Last Friday, I finally made it to my doctor’s office for a full physical. I had tried, sincerely, a few weeks earlier, on a hot, hot humid day. But only partially succeeded.
A tree got in the way.
But in a larger sense, perhaps, a tree was the way.
Disruption. What a weird gift it is.
If a tree falls
“If a tree falls in a forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound?” The more relevant question that day was, “If a tree falls across your road and is thus unheard or even known about by you until you are in the car on the way to your doctor’s office for a too-long postponed annual physical, and there’s absolutely no way to get around the tree… what do you do?”
Here is how I answered.
1. Got out of car. Inspected tree: tree, not draggable limb. No way to drive around it.
3. No cell reception on road by tree. Got back in car, turned around and drove the third of a mile back to home/landline.
4. Called Karen at the town offices, from home, on landline. Explained. Karen’s side of this conversation:
“Well, that’s not good!”
“It’s an actual tree, not just a limb?”
“Let me see if I can track down Mark at Roads and see how soon he or one of the guys can get out there. ”
“I’ll call you back.”
I thanked her.
5. Texted Sweetie (friend / business compadre/mentor/ producer, for about the past year) who was visiting from Alabama. At that moment she was about 18 minutes away, working on her laptop at the Flat Iron Exchange, a coffee cafe that had become her default Vermont field-office. It’s in Bellows Falls, same town as my doctor; , we’d planned to meet there after my appointment.
Tree fell across road.
Just returned home to call road guys.
Can you get out?
No getting in or out till dealt with – abt to call Dr.
Can get you there if you want to be picked up
Let me call doc 1st
6. Called doctor’s office on landline. While on hold, more Sweetie-CD texting.
Would you like us to take you on to dr? Can be out of here in 5 finishing lunch and be glad to
On hold. I’d say please come get me in any case – even if I can’t get in to see him you & I can get to work.
Silly-ass tree. What was it thinking?
7. Got through to Cathy at Dr. Gary’s front-desk. Explained the tree. “That’s Vermont for you,” she said. Then, “If someone can get you here by 2:25, you can still get at least 15 minutes with Gary.” I thanked her. Simultaneous text from Sweetie:
Headed your way
8. Started gathering my things together to walk down the road, pick through fallen tree, and continue until I’d presumably intersect with Sweetie. Lord it was hot.
9 Headed out door, purse slung over shoulder, carrying water-bottle. Heard landline phone ring. Returned to answer. Karen: “I got Mark from Roads, and he or one of the crew is gonna be out to remove that tree as soon as possible, maybe within 20 minutes. But I think you might be late for your doctor’s appointment.”
I love Vermont. I thanked her.
10. Walked out the door; began walking down the road. It was so hot and humid, uncharacteristic for Vermont. I wore a hat. Further text from Sweetie:
Tree in road or drive? so when should I watch for you
But by then was out of cell range so couldn’t text back.
She’ll figure it out, I thought.
Then I thought: actually, all of us are figuring it out. And doing a damn good job.
11. Reflected on the fact that although late for my now-incomplete physical, I was at least getting more steps on my Fitbit.
12. Reflected on the fact that three different people were all kind to me and all had altered their plans when the tree altered mine.
13. Reflected on the fact that though I am and remain devoted to planning (even teach a class on it), it is an eternal truth that things do not always go according to plan.
14. Reflected on the fact that it was really good that for once I left extra time to make it to the doctor’s, instead of leaving in the exact number of minutes it would take, thus allowing for the possibility of the plan B I was now, with help, enacting.
15. Felt grateful for all these things as I carefully picked my way through the branches of the fallen tree, pausing to document with iPhone camera, this “idioddysey” (to use the word once coined by my friend Marcia).
16. Continued, post-documentation, down the road. About 2/10 of a mile past the fallen tree, here came Sweetie’s new red Honda barreling up the hill towards me.
17. Made it to Gary’s office in time to get referrals to dermatologist and mammogram, as well as reschedule appointment for whole-enchilada physical.
18. Received a print out of what had been done so far, in which my visit to the Rockingham Medical Group was described with unintentional and hilarious accuracy as an “Encounter.”
19. Reflected later, with some amazement, that not only had everyone been kind to me during the “Encounter,” but that at no point had I even momentarily freaked out, panicked, felt whine-y or “oh why me” ish…
Something that would not have been true of my state of my mind when faced with such a mosquito of life not so many years ago.
