Father-daughter flashback

I watched Oklahoma on TV the other night. It was a time machine that brought me back to 1966 when my father took me to see the play. What I recalled most vividly was Daddy hallucinating while John Raitt belted out a song.

My father had been mentally ill for years, since before I was born. While Raitt sang, Daddy muttered loudly to someone in his head and twitched in his seat, and people around us began to complain. Sounds of sshhhhhh!! and quiet!! surrounded me. I don’t remember what happened, whether we were asked to leave or Daddy settled down and we stayed to the end.

I was 20, in the glow of youth and blooming sexuality and glittering hopes and dreams. And I was mortified. Before Daddy’s meltdown, I had loved the way I dressed and secretly admired myself in the mirror, silk-blend suit and high heels and all. I felt I looked perfect for the Circle Star, then a classy theater venue in the Bay Area.

But I was edgy beneath all the excitement, because my father’s behavior was unpredictable. He was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.

How differently I see that day now, and my father. Back then I was just growing into womanhood, half confident, half painfully self-conscious. I wondered why I couldn’t have a “normal” father I could be proud of, instead of Daddy with his rumpled clothes, nicotine-stained fingers and Thorazine-induced trembling hands. Subconsciously I was angry at him for being an embarrassment, a failure, a constant worry.

He committed suicide a year after we saw Oklahoma, at 50. I’ve survived well enough, had a career, friends, raised my daughter through college, but I really never recovered from the trauma. I drank alcoholically—though functionally—until my daughter was three and have ongoing anxiety disorder. I made many mistakes with my daughter that alienated her. We are now estranged, to my great sadness.

I’ve blamed and punished and judged myself for years. But since remembering Daddy and Oklahoma, I see things in a different light. I’m no longer a 20-year-old with expectations of Daddy, wanting to go to a glamorous play with a suave and handsome father. Now I understand that for some unknown reason Daddy couldn’t help it. He had a profound problem he was unable to overcome. But he did the best he could. He tried so hard to give his little-girl-turning-woman a special gala evening. Having made my own mistakes and unintentionally hurt people I love, I don’t blame Daddy now. And I’m working on not blaming myself. Daddy’s little girl is growing up.


Grace shows up in clever disguises.

Trees are cherished friends. They shade us, produce oxygen, shelter tender baby birds. Their green beauty relaxes us. Our grapefruit tree went above and beyond to help me. It saved my ear.

I was picking up fallen grapefruit from under our big beautiful tree one morning. When I was done and stood up from my crouching position, my head bumped a branch and I caught my ear on a nasty thorn. There was a lot of blood. I never knew how large a grapefruit tree thorn is until I looked at it after it attacked me. Huge! And nasty.

I washed, disinfected and bandaged the wound. A few days later I removed the bandage and it seemed fine. But over time I noticed little spots of blood on my bath towel after drying myself. Then it started seeping and I went to see my dermatologist. The doctor couldn’t take a biopsy of the sore because it was too contaminated with blood and ooze. (Sorry for the gore.) I was very careful not to wet or touch it for a few days and it dried out.

The doctor then did a biopsy, and it turned out that the source of the blood was a basal cell cancer growing under the skin where the thorn pricked me, tucked into and following the curve of my outside ear rim. It wasn’t yet visible to the naked eye.

Two weeks later a surgeon removed the cancer. He put it in a jar and showed it to me. It was more or less the size and shape of a medium-size garlic clove, although it was longer and more slender which was why it hadn’t been obvious. 

If that thorn hadn’t snagged and wounded my ear, the cancer might have gone undetected until it grew large enough to be noticed. And then I would have been in trouble. A large part of my ear might have had to be removed.

In noble beauty, that tree has graced our backyard for 30 years. It has serenaded us when the wind rustles through its leaves, and yielded the lovely gift of its fruit to us. Now it has saved my ear from being ravaged by cancer.

I am deeply grateful. I thank the tree, I thank the thorn, I thank God, and I wear a hat and sunscreen when I’m outside.  

Heavenly Help in Disguise

Hernias are not usually thought of as being from heaven. They’re usually thought of as coming from the other place. But my husband’s was different. It saved his life.

Frank’s hernia showed up last year. He was 78. The hernia wasn’t very big and it wasn’t painful. The doctor said it might remain relatively harmless and that if Frank preferred, he could leave it be and they’d just keep an eye on it. But of course he could have it surgically repaired if he wanted.

Frank had never had surgery and found the prospect unpleasant. He was inclined to leave well enough alone. But the doctor went on to tell him if he did remove it he could do it laparoscopically, with a recovery time of only 1-2 weeks and much less pain than with open surgery. It’s all done with a thin scope and instruments inserted through very small incisions.  

