06 March 2007


Today, I read two paragraphs from "Life's Journeys According to Mister Rogers", and I know my eyes were supposed to fall upon them...

"I saw a friend who's a freelance writer and asked him what he was working on. 'Nothing right now,' he answered. 'You know how it is for freelancers. But at times like this I tell myself I'm 'between opportunities.' That way I don't have to feel I'm nowhere.'

"There's often a tendency for us to hurry through transitions. We may feel that these transitions are 'nowhere at all' compared to what's gone before or what we anticipate is next to come. But you are somewhere...you're 'between'". ~ Fred Rogers

I like that - to look at "between" as a place all by itself. I am there. I'm hanging out in "between".

Today I visited the UPS Store because I had to mail a certain daughter her winter coat and some mail that had been delivered for her. After I filled out the shipping form, I asked the proprietor who is a warm, lovely gentleman, if he had any passport renewal forms - my passport runs out next month and I figured, why not attend to something BEFORE the expiration date and actually be proactive? Besides, you just never know when you might need to leave the country on very short notice! It happens when you least expect it.

Anyway, he handed me the form and asked me if I wanted to go ahead and have my passport photo taken. "Sure", I said, "but only if you can make me look ten years younger.". He was kind enough to say that wasn't necessary and, if it was acceptable to tip men who own UPS Stores, I most surely would have slipped this sweet man something.

So I sat for my photo and tried to do everything in my power not to look like the total dork that I am, even though I believe that, ultimately, it resembled a mug shot. Since it would take five minutes for the photo to develop, I went ahead and started filling out the passport renewal application. As I was doing this, a man came in the door and approached the counter and asked my buddy if the address he had on the official looking envelope was sufficient to ensure delivery. The owner looked at it and said, "Well, is there a building number? Duke University is a big place, you know.".

"But I have it on here, it's to go the 'The Brain Tumor Center' - it's a very specific building.".

"Well, that is probably good enough, but let me check online to see if there is a more specific address.", said my friend.

I never thought about it until that moment, but I swear I could tangibly touch the fear that was standing among us at that counter. At first, I tried to simply focus on my passport paperwork and not appear as if I was listening, but there's no way I could NOT listen because this conversation was taking place about five feet from where I stood.

And I felt it. The patron wishing to mail his envelope to Duke was polite, but I could feel the trepidation and dread. The urgency. He said several times, not in a "difficult to deal with" manner, but in a tone that demonstrated how important it was that his parcel be delivered to the right place and that it arrive tomorrow.

"I have an appointment there tomorrow and they will need this before I get up there.".

The owner certainly understood the necessity and by now was trying to do his best to make sure he had all of the correct information. I stood there and finally, I found myself looking up at the man who was sending the envelope and when my eyes met his, he seemed glad that I'd looked over. And before I knew it I heard myself saying something I had no plans to say but it spilled right out of me. In fact, I was shocked myself that I even remembered the doctor's name and thank God it was the right one!

"Dr. Henry Friedman runs that place. He's the Director of the Brain Tumor Center. He's fantastic - a very kind man and a brilliant doctor. Good choice.".

I was relieved to see this elicited a smile. What I said wasn't meant to placate, but I thought we needed to hear something positive.

In fact, I have met Dr. Friedman because I was, at one time, engaged to a professor at Duke who worked in oncology and one night we were dining out somewhere in Durham, I can't remember the place, but he introduced me to Dr. Friedman. I remembered this doctor and I had read up on his work and, indeed, he has a fine reputation in the difficult and challenging discipline of treating brain tumors. He has known some very impressive success and has built a fine department. His wife, Dr. Joanne Kurtzberg, who I haven't had the pleasure of meeting but who I know from speaking with parents who do know her and are familiar with her practice, heads up the pediatric bone-marrow transplantation team at Duke and "Dr. K", as she is known, is literally a pioneer in the field. She has saved so many lives that would have been lost without her brilliant application of science and her achievements in the treatment of childhood hematological cancers, are almost legendary.