That, as science is evidently bearing out, according to a recent New York Times piece, I was getting happier as I aged.
The physical I had last Friday was the one I’d made at the previous attenuated appointment, on the day of the Fallen Tree Encounter.
not-so-ancient ancient history
Gary, a friend as well as my doctor, carefully went over my history of the last several years.
He swiped through page after page of medical history on his laptop. Most of it felt like ancient history.
“And that irregular heartbeat that we had you wear the monitor for?”
“Oh, goodness… I haven’t had that at all, in years, You know, it was that period when my mother died, and the house flooded, and then David took his life. My boyfriend had an episode with A-Fib, though.”
We briefly discussed my boyfriend’s a-fib, the medications he was still taking and the ones he wasn’t, Gary proactively and kindly addressing what he thought might worry me about it (but no longer did much, now that the crisis had passed and my Alpha Dude, had seen his own doctor).
Gary continued swiping through. “What about the shortness of breath?”
“Oh, I’d forgotten that. Not at all, any more. That was in that same period… You know, I thought at that time I was handling it pretty well. I guess I just didn’t allow myself to see how impossible that whole time was. ”
“It’s unbelievable, how much these situations show up in health,” said Gary, shaking his head. “Now, what about the Diazepam as needed for sleep?”
“Well, pretty rarely, only maybe if I’m traveling and having a hard time sleeping in a strange place. You gave me a script with 5 refills back in January and I’m still on the first round. ”
Sleep: another thing that had altered when I was no longer carrying a very elderly mother at her life’s end, and a partner who was himself carrying the heavy weight of depression.
Gary and I switched to some friend-talk. The woman in his life, with whom he’s lived for years now, his adult children, the woman he used to live with, her daughter, his recent trip to Scotland for a wedding, when and how he would retire, how much pleasure the singing he does with a local chorus gives him these days …
Gary suggested the basics for monitoring and prevention: a dexa-scan for bone-density, a mammogram, a colonoscopy, blood work, dermatologist for mole-mapping.
I also learned that I had become a woman of a certain age… the age where she no longer needs a Pap test. This gave me a strange, slight twinge. Another passage I didn’t know was coming.
Then Gary folded his lap-top shut.
“I think,” he said, “that you’re doing great. I really like the way you’re taking care of yourself.”
As I dressed after he left the room, I thought, quickly, of the many years I’ve been eating a mainly vegetable-and-fruit-plus whole-grains-centric vegetarian diet (albeit with occasional sweets, more second and third helpings than would be ideal, and probably too much cheese… I love cheese).
I thought of the Fitbit I was even then clipping back on as I got back into my jeans, and the 10,000 steps plus it tells me, most days, that I’ve accumulated.
I thought of the strength-training I manage to do two or three times a week most weeks, and the delicious twice-weekly Gentle Yoga I take and so look forward to.
I thought of my friend Judith, with whom I had a swim-dinner-contradancing date with the following day.
I thought of my beloved guy, and the kind of sex we have, sometimes for hours — intimate, hot, loving engagement, a vast, variable menu of behaviors and interactions, so different from what I had in my youth (though I enjoyed much of that too).
I thought of the general life-engagement I have: not only the essential-to-longevity “strong social web“, but love of and interaction with nature, with the life of the mind (through creative and professional work, writing, teaching, learning, and even reading and going to theatre)… of how all of those behaviors and practices, too, are associated with health and longevity.
I thought of my late mother, the writer Charlotte Zolotow, and her beautiful, almost wrinkle-free skin even at age 98, and how, even though I wore sunscreen daily (I would wear moon-screen if they made it, and have had the occasional acupuncture facial), it is probably mostly genetics that makes my skin such that people are always telling me, “You don’t look 63.”
Which always makes me think: so what does 63 look like?
And which also always gives me a little lift, though I wish I was evolved enough so it didn’t.
And yet, as I like to say, ” ‘You don’t look that old,’ is the new, ‘Have you lost some weight?’ ”
And I thought, further, the role of genetics in longevity itself: my mother, who died at 98, my aunt, at almost 101, though my father left this world at a mere 76. (Which would not’ve been considered “mere” even as recently as 1900, when his life expectancy as a U.S.-born male, would have been a truly mere 46.3 ).
I thought of how, however good one’s self-care may be, the role just plain good luck has in health and well-being. Ned, hit by a pick-up while out bicycling, leaving life at 44; David, his noble battle against the depression the genetic lottery saw fit to give him, which ended and with his suicide at age 74.
