In July, 2008, I, Princess Rachella, Intrepid African American Girl International Journalism Consultant, pulled up stakes once again and headed to Nairobi, Kenya. Through my various adventures, I've concluded that if I get any MORE explosively fabulous in these prequel years to "THE BIG 5-0," I will have to register myself with the Pentagon as a thermonuclear incendiary device.

Monday, October 29, 2007

"To Everything There Is A Season......."

I'm writing this post at a Barnes and Noble Bookstore in Atlanta. I drove down here yesterday to stay with my sister Marilyn, after saying the second most difficult goodbye I've ever had to say in my life.

Yesterday morning was so surreal, preparing to leave my sister Julie's home, knowing that the next time I returned, she would not be there. My heart was about to wrench itself from my chest as I braced for saying goodbye to my dear brother-in-law Ron, knowing that when I left, and when the visits from concerned friends and colleagues started dwindling, he'd be in that house all alone, surrounded by memories. I didn't want to leave him that way.

But Ron wound up being the one who shored me up. And he did it fairly succinctly. He said Julie would come back and kick my ass if I decided to give up on life and curled up in a ball in a corner somewhere. He reminded me that Julie would be the first one to tell me to finish what I started, even as much as she worried about me in Africa. In life, she would always welcomed me home for any reason, be it on the lam from the law or in full nervous breakdown mode, but in the back of her mind, she'd be thinking, "Wow, Rachel went out like a total punk-ass."

Well, not quite a punk-ass, but she'd definitely be sorry that I couldn't hack it. So if Ron could stand there on Sunday morning, frying bacon for me and my brother John an hour before I left, trying to convince me that life WOULD go on, then I had no other choice but to leave.

Standing beside my car, I hugged Ron and told him I'd always have his back, and that I loved him, through my sobs. Then I drove down to the Ohio River levee and wept, looking out at the tugboats churning their way north on the calm waters. The sun shone so brightly, it looked like the river was a long, wide mirror the boats were gliding across. Through my tears, I saw the bridge to Kentucky that I would have to cross to start my journey south. I'd sat on my bike or in a car staring at that bridge thousands of times as a child and a teenager, wondering where my life would take me once I left Cairo. I never, ever, EVER dreamed about Gulu, Uganda, but I knew my destiny lay far beyond Cairo.

Now I was leaving Cairo with the knowledge that my compass, my touchstone, my heart's guide, was no longer waiting for me in the lovely, comfy house on 29th Street. My home. My heart's home.

Sitting here in Barnes and Noble, I can't even try to explain how I managed to unclench that steering wheel, mop my eyes and face, and start my 7 hour drive to Atlanta. All I really remember was how absolutely beautiful the day was. That's one thing you don't get to see in Africa....the changing of the leaves. It's almost peak color season in these parts, with a cozy chill starting to set in. It's Autumn near its pinnacle of gloriousness. While I drove, I kept thinking about that song, "To everything, turn, turn, turn, There is a season, turn, turn, turn, And a time to every purpose under heaven."

I used to like that song a lot, and it still makes sense. But where Julie NOT being alive is concerned, it's just a crock of shit. JULIE IS SUPPOSED TO BE ALIVE, and waiting for me to come home, or waiting for me to pick her up from an airport, or off somewhere at an NEA meeting. There AIN'T no season for Julie to be gone.

Still, somehow the drive helped calm my thoughts. The beauty of Autumn was replacing the beauty and vibrancy of Julie's spirit. Sure, the cold rains and the snow will come and strip away all those lavish red and gold leaves, but they'd be back again NEXT Autumn.

And that was Julie's message to me that when you love someone, and they have loved you, that love never dies. Just because I can't see her or touch her anymore, she's still with me. In the rains and snows of my grief, I will focus only on the loss of her physical presence. But in the deep Autumn of my heart, I know that the reds and golds of Julie's fiery love and loyalty and generosity and strength will always, always burn in the hearts and minds of those who loved her. And there are so many who did love her.

Who DO love her. Who always will.

Monday, October 22, 2007

To My Bestest Girlfriend, Sister, Mother, and Drill Sergeant, All In One.....

After 21 years as a journalist, I finally understand why most people are so willing to talk to reporters after the death of a loved one. It's your last chance to publicly acknowledge how special he or she was. So allow me to share a bit about the FABULOUS Julie Ann Marie (Jones) Newell:

Julie A. Newell of Cairo, Illinois, passed away Friday evening, October 19, 2007, at her home following a long series of illnesses. She was 57.

