theological view of death was comforting to me. See, I don't blame God for Verna's death. I don't even hold God responsible for the Holocaust. If we have real free will then I understand why God has pulled back from the world, though I wouldn't mind a little intervention now and then. Some good old fashioned Biblical fire and brimstone to smote the real, real bad people. Rwanda. Darfur. Just to name two for starters.

Father Paul's words soothed me because I am agnostic, but it was nice to know he and I were on the same cosmological page.

I've been an agnostic since I was 19. I was an undergrad at Columbia University and the Jewish Theological Seminary. I was in a Sociology of Deviance class and the professor was talking about crime and moral relativism and it suddenly struck me that, maybe, there wasn't any God. I'd never had any proof of God's existence, so why believe in a Deity that is quite possibly fictional?

My mother freaked out when I told her I wasn't sure there was a God.

"Maybe you should talk to someone," she pleaded.

So I made an appointment with Rabbi Neil Gilman, then the dean of the Seminary's rabbinical school, who'd also been my freshman Jewish philosophy professor a year earlier. I confirmed everything with his secretary.

On the day of the appointment, I felt as if were entering a lower realm on the way to Heaven, my insides shaky and roiling. Gilman was a scholar who made me nervous. He knew so much and I basically ignored most of his class for I was a lazy undergrad for the first five years of college.

He ushered me into his office, lined with books and books and books. He asked me why I was there.

"I already told your secretary," I said meekly, looking down at my sneakers.

"I know, I just want to hear it from you," he intoned.

"I don't think I believe in God anymore," I said.

He got up from his black leather swivel chair and extended his hand towards me. "Welcome to the club," he said with a grin.

Over the next few weeks, we read different philosophers and Gilman expounded on his view that belief in God exists on a continuum. At various stages of one's life he or she is on the more believing side; and at other stages he or she believes less.

That made sense to me, but over the years I haven't budged from my proud agnosticism. But I was never ready to take the leap into full blown atheism, because atheism always seemed too absolute. I am a doubter, not a disbeliever.

A few months later I watched a bus filled with members of the local Jewish youth group, including my younger brother (and only sibling), pull away from the synagogue enroute to some weekend retreat. I told my mother as we walked to the car that I prayed to God for Scott to be safe.

She started crying. Joyfully.

But even for all my agnostic bluster, I have had experiences, still, that cause me to wonder about the world. Watching the births of both children was a miracle and a mystery that can't help but stir a sense that the world is guided by something.

In early 2009, I wrote a freelance article about the popularity of Kabbalah, the Jewish mystical tradition that has gained a fair amount of publicity because Madonna is one of its devotees. One rabbi I interviewed said the essence of Kabbalah is recognizing the Divine spark in everyone and treating everyone as if he or she possesses that celestial shard of light.

His words resonated with me, and I have never forgotten them. I have a few close friends and associates (namely a few elderly women at the retirement community where I work), and family members who are either devout or active in their faiths. Deep, non-judgmental faith impresses me. Always has.

I remember watching my late mother-in-law, Maria, a devout Catholic who lived the best of Jesus' teachings, in 1992 as she retraced her Lord's footsteps at a synagogue where he preached 2000 years ago just north of Tiberias, in Israel's Galilee region. Walking on hallowed ground was the pinnacle of her life.

I will admit I have a hard time understanding when a tragedy occurs and someone says, "God spared us" or "God was good to us." How or why does God protect some people and let others die? Did those who suffered not pray enough?

There were some well-meaning people who said that Verna just needed to pray and think positively when she was first diagnosed with breast cancer and later when it returned. But what about all her friends who'd succumbed to the disease before her? Had they not fought or prayed hard enough?

None of this internal struggle means much or will necessarily help me help Maya as she alternates between utter sadness and demonstrable anger over her Mommy's death.

Two of my co-workers, both dedicated Catholics and very sweet people, told me today that I may be an agnostic but I am also very spiritual. I don't feel that way. I feel as if I am just muddling through when it comes to so, so much. And I do desperately want to comfort Maya and Miguel.

Maybe it's time to open my heart. Maybe it's time for some travel on that continuum that Professor Neil Gilman vividly rendered for me more than 30 years ago.

It's my choice. Thank God.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Music Lessons

Music soothes me. For the past few nights, I have been scouring YouTube and watching videos of high energy rock and R and B songs that just make me feel better. I lose myself in the music for at least a while and I can "escape" my problems, my sorrow, my pain and feel eased somewhat without having to resort to crack cocaine.

Music also evokes powerful emotions. Last night I watched the YouTube clip for the millionth time of Susan Boyle singing "I Dreamed a Dream" on Britain's Got Talent, and my eyes brimmed with tears and I felt all was well in the world, which I know is not true, but for five, very brief minutes I could hide behind a facade where goodness, the sheer, innocent goodness of a 47-year old doughty English spinster, triumphs over the evil of haughtiness and ridicule and pervasive pessimism.

