Of Pigs and Flowers

Her mother woke Lilya and said, “The pigs are gone.”
It was fall and Lilya had been going to school for several weeks now. Her neatly pressed blue-and-white uniform lay on the bed, ready to be put on.
“They got out of the fence and we have to find them,” her mother said.
The child knew that meant rummaging around in the thick Missouri undergrowth, squeezing into places her mother could not (and certainly would not) go.
“I’ll be late for school,” she protested, but she knew it was no use. She got up and pulled on her homemade play clothes and dutifully went outside, where her brothers were already thrashing the buckbrush and calling for the lost pigs. She knew this was going to be a very bad day.
As she squeezed under the bushes her thoughts strayed from pig-searching and school and being late. Low branches struck her face as she crawled, but she didn’t notice them. There was a powerful silence in this understory of green, and she wove her way among the bushes and tree sprouts with plodding determination. When she was far enough away from the clamor of pig-calling, she sat down with a sigh. There was seldom time to be alone, and Lilya loved to be alone, especially in the woods.
Green was all around. Stems and twigs were brown. Why was that? Why were there so many branches, making it hard to walk without being scratched? Why were there bugs, and why did some of them bite you and some of them did not? She watched a hill of ants, watched their purposeful movements. They never got tired, like she did. Lilya was often tired, but her mother told her she was just making it up to get out of work.
“Lilya,” her mother shouted.
They’ve found the pigs, she thought. She scooted back down the brushy path, back along the mashed leaves that retraced her route. She wasn’t sure exactly how to get back, but she was in no hurry, because getting back meant getting ready for school and walking in late for religion class. Everyone would stare at her. She blushed at the thought.
When she came out from under the hole in the fence she found out they hadn’t found the pigs after all. But her father was ready to take her and the brothers to school. She ate a bowl of cereal.
“Hurry up.” the mother said.
Lilya finished her breakfast and washed up. When she turned from the washbasin she was horrified to see her mother holding out her Sunday dress. “Shouldn’t I wear my uniform?” she stammered. “I have to wear my uniform.”
But her mother put the dress over Lilya’s head and began to button the back. Then she combed Lilya’s hair and attached a big bow.
“Go pick some flowers,” the mother said. So Lilya gathered up a handful of yellow daisies and blue cornflowers.
The mother knelt down and looked Lilya in the eye. “Tell Sister you are sorry for being late,” the mother instructed, “and then give her the flowers.”
Lilya wished her mother would give Sister the flowers and make the apology, but she knew two things. Her mother couldn’t speak English, and she couldn’t drive a car. She also knew that here in America you didn’t do things like show up late in your best dress and say you were sorry for being late in front of the whole class. You just stayed home and your parents wrote a note and you went to school the next day.
The ride to school was short and silent. Her father pulled up in front of the first grade classroom and stopped the car. Lilya sat in the car, too miserable to move.
“I have to go to work now,” her father said gently.
She didn’t remember getting out of the car, and she didn’t remember walking into the classroom. Everyone’s eyes were on her spiky curls and ribbons. She felt them sizing up her starched dress and the oversized bow in her hair that was beginning to droop, like the flowers she clutched in her sweaty hands.
“Sorry,” she said, and threw the bouquet onto Sister’s desk. Then she walked to her seat without saying a word. She felt every eye on her and wished the floor would swallow her, dress and curls and all.
“You have some explaining to do, young lady,” Sister said, but Lilya sat, silent and rigid among the frills that were not her uniform. Young lady? Lady? That was the name of their cow. Did Sister mean she was a cow?
“I’ll have to speak to your father about this,” Sister continued, but then, mercifully, she turned her attention to the blackboard.
Lilya tried to look small, tried to be invisible. “Some day I will be so far away from this that I’ll never, ever remember it,” she said to herself.

Chump Change

I was born defeated. My mother, the champion worrier, taught me that life was a complex series of unalterable circumstances. When something happened you either took it in stride or cursed the Fates conspiring against you. Never, at any time, was life under your control.

Bathed in this philosophy, I grew up feeling helpless. At the age of eleven I turned to food for comfort, and in high school I discovered amphetamines. “For your weight problem,” the doctor said. I was all of 130 pounds.

