Thursday, March 31, 2011

Who Am I and Where Have I Been?

These days I'm waking up feeling lost in my own life. The six months from Sept. 10-March 10 were spent in a perfect storm of death and illness and paperwork and duties. It ended all right, really, for those of us who survived. Our dads did "live a long life" as people say, often adding that it was a "full" one. I'm not so sure about the latter. FFP survived two surgeries and a lot of tests to come up allegedly cancer-free and also avoid radiation and chemo. It seemed like there were enough 'have to do' things every day to reduce decision making to a minimum. What follows is an eclectic recap of that six months, the time since and my life in general. It will undoubtedly end up sounding like an extended whine from someone with a charmed life. Because it is. However, I feel that I can't move on as a writer without publishing this. Odd, huh? I don't really identify as a 'writer' anyway. I made up business cards when I retired that said "Pretending to Write but Really Just Blogging." The other day I took a red pen to some of these and scratched out Write and replaced it with Blog. And Scratched out Blogging and replaced it with Tweeting.

The events of that six months have gradually faded. I'm putting together the last pieces of my dad's estate that will let me finally more or less settle it although the CPA says I'll have to file a tax return for the estate for 2011 or something. I'll address this when the time comes and pay anything owed out of my own pocket just to get things cleaned up. We have tenants in the house we own that Dad lived in. His stuff has been sorted and dispersed. (There's a job with potent emotional and physical toll for the healthiest among us. The whole process might also be the subject of another piece at some point.)

FFP got his dad's will probated and and got his mother's new widowed life somewhat settled. I've managed to start using a new mail server. (This was necessary for a weird reason and harder than it sounds. I hate this type of change.) As these things fell away, we started thinking maybe we should get away from duties and do more social and charitable things.

During this six months we did some social events in spite of trips to Houston's MD Anderson Cancer Center including surgery there for FFP, another surgery for FFP in Austin and the deaths of our dads. We even saw a few films in the Austin Film Festival and managed to attend the event we helped chair to raise money for AFF's Young Filmmakers Program. But we also didn't sign up for a lot of things, canceled events and gave away expensive gala tickets we bought before we knew what was going to happen.

As things settled out we went a little overboard agreeing to events and buying tickets to things. One day, we decided that we should buy SXSW film badges. At the point we bought them the price had risen to $500. (If we'd purchased them in September, when we were facing the big cancer threat, they would have been $375. The walk-up rate was $550.)

On March 10 we attended the unofficial opening of the SXSW film festival, the Texas Film Hall of Fame party. Some friends had purchased a table and were kind enough to invite us, gratis. (This is not officially a part of SXSW and the $500 badge does you no good for this one.) I learned what Ted Nugent looks like and how he sounds doing the Star-Spangled banner. I was reminded of how much I enjoyed FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS and of the familial relationship between Sissy Spacek and Rip Torn. I really enjoyed hearing about and from John Hawkes who I only knew from his performance in WINTER'S BONE. All of the above received awards at the event. (Well, not WINTER'S BONE but, rather, John Hawkes.)

I looked forward to seeing some films, especially documentaries, and being able to walk to many venues and feel the throbbing vibe of the huge SXSW machine while still being able to retreat to our condo.

I usually play tennis three times a week. I played on Thursday, March 10th, and again on Saturday, the 19th, making sure my film festival didn't need to start until that afternoon. I'd missed a lot of tennis dates during the six months of 'the troubles' but at that point I'd been getting to it pretty regularly, weather permitting. One morning I cleaned house, several others were spent regrouping from the arduous film watching or sorting out bill paying and such.

But I spent a good deal of time from March 11-19, nine days, watching films programmed by SXSW film. I didn't attend any panels, spent probably 20 minutes walking through the trade show and attended a party hosted by Austin Film Festival. I watched eighteen movies. I watched a few Q&As. I waited in lines for many hours.

I'm going to summarize that experience here, in a moment. But I reached the end of the festival thinking "I'm watching movies created by someone else, about lives that aren't mine, curated by these SXSW folks."

I decided I needed to be creative myself. Or, at least, be picking my own input (newspapers, books, magazines, movies, images). Yeah, at least I need to be doing my own aggregation! We spend so much time looking at what someone else tells us is worthy of our attention. Yes, I'm going to get creative on my own terms. I'm going to write. I'm going to work on my photography project. I am going to call my 'work' (based on my photos of shop windows and other reflections): Multiply Appropriated Portraits and Landscapes. But more on that later. Perhaps much later.