Certain songs either transport me to a particular moment in time or recreate a special memory. When I hear Frampton's "Do You Feel Like We Do?", I am back in my bedroom as a teen, shades drawn, as I strummed my tennis racket to Frampton's opus and pretended to be a rock star.

Frampton's "I'm in You", a syrupy melody, was, I think, the unofficial anthem for my high school and early college girlfriend, Cindy, and me. Whenever I hear it, I think of her and of young, young love and how immature I was, but how powerful our relationship felt back then.

Don Henley's "Boys of Summer", which I literally could not listen to for a few years, reminds of a heart-searing breakup with a girlfriend, Amy, when I was in my mid-20s. It just hurt to hear Henley crooning, "You can never turn back."

Robert Palmer's "Bad Case of Loving You" holds a special place in my heart. Upon the recommendation of our labor coach, I sang a less than rock and roll version of it to Miguel every night for 3 months while he grew inside Verna.

"Hot summer nights/Felt like a net/I gotta find my baby yet."

Music also energizes me. I have over 1700 songs on my iPod in the rock and roll folder, and I listen to them in alphabetical order when I either run or ride the Life Cycle everyday. Certain songs make me want to tap my feet, sway to the music, or pump my body even faster. Anything by Bryan Adams, Donnie Iris, the Michael Stanley Band, the Beatles, Van Halen, and countless others are guaranteed to increase my energy.

Music can also teach or provide an opportunity for learning. The first thing Miguel does when I turn the car on after I pick him up at school is switch the radio station, usually on a jazz station, to some hip/hop, funk, rap outlet he's favoring.

Today he was listening to a song by Rihanna, a talented singer who gained further notoriety after her ex-boyfriend, Chris Brown, assaulted her physically. Her song today was about S and M.

"Miguel, do you know what S and M is?" I asked as the song blared.

"No." His friend, Adam, an 8th grader, sat in the backseat.

"S and M is where people have sex and cause others or themselves pain and violence," I explained. "S and M is where something enjoyable is turned into something painful and violent."

I didn't see the need to launch into anything more about sex, sacred acts between consenting adults or intense physical intimacy and enjoyment, than those two sentences.

"Well," he said, "thanks for the information."

"Miguel, you know what I'm saying. Some songs just say things that are really against my and Mommy's values."

At this point, he may have been ready to jump out the car window, splatter himself on the highway and avoid further embarrassment in front of Adam.

Yesterday he argued with me when I said any and all of the songs the DJ will play at his bar mitzvah reception in August (the 13th) will have to be sanitized.

"Why can't the DJ just use the beeper when a bad word comes on?"

"Because," was all I said.

Sometimes one word or word note or one verse is all it takes, not that he was any happier.

"Mommy's all right/Daddy's all right/They just seem a little weird..."

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Edge of Living

I've changed names to safeguard the privacy of residents and their families at the retirement community where I work.

Ellen came home to die. Following major coronary surgery and several weeks at a respite care center, she said simply, "I am tired of all this. I'm in pain. I don't want to be a burden anymore."

I visited Ellen yesterday to deliver her a case of Ensure I no longer needed. I peered into her room and saw mottled skin stretched taut against her face. Her gray hair was brushed back atop her head. Blue veins snaked down from the back of her hands past her bony wrists and forearms.

"I brought you a present," I shouted.

"You did?" said Ellen, who is in her late 80s.

I walked into her bedroom, with eight crosses affixed on the wall above the light switch, a rosary dangling from the portable table in front of her.


She lifted her hands at me, palms up, and her eyes widened. She smiled brightly. "I'm glad you're here," she said.

"I dropped off some Ensure," I told her. "I don't need it anymore."

I gulped and held back the tears. I am not going to lose it in front of a dying woman, I thought. Ellen started mumbling about a girl who worked for her and needed to get home. Then she explained the large Impressionist painting of three girls in their Sunday best white dresses, bows in their hair, on the wall next to the crosses.

"The girl there," she said, pointing to a figure in the center of the canvas, "was a neighbor of ours, lived behind us. Her mother was the artist."

"Are you using your rosary?" I ask. "It takes a Jewish guy to make sure you are praying, Ellen."

She smiled again. "Well, yes, that is something you would do." She brought up the worker again and I just nodded. She raised her bony fingers towards me, as if she was about to make a critical point, and we clasped hands. Her fingers were warm, her life force still flowing.

Ten minutes later I visited Fay, who is also on hospice and in her late 90s. Thin oxygen tubes snaked in a V from her nose to her chest. Her eyes drooped and the skin underneath her chin wiggled.

"Hi, hon," she said as I poked my head into her room.

"Fay, you're looking good. Nice to have you back." She'd spent a night in the hospital last week after she'd had difficulty breathing.

"Thank you, hon," she said. I explained to Fay and her two children, Janet and Bob, that they she should not hesitate to order trays and let us know how we can best accommodate their needs. I reminded them that all tray services or guest meals are complimentary while a resident is on hospice.

Janet asked me, "Can I come down at 5:45 after Mom has eaten and get some food?" Dinner closes each night at 6.

"Just tell the hostess I said it was OK," I answered.