Julie was born in Cairo on August 17, 1950, the third of ten children, to the late Lewis Jones and Eloise (Blocker) Jones. Julie attended Cairo Public Schools, graduating from Cairo High School in 1968.

Julie worked 37 years for the Cairo Public Schools as a secretary/bookkeeper - 26 years at Cairo High School, 6 years at Emerson Elementary, and 5 years at the District Administrative Office. During her employment with the Cairo Public Schools, Julie was a union activist, serving as the founding president of the Cairo Association of Educational Support Professionals. In addition to her union activities on the local level, Julie served on a variety of committees for the Illinois Education Association and the National Education Association.

In November, 1999, Julie made history by becoming the first African-American to be elected to the Board of Trustees of the Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund. Following that achievement, Julie was elected and re-elected to the Board of Directors of the Illinois Education Association, serving two terms, declining a third term when she opted for early retirement in June 2006.

In addition to her parents, Julie was preceded in death by a daughter, Christie Ann, and her oldest brother, David. Julie is survived by her husband, Ron. Also surviving her are four brothers – John of Cairo, Peter of Washington, DC, Fred (and wife Connie) of Mound City, and Reuben of Hawaii; four sisters – Sarah of Alameda, CA, Marilyn (Mrs. John McGhee) of Atlanta, GA, Rachel of Washington, DC, and Rebecca (Mrs. Chris Ulrich) of Alameda, CA; two nephews, Derek Jones of Cape Girardeau, and James Stewart-Jones of Bend, OR, a niece, Kelly Jones of Mound City; and one grandniece, Talia Jones of Mound City.

Okay, that's the formal stuff. Here's the 411 that really matters--girlfriend could fry up a yard-bird so lip-smacking delicious it'd make you slap your grandma! She and Ron also perfected the most perfect process for barbecuing ribs ever known...the meat just fell off the bones, and her homemade sauce was unparalelled. 4 years ago, Julie remodeled her kitchen, turning it into something straight out of House Beautiful. And sister could burn; she's one of the best cooks I ever knew, and taught me so much about the essential ingredient in every dish: love.

Julie was always meticulously dressed and made up in public, although she really only needed a little blush and lipgloss. Anybody who ever met her commented on how smooth and flawless her skin was. She could have easily passed for late 30's, early 40's. She loved black and silver, and looked stunning in it. And Julie always had to wear heels; even when lupus had degenerated all of her joints so badly she could barely walk, Julie had to have her flashy heels.

She had a riotous laugh...long and loud. Julie never lost her sense of childish fun; she was ready for any kind of hijinks at a moment's notice, and then she'd look at you with those big Blocker eyes blinking all innocent like, and coo, "What's the matter?" She had that wicked, patented Jones sense of humor; she could lacerate you with her tongue, but leave you laughing so hard your stomach hurt.

Julie was the epitome of nurturance. I've already told you that she helped raise me and my other sisters, but Julie took nurturing to a whole 'nutha level. Even after she married and moved away (about 10 blocks away, but still.....) she always kept us under her wing. Every day, she'd herd us up at lunch time from our various schools and bring us over to her house for lunch. That way, she knew we were getting at least ONE good meal a day. But she often fed us dinner, too. And we spent a lot of time at her house on weekends, and never once did Ron say, "Enough, already!"

You see, Julie felt we NEEDED her. And we did, for a lot of reasons. But nobody ever gave as much for so long to so many people as Julie did. She lived to help people. But most of all, she LIVED, every second that life had to offer her, and she lived the hell out of it.

Brava, dear Julie.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Julie Newell, 1950-2007: "Death Be Not Proud...."

....because she STILL got the best of you! You finally took her away yesterday evening, but she wound up with an even better deal, because her years of suffering are over. She's resting now, and with a pure peace none of the rest of us will ever know again.

Julie is survived by one of the most devoted, loving husbands who ever walked the face of the earth, Ron Newell, four sisters, four brothers, and a wealth of blinding, burning, incandescent love.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Liquid Love

I just gave Julie an eyedropper-full of liquid oxycontin. She can’t speak or move very much anymore, and her eyes are mostly unfocused. But when she parts those pert lips and waggles her tongue back and forth, we know the pain is just too much.