The Sunday after SXSW was over I finally got around to reading The New York Times magazine for the prior Sunday (March 13). This article resonated with me, expressing a feeling of disconnection from creation that surely critics and aggregators must feel. Bill Keller, executive editor of the paper, was, of course, speaking from a very different perspective. The original reporting he oversees is being co-opted by aggregation. But so is my brain. I no longer give myself time to have an original thought. Not even about whose thoughts to let in.

Yes, it's time to stop and reflect. Reflection seems in order. Reflection on the last couple of weeks and the last six months and, indeed, what I laughingly call my life. Reflection of this sort is so long overdue that it took me over two weeks to write this entry which is now a rambling mess but which I think I'll post anyway. As I said: not publishing it seems to be holding me back from my usual writer's block on other things.

SXSW
As I mentioned above...we bought those film badges. I canceled three tennis dates to clear time to pursue movies and whatever else came our way. We live downtown and we didn't have to fight traffic for the most part. Not in our car anyway. I didn't start my car for over a week. FFP started his three times I think. Others weren't so lucky, haplessly belching fumes while in gridlock or waiting for buses that never came or came too full to take them. Bike riders dodged cars, threatened pedestrians and had trouble finding a proper bike rack. SXSW was too crowded and on the edge of out of control. (Sometimes going past the edge.) People stood in endless lines to get into stuff or to get free stuff. We stopped by and got a free Pepsi Max, no line. Otherwise, we only stood in line for movies or credentials for the fest. I always feel like I should 'review' what I see although I am a hopeless critic (except of my own life). But I do feel the need to wrap it up. So here goes.

We often got to the venues too early (we call this being pathologically punctual), rarely tried to see two movies in a row, even at the same theater, and, with our badges, got into every movie we set out to see and got good seats. Of course, we probably stood in line 16-18 hours. We read magazines or used our iPhones to pass the time for the most part. We talked to people in line, getting ideas of what to see, learning some stuff about Formula One Racing, and meeting some neat people such as Photographer Brian Gray and actress Aimee Thomas. Lines can be at once the most frustrating and the nicest, most serendipitous things about the festival. We also saw lots of people we already knew in lines, while standing in them and watching people go by and in the venues. We saw movies at seven different venues. (Rollins Theater at Long Center; the newly-renovated State Theater; Paramount Theater; the Convention Center Theater, branded Vimeo for this festival; Regal Arbor; the Alamo Ritz; and Alamo South Lamar). We only drove to the Arbor, walking to and fro all the other venues from our condo.

We ate lunch on the patio at Trio at the Four Seasons on the Thursday before the festival began. Most of the time during the festival we retreated into the lounge at Ruth's Chris steakhouse or ate sushi rolls from How Do You Roll or subs from Thundercloud or prepared food from Royal Blue Grocery. Oh, we had a cheese plate at Highball and a few bites and drinks in the theaters. We had snacks and drinks at Manuel's when we went to the Arbor. Restaurants were jam-packed. On the first day of the film fest (the 11th) we thought we'd go to Frank but it had a wait. We did get a table at Second. After that we eschewed the choices popular with SXers.

My festival was almost derailed by my guts. During the second movie of the first day, I had some slight stomach cramps, a sweaty hot clammy feeling. Left the theater a couple of times to go to the rest room. Washed face. Felt better. But that night I lost my lunch, as they say. And I was fragile for food and drink for a day or two.

But we did see two showings that first day: BEST of VIMEO SHORTS and PAGE ONE: INSIDE THE NEW YORK TIMES. Both were at the Convention Center at the Vimeo Theater as it was branded for the festival. This is the uncomfortable chair theater. After these two shows we learned to sit on the front row of the risers, the most comfort you can get in that venue.

Some of the shorts shown were animated. I particularly liked an animation of sand and snow. There was a helmet cam video from a bike race over a harrowing urban course that was pretty fantastic, too.

I loved PAGE ONE. I'm an avid reader of the NY Times although I don't do a good job of keeping up with who's who at the paper. (After seeing this movie, I decided to pay more attention to bylines.) David Carr is an interesting character and the story he was working on (the bankruptcy of the Tribune company) was relevant to the overall hand-wringing over new media, newspapers, reporting, etc. The film touched on lots of issues: plagiarism, declining advertising revenue, Wikileaks, rise of aggregation, pay walls. The blogger turned journalist, Brain Stelter, added a face to new trends. I wanted to go home and gently pat my stacks of newsprint. I missed a tiny bit of the movie and some of the Q&A to feeling ill. I regretted that.