Life had two speeds: total depression or mania. When I woke up in the morning I never knew which reality would have the upper hand. If it was a “good” day compulsion would propel me out of bed. I made long lists over coffee, then drove myself relentlessly to perform every task on the list. If I found myself going too fast I would add more items to the list until I fell, exhausted,  into bed.

On “bad” days nothing could motivate me. I would feel worthless and unable to perform even the simplest tasks. Deadlines were something I watched going by, because I could accomplish nothing.

After a disastrous break-up with my boyfriend I quit college after my junior year. I entered the work world with no real thought of a career, and when things got bad I simply changed jobs. I didn’t bother to sort things out because flight was what I had grown up with. When things got bad you got out of the way.

At some level, neatly submerged beneath my consciousness, I knew enough to stay away from counselors and psychiatrists, because in those days doctors whispered “nervous breakdown” and gave you shock treatments. Or to be more genteel, electroconvulsive therapy.

Despite the constant battle against depression I was relatively happy, at least on my “good” days. However, when my oldest daughter reached eleven, the age at which my eating disorder had kicked in, I began a downward spiral into anorexia and was admitted to a treatment center that specialized in eating and emotional disorders. On my first night one of my fellow patients at our table asked, “Are you food or mood?”

“Yes,” I mumbled.

The doctor said I was near death from starvation, but because I couldn’t feel anything and still weighed more than 100 pounds I shrugged it off. Stupid doctor.

In addition to worrying, my mother had been a veritable travel agent for guilt trips. My early training included incessant performance reviews, and oh, how I could perform! I said and did and ate all the right things. As a result, I was out of the hospital within a month. I went home with a fistful of Prozac and a rather more substantial body.

Thanks to the medication, I continued to increase my physical presence on the planet. Burgeoning like the fatted calf on steroids, I gained 60 pounds in a couple of months. I was less depressed overall, but the weight gain was another lesson in hopelessness. I had never been fat in the past, but the eating disorder made me think I was. Medication turned that perception into reality.

And while I was no longer near death, I still had the eating disorder.

My body began to creak. I had pains in my back, my ankles, my knees, my head. No longer could I count on bursts of energy to motivate me. Mood swings kicked me around. It was time to either change things or crawl into a hole and zip it up after me.

I decided to change.

All I Can Hold

“I’m trying to stay busy because time passes more slowly when you’re waiting for something. I’ve learned that you can let go of waiting and let time hold you in the moment. Vision sharpens and sounds become more distinct. It’s a phenomenon that you can choose to be part of. You can’t make it happen, but you can open up so you can be a witness to the beauty. I’ve experienced it a couple of times. When it happens, I feel that I have everything. And everything is all I can hold.” — Elizabeth Komaromi Simons

Counting to Ten

“Turn that thing off!”

Startled, Marni looked up. The voice was so loud she could hear it through her earbuds. She leaned back in her chair and looked around. Nobody in the coffee shop was staring at her. The music swelled in her ears. The soprano was just about to hit the high note …

Did she have her music turned up too loud? Sighing at the interruption, Marni yanked the earbuds out and held them in her hand. She couldn’t hear the music at all. How could somebody at the next table think it was too loud?

“You never listen when I’m talking to you.” The voice was angry. Marni squirmed in her seat and took a sip of coffee. She peered carefully over the rim of her cup.  A woman who looked to be in her forties sat in a booth to the right of Marni’s table. She was wearing a gray pin-striped business suit with a cream-colored silk blouse. Everything about her said efficiency, from her carefully applied makeup to her Manolo pumps.

Across from her sat a sullen teenage girl in black. Spiked black hair, black lipstick and nails, black leggings, black leather jacket, and so many chains and piercings she looked like she’d rolled around in a tackle box. The girl had a lightning bolt tattoo that swept from the base of her ear to her collarbone. She had white earbuds and held an iPod in her hand. There was a tall glass with a straw on the table in front of her.

She was nodding her head to the music. And she wasn’t saying anything.

They must be mother and daughter, Marni thought. Or aunt and niece. The older woman continued her rant while the girl slid lower in her seat, never once looking up as she arranged her headphones.

