Take Smaller Bites

Above arid and baking Boise, we found an oasis, a cabin in the cooler mountains.  Purchased three years before Chad fell ill, we were looking forward to calling the little place home after I retired.  We were both thrilled with the location and he stayed most weeks while I remained in the valley.  For me, the place represented my real life.  It began Friday night when I drove up, and lasted till Sunday when I had to turn into a teacher again.    

But this was the same time when my husband started complaining of a steady sore throat.  Unable to ignore the pain, my husband’s doctor referred him to an ENT for more thorough tests.  The appointment had been set nearly a month out, which left him with too much time to worry.  Hurting and scared, he decided to visit a rural medical clinic near the cabin.  Unable to exactly pinpoint the source of his pain, the Physicians Assistant prescribed penicillin for possible strep throat in case the infection was hiding, and that made his wait-time easier.  Sometimes I thought it wasn’t in his throat at all, though it was in his head.

Despite my doubts, I made the decision to cook up a storm during the week of Spring Break at the end of March.  If he fattened up a little, he’d hopefully feel better. 

I think it was the night I made stuffed pork chops that my husband again complained, “I can’t open my mouth wide enough to eat.” Frustrated by his endless fretting, my sympathetic answer consisted of something like “Take smaller bites.”  I didn’t think much of his squawking because he hadn’t stopped complaining in over a month. My vote went to a canker sore deep in his throat that needed to heal.

The first part of April brought the long awaited ENT appointment and he drove down to town.  I was in class and didn’t hear from him at all that day.  Oddly, when I pulled into the driveway after work, Chad was standing on the front porch watching me drive into the garage.  Again, I passed it off as nothing.  It was a nice day and he is the kind of person that is always dusting up chores to do, so I assumed that was why he was outside.

As I dumped my purse, bag and coffee cup on the table he came into the kitchen not looking any different than usual.  Rinsing my cup at the sink I pleasantly asked him how his doctor’s visit had gone, and he looked at me suddenly with an intense expression reflecting shock and disbelief.  “I have cancer”.  At first I didn’t react, honestly not knowing what I was supposed to say or feel.  I stared back, as his eyes filled with tears.

I wish he could have given me the news in smaller bites. 

 

Resemblances

 

There were pieces missing in what I was watching in Florida—mysteries from an earlier time.  The only observable friction I witnessed played out over an air conditioner.  When Chum had built the place, he designed it so that the house angled to the southeast in order to catch the cross breezes blowing in from the Atlantic through jalousie windows.  In other words, there was no central air-conditioning, just the little window swamp coolers in three rooms: the living room, Chad’s bedroom and Helen’s old room.  The old man didn’t like to run these air conditioners because it cost money to pay the higher Florida Power and Light bills.  The insufferable heat and humidity didn’t seem to have an effect on him at all.  Every morning he donned his long green “old man” pants and a long-sleeved khaki shirt, sweating like mad, yet appeared quite comfortable.  What Chum considered frugal was, in Chad’s dictionary, “cheap.” 

After our marriage, my husband wanted to remain with me in Idaho.  I think it was mostly because he loved me and the West, but part of me believed it probably had something to do with his mixed feelings for his father.  I had a good teaching job, and my kids were established in school.  Plus, I owned the house we lived in.  Back in Florida, Chad had earlier lost his apartment on the 79th Street Causeway to Hurricane Andrew, and then moved home to nurse his mother through her final struggle with emphysema.  Chum was there too, with his room in the basement.  The two men—Chad and his father—had cared for Helen together, jockeying around her oxygen tanks and tubes, keeping her fed and clean. 

My husband had wanted out of Florida for a long time, only waiting for his mother to get better, and his son to graduate from high school.  It had long been his dream to live in the mountains and to visit old University of Florida friends now residing in Boise.  Eventually his frail mother died, one thing led to another, and we ended up, as I already explained, meeting, and soon married.

