September 16, 2011

Anne Marie; The Long Journey Home

Category: News — Ira @ 6:17 pm


My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways, says the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your
ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts.

—Isaiah 55:8-9

She doesn’t need a lot of introduction on this blog, at least not for my seasoned readers. I have more than a few times detailed her determined fight against the brain tumors that assaulted her again and again, these past four years. For Anne Marie Zook, it was never a question of whether or not she would survive. It was always a day to day struggle in a fierce battle, a tough journey through some really rugged terrain. A quest for some quality of life in a battle to stay alive until she no longer had the strength to remain.

Paul and Anne Marie, and their children, Cody and Adrianna, were among my closest friends for years. Back in 2007, when my world imploded, they quietly stood by my side. They didn’t say a lot. But their home was always open, always welcoming to me. And in time, I took to stopping by on Sunday nights for supper. And to just hang out, comfortable with old friends who provided what shelter they could from the storms that engulfed me.

And late that fall, in early December, the first boom dropped into their lives. I still remember the phone call from Paul as they were on the way to the hospital late that night. Anne Marie had taken some MRI scans that day. For severe headaches she was having. The doctors had just called. There was a tumor on her brain. With desperate, hopeful quietness, Paul told me they didn’t know whether or not the tumor was malignant. They would find out after the operation. They’d do lab tests. He’d keep me updated.

And within a week or so, they did the operation, there at Lancaster General Hospital. The doctors were amazed at her resilience. Within days of the operation, she was back home, recuperating. And we all rejoiced at this marvel. The tumor was malignant, of course. Some vile form of cancer, growing right on her brain. And we all held our breaths, wondering when and if the tumor would return.

For her recovery regimen, she chose the natural route. Rejected chemo and radiation. And within a month, she was back on her feet, at home in her house. This scenario would unfold several more times.

Within ten months, in the fall of 2008, the tumor returned. Again, they operated on her brain. At Johns Hopkins in Baltimore this time. And again, within days, she was back home, her head shaved on one side, smiling with delight to be in familiar surroundings. And again, we rejoiced that she was still with us. And again, we held our breaths.

And every Sunday evening, I stopped by to see them. That became the accepted norm. Unless I was out of town for some reason, or had an occasional obligation elsewhere, that was my time with my friends. And this is my story of that friendship.

My time with them was “normal” time. We rarely discussed her condition, or how she was doing. We talked instead of life as it was around us. Where the children would go to school next fall. Her garden. This and that and the other. My job, Anne Marie told me more than once, was to bring laughter to their lives. To be who and as I was before she ever had cancer. And I tried. We enjoyed many relaxed times, just laughing, chewing on the old jokes. Scolding each other with good-natured humor.

Often, though, as I was leaving, Paul would follow me out to my truck, and we would talk for a few minutes. The heavier stuff. Just he and I. Of what the future might hold for his wife. And his family. Of all the implications involved in being a young single father.

Less than ten months after the second operation, the tumor returned again. Again, off they went, to Johns Hopkins. And again, she was back home within ten days. Smiling, delighted for the life that had been granted once again. And always, come whatever, I drove over on Sunday nights to see them.

It’s not that they were not surrounded by a great many other friends, and I don’t want to leave such an impression. They were. Tons of support, from all around. Anne Marie’s old group of friends rallied around her faithfully. People from their church. And from the community all around. Anne Marie’s parents, too, made the long trek from their home in Vancouver Island more than once. And when they came, they usually stayed a while. A month or more. And I got to know them quite well as well.

And life went on, as life does. A vibrant, spirited woman, Anne Marie lived in the moment. Intensely, with joy. Reveled in her children. Walked the trails in the surrounding woods with them. Built fires in the stone ring in their backyard at night. Camped out in the rain. She loved the rain, somehow it seemed to wash her clean of fear and care. When I came around on Sunday nights, she always greeted me with a smile and a big hug. Welcome. Set and stay a spell. And we settled in, she and Paul and I, and talked of all the little things.

But always, pulsing below the surface, we heard the echoes of that not-so-distant call. Her breath, her time of life was limited. Cancer doesn’t just disappear. We all knew, and yet for her we all lived in the moment. Or tried to, at least.

