Nonfiction

She Waits, digital collage by gaye gambell-peterson

January

In October of 2022, my oncologist told me I could live for a year or two. As is my habit, I began keeping a journal. These are excerpts from a memoir-in-progress, A Year to Live?
January 1, 2023
Yesterday my three-year-old granddaughter G. and I were fooling around. She was in the bathtub making potions out of bubbles and food coloring and I was pretending to be a shark. I told her that when I was little I’d seen real sharks in the water off Cape Cod. 

“I was there, too,” she said, as if we’d been little together.

I couldn’t help but agree, and said yes.

January 2, 2023

When I was 30, I had a houseguest at the beach who was dying. She was a Zen priest, very beautiful, and probably in her early forties. She was the girlfriend of a friend. They came and spent a few days with me and my first husband, Robert.

I watched her cautiously, with a kind of awe. What did a person with limited time—she had a brain tumor—do? Turns out she went for walks, ate pasta, and read the thick shiny French Vogue left by another guest.

At first this seemed superficial. Vogue? Really? We didn’t talk much, as the three zennies carried the conversation with their shared history. Then she departed, fell mortally ill, was cared for by the boyfriend and community, and died. I was cynical about their relationship—did it seem perfect because it was limited, and therefore avoided all issues of commitment? I could see he loved her. I couldn’t see what she felt, not about anything.

I was obviously disposed to have opinions about a woman just because she was dying. Now of course I wish I could talk to her, if only a chat of half an hour.

January 3, 2023

Visited with C. and S., who live at the El Castillo retirement community. We often watch a Shakespeare play, but this time saw Red River. C. is pushing 80. She and S. seem accepting of my tumor news, and unalarmed. Basically they said: everyone here has something.

And I’m walking around, which I myself appreciate. It is pleasant just to go to the Co-op and buy a sandwich and chips. Not everyone can. And eventually I won’t be able to.

Being in El Castillo had a kind of normalizing effect that I really appreciated. 

January 4, 2023

I feel sad thinking about my house and possessions without me. The thought of my underwear after I’m dead is creepy. (I told my daughter Isabel to throw it out immediately.) There is something frightening about abandoned objects. And I’m afraid in some magical way that my soul will get trapped in the house. But how do I say good-bye to a house that has sheltered me for so many years?

January 5, 2023

I used to think: the dying person gets to decide. But after Robert died, I began to doubt. Why is the dying person in charge? Why not a team effort?

I was enjoying a pretty good book written by a dying woman, but eventually the Christian bias just turned me off. (I’m Jewish and a Buddhist.) There is the assumption that Christianity is normal, even universal, in its world view. It is not. 

Everyone seems to be keeping an eye on me, and hopefully on themselves.

My life, by design, has been low-key, low-maintenance, inexpensive, sustainable. One car. No dryer. Lots of time for writing, and children—my own and other peoples’. Simple food. Lots of books. Probably too many clothes. I like fun and color and low-key adventure—the allure of the quirky ordinary. How could my death be otherwise? Expensive, exciting, high-tech, noisy, dramatic… I think not.

January 6, 2023

I have the bad habit of driving the car before it is totally warmed up. I’m impatient. But as I wait for the car to warm up I often think of a drive I took in the San Luis Valley thirty years ago, when Isabel was a little girl. We were coming back from visiting Robert in the Zen monastery in Crestone, Colorado. It was so cold that the thermometer on the Toyota never warmed up. It stayed blue. I pulled into the gas station in Tres Piedres and the guy working there said there was nothing wrong with the car. It was really that cold. 

January 7, 2023

An old friend gave me a bag labelled “coffee.” Inside, serious painkillers, leftovers from other prescriptions. Some people might say this is not a good idea, but to me it was a beautiful gesture. DIY, I won’t leave you in pain. I really felt like a baby boomer, too, with other peoples’ drugs. 

January 8, 2023

Grainne Rose said “Grandma, do you have patience?”

I admitted: “Not much.”

“I found mine,” she said. 

It has been a big topic of late. Previously, Iz told G. to “hold your horses” and G. wailed “I don’t have ANY horses.” 

January 9, 2023

Falling asleep, I was grateful for my tears. 