I didn't know how the first Saturday of the festival was going to play out for me. I awoke feeling better after getting up almost hourly all night to drink sips of water to rehydrate. I managed to get down a little coffee, a little Gatorade and we queued up for SENNA. The eponymous F1 driver was an enormously successful driver and a hero in his native Brazil. He was killed in a race. I didn't know any of that before deciding to see the movie. I knew nothing about this form of auto racing. Or really any form of auto racing. The movie was a very human portrayal, done without using posthumous interviews with people who knew him but rather using archival footage of him and of people speaking about him. My fragile constitution survived the 'in car camera' racing footage, too.

We tried to get express tickets to get into EL BULLI so that we wouldn't have to queue so long. There weren't any left. The idea that you get a badge and then you queue up to get a pass to get in front of the badge line is not the best idea SXSW ever had. We decided that we'd queue for the movie anyway. We went to the Driskill and relaxed in the cool lobby for a bit after taking advantage of their bathrooms. It turned out we were first in line for badges without special tickets. So we got the aisle seat that I thought I needed given my fragile condition. After watching starred Spanish chef Ferran AdriĆ  make wild, innovative dishes I retired to Ruth's Chris lounge to test my stomach on a plain baked potato with a little cheese and sparkling water. I liked the food shots and people in the movie but the sound track was very weird in places.

So Sunday (3/13/2011) comes along and I've been to four screenings and already feel a little tired. It feels like work. I know how lame and elitist that sounds. The hour lost to Daylight Savings wasn't really missed too much, at least not that day, possibly because I didn't drink Saturday night. We start our fest day at a brunch given by Austin Film Festival for AFF alumni who are local or in town for the SXSW. I eschew the tamales and have a little fruit and a pastry. I pass on alcohol, too, which I often do early in the day anyway. We walk to Whole Foods and buy a few things including a growler of Dogfish Head Midas Touch which, of course, I won't feel like drinking just yet. We only make one screening. We go to Morgan Spurlock's GREATEST MOVIE EVER SOLD. Morgan is there. It starts late. It is, well, as advertised: a big advertisement with a message that we are always being sold to, even in movies. We go to Ruth's Chris I think. At home I try some Midas Touch. Not too much, though.

On Monday we decide to get Express tickets for the movies we want to see. There are badges. Badges are seated first. They are all equal whether Gold, Film, Platinum or Interactive (for certain movies they are admitted). The festival issues VIP tickets for cast and crew and the like to trump these, though. Then they got the idea to issue special pieces of paper to trump other badges. Sigh. (And there are also film passes, would-be single ticket buyers and people who pre-purchase a single ticket but may not be admitted but are admitted before other single ticket holders. Neither volunteers nor film-goers quite master this before the fest is over.) We get in line before this line up opens. There are at least a hundred people in line. We do get these special tickets but we've wasted at least an hour of our time getting them. Since seating can occur thirty minutes or a bit more before a show we will still have to waste at least thirty minutes per show in a line. In these lines we will be given another paper ticket to prove we were in line. Later in the week they will ditch the film express tickets, thankfully. We won't queue for them again.

We saw SMALL BEAUTIFULLY MOVING PARTS in the newly-renovated State Theater. I liked it very much. Gave it four stars. The theater that is. But also the movie was pretty good. Quiet movie about family dysfunction, parenthood and the connected world of technology. Starring Anna Margaret Hollyman who has been in some shorts we've seen and also in one of the 'bumpers' for the festival. (Apparently that is what you call funny little pieces that precede the films.) Family dysfunction will be a thread running through most of the narrative features we see.

We rested up a bit and walked across the lake and up South Lamar to the Alamo South. We were extremely early and we had those extra special express tickets. So we went to Highball and had a drink (me: Guinness for $2; he: Coke for free as DD although we told the bartender we were walking) and a cheese plate. What a great Happy Hour with pints for $2! We loved, loved, loved A MATTER OF TASTE. Sometimes filmmakers get so lucky. They start filming someone when they are struggling a bit to get a film made and the subject is struggling in his endeavors. Time passes. Something happens to the person (two Michelin Stars!) and the film gets finished and has a nice dramatic arc. So the filmmaker, Sally Rowe, was lucky, but also very good at capturing this journey. The chef at the center of this piece, Paul Liebrandt, was at the screening. He was so nice. He seemed to know who he was and what he wanted. We want to eat at Corton when we go to New York. And, conveniently, we've just scheduled a trip to New York in June. We made the dark walk home and got ready for another day. I think I showed my age by already being weary but, of course, I had gotten a bug or some sort of upset on Friday.