I'd first met Fay at Casino Night about a month after I started working here in late 2009. She'd been depressed about her failing body, cancer, and weekly blood treatments, but she'd dragged herself to the evening's festivities. She later told me that my associates and I helped peel away her curtain of despair. "You helped save me that night," she said.

I grabbed her hand just before I left and said we would do whatever she needed. Her eyes darted as if she were preoccupied, but I sensed she wasn't going anywhere anytime soon.

As I left her room and breathed in the stillness of the hallway, my mind focused on hospice, transporting me back to last June, when Verna's oncologist firmly suggested we contact hospice so Verna could have access to 24-hour almost on-the-spot care. The conversation, the images, and the words still imprinted on my brain, when they told us we were looking at two or three more months.

"But," the oncologist said, "I'd love for you to prove me wrong.

Verna died almost three months after her oncologist's final diagnosis and recommendations.

Ellen and Fay are at the beginning of the process, before the round-the-clock administration of pain-killers, conversations about feeding tubes, hushed words about increasing the doses of morphine or Ativan or some other narcotic. I ache for their families, for the decisions they will soon confront or mull over.

I feel sad for them and it reminds me of the anguish I endured last summer. But, on another level, I felt slightly blissful after I left Fay's apartment. Not because I may have eased their suffering (it may beyond anyone's control now), but maybe because I felt how strongly their spirits pulsed as each braved life amid what could possibly be an imminent death. Both women seemed so present, even if Ellen's mind was foggy. And they pulled me into that Zen-state and reminded me yet again that I have a role to play here: caregiver. Or I could just listen to them talk or ramble as they prepare for another journey on the edge of living.

Monday, March 28, 2011


One of the best books I read about grief last year, aptly titled About Grief (by Ron Marasco and Brian Shuff), says that grief does not proceed in linear stages, but rather rises and falls like waves or a roller coaster. You don’t get to one stage and then move on until you are completely over death or grieving. It ebbs and flows basically forever.

I was reminded of their wisdom last night as I was putting Maya to bed. “I have a headache,” she said to me after I’d finished reading her Soft Blanket by Jane Yolen. She’s had a runny nose for 2 ½ weeks and also has pink eye.

Are you sick?” I was poised to feel her forehead.

No, I just have a headache because I miss Mommy,” she answered, her lips curled downward.

Me, too,” I said.

I miss Mommy,” she repeated.

I crawled into bed next to her and pulled Verna’s picture, inside the balsa wood frame decorated by Maya, off the headboard. “Have you had dreams about Mommy lately?” I asked her.

She shook her head.

Take a look at Mommy’s picture.”

I miss Mommy,” she said again. “I want to hug Mommy.”

I miss Mommy, too. So much,” I said. “You can still hug Mommy in your heart. Always.”

She smiled, gazed at the photograph, which was taken at Disneyland just before Christmas 2009, and said, “I love you Mommy.”

I should have known Maya was grieving more deeply yesterday afternoon. We were doing the grocery shopping when she said to me, “I wish I’d been there when Mommy died.”

Well, you were there, Maya. You were upstairs in bed.”

But I wasn’t downstairs,” she said.

I know.”

This morning she woke up with sadness etched across her entire face. I thought she was sick. She got up and almost curled into a ball on the floor at the foot of the bed. “I miss Mommy,” she said. “I don’t want to go to school. I miss Mommy.”

How about a hug?” I was clad in my bike shorts, headband, and light blue North Face t-shirt.

She shook her head.

I’m not sweaty anymore.” Maya knows to avoid me for I usually put in an hour on the Life Cycle.

But she slowly came over and buried her head on my shoulder. She started sobbing. “I miss Mommy,” she wailed into my shirt. “I want to stay home Dadda,” which is what she calls me. It was the first time she's cried since Verna's death seven months ago today.

Her sadness settled over me, but I had visions of watching a movie together and then doing some retail therapy at Claire’s (a company in which I should own stock) before taking her out for ice cream.

How about a play date with Maya (her best friend) after school?” I asked.

Maya perked up and grinned. “OK.”

Maya’s mother, Michele, invited my Maya over practically before I made the request this morning just after 8 AM.No problem,” she said, two words that immediately comforted my Maya, who was listening on speakerphone.

So I ordered three picture books on death and grief from Amazon, though I still think the best is Liplap’s Wish by Jonathan London, one I’ve read to her a few times. But I wanted to do something. A co-worker also suggested I call the formerly known Center for Attitudinal Healing in Sausalito because the center offers sessions for preschoolers like Maya.

I know grieving is a long-term, maybe permanent condition. It comes in waves, the surf crashing to the shore. Again and again and again.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

It's In The Cards

Verna had a maternal and spousal bucket list she tackled before she died with the ferocity of a Lioness.

One of the items was writing greeting cards to the kids and her other loved ones. The bulk of the cards were for Miguel and Maya. Each will now receive a card on their birthdays until they are 18; each will get one upon graduating from high school and college (please God); and they will have one to share with their future life partners should they take a leap into matrimony.

