Grand Opening

Say the word cell.


Say the word take.


Say the word death.


My silence is a noisy whoosh, a great amorphous inhalation.

We are hurrying, waiting, enveloped by unfamiliar faces and smells, swept into the sprawling unglamorous mosaic of Los Angeles, following instructions, feeling unmoored, and suddenly it’s six a.m. and we have walked through a tunnel to the hospital basement, and a man named Michael with receding red hair is registering me.

“We’re the same age,”  Michael observes. His skin is like a pale clay mask, waxy. He inhabits this indoor space, and his job right now is to turn me into someone other than myself. Sign this. Sign this. Sign this. There are so many forms.

Michael was growing up right here while I was a child in Brooklyn, but he sees us as cohorts, and he wants to talk about Good Humor ice cream–the toasted coconut kind–and Helm’s bakery trucks, and baseball cards, and that powdery pink bubble gum smell that always clung to them. 

Why in God’s name are we talking about these things now? Normally, I would be charmed, but I don’t feel like being nice or nostalgic.

Nothing has begun, and I am hugely uncomfortable. Everything is pending.

Sign this. Sign this.

They need to type my blood. They need to hook up an IV. Just one more little poke. Sign this. I’m wearing a gown and strips of tape and wire. My things are taken away. My glasses have been removed. Sign this.

And the ceiling rushes forward like a train above me, its rhombus cars sliding along, disks and square panels of bright utilitarian glare, interior blues and whites that make me yearn for sky.

Sign this.

Sign this.

Just one more little poke.

I feel too small to be the center of all this fuss and frenzy. I feel exposed and breakable.

In walks the anesthesiologist. His name is Shlomo. Do you want me to make everything go away? he says, or would you like to see the room first? He tells me he’s had brain surgery himself, twice…here and here, he says, pointing vaguely to his forehead. 

That’s good, I murmur. And you’ve done this anesthesiology thing before?

It’s my very first time, he jokes.

And I’ve had enough of the hideous glare, the starship enterprise, the too-much light, the chilling garish brightness bearing down and drowning me. Everything goes away.


I am awake in a tunnel. Someone pokes me periodically. I am bound by cords and wires, peeing through a catheter. There is a nurse named Lizzie looming over me, and another named Sandy, who brings me ice chips and places her hand on my forehead so gently that I start to cry. I am completely and utterly helpless.

There is Robot Nurse, a rotund Asian woman who rides a cart with a computer screen and whose primary role seems to be inputting data on my behalf, and who speaks no English, and with whom I have no human connection at all. There is a traveling nurse named Ricardo, who looks like an Aztec god, and mixes up a pain cocktail to put into my IV, then slides down to the floor and sits in the corner of my room, taking a break. He is forty-seven, he says, but the best part of his life has not yet begun. He tells me to have no regrets. There is a nurse named Rolle, on his second shift, who hates the city and envies my Gaviota life, and wishes he could be hiking outdoors.  A man across the hall is screaming. It’s cold outside, or so I am told, and Los Angeles is a thrum of traffic, a current of diversity, a sloppy kind of energy, restless and chaotic. Everyone is working so hard.

Of course I think of my sister, and how I never really understood what she endured, and my brother, alone in his hospital bed in New York City.  I have never known physical suffering before. I have never had such an awareness of my own frailty. Sometimes my goal is to simply lean back and not hurt.

I must find a way to fight back. I must open myself to light and goodness. I must somehow move from this moment to the next.

Finally, I am allowed to go home. It takes us hours to make this happen, but at last I am in the car, and Monte is driving us back, and soon I will be in the best place on earth.


Little complexities arise. I have thrush. I have a low-grade fever. I must stay hydrated. I must conserve energy but somehow also keep myself engaged.

I’m laughing at my naivety. Somehow I honestly thought that people would want to hear about this journey. Somehow I thought that I would be going through this accompanied in some way, friends looking in, checking in, cheering me on. I am hilariously surprised by my own insignificance. Everyone is busy. And no one can take this struggle away from me.

I am learning so much. Here’s one thing: social media, facebook, instagram…all that stuff…there is no one there. Never mistake it for real.

I don’t even know why I am writing this blog post. Why do I keep telling and sharing? Is anyone really out there? I don’t know anymore if any of this means anything.

The strange procession of images and news clips, sordid, garish, appalling. How did these, among so many other possibilities, become our reality?

If I can get myself together again, I will do it all differently.  I will not waste my time with superficial nonsense. So many self-proclaimed gurus, so much self-promotion, so much noise.

I cherish those who have checked in. My friend Diane came by, smelling of the beautiful outside. She assured me that there will still be lots of work for us to do when I am strong again. Nothing is getting fixed right away. Barb has written to me from snowy Saratoga. There are so many flowers in my room right now, and so many kinds of sweets.