That made Frank was a lot more interested. He opted for the laparopscopic surgery.

Good thing. He had no idea then what an important decision that was. 

Routine pre-surgery blood tests were done, and a high white blood cell count was discovered. So different tests were done to find out what was causing the abnormality and eventually they did a CT scan.

That’s when they saw the spot on Frank’s pancreas. It was biopsied and turned out to be very early-stage cancer. Three-quarters of pancreatic cancer patients die within a year of diagnosis. But because his cancer was small and confined to the head of the pancreas, Frank was among the small minority of patients eligible for a complex procedure to remove the tumor. It’s called a Whipple surgery.

The Whipple surgeon said the cancer was early-stage enough that Frank could have his hernia repaired first, so he did. It was a piece of cake. He recovered fully in about a week. Shortly after that, he had his Whipple surgery. That was not a piece of cake. It was a long operation—about seven hours—and a lengthy, difficult and painful recovery. But it was worth it. It beat the alternative, no contest. The outcome was very successful, because the cancer had not spread to surrounding vital arteries or organs. The prognosis looks good for Frank to have a good number of quality years ahead of him.

It would be quite a different story if Frank hadn’t had that hernia, and if he hadn’t opted for the hernia surgery with its pre-surgery tests.

Life is mysterious. So many times, things happen that seem negative but when you look back on them you see that they were actually gifts. Precious gifts. In Frank’s case, the gift of years of life. And all from a lousy hernia, imagine. That has to be one of God’s cleverest disguises for a gift, ever.

Blogging is good for your health.

Maybe you think the above title is a mistake, that I meant to say jogging. Nope. I mean blogging. You’re getting healthier if you laugh while you blog. 

Everyone knows jogging is good for your health. It strengthens muscles, improves cardiovascular fitness, helps maintain weight…yadda yadda yadda. As long as you don’t ruin your knees.

But how in the world can blogging be good for your health? The answer is endorphins. When you laugh you increase the number of these “feel-good” hormones in your system. The trick is you need to write humor. I write a lot of it. At least my friends tell me my stuff is funny. My blog posts make me laugh, which is the important part. Writing humor increases your health only if you laugh at your own jokes like I do.

Two young bloggers ramp up their endorphin counts.

When I’m at my PC blogging, sometimes I laugh so much that my husband thinks someone is in my office with me. It’s very therapeutic for me because I’ve suffered from depression nearly all of my life. I won’t go into the details, which I’ve been boring my friends with for years, but some very dark things lurk in my family background: suicide, heroin addiction, crime, hellacious accidents, alcoholism, permanent estrangement…the list goes on, but as a public service I’ll stop here.

So when I write about campaigning for a tooth fairy who comes to seniors, or becoming a Victoria’s Secret reject because my bra band size is larger than their max 38 inches,  or trying to meditate at home with Judge Judy’s obnoxious voice blaring from the TV, I’m manufacturing endorphins. These happy brain chemicals also relieve pain.

In a scientific test conducted at Oxford, participants’ arms were wrapped tightly in a blood-pressure cuff and tightness was increased gradually. Some participants watched 15 minutes of comedy, and they were able to withstand 10 percent more pain than participants who didn’t watch comedy. There’s also a bonding effect in an endorphin rush that is important in our social lives, believed to be like grooming for certain highly social animals such as monkeys. Endorphins also reduce stress and create a positive feeling in the body.

So next time someone tells you laughter is good for your health, don’t laugh. It’s true. And it doesn’t ruin your knees.

Mike’s long road home

mikeMy brother Mike could never remember exactly how he made the biggest mistake of his life. It knocked him off-course and altered his destiny. All he recalls is hitchhiking to L.A. Somehow he missed the mark and ended up 500 miles from there, in Tucson.

Turns out it wasn’t a mistake at all. It was a miracle.

Maybe he was just standing on the wrong side of the highway. Chances are he was high and not thinking clearly: Mike was a heroin addict. There were lots of events and long stretches of his life that he couldn’t recall. He was high on smack most of the time for almost 20 years running.

Mike was two years older than me. Our father was mentally ill, and by the time I was born Daddy couldn’t handle a job or any other responsibility. Our mother, only 20 when she married, not realizing Daddy was ill, did the best she could but was not equipped to deal with something like schizophrenia. Who is? Mom’s own mother had been a homemaker and her father worked at the Navy Yard near Seattle and brought home the bacon every single day. Everything seemed picture-perfect, right down to the bridge club and the county fair flower judging and the black metal lunchbox Grandma filled up for Grandpa every workday.