A trained masseuse, Anne Marie always offered to work on my right arm, which usually has knotted muscles from working at the computer. I probably have carpal tunnel, or something close to it, but she faithfully applied her heat packs and kneaded the knots until I almost screamed with pain. But it helped a lot. It was just a thing she always did. Work on my right arm. And I always told her how good it hurt.

And as the vile tumor slowly regrouped, rerooted and expanded and returned for the final time last spring, we could see the signs. By this time, we sensed her personality changing, as the tumor pressured her brain. As it became increasingly obvious, I told Paul one night as we stood out by my truck. It’s coming back. The tumor. He nodded. He knew. We discussed it briefly before I headed home. We both knew that one more deep and frightening valley lay before them, and that there was no way to go around it.

And that was my last “normal” Sunday evening with my friends in their home.

It all came down a few days later with savage speed and force. Paul called me at work as they were rushing down to Johns Hopkins one more time. And he called me the next day. The cancer had spread throughout her body. They would operate first on her spine, to remove the malignant lumps lodged there. And then they would evaluate whether they even could go into her brain one more time. With all the scar tissue from previous operations, the doctors feared another cutting might paralyze her.

After that operation on her spine, she never walked another step. They kept her there at Johns Hopkins for a couple of weeks, maybe a month. And they never did operate on the brain tumor again. At some point, then, they released her. Sent her home to die, basically. That’s not what the doctors actually said, of course. But that’s what they meant.

The progression of events from that time do not need to be told in minute detail. Paul found her a room at a local nursing home for a few weeks, and I went to see her there. I never did go down to Johns Hopkins. Many others did, but I told Paul I’d rather remember her as she was the last time I saw her.

But after she was moved closer to home, I went. She smiled and greeted me warmly. And as usual, she asked if I needed my right arm worked on.

Eventually, though, after a brief stay at Lancaster Hospice, she was moved back to her home. Hospice provided a real hospital bed, and a hospice nurse came around every few days. Paul cleaned out a section of the basement, and that’s where she was set up. So they could open the garage door sometimes and she could enjoy the fresh air.

And so they entered the final painful brutal stretch. Their friends, and especially many from their church, Rockville Mennonite, surrounded them with unbelievable support, both emotional and logistical. A schedule was set up for volunteers to come and be with Anne Marie during the day, so Paul could continue at least part time at his job. Food poured in, dozens and dozens of dishes that could be frozen. Only in the Christian community, and particularly the Lancaster County Christian community, would I ever expect to see what I saw unfolding at their home. It was breathtaking, amazing, and humbling.

Through it all, I kept my slot on Sunday nights. Drove over with my truck to hang out a few hours. Entered and shared the reality that was their home. A reality that gradually became ever more crushingly brutal.

We always ate at a little folding table set up downstairs, off to one side. So she could share the experience. And from week to week, I saw how much she had spiraled down from the week before. Still, she joined our conversations when she could comprehend the words through the haze of her pain meds. And she always, always asked to work on my arm. So, after eating, I’d pull up a chair beside her bed, and she would weakly massage the muscles on my elbow, the tightest spot. And I always groaned and told her how great it felt.

And then, last month, I was gone over a weekend for a book signing in Daviess. So I missed a Sunday night. The following Sunday evening, I rolled in. I had steeled myself, but still her condition shocked me. She was losing weight like crazy. The tumor relentlessly applied pressure to her brain. That night, as we sat and ate at the table downstairs, she cried out now and then, incoherent ramblings. Paul the the children seemed to take little notice. This was the daily reality of their lives.

We ate, then I sat in a chair beside her bed for ten minutes or so, and just held her hand. She recognized me, and somehow we communicated a bit. And then I went upstairs and watched a movie with Cody and Adrianna. We laughed and had a good time.

I’m no theologian, and don’t pretend to understand why such intense suffering must be a part of life. Anyone’s life. Ever. Oh, sure, it makes some sort of sense in theory. When you hear about it in a sermon. Suffering. It’s almost noble, and certainly an element of the human condition. But it’s different when you know the person. When it’s someone close to you. You can’t ignore the bitter senselessness of it all, not if you’re honest.

I knew her well. She was my friend. A mother, wasting away before her husband and two young children, crying out in pain. Clinging to life somehow, from sheer strength of will, even as the cancer inexorably, relentlessly, sapped her of all she ever was. For days and weeks and months. I don’t know why any of us would be called to endure the cruel indignity of such a harsh and hopeless fate.