On Tuesday we go to the Convention Center again to see SOMETHING VENTURED. We got those front row seats in the risers. I would have been more comfortable if a guy with about the girth of The Simpson's Comic Book Guy hadn't slipped (well more like plopped) into the seat next to me well after the movie started. This is a great film about the history of high-tech start-ups and venture capital. The dominance of men, then and now, still upsets me, though, even over eight years after my retirement and after some success at beating the odds. That one of the entrepreneurs, now a venture capitalist, was someone whose company I once worked for made it uncomfortable as well. Too close to what I laughingly call my life. Too close to 'what might have been' and missed opportunities. At some point, walking through the trade show, I will also have flashbacks of working trade shows, trying to convince customers that my stuff is what they should buy, not the stuff peddled in the next booth over.

And then...we started a car. Yep. We (well FFP) drove out to the Arboretum area, stopped by our house (where Dad used to live, which is our rent house now) and then grabbed a quick drink and snack at Manuel's and saw a SXSW movie at the Arbor. BEGINNERS really grabbed me. It was a highly personal story, you see. It involved the death of parents. While my dad didn't reveal that he was gay after my mother died (this was a plot point that moved this movie along), I felt such a resonance with the material that I found real tears going down my face. I was especially moved by a pile of garbage bags. Seriously. (See above re: cleaning out the Dad house.) Great movie about loss and love and how to really live. Reminded me of seeing my dad after he lost my mom when he tried to capture some happiness after several years of bumpy health problems for her and sitting with her for 100 days in the hospital. That Ewan McGregor and Christopher Plummer were in this project comes as no surprise after you see the piece and realize the power of the script. I understand this film (written and directed by Mike Mills) is highly personal and semi-autobiographical. The 'happy ending' for the son distracted a little from the piece but overall I was so impressed that, honestly, I wanted to see the character break out and embrace a relationship. It will be interesting to see if this guy can write another great script using either material he is also this close to or material that requires a little more reach of imagination.

On Wednesday (we are at 3/16/2011 at this point) we spent the morning taking care of our lives. I cleaned the bathroom and the bedroom and took care of bills and stuff. FFP took care of some of his mother's business. But in the afternoon we queued up at the convention center theater for a showing of BOB AND THE MONSTER which is a documentary about Bob Forrest and his rock career, addiction, recovery and attempt to help others recover. It was quite interesting on several levels: music, drugs, recovery and redemption.

In the evening, we went main stream. Jodie Foster's THE BEAVER was showing at the Paramount. She directs and stars opposite Mel Gibson. We were probably in line behind a hundred people with the line stretching far behind us, around the corner, out of sight. Jodie was there, but no Mel Gibson. Forrest was impressed with her legs when she introduced the movie. In my opinion the movie's premise was just a little too wacky to support a real portrayal of mental illness. By that I mean that people went along with the puppet much more than they would in the real world. Yes, the beaver was a puppet. I predict it won't do well in theaters. So...it probably will! I find my tastes don't track with the mainstream. After Jodie did the Q&A and sidestepped the Mel questions we went to Ruth's Chris. I had a Manhattan. Yeah, it didn't take me long to get back to drinking after my stomach upset.

When Thursday rolls around it is St. Patrick's Day. The combination of the holiday and its drunken celebration, the SXSW music being in full swing and film continuing make the streets and sidewalks of downtown both amazing and daunting. It is a day when we will somehow manage to watch three movies. We do this by only going to the Paramount and doing what I said above we never did: seeing two movies in a row at the same venue. But it was the Paramount which is a big venue. Started with APART. Some movies ask you suspend disbelief. Let's say they ask you to believe people can have shared delusions. OK. Accepted. Then they ask us to believe these delusions are really prescient. OK, I'll bite. Then they ask us to believe that the delusions caused the protagonists to act out in the delusions. OK, we've come this far together. But. Then this piece ask me to believe that another character, apparently sane but upset over the death of his son, could instantly figure out the psychosis and initiate a plan to help the pair escape the horror they've caused and get cured. He would do this by committing a crime and covering up another crime. Well, no. Didn't wash. Wrap it up some other way and I'd have enjoyed the diversion. This plot turn stuck in my craw. After I'd allowed them so much leeway. I'd say that the above paragraphs were spoilers but somehow they really are not. Oh well. We should probably stick with movies that are strictly about family dysfunction.