Verna started the cards last summer before she went on hospice. She sat in her electric recliner in the living room, I to her right on the sliding recliner, as she composed words the kids would receive after she died.

Verna was inspired to do the cards by our friend, Amy, who wished her late mother (breast cancer, 2001) had left her something for her to read and experience in the future.

I was slightly nervous and giddy during Verna’s first writing session because she asked me to read the cards as she finished them. She’d set a goal of writing 3-4 each day.

She didn’t want me to analyze or correct the cards; just read what she wrote and give her a general response. And I wouldn’t have wanted any other role--passive listener--for I learned the hard way that being a know-it-all is not healthy for a romantic (or any) relationship.

Many, many years ago, during my freshman year of college, while I was taking nine hours of Hebrew each week as an undergrad at the Jewish Theological Seminary, my girlfriend at the time, Cindy, enrolled in a Hebrew class at the University of Connecticut. She was so excited to share with me her first paper, written longhand in Hebrew.

How did I reward Cindy, who was bursting with pride at her significant accomplishment? I circled the mistakes and corrected her as if I was the teacher (or parent) and she was the student (or child). I will never forget the deflated look on her face and the justifiable anger she felt toward me that day.

So there was never a question for me that I was just going to read Verna’s cards to the kids and respond (but not criticize) only if asked. I barely made it through the first sentence of her first card before tears streamed down my face.

A sledgehammer to the gut as I realized Verna was writing cards the kids would read after her death, which we both knew last May would probably be sooner than later.

But, still, she wrote more than 50 cards. She wrote them while fairly lucid and she wrote them while whacked on a cocktail of painkilling drugs that should’ve felled an army of stallions. She insisted on writing even when her handwriting blurred and her mind grew foggier and foggier and her short-term memory dimmed.

When I volunteered to be her secretary so she could dictate her words to me and conserve her energy, she was emphatic, “No, I want them to see what I was going through.”

She also slipped a savings bond into each card, $100 for birthdays and holidays and $500 for marriage.

I’ve read many of the cards at least once and they are amazing. The legacy and gift Verna has given the kids is truly remarkable.

For Maya’s Christmas card this year, Verna wrote, “I’ll bet you were a good little girl this year and you’ll get whatever you want. What I love about Christmas are all the lights and decorations. I also loved going to Christmas Mass with Grandma. Christmas is not just about getting presents, but about remembering what the holiday is about.”

Verna wrote in Miguel’s Christmas card, with a black puppy, wearing a Santa hat, inside a coffee cup on the front, “I love you. I certainly loved Christmas time. After Grandma Chela (her mother) died in 2008, I loved bringing her Nativity scene into our home as part of our family tradition.”

She wrote in Miguel’s Hanukkah card, “Have you already listened to Adam Sandler’s The Hanukkah Song? Maybe with the money in this card you could buy a new Hanukkah menorah. I know Daddy loves his tin menorah, but it is really getting beat up and is becoming a fire hazard. Believe it or not, I finally was able to sing along in Hebrew when Daddy was lighting the candles. It took me about 15 years. I am sure it won’t take you that long.”

Re-reading the cards is so hard because they remind me again and again that Verna is dead. But the heartbreaking joy comes from knowing that the kids get a gift, Verna’s voice from beyond, at least four or five times a year.

She poured so much of herself into writing the cards. She did a fair amount of Internet research so she could write about her world when she was 15, 16, 17. “What major world events happened in 1981?” she asked me.

While I was caught off-guard and clueless, she found the answers by punching up Google or a similar site.

Verna forgot she wrote Maya a 5th birthday card, so she ended doing another. Maya loved getting two from Verna, one adorned with her favorite princess, Belle, and the other with rainbows, hearts, and sprinkles.

“I want to hang them in the bedroom so I can see them forever,” Maya said.

On Miguel’s 13th birthday card, Verna wrote, “I know you are excited that you can officially watch PG-13 movies. But, remember, Daddy is the one who decides what movies you get to watch.”

Still mothering from beyond the grave.

In her birthday card to her father, who turned 82 on March 5, she apologized for dying first. He broke down and lowered his head to the table as he read it. Tears clouded my eyes as I watched him.

So reading the cards will never be easy, but I will cherish, and I think the kids will, too, the memories Verna shared, the life lessons she imparted, the jokes she cracked, and the love she offered as her ultimate gifts while she lay dying.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Verna and Steve Gone Wild

I pulled this out of the vault. This is a selective travelogue of Verna’s and my final vacation together as a couple, to Mexico, July 25-August 1, 2008. No names have been changed or details altered, though I should have done both. You will soon understand why.

Verna and I spent a week in Cabo San Lucas, at the tip of the Baja Peninsula, for our first vacation without kids in 11 years. We were last in Mexico for our honeymoon in 1991. We stayed then in Mazatlan at the time-share condo of Verna’s brother, Jim, and his wife, Liz. We transferred their week this time to stay in Cabo.