Fifteen years later, unconscious, Chad’s life hung in the balance.  His back looked arched, his swollen chest protruded upward on a raised, levered hospital bed.  Monitoring over his still body, I recognized this was the spot where he would either live or die.  I heard no platitudes, no assurances, saw no smiles, or affirming nods from any of the medical staff.  There simply was nothing to say. 

His father had all ready been gone for a few years, dying on the same kind of medical bed, but in an assisted living facility.  Hospice had then kindly ministered to Chum through his last illness, and assured passing.  Looking down on my husband’s ravaged body, that first trip to Miami strangely returned to my thoughts, evoking the complex bond between this father and son, who now shared a haunting resemblance. 

What had drawn us to that little room with the beeps and lights was the culmination of one distressing appointment after another to a cancer treatment center in Boise.  These visits invariably involved copious amounts of prescribed toxic chemicals pumped into his body on a daily basis, and razor-sharp radiation that scorched his throat.  Health providers were literally killing Chad to cure him.  At least that’s the way it felt. 

Missing Pieces

Chad and I met in the fall of 1994.  We married the following March in Key West, Florida.  I met his family there— his brother, sister, and the patriarch, Mont Chumbley, or simply, as he insisted, “Chum.”  Plainly, his father was a well- mannered gentleman, and I liked him at once.  Chad’s father seemed so unpretentious, that being around him was easy, with conversation naturally flowing. 

When my new husband led me downstairs to his father’s bedroom, the walls were festooned with scores of old-time black and white publicity photos.  They all featured the same beautiful girl.  It was Chad’s mother, posed in professional glossies.  I was immediately taken by her siren-esque good looks.  Helen, by any standard was lovely.  Her flaxen curls were evenly waved, 1930’s style; her eyes smoky lidded, her lashes accented with mascara.  She held a cigarette stylishly between her fingers, as a wisp of smoke, frozen by time swirled upward— a classic Hollywood beauty.  The unknown stories behind these photos—stories she could no longer tell, captured my imagination.  Movie glossies, ice-skating poses, and the black and whites autographed by fellow entertainers, left me sincerely curious. 

Another visible change I noted on this visit was the hostility that my husband began to exhibit toward his father.  Gone were all the glowing descriptions of aviation he had shared during our courtship, replaced now by caustic and resentful criticism.  How odd, I thought.  What did that sweet old man do to alienate his son so severely?  More perplexing was the time the two of them spent working on household projects together— all completed in strained silence.  If Chad turned off the water to a toilet to begin repairs, his father appeared quietly behind him. They worked without speaking.

The house, perched on the side of a sloping hill, led down to a seawall and a man-made lake called Mirror Lake.  Chum had been one of the first to start construction around the water in 1953.  Since then, the rest of that square block in Miami Shores had filled in with lake-front homes.  A Catholic rectory sat diagonally to the right of the backyard, and rang the Doxology from the bell tower each afternoon, sending a lovely resonance of notes tumbling over the small waves. 

Father and son seemed immune to that neighborhood music as they sweated and grunted over the washing machine, the dryer, leaky sinks, or other pending jobs that had waited for Chad’s arrival.  All I could hear sitting in the living room was metallic clinks and exhaled profanities. 

Later, when my new husband caught up with me by the lake, the first words out of his mouth were, “. . . he’s such an asshole.”   Asking for an explanation, Chad only quipped, “He just is.”  It left me again wondering what that harmless old man could have possibly done to earn such contempt.

This family presented real mysteries. There existed a clear disconnect between the adventurous stories of flight, and the sparks of resentment.  What lay behind the glamorous cheesecake shots of Helen on the basement walls?  My mind was was spinning.

Especially crazy was that no one would or in some cases, could answer my questions.  I had some sleuthing ahead of me.

What Is This Place?

This is another post from River of January, explaining the circumstances behind the work.  For the next few weeks I plan on blogging portions from the manuscript that were edited out.  The story behind the story simply made the book too long, but thoroughly describes the path to the book’s creation.

