03 Dec Snake in the Basement (and Other Fall Adventures)
Here on the farm, we never know from season to season what our marquee project will be. This fall it was Jill’s fishpond. Ryan, a family friend, built it for us (at cost)—a project whose sophistication would have overwhelmed me in short order. We are most grateful for his expertise. When the weather was cooperative, Jill spent every afternoon pondside. Nothing thrilled her more than seeing one of our new frogs sunbathing on a rock. Frogs and fish are now at the pond’s bottom, in quasi-hibernation.
Fall saw me put the finishing touches on the Schoolhouse, where we’ve held two successful writing workshops so far. I also found time to surround thirty-some trees with fencing to keep the deer from killing them. By this time of the year, the swallows have flown to South America, the bats to Mexico, and squirrels have stashed most of their nuts—and, by the way, contrary to the myth that squirrels can’t find 70% of their stashes, they actually find 95%.
A few weeks ago, Jill went into the basement to fetch some preserves. When she returned, she said—casually: “You should go into the basement and meet the big snake in the rafters.”
Here you see one of the many reasons I cherish Jill as my partner. She finds a snake in our basement and she doesn’t freak out! Mind you, she staunchly believes that wild animals, snakes included, should live outdoors. But on occasion, a snake gets in. I went down and checked him out: a black snake (AKA “rat snake”), slow-moving, hung up in the floor joists, and hardly reachable. “He’s a beauty,” I said when I returned to the kitchen.
“How do you know he’s a he?” she joked.
My point:The girl’s got grit! When Jill visited me in the Marshall Islands some years ago, you should have seen her snorkeling in the lagoon, how she swam past me, eager to see the wonders ahead—while I lagged behind, keeping an anxious eye on our surroundings, fearful of sharks, eels, and barracuda.
When it comes to renovation of old houses, Jill’s motto is, “You’ve got to be bold!” She’s the one who insisted we buy a wrecked former frat house in Baltimore twenty-some years ago, while I gaped in fear at the huge task of rehabbing the place. In our hunt for old houses, Jill’s fallen twice through rotted floorboards, climbed many times through broken windows, braved sagging staircases, and strode through innumerable cobwebs without hesitation.
So it should come as no surprise that Jill faces terminal cancer with remarkable toughness. But it does surprise me, again and again. She’s now approaching the last months of her three-year prognosis and she feels certain she won’t last the summer. When first diagnosed, she had only six months to live without treatment. She wasn’t certain she’d pursue chemo but then she reconsidered: what did she have to lose? Treatment has prolonged her life, just as her oncologist predicted.
Is it a good life? That’s always the ultimate question. We know that the doctors will continue to treat her until the bitter end—that Jill herself will have to call it quits when she can take no more. So far, she’s willing to take it, week after week. Her first treatment slowed the cancer for nearly a year; her second did nothing; and her third slowed the cancer again for about six months. Now cancer has reasserted itself. All the while, it’s taken her down bit by bit. Radiation hasn’t helped her collapsed lung. She now has pain daily in her legs and the doctors don’t know what to make of that. She is anemic and tremendously fatigued. Recently she’s developed a hacking cough.
But she’s still a firecracker. The other night, when we were playing caroms, I called out Jill for bending the rules. She said, “Give me a break. I’m dying!” Another night, as I was prepping my side of the bed (she likes her sheet and blankets tucked in, I like mine untucked) she said, “You think Shackleton took as much time as you take to ready himself for his Antarctic expedition?” I rolled my eyes: “You’re such a smart ass!” She laughed: “You’re gonna miss me!”
Oh so right, my love. When friends ask me how I’m doing emotionally, all I can say is, “I’ve got a finger in the dike.” Last week, after I dropped Jill off for her chemo infusion, somebody called to me as I walked to my car. It was an older woman who had wheeled her just-treated friend to her car: she couldn’t get her friend into the vehicle. They needed my help. A heavy woman of advanced years, the patient had that sallow cancer-induced complexion and wore a wrap around her sparse hair—very much the way Jill does. It took me a couple of tries. Finally, I had to face the patient and hug her hard as I hefted. Quietly she narrated our effort: “Almost there, I’m weak on my feet, let me see if I can turn . . . .” “No hurry,” I said. “I’ve got you.”
After she was secure at last in the passenger seat, she and her friend thanked me profusely. “Happy to help,” I said, as I walked off, swallowing a sob that threatened to bring me to my knees.
In short, I’m teetering on the edge. Day after day, I tell myself I must stay as strong as Jill. In October, she was able to make our annual trip to Assateague in our vintage travel trailer. With Maisie and Oliver. We had the best time ever. Jill says that, nowadays, the highs are especially high and the lows couldn’t be lower—as you can well imagine. She spends most of every day on the couch, needlepointing, playing games on her phone, and watching historical dramas and documentaries. She’s never been more interested in the world, reading the New Yorker every week, the New York Times every day, etc. Our three cats keep her company.
She continues to review her life history, the good times and bad, and I’ve heard things she’s never mentioned, like the many times she’s been sexually harassed (even once by a therapist and more than once by teachers): how hard is it to be a woman in America? She wonders if she’s led a good enough life, if the work she’s done has been of any value. Because she’s so self-effacing and sometimes profoundly insecure, my reassurances don’t always reassure her. I can only imagine what it’s like to stand at the precipice of your life and survey your surroundings. How clear is the view?
So here we are, about to embark on a new course of treatment–not asking for much, except a little more time and a little less pain. Late at night, after I’ve cleaned the kitchen, settled the dogs, and prepped Jill’s coffee machine for the morning, I gaze out the kitchen window to look for stars. If it’s a clear night, there will be a fair number. For a moment, our old farmhouse will seem like a ship in deep water and I a feckless mariner, fearful of every league we travel and fervent in my hope for land.