After the blue liquid is squirted under her tongue, those lips close and form a rosebud, like she wants to give you a kiss, and she whispers, “Whoa, whoa,” which I hope means she’s getting some instant relief. When I stroke her face and kiss her cheek and coo at her, “I love you,” Julie’s smooth round face slowly spreads into an absolutely beatific smile.

Julie can still smile. She’s suffering unimaginable pain, so much that we may have to switch to morphine soon, but Julie can still summon the strength to smile at me. She loves her some Princess Rachella, that’s for sure. And she double-loves her some Ron, because the one time she was lucid this week was when she responded to the Visiting Nurse’s comment about how devoted her husband is.

“Oh, yes, he is,” she gasped.

Anyway, I wrote down the time I gave her the oxy on the meticulously-recorded notepad Ron has been using to document her meds. Just as I suspected, the time between doses is getting shorter and shorter. Is there such a thing as an oxy drip? Or is it time to go straight up morphine?

I don’t know. I’m tired. But I think I can do this. I can keep stroking that pretty face and gently squeezing those curled up hands. I can get through this.

I think.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Life Has Made Me The Woman Of My Dreams

I’ll start off with an apology. This is a weird and arguably grossly inappropriate time for me to be thinking about i-Tunes, so I hope you won’t think I’m being insensitive in this posting. Actually, I’m just using a meditative technique suggested by my dear friend Veronica. I’m not trying to block or filter any of my thoughts. I’m just letting them flow.

Here it goes. I’ve been meaning to download or buy the new CD by Me’Shell NdegeOcello since I touched down at Dulles on September 27th. You can’t download from i-Tunes in Uganda; the country hasn’t quite gotten on board with the whole 21st century technology thing yet.

The first time I saw the title of her new release, it reminded me why I became a devoted fan when I first heard her song, “If That’s Your Boyfriend,” from her 1994 “Plantation Lullabies” album. First reason? It was a totally funky, danceable, in your face groove. It expressed the kind of chutzpah I didn’t think I’d have in a zillion years. Basically, it’s a woman telling another woman, “He may be your boyfriend, but I screwed his brains out last night, and I wish you WOULD try and do something about it.”

Not that I’ve ever wanted to earn a black belt in fornication or anything, but I secretly envied the nerviness of those lyrics. And it was especially nervy because by the time Me’Shell hit the top of the charts, everybody in the universe already knew she was a serious lesbian who wasn’t likely to sleep with anybody’s boyfriend.

Next, when I went to her concert, there was this huge logo emblazoned on a screen behind her onstage. It was a red circle containing one of those offensive, stereotypical images of African Americans from the 19th and early 20th centuries. And there was a red line slashed across it, like in a “No Parking Zone” sign. It meant that for Me’Shell, life was a “No Jigaboo Zone.” On the spot, I vowed steal that symbol for myself. To me, it meant Me’Shell was REAL, black, and totally authentic, and wouldn’t change herself to be more palatable to the record industry or to society.

Since then, I’ve always thought of my life as a “No Jigaboo Zone.” And I always hoped that one day, I’d be as authentic as Meshelle.( Not the lesbian part, or the bald-headed fornicator part. Just the “real” part.)

Well, it doesn’t get any realer than where I am right now. I’m lying in bed next to Julie, and we’re watching “The People’s Court” with Judge Marilyn Milian. I ain’t gon’ lie; TV judge shows have been a major form of stress relief for me during the past 4 years of woe and doom in my personal life. I also don’t care what any of you will think about me after I admit this, but I am a HUGE fan of, in the following order: Judge Mathis, Judge Judy, Judge Joe Brown, Judge Marilyn Milian of the People’s Court, Judge Hatchett, and Divorce Court with Judge Lynn Toler (I’ve forgiven them for dropping Judge Mablean). All the other judge shows are just pale imitations, and I only watch them when I’m too zombied-out to switch channels.

This morning, Ron and I got Julie propped up in bed a bit, so she’s able to see the TV a bit better. Now she can join us in cringing and ridiculing the idiots who allow their depravity and stupidity to be displayed nationwide. But these days, Julie’s comments don’t always relate to what’s going on around her. Most times she knows who I am, but sometimes she doesn’t. She always knows who Ron is, and it’s achingly sweet to watch her cherubic face relax and smile when she sees him.