He had been unconscious for about seven hours when I returned to the hospital, in the early morning of a certain-to-be- hot day.  By the time the elevator opened, emptied and refilled, I had time to note the nearest fire stairs. The ICU needed an express lift.  Whispering footfalls down a sterile, light peach hall led to a set of double doors, electric, requiring all entrants to sanitize hands and don surgical masks.  Just reaching his ward required countless consuming steps.  At last, after a cursory discussion with the charge nurse, identifying myself, I was directed to a corner where my husband lay unconscious.   Pulling aside turquoise drapery, there he lay, swollen and spent, punctured with countless tubes dropping from suspended clear bags, attached into numerous portals in his arms, abdomen, and chest.  His delirium and thrashing in the night forced the graveyard shift to restrain his wrists in Velcro cuffs anchored to the bed railings.  For the moment, his body lay motionless, comatose and unaware.

             Attached to Chad’s lower torso, a catheter was inserted.  And across his grossly distended lower abdomen a small red ring of turned out flesh with an opaque bag adhered around the opening, leading to a fatter tube fitted into a lunchbox-size canister positioned under the bed. That, I was told, collected feces from his large intestine.

His colon had ruptured the day before, and emergency surgery was crucial to save his life.  Of course, the problems that brought us to this point had begun months before, on the other end of his body.  Chad had been diagnosed with stage four Tonsil Cancer the previous April.  Now an oxygen tube had been forced down that same raw throat, and something akin to a mini-power strip, called a ‘pick’ was inserted under his skin, between his heart and left collarbone.  Another panel of ports was visible in his left inside elbow— I assumed to provide additional openings for more of the countless IV bags that crisscrossed his high narrow bed in a canopy of plastic.  His arms, red and purple, gave evidence to the sub dermal pooling of blood from all the needle punctures through his paper thin skin.  Red abrasions tracked down his bicep, the front of his forearm and onto his gauze covered left hand, trapped in Velcro; there were more tubes sprouting from an IV underneath the white dressing.  

All of these lines connected to something, each anchored to a myriad of flashing, incessantly beeping monitors.  His body seemed a human casino—one where no one wins.  The multiple reading machines produced a frightening racket, betraying his dangerous condition.  Loudly, the devices declared his pulse rate, heart beats, and the level of oxygen in his blood, with monotonous and relentless bursts.  It didn’t help that the medical staff eyed those readings grimly as they routinely stopped and carefully charted the numbers.

Most vivid in my mind was the beading sweat dripping off of the harried ICU nurse, as he raced around the bed in tennis shoes, laboring to battle, and improve those noisy readings.  Somehow I want to remember him wearing a sweat band around his head, like Andre Agassi wore, but that couldn’t have been the case. We were in a hospital.  It also appeared that this nurse had no other patients that first morning, because apparently his only job was to try and keep my husband numbered among the living.

It was a disastrous ending to a horrible spring and summer.  All I had left was grim resolve— there clearly would be no quick resolution to the calamity that had befallen us.

Wounds

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Rereading the original draft of my book, River of January, I reviewed the back story that propelled the book’s creation. An impossible crisis pushed me to write the work, but that narrative was cut out of the main manuscript due to length. But I still believe that the story behind the published story is important to share.

The Intensive Care Unit was the largest department on the third floor of the hospital. Reflecting back I never did figure out which direction the ward faced. Was it north toward Boise’s golden foothills or south over the blue turf of the football stadium? Someone needed to open the blinds.

The floor plan in the ward ovaled around like a carpeted arena, anchored by a nurses’ station in the infield. Three quarters of the broad ring had been segmented into tiny stalls–narrow spaces housing mechanical beds. My husband’s particular nook, squeezed into a curved corner, remained either open or sealed by simply sliding a glass door and a privacy curtain. Each morning I instinctively gauged his condition by the disposition of that entrance. Coding patients were afforded some semblance of privacy.

The sparse decor inside clearly signaled “no nonsense.” Two chairs flanked the entrance, with one small footstool. I once tried pulling out that stool to attempt a nap, but sleeping was reserved for the critical only; the nursing staff’s frenzied laps around his bed made sleep impossible.

