This is how I wake up every morning: staring out the window into the dark silvery silence of winter, the sky bejeweled in glowing diamond specks that are the stars.
Is it morning, I ask myself? I am afraid to look at the clock. Lately, I try to force myself to stay in bed until 5. Better yet, 5:30. Well, actually, 5:36. I tell myself that it’s ok to get up at 5:36 a.m. because that is precisely the hour of the day when I was born.
It was late November, the day after Thanksgiving and the moon was so bright that it made the streets of the little Connecticut town where I was born look like they had been whitewashed.
My father drove my mother to the hospital as she lay crumpled up in the passenger seat. Later she told me that she had suffered “every single labor pain in the car.”
As my father steered her toward Bristol Hospital, a 25-minute drive from Canton where my parents were staying with my Grandma Mish and Grandpa Claude, all my father could do was stare out the front window of the car at the moon. The full moon. Which looked like it was sitting there on the road far ahead, laughing at him.
When my mother was pregnant with me, my grandmother, Michelina Rotondo, my mother’s mother, kept telling my father that I would be born under a full moon. My father, kind of a skeptical guy, laughed at Mish’s prediction; he told my grandmother that she was old-fashioned and superstitious.
“No, “ Mish insisted in her broken English, “You see. The full moon makes the babies come.”
That night my mother went into labor, that gigantic moon had the last laugh. It sat on the horizon like an oversized white dinner plate just guffawing at my dad. It hung over the horizon and it just laughed and laughed at my father, while my mother sat with her legs crossed in the passenger seat of my uncle Dell's old green Ford. Her pains felt like freight trains crashing through her abdomen (at least that's how it felt when I had my kids.) She kept yelling at my dad, "hurry up, hurry up, hurry up," because she thought for sure she was going to deliver me right there in the car.
When he finally got her to the hospital, a nurse whisked my mom into a wheelchair and wheeled her into the delivery room, and indeed, my mother was fully dilated and ready to push. I was born in a matter of seconds! And as my husband points out, I've been moving with the speed of light ever since.
My father, meanwhile, questioned the doctor later, asking if it was true that a full moon has what I will call the "MICHELINA" effect, prompting babies to be born. The doctor replied that he knew of no scientific evidence supporting that claim.
"However," he admitted, "there sure is a lot of activity in the delivery room when there's a full moon."
That's what I love (or hate) about doctors. They are so locked in to what they don't know, they can't possibly see what is right in front of their eyes.
My grandmother Michelina Rotondo, on the other hand, was totally in tune to what she saw and felt. Mish was not an educated woman, but she was extraordinarily bright and intuitive. I believe, in fact, that Mish was gifted, as in, she may have been THAT kind of intuitive. She certainly was wise, endlessly wise to the old world wisdom, to the old world sayings. "When the pear is ripe, it will fall from the tree." Or, "When the moon is full, the babies will come.
Now it is Thursday, December 17, 2010, and I am staring at the moon outside my bedroom window. The moon this morning is more like a small golden bauble I would love to wear on a necklace. “I’ve got to get more sleep,” I tell myself. But I can't stop staring out the window at the winter sky. I start tossing and turning until finally "he with whom I sleep" rolls over and tells me to please, try to stop moving around so much.
I glance at the clock. 4:55.
I lie there and say my first Hail Mary, this one for my cousin Carol, who lives out in San Francisco. Carol had non-Hodgkins lymphoma a few years back and subsequently she endured two stem cell transplants, which bring you to the brink of death before they restore your immune system. These medical treatments have left my poor cousin's body ravaged. As my sister Holly put it, "she has been to hell and back."
Carol's brother Billy, with whom I grew up, wrote a Facebook message the other day explaining that Carol "is still fighting the effects of her stem cell transplants. It seems the major problems are complications due to host vs. graft disease which occurs as new cells are rejected by the immune system. The medicines used to counter this are steroids and cause a brittleness and thinning of the bones. So the whole thing is a balancing of the medicine and rejecting of cells. Carol developed stomach ulcers and dropped a huge amount of weight and is fighting the effects of malnourishment. She is really tired of being Ill and has been through the ringer."