And no words, however beautifully crafted, will ever diminish such a reality from what it actually is. This I can say, from what I saw and heard.

After I got home that night, I raged at God. Take her now. It’s the least you could do. She is suffering dreadfully, as is her family. What purpose can you possibly have, by allowing her to linger on and on like that?

I last saw Anne Marie two weeks ago, on a Sunday night. As usual, Paul and the children and I ate at the table downstairs. She lay there on the bed. Skeletal. Unmoving. Wasted away. Eyes open, staring at nothing. She did not recognize me at all. She didn’t even seem conscious. Just there, but not. I stood and looked down at her before leaving. I made no attempt to sit or talk to her. She was beyond the reach of my voice. Or anyone else’s.

We spoke out by my truck as I was leaving, Paul and I. “I’m heading out for Beach Week next Saturday,” I said. “For a full week. She is going to die when I am gone. She just can’t last long in that condition.”

He nodded. “Yeah, it’s definitely approaching fast, that’s for sure,” he said. “Could well be she’ll go when you’re gone. But we’ve thought that before, and she’s always held on.”

“That’s true. But she’s never looked this bad,” I said. “If it happens, I’m not coming back for the funeral. You got a problem with that?”

“No.” He paused. “You’ve been here, all this time. While she was still with us. And I know you’ll be here, when you get back.”

And with that, I left. Last Saturday morning, I drove the eight hours down to Nag’s Head, N.C., with a friend, to join the old crowd at the beach. Like we did last year, when I was working on the book. We settled in for the week.

On Sunday afternoon, I checked my email. A message about Anne Marie. She had passed away that afternoon at 3:30. I felt the jolt of finality. But mostly I felt relief. At long last, she was free of all the pain, the inhuman suffering that had been her life for so long.

That night, I spoke with Paul on the phone, and he told me how it all came down. He’d sensed it somehow, that the end was close. So he parked in a chair beside her bed that afternoon. Settled in for a nap. Suddenly then, her breathing shortened into ragged gasps. Stopped. A few more breaths. He sat there, holding her hand. And then she was gone. Her wasted body relaxed. At long last, she was free.

It had been an eternally long and arduous journey, at least it seemed thus to those around her, but Anne Marie Zook was finally home. And for that, we simply rejoice.

Her funeral was yesterday morning (Thursday, Sept. 15), at 11 o’clock, at Rockville Mennonite Church east of Honey Brook. A great crowd of people gathered, I’m sure, and mourned her passing. I was not among them.

And this coming Sunday night, I’ll head on over to see Paul, Cody and Adrianna. To hang out. Paul will unwrap some burgers and throw them on the gas grill, and I’ll grumble at him for not using charcoal. One of our ancient little arguments. We’ll eat. Talk. Laugh. Remember. And for a few brief hours, I’ll join them in the new reality that is their world.

I’m still in Nag’s Head, at the beach as I post this. It’s been a great week. All it could have been. We’ve chilled. Hung out. I even went out to see the ocean a time or two. We’ve shared the evening meals. Had a hymn sing on Wednesday night. And all too fast, it’s all ending. Tomorrow we’ll head back home.

The book has been fluctuating around out there. Since my last post, it has fallen off the NYT eBook bestseller list once again. And once again, this Sunday it bounced back on, at number 31. It’s all a bit strange. The book seems as unsettled as I was back when I kept bouncing back and forth from home. Now it’s on the list. Now it’s off. And now it’s on again. It would be great to see it settle in and stay a while.

I have two book signings coming up. On Saturday, Oct. 1st, at the Davis Mercantile in Shipshewana, Indiana from noon to 3 PM. So come on out, if you are anywhere close.

Then, the following Saturday, Oct. 8th, I will be signing at the Freiman Stoltzfus Gallery in downtown Lancaster, PA. From 11:00 AM until 1:00 PM.

I’m grateful to all who provide the time and space for a book signing. It’s been a great ride, and a wild one, so far. I hope the journey has just begun.

September 2, 2011

Garage Party…

Category: News — Ira @ 6:54 pm


I am thankful for the mess to clean after a party because
it means I have been surrounded by friends.

—Nancie J. Carmody

It felt like it was time this year again. I’ve reached a couple of milestones this summer. So, I figured, why not? It’s been more than three years. So a few months ago, I sent word to a bunch of my friends. Garage party at my house on August 27th.