Unconscious, bloated, with a swollen torso and bulging arms, my husband lingered on the crinkly mattress. Tubes protruded from nearly every square inch of his upper body, pumping in liquid meds and below, pumping out liquid waste material. Attached monitors loudly measured his heart and pulse rates, racketing in a relentless beeping.  I was afraid to ask the meaning of the numbers blinking on the monitor, the din adding to my fatigue. Eventually, I inquired what a normal cardio reading looked like, and the answer wasn’t reassuring. I froze in that nondescript chair, dazed, almost hypnotized, willing his numbers to improve. Still indifferent, that monitor shifted erratically, frequently setting off an alarm drawing in medical reinforcements. 

The cocktail of fluids pumped into his arms overnight had left him bloated to the point that his nose had flattened across his full, stretched cheeks. Fingers that had earlier held my hand from the stretcher now swelled to the size of cooked kielbasa—triggering thoughts of his wedding ring and his watch. My next random reflection recalled both pieces being handed to me the night before, and hopefully safe in my purse. It was a dreamy recollection. 

The worst feature of his bare torso was the ragged, opened split from his naval to his groin, sealed by a stiff grey foam substance, and a thin membrane of clear film covering the diagonal wound. I was told his body was so contaminated in septic debris that the stitches closing the incision would have healed before the toxic substances beneath had cleansed.  So this vacuum packed dressing over his wound kept the area draining and that tube, too had an attached little box, stowed under the bed that beeped and flashed. 

He looked too rubbery and inflated to be real, but with the aid of artificial ventilation forcing his breath, I could clearly hear his intake of air. 

Clinging to these subtle signs I began the litany of phone calls that had to be made to the rest of the family.  His son, my parents, his siblings . . . I hated to upset them all, but knew these relatives had to be kept in the loop. Listening quietly on the phone, my 78-year-old father finally spoke; he and my mom would pack up and come down to Boise from Spokane. I wasn’t prepared for that offer, and asked them to give me a little time. I still wasn’t convinced my husband was going to live. At that moment I had no energy for company, all my focus concentrated on watching his vital signs.

Desperation is a funny emotion. The intensity of it burns on the inside, and we fool ourselves in believing the conjured up power somehow changes reality. Maybe the instinct to inflict mental suffering on ourselves is a primal manifestation of empathy for our loved ones. He bore the physical wounds, while mine lashed and scorched my insides. Over the course of his lengthy critical care, and his slow road to recovery, I had to do something with all the bile stuffed into my psyche. Out of this pain came the healing therapy of River of January and my own recovery through writing.

Gail Chumbley is the author of the memoir River of January

 

Landmarks

 “Avalon,” is a lovely 1990 film directed by Barry Levinson.  The movie depicts the generations of the Krichinsky clan, a Polish-Jewish family that immigrated and settled in Baltimore.   In a touching scene toward the end of the film the lead character, played by Armin Mueller-Stahl shares a story with his grown grandson about a visit he took to his old neighborhood.  Describing his walk, Mueller-Stahl frets about the absence of familiar buildings.  Finally finding the childhood house of his now-deceased wife he reflects that it was a good thing (he found the house) because he thought for a moment that he “never was.”

Many places central to River of January also have passed into time.  New construction, commercial and residential, has erased much of what once solidly stood.  For Chum, the greatest eradication had to have been the airstrips and hangars of Roosevelt Field.  That particular airfield meant a lot to him as it was the site of his 1933 Air Race.  Today that area is all retail–the legendary field buried under department stores such as Coach, Anne Taylor, Sleep by Number, and the like.  On the other hand, Helen’s Whitby Hotel on West 45th Street still stands, though remodeled into privately owned condos.  I would also presume that many of the old vaudeville theaters, the Keith-Albee chain for example, are long gone.  Public entertainment halls are simply vestiges of a distant past where the girl turned herself inside-out to entertain New York audiences.  