“Drew, take those damn things off, ” the woman shouted. Her anger spilled out into the coffee shop, causing a few startled heads to turn. Drew brushed her jacket absently as if to remove the bitterness that hung in the air.

Marni shook her head in amazement. Didn’t the woman realize people could hear every word of her diatribe? In the growing silence, her anger had exploded into everybody’s face.

“What is your problem?” the woman hissed. She had turned and was staring right at Marni.

“What? My problem? What do you mean? I don’t have a problem.” Marni stammered, then looked away from the eyes that bored into her.

“Your problem is you stick your nose where it doesn’t belong.”

Marni’s face flushed. “Are you kidding me?” she asked.  Wait. Was she even going to go there? Actually argue with someone who, despite her carefully arranged appearance, had totally lost control?

“I saw you take your earphones out so you could listen in on our conversation,” the woman continued, narrowing her eyes.

Marni took a deep breath. “I took out my earbuds because I heard you say something about turning the music off, and I thought you were talking to me.”

The woman’s expression turned steely. She gripped her coffee cup until her fingers turned white. “Why would I talk to you? I don’t know you or your kind. I was talking to my daughter.”

The daughter was oblivious to the conversation. She had turned her music up so loud Marni could hear it from six feet away. She was in her own world. From the looks of things, she probably spent most of her time there.

Something inside Marni snapped, and the color rose in her cheeks. “You might have been talking to your daughter, ma’am, but it sure looked like a one-way conversation to me.”

The woman actually rose from her seat and started toward Marni. A small arm draped in silver chains reached out and gently pushed the older woman back into the booth. She took off her headphones.

“Mom, you need to get a grip,” Drew said, patting her mother’s arm. “You remember what Dr. Rollins told you about counting to ten.”


A Complete Story in 100 Words

The book wanted to be a tell-all. It deftly absorbed parlor conversation, where rumors swirled like spun sugar. Hoping to be noticed, the book ruffled its pages and straightened its dust cover. Its vast knowledge of local gossip practically guaranteed publication. The talk this evening was all about Mrs. Meddoe’s indiscretions and subsequent banishment from polite society. The book shivered with anticipation. Those are merely allegations, whispered the dictionary. It doesn’t matter, said the book, leafing through the first chapter. The pages would write themselves. Fame and fortune awaited! Oh, how jealous the other books would be!

In Moderation

The subject of eating and wellness and dieting and healthy guts and know-it-allness about what happens to food once it’s ingested has reached the level of mania. Dieting and “clean” food aside, who really knows the mysteries of the human body’s ability to transform substance into itself? We can scope and probe all we want, but we still don’t know at which point the food becomes us. I heard a doctor once say that our digestive processes are as unique as a fingerprint.

At one time in my life food and eating were my drugs of choice. Because we literally starved in Austria, my mother’s agenda, once we reached the U.S., was that there would always be food on the table. But it was so much more than nourishment. It was both reward and punishment. One evening I watched my sister being force-fed, so I became the compliant poster child of the clean plate club. Another piece of cake? Sure, hand it over. Despite all that, I was a perfectly normal size and weight.

Ah, but it was the 60s and there was Twiggy, the big-eyed fashion icon who wore clothes no bigger than a postage stamp. I didn’t want to be LIKE her, I wanted to BE her. In high school I was introduced to amphetamines. Not only did I lose weight, but I became gregarious and outgoing. I’d discovered the Magic Drug, with its psychological as well as physical benefits. I couldn’t sleep and I barely ate. Fortunately for me, the drug supply ran out before I got addicted.

Fast forward to my thirties, when I was felled by Midlife Crisis. It had me so firmly in its grip that I stopped eating meals altogether. I became expert at appearing to eat. The delight in my new body turned to a desperate need to become thinner and thinner. If I were only thin enough all my problems would disappear. When I confided to an acquaintance that I had an eating disorder she exclaimed, “Wow! You look great. I wish I had that kind of self-control.” My mouth dropped, but I didn’t respond. How could she know I’d never been more miserable in my life? Besides, I knew I wasn’t successful because I couldn’t get below a triple digit weight. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get below 100 pounds. I’d failed at everything else in life, and now I was failing at anorexia.

