Living with Losing

Having lived through the cancer that took the life of my husband Jim eight years ago, I was thinking today about how similar some of my emotions are in this pandemic to those we faced  in the aftermath of his diagnosis.  Although then we knew how his story would eventually end, we had a lot of hope at the beginning that effective treatment could keep him around for a few more years.

The immediate period after his diagnosis of metastatic prostate cancer was surprisingly unchanged, once we both got used to the small puncture in his back and the tube connecting to a urine collection bag that was always tucked under his clothes. Soon we were back to playing tennis, and going along in our lives more or less as usual.  We went a spur-of-the-moment trip to Hawaii over Thanksgiving rather than waiting for Spring Break, as we had planned. We laughed, we teased, we kept the bounce in our step.

The drone in the background was louder in my head than his. He was still denying the reality behind his PSA numbers. Treatment wasn’t working. He wouldn’t have the luxury many luckier prostate cancer patients have in their 70s, of being able to slow a 100% fatal cancer down so long they were liable to die of something else first.

He couldn’t go in the water in Hawaii because of his bag, so it wasn’t the same splashy-grinny trip we took the year before to Lake Okanagan in British Columbia, when we were blissfully unaware of the cancer already taking root. But we were there, together in Maui, and that was what mattered.  We went because of the unsaid message running through my head that made me insist on taking the trip then rather than waiting. I knew we were making our last memories. I knew this was about the quality of the rest of his life.  He died a few weeks before Spring Break.  We had made a wonderful memory while we still could. It made him smile for a few months  I am still smiling

It was always there, that drone in the background, brought forward occasionally by a jolt of awareness that something had changed.  We still played tennis but for a shorter periods, then less often.  Then we changed the rules so Jim didn’t have to run more than one step.  Then we stopped playing. Jim ate and drank with the same gusto, then, slowly, he didn’t.

And then he fell off a cliff. That is what dying of cancer is like. You are okay, all things considered, then suddenly you’re not. We played very abbreviated tennis up to six weeks before he died. He was still making his own lunch three weeks before he hit that cliff. Just as the doctor predicted, he stayed in bed more and more until he was there all day.

Jim went to hospice when the cancer, or the medication—I’m not sure which— affected his brain and he was behaving erratically in ways I was afraid I could not physically control.  He died three days later.

Why does this feel so similar?  It’s that drone in the background.  Maybe the virus is digging into my cells right now.  Maybe it’s already too late. Maybe this is it and I just don’t know the details. Maybe this is something I will survive and end up dying years down the road of something else.  Maybe this story is happening right now not to me, but to someone I love.

Life today is also similar because it is so disrupted. Our old lives aren’t on temporary hold.  In some respects they are already over. By the time Jim died, our beautiful condo had been ripped apart because I insisted that his two East Coast children not leave it to me to communicate with them after his death about what of his they wanted. We packed up and mailed things while they were here to say goodbye, despite how horrible we felt because he was sleeping in the back bedroom while we went through his things.

Life became a slow, incremental process of losing a little, then a little more. Then losing everything, except what can’t be lost, and that is the spirit in the living that enables us to go on, and the dead to transition whatever, if anything, might be beyond.

When you acknowledge the possibility of a fatal process already underway in your body, it changes your relationship to the material things in your life. I look around and wonder what it might be like for my son to confront what I leave behind.  This virus also makes us confront our non-material legacy— the story of what we have done with our lives.  To come bang-up against what it may be too late to do.

Maybe I have this malignancy  now, maybe I don’t. Maybe I will get it later, maybe not. But for now, I am going to navigate this changed world with the best, most hopeful spirit I can bring to it.  I am still planning my future. I am trying to learn all I can from this. The drone isn’t entirely bad. It alerts us to what is really important, and to the value of things— like love— that no disease can take away.