I finish the Hail Mary for Carol and I promise that if she wants one, I will gladly mail her a box of my green barley powder, the powder that, when mixed with water, tastes like the front lawn. Honestly, though, I think that powder keeps me healthy (oh, and my physician, Dr. Ronald Stram, who runs an extraordinary integrated medical practice that combines traditional medical treatment with alternative therapies, agrees with me.) I sought out Ron Stram's expertise about five years ago when I could no longer see my oncologist because every time I visited him, and told him how I was doing yoga and meditation and eating very very carefully, he would look at me and say, "You are disgustingly healthy."
I mean, please, would YOU go to a doctor who said that to you? At the time, his remark reminded me of the other oncologist at Sloan Kettering, the one who, in July, 2003, told me if I didn't have a stem cell transplant, IMMEDIATELY, foregoing even a trip for my 25th wedding anniversary, well, then I would die.
This august physician, whose name naturally I cannot reveal here, even refused to let me get a second opinion (he told me that I didn't need one, as he was the national expert in the area). At which point I think my reporter's skeptical mind kicked in and I said that I wouldn't leave his office until he did give me the name of a second doctor. My husband, an activist who is used to standing up to powerful idiots, supported me.
Finally, the doctor at Sloan gave me the name of a very well-respected doctor, a specialist in Hodgkin's disease at Dana Farber, and a few weeks later I visited Dr. George Canellos and I learned to my very great horror that the first doctor, at Sloan, had most likely not radiated my cancer properly and that's why I had a spot left to treat. Dear God. Dear God.
THIS IS IMPORTANT: what I just wrote, in the last paragraph? I have never ever written this information down before. I realize this write NOW, that until this MOMENT, I have been too frightened to write down what that doctor at Sloan Kettering did: he tried to give me a stem cell transplant when I didn't need one. Why? Because he was running a research project and I fit the bill, and he wanted to "cherry pick" me for that project. Indeed, he hadn't even done the biopsy on that olive-sized spot in my chest and he had his nurse handing me the release form for the stem cell. When I said to him, "But Doctor, you haven't even done a biopsy," he replied in his smug way, "oh we will, we will and we will find the cancer."
Now that I have FINALLY FINALLY written this I want to stand on top of the Empire State Building and SCREAM IT OUT, SHOUT IT OUT SO LOUDLY THAT EVERYONE IN THE WORLD hears, and no one fears their oncologist ever again, and whenever A DOCTOR SAYS SOMETHING THAT YOUR INTUITION, YOUR DEEPEST MICHELINA GUT INSTINCT SAYS IS WRONG, that YOU TELL YOUR DOCTOR TO GO TO HELL, and keep his medical treatment.
As Dr. Canellos put it to me so well, "Claudia, that doctor is a hammer. And so, he looks at the world as being full of nails. And you, I'm afraid, were one of his nails."
It was in part my incredible medical intuitive reading, on August 6, 2003, that gave me the power to refuse the stem cell transplant. (Do you have ANY IDEA how hard it is to say NO to a world-class cancer specialist at Sloan Kettering who tells you that if you don't have a particular procedure, you are sure to DIE? Have you any idea how hard it was to do that? I am writing this and trembling in recollection at what that month of July 2003 was like.)
I said Hail Marys around the clock. Whenever I woke up in the middle of the night, totally frightened, I said Hail Marys until I fell back to sleep. The Virgin Mary kept me safe.
Anyway, I got the news that Carol, the unlucky recipient of not one, but two stem cell transplants, was sick, by reading an email that I received from my sister Holly last week. The news had come from Sister Marian, the nun who is Carol’s older sister. (At one point, our family could boast two nuns, Sister Marian and Sister Barbara. Sister Barbara left the convent a long while back.)
It is now 5:07. The sky has a heavenly glow to it this morning, the color of gun metal. That color calls to me. I love the dark silence of the morning sky. I feel completely at peace staring into a dark, star-studded sky. Or a sky with a sliver of a moon.
I love getting up at this hour and meditating as the darkness slowly gives way to light.
I continue to lie here, I now say a second Hail Mary, for my sister Karen, who lives out in L.A. Karen is scheduled to have a third IV infusion of a heavy-duty drug that treats a rare infectious inflammatory disease. The illness is causing my sister great pain. And the treatment last time only made things worse. I pray that this time, it will have the desired effect.
I finish the Hail Mary. There are reasons to get up now. I can make myself a strong cup of Peet’s Arabian Mocha Java coffee, which I have mailed to me from California, where I used to live. I could take the coffee into the living room and meditate.