Julie moans and tenses up every now and then when the pain gets bad, but so far the vicodin is giving her some relief. And yesterday, the local Visiting Nurse Association brought in this new-fangled oxygen machine to help her breathe. I was expecting one of those slim green tanks, but it’s this big honkin’ unit that somehow pulls the nitrogen out of the air and turns it into oxygen, which pumps into a thin plastic tube that goes up her nose. Just like the NG tube shoved down her nose and into her belly to drain out the yucky greenish fluid that keeps filling it up.

Julie is so weak now. She hasn’t been able to get out of bed and take a few steps since Saturday. I can’t imagine she’ll be able to anytime soon. Most of the time I just stroke her face and arms, or hold her hand while I talk and laugh and make sure she knows I’m here, and that I love her madly.

So, how does any of this connect with Me’Shell NdegeOcello? Well, the title of her new CD is “The World Has Made Me the Man of My Dreams.” God, that is so freakin’ creative! It’s like she’s come full circle from where she was 13 years ago, singing about sleeping with some other woman’s boyfriend. It’s like now, Me’Shell is totally free to be who she is, and she feels really great about it. She LOVES who she is. She’s REALLY real now.

And that’s how I felt this morning, calling my BFF Faith. Talk about inappropriate…Faith’s mother died last Monday. She was cremated, and her ashes were interred. This morning. Faith had just gotten home from the burial when I called her to get a reality check. This is a service we’ve offered each other for about 28 years now. Whenever we feel like we’re ready to go off and act a plum fool on somebody, we call each other first to determine whether that feeling is warranted, or whether we just need to sit our ass down somewhere and let it pass.

Well, this morning, I was sobbing and sniffling to Faith that Ron and I are over-stressed, and it feels like nobody else cares. Totally irrational, but I had to express that feeling. Faith let me let it all out, and then she told me something profound. Maybe this is the way it’s supposed to be. Maybe Ron and I are supposed to be doing what we’re doing. Maybe it’s supposed to be just us three. And maybe, just maybe, I can do this without falling apart, because I am the woman Julie raised me to be. Strong, caring, patient, and able to put my loved ones needs first.

Faith told me to focus on what I needed to do, and not judge anybody else’s response. She said I would have to keep being strong and be there for my family, no matter what goes down. Actually, that kinda BLOWS when it feels like I’ve already given Joan of Arc a run for her money these past few weeks. But that’s the way Julie would want me to behave. She’s spent the past decade of her life in constant, often unbearable pain, yet she’s never once abdicated the role of Jones Family Anchor. If I can’t put my own frustrations aside and be a real grown-up type woman, Julie would probably be ashamed of me.

Basically, what Faith was saying was that life has made ME the woman of my dreams. The kind of loving, supportive, strong woman my sister Julie is. That’s the kind of gift you can’t beg, borrow or download, for any price.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

"...And I Shall Wear Turquoise Panties Whenever I Please....."

After 2 weeks of the most freakishly hot October weather I've ever experienced, it finally turned cool the other day. It finally feels like Autumn, by gum, and I'm loving it.

But after 4 months in Gulu, I realized that I do not own a single pair of pantyhose. In Uganda, all you need is a decent pedicure and legs that aren't as hairy as a mountain gorilla's, and you're good to go in almost every social setting. But on that first cool morning in Cairo, I decided I desperately needed some pantyhose. Black ones. They always make your legs look great, and besides, you never know when, or why, you'll need them.

So I went over to West Park Mall, in Cape Girardeau, MO. If you don't know, you better ask somebody...the shopping mall is the center of the cultural and social universe in the Midwest. Closely followed by the nearest Wal-Mart Super Center. Anyway, J.C. Penney was having this completely off the hook 75% off sale, so after finding my black pantyhose, I did a bit of sale rack cruising.

Pretty soon, I wound up in the lingerie department. I must admit that I really don't spend much time in lingerie departments, for a lot of deeply-rooted psychological reasons that I really don't want to go into here. But since I've just typed that, I realize I better explain it, or you'll all start thinking I'm some kind of emotionally stunted freak. You see, I've never spent a lot of time there because I've always had a rather utilitarian view about underwear. It's for covering your naughty bits. It holds in your gut. It keeps your boobies in place. That's about it.