The Next Stretch

I think this next stretch will be harder. Novelty is wearing out. Resolutions may not be kept. Isolation may take a toll on the many ways others contribute to our well being. Things like going grocery shopping may turn into ordeals. We may hear more about loved ones and friends caught up in this. We may treat minor vagaries in our bodies as signs of impending Armageddon. We may get bored out of our skulls. We may be stuck inside with people who are driving us crazy. We may be frazzled from trying to be everything to everybody. Everyone has their own response to all this, and it may be fraying at the edges. And we have no idea about when this will end. We don’t know how to plan, how to pace our lives and how to interpret where we are and what’s going on,

Few born in this country have lived through anything like this.  Remembering the privations of World War II is rare, and the Great Depression even rarer. The  pundits are right that this feels like war, although except for hospital workers there are no front lines, and for most of us, this war  is still a privileged first-world sort.  Our reality at the moment is still something people in much of the world would see as luxury. Bombs aren’t falling, there’s no wreckage to sift through. We aren’t being terrorized by civil war.  Our grocery shelves are empty right now but they will fill. Our roads are still passable.  The trucks will get through from warehouses that still teem, and fields and farms that are happier than ever with less of our pollution to contend with.  We are hunkered down with a fair degree of security. We simply are going to need to adjust our sense of entitlement.

For most of us, our worst fears will not be realized.  We may remember most strongly the anxiety of the open-endedness of this time.  We may not like the comeuppance we get in our views of ourselves  that were shattered by behavior we’re not proud of.  Yes, everyone is in this together, and yet I suspect many of us feel more alone than before.

This next stretch will be harder because we are still adjusting.  We are more aware we are just settling in rather than soon to be liberated. We are learning to live with more questions than answers  But we can adjust, we can make the most of it, we can choose to see the opportunities in having less to distract us.  Today I am ordering some flowering bulbs that can grow in water in a window of my condo.  I may get a bird feeder for my balcony.  Neither of these would have occurred to me a week ago.  Life will go on in abundance, and it’s up to me to go with it.


Optimistic Fatalism

Whenever I call myself an optimistic fatalist, people laught. It does sound rather absurd, but let me explain.

Here’s how one dictionary defines fatalism: “a doctrine that events are fixed in advance so that human beings are powerless to change them.” It’s a belief that certain things, usually bad, are inevitable.

Here’s how one dictionary defines optimism: “an inclination to put the most favorable construction upon actions and events or to anticipate the best possible outcome.”

     How do these two things mesh? Simple. It may turn out to be true that certain things, in hindsight, probably could not have failed to turn out the way they did. It may feel as if once certain conditions were met, or one path set out upon, the rest could have been predicted like whatever simile you like—clockwork, or falling dominoes, or a runaway train.
     Maybe. And then again, maybe not. Even as dire situations unfold, circumstances change, new factors get added in, certain factors are taken away. We find a new source of empowerment. Sometimes we find inner resources we don’t know we have, and we can lift that car up off the injured body of our situation. Sometimes someone else lifts that car and rescues us.
     And sometimes not. I don’t count on miracle cures, white knights, or any form of deus ex machina, that device in old plays, where a god is cranked down from the rafters to offer instant solutions to the corner the characters have gotten themselves boxed into.
Yes, things could turn out very badly.  The train could indeed wreck. In times of great apprehension, i let the direst scenario run its course in my mind and then remind myself that it is highly unlikely to happen that way. That is optimistic fatalism.
    In this current situation, sequestered due to Covid 19, optimistic fatalism says yes, I could get this virus and die a gruesome death alone in an isolation ward. But I probably won’t. Yes, I could survive but be left with impaired health. Yes, but I haven’t heard any compelling evidence this is likely, and even if so, I believe I can come back, or find ways to cope.
     What’s harder to deal with is the likelihood that even if I never catch it, I won’t escape from losing others not so fortunate. That’s the part I hate, because the thing about my optimistic fatalism is that it relies on my sense of personal efficacy, my own powers to influence outcomes. Beyond supporting the self isolation of those I love, beyond reaching out to see if I can pick up a quart of milk for an elderly neighbor, beyond donating to programs to help others, I have no ability to influence how this works out for others.
     As for me, optimistic fatalism is probably assisted by something deep in my genes or biochemistry that makes me not tend easily to depression or feelings of helplessness, and for that I am eternally grateful. I also know that I have gone through life blessed with a modest but sufficient safety net of people and resources that have enabled me to survive some bad mistakes, and some truly awful life crises . For me, optimistic fatalism has been a safe bet as a philosophy, because even on the worst days of my life, I always believed I would come out okay on the other side.
     I suspect Covid 19 will test my optimistic fatalism in major ways, because it has introduced a stronger sense of community in addition to individual outcomes, and I worry that the situation may erode communities in ways that no amount of resilience or positive thinking can offset. I don’t trust people in power to put our interests above their own. I can’t do anything about factors that could be set in stone, such as how many ventilators there will be when I or someone I love, needs one. Given that a lot of Americans have shown themselves in recent years to be a lot uglier than I thought, I don’t know what to expect if resources dwindle or a lot of people stop feeling adequately safe.
     That’s fatalism speaking. It may not turn out that way. I may find some source of strength or power if it does. We’ll just have to see. And in the meantime, there’s a break in the rain, and I am going for a walk in the park. Six feet from other people, of course. Optimist fatalists aren’t stupid.