I think Mom expected a life like that, but hers didn’t even come close. There was a deep stigma of shame attached to mental illness back in the 1940s. In order to get help Mom would have had to tell someone about Daddy’s schizophrenia, which for her was not an option. So she had no one to share her burden with. She had only a high school education, and worked at low-paying jobs to support all of us. Life was hard.

Mike started experimenting with drugs when he was 12, stealing cough syrups containing codeine that were sold over-the-counter back then. He soon moved on to stronger stuff. He was first incarcerated when he was 13. We were all eating dinner in our apartment when the doorbell rang. I opened the door. “I’m looking for Michael Torello,” a policeman said, looking down at me from where he stood on our porch. Mike had already gotten up from the table, and he walked out the door and drove away with the policemen. I didn’t see him for six months. He had stolen a car, I later learned. After that he was in trouble constantly.

He started disappearing more often and for longer stretches, incarcerated or just drifting in a drug haze. He broke into people’s houses and stole things to sell, or took money if it was there, to buy his drugs with. Mom never talked about him. There was an unspoken rule not to mention him. I had a lot of grief about him I never expressed, and in my thirties I sought out counseling. Talking to compassionate experts helped. I wish Mom could have done the same, but she never got past the shame of her generation over mental and emotional problems in the family. She suffered in silence.    

When Mike was 20, his right arm got caught in a meat grinder in a pizza parlor, where he was working while high on drugs, most likely heroin. Moments after it got caught in the terrible blades someone tried to turn the grinder off, but the external off button was not working. Someone finally unplugged it. The arm was lost up to the elbow. After a long stay in the hospital Mike went to live with our father, long-divorced from Mom and living with his mother.

After a few months Mike disappeared again. Daddy committed suicide shortly afterward. I lost track of Mike for years.

In my late thirties I was surprised to get a letter from Tucson. It was from Mike. He had tracked me down. “I woke up in a Tucson jail one morning and wondered what the hell I was doing there,” he wrote, “especially since as far as I knew I lived in California, and didn’t remember leaving it on purpose.” When he woke up in the jail he had an eerie feeling that his life was about to change into something he wouldn’t recognize. The feeling was right on.  

Mike was tried and convicted of burglary. Except for the fact that it happened in Arizona instead of California, it seemed like a familiar story in Mike’s life. Need drugs, commit crime, get caught, go to jail.

But this time, a compassionate judge sentenced him to a residential halfway house, Casa Amigo, instead of jail. At Casa there was counseling and job training, basic living skills like cooking and cleaning, virtually nonstop Narcotics Anonymous (NA) meetings, and other resources. Not to mention friendship and bonding. Mike needed all those things. 

After Mike and I wrote letters for a few months, I flew to spend a week with him in his little bungalow, in an old barrio of Tucson.

“How in the world did you end up in a city in the Sonoran desert?” I asked him over coffee.

“I just remember hitchhiking, and everything else is blacked out until I woke up in jail,” he told me. “I asked a guy in the cell and he told me I was in Tucson.”

Mike didn’t know how he got there, but he knew Tucson was the right place for him to end up. From his first day in the halfway house, when he was forty, until he died ten years later he was clean and sober. He had been addicted to one drug or another continuously for nearly twenty-five years.

Mike was a high school dropout, but he completed two years of community college and then earned a civil engineering degree from the University of Arizona. Job hunting afterwards, he had a lot of anxiety about the felonies he had to disclose on job applications, which would scare off employers. But someone at the Arizona Highway Department read between the lines of his resume and saw his amazing turnaround after so many years of drug abuse and crime. The department gave him a chance, and he was a civil engineer there until he died.

He met his girlfriend Susan in Narcotics Anonymous. She and Mike lived together, with their formerly stray neighborhood cat Petey, until Mike’s death.

Mike had no self-pity over his missing arm. He was grateful he still had his elbow joint. “It gives me a lot more functionality,” he told me. He drove, ironed, cooked, bowled, did everything else people with two arms do.

He didn’t even feel sorry for himself over his rapidly spreading lung cancer. I learned it was already late stage when I arrived. He was thin and gaunt and fragile-looking. His cheeks were hollow. But he was peaceful and calm. Happy.  

My last night there, Mike and I talked and talked until the mountains in the window and the moon hanging over them disappeared, and a faint salmon glow lit the sky. “The last ten years have been fuller than I ever dreamed life could be,” he told me. He had remained in NA and sponsored and mentored many newcomers. He was loved and respected by his extended family of recovering addicts throughout Tucson. He and Susan had a loving relationship. Petey was a joy. “I have no regrets,” he said. Not even about dying.