A garage party. People look at you kind of sideways, with a funny expression. What in the world is a garage party? Well, it is what it sounds like. A party in a garage.

Some purists (consisting of some of my nephews and me. Well, OK. Mostly me.) claim the garage may not be attached to the house. Gotta be a free standing structure, the more ramshackle the better. The interior, too, must not be too tidy. Actually, the dumpier, the better. Makes a far more comfortable setting for guests just to hang out and be themselves without pretensions.

I have a detached garage on my little lot. A concrete block structure, with a large addition on one end. There’s a huge garage door, big enough to drive a dump truck through, which was what it was actually used for, way back when. The last guy who lived on the place painted cars in the garage. He framed out a couple of bays with dark old hewn oak beams. And strung up some black plastic tarps, here and there. It’s all a bit creaky and haphazard, but it works. I don’t use the garage for much of anything. Tinker a bit now and then. And in winter, when a blizzard looms, I’ll park Big Blue inside for the night. With all the junk stacked about, I can barely fit him in.

The last party came down in late summer of 2007, around my birthday. My world had imploded a few short months before, and I was living alone for the first time in seven years. So I’m not sure why I had that party. Probably because I was in a stunned frame of mind, and wanted to hang out with a few good friends. They came, and we did hang out. And it was OK, even though I don’t remember much of that evening.

Since then, the summers have come and gone, and I’ve had neither the energy nor the inclination to host another garage party. Some of my friends hedged about and mentioned the fact that it had been a while, and I nodded and smiled. Yeah, I should, I guess. But I never followed through. And so it went, for the past three summers.

But then, a few months back, I got to thinking. Maybe it was time to host another garage party. I mentioned the possibility to Patrick, my boss at work, who immediately and enthusiastically endorsed the idea. This year I had some unusual things to celebrate.

First off, there was the book. Released on July 1st, my dream for so long. Now a reality. Seemed like that was reason enough. But there was still one more. My birthday would come in late August. And this birthday would be a milestone.

The Big 5-0. Fifty years old. It all seems so odd and so impossible. When you’re fifty, you’re supposed to be bent a bit, looking tired and worn. Or maybe that was the old 50. I sure don’t feel it. Old, I mean. And so I took the plunge, settled on a date. August 27th. Saturday night. Garage party, at Ira’s house.

It’s always an eclectic group, that gets invited. A few artsy friends. A co-worker or two. A couple of couples from church. And friends from here and there, loosely connected by the fact that they know me, and generally claim to be delighted to attend my parties. I invited about twenty people. And pretty much to a person, they all promised to come.

And so it was established, a few months back. The date set, the invitations sent. And then it was placed on the back burner, the whole thing. I didn’t worry about it much. Or even think about it, really. The day would come soon enough. Besides, with July came the once-in-a-lifetime excitement of seeing my first book hit the market. That was a big deal, and it pretty much absorbed all my attention for that month, and well into the next.

And then, about three weeks ago, I wandered out to the garage to survey the situation. It was pretty messy. A few tattered remnants from my last party four years ago lay strewn about. A dusty stack of paper plates. Plastic cups. Tables and chairs stacked against the wall. Dust and dirt everywhere. The little padded bar with decrepit bar stools I’d bought years ago for fifty bucks stood against a wall, forlorn and dirty. This was going to take some work, to get ready. And so, that Saturday morning, I dug in and began to muck out my garage.

I swept and dusted. Piles of trash accumulated in my old metal garbage can. I swept the walls clean of spider webs. Washed down the bar and a few deck chairs strewn about. You don’t use something for three years, it deteriorates on its own. After a couple of Saturday afternoons of labor, the garage began to approach passable status. Clean, but not too clean. Gotta have a little dust, or my guests might feel uncomfortable. After all, this is a garage. An old garage.

The weeks passed. My birthday arrived. I celebrated, somewhat subdued. But not freaked. My fortieth birthday caused a lot more angst than did my fiftieth.

And late that week, a small dark speck appeared in the Atlantic. Relentlessly approached our shores. Irene. And as Saturday arrived, so the hype from the media escalated. I fretted. Should I cancel? What if torrents of rain descended, and the power went off, right during the festivities? It all seemed so impossible, and so surreal. Pick out a Saturday evening two months ago for a little social gathering, and now a hurricane was bearing down, right on that night. Just unbelievable.