After I mentioned to this guy that Dr. Friedman was a great doctor, his eyes were locked with mine and I felt him silently prodding me to say more. He offered that he had talked with Dr. Friedman on the phone and that he sounded nice, and he was anxious to meet him tomorrow afternoon.

"You will like him. He's a very kind person and, as I said, he knows his stuff. You will be in good hands.".

"Thank you. Thank you for saying that.", and then he got back to the business of paying for his envelope to be shipped and closing the transaction.

As my friend turned his attention back to handing me my passport photos and looking over my renewal application, the other customer thanked the proprietor for his help and stopped right beside me and he thanked me again. I smiled at him and I said, "Good luck. Be careful.".

And I thought to myself, almost instantly, "Why did you say good luck? The man doesn't have good luck because he probably has a brain tumor so 'good luck' is pretty much out of the question and had to sound almost laughable to this poor soul...what an oxymoronic thing to say to someone on their way to meet with the head of the Brain Tumor Department at Duke University!". But then I thought, "well what do you say to someone in his shoes? Godspeed? I hope you make it? You're about to take a trip through hell, buddy! I hope you don't wind up losing all your hair!".

It's like when I was in the treatment center a few years ago. I was only inpatient for ten days (and no, I didn't rent out the whole wing like Britney); I must have received over 70 cards and notes from a lot of friends and a few people I didn't even know. There's no question that receiving mail everyday was a high point for me, for all of us really, and that mail always served to remind me that I had a life outside of my present circumstance.

Eagerly, I'd rip open each card with great anticipation - wondering who it might be from - news from the outside world. Ah yes... I would delight at the cards I got though, truth be told, most of them were way too solemn for my taste, even given the circumstances, and well-meaning though most of the cards were, the ones that made me laugh were the cards that poked fun at the absurdity of sending anyone in a treatment center a card in the first place. I remember laughing when I opened up one of two that my friend Bruce B. sent me, which looked terribly festive and said, in bold script on the front, "CONGRATULATIONS!!!!!" and I remember thinking...now this is funny. If someone has the ability to be irreverent and tease me, I might just make it. This person must think I am capable, that I will be successful, because he's taken the luxury of being silly.

I really needed a little silliness during those days.

The things that helped me most were objects attached with humor. The solemn-tones and "We're hoping you're doing OK", or "God bless you during this trying time..." or "We all hope you 'make it'", gave me the willies and I'd close them up and tuck them somewhere out of my sight. I know they were sent with good intentions, but I needed something life-affirming and nothing is more life-affirming than laughter. Gosh I needed something that would make me laugh.

There were enough serious people around me - I was in a treatment center for gosh sakes' and let's face it, some of my fellow patients were freakish and still a little strung out - so the last thing I wanted was an immediate reminder that the stakes were high. Duh! I KNEW that! What I needed was comic relief, the chance to be light, even if only for the time it took to read the card. Bruce knew that, too, as did Mike F., John B. and sunny Sharon - friends who would rib me about 'taking it easy on the staff', 'not trying to run the place'. Their hand-written silliness became my touchstones, my talismans, my link to the life that I dearly hoped was waiting for me on the other side of this experience. I just thought I would put this in here in case any of you reading this are close to someone in dire straits right now - do them a favor - think before you buy something maudlin or serious - imagine what might make them laugh or smile. Trust me on this, they need to smile. Oh please, make whoever that person is laugh.

Now, I know I'll never see that guy again, but I couldn't help but think I was supposed to be there right at that exact moment, right in that store. I had put off mailing Katie's winter coat since the week after she left following her Christmas visit so why I picked that exact time to drive over and mail it, at that moment, I have no idea, and yet I do. When I spoke with Katie today on her lunch break, she didn't even mention it or chide me, as she usually does, for forgetting yet again to mail it. She's been teasing me lately that she hopes to have it by NEXT winter.

But for some reason, this afternoon, I felt like I needed to get it in the mail. And with no real prior planning, I just took off out the door and nearly did it on impulse.