We spent seven glorious, sun-drenched days lounging by the pool, walking miles and miles around the marina, drinking tequila, giggling in the surf of the Sea of Cortez, dining out for each meal, and consuming more tequila.

After two years spent battling breast cancer before settling into the sometimes tiring and mundane trappings of full-time motherhood, the vacation served as a coming out party for Verna, who reveled—for a few days—in her body, mind, and spirit.

While Verna sat in the lobby of our resort, Sol Mar Beach Club, Saturday evening, writing a postcard to a friend, I joined four women in line for dinner, a Mexican fiesta all-you-can-eat buffet. We shared vital biographical information and I learned they were sisters from Lake Charles, LA, who’d left their children and husbands behind for five days of sibling bonding, freedom, and revelry. They invited us to sit with them at dinner.

As the dinner progressed and the floorshow at the fiesta droned on, they asked us to join them for the evening. They were headed to Cabo Wabo’s, a famed bar owned by rocker Sammy Hagar, in the heart of Cabo’s downtown.

“No, that’s OK. I don’t think we’re up for a late night,” said Verna.

I looked over at her, then whispered, “C’mon, let’s live it up.”

Verna somewhat reluctantly agreed. We hopped in a taxi and arrived at Cabo Wabo’s around 8:30. We climbed the wooden stairs to the main area, a huge room filled with circular tables and high bar chairs and standard booths. We were told the house band went on at 10:30. So we ordered a round of beers.

Three or four rounds later, the sisters, Michelle, Melissa, Colleen, and Denise, suggested we go next to the Giggling Marlin, where they’d been the night before, to see the exciting floor show.

A small group of waiters and waitresses led by the owner of the bar, a white blond male in his 20s or early 30s with awesome dance moves, started the show off with a cleverly choreographed boogie number. Then the owner and MC invited any and all women in the audience to come up for a game of musical chairs.

Melissa yanked Verna out of her seat and the two of them stood with at least twenty women against two rows of chairs lined back to back. The owner/MC asked men in the audience to bet on the woman they thought would win. The $20 bets would go towards the $150 winner’s share. Verna looked over at me several times and mouthed that I was not to wager on her.

No one else did either.

Though Verna is somewhat timid, she is also very competitive. She elbowed and pushed a few women out of the way to remain one of the final eight contestants.

“Now,” announced the MC, “we are going to play Simon Says or Johnny Daddy says. If I say ‘Johnny Daddy says’ then you need to do it as fast as possible to stay in the competition. So, Johnny Daddy says get me a bra.”

Verna was seated at the end of the row, only a few yards away from us. She raced over to us and said what we already knew: “I need a bra.” Colleen, who is 49 like me, somehow pulled hers out of her black tank top in just a few harrowing seconds. Then she crossed her arms over her chest as Verna bolted back to her chair.

After the women returned the bras to their owners, the MC said, “Johnny Daddy says get a man’s t-shirt.” I started taking mine off before Verna had even returned to the table.

I must interject that I was completely sober, which may have been a mistake on my part in terms of what I had to do next. I’d had a few sips of Verna’s beers at Cabo Wabo’s and one shot of tequila at dinner, nearly six hours earlier.

“I want all the men to come up and get their t-shirts. But stay with the women,” said Johnny.

There I was, half-naked, 160 bony and vegetarian pounds, facing Verna, who was holding my orange Buzz Kill t-shirt (from the website

“Before you get your t-shirts,” explained Johnny, “you must lap dance your partner.”


At least it was my wife. So I straddled Verna as she grabbed my hips and did my best and sober Chip and Dale’s routine. We laughed, I turned beet red, Verna egged me on, and we milked our brief moments in front of a friendly and raucous bar crowd as I thrust my pelvis and booty in her face.

Then Johnny brought up the six or seven men who’d bet on the women and had them sit at tables in front of them. Verna still had no sponsor and still didn’t want one.

Johnny paired the final six women into three groups. Verna was in the first duo with a woman who had on a loose-fitting gray tank top, her breast spilling out the sides.

Each woman had to dance and then the judges chose one of the pair. Verna went second and danced up a sultry, sexy storm. The crowd, led by a certain skinny-framed American, hooted and hollered. When she finished, her face flushed and sweaty, Johnny proudly clasped her hand above his head and said, “Girlfriend, you’ve got game. You can really move.”

Verna was clearly the oldest of the competitors, most of whom were in their 20s. Her “partner” had muddled her way through her dance, out of sync, slightly reminiscent of Elaine on Seinfeld. But the “judges” voted for only one contestant. In an extremely close vote, Verna was booted off the tequila soaked island, but not before Johnny ordered a round of tequila for the sisters, Verna, and me because she was such an excellent dancer. She was the only one he acknowledged so fervently.

“I lost out because I don’t have any breasts,” Verna said matter-of-factly when she returned to the table.

“You were by far the better dancer. You were awesome,” I said. “I think the judges were going for the slutty look as well. You just aren’t slutty.”

Verna’s face sparkled when she spoke to us about dancing and losing, but I could see she was disappointed.