I pray for grace and strength. I  am on a raft on a river, carried by a current.

Are we here for one another? And why do I feel compelled to tell you about this? How much can we contain in silence, and why should we keep it to ourselves?

I love my husband. I love my home, my place. I love and miss my daughter. I am grateful for my broken and complicated family of origin, and I see now that they are still here for me.

I am grateful for my friends and community, but I realize that they are not who or what I had thought them to be, and I know that I am feeling a little bit sorry for myself right now.  I thought my immediate neighbors would seem more real. I overestimated my significance in this little village. But what can anyone do anyway?

Some friends check in with an email or a text now and then, and that means so very much to me. Terry, my friend who had this surgery ten months ago, is especially reassuring. Just when I fear there is something gravely wrong in how weak and exhausted I am feeling, she tells me she felt the same way: “What you are experiencing is very normal and exactly how I felt.  Do not push yourself just give into it.  It is going to be awhile before you are even close to your old self.  I think that I mostly slept the first two weeks and I dreaded driving all the way back to L.A. for the suture removal.  Although I was all too happy to have them removed and to see Dr. Slattery.  As I said before, I gave myself one solid month of doing nothing…and I mean nothing! Month two I still took it really easy moving around a little more but still resting a lot…”

Time. Silence. Waiting.

My sister turns out to be one of the most understanding of all correspondents. She knows.

Troy’s print is hanging on the wall in front of me. “Too Much Talk”…one of one, so oddly fitting.

Everything is muted. Half-tones.

It’s a beautiful day, misty and green. I will force myself to get up and step outside.

My thoughts are jumbled, inconclusive, amounting to nothing.

I never felt that I did enough, but maybe I didn’t do nothing.

I cannot imagine that one day this will be behind me. Such slow progress.

What becomes of all those words and thoughts? What deeds will have mattered? Maybe there was something entirely different I needed to understand. Belief becomes imperative.

Cellular changes. My ruby beaded scar. Muted mutations. The brain is wider than the sky.

I think this is the best I can do right now. It’s hard to write. If anyone is out there, thank you.


Here is my email update from the other day:

In case we didn’t already know that we must take nothing for granted, the universe has deemed that we shall have no internet access, denying us the pleasure of little communications to and from friends. Later today, Monte will gather me up, escort me down the long stairway, and drive us to the junction of the 1 and 101 where there is usually a robust surge of wi-fi, and we’ll see if anything new comes in. (It reminds me of the girls at Nojoqui waiting for the Pony Express in the early 1900s.) Then we’ll head back south, pausing to look at the colors of the sea and Santa Rosa Island, and back to my bed-nest, which is where I am right now.

I have no illusions about how much I am suffering. Beloved members of my own family of origin endured the ravages of acute and chronic physical illness far beyond my own ability to imagine it. They were stoic and brave, fighting back as they could, but by and large consigned to the cruel randomness of their allotted fates, while I so casually inhabited my haven of perfect health, free to take it all for granted. What I am feeling today would have been a pretty good day for my sister, probably one of her best.

My father, too, if asked how he was doing, inevitably would have said “Can’t kick.” Tomorrow I will turn 67, the very age he was when he died, and I don’t know why that feels significant, but it does. (Then again, everything seems momentous.) But I’m not one to understate this challenge and say “Can’t kick”, because I sure can! I am a kvetcher and hyper-verbalizer from way back. I tend to tell people how I really feel. And yes, this is hard!

I have so much going for me, and I think each day will get a little better, but right now, it sucks. I hasten to add that I’m not in “pain”. I’m just very tentative, weak, and uncomfortable. My body is confused, and it feels different inside my head; sometimes a stuffiness, but sometimes more of an emptiness, an avenue with no traffic. No whoosh, no tintinittus, thank God, but the mild weather of bewilderment.

Oh, I am so incredibly grateful to know the tumor is unequivocally gone, but I must now acknowledge that stitches feel a little tight and tingly, and everything is half again as quiet, and I never understood how many micro-adjustments are involved in every moment of being alive. I also have a different sense of time. Maybe I thought time was linear, but now it seems more like a web in which we float, each of us separate, but connected as well. Internal, external, depends how you look at it. I open a page of a bedside book at random…Dan Gerber’s Particles: “Is a honey bee one being, or an element of one being?” And I walk through the snowscape of a beautiful book my daughter gave me, Silence in The Age of Noise, by Errling Kagge, and it seems so very fitting for this quiet time when suddenly I can no longer busy myself with this and that, pivoting away from the questions, avoiding confrontation with whoever I am when I am present.

Anyway, you can go ahead and feel a little sorry for me if you want.