I thought of my grief — very different griefs — at both of their passings.
And then I thought of Kitty Galbraith, a friend of my late aunt’s, a fellow Vermonter, whom I only met once in about 1996, when my aunt and her boyfriend, Jim, brought me with them to the Galbraith’s annual late-summer party in Townsend, Vermont.
In 1996, Kitty, like her tall husband John Kenneth Galbraith (the writer, economist, and former ambassador), and for that matter like my Aunt Dot and her Jim, was charming, attractive, gracious, and very old. They were all in their late 80’s, early 90’s, at that point.
My Aunt Dot and Kitty and I were talking. Aunt Dot told Kitty how much I loved swimming in her (Dot’s) chilly pond. “I used to love it too,” said Aunt Dot, “But I can’t do it any more. Kitty still does, though.”
“I do,” said Kitty, with a smile and great satisfaction. “Every morning. First thing, I go down and I swim, in our pond. Naked. First thing. And ours is cold too. Nothing like it. It starts the day right.”
And now Aunt Dot’s pond is my pond, and Dot, Jim, the Galbraiths, David, and Ned are all gone from this world.
Yet I, for the moment at least, have the privilege of still being here.
Of picking blackberries (the crop was exceptional this year).
Of baking fancy lemon cakes for birthday parties.
Of setting the table with various linens and glasses, choosing which vases and plates and sherbet dishes I inherited from my mother and aunt and various friends to use. Of figuring out the guest list for wonderful, conversational dinner parties, birthday and otherwise.
Of reading, and driving (though I’ve cut back on long drives, especially at night) and listening to audiobooks.
Of being the cherished, “possessed” lover of someone I delight in and deeply respect; of curling up next to him and appreciating not only the fascinating way his sui generis mind works, and his kind heart, but his broad back and and the scent of his skin on the nights we are together.
Of also enjoying the nights, and days, I spend in satisfying, productive solitude when we are not.
Of watching the gray and white and brown of winter turn to green, the curled, furled fiddleheads turn to triumphant elegant swaths of verdant fern that worship all over, including at the base of the silver-white birches.
Of contra-dancing, though I don’t do it very well, on last Saturday of the month, when I’m in Vermont.
Of swimming in that ice-cold pond.
Of patting cats — various friends’ cats, strange cats, since I no longer have a cat of my own — and seeing if I can flirt them into purring.
Of brewing tea from scratch in the dragon-headed Japanese tea-pot, part of a set: the first antique I ever bought, when I was nineteen or twenty.
And here I am, and here it is, more than 40 years later.
Of my great good fortune in having Sweetie, who had been part of my distant past life, appear in my present life, professionally and personally.
Of the Second Saturday Works in Progress Critique Group I have facilitated since 2011.
(How I love that group, and the individuals in it, the from-the-start members, those who arrived later, those who no longer attend or moved away, and those who show up occasionally).
Of accepting, and getting cozy, with mystery.
cozying up to unanswerables
Why am I still here, when so many I loved, especially those who died so young (Ned) or at their own hand (David) are gone?
How do I make the best use of my time here, how do I utilize what has happened to me — the grievous and terrible, the overwhelmingly fortunate — so that I not only thrive but am able to contribute to this world, leaving it, if only infinitesimally, better than I found it (although how can we ever know)?
All of these things passed through my mind, thoughts quick as light glancing off water, as I left Gary’s office and drove back home, following the slight semi-physical on Friday.
I thought about reinvention, a subject on which I also teach a class — and how besides the large wholesale reinventions life periodically calls us to make, that whenever there is a change of plans, like a tree across the road, we are called on, in a small way, to use at least some of the skill-sets reinvention calls for in a large way.
It was still uncharacteristically hot and humid for Vermont.
But then, this was the hottest summer on record, anywhere. And I felt, as always, the terrible twinge of tragedy and incomprehension: how was it possible that my species could fail so dramatically to protect this gorgeous world we had, collectively, been given?
More mystery, though one exceptionally difficult to cozy up to.
On the day of my first, foreshortened appointment, when Sweetie and I returned to the house in her red Honda a few hours later, there was no sign of the fallen tree.
It was still hot and humid, and I swam that evening.
Last Friday, after I drove myself back in the Subaru, it was again hot and humid.
Again, I dove in and swam.