You Cower

I have been worrying a lot about the bad and deteriorating home lives many people will face sequestered with toxic people. This came out of that thinking this morning:

You cower under the covers because someone at home has been drinking all day
Or someone has thrown the remote at the television, yelling because there are no sports to watch
Or someone needs sex they can’t go get elsewhere
Or you whined one too many times about having nothing to do
Or you asked too many questions no one has answers to
Or you used the last of something it won’t be easy to replace
Or broke something
Or laughed at something
Or cried about something
Or just breathed too loud.
You cower because you used to be able to get away to school
Or the senior center
To a friend’s house
To the baseball diamond
To the park
To the after school job
The broken dishes and shrieks

The steps in the hallway
The creak on the stairs
The shrieks and broken glass.
“Where are you hiding?” The voice comes. It always comes.
You cower because there used to be a chance the doorbell might ring.
You have symptoms. The sweat, the shakes of fear.
They will last as long as this does, or as long as you do, whichever is less.
Because no one, no hiding place can save you.


Categories of Time

In the years between 2008 and 2014 I published five full-length books (four novels and one work of narrative nonfiction).  That’s five books in six years, all from major publishers, with all the editing and other work that entails. When people ask me how I did it, I honestly can’t figure it out, since I was also a full-time professor during those years.

 When I was teaching, I actually looked forward to going back in the fall, not just because I loved that part of my life, but because I recognized how much I benefited from the  structure it provided.

My biggest problem during breaks was not procrastination or idleness but the opposite. When I am writing a book, I am a house afire. I simply cannot type as fast as the story and the dialogue is rushing through my mind. I cannot wait to see what is going to happen next, and who is going to say what.The characters and their stories become richer the deeper I go into the world of my book.  I begin to understand nuances and meanings I did not see at the outset.

It is such an exhilarating ride that  I will not get up for hours. I start around 6AM and look up and realize it’s 11.  I tell myself to get up, get dressed, eat something, but then I get sucked in again for just one more scene, until by 2PM I am wobbling and lightheaded when I finally stand up.

To keep writing a novel from making a train wreck of the rest of my life during summer and semester breaks, I developed what I called Categories of Time.  Now, as I sit in my condo waiting out the period of self-isolation from this virus I have good reason not to want to name, I am once again looking to my Categories of Time to provide some guidance.  I offer the concept here in the hope that it will be helpful to others wondering how to get through this without bringing out the worst tendencies in themselves.