I decided to go ahead with the garage party. This would separate the adventurous from the timid. The rain wasn’t scheduled to arrive until late that evening anyway. Why let something like a little hurricane throttle my plans? Well, maybe not little. But maybe not as ferocious as predicted, either.

On Friday night, I went shopping. Paper plates, rolls, condiments, juice. And three dozen sausages from Stoltzfus Meats in Intercourse. Among the very best Lancaster has to offer, when it comes to meat. And of course, charcoal for the grill. One ironclad rule for any garage party: NO gas grills. Charcoal only. Not only does the meat taste better, it’s also all about the tradition of production. Lighting and nursing the charcoal to just the proper degree of heat.

Saturday came, and I uneasily watched the Weather Channel and checked the headlines on Drudge. From all the hyper-ventilating, one could surely believe that doom and destruction such as the earth has never seen was about to be unleashed upon the land. Including my land. Oh, well. According to estimates, the hard rains would not come until late that night. I putzed about, running last minute errands, filled my coolers with ice, and added the final touches to my garage décor. And scattered wood chips on the concrete floor.

Early afternoon. A few spitting showers came and went. Unsettled skies roiled above. Around 3, my friends Dominic and Jamie Haskin arrived from their home in West Virginia. I hang out at their place at least three times a year, and this was the first time they reciprocated. They would sleep in my empty upstairs apartment. I greeted them, took them upstairs to show them the place, and then we settled in the garage, just hanging and catching up.

By 5:30, others began trickling in, carrying various delicacies in covered dishes and bottles of wine and other refreshments. I fired up the grill and let the charcoal burn to a glowing orange. Shortly after 6, the sausages were carefully laid out. I hovered over the grill, turning the sausages every few minutes. And by 6:30, the crowd was assembled and ready to eat.

A very cool birthday cake. Thanks to Steve and Ada Beiler.

And a delicious feast it was. Potato salad, at least two varieties. Pasta salad. Regular salad. Two tomato pies (I’d never heard of such a thing, but they were quite tasty). And of course, sausages. Regular. Apple-flavored. And cheese-stuffed. It was soon clear to me that there was enough food on the table to feed far more people than were present. But that’s all part of the plan. I love left-overs.

It was almost magical, how the old garage morphed into a smoky little country pub. Classic 70s and 80s music boomed from the decrepit old speakers on the ancient radio, left mounted on the wall by the previous owner. People milled about. Eating. Laughing. Talking. After dinner, we lounged about, many with cigars and drinks. A rousing game of Hi-Lo broke out on my rickety bar, with much shouting and groaning, followed by loud accusations of shady dealing. All in good fun, of course. I briefly joined the action and was promptly shorn of many quarters, after which I made some loud accusations of my own. I fled the game then and mingled, chatting here and there, making sure everyone was relaxed and comfortable. And so the evening rolled along, at what seemed like hyper-speed.

Sharing conversation and food. From L, Sarah, Wilma, Freiman

Some of the guys loafing after dinner. Lots of food left.
I should have invited more people.

Adjusting the volume on the radio.

And all too soon, guests came up to me, thanked me for the enjoyable evening, and drifted off. Around 11, Irene’s rain began spitting sideways from the skies in earnest. By 11:30, I had walked Dominic and Jamie to their upstairs apartment, and carried the remnants of leftover food into the house to place in the fridge. Then I sat at my computer, perusing Facebook. Posted a picture I had taken earlier with my Iphone. Midnight came, then passed. And shortly after that, the lights flickered, struggled back to life once or twice, and then the house went dark. And stayed dark. I sat there in the black and utter silence.

Irene had unleashed her displeasure with a vengeance. My power would not return until 3 PM Sunday. But at least she arrived too late to spoil my party.

A quick update on the book. In my last post, I mentioned that Growing Up Amish had broken into the New York Times eBook bestseller list. And how great that was. Well, the next week, it bounced off the list. Stumbled a bit.

But then, it bounced right back on again. So, for the second time, I’m gratefully announcing my book has been listed on the NYT eBook nonfiction bestseller list. At number 33, this weekend. Thanks to all of you. Some day I may die a pauper. But no one can ever take that milestone from me. Ever.

The folks at Tyndale seem mildly impressed. Excited, even. So much so that they tweaked the cover. I think it’s pretty cool. And I think that even if you already own a copy of the book, you should run out and buy this edition.