However, when she saw what the three remaining women had to do with their male bettors, or jockeys if you will, she felt a bit better about losing. Each couple had 30 seconds to get into as many sex positions as possible. The last couple, with a guy who had a serious paunch, gyrated and hefted themselves into 11 positions before an adoring crowd and snared the $150, which probably made up for the mild public humiliation.

Before another bar wide conga line in which everyone gulped a shot of tequila, I paid $10 to be hoisted upside down by my ankles. My reward? Three shots of juice and tequila. I downed one and shared the other two with the sisters.

We left the bar at 12:40. Verna was way too pumped up to share a taxi ride with the sisters back to our resort, so we walked 20 minutes back to our room and slept until not quite 8 am.

We took our partying and penchant for zany contests to the sand and surf of Medano Beach on Thursday, the day before we had to depart Cabo. We walked 2.5 miles from our hotel under partly cloudy skies and parked ourselves on the sand chairs outside Billigan’s, located literally on the beach.

Billigan’s holds a series of contests throughout the day. Since they offer beer buckets, six bottles for $10, inebriation allows many beachgoers to ignore inhibitions and run wild and wacky.

Again, I was sober all day. I entered the day’s first competition, a Karaoke contest without words to sing by. We had to sing along with Los Lobos doing La Bamba. The first entrant, a woman from Mexico City, knew all the words in her native tongue Spanish. I figured she had it won hands down.

The second contestant never actually sang. She just mouthed the words. The guy before me, another American, sang OK but he was rather boring. I certainly didn’t know all the words but I figured, even though it was only 11:30 in the morning, I could shake and sizzle like Elvis on Ed Sullivan.

The winner was chosen by audience response. I was still convinced the senora from Mexico City would be the victor. I even clapped the loudest for her. But we’d made friends with a couple from Texas and there were several Americans clustered around them, so when my name was called, the crowd erupted. And I was the winner. The woman from Mexico City, her national pride wounded, audibly complained that the MC had cheated.

A waiter came over and delivered my prize, four frozen margaritas, two of which we shared with the couple form Texas.

Seventeen years earlier, on our honeymoon in Mazatlan, Verna won a dance contest on a party boat. After my victory in the singing contest had inadvertently stoked her competitive fires, she was determined not to leave the beach without another contest victory.

The next contest pitted a group of tourists against four waiters and waitresses in a margarita chugging match. Verna volunteered to be one of the four tourists and helped her team to victory.

I am sure we ate some food at that point, maybe even lunch, anything to soak up some of the alcohol. Even though the day began in the mid-90s, it was suddenly cooler and overcast with a few drops of rain. Cooler meant upper 70s. It was still quite pleasant.

The third challenge, for which Verna volunteered yet again, was a time trial. Each contestant had to dash to a table and swallow a shot of tequila, then run to spot near the beach and chug an entire bottle of beer. Then each person had to do ten revolutions around a stake in the sand before racing back to their seats.

The first two competitors, young women not older than 20, did pretty well, one was timed in 1:24 seconds, the other in 1:18. Verna was next and she breezed back to the stage in 66 seconds and was the new leader. The final entrant, a young man in his 20s, flew across the sand, even with one of the waiters, Jesus, who favored the oldest contestant, trying to obstruct him, in 65 seconds.

Just as he was declared the winner, Verna said, “I just want you to know you only beat me, someone who is old enough to be your mother, by one second.”

He looked as if he’d been kicked hard in the stomach. Moments later, the staff at Billigan’s brought in one last tourist, I think a professional drinker, and he ran the course in 57 seconds.

The off-duty waiter, Jesus, a finely chiseled Mexican with a nipple ring, who attempted unsuccessfully to champion Verna’s cause by grabbing her 22-year old rival, had also been making time with another American female, kissing her, grabbing her butt, and bumping and grinding his way to future ecstasy in full view of everyone for most of the afternoon.

Verna started talking with the two young women who’d been in the race with her and found out that the mother of one was also a breast cancer survivor. So the three of them bonded quickly and both girls hugged Verna repeatedly and couldn’t stop expressing their admiration for her. They were also friendly with Jesus.

At one point, he came over and noticed us looking at his chest, which had been shaven because he was an avid swimmer. He asked Verna, who’d been eyeing his nipple ring with curiosity, “Would you like to touch it?”

I jokingly made a move toward him and then Verna said, proudly, “I’ll touch yours if you touch mine.”

So he reached out to grab her and as he did Verna said, “I don’t have any!”

His hand stopped in mid-air, a baffled look on his face. Verna paused slightly enough to cause him a twinge of embarrassment before she explained why she had no nipples.

It turned out that Jesus often donated money to groups fighting breast cancer. Before he got up and returned to groping his buxom American, he hugged Verna several times and told her how much she inspired him.

As I recount the episode now, I am brimming with pride and tears for my wife, a truly amazing person. Verna told me on our jaunt back to the hotel that she was finally fed up with the in-your-face displays of T & A on the beaches, snorkeling cruises, and bars of Cabo. Her defiant gesture was for women everywhere who have felt the oppression of having to conform to a certain and usually impossible body image.