The idea is to identify the the activities  that help you achieve a balanced, healthy life and stay on track towards your goals.  You then make a commitment to spend one hour a day on each.  Back then, I established these five categories: writing, promoting my success as an author, exercise, life maintenance and recreation.  Life maintenance included everything from taking a shower, to paying bills, to doing laundry, to buying groceries, to preparing a meal.   Recreation meant that I had to spend one hour doing something I might otherwise call a waste of time—playing Scrabble, watching television, surfing the net for nothing in particular.

This last was, to my surprise, the hardest to stick to when I was writing.  Some were easy or necessary to spend far more than  an hour on at least some days, but the whole point, really is to make yourself fit in the whole variety over the course of your waking hours.

My categories are different now, though they still add up to five, which seems a workable number, though yours might differ.  They may evolve, but how I see mine now is as follows, in no particular order:

Creative Time:  I have been thinking about a writing project of a new sort altogether, and will be exploring that.  Keeping it close to the vest for now

Life maintenance:  see above

Reaching Out to Others in Isolation:  phone, text, email, Zoom, FaceTime, etc

Recreation:  see above

Exercise:  daily walk, plus find some hotel exercise and/or stretching routines, since these could be more easily adapted for my condo

The rest of the day, encompassing all hours you are awake,  can be divided daily however you want among these categories, but you must do each one for a minimum of one hour.  How this helped me when I was writing maniacally is that around 2PM, I would say to myself “Yikes!  I have four more categories to fit in today!”   It simply wasn’t appropriate or even possible to work any more, and understanding this, I was able to stop.  It worked then, and I think it will work now.

Well, now I have the Reaching Out category nailed for today with this blog post.  Hope it is of some benefit to you.


I Forgot My Toothbrush

Last night, as I unexpectedly tucked into my own bed after not boarding a plane to Buenos Aires, I had a funny thought. Instead  of telling Dan my trip was canceled, what if I had just rung his doorbell, suitcases in tow, and when he opened the door, said, “I forgot my toothbrush.”

I’m not sure why that struck me as so funny, except for maybe the contrast between the unimportant an*d important, the solvable and unsolvable problem.

It got me to thinking about what I was really looking forward to on this trip, and I realized that even though I can’t have exactly that, I have some reasonable facsimiles.  I really love the girly-girl aspects of the cruising life.  I like dressing better than I normally do at home.  I like taking more time with my grooming.  I like the lovely bedding.  I like the nice ambiance of the restaurants. I like setting out in the morning into a new adventure.

Of course what I most like is having someone take care of me, but if that really matters, I can start taking a little better care of myself.

When I unpack today I am going to put everything except the dressiest stuff in the front of my closet, and I am going to wear it. Even though I am going to go as all-in as possible with self-isolation to do my part for my community, there isn’t any reason I need to  wear my baggies while I do it.

If I decide a luxury bed experience is all that important, I can use my best sheets, make the bed more carefully, and fluff the pillows.  I can put a piece of chocolate on my own pillow just as well as they can, if it matters.  Nothing stopping me except how silly it sounds.

I can set a nicer table and spend more than the bare minimum of time putting a meal together.  If I tidy up as I go, it just takes a minute to finish the cleanup for one person.

I can go out in the morning and have an adventure here.

The operative thing here is “if it really matters.”  Well, actually it doesn’t.  Maybe for the next few days,  I will  try dressing up a notch, and maybe I will go outside a bit more like a tourist in my own town, but really, life is so good that the chocolate on the pillow is just, well, frosting on the cake

And you know what?  I think I may actually have forgotten my toothbrush. Doesn’t matter now. Some things are just plain easier when you’re home.


My Year of Living Untravelly?

If you read my post from earlier today, you know I had left on the first leg of a journey to Buenos Aires to finish my circumnavigation of South America. Before I had gotten halfway to LA by train to catch my plane out of LAX, I was engrossed in a flurry of phone calls with Geoff, the Seabourn lecturer booker, to determine whether I should get on the plane. It became obvious over the next hour that I would be facing quarantine in Argentina, if I even got that far, because Colombia was likely not to allow me to set foot there even to change planes.