January 10, 2023
still kale    
 
in the winter bed—
 
breast lump
January 11, 2023

Very confusing surgical consult with Dr. V., who feels a lumpectomy is as much treatment as palliation, and is very pro. She says oncologists have “rigid personalities” and that I will live much longer than Dr. L’s one-to-two-year prediction. On some level it all seems made up to me; it is fate, my life is in G-d’s hands, etc. etc. But I don’t mind her optimism. 

In her report, Dr. V. did note that my breasts are “large and pendulous.” Ha ha, who knew… I always thought they were perky and tiny and could fit into champagne glasses… 

  In knowing I have breast cancer, mostly doctors, other people, and even I are responding to the “cancer.” But what about “breasts”? I, like many others, have a whole autobiography in breasts. One minute I was flat-chested and a child running through the backyard sprinkler, then overnight what the world calls a woman—fair game on the street. In grade school, boys ran their fingers up and down our backs. If they found a bra strap, they’d snap it, chanting “The turtle goes up, the turtle goes down. Oops, it’s a snapper.” Behavior that hopefully would not be tolerated in today’s schools. 

January 12, 2023

Isabel has an amazing new tray for suminagashi—to print silk scarves. Long and narrow, with a drain, so you don’t have to carry trays of water tilting over and spilling. At hip level, so much easier on the back. And very beautiful long designs. She was printing another color level, kind of translucent over the more saturated patterns, and I did some too. Instantly rewarding.

January 13, 2023

An unfortunate experience buying fancy doughnuts. The cashier was a tall elderly man who seemed quite psychotic. He couldn’t use a coupon I had, became unhinged, and started screaming at me. I apologized, and he screamed louder. It was quite frightening. A bunch of Texans continued waiting, undeterred in the quest for doughnuts among the deranged inhabitants of New Mexico. 

  It turns out he is a homeless man who spends the day in the doughnut shop drinking free coffee. I imagine they are trying to give him a job, so I will not call the manager. I can’t imagine good will come of this, and although I’m usually proactive about homelessness in this neighborhood—referring to St. E’s shelter and raising money for them—I will leave this one alone (and hope no real violence occurs).

Yes, I did buy five doughnuts. But no, not with the coupon.

January 14, 2023
winter cold
 
knitting needles click
 
scarf’s first inch
January 15, 2023

Grainne Rose (almost 4) says “shitball.”

Isabel asks, “Where did you learn that?”

GR: “My imaginary cousins taught me.”

January 16, 2023

Got my booster valent inoculation against COVID. Was behind on that, but with surgery in a few weeks the timing is still good.

I’m a rude person, raised by rude people in a rude part of the world (NY/NJ). This has plagued me since I came to New Mexico a lifetime ago. And it is very difficult in medical situations. My first impulse is to yell or at least be snappish. I repress that, but then seem uptight and impatient. 

A few months ago I decided to try and be authentic. It does help. Today the clerk had a beautiful tat of a feather winding around his arm. I meant to compliment him, but he was quick, and I was seated before I could say anything. But I did thank the tech for the shot and for “helping our community.” That just popped out, unmeditated. Then a nice-looking old guy (a little older than me!) said “I like your coat!” Thank you, I smiled. It is a great coat—made from a colorful Pendleton design that I got at the flea market years ago.

It was nice in CVS, a place I usually dislike. 

January 17, 2023

The problem of what to read has been temporarily solved. A Place of Greater Safety, Hilary Mantel’s mighty tome about the French revolution, has come to hand. My friend Lucy lent it to me, and she is a great reader. We both liked the Cromwell novels. This one is 750 pages long. I can read about 50 pages an hour, so that is 15 hours, obviously spread out over some weeks. I’m already 150 pages in, mostly mesmerized. I sit in bed as light snow falls, but I’m somewhere else in time and space. For me, probably the greatest mercy life has to offer is reading. 

January 18, 2023
snowed in today, just
 
you, me, and the fat
 
resident mouse
 
melancholy—
 
closed food trucks in the snow
 
at dusk
January 19, 2023

I read a lovely essay in HuffPost by a physician in his fifties with a terminal cancer. He is a knitter, and has just kept knitting. Of course right now I’m knitting a little G.-sized pink scarf for G. (If she wants it. If not, it should look good on her Betsy Ross doll.) I liked the author’s naturalistic acceptance of death (although he did many treatments—the why of which is unclear). But my favorite take-away was that he has no bucket list. Nor do I. 

