Sunday, December 30, 2007

Letting Go

Zach and I are still working on our apartment deconstruction/reconstruction project, and I spent a good deal of time today sorting through documents and memorabilia and all sorts of things I clipped from newspapers and magazines at one time or another: books I want to read, places I want to visit, restaurants and recipes I want to try.

We removed four bookcases from the apartment and could easily lose another piece of furniture or two before the place could be described as spartan.

As part of the process, I tied up yet another tower of unread newspapers and parted with a stack of books that I finally admitted I would never read (or never finish).

I still have an obscene collection of books, magazines, and clippings in my aspirational "to read" pile, but I am going to pare that down, too, as soon as time permits.

And Zach and I may finally bid farewell to our collection of Bon Appétit magazines—18 years' worth. (No, that's not a typo.)

I now have fairly well organized files for each of my current projects, which number far more than I realized. I've been feeling overextended for a while now, but sifting through all this stuff made it evident that I need to scale back my expectations and commitments.

I'm used to being prodigiously productive and efficient, so it's hard to admit that I've undertaken more than I can realistically handle. One of my watchwords for 2008 is going to be simplify.

The past year has been so relentless that I am more than ready to show it the door, but I realized yesterday that there have been real triumphs amid all the troubles. Our trip to Greece and Paris was spectacular. Finishing the house upstate was a major accomplishment, and turning it into a viable rental property (for now) has been a huge relief. Calling myself a writer and getting paid as one are tremendous personal and professional milestones. And making it through my annual battery of tests with universally "unremarkable" results is cause for great celebration.

Yet these very real victories did not come readily to mind, and I had to remind myself of each of them as I reflected on the past 12 months.

Because more than anything, 2007 will always be the last year I had with my dad.

And for that I will always curse and cherish it.

Monday, December 24, 2007


I meant to write this post yesterday.

Yesterday was the second anniversary of this blog, eight words I never imagined writing (even after I found out what the eighth one meant).

It was also the one-month anniversary of my father's death, more words I never imagined writing.

At the moment, I'm sitting on my couch, in the middle of my living room, surrounded by chaos. Zach and I have been cleaning and sorting and purging and packing and shredding and lugging for the past couple of days, trying to make some headway on the project we call our life.

We have lived here for five years—by far our longest stretch in any home—and in many ways it still looks as if we just moved in and haven't yet had time to unpack. The whole place is in medias res.

We are making good progress, even though we're at the point where things look worse than when we started. The disarray is arrayed all over the place, everything deconstructed into temporary piles until we impose some kind of order.

That is how life has felt these past two years—temporary and discombobulated.


Out of control.


With one exception.

This blog has been a constant in a life full of variables.

And it wouldn't exist without you.

Thank you for spending this time with me.

You have been wonderful company.

Thursday, December 20, 2007


This is the first night in well over a year that I'll go to bed without first taking a pill.

My joint pain has eased up enough that my rheumatologist thinks I can try tapering off the anti-inflammatories that have kept me mobile in the post-ovary era. For a while now, my knees and feet have been feeling perfectly fine, but my hands were still very stiff for the first 10 minutes or so after I woke up.

I didn't realize it until yesterday, but that stiffness has mostly abated. I wonder how long it would have taken me to notice if I hadn't had a follow-up appointment scheduled for today.

When the doctor first diagnosed my symptoms as the result of acute estrogen withdrawal, he said the joint pain would very likely "resolve on its own," although it might take a year or two. Right now we're at 17 months.

The plan is for me to take half my usual dose—500 milligrams once a day instead of twice—and report back in a month. If that goes well, I'll try discontinuing the meds completely.

And if that works, I'll also be able to stop taking yet another drug—the one that keeps the anti-inflammatories from eroding my digestive tract.

That'll still leave me with an aromatase inhibitor and a synthetic thyroid hormone.

And a multivitamin.

And—at least on the days when I don't get 1,500 milligrams of calcium in my diet—a calcium-and-vitamin-D supplement.

But it will be progress nonetheless.