I thought Verna’s dare was priceless, but I also felt it was personally significant. Even though Verna still loathes looking at herself in the mirror each night, her gesture was really a very public affirmation that on some level she accepts who she is. It was a coming out party as Verna realized on some level that she’d conquered all the pain and emotional hardship she’d endured. That she could be bold and brazen about her body in public was, in my view, an unbelievable moment.

But in the immediate wake of her friendship with the two young women and her amusing confrontation with Jesus, Verna was unhappy that she hadn’t one any contests outright.

“I am not leaving this beach,” she stated, “until I win something.”

The fourth and final contest of the afternoon before the evening festivities, when Billigan’s runs another series of alcohol-fueled challenges, was, thankfully, alcohol-free. For all the drinking I didn’t do that afternoon, if there was ever a contest that needed copious amounts of any and all alcohol, the last one we entered was it.

The MC called for at least three couples. Verna and I plopped into a chair onstage, she in my lap. No one else got within 50 feet of us. The MC said he needed at least four more people to continue. Jesus dragged another woman over and I canvassed two people who thought they were going to enjoy a quiet snack of chips and guacamole.

“For this contest,” the MC explained, “each couple must run into the water, remove their bathing suits bottoms, switch them and then run ashore.”

Thank God Verna doesn’t wear a bikini. We were out of our seats faster than anyone, but Verna tumbled in the sand and I, right behind her, flew hands first over my wife. We lost a few seconds but quickly switched bathing suit bottoms and raced back to our seats. I was now wearing Verna’s swim shorts with a Velcro strip right down the middle. It barely covered my midsection. She had on my baggy Red Sox trunks.

Jesus, wearing a loose-fitting fuchsia bikini, and his partner arrived at their seats seconds before me, with Verna trailing just a bit behind me. The third couple was not even out of the water by the time the four of were back on the stage.

The MC announced that there’d be a dance-off between the top two couples, with the audience deciding the winner. Each guy had to booty lap-dance his companion. Again, Verna and I were at a distinct advantage because we were a real couple, so we didn’t have to hesitate—in theory—about thrusting our pelvises, twisting our torsos, or contorting any other body parts at or near each other.

I couldn’t stop laughing and neither could Verna. While she easily grasped my oversized (for her) bathing suit in her hands, I was doing a poor imitation of Elvis, fuzziness sticking out from the top of her water shorts.

The audience vote was close but the MC declared us the victors after two or three tense rounds of applause from both sober and inebriated beachgoers. Verna was ecstatic that she’d finally won a contest.

“Seventeen years ago on our honeymoon in Mexico, I’d won a dance contest,” she recalled to anyone within earshot who was still paying attention to the utter frivolity. “And now I’ve done it again.”

OK, so her competition back in 1991 had been a nine-year-old on a party cruise, and I aided her victory on the beach this time. But who was going to quibble? I certainly wasn’t going to prolong our competitive day. Yes, honey, was all I needed to muster; you are the champion.

And Verna was the champion for beating back cancer and reaching deep within herself and rising above her self-loathing; storming the beach and the pool and proclaiming to a select few newfound friends that she just wanted to have a little fun, enjoy herself and her body, and reclaim some of the joyful abandon she deserves.

Verna and I did go a little wild. But there was deeper message there, and it was basically something we shared privately on the sun-splashed tip of the Baja Peninsula that became our life-affirming nirvana for a week of bliss.

Strangers Among Us

The front page of this past Sunday's Hartford Courant, my hometown newspaper, featured an article about Dr. George Reardon, the former Chief of Endocrinology at St. Francis Hospital in Hartford, CT, who died in 1998 and has been accused of sexually brutalizing and photographing 500 children and adolescents.

Reardon lured his young patients into his perverted lair "after persuading their parents to enroll them in his human growth study", said the article.

The 90 plaintiffs now suing the hospital for possibly tens of millions of dollars claim Reardon forced them to pose for photographs in the nude or with other children in sexually suggestive ways, wrote the article's author, Edmund Mahony.

In addition, the subsequent owners of Reardon's home after his death, wrote Mahony, three boys whom Reardon described as foster children, discovered a secret cache of more than 50,000 pornographic slides and motion picture films hidden behind paneling inside the home.

I was a patient of Dr. Reardon's for nearly fifteen years, and was a participant in his study, with the approval of my parents.

When the story of Reardon's alleged and monstrous pedophilia first broke several years ago, I was shocked. I had a hard time believing that the avuncular and authoritative man who'd treated my hypothyroidism through puberty, adolescence, and into my early 20s was a sinister fiend.

He was tall, with huge hands, which often held a cigarette when he counseled my mother and me in his office, lined with medical books and journals. He spoke in soft and gentle tones, but you always felt he was in charge. He was the one my mother turned to when I had a serious bout of anxiety when I was 11 or 12. Reardon, a father figure, comforted me as I poured out my tears of shame. I can still see him behind his thick wood desk, glass topped, and me, seated in front, a jangle of nearly out of control emotions.