I just returned from a visit to my old hometown.  Though elderly, my folks still live in the house of my childhood, a place I more frequently visit in my dreams.  On this actual trip we drove a little around the old neighborhood.  In the 1960’s, when I was a kid, my friends and I often walked to the grocery store, or a nearby soda shop called “Woodies.”  It had an unauthorized drawing of Woody Woodpecker on the front sign, and inside we played pinball and bought penny candy.  In later years, hard economic times hit the area and gang sign was more prevalent on old buildings than prosperous businesses within.  The grocery store closed, and shortly after Woody’s went out of business. 

But now, what a change!  A British-themed pub sits on the corner where once stood the drugstore that sold us our Marvel comic books.  Across the street a new high-end pizzeria, complete with outdoor dining, twinkling lights and live music–where in an earlier time a full service gas station checked oil, filled tanks and handed out Green Stamps.  And the old Woodies now?  It’s a hole in the ground.

My folks still reside in the old house, though they too have repainted and remodeled.  My mom took the opportunity of our visit to let me know that her beautiful re-done kitchen will be an asset when we sell the house.  All I could say was, “Where are you two going to live.”  She only smiled.

There is nothing we can do to stop time, (even Botox is no shield).  I pray that I can still recognize where I am in that part of Spokane as the months and years continue to blow by.  I want to be able to identify the place where I once was. 

The Diva?

ImageAt the risk of sounding too teacher-ish, I’d like to write a bit on the woman pictured above.  However, before I discuss Maria Gambarelli, it is fitting to mention that she is just one of many interesting characters I ran across researching River of January.  It is also fair to say that Helen’s audition for Miss Gambarelli altered the course of Helen’s early career.

Born in the US to Italian parents , Miss Gambarelli began classical training at a young age.   Crossing the Atlantic she studied ballet under famed Russian dancer, Anna Pavlova.  Once back in New York, Miss Gambarelli performed with acclaim on American stages.  After an appearance on a New York radio show, Gambarelli grew to be a celebrity among audiences not interested in ballet.  In her interviews she shared stories of Italian origin, along with related folk songs.  The host, Roxy Rothafel soon made Miss Gambarelli a regular on his program, raising her profile as a dancer.

Rothafel was the man behind the construction of the Roxy Theater, which opened in New York in the late 1920’s.  Miss Gambarelli began a long term contract at the theater, performing for audiences with her company of principal ballerina’s called the Roxy-ettes.  As you may have guessed, that dance line most likely evolved into the famed Radio City Rockettes.  At least that’s the story I found.  Nailing down the past is a dicey proposition, competing with numerous other theories.  However, it does seem to flow.

This ties into my book because Helen danced for Miss Gambarelli in 1932.  The soloist had been engaged by investors to lead a dance company on a tour of European cities.  The company titled “The American Beauties,” was slated to perform first in Paris, then to Brussels, Monte Carlo, and ending in Erba, Italy.  I found in Helen’s papers that the backers worked through the William Morris Agency in New York, in conjunction with the Lartique Agency on the Champs Elysee in Paris.

Helen successfully won a spot with the troupe, and began rehearsals with ten other girls in New York.  Then the dancers experienced a near mythical crossing on the SS Ile de France to Le Havre, and by rail to Paris–all in Miss Gambarelli care.

After the endless training, all of the traveling, all of the money spent in promotion–the tour faced failure.  After only two weeks of performing at the “Le Ambassadeurs” club in Paris, Miss Gambarelli quit the tour.  And not only did she quit, she turned around and sued Lartique for breech of contract.  Miss Gambarelli wasn’t being treated up to her expectations, nor was she allowed to maintain control over the music, or the  choreography of the production.  So she quit.

When I wrote about this episode in the book I needed to find the right word to describe Miss Gambarelli’s behavior.  I couldn’t use diva, because that’s a term that didn’t become a pejorative until today.  Prima-donna is a tough one too.  In fact spell-check doesn’t even recognized Prima-donna, let alone touch on its meaning.

But, if anyone fitted the term, it was Maria Gambarelli.

In the end the tour carried on without it’s star, and evolved over time into a broader variety program.  A new headliner re-tooled the production adding more song and dance, enjoying great success by the time Helen left for New York in 1933.

The show must go on.