“Are You Okay?”

I am no Florence Nightingale.  In fact, while I am consistently spectacular in an emergency, I am not the one you want around when anyone is germy. messy or gross in any way.  (Truth: during my pregnancies I prayed for a healthy child – preferably one who did not vomit.  A wish that was granted.) Give me a surgical procedure, a broken limb or a frightening diagnosis and I am your girl.  Apparently word is out about that skill as evidenced by my having come eye to eye with two medical emergencies in as many weeks (neither of which, thankfully, involved vomit, germs or anything gross).

The first happened two weeks ago early in my five-hour shift manning the registers at work.  A woman who looked to be in her early 70’s (who told me, mid episode that she was 87…a lie) approached me and seemed to be a little bit out of it.  I thought little of it (obviously I thought something of it) until she started looking like rubber and attempted to hold onto the counter in an attempt to remain vertical.  I asked her if she was okay (doh) and she could neither focus on me nor speak a coherent sentence.  My recollection of my father’s strokes* came into clear view and I asked her if she could smile.  She could not.  Nor could she repeat a simple sentence.  I radioed for help (see, those headsets we wear in retail can come in handy) and proceeded to call 911.  The dispatcher instructed me to ask the customer to smile (she could not) and to repeat a sentence (she could not)(but I already knew that).  Within moments, the paramedics arrived with a crisp white-sheeted gurney quickly assessing the situation.  I asked the woman if she had a cell phone and in a moment of complete clarity she found her husband’s number which I promptly called.  I reported to him that I was with his wife and that she was having a medical emergency.  Not surprisingly, he was shocked and began to shoot questions at me which I was unable to answer.  I passed the phone to the EMT who explained to him that his wife was having a “neurological episode” and that they would be taking her to the nearest hospital.  They scooted her off; I squeezed her hand and wished her well.  They left and I became suddenly exhausted.  I have not been able to get her out of my mind since.

In the time since this happened, her daughter has called the store three times trying to thank me.  It was not until today that I was there when she called and had an opportunity to speak with her and learn how her mom was doing.  She began the conversation by thanking me and telling me that I saved her mother’s life and, further, that I should understand what that meant: Her mother had four children, six grandchildren and an enormous cadre of friends and loved ones.  Had she continued on her way without intervention, she would have been driving and it most assuredly would not have ended well.  She went on to tell me that her mother was now home from rehab and doing remarkably well given the circumstances.  I was thrilled to have the opportunity to talk to her and felt tremendous relief in knowing that her mother is going to be okay.

As I returned to work, I acutely felt my father’s presence.  I knew that he was proud of me for doing the right thing and still rocking an emergency with the best of them.  He and I had had fun with my emergency skills when he was sick (as much fun as you can have with Stage 4 lung cancer, that is) and the memories of those times are sweet.

I wear a bracelet of his which my brother discovered just after his death.  It, as it turns out, had been a Bar Mitzvah gift which he had never worn (he was not a jewelry-wearing kind of guy) but had, in his trademark sentimental way, held onto it all those years.  It gives me constant comfort and reminds me that he is with me.  Just the other day (again, at the registers) a customer of my parents’ generation noticed it and we had a conversation about what a meaningful item it is for me to have.  I often forget that I even have it on, but, not infrequently, someone asks about it.  I do not think it is a coincidence that this exchange occurred at the precise spot where so much seems to happen on my watch.

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So today, after the phone call from Patient 1’s daughter, I went back to the selling floor, feeling uplifted and relieved.  It meant more to me than I had expected to hear from this family and to know that I had made a difference in their lives.  And…that feeling was quickly eradicated by my next victim, er, customer heretofore known as Patient 2.