I can also still see and feel his fingers gently clasped around my throat as he repeated, "Sip, swallow," as he tested my thyroid while I drank a cup of water. He was patient.

I was about 15 when I entered his study, for which it appears he did secure grant money from the hospital, after my parents signed the appropriate waivers and protocol agreements. We had one or two sessions that I now recall. I sat, naked, on the examination table while he, standing at the opposite end of the room, photographed me in the dark, the absence of light necessary, Reardon said, for the specific type of growth documentation his was gathering for his study.

He never touched me during these nocturnal-feeling episodes. My parents and I accepted Reardon's explanation that my participation in his study would contribute to science. Years later, after I shared my story with a colleague, she wondered how photographing a nude teenage boy had anything to do with treating one's thyroid condition or documenting my growth.

I now know that included in Reardon's sick trove of pornographic photos and slides are pictures of an innocent and trusting young man who grew up in Bloomfield, CT. And I was obviously not alone. There were hundreds of young patients he attacked or photographed. But I was lucky. I was never a direct victim of abuse.

I ache with pain for the 90 adults who are now reliving their horrendous past with an alleged pedophile as they await the trial that could begin this week. St. Francis claims that the hospital was not only unaware of Reardon's nefarious research and behavior, but had also never received a complaint about him.

Reardon died 13 years ago, so I imagine he is burning (and I hope being tormented and tortured) for eternity. His victims are alive and probably struggling to integrate their awful experiences with Reardon and his kindly and calming demeanor.

I do not consider myself a plaintiff, nor do I know if the hospital is culpable. I only hope that justice is truly served. Reardon's alleged crimes and their aftermath, especially how he conned people into believing he was a dedicated medical professional, are scary to contemplate for me and reveal yet again that dangerous people can be successful at hiding their true selves.

Reardon's story at its fundamental core is about the abrogation of trust, and how a portion of my history has been ripped to shreds.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Viva la Revoluccion

Miguel and I anointed ourselves the world’s greatest wave jumpers and divers last week in the warm water of the white sands beach at Playa del Carmen, 41 miles south of Cancun.

“We are the only two in the world,” he added.

There may actually other wave jumpers and divers on the many shores of our planet, but as we frolicked in the turquoise waves, we imagined ourselves as the world’s sole practitioners.

“I’m number one and you’re number two,” said Miguel, his competitive spirit intact as we body surfed at Mamita’s Beach.

We spent a week in Mexico at the invitation of a friend from Wisconsin, who winters there with her four-year-old daughter every February in order to escape the frigid temperatures of the Midwest. When Anita, who visited us in San Rafael on the first night of Hanukkah, suggested we spend Miguel’s February break, known here as ski week, in tropical Mexico, my first thought was, “No way. We can’t afford it. It’s too much to pull together.”

Then I pondered her proposal later that evening and decided, “Why the hell not? After all we’ve gone through we deserve it.”

So we packed sunscreen, bathing suits, shorts, and sandals (yes, underwear, socks, and t-shirts, too), and flew down for a week of relaxation and few responsibilities.

One night we went to a circus, which featured one performer, a kind of jack-of-all trades who juggled, told jokes (mostly in Spanish), rode a unicycle, and performed a magic trick or two. Before we entered the tiny neighborhood theater, Miguel said, “I’m hungry. Let’s just go to dinner.”

I sensed, though, the show would be fun, so I gently insisted we go inside. Miguel was called onstage during the show and handed the performer four bowling pins to juggle while he was atop the unicycle. At the end of the week, Miguel said, “The circus was definitely one of the highlights.”

On our first day there, as Miguel and I almost lounged in the blue-green surf clear enough to see to the bottom, he and I said almost instantaneously, “I could do this forever.”

The weather certainly aided our sense that we’d never want to leave our Mayan paradise. Daytime temperatures hovered near 80 all week, and were in the mid-60s in the evenings. Pleasant breezes blew in off the ocean, cooling us as we lay on the sand, under umbrellas and on beach chairs.

When Maya first reached the ocean, she squealed with delight and jumped up and down for literally ten minutes. She was that excited. I only wished Verna could have been with us to see the smile of sublime joy stretched across her daughter’s face.

We drove forty minutes south mid-week to Tulum, a sort of hippy, counter-culture, sacred space, carved out of the forested coastline, and stayed at a hotel right on the beach. Coconut palm trees rustled outside our windows, creating the sound of rain whooshing up against the hotel room. Miguel and Maya jumped on a trampoline, and he and I tossed dried coconuts as if we were playing baseball.

Because there is virtually no ground light in Tulum, the luminescent canopy of stars under which we found ourselves at night was truly breathtaking. Miguel and Maya just smiled in awe. Maya said, “They’re all Mommy’s stars.”

During the week, we also ate tacos, I drank one margarita (my goal had been one a day), we saw a small fish dart by us in the ocean, and I watched Maya shake, rattle, and roll to a live blues band at the Bad Boys Bar on the beach.

It was a great, great, and memorable seven days, even if I only achieved status as the world’s second greatest wave jumper.