As I said, we managed to watch two movies in a row by immediately going out and queuing for LIVE AT PRESERVATION HALL: LOUISIANA FAIRYTALE. To our delight the Preservation Hall Jazz Band came marching around the corner and entertained for a bit in front of the theater before going inside. When we got in they were performing some bluesy numbers with mournful singing. During the movie, the parts where the jazz guys played or they talked about the history of Preservation Hall were great. But the collaboration with My Morning Jacket was mostly painful to me because their music is so monotonous and dumb in my humble opinion. When their lead singer fronted the jazz classic in the title, that wasn't horrible (not great either) and sometimes a jazz guy accompanying the muck couldn't stand it any longer and just started to improvise and that provided some relief. Now I'm sure My Morning Jacket is a hot new band. Or a venerable hot band. So sue me. If I'm going to be spoon-fed by SXSW, I'm going to still try to retain the ability to form an opinion about what I like.

We regrouped, caught a snack and drink at Ruth's Chris and queued for ATTENBERG. It was very artsy. It had everything required of an art film. For my taste I just couldn't bond with the characters due to the silly sequences and inside jokes. But it was good at being artsy. And...we had seen three movies. Yeah.

When Friday, March 18th, arrives we realize two things: SXSW Music is in full swing and we have been watching movies for a week. I start to feel like an SXSWimp. I know I'm clueless about a lot of the music. (See above: My Morning Jacket.) I know that I don't like excessive drinking, loud claptrap or places that are too crowded.

We see that they are playing the Grand Jury Narrative Award winner at the Rollins over at Long Center. We haven't been to the venue during this festival. And we've heard good things about the film, NATURAL SELECTION. So we walk across Lady Bird Lake and queue up. Only two people in line and one is a gal we queued with at the Arbor, Aimee the Actress, and we enjoy some conversation. The movie's premises are improbable, the arc for the characters unlikely and the movie is thoroughly and completely raucous but somehow it's enjoyable and beautifully crafted. There were interesting subtleties of settings and nuances that redeemed any criticism. Roger Ebert liked it, too, although to me...that means nothing. I make my own decisions. It is my last shot at free will. NATURAL SELECTION could be described as dysfunction of non-family, but it had family complications, too, and that segued nicely into the evening's movie. ANOTHER HAPPY DAY is one of those films that I can both relate to (it was full of family dancing, as I call it, and anyone has seen a bit of that in life) and also feel divorced from (the family place on the Chesapeake is far from my reality). But there was the interesting reunion of cousins, the consternation as old age decimated the powers of the older generation, etc. Those things I get. I like seeing the multiple generations of privilege flailing anyway. Ellen Burstyn and Ellen Barkin were great and Demi Moore camped it up. It's easy to hate Thomas Hayden Church so he was able to make you hate him and yet feel a little sorry for him.

It is the last day. The ninth day! Saturday, March 19th. We see two films to make an even 18. For which we paid $27 each by buying our badges. We saw two documentaries this last round. The well-crafted WHERE SOLDIERS COME FROM didn't just give one pause about our current wars and their effect on young people who sign up for National Guard units for a bit of money. It gave me pause about the millions of lost young people with no idea of vocation or goals. I suppose they've always been out there. In an era without a draft they are most of our non-comm soldiers. They are ill-prepared by training and ill-prepared emotionally to fight a battle against IEDs. This film gives an inside look at one group of kids and their families and friends and shows how they could end up in uniform thousands of miles away after taking up soldiering with no more thought than their winter sledding or graffiti project. The film is also very revealing concerning how these families pinned their hopes on Obama to end the obligations their enlistment entailed and how they were disappointed to find little changed. And there is a priceless bit of film of a PowerPoint presentation about Afghanistan given during an army orientation. That alone was worth the price of admission. The return of these kids with their possible unseen traumatic brain injuries and exacerbated lack of focus is painful to watch.