I'm also ashamed to say that during the past decade, the only times I've lingered in lingerie were when I was dating some totally inappropriate jerk. Or hoping to date some totally inappropriate jerk. Or deluding myself about wanting to date some totally inappropriate jerk. In my mind, I viewed silky, sexy lingerie as bait, nothing more. I mean, some of the colors are really pretty, and the silk feels fabulous, and you feel really sexy when you wear it, but do I really need to feel sexy sitting in front of my computer at work? And even if I'm wearing the raciest knickers ever made, do I really want the ugly-assed man drooling next to me on the plane to know about it?

For the past decade, for the most part, that's all I've done--work and travel. And traveled for work. Truth be told, that's really all I've WANTED to focus on; relationships have been little more than minor distractions from that pattern, and I think that's why I've subconsciously sought out the most ambivalent, emotionally-detached, psychologically fucked-up men I could find, and chased after 'em like a rabid dog. Lingerie was was merely the costume for my pathetic hunt; that and my terrific home cooking, my sparkling wit, and, unfortunately for me, the absolutely putrid stink of desperation.

One day I'll write about the unbridled horror of my dating life, but right now I'm talking about panties. If you looked into the top drawer of my dresser over in Gulu, you'd swear it belonged to a female lumberjack. It's chock full of big-assed cotton, comfortable Jockey bloomers. I fell in love with them about a decade ago, and now they're all I wear. You'll also find Jockey tee shirts, which are great sleeping gear when perimenopause kicks in. When you wake up in the middle of the night dripping sweat, all you have to do is pull it off, mop yourself off with it, and pull on another one. You'll also find a couple of raggedy black bras in that dresser, and a few other random bits of cloth meant to protect one's chestal and nether regions.

Oh, sure, there are a couple of nice things, but they're all tan, light blue or black. Again, in my utilitarian world, black drawers go with everything. If you're wearing white pants (not that I have in recent years, nor will I ever again wear white pants), black panties are perfect camouflage. You can wear them with casual clothes, and of course, on dressy occasions. Hell, I just spent $57 on a Marks and Spencer bra (black) in Kampala because it was hydraulically perfect. That's a HUGE deal for me. My ceiling for bras to date has been about $30....and that would have to be the SALE price.

But poking through the lingerie sale rack at Penney's, I was mesmerized by all the pretty, frivolous underthings. There was this particularly cute turquoise bra and panty set, my size, and with the discount, it came to about $12. Sure, it might fall apart after the first washing, but I suddenly obsessed about how fun it would be to wear a turquoise bra and matching panties under my tired old Gulu uniform of blue jeans and a tee-shirt. So what if nobody else knows?? I know.

While I was there, I picked out a few other sets in outrageously bright colors...yellow, pink, orange. Then I plunked all of them down on the sales counter next to my black pantyhose. It finally hit me....I've spent my entire life wearing practical underwear, and for what purpose?? Why do I think the only time I deserve to feel sexy and hot is when there's a man in my life? What am I waiting for?

And what fate is out there waiting for me? Tomorrow is not promised to anyone, after all.

The Penney's panty purchase was so exhilarating, my next stop was Victoria's Secret, where I spent a grip on their new Very Sexy bras that offer astoundingly good support without underwires that set off airport security scanners and cut into your chest cavity during your bloated PMS days. And I made sure to get matching panties for each one.

You see, there's something about cradling your beautiful 57-year old-sister's bald head, and rubbing cream on her distended, cancer-filled belly, that makes you realize life is too goddamned short to spend it wearing granny panties almost every day of your life. So maybe I'll start a new club, sort of the precursor to the Red Hat Society. I'll call it the Turquoise Panty Crew, and membership is open to all 40-something women who dare to feel pretty every damned day of their lives, no matter what society says or what some man says or what your hormone-addled brain screams at you about the few extra pounds around your waist, or the slightly flappy arms, or the broadening butt. None of that crap matters.

Right now, for me, all that matters is helping Julie find some peace. And I'm gonna do it wearing some seriously frilly drawers.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

She Won't Back Down.....

It’s relatively quiet today in Julie’s room, and she’s sleeping. Comfortably, it seems. She hasn’t grimaced or moaned at all since I got here, which is good.

I’ll never understand hospitals. People go there because they’re sick, and yet there’s so much noise and disturbance, constantly. Julie’s in a private room, which may explain why it’s a little bit quieter, but in hospitals, there’s always somebody talking, or yelling, or rolling in a cart, or re-setting a machine, or giving a shot, or shifting your position, or flushing your port…..

How are you supposed to rest????? But then, Julie is so full of painkillers, including the maximum allowable dose of Demerol, she’s been able to