Friday, October 5, 2012

When I Was Not Writing

I don't know about you, but I missed me. After having done so weekly for about six years, three weeks have now passed since I've written here. My decision to scale down the blog from weekly to monthly was ostensibly to allow more time for other writing projects. But, except for a couple of postcards, the additional writing I'd envisioned is, as of yet, unwritten. My usual writing days have been spent in Hawaii and then in a dental chair having some teeth yanked. Despite having good excuses it does feel weird not to conclude each Friday by posting a piece of writing.

I bring a manuscript about my family on the plane and get through about a hundred pages of a final edit. I've done lots of piecework but it has been many months since I considered these 160 pages as a whole book. When the plane lands at the Lihue airport I feel the presence of my parents and sister more than I have in a long time. Our trip is to join my niece Cari in celebrating the successful completion of a grueling course of chemo and radio therapy for the treatment of breast cancer. She has rented a large comfortable house right on the ocean, and very eager to please us, has carefully planned an itinerary. Cari is the daughter of my sister Sheri. She was adopted and raised by another family and came back into our lives about thirty years ago. She lives in Gold Rush Country and we only see her and husband Mike a couple times a year. Their daughter Marlene and Kevin join us in Kauai. Now that both of my parents and sister are gone and other relatives have drifted away, my kids, Cari, and Marlene are the only blood relatives I have in my life. I step off the plane with the tale of my parents and sister very fresh and then spend a concentrated few days with my sister's daughter and granddaughter.

Cari and Marlene have felt like family for a long time but it is nearly Gothic, how thrown together in a big house this intensifies. How right it feels to be with people whose mealtime conversation is devoted mainly to planning the next meal. I am hard on my sister Sheri in my manuscript and the time with Cari inspires some adjustments. Sheri loved to eat and she loved to drive. Where I am more conservative and timid, like my Mom, Sheri lived to have fun. There were many times she'd swoop down on Fulton Avenue and rescue me. We'd have a meal and drive around. I am a terrible car passenger, always pounding an imaginary brake until my leg is numb. Sheri, however was an incredibly confident driver. I was always safe when she was behind the wheel. I don't think I'd ever driven with Cari. She's rents a ginormous van and takes us all around the island. She maneuvers it expertly, just like her birth mother Sheri. How grateful I am to have been able to sit in the backseat and totally chill, cruising through some of the most beautiful scenery the planet has to offer.

Himself has covered the Hawaii trip in exquisite detail on his own blog so I haven't much to add except for my own take on the epic kayak trip. We discover we've been enrolled for a prepaid excursion. Himself, having always had a fear of sunshine is stricken and in a state of grim resignation. Anticipating that during five days in Hawaii, particularly as house-guests, it will be difficult for him to avoid the sun as assiduously as he does at home, I purchase Neutrogena 100 SPF Sunblock for him. My beloved pessimist is convinced that the lotion will prove ineffective and he will be hospitalized on life support with third degree burns. Just to make clear that Himself holds no hegemony on neurosis in our relationship, I have a lifelong aversion to any physical activity other than walking on a flat, smooth surface and also to wearing a bathing suit.

Our kayak trip and waterfall hike has been advertised as fine for toddlers and grandmas. My niece Marlene is more than a little pregnant but this too apparently is no counter-indication. The kayaks are unloaded at the pier. Instructions on piloting a kayak are delivered at a speed that would have give a run for the money to that fast talking guy who did the old Fed Ex commercials.

Marlene and I relieve our (pregnant and old, respectively) bladders and some of the kayaks have already launched when we return to the pier. Cari and Mike have already embarked. Instantly, they capsize. The kayak floats down the river and Cari and Mike, up to their necks, tread water. A staff member on the pier muses, “Gosh, we haven't had one tip over in about six weeks.” Marlene's husband Kevin reports, that for him, the image of the calamity that's most resonant is the expression on my face. Himself confesses to me later, that despite his concern about Cari and Mike getting dumped into the river, he harbors a ray of hope that now the whole mission will now be aborted. I am absolutely on the same page.