I am on my way back from LA now (I couldn’t get off the train because I had checked my suitcases) and I will now have a period of mental adjustment to not being where I had hoped to be and missing out on some things I had looked forward to doing, but also because I now have a loooong stretch of time with no travel plans.  If I am  not able to fly  to Lisbon in a few weeks to do the Canaries cruise, I will be in San Diego  seven months without any travel adventures, and only one for three weeks until the end of the year

I am worried about me!  I’m going to need to have a long conversation with myself about how to go from lemons to lemonade on this one. But one thing I am not going to do is wallow in self-pity. I have a great life and I will figure out how to make the next months an adventure.

it’s hard to imagine how anybody is going to avoid having their life altered negatively by this virus. It’s not just whether you get sick. It’s all the other kinds of losses it can bring. Maybe this will be the wake up call for enough people who have bought the fantasy that our president is doing the best job ever done.  If  I come down with this virus because I caught it in San Diego when I could have been somewhere else where people were doing a better job managing it, I am going to be even more blisteringly upset with that person in power who even today insists we don’t have very many cases and is too much of a coward to get the test himself even though he has been exposed. There, I’ve gone political. But my tush is sore from being on trains all day and I think I’ve earned the right to grouse a little!


Rolling the Dice

Rolling the Dice

After reading every article I could get my hands on and listening to the valid worries of my partner, Dan, I  am flying to Buenos Aires today  on a Seabourn cruise to Manaus ( or maybe on to Miami?) maybe followed by Lisbon to Rome via the Canary Islands ( or maybe not?),  depending  on even more factors than anyone knows right now. 

The chances of this whole trip going off without a hitch are probably fairly slim.at this point, I don’t even know exactly where I am going.  Can I keep myself well?  Will the ship end up quarantined?  Will one of the cases be me?  If not, what will my situation be as a well passenger?  Will the ship be able to make all our ports, or will some of them close to travelers?  Will any of my flights be canceled?  Will I have difficulty getting back home?  

All legitimate concerns, but I note that I am very far into a list before asking the biggie: will I die?  Sure, I have been hearing a lot about what a geriatric case I am at 70, and I wonder whether pneumonia twice in the past 30 years and well-controlled borderline asthma triggered by allergies would fall in the category of heath-compromising conditions. All of this factors into how serious getting Covid 19 could be. 

It has always worked well for me in life to catastrophize and then walk myself back. Yes, it is within the realm of possibility that I will die in some woefully inadequate hospital in an out-of-the-way place , unattended by anyone I love because they can’t get there or are forbidden to see me. Yes, my pathetic casket will make the mournful journey back to a place that in retrospect I should never have left. Yes, my very full life will be tragically cut short a bit at 70,  and some people will be very sad.


Let’s dial it back.  I will wash my hands a lot, monitor touching my face, wipe  surfaces around me with disinfectant cloths, avoid  hand contact, use tissue for doorknobs, avoid shared objects, and on and on. I have a pretty good chance, doing all this, of not contracting the virus at all—or not spreading it to others if I already have it asymptomatically. I recognize that sanitary precautions are not just to protect myself but to protect others from me, and I take that obligation equally seriously. 

And if I do become symptomatic, I believe I have a very good chance of having a mild case. I am in good physical shape. I have a good immune system, measured by how rarely I get sick from anything going around.  I just don’t see myself as frail or compromised in any way whatsoever. I am 70 going on 55, and everyone who knows me is nodding right now.

As for trip disruption, well, so what?  If one isn’t prepared for the unexpected in this beautiful adventure called life, better stay home. If we miss or substitute ports,  things just happen a little differently than predicted. I am prepared for extra lectures if we have unexpected sea days.  If  I get quarantined in my room, I have brought two creative projects with me and will take advantage of the lack of distractions.  If I get sick, I will tough it out and trust in the medical care I receive. If the ship gets quarantined, every botched incident so far with other ships has improved my chances it will be handled better. If my onward travel plans get disrupted, I will deal with it. If I end up having to stay ashore somewhere unexpected,  I will make the best of it.