I was at the tail end of ringing up her large order which included many small items.  As I was bagging the products I noticed that she was growing pale (as in the color was draining from her face) and she, reminiscent of Patient 1, was looking rubbery as she was grabbing onto the counter for support.  And then her eyes started to roll back in her head.  “Are you okay?” I inquired again.  I did not ask her to smile, but did run around to grab her before she hit the ground.  I quickly radioed “I’ve got another medical emergency” and grabbed a chair for her to fall into.  I placed my hand on her (sweaty) back and felt her heart pounding so hard that I was quite sure it was going to bust out and land in my hand.  (Had that happened, I might not have been such a great person to have around.)  I instructed her to put her head between her knees (who am I?) and secretly prayed that she wasn’t going to barf.  (What?  I am just keeping it real.)  She told me that it was her heart and she was in AFib** which I knew as my father had the same issue, although had never had an attack like this.  Fortuitously, there was a bag of chocolate behind the counter (it had been a late night at the store the night before and those working were keeping themselves sugared up) which I offered her for a sugar hit and she told me that would be perfect.  She gobbled the mini Hershey bar, downed a pill with a cup of water that one of my colleagues appeared with and we sat together for fifteen minutes or so.   She slowly regained her color and assured me that she was fine.  (Glad she was fine!)  I accompanied her and her purchase (all $303 worth) to her car where she thanked and hugged me.

As each of these incidents was happening I was cool as a cucumber.  I was in control.  I was grateful to my father (in a twisted sort of way) for having had both of these medical conditions and somehow preparing me for what to do.  I was grateful that he was wrapped around my wrist, holding me erect and giving me the strength that I always seem to forget I have.  I know he is with me all the time.  He only knew George, but Jessie has the same twinkle in his eye that my dad did – something that is not lost on me.  They both give me strength.  They, and these emergencies, serve as a reminder to never underestimate the impact you might have on someone else’s life.

I am thrilled that both Patient 1 and Patient 2 are doing well.  I am praying to G-d that there is no Patient 3.

*His first one saved his life, if only temporarily, as it led to the discovery of his lung cancer, the second took his life.  Yeah, I’ve noted the symbolism.

**Atrial Fibrillation: a common heart rhythm disorder.

photo creds to Grace Guterman, my other daughter.

Really, Lady?

If not for the fact that I have a transgender (or at least a gender non-conforming*) child, I might not even have taken note of the remark.  Or, if I had, I would have put little (read: no) thought to it.  But I do have a transgender (or at least a gender non-conforming) child and I did (and still do, apparently) put thought to it.

The other day at work, a gentleman who was,  to be perfectly frank,  dressed in what I would refer to as Euro-Faggy manner (don’t send me angry comments for using that expression…no malice or judgment intended.  Okay, maybe a little bit of judgment, but no malice.) His hair had clearly been styled – no wash and wear for him; his eyeglasses were round, tortoise-shell and expensive.  His outfit had not been thrown on in haste; rather it had been carefully orchestrated.  His feet were covered by shoes most likely acquired from Bloomingdale’s, Barney’s or Louis’ and the leather jacket he wore did not come from TJ Maxx.  He approached me, leaned in and inquired as to the whereabouts of the ladies’ room.  It struck me as slightly odd, but not the craziest thing I had ever heard.  I pointed in the direction of the facilities and off he went.

Sometime later, he approached the registers to make his purchase, this time with a woman (who seemed to be cut from the same clothe as he: add to his ensemble eminently colored hair, large diamond rings, perfectly manicured nails and an attitude of entitlement which, unfortunately for her, was discernible from a mile away.)  I smiled and commented to him that I was glad to see he was with a woman (as he had asked for the ladies’ room as opposed to the restroom which, in my experience, anyway, are usually side by side – so if you ask where the men’s room is, chances are that the ladies’ room will be right there…right?) He initially gave me a blank look, and then realized what I was referring to, smiled and patted his companion’s shoulder.  Everyone has a little chuckle, ha ha ha, end of story.  Not so fast.

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After slightly more than a pregnant pause, the woman made a comment in a slightly louder than stage whisper: “we still have to use separate ones…thank G-d”.  This statement, with more than an air of disgust in her tone, was followed by an eye roll and an abrupt turn on her Stuart Weitzman boots.

Wait, what?!?

How did this silly, innocent exchange devolve into something that made me want to cut another person?  No, not cut…whack her upside the head, perhaps.  Nah…trip her so she falls in mud.  What was happening for her that her mind even went there?  Does she know someone grappling with a gender identity issue?  Is she (or he) that person? Has she been assailed by an androgynous person?  Did she have a bad bathroom experience?  Or is she just an uptight bitch with a bad attitude and hair across her ass?  Doesn’t much matter, I suppose.  What is more noteworthy is my visceral reaction…one which, if I am being honest, I likely would not have had about two years ago.  I am quite sure, in fact, that I might not even have thought much about it at all.   But now, it kinda pissed me off.  It kinda made me want to go after her and ask her what her issue was, why she cared and if she knew anyone like my kid.  (I resisted all these urges since I like my job and want to keep it.)

It has been a few days since this exchange (which, it should be noted, lasted about three nanoseconds) and I am still thinking about it.  I grasp the concept not understanding the world of gender non-conformity, but I do not grasp being hateful about it.  Now, to be fair, while I do not know (nor care to know) this particular woman, I do know her type.  I choose not to get beyond hello with her nasty entitled ilk, mostly because I find them of little value.  But I did feel the Norma Rae in me, raging to get out and level her, I mean, have a meaningful conversation with her about what exactly her fucking issue is.  Alas, I did not do so, but, as you can see, I am still ruminating over it.

I am not really sure what that says about me and my state of mind, but it reminded me how ferocious a mother’s love and protection of her kids goes – no matter which bathroom they use.

*Yes, I am aware that I am using the term “gender non-conforming” more and more…

True Green Crysto-Mints

Although he had quit smoking twenty-five years before his lung cancer diagnosis, it is fair to say that cigarettes played a significant role in my father’s death at age 68.  As a kid growing up, I always knew him to be a smoker: True Greens to be more specific.  He carried them in his briefcase (alongside the six  rolls of Cryst-O-Mint Lifesavers) and, on the weekends, in the pocket of his shirt.  They would live on his bureau in the evening, ripe for pilfering by his teenage children.  (Not that I ever did that…) It was so much a part of our lives that I thought it was perfectly normal to run into the neighborhood White Hen Pantry (as a ten-year old) to buy them for him while he waited in the car.  Oh, sure, he kept threatening to quit (in response to our pleading him to do so), but it took a while.  He finally did in 1981.  It was not until 2003 that it caught up with him.

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Growing up, at the end of dinner every night, he would push his chair from the table, lean back, re-cross his legs from whichever direction they were in and enjoy a cigarette, sometimes two,  right there at the table.  It was a ritual at the same family meal during which we had the following non-negotiable rules: no one could start to eat until my mother was seated, there would be no answering the phone* and, finally, no one left the table until everyone was done eating.  Family time was extremely important to my father…ironic that he spent part of it slowly killing himself.

Strange, though; while it is seldom that I am in the company of a smoker, when I am, I find myself taken back to my childhood and, oddly enough, loving the smell of the nicotine or tar or whatever it is that makes the smoke smell the way that it does.  It brings me instantly back to my father, our family dinners and outings and, sadly enough, the horrible habit which ultimately killed him.  It strikes me, each and every time, that my reaction is one of happiness, pleasure and nostalgia not one of anger or disgust.  One would think I would find it repellent, disgusting and infuriating, but, alas, I do not.  In fact, I have found myself slowing down while passing a smoker on the street, just to grab a quick whiff of the familiar scent.

True, too, for strong mints.  The Cryst-O-Mints which he sucked on feverishly were an effort to keep his breath pleasant.  (Said breath challenge was a direct result of smoking habit.  Duh.) They were particularly pungent and I recall, as a kid, trying like hell to get through a whole one, but not being able to get past just how strong they were.  Now, when I catch wind of a strong peppermint smell, I get the same feeling as I do with the cigarette smoke.  Brings me back.

This all makes me think about my own kids and to wonder what childhood smells, when they are adults, will bring them back to being a kid.  What negative will wind up a positive?  What is staying with them in ways that I cannot possibly begin to imagine?

Just wondering…

What’s So Funny?

They say that comedians are among the most complex and unhappy folks around.  I buy that.  I would not consider myself to be especially unhappy (which is why I am not a comedian) but I do believe that the most fucked up things are often the funniest.

One of the many lessons that my father taught my brothers and me was to never lose our sense of humor.  It has served me well, particularly over these past nine years* where I have had to call upon it more often than I care to recall.  It has been noted (by me) that the funnier I get, the worse things are.  Those close to me will confirm this to be true.  Those who do not know me well often think I am not taking things seriously enough.  It is how I cope.  And, further, if you don’t like it, I am pretty much unsure what to even say to you.

I took this picture of my father at a camp visiting day in the late 70s.  He was nearly ten years younger than I am now.  I have moved it with me every place I have lived.  It is my very favorite picture of him ever.

I took this picture of my father at a camp visiting day in the late 70s. He was nearly ten years younger than I am now. I have moved it with me every place I have lived. It is my very favorite picture of him ever.

Sometimes just listing the issues that are front and center will reduce me to giggles (not to mention eye rolls and sighs).  Other times, I will definitely find something funny about oh, I don’t know…an amputation or mutilation.  While not generally an optimistic person (stupid half empty glass) I can always find a place to insert a joke or two, often to the dismay of those in my company.

Take, for example, the kick-off of my decade of crap (see if you can follow this…): the week that I was diagnosed with breast cancer my father was already deep in the throes of treatment for his lung cancer and my father-in-law went into hospice, passing away days later.  Oh, yeah, and someone (who, it turned out, was a friend of my parents…awkward!) drove (tore is more like it) through the parking lot of the neighborhood shopping area, taking off the driver’s side mirror and crushing the door of my two-day-old car.  And did I mention that George** was already showing signs of being a, shall we say a challenging child?  Even as it was happening, I couldn’t help myself from cracking jokes and laughing.  It was either that or I was going down and fast.

Jessie, thankfully, has inherited my coping mechanisms.  Her sense of humor is intact a good 95% of the time and she isn’t afraid to use it.  And, thank G-d, she appreciates and accepts my wisecracking…even when it may appear (to the outside world) that I am being wholly unsympathetic to her situation.  Case in point: this weekend we were driving to get second holes pierced into each of her ears.  (Let that wash over you for a moment.  It would have brought me to my knees a year or so ago, but now I am down with it and am armed with the knowledge that she can either enjoy them for life or, should anything in her life “change”, let them close up.  Not something I am stressed over.  Props to me!)  In the car she (randomly) commented that it is annoying that no one know how to spell her name: Jessy? Jessie? Jesse?  Without skipping a beat, I responded by saying, “hmmm…there is only one way to spell George.”  Now, I know that there are folks who will consider that to be a mean, provocative and/or insensitive thing for me, the supportive mom of a transgender kid, to say.  But (and this is important), we looked at each other, she got a twinkle in her eye and smiled.  She got it.  Even better, she thought it was funny.

Similarly, last week while walking through a parking lot, she commented that a car looked like a penis and wasn’t that weird?  “No weirder”, I responded, “than the fact that you have a penis”.  Again, a twinkle, a gentle slug to the shoulder and a smile.  Now there is a kid with a sense of humor.

It is not lost on me that her response and reaction to my particular brand of humor is a gift.  Nor do I take for granted that I can impart my anxiety (see above: the funnier I get, the worse things are) by making comments and asides that might be offensive to some.  I don’t mean to be hurtful, I just mean to cope.

When my father was sick he would watch hour after hour of “Seinfeld” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm” re-runs, never tiring of seeing the same episodes over and over (and over) again.  He would crack up at the same jokes, no matter how many times he had heard them.  Sitting in the family room, bald and grey-pallored from chemo, he would be genuinely happy, mostly because he was laughing.  He knew that he was dying from lung cancer, but still managed to never lose his sense of humor.  Once, when his doctor ordered an “emergency” (read: he had to be squeezed into the schedule) CT scan he was growing inpatient having to wait his turn.  He implored me to do something and I dramatically looked around the room, made direct eye contact with him and reported that I was powerless.  I could not “play the cancer card” because everyone in the room had cancer…he was no one special.  The two of us burst out laughing, much to the horror, I am sure, of everyone around us.  It was like the episode of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” when Chuckles the Clown died and Mary was unable, at his funeral, to control a case of the giggles.  Sometimes that is just the way it goes.

I have had a bumpy few weeks.  I have cracked a lot of jokes.  I have been in ERs trying to silence my laughter and on phone calls covering the mouthpiece so as not to be heard snickering inappropriately.  Oh, I know…there is a fine line between laughing and crying.  That said, I always feel better after laughing my ass off.   Not so much after crying my head off.

Life is short, precious and often annoyingly difficult.  Maintaining your sense of humor won’t likely fix a damn thing, but it can sure make things easier to take, if only for those few silly moments.  Try to find the humor in something, anything, today…I hope I will.

*It has been nine years (November 18 to be exact) since my cancer diagnosis which marked the start of a series of traumas, deaths, illnesses and other various and sundry life events.  Fun stuff.

**Name choice intended.