I love peak experiences, but I don’t think I need to spend a lot of money or travel far for them. First of all, it is gloriously beautiful here in northern New Mexico. I went to pick Isabel up across town and there were fifteen minutes of scary paralyzing snowstorm and fogged windshield. Now, dazzling and clear. Son-in-law Tim unclogged the toilet (again). I ate a small chocolate mint cookie. I have what I need. And for the moment, things and people and poems that need me have got me as well. 

My sister told me that our dad Eli had told her that if he was old and dying he’d want to see Chartres Cathedral one more time. I think for him architecture was a conduit to the divine (something he would never admit experiencing). But I can think of little worse than getting on a plane and being pushed around in a wheelchair in search of some Eurocentric experience. To each, of course, their own. My dad was sincere in his desire and knew what was important to him.

Recently (before I got sick) someone asked me what I wanted professionally—like a goal. “Like, to publish a poem in a certain magazine?’ they asked. I had to repress some sarcastic laughter. This seemed so limited. Of course I’ve gotten what I wanted—a life in the arts—and I get it every day. 

Many years ago a woman told me that she and her lover read my poems aloud to each other in bed. Was that my goal? No doubt. But I didn’t know it until it happened. 

January 20, 2023

When I was first diagnosed with a rare aggressive neuroendocrine tumor in my breast, a medical person I respect had advice to offer: “run, don’t walk, to a major medical center as you can’t get this treated in New Mexico.” And family members were also suggesting care in New York City or Boston. This did not appeal to me at all, and I fended this advice off. Interestingly, I was nonetheless networked to a doctor at NYU by someone who hoped I’d come east. But that doctor said, in no uncertain terms: “Do not come to NYU. I have never seen good outcomes from patients who travel.”

For many people, particularly when we’re older, having to leave home is itself a kind of tragedy or death. There is also, hidden in this, a false belief that really great medical care can prevent an inevitable death. And forgetting that this fancy medical care comes at a price—the very high intervention level of major centers. Not to mention losing home.

January 21, 2023

Dream: I am “living” in a beautiful white marble mausoleum. There is a corpse in there too, mildly disturbing. It is like a museum—restrooms, nice landscaping. Kath comes to see if I’d like to take an evening walk “back up,” but I decline. I go to sleep (yes, in the dream!) and wake up (in the dream) worried I’ll feel disoriented and frightened but I don’t. I feel fine. 

January 22, 2023

Very special treat—I’m alone in a hotel room all by myself. This is something I love to do, but haven’t had the energy for since I found the lump. I’ve just been clinging to my husband, Rich. But now, 20 hours alone. It is incredibly refreshing. But it makes me aware of just how extreme my fatigue is. 

January 23, 2023

I guess before I got breast cancer I was on the “my body my choice” path, and yet, because I’d been widowed years ago, I also did know that the patient’s choices affect the family. So… (current) husband Rich would have preferred that I try one round of chemo to see what would happen. I’ve got kidney disease and numerous co-morbidities, and I didn’t want to try chemo and end up on dialysis. I basically just didn’t want to do it at all. But I debated this for weeks, and sobbed all over my friend K. and asked, Is this going to be the last stupid thing I do for a guy? Which was pretty rude, because Rich is a very accepting and supportive person and was very mild in his approach and not even really asking me to do anything. But I just couldn’t not consider his feelings. And felt huge conflict. Then this extended to my daughter Isabel and to K. herself. It has been labor-intensive & sob-y but the four of us meet regularly as a “committee” and do a personal check-in and then deal with all medical info and issues. There are some divisions–Rich calls K. and Isabel “team hospice” and they call him “team I need more information”— but this has been amazingly good for me. 

I also have an “ethics” committee comprising a rabbi, a mediator, and a mystic; it is on call if anything super confusing comes up.

People kept saying—how can I help? So I put them on imaginary committees. Some are actually real—like the “Blessed Mother Prayer Group/Latina Writers Committee” and the “Suggested Reading Committee”—and some are just a joke, like the “Tell Me if I’m Crazy” one, which is just a therapist friend in California.      

January 24, 2023

A confession—I’ve visited Mayo’s chat rooms. I don’t quite approve, wallowing in a crowd-sourced medical world. However, the administrators are good. They moved me from the breast cancer forum to neuroendocrine (interesting, since no doctor sees that). And one admin said something that really touched me, along the lines that my choice not to do chemo isn’t eccentric and that it is important to “honor” my body in treatment as well as out. This was kind of news to me. I mean, I wouldn’t have put it that way, but it makes sense.