Then one day I snapped out of it. I don’t know what or how or why. My children’s fear at losing their Mom was my primary motivator, and for reasons as inexplicable as my earlier longing for death, I chose to live. I embraced the program and over time learned to eat moderately. I discovered what it felt like to be hungry and thirsty.

And then along came the thyroid cancer. I lost my thyroid, and what I feared was the worst thing that could happen to me—gaining weight—did. Nevertheless, I didn’t change my newly discovered eating habits. I continued to eat moderately. The only reason I might eliminate a substance would be if I got an allergic reaction to it.

The forces that sustained me are still sustaining me, but in different ways. I can’t override my body’s wisdom by avoiding certain substances. As in, if I eat this, that will happen. So I hold my head high, even though the AMA voted to make obesity—a pejorative word if there ever was one—a  disease (the better to charge for it). I have become what I most dreaded: a woman who shops in the plus sizes. But despite all the sweeping judgments about how excess weight causes all kinds of disease (it doesn’t), I shop for bigger sizes and give thanks that despite all the metabolic changes to my body I’m still here and still eating. In moderation.


The Little Genius

I was considered a very smart child. In fact, at the age of two I proclaimed “Én vagyok a kis okos!” (I’m a little genius.} After I learned the Hungarian alphabet I taught myself to read. In the first grade I quickly learned English, both spoken and written, and began to devour every book in sight. The uptown library became my second home.

I also liked to draw. But while teachers and classmates praised my sketches, I felt insecure about my efforts. There was always someone better. I wanted lessons, but I never asked for them. Besides, my parents couldn’t afford them, anyway.

School didn’t appeal to me. Most of the material we studied in the elementary grades was easy and therefore boring. In addition, I was socially inept and didn’t understand the niceties of conversation. I was most at home with a book. In class I rarely paid attention to the teacher, but the work was easy enough that I could keep up when it came time to take a test. Although I didn’t like math, computational arithmetic was easy enough, especially if it didn’t require verbal problem solving.

But music. Ah, music! A complete conundrum to me. Reading letters was so easy. Why didn’t these notes make sense to me? I had a good ear and easily learned melodies and harmonies, but sight reading was a mystery I have never solved. I could understand timing, I just couldn’t figure out how you could tell which note on the staff corresponded to a sound. Did it mean a specific sound? How do I know what sound? The note could be any sound as long as the arrangement of notes around it were the same, right? I guess that’s what’s known as the key? I could see how the notes went up or down, but if I hadn’t heard the music I could never tell you what the note represented. And why have a separate bass staff? Did it read the same?

Why didn’t the world of musical notation open to me like reading had? Reading words had been instinctive. Reading music was a nightmare. It required a type of thinking I didn’t possess. Even though I could read books way above my grade level, I considered myself stupid because I couldn’t understand musical notation.

Perhaps it would have been easier if I had learned to play an instrument. But money was tight in our household, and my brother, who showed aptitude on our old player piano, was the one who was given lessons.

To this day I can’t interpret sheet music, and it makes me sad. Fortunately, it didn’t stop me from singing in choirs, in school and beyond. So far, no one has required sight reading as a requisite for participation.

If that day ever comes, I guess I’ll have to publicly acknowledge my musical illiteracy and admit that I can be smart in some things, but not everything.

All you Need is Love

For the first time since I started playing pickleball, someone yelled at me for not playing well enough. We were partnered and I could tell that after the first couple of serves he gritted his teeth and grew quiet. I found it strange that he didn’t even bother to return the serves. After the game (which we lost, of course) he began to berate me for hitting the ball too high and making it too easy for the opposing team to slam it into our court. “You’re killing your partner,” he said in a wave of frustration. I found the wording of his tirade interesting, as his amorphous second person usage made it seem that he was speaking for the whole group. Did everyone who played with me feel that way?

I felt devastated. I had gotten up with a bad sinus headache, but thought playing pickleball would help. I didn’t play my best, but I was by no means terrible. Maybe I did return the ball a bit too high that day. Everybody makes mistakes, even the most seasoned. A gentle reminder would have been enough.