But it is only 5:13.
I turn over again. It is so dark and so cold outside that I don’t really want to lift my face out of the covers.
And then I remember. I am supposed to finish writing this book by the end of December. And here it is December 16th. I have had sixteen years to write this damn book and now I only have 15 or 16 days to finish it. I cannot imagine how I am going to meet this deadline.
I have the start of a new chapter racing around my head, and it picks up speed with every lap.
I am thinking of focusing on my grandmother Michelina in the next chapter. In the last chapter, I mentioned that Mish had said some very strange things to me in the days before she died in 1996. At the time, I chalked up her comments to the intense pain that she was suffering. She kept saying how much she wanted to die. “I wish I start smoking when I was 90,” she said at one point. “Then I be dead now.”
My sister Holly told me yesterday in a phone conversation that after Grandma died, and a young family moved into their tiny white house in Canton, the little girl who occupied Mish’s room told her mother that she used to see an old woman in her room all the time. I called my Aunt Anamae today to confirm this. Anamae and her husband, my Uncle Paul, live a few doors away from where Mish and Pop used to live.
"It's true," Anamae said. "It was the family that bought Grandma's house after she died. The little girl -- her name was Carly -- must have been five or six years old. She didn't know anything about Grandma Mish having lived there. She told her mother that she saw an old lady in her bedroom," the same bedroom that Mish had occupied. "What did she know? For her to tell her mother that, you gotta wonder sometimes."
Wonder I do! I’m pretty convinced that if anyone could bridge the great beyond, my Grandma Mish would be the one to do it. She died on my birthday in 1996. I was 44 years old. I lived with Mish when I was a little girl and I was very close to her. She would get up at the crack of dawn and bake me a fresh batch of warm corn muffins every morning I stayed with her. She also got me addicted to strong coffee in the morning, always with a nice dose of milk. I was only about five years old.
Watching my grandma Mish die a painful death was one of the hardest things I remember. She was a woman with so much dignity. It was so difficult to see Mish wallow in bed, in utter agony, day after day, that month of October, and November, 1996.
It was on one of my visits to her in the nursing home that she made her strange remark. I remember sitting beside her bed, and her turning to me. She said something to this effect, “I saw your grandfather, Claude, at the top of the stairs this morning. I know he was there.” My grandfather, Claude Rotondo, had died seven years before, in December of 1989.
I stared at Mish. I wasn’t sure what to say. I was writing an early version of Sister Mysteries and my head was tuned in to certain paranormal kinds of realities. But still, at the time I thought I was writing fiction.
And here was my REAL grandmother saying that she had seen my DEAD grandfather, that morning, at the top of the stairs.
Mish was 95 years old but her mind was perfectly clear, at least as clear as this glass of water that I have here sitting beside my computer as I write. She had no dementia at all.
I didn’t respond to Mish, or at least I don’t remember saying anything.
But maybe it is time to go back to the blue Sister Mysteries crate in the hall closet, the one that sits under the black garbage of rags beside the vacuum cleaner. Because it has been 14 years since that peculiar conversation.
On the day of Mish’s funeral, December 1, 1996, I remember three things: I remember seeing Mish in her casket, all shriveled up. Her hair looked as though it had been died black. This wasn’t Mish. I was horrified.
And then I remember the odd things that happened in the parking lot as we were going to lunch after the funeral. A gigantic rainbow formed over our heads.
I said out loud, "Wow, maybe Grandma wants us to know she is here with us." And my Aunt Joyce laughed and said I was a "romantic."
At that very moment, my sister Holly walked up to me and handed me a gorgeous star, a piece of jewelry that was embedded with large rhinestones.
I would say that the sunlight and the rainbow all combined in the rhinestone star and dazzled me, but as I have promised to write just the truth here in this book, I am not going to say that. But it's a nice thought anyway.
So, I took the rainbow and the star to be signs that Grandma Mish was there, watching us as we went into La Trattoria in Avon, Connecticut, that restaurant we knew so well, to celebrate my dear Grandma Mish's life, and to mourn her passing.
It's time now to go excavating the blue Sister Mysteries crate again, to see EXACTLY what Mish said to me as she was dying so many years back.