We never saw each other after that visit. He died soon after I got back to San Jose. His memorial was held in the halfway house, where his healing had begun. Mike’s many friends gathered from all over Tucson and shared their stories about him, and their love and respect for him. Afterwards his ashes were scattered in the foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains east of Tucson. Mike wanted to be in the winds near his beloved home where he had found peace and meaning, and service to his fellow addicts, in his last years. It was there that he finally got treatment instead of punishment, and found healing, friendship, work and love.

I never dreamed that one day I would call Mike my teacher, but he was. He taught me that it’s never too late to change. It’s never too late to recover from addiction, even from one with as vicious a grip as heroin, and even if the addiction has lasted decades. It’s never too late to find love and adopt a cat and make a home and go to school, even after a life of crime and incarceration. It’s never too late for a miracle.  

Having fun helping the planet.

I led a pretty vain, self-indulgent life until I was in my mid-thirties. I’m not proud of it. Now I’m striving to be a part of healing the damage we have done to our planet, and a part of preventing further damage. My priorities have changed. As I grow older and, hopefully, wiser I am becoming less selfish and more eager to help with solutions to environmental problems.

cleanup-342707_640I was surprised to discover I can help and still be self-indulgent, because helping preserve our earth turns out to be a hell of a lot of fun. There’s a lot to do close to home. I join in weekend creek and beach cleanups whenever I can. They start frightfully early, and I’m not much of an early riser when I don’t have to be. But getting up early for a cleanup is worth it when we’re done and I see the natural beauty shining through, trash and litter gone, and the habitat safer with the removal of plastic bags and six-pack rings that kill so many water fowl. Not only that, the people at the cleanups are a lot of fun and I’ve made a few new friends.

I’ve also lost weight doing the habitat cleanups. And I’ve been shopping with cloth bags for a long time and believe I’ve lost weight traipsing back to my car to get them when I discover, usually when I’m in the check-out line, that I absent-mindedly left them in my car. 

I’m conscious of doing things that make my footprint smaller upon the earth. We hooked up a water-saving “Navy” showerhead, and always buy green household products. I take light-rail now whenever I can, even when it’s more convenient to drive. As a result I do a lot more meditating and reading, which I’m a big fan of, and I’m more relaxed. Instead of saving money washing my car at home, I take it to the car wash, where they recycle and keep harmful chemicals out of the storm drains and thus out of our of creeks and the bay. It costs money, a drawback, but on the other hand I can catch up on email and phone calls—and more reading, while I’m waiting. I recycle religiously, down to buying used books from Amazon.  

These are just a few things I’ve been doing differently from how I lived during my misspent youth. The satisfaction I get from helping heal the earth cancels out any sacrifice involved in changing my lifestyle. Helping save the planet is its own reward. I do have to admit though, that I like the way I look since I’ve lost weight. I have changed in a lot of ways but my vanity is healthy and intact. It still loves to be stroked. One more reason why habitat cleanups rock.


Miracle at the Car Wash

One busy morning I stopped between errands to get my car washed. I told the young man at check-in that I wanted a hand wash and hand wax but needed to be out of there by 10:30 latest. I had to be at the dentist by 11:00. I was pushing it—it was 9:45, but he assured me my car would be ready so I paid and went to the waiting room.

At 10:30 I looked out into the pickup area. My car wasn’t there. I walked back to the kiosk and asked the young man about it, who called the manager on a walkie-talkie. “Where’s the white car with the hand wash and wax? We told her 10:30,” he said. A raspy, insolent voice asked, “You mean that old lady?” I was stunned. The young man, embarrassed, knew I’d heard. I’m 70, but I consider myself to be holding up pretty well. I had never been called old lady, and certainly never so derisively. I felt deflated. Ancient. I was swept up in the insanity of vanity . They brought out my car and I left, but my day was ruined. For the next few days, old lady kept ringing in my head.  

I never went back there. When my car became unacceptably dirty, I googled and found a hand car wash that was much closer to my house. Happily, it turned out to have much more to recommend it. When I paid at the kiosk and went into the waiting room, I found myself entering a place of beauty and peace. Silence reigned; it was a true hand-wash operation, with absolutely no automated equipment. A cool gurgling stream curved across the stone floor. In it, lovely orange carp silently glided. Lining the stream were small red tables, the kind found in nightclubs, where customers sat in the stillness, broken only by the whispering of the stream and soft talking on cell phones. Two turtles rested together in lush foliage on the stream bank. Several well cared for cockatiels chattered in the other room. The gourmet coffee was delicious.

My car is much cleaner now because the car wash is such a pleasant place that I go every chance I get. That insolent, bad-mannered manager is a faded memory. In fact I now think of him as my angel in disguise. He guided me to Car Wash Paradise, and I silently express gratitude. Thanks, you old geezer.