I slunk away and sat down at the far end of the row of chairs, pondering my transgressions and thinking about leaving, when Debbie, a young, experienced player, came up to me and said “Come on, Liz. Let’s play together.” She told me she would coach me throughout the game. How to hold my racket, when to run up to the net after a serve was returned, how to bend down and hit upward so my returns would be low and harder to hit. “Just watch me, and do what I do,” she said. She reminded me that it was just a game and winning wasn’t everything.

I don’t even remember who we played, or if we won. But I felt like a winner. There were several seasoned players with whom she could have partnered for that time slot, but she picked me to play with. She didn’t try to slow down her game on my account, but encouraged me to step up mine. Her encouragement eased my nervousness.

I went home feeling enormously better. I still had that headache, but it was manageable. I realized that the first person I played with might not have been feeling well, and his anger wasn’t necessarily directed at me personally, but I was still shaken.

On the other hand, Debbie’s reaction to seeing my distress was personal. It showed how a simple act of kindness pours light and love into a situation, and transforms pain into joy.

Where Does All the Matter Go?

What happens when you lose weight? You get smaller, right?

But where does the lost stuff go? You go on a diet and you weigh yourself regularly. One day you notice you’re a few pounds lighter. Once there was a part of you and then it’s gone. Does it dissolve into the ether? Does it metamorphose into something else? According to the law of conservation of matter, it doesn’t dissipate. So it has to be somewhere. How can it be matter and then not-matter?

Does it sneak out at night and glom onto another hapless human being who wakes up one morning and notices there are a few extra pounds on the scale?

Does it make you less than you are? More importantly, will it come back?

It’s a conundrum.

I think I’ll go and consume some antimatter.

How Long Have I Got?

Is it better to know ahead of time that your days are numbered, at least within a certain time frame? Even if that time frame stretches into years? Or is it better to be totally unaware and die, say, in an accident? What happens, happens.

Okay, so I carry that ticking clock inside me that tells me my days are numbered. I’ve got cancer. Not your everyday, run-of-the-mill cancer, but a truly odd type of cancer about which little is known. This creates a certain amount of tension and turmoil in my life. I could die within a year, or I could be at Stage Four for the next 20 years. As a fellow cancer colleague (I don’t like the designation of either survivor or victim) once said, “You’re more likely to die with it than from it.”

I don’t find that particularly comforting. I belong to a Facebook support group, and there have been several deaths in the past year. This stupid cancer, known as medullary thyroid cancer (MTC) is capricious. You can be fine for a while. For a long time, even. But then one day you aren’t.

But I don’t want to bore you with the details. They’ll come up periodically, but I don’t want to launch into a philippic about the vagaries of this mysterious ailment.

So how long have I got?

This MTC has been my dance partner for about two years now. Aside from the anguish I experienced from the assault on my neck from two surgeries, I’m not in pain. I exercise. I enjoy my friends and family.

But I get tired a lot. I need a fair amount of sleep. Afternoons don’t go so well. I have my limitations, and if you want to ask me to do anything that involves movement, call me in the morning.

Nevertheless, I don’t look sick, certainly not like the gaunt, hollow-eyed sufferers I used to see in medical books and magazines. In fact, to my great consternation I gained weight after my thyroid was removed. I don’t require chemotherapy or radiation, because MTC doesn’t respond to them, anyway (Let the weird fun facts begin).

So how long have I got?

When I first got my diagnosis I felt numb. Time slowed down and I saw everything in slo-mo. Then that passed and I got up the next morning and had my coffee and toast. You can’t stay down all the time. You tell a few people (because I don’t like broadcasting my situation to a bunch of people, not even to the Facebook support group) and then you’re done with that. You give people updates when they ask.

I took up playing pickle ball right after Christmas. I love the fact that my body can learn new ways of moving, and that I can consciously will myself to return the ball over the net. And no matter how cold and gray the day, or how tired I feel, pickle ball drives negative thoughts out of my mind because there’s no room for feeling weepy when you’ve got a responsibility to back up your partner. Or when you’re volleying back and forth and you realize you’ve returned the ball a dozen times.

But this isn’t about pickle ball. Not directly, anyway. I’ll come back to it periodically, because it’s completely amazing to me that after more than 60 years of feeling like I never truly incarnated into my body, I’m now learning how to own it. Pickle ball and cancer just don’t get along.

So how long have I got?