The worst case?  I end up as part of a deluge of patients that hospitals are woefully underprepared for.  Sounds like what I can expect if I stay home.  

For me this really boils down to one thing:  if I stay home, I am not being true to myself. It’s the old “what do I want on my tombstone?” argument. Nothing about staying home out of fear, that’s for sure. Not “She panicked and missed out” or  “She  avoided risk at all costs.”  

There’s sometimes a difference between being the best steward of our health and the best steward of our lives. To be the best steward of only our health, the answer is clear: cancel everything and self-isolate.  But life is so rich and ultimately so finite that embracing the risk and venturing out is how we best use the precious gift we have been given of being here now—the only time we have. 

I am not venturing into West Africa during an Ebola outbreak. I am not going to a country torn by civil war or likely to want to ransom or decapitate me for being American. I have done a clear eyed risk assessment and made the choice that feels most in keeping with promises I have made to myself about the kind of person I am going to be and the kind of life I am going to live.

Also part of being me is honoring commitments. I contracted with Seabourn for these assignments, and I should live up to that if I can. Being worried about contagion doesn’t seem like a good enough reason to leave them to explain  to passengers that there won’t be any lectures.  I am the kind of person who shows up.

So there you have it. I am going to live up to my vow to myself to finish my circumnavigation of South America ( the part between Rio and the mouth of the Amazon). From there, I hope to fulfill my promise to myself to get back to the Canaries as soon as possible (http://www.laurelcorona.com/do-overs/ ).  Maybe in the cards, maybe not this year. But most important, I am going to live up  to my biggest promise: to like,  respect, and be proud of  the person who looks back at me in the mirror. 

Fingers  crossed and flying out. I’ll keep you posted!


Sent from my iPad

Tough Goodbyes

“You know, I used to hate goodbyes. Whenever I taught my last class or when we moved to a new city, those final goodbyes used to wrench my heart. But then I realized that there is no goodbye for much of what we do. When I left one place, I took everything I’d learned before and all the good ideas that were tucked into my brain and all the good friends that were tucked in my heart, and I brought it all forward with me — and it became part of what I did next.”   -Elizabeth Warren

Thank you, Elizabeth Warren, for saying so beautifully what passages in life can mean. Goodbyes can elicit a gamut of reactions —pain, relief, or sheer astonishment  at finding oneself actually in that moment where life changes. Turning away after a car disappears around the corner, or a loved one disappears into the crowd at the station, somehow the air feels different and the world is tilting slightly.  When we’re the one inside the car, or settling into the train or airplane seat, we’re processing the goodbye too, though it always feels a little different when we’re doing the leaving rather than the staying.

Goodbyes are doorways through which we pass from the predictable to the unpredictable. Maybe that’s why they are so much harder for some people. It can be hard to have Warren’s confidence that the love and learning we’ve amassed will be all we need to launch ourselves into the unknown. It’s all that much harder when we don’t have much practice surviving tough goodbyes.

We stay when we should leave, we tolerate when we should protest, we shrink when we should surge. We avoid the  end of a  bad marriage, a toxic friendship, a soul- crushing or dead end job, but when finally we make a move, we discover that just the act of leaving has added immeasurable clarity and strength to the person we are  I’m not in favor of practicing goodbye by throwing out what’s working, or arguing that the agony of losing loved ones is a good thing,  but surviving tough goodbyes is one of the  best life-building practices I know.

I have survived everything life has thrown my way, and I have managed in the end—not always easily and not always quickly— to thrive. Who I am right now, as Warren says,  gets rolled into how I perceive and handle whatever comes next. I may not be thrilled to face a new challenge,  but I trust myself to make a good call each step of the way—maybe in hindsight not necessarily the best option, but one that got me through.

The answer to life’s challenges can’t be to avoid goodbyes. It starts with trusting hello.