Meanwhile, though, in case anybody is still with me, reading this, and cares to know, I have now, officially decided that I don't care if I finish this book by the end of 2010.
I made that decision yesterday while visiting and writing with my good friend Peg over in the lovely little lakeside village of Shutesbury, Massachusetts (Peg, otherwise known as Dr. P.M. Woods, runs the writing center at UMass!) I confided in Peg while we were writing, after we had lunched on her scrumptious broccoli and cheddar cheese soup and delicious salad, that I couldn't imagine meeting the deadline that I had committed to -- in public on this blog -- back in mid-November, when the Albany Times Union's Writing in Motion project challenged seven writers to finish writing their books by the end of the year.
Clearly, it is going to take me longer than two more weeks to finish writing this book. I said that to Peg and she just laughed.
"Claud," she said, "I never expected you to finish by the end of the year." She chuckled. And then she laughed even harder. When Peg laughs, I have a very hard time not laughing with her. Her face lights up like Santa Claus' and she gets this bright twinkle in her eyes and she just roars and giggles.
“Claud, think about it," she said. "Why would you finish by the end of December? Remember, Claud, you have been working on this book for 16 years, SIXTEEN YEARS, so why would you now finish it in 16 days?"
She just laughed and laughed. "Why would 2011 be the cut off? Not ONE more word of Sister Mysteries in 2011? HA!" She was laughing so hard by that point that tears were starting to roll down her cheeks. I was laughing too, which was good, because all this writing under enormous deadline pressure lately was starting to take its toll on me; I was getting a bit stressed there in the last week or so.
But now, well, now I can relax. I have Sister Peg's permission to sit back and just write this book as it comes.
And this morning, when I told my husband what Peg had said, after I came back to bed, my husband smiled and said, "Honey, I didn't know that your book had an ending."
Ah, my husband! Always at least one step ahead of me. My husband, Richard Kirsch, is in fact writing a book himself (his first.) He is 230 pages into the book; he wrote a whopping 190 pages in the last seven weeks. It's a book about how the progressive organization he ran last year in DC, Health Care for America Now, helped to pass the historic health care legislation last March.
So maybe my husband is write. I mean right. Maybe I won't ever finish Sister Mysteries.
What I am beginning to realize is that part of me never ever wants to stop writing about the mysteries that I have begun to uncover as part of this book. I love writing Sister Mysteries more than I think I've ever loved writing anything in my entire life (and I've been writing professionally now for 35 years!)
Maybe I love writing this book so much because I love writing about the mysteries of life, and I love marveling at all of the mysteries, the ordinary miracles, that we all take for granted.
I can't imagine anyone will keep reading, but hey, since when has that ever stopped me? I told my husband this morning while I was fixing myself French toast that I have been writing fiction now since July of 1990 and I have yet to get a big publisher for my fiction.
It mattered to me for a long time, and now, honestly, I could care less. I have finally realized that all I need do is release them on my own. (My second novel, Seeing Red, will be out shortly; the printer had to redo the covers because they were pinky orange instead of red!) For years, my flamenco guitar teacher, Maria Zemantauski, a virtuoso performer, kept telling me, "Claudia, what's the big deal? I've released all of my CDs on my own label! I can't imagine it any other way."
Maybe because I listened to Maria's amazing flamenco music writing each and every chapter of Seeing Red (the book is named after Maria's CD,) maybe THAT'S why I finally heard what she was saying. Maybe that's why I finally realized that it didn't much matter whether I had a publishing contract or not. I've got to write, and so I will, I will write, and I will put the writing out there, on the blogs, or in print. Some of it I will give away, and some of I will sell and what sells, sells. Amen.
I guess what I have realized, what I have finally finally figured out after all these years -- is this rather simple lesson: all that matters, in the end, is the writing.
As my friend Karl Gabosh is wont to say, "Writers write."
Thank you Karl, for understanding that, and more importantly, for reminding me of that very important fact as often as you have.
Sister Mysteries, an on-line book, is part of the Albany Times Union's Writing In Motion project. The project features seven writers committed to completing writing projects by the end of 2010. Sister Mysteries is connected to a novel called Castenata -- a time-travel murder mystery featuring a nun, Sister Renata, who in 1883 was falsely accused of murdering her cousin Antonie. Renata's version of the story is contained within her diaries on the Castenata site.