The finale, the finish, the 18th film, is a documentary about Willie Nelson, KING OF LUCK. Billy Bob Thornton directed and it is one awesome piece of music history. We walked out more in awe of Willie than ever. Which was the idea I think: to make a paean rather than a bio. The current footage is presented in black and white to match the archival stuff. Willie is definitely one of a kind and here we see him with a bunch of unique friends and family talking about him. Great as it was...we were so eager to slip through the crowds and be in our apartment that we didn't stay for the Q&A with Billy Bob. Facing down a river of people headed toward E. Sixth, we made our way home and collapsed. Of course, soon enough a long fireworks show boomed across the lake and we stepped out on the balcony to watch it. It lasted so long I was glad when it was over.

At the end of the day, we did see some pretty good films. Ten documentaries, seven narrative features and one short program. But it was draining and I'm not sure it was worth it, all in all, to see all those in such a short period and stand in line that much.

As I write this I've actually been to two movies since the end of the festival. One was a preview showing of WIN WIN (also shown in the festival although we didn't attend). It is an intriguing tale of right and wrong and the mushy area in between, families and what they will do to each other and, at the end, for each other. Also...how the concept of family stretches to sometimes admit strangers. The movie didn't try to tell us everything, taking advantage of ambiguity to make it a bit more real. Which is to say they intentionally left unanswered questions about guilt, innocence and what would happen when the characters left the frame as well as what their complete history might reveal. All you knew for sure was that some situations do have a WIN WIN outcome but maybe not where we expect to find it. I liked Bobby Cannavale being cast as the over-enthusiastic friend, too, which reminded me of STATION AGENT.

We also saw a documentary about the Rural Studio Architecture project (CITIZEN ARCHITECT: SAMUEL MOCKBEE AND THE SPIRIT OF THE RURAL STUDIO). We saw this sitting on the rooftop of Arthouse at Jones Center on a chilly night. It is a nice doc. I'd heard the film makers speak about it before and was glad to get to see it.

We've also been to some benefits, a wine club party, a ballet mixed rep. And we made a round trip to Houston to have a check-up for Forrest.

I'm exhausted now, describing the last couple of weeks. Nevertheless, I want to keep writing, to keep blogging and to reach back through the last six months and try to write some sense into it. I don't know if it will work. In fact, I guess, from experience, I know that it will work but only to a small degree.

The Six Months
You come home from a vacation. You dad has had a rough time of it, been to the emergency room a couple of times, had to sweat out an AC repair during a blazing hot August at the house where he's living, our house, which we are responsible for. We've ducked our responsibilities for a couple of weeks of driving across the great American West and visiting friends. We've left him in the care of repairmen and friends.

We are not home for long and he needs to go to the emergency room again. Instead of relying on friends I have to ditch a party and take him. The next week I take him to the doctor and we think he's doing pretty well. I take FFP to the eye doctor where he will have what turns out to be the last of many excisions of a growth on his eyelid that is not benign, as the ophthalmologist thought for two years, but a rare cancer. I only go because he will have an eye patch for a few hours so I go to drive him home. It is a day I spend in doctors' offices but things seem to be going OK. The doctor does a biopsy. He says, "I'm pretty sure it's not going to show anything." Or he says something like that. We don't worry. Not at all.

Until the afternoon of the next day. We are sitting around thinking about what to wear for a black tie event that we will go to in a few hours. And the doctor calls. He wants to send FFP to an oculoplastic surgeon on Monday. Because he has a very rare cancer. Sebaceous Cell Carcinoma. Before we go to our event we have time to make the appointment. A new doctor is working us in. As soon as possible. We have time to search the Internet. Yikes.

Monday we see the new doctor. He refers us to MD Anderson. We will see a doctor there, probably the leading expert in the country (if not the world) on this type of cancer. On Friday. Friday is a race through tests and more tests and doctor visits. MD Anderson is a massive, daunting place but we make it through with a little help from the staff. We are given an appointment to come back on Monday and get needle biopsies of a mass shown through ultrasound in his parotid gland and one in his thyroid. The word metastasis creeps into our vocabulary. But. We will just take this a step at a time. And worry, of course.

On the weekend that the MD Anderson visits on Friday and Monday (and the three hundred miles of driving) surround, my dad is celebrating his 94th birthday. Fortunately, his two sisters and one brother-in-law have driven down to visit. A friend has a little get together for him on Friday night which we miss. We go through the motions of visiting with the relatives on the weekend and trying to explain what we know about the medical issues.