Monday, December 17, 2007

That Time of Year

Almost every day now, envelopes addressed by hand arrive mixed in with the bills and the credit-card offers and the gratuitous catalogs.

Most of the time, I don't know until I've gotten one open whether the card inside is going to offer holiday greetings or condolences.

The juxtaposition is an apt one, mirroring as it does the alternating emotions of this unsettled time—and the surprise with which each sometimes overtakes me.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Tipping My Hat and Catching My Breath

About a year and a half ago, through a series of events that are not at all important, an editor at a national magazine asked to see this blog and liked what she saw. She liked it enough to offer to help me find an agent, and then she went further than that and actually sent a sheaf of my posts along to one particular, very well regarded agent, along with a personal note recommending me.

Nothing—other than a very nice, very quick rejection letter—ever came of it. The editor left the magazine shortly afterward, and I plodded through a summer that started with my last round of chemo, continued through my oophorectomy and the intense joint pain that followed, and led directly to my father's heart surgery and everything thereafter.

Since that time, I have not tried to find another agent.

I have not pitched that magazine or any other.

I have not, most pointedly, finished J-school.

But because that editor made one offhand comment about this blog—"reminds me a tad of Heather Armstrong’s"—I checked Dooce out immediately and have been hooked ever since.

Dooce has a massive readership, and I'm sure Armstrong draws many people in because she is quirky, irreverent, and very, very funny. Her hyperbolic writing style is a guaranteed mood elevator for me, but what really gets me is the way she every once in a while comes at you from way the hell out in left field with a blisteringly honest post that hits you so hard and fast you can barely breathe.

This woman can write.

If you're going to read anything she's written, and you should, start with this.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Plus Ça Change

I spent part of the day today re-reading a piece I'd written about what it felt like to be diagnosed with breast cancer the first time. My experience wasn't particularly unusual—it featured shock and fear and confusion and panic, first simultaneously and then sequentially.

I've now read a lot of first-person accounts of breast cancer, and most of the stories highlight those early hours and days after diagnosis, when the news is still reverberating and the brain is trying desperately make sense of it.

I'm almost seven years removed from that experience, but it came back to me vividly in the course of reading what I'd written about it. And then, a little later in the day, I was asked to speak to a newly diagnosed young woman, someone who was still in the throes of it. I could hear in her halting voice the uncertainty that surrounded her, and I tried in every way I could to reassure her that things will soon get easier.

So many advances have been made since I was a new patient—better understanding of how breast cancer works, more effective treatments, far greater awareness—and yet we have made no progress in reducing the trauma of diagnosis.

I don't know how many people in the world found out that they had cancer today. But I bet it was a searing experience—one they will be able to recount in great detail many years from now.

Here's how I know:

Do you remember what happened on Monday, March 5, 2001?

I do.

And I always will.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Wise Words, Much Appreciated

I have received many wonderful condolence cards and messages over the past week or so. Several expressed sentiments that I've found to be particularly comforting as I try to make sense of this overwhelming experience.

Here are a couple:
Losing a parent is an awful thing: they are our connection to life in the first place, so that when a parent dies, it cuts you off from someone you have always known and loved, from the moment you were born. In a way, it brings a very long first chapter of your life to a close and this is not easy.
The sadness now is the exchange for the enduring love that you two shared. You wouldn't have traded that for anything.

Sunday, December 02, 2007


From today's memorial service:

On behalf of our family, I want to thank everyone for being here today to remember my father and celebrate his long and very happy life.

My father was a humble guy and, unlike some of the other Rosens, a man of few words. I know just what he’d say if he could see all of you here: “I feel very good.”

My dad endeared himself to people, and he did it effortlessly. He was the most genuine man in the world—never phony. He probably charmed or befriended everyone in this room—or would have if he’d ever met you.

He was sweet, kind, affable, amiable, big-hearted, generous, and appreciative.

He was an easy companion and a good listener.

He was an indefatigable optimist.

He was understated, unassuming, and very sentimental.