Cari and Mike are intrepid and undaunted though. I am not being hyperbolic and it has been borne out by experience, again and again; I am the least coordinated person on the planet. Himself, for all his intellectual nimbleness, comes in second. Cari and Mike, who are at least cheerful and enthusiastic about the activity, can't manage to stay afloat. We are so fucking doomed. My inner voice screams, “Moron, just bow out now and you won't die,” but we are guests and I am determined to be a good sport. I am in a bathing suit (God bless Land's End for designing a suit bottom that is closer in design to shorts, not one of those skirt things that bisect your thighs at their flabbiest point) and about to get into a kayak. We have been instructed that the heavier person needs to sit in the back and take responsibility for steering. Guess who that is. Every aspect of this situation is tantamount on the humiliation scale to farting loudly at the communion rail. Himself, who does not pride himself on his athletic prowess and is still almost catatonic in the anticipation of fatal sunburn, is equally glum.

We are guided into the kayak and handed an oar. The little bit of instruction we were able to absorb is mostly misheard and I have the impression that only a portion of the oar is to be immersed in the water. We are stuck in the bushes a number of times. Voices are raised. A fellow kayaker instructs us how to brake. Then, we brake repeatedly and are never able recover any sort of momentum. Marlene and Kevin glide ahead of us. Very soon the six other kayaks in the group have long passed and are out of sight. Only Cari and Mike are behind us, under the close supervision of the leader. They capsize two more times. Cari begs to be allowed to swim and is refused. Mike ends up riding with the leader and Cari and her kayak are towed behind. They are much better sports than we would have been.

The plan is that the brief kayak trip is followed by a short hike to a waterfall. The river seems endless and when we finally reach the trail the other kayakers have been waiting about an hour. The waterfall stroll is actually through pretty dense jungle and requires wading over slippery rocks to cross, what the same people who invited toddlers and grannies refer to as, a “stream.” Again, we are at the end of the pack and require a disproportionate amount of the leader's attention. The leader is a native. She has no body fat that I can discern and is barefoot. I hate her. I suggest on the ride home that anyone so buff and beautiful must be stupid. I am corrected by Mike and Cari, who having spent a lot of time with her as she propelled them up and down the river, learn that by day she teaches Algebra and Music. Two other things I suck at. My antipathy exceeds hated.

The waterfall trek is five miles round trip. Due to klutz-related delays the picnic/waterfall swim portion of the journey is abridged although I do manage to make it over some very treacherous rocks and swim a bit under a waterfall. Himself stays on the shore, drinks a beer and applies another heavy slather of sunblock. The swimming hole risk is totally gratuitous and I am emboldened by having taken the plunge. On the hike back to the river I keep up with the pack by following a young guy and mirroring his every step. Helen Reddy belts “I Am Woman” in the back of my mind.

There are headwinds and the kayak trip back down the river is arduous. We have learned however how to work in rhythm and as exhausting as the return journey is, there are fewer terrifying moments this leg.. We even relax enough to take in the spectacular scenery. We remain behind the others and toward the end fatigue sets in. The pier comes into view and by then we are just too exhausted to steer. The rest of the group think we backed the kayak into the slot on purpose but it is just dumb luck we make it there at all. We never would have agreed to participate in this trip if we'd known what was entailed. But having survived and actually pretty much enjoyed the experience, is a memory I will always cherish. Plus, the sunblock is 100% effective as Himself is still as pasty as ever.

The rest of the trip is less dramatic, having survived the ordeal we happily succumb to good food and beautiful scenery. I return to spend two days in the office and then travel to Loma Linda to have some teeth extracted. This is a few miles from Joe College's college and he is my designated caregiver. He drives me to my motel, fills my prescriptions and picks up provisions for a liquid diet. I am acutely aware of the role reversal and delighted by his graciousness and competence but I keep my trap shut. The boy hates it when I blather on about stuff like that. I spend two nights at the motel. One night actually would have sufficed but as I am unable to wear a front tooth flipper for two days so I decide to lay low. The second day the boy and I do some shopping in Redlands where missing front teeth are less conspicuous.

I guess one good thing about not writing so regularly is that there's more to write about when I do. And when I was not writing I spent time with Cari and her family. I am reminded that the turmoil and grief my sister caused shouldn't overshadow what I loved about her. And when I was not writing Himself and I rowed in rhythm and traversed the jungle, all without sunburn. And when I wasn't writing I was nursed and cared for by my own son. And when I wasn't writing I felt so incredibly lucky that I couldn't wait to return to my keyboard here and express my gratitude.
Shabbat Shalom

Note: Himself is always scrupulous about crediting photos and artwork he uses.  I am too lazy but I will note the photograph I used above, and so many other wonderful family photographs we've treasured over many years, was taken by the talented Mike Maginot.