Monday brings needle biopsies. The parotid probe hurts more. The thyroid one is done twice. The parotid one is identified as benign. An adenoma. The thyroid comes up with Hurthle cells. The problem with this tumor is that it is probably benign but it can be cancerous and metastasize and you can only tell by removing it. This type of tumor is also rare, apparently.

But we have to take care of other things first. The eyelid. The cancer must be removed along with a normal edge and the eyelid reconstructed and biopsies done for skip lesions. They want to do a sentinel node biopsy. A head and neck surgeon will do this using traces from radioactive isotopes injected during a test and again before surgery. Into his eyelid. Without anesthetic. Ouch. Hurts to think about and it wasn't me.

We get ourselves prepared for all this, get hotel reservations near MD Anderson. We have a couple of weeks to ponder it and we try to go on with our lives. I get a haircut. I take my dad to get a haircut on a Friday. It's been two weeks since FFP's diagnosis. Dad says he's feeling a little weak. He complains about his blood pressure monitor not working and I reseat the batteries and fool with it and get it going. He jokes with the barber and looks good with his fresh haircut.

On Saturday I call my dad, as I do every morning for the most part. He says he is 'feeling better.' I guess I wasn't aware of how bad he felt the day before. I don't see him or speak with him again that day. The next day when I call, he doesn't answer on the first try. I try again. The phone is off the hook. I hear something but he can't speak to me. I tell Forrest, "I think this is it." I think of calling the neighbors. But they aren't friendly about being roused so early. I get in the car and drive out there myself. He is in his bed. Struggling for breath, gurgling a bit. I call EMS. They are there in a very short time. They ask me if he has heart problems. They say he is in afib. "That's never happened before," I say. They ask when he was last normal. He seems to have put himself to bed for the night. Or, could it have been for a nap yesterday? Later I see his tablet in the dining room beside his blood pressure monitor. He has recorded his blood pressure the night before and written the time: 8PM. The blood pressure shown, however, was a little was a little low for someone with high blood pressure: 94-58. Was he already in afib?

He is transported to the emergency room. After a CT scan they see he's had a massive stroke. They struggle to get his blood gases up. His heart isn't beating correctly so his pulse races but he isn't getting enough oxygen in his blood. The doctor mentions 'hospice.' By 6PM I've had a visit from the hospice people. They talk about transporting him to a hospice facility. I look at him and realize that we might as well stay here. I've called everyone. My Colorado relatives start making plans to come this way. I don't leave his side for long. The next morning a friend stops by to sit with him while I go shower. A lot of people visit and then they are all gone and FFP joins me. We slip out for a meal and the food tastes so good. I feel bad that it tastes so good. There's my dad, unable to swallow, on hospice care across the street. We rush back to his side. Even though they've removed the oxygen all together, he holds on for a while. And then: he's gone. While we wait for a local funeral home to collect him and arrange for his body to be transported back to Dallas where his burial will be, we call people, e-mail people. I feel a huge weight on me. FFP's surgery is a week away.

My nieces arrive the next day: one by car and one by air and rental car. Each has a three-year-old in tow. They switch gears from trying to see their granddad one last time to helping me arrange a burial in Dallas. He has sisters there, nieces and nephews, friends. We get the funeral home to call us the next day and arrange everything. One niece's van won't start so they switch everything to the rent car and set out for Dallas to put him to rest. They call their parents (my sister and brother-in-law) and tell them to go straight to Dallas. They reserve hotel rooms, order a casket spray and flowers. The next day they bury their granddad and the niece with the rent car drives back with her son to catch a plane back to Denver from Austin. The other niece and my sister and brother-in-law stay over and come the next day to get the niece's van going. I feel bad I didn't make this service but we will have a memorial a few weeks later in Austin. We will try to delay it long enough after FFP's surgery that he can make it. We succeed in this.

We find out on the day before surgery that unless FFP is willing to get a parotidectomy to rid himself of the adenoma the surgeon won't do the sentinel node biopsy. He doesn't want to operate on the face twice and the adenoma may one day cause trouble and require removal. This makes the surgery kind of a bigger deal. Anyway, we spend almost a week at MD Anderson. Child's play considering what some people I know have been through. But tough enough to suit me.