He loved to laugh—at himself especially.

He fell in love with every baby he ever saw.

He was a surrogate father or brother whenever one was needed.

He was a mentor to many and a friend to many more.

He was an everyman, and he was one of a kind.

It is fitting that my dad died over Thanksgiving, the most family-oriented of all holidays, because family was the most important thing to him. He was very attuned to his relatives—including aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, and nephews—and he experienced those relationships acutely. He had an especially soft spot for women who had lost their husbands, perhaps because his own mother was widowed when he was only 26. When she died 45 years later, he was crestfallen. “I’m an orphan,” he said. He was 71 years old.

“Your sister is your best friend,” he used to tell us, back when our six-year age difference made that impossible. He always kept tabs on our relationship, even after we became the close confidantes he’d hoped we’d be. “Did you speak to Jenny today?” he’d ask almost every time I saw or spoke to him. Sometimes I’d call her just so I’d be able to say “yes” when I saw him later the same day.

We had a lot of fun as a family. If you knew my dad, you know that he was a very informal man—but you probably don’t know just how informal he was. When he came home from work, the first thing he’d do was peel off his jacket and tie, then head upstairs to finish undressing. The thing is that he didn’t change into casual clothes—he just stripped down to his boxers and stayed that way until he went to bed. He’d even eat dinner like that—every night. One evening, my mom and Jen and I decided to make a point about appropriate dress at the dinner table. When he came downstairs to eat that night, he found the three of us seated at the table wearing only our bras and panties. I don’t know which of us laughed harder. The three of us still do, every time we think of it.

My dad was a very simple man who wanted very simple things and was lucky enough to get them. I once asked him what he was looking for back in his single days, before he met my mother. “A woman with a big heart who wouldn’t bother me too much,” he said. Few people in the world had a heart as big as my father’s, but he managed to find one in my mom. And he wanted only daughters. He grew up the middle of three boys, and he had no interest in sons. But that didn’t stop him from doting on his nephews.

His only regret in life was that his father didn’t live to meet his children. Me, too, Dad. Me, too.

Like anyone, my father had his foibles. He would only eat perfect pieces of fruit—if an apple had a single blemish, he wouldn’t touch it.

And he was terrible with names. So terrible, in fact, that he once introduced my mother as “my wife, Mrs. Rosen.” This was in their living room.

He could be hapless around the house. My mother gave him just one job, changing the light bulbs, and only because he was tall. One day he broke a bulb, cut his hand, and had to go the hospital for stitches. After that, everything was off limits.

Another time he decided to take over the family finances. I was maybe in middle school, and he conscripted me to help him pay the bills by writing out the checks for him to sign. The only problem was that he’d apparently never signed a check before—he signed on the memo line by mistake.

Television was one of his biggest weaknesses. He’d watch the most awful stuff: “Hee Haw,” “Love Connection,” and, more recently, “Judge Judy.” Long before TiVo, long before remote controls, I used to be his designated channel changer. “CC,” he’d call me. We used to sit together in a big leather chair, and he’d shoo me over to the set every few minutes to flip through the channels. They only went from 2 to 13 at the time, but that didn’t stop him from giving me a good workout.

My father was a great speller and very good with numbers. When he interviewed job candidates, he always tested their math skills with the same two questions: “What’s 12 x 14?” and “How many nickels in $1.35?” (The answers are 168 and 27.)

My dad was a wonderful neighbor, even if he wasn’t the guy to help you out with your home-improvement projects. Instead, he and I would get up on Sunday mornings, orders in hand, and drive to the local deli to buy bagels for everyone on Kilmer Drive. We’d go door to door, delivering plain and pumpernickel and sesame bagels.

For many years we were the only Jewish family on the block. At Christmastime, my dad would dress up as Santa, complete with a sack of gifts over his shoulder. He’d come down the hill behind our houses and deliver presents to all the kids on the block, stopping to partake of the milk and cookies they’d left for him. He was a very convincing Santa—back then, he didn’t even need a pillow to fill out the costume.