January 25, 20023

Isabel and I marbling black sumi ink on top of scarves she has already dyed a beautiful blue with indigo. I’m her assistant, and when I drop a splash of black ink by mistake I’m as embarrassed as if this were a real position! But it all looks beautiful. The long tray makes all the difference. 

January 26, 2023

I can’t help but wonder if this was a premonition: a blog piece that I published on May 11, 2022, entitled “Looking for my Grave.” Here it is:

I went by the cemetery, plot deed in hand. Turns out I needed an appointment with the map expert. It’s hard to find an empty plot, apparently, as usually things are filed under the names of the deceased.

I own three pieces of land: my house, the Poetry Yard lot, and 1 1/2 plots in the Jewish section of the local graveyard. I’d never seen my grave, so I went in search of it.

On my second visit I sat in a broken chair, got back up to admire what I thought was a santos but was really Doña Sebastiana adorned with butterflies, and met with the pleasant woman who knew the location.

A short walk, and she left me in the Shalom section. Here, I know some people, although there are many I don’t-—kind of like walking into synagogue. It is pleasant enough. Unspectacular view, not much of interest, but fine.

Yet I felt a rush of pure relief, even happiness, on finding my resting place. Northern New Mexico has been my home since I was 30. Although sometimes I’m fed up with it, I’m relieved to never have to leave.

My non-religious parents were cremated. So was my first husband—he, a Zen Buddhist ordained monk, chose that for religious reasons.

Until recently, I wasn’t sure exactly why I want to be buried. But I’m realizing that the crematoriums of the Holocaust haunt me. I’m a restless person, but for eternity I want to stay put. With other Jews. Here in New Mexico. 

January 27, 2023
breast cancer clinic
 
every woman’s eyes lowered
 
to her phone
January 28, 2023

Speaking of foreshadowing—I just found this poem I wrote on my sixtieth birthday, at a nice weekend with Rich in Pagosa Springs. The title is “Waiting for Someone?” And it starts: “I packed for my death/ as for a day at the beach.” And here is the last stanza:

I’m going to meet you, my death,
at a fern bar on upper Polk Street
and after a few drinks
see if you will have me back
after all, you loved me once–
I have the scar to prove it.
January 29, 2023

Concert in Albuquerque, land art show at museum (Kiki Smith the most appealing), Greek food. Always heartening

January 30, 2023

Day from hell. Getting pre-lumpectomy tests, radiologist decides on another biopsy in a different breast quadrant. (It proved benign some days later.) 

January 31, 2023

Sometimes I find another person within me, a kind of avatar, or character.

When Robert died and I was widowed, I felt I was channeling a Russian Jewish immigrant lady on the lower East Side. Tough and practical. A widow. Looking out for her children. Ready to remarry. An eye out for a kind competent man. Not sentimental or committed to grief. 

Now I feel within me a nineteenth-century farm wife, maybe in the territories. She is sick and suspects she will die. She doesn’t want to leave a mess. She is busy get things in order—savings, the farm, one good pair of garnet earrings. She is looking out for the family, worried about how they will live without her but also trusting that they will manage. She has her burial plot. Again, practical and unsentimental, but not unfeeling.

These women are out of history. They are not today’s narcissists. Aware of death, and how life flourishes on well-arranged ordinary things. And looking at this—a progression over 25 years—I think I’ve become more of a New Mexican.

To both—thank you. 

 

Bios

Miriam Sagan is the author of over thirty books of poetry, fiction, and memoir. Her most recent include Castaway (Red Mountain, 2023) and A Hundred Cups of Coffee (Tres Chicas, 2019). She is a two-time winner of the New Mexico/Arizona Book Awards as well as a recipient of the City of Santa Fe Mayor's Award for Excellence in the Arts and a New Mexico Literary Arts Gratitude Award. She works with text and sculptural installation as part of the mother/daughter creative team Maternal Mitochondria (with Isabel Winson-Sagan) in venues ranging from RV parks to galleries. She founded the creative writing program at Santa Fe Community College, and directed it until her retirement.

gaye gambell-peterson, 84, dances with two muses. Her collages are widely displayed in the St Louis region, often with a poem alongside. Her collages also serve as companions to the poems in her chapbooks: pale leaf floating and MYnd mAp. She gets enough positive attention to keep both dances going.

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