It is day surgery. In that he's not really admitted to the hospital. Only...we are there from before 7AM one day until noon the next. I thought I'd drive back that day. But I haven't left the hospital either, have gotten little sleep. He's had six hours of surgery, a little bit of a rocky recovery, has a drain coming out of his neck, his eye is swollen shut, etc. Luckily, they were able to repair the eyelid without grafting tissue from the lower eyelid. So he might be able to see out of that eye when the swelling goes down. Needless to say, we spent another day and night in a hotel room, sleeping, managing his drain, doctoring his eye, eating room service and entertaining ourselves with TV and iPod tunes. On Saturday I manage to drive him home. We managed for a couple of days, his eye gradually opening, me taking care of the drain stitched in his neck. On Monday we got his GP to remove the drain. That was a great relief. Gradually he gets better. News gets better, too. The sentinel node biopsy showed no cancer. We start getting out and going a few places.

Before we know it the holiday season is on us. Forrest's dad has his 100th birthday right before Thanksgiving. There is a come and go party at their house. It exhausts me and seems to energize FFP's parents.

FFP has another surgery, here in Austin, to remove half his thyroid and have a look at that growth in it. It is benign. So he keeps half a thyroid. He recovers fast from this although he's still recovering from his eyelid and facial surgery, too.

We continue getting out to more stuff. We eat in a brand new restaurant and, the next night, go to the ballet. FFP gets violently ill later in the evening. Food poisoning we think. It sends him reeling, the doctor giving this drug and that and he finally ends up getting an IV to rehydrate and gradually feels himself again.

And we think maybe we've turned a corner. I'd gone to court. I'd cleaned and sorted and discarded and donated and organized and executrixed my way through my dad's affairs and leftover things. It wasn't done but everyday...closer.

A new year arrives. We actually have a pretty good New Year's Eve, wandering the building to various apartments for partying.

The first day of 2011, we stretch and yawn our way through the day and settle in for some nachos and TV.

And the phone rings. And thus begins the fall for FFP's dad. A literal fall getting up out of a chair. A broken hip. Pain. Breathing problems with painkillers. Nothing to do but try to pin it. Surgery a success but patient's blood pressure never stabilizes. The next week we are organizing another funeral and beginning another bit of estate management and trying to help his mother through it all. Between the death and the funeral we have to make a round trip to Houston and get a check up on the whole cancer thing.

I keep trying to hang on to things that are 'normal.' I manage to play some tennis. Go out with some friends. Go out with Forrest to a restaurant. To do chores and projects around the condo. The house which had been so great for Dad becomes a burden without him. Stuff seems to multiply. Each thing has to be dealt with. But, finally, we remove enough to get the floors steam-cleaned. And we find friends to lease from us.

And it's tax time and I spend time getting all the tax things underway. For us and my dad. FFP does his mom's. The CPA and I wade through the business stuff.

Then it seems like we've come out the other side. At this point that we start to play a little fast and loose. We think we can do things. Like get our money's worth out of a SXSW film badge, make it to some galas, go out with friends. I think I can really conquer the chores and stuff around the condo now that I'm not sorting detritus from the life of dad and mom and playing the companion role for the sick.

Of course, we over-commit. Of course, I start to feel nervous and distraught. I toy with solutions. Becoming a recluse watching old episodes of "Northern Exposure." Spending more 'analog' time. (Reading newspapers and books, writing in longhand, playing tennis.) Going through tasks meticulously from left to right, top to bottom, believing that you can conquer. Scheduling trips to look forward to. (We have only been out of town to drive back and forth to Houston for medical treatment for over six months.) Trying to write about what's happened. What's working? What isn't? Hard to say.

How'd I Get Here?
It's funny, isn't it? How your life is just one thing, another thing and then there you are, living with a man you've been married to almost 35 years owning a ten-year-old Honda Civic with an insult on every body panel, a condo, a tennis racket older than the car. Your health is good as far as you know. You are living an urban lifestyle. You feel you've done your duty these last six months, these last ten years, your whole life. You've been responsible. Paid for your mistakes. Paid your debts. Paid your taxes. Not stolen from anyone. And here you are. So I'm going to explore that further. I'll enter some more blog entries here, segueing from images and ideas into an always incomplete but exhaustive exposition on "who is the Visible Woman and why does she do that?" Or not. Maybe I won't write another thing in this space. After all, I've been working on this entry for over two weeks and I'm still not sure I'll publish it.

2 comments:

Susan G. said...

Wow Linda, I am I know others feel honored you have shared your lives with us. Hope you have a great time in New York soon.

Jerry in Dallas said...

This is quite a lengthy piece of writing, but then you had a lot to write about. I'm glad you did it; I was wondering how you and Forrest were getting through all this in the past year.