I have always had a tendency to look to my history for what is real, and those people and things do matter, but I am beginning to see now that what is also real and meaningful are the kindnesses and messages that arise from more recent and often unexpected sources. The friends who sent us meals and care packages, beautiful words from Jeanne about our post-rain walks in the canyon, notes and socks and promises, books to read and think about, Lindy welcoming me into the fellowship of strong women…so much generosity. I want to talk to each of you individually, and I will, but for now, please know that you have helped. I am grateful too for more esoteric gifts: an arrowhead dislodged by my heel as I walked up the canyon recently, the prayer flags placed for me by friends of friends somewhere in the foothills of the Himalayas, the wren song in the morning, this little room filled with light. Why should I not accept all this as real, and even personal? I have spent too much time bound by barriers and constructs.

When I was in the hospital at the nadir of my misery last week, I looked up at one point and saw my husband standing there, and a sense of love and humility and gratitude filled me to the core of my being. But of course being Cynthia-the-haunted, I suddenly flashed back to my poor mother, lying in her bed not long before she died, and the appreciation and love that registered on her face when she looked up to see me, and that memory made me start to cry, because I knew I meant that much to her, and I wasn’t there enough. And then I remembered that we are never there enough, and we can never do enough, but that is not the point. I felt love as a force, not a means but the thing itself, and I saw it as real and powerful and everlasting. It is the animus, the spirit, the eternal, the energy of what we may even choose to call God.

I realize that my recovery process is not something you all need to be updated about daily, but it feels good to “talk” about it, and easier right now to send out this group email. I’ll get things better sorted out soon. Maybe in time we’ll even re-enter modern times and get some reliable service out here. It’s interesting to realize how much I count on that link to the world. I suppose it’s actually infuriating, but I don’t seem able to muster up the anger. I’m more focused on whether I can walk without wobbling and manage a good night of sleep. We may even try a hair wash later. Meanwhile, I know there is a lot I am missing that would only upset me if the barrage of “news” was coming in, and since I’m not ready to get back into the fight, there’s no point in diffusing mental energy.

So tomorrow will be the strangest of birthdays. I loved birthday #10. And #35, in Baja with the bike friends by the campfire, Steve and I refusing to abandon that whipped cream mocha cake. And every birthday ever with the little girl who made us laugh and remember wonder.

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9 Responses to Grand Opening

  1. Christine Beebe says:

    Dear Cynthia, I’ve been checking for this, your first post-surgery entry. Through your words, it becomes more than real. I think you may be mistaken about people not wanting to know about your surgery and its aftermath; I do, and many of our mutual friends have asked about you in recent days – how it went, how you’re doing. We are here, perhaps relying too much on media to communicate our love and concern, maybe not wanting to be too intrusive too soon, but caring for you deeply nevertheless.
    Love, Chris

  2. lisa says:

    I, too, have been waiting for your post-surgery dispatch (superbly written). The silence and not-knowing have been unnerving, plus not being able to do anything to help or make it easier for you. As wacky as this will sound, at one point trying to fill in the blanks of your experience, I wore one earplug tightly to see if I could viscerally understand how it felt. Off balance. As your readers, we waited and hoped. I opened your post last night, not knowing what to expect. But your writing is electric and luminous and honest. Welcome home, Cynthia. May you heal gently and well. I am grateful for your being.
    Love, Lisa

  3. Laura says:

    Yes, yes. I’ve never met you, but your powerful writing has made me feel I do know you, and I have been sending good messages to you and your surgeons through the procedure. I’m thrilled to hear all is well and you are in the heaven of places to recover; may it go smoothly and gently. I won’t say “rapidly” because it sounds as though you need lots of time and quiet; may it be peaceful, and may you give yourself all that you need. Thank you for sending your message out to the world to reassure your readers; thank you for describing all the before and during. Thank you for stoking our compassion for all the folks who deal with such things.

    I know many people want to give space and not intrude too soon. But a room full of flowers and sweets sounds good! Grateful for all your generous gifts,

    • cynthia says:

      Thank you, dear Laura. I’ll try to write more when I can but wanted you to know that your thoughts mean a great deal to me.

  4. Hello,

    I am just a random guy who used in hike a lot in Santa Barbara who also ended up buying your book. I enjoy listening to you. Hope your recovery keeps going well.



  5. Tess Balsiger says:

    I’m such a fan of yours and have always followed your blog but stopped probably over a year ago I think you announced you were taking a break. So delighted to rediscover you. Sending healing vibes from Shell Beach. Just now read of your health issues. Looking forward to reading Still Amazed and would still love to meet you sometime. Maybe at Hancock when they celebrate Bob at the Annual poetry thingy …..your friend you have yet to meet, Tess

    • cynthia says:

      Oh, how nice to hear from you, Tess. Thank you for looking in on me as I navigate this journey. Yes, maybe at one of the Bob Isaacson poetry readings we will finally meet. xox

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