My dad was a Depression-era kid who grew up in a tiny one-bedroom apartment with his parents, his two brothers, and whichever other relatives needed a home at any given time. He didn’t have his own bed until he joined the Navy. Despite the privation he experienced, he was exceedingly generous.

A summer as a busboy gave him great empathy for restaurant workers, and he overtipped for the rest of his life. Even if the service was downright awful, he’d always give the waiter or waitress the benefit of the doubt. “Anyone can have a bad day,” he’d say.

My father was proud to serve his country, but he didn’t romanticize his time in the Navy. He got seasick. He got homesick. He missed my grandmother’s cooking, which tells you more about the quality of Navy food than it does about the quality of my grandmother’s. And for the rest of his life, he could tell you exactly how long he had been in the service: 25 months, 27 days, 16 hours, and 1 minute. Back then, you had to give a urine sample before you could be discharged from the Navy, and while my dad didn’t have any trouble, some of his fellow sailors couldn’t perform under pressure. Always a generous fellow, he got two or three other guys out by sharing his specimen.

My father started losing his hair at 21, so I never knew him as anything but bald. Once, when I was a little girl, I saw a framed 8x10 photo of a young man with a full-on pompadour at my grandmother’s house.
“Grandma,” I said, “who is that?”
“That’s your daddy,” she answered.
“No it isn’t,” I said very confidently. “My daddy has no hair.”

What’s really funny is that he’d be insulted if you didn’t notice that he’d had a haircut. Sometimes I’d ask if he’d had one when I wasn’t really sure, just to stay out of trouble.

My dad was master of the quip. The first time he had open-heart surgery, in 1992, the surgeons used a new procedure, which was filmed for a segment on a brand-new news channel called NY1. A couple of days after the surgery, the crew came back to film a short interview with him.
“How do you feel?” the interviewer asked.
He answered right away: “Like I could go 10 rounds with the champ.”

Over the past year, when my dad was in one hospital or another, one of us would often make a joke about something to keep the mood light. Most of the time he’d give us a withering look and say, with mock seriousness, “I do the comedy around here.”

I knew this service might be tearful, but I hoped it would also be joyful. Throughout this last terrible year, my dad somehow managed to remain his sunny self, and that capacity to defy circumstance with the sheer force of his personality is something that will inspire me for the rest of my life. I hope it will inspire you, too.

And if you loved my dad, I hope you will find a way to honor him in your own life:

Treasure your family.

Be a mentor.

Make a lunch date with an old friend.

Be a good listener.

Charm a stranger.

Count your blessings.

Smile at babies.

Stay in touch.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Channeling My Dad

We are finalizing the details of tomorrow's memorial service, and friends and relatives have been kind enough to send me remembrances of my dad to include in the program.

Each of these missives is like a great big bear hug, enveloping me in a shared memory or, more often, a story from a part of my dad's life that I didn't know.

My dad was as kindhearted a man as you could ever hope to meet, and he connected with people in simple, sometimes unexpected ways every day of his life. He was especially solicitous of people who tend to occupy the background of our lives—the token-booth clerk, the parking-garage attendant, the shoeshine guy.

One of my favorite stories about my dad is this:

He had lunch several times a week at a diner near my parents' apartment. Most of the time, he had the same waitress. He got to know her pretty well and always looked forward to seeing her there. After a couple of years, she told him that she was leaving the diner and going back to school to become a nurse. Most people in that situation would have wished her well and left it at that. Not my dad. He took her to lunch to celebrate.

Earlier today I read a post on another blog that really captured my dad's essence: it's all about kindness and connecting with people. The post was inspired by a surprisingly positive encounter that the writer had with a clerk at the DMV.

I have to think that if my dad were among those in line at the DMV that day, the clerk would be the one writing the post, and it would start with, "I had the loveliest man at my window today. I only talked to him for the few minutes it took to process his driver's license renewal, and I'll probably never see him again, but he was just so sweet and charming that he made my day."

My dad truly had a gift. And what's amazing is that he never got tired of giving it.