Thursday, October 4, 2012

Zoned Out

It was raining today, so Noam let me borrow his hooded rain jacket.  I zipped up the front and rolled the sleeves on this larger, beige-er version of my yellow jacket, which I had left at home, to walk Roxy between interviews.  While it felt familiar, the scent of it was not mine. Noam's rain jacket smelled like his whole life. Like walking a mile in someone else's shoes, my shoulders felt the heaviness of the loss of his wife, Carol, who most likely ordered the jacket from a catalog for him, taking it out of storage for the season, folding it up and carting it to their summer home where he has worn it with his now-gray sneakers in a drizzling Cape Cod rain to plant daylillies in the dampened, loose earth, and to trim the rose bushes.  On another day he would build up the slope to prevent a small hillside of eroding sand and grass from sliding toward the gray, bedecked clapboard house.  The slight scent of mothballs and coffee evoked visions of home, early morning autumn strolls, and sunset walks down the pond's steep summer path to find the dragons' hiding places with his grandchildren.

Earlier today, a film crew member sat in Noam's chair, preparing his interview for their documentary on The 99%.  She wore Noam's glasses to allow the crew to check and correct for glare before filming. Celik, the producer, chuckled when I said that she was looking at life through Professor Chomsky's lenses. I had worn them before, for other crews on other days, and I have to admit that something about wearing Noam's glasses made me feel smarter, more insightful, even argumentative. Maybe it was all in my mind, but I have to admit to closing my eyes when I wore them, to keep my head from aching, as if his last thoughts clung to them, waiting impatiently to get back to the business of thinking.

Noam was sick with yet another bad cold, most likely as a result of the usual - too much contaminated airplane air and too little sleep.  He sat next to me sipping hot tea while the crew prepared the set. "How's your mother doing today?" he asked, knowing that my mother is being treated for lung cancer - the same demon that took his wife nearly four years before.  I was thinking that, as rich as my time is with him, I wanted to go to my mother's house and make her hot tea, and maybe play a game of scrabble. My mother plays strictly by the rules - something that used to annoy me, but her toughness comforts me now. I'm sure her illness brings back memories for Noam, but he's also a sincerely caring and empathic person who knows what's going on with whom in his family and among his friends.  Like me, Noam has a worry queue.  If someone falls out of that queue, I ask him, "so who will fill that queue now?" And although there's always someone else to worry about, we laugh.  In fact, we laugh a lot in that office, despite the scattered darkness on the subjects of war, terrorism, media manipulation, bad politics, bad policies, climate change, and the rest. If we didn't, I might have left long ago. Credit for my staying goes to the flip side of watching Noam's and others' unwavering focus on the truth of these matters.

There's a richness in working for Noam of a sort I couldn't imagine when I first took the job in the early 90's, as there's richness in sitting through tests and chemotherapy with my mother.  It's all about my comfort zone. Traveling with Noam to Italy took me out of my comfort zone more than once.  I'm not used to functioning on one hour of sleep in a country where I don't understand the language. Nor did I think myself capable of watching chemical cocktails drip into the veins of my own mother.  My mother sits back in her recliner, and like Art Linkletter's five year old kids, says the darndest things, making everyone in the room laugh. Just months before, the woman in the chair just six feet away lost her mother to the same lung cancer for which she, herself, is now being treated.  She laughs along with us, then the room falls silent while she struggles to swallow a dry piece of bread from her complimentary sandwich. There is a collective holding of breath and several offerings of water until she takes a sip from her own water bottle and begins to look more comfortable.  The rest of us resume our quiet chatter in an effort to regain some normalcy, and the tension eases considerably when she chimes in once again.  Life comes in moments. The funny things that come out of my mother's mouth and the humor of the woman's sister raise everyone's spirits once again, and our nurse, hearing us laughing, enters the space we share with this family and slides open every curtain to its end point, exposing our room to the narrow hallway.  "It's wonderful to hear you all laughing," she says.  "It's true you know, laughter really is healing." She thanks us and walks back to her cubicle less than five yards away.  In retrospect, I'm sure the nurses welcome our high spirits on their own behalf, as well. What better gift for such a skilled, and most likely stressed, group of people?

I had a dream the night before that my mother was standing on her own two feet, changing her shirt.  She looked healthy and at ease. She was so afraid she was dying when diagnosed with cervical cancer less than four years ago, which was curable.  Now there are spots on her lungs, and although it's not curable, we were told that treatments will allow her to live longer, with a better quality of life. It's her choice to decide what a better quality of life means to her. There are lots of hidden truths that she prefers not to think about, though she jokes about being on borrowed time.  Aren't we all?

"She's having a rough day," I tell Noam, whose horrible, hacking cough seems to be worsening.  "The second day after chemotherapy is always the most difficult."  He looks pensive, and nods, then sighs. We chat for a little while about personal things, and then get back to the business of our office.

"Is that it for me today?" he asks as he tucks the last schedule into his brown leather briefcase. Noam managed to get through seven interviews in all, drinking mugs of fresh coffee, water, and tea with honey. The last crew was packing up.

"Yes, you can go home and get into bed now," I say.

Noam laughs, and gathers up his second briefcase and his rain jacket.  "I'll be sure to follow your sage advice," he says as we hug good-bye, although we both know he will be up until at least 2 am, writing and answering e-mails, new thoughts circling around his well-worn eyeglasses searching for a place to land.

Update on February, 2015: My mother was 83 when I wrote this in late 2012.  She passed away less than four months later.  Noam was 84, and he turned 86 this past December. I feel lucky for the gifts they have both given me.

1 comment:

  1. This flashes me back to so much of my life. I feel for you, hold hope for your Mom, and think you express yourself like poetry. Simple honesty is rare and precious.