Now, please don't mistake that I feel as if I was there in order to help the brain tumor man. My observation of the situation is quite the contrary. I believe he was placed there more to help me. I'm struggling right now - I have some very serious writing to do, and waiting for responses to resumes that I have sent out, seems to consume my mind and make me feel inordinately stressed and vulnerable. I find myself worrying, feeling edgy and at the mercy of Corporate America.

Yes, I could be in a much worse place, and my angst isn't so much about this moment - thanks to my anticipated IRS refund (Thank you, Tim, for looking it over), I have things covered, but it's my nature to look ahead so I can get a nice jump on anxiety - as if it will magically change anything. And as only I can do, I sit here and obsess about it. Rather than attend to the writing that is expected of me, I grow problems. Seriously. I'm like Miracle-Gro and can enhance the growth of any tiny potential glitch into a full-blown complicated mess that could only develop if everything possible under the sun went completely haywire in the worst way possible. I have a gift for it. I'm well aware of the counterproductive nature of such an exercise. I know better. I'm trying not to be so efficient at it and it's not lost on me that my efficiency would be better directed toward more fruitful pursuits.

But when I looked over at this man today and saw the concerned expression and felt the tension in his voice, I felt chagrined. This guy knew more than I about dealing with a seriously scary problem. Worrying about next month's house-payment, while not a fun thing to dwell upon, isn't even in the same ballpark as worrying about a brain tumor. It would be obscene to compare the two. One is potentially life-threatening and the other is only "quality of life-threatening" if I allow it to affect me as such. I have power over so many circumstances within my present challenge, but someone dealing with a brain tumor has a limited power, at best, and probably a finite choice of options, and none of them terribly pleasant.

But I realized that the really good thing about any of it, is that the same power that can affect this man's health, still manages to have time to look after the neurotic person that I sometimes slip into.

Like I said, I have no expectations of ever seeing this gentleman again, but I do know that he diverted my focus and recalibrated my perception of what is what and what is not.

Now, on a more pointed and serious note, I have asked nearly everyone I know, a few people I am only slightly familiar with, and maybe a couple of strangers on the street (just kidding) to send some prayers up that I might find the right position for me to focus my energy and talents and, please understand, I would still appreciate those prayers and good thoughts and even a few incantations and by all mean light some candles; I'll leave the choice of how you do it, up to you...I'm nice like that. But before you start chanting, if you wouldn't mind, think of this unnamed person that is going to have his first meeting tomorrow afternoon with the esteemed and capable Dr. Friedman at Duke University Brain Tumor Center. If you could put in a word for Dr. Friedman to make the right treatment decisions and for this man to find courage he didn't even know he had, and a way to accept and feel peace with whatever is decided, I'd really appreciate it and, if you're running late and you don't have a lot of time to speak with your own Higher Power tonight, tomorrow or whenever you get around to it, send up a petition for him, please. I have to tell you - if I were that man and that man could easily be any of us, I would be so very grateful for all of the prayers and well-wishes I could assemble and I can't imagine a set of circumstances more deserving than his present situation. Even though I don't have a name to attach with his story, I'm pretty certain God will know exactly who you're talking about when you mention him - maybe just try something like, "God, about that man who may have a brain tumor that was in the UPS store today in Wilmington, NC...", and I'm thinking God will be able to put two and two together. He's smart like that.

Tonight, I feel blessed, mostly because God placed me in the path of someone who inadvertently reminded me to dwell more on my blessings and less on my limitations and challenges which, I know, will sort themselves out in due time. I need to focus on this period between jobs, as Fred Rogers referenced at the beginning of this blog, and think about making the most of my "between" time.

Today, my "between" was spent in an innocuous looking UPS store at what at first appeared to be a random time of day, but I do believe that I had the experience of having my clock "reset" by someone who knew more than a thing or two about what truly constitutes a challenge. And tonight, especially if he's particularly nervous and, how could you not be if you were him, I hope that nameless UPS customer finds something that makes him smile at a time when he may well believe it to be impossible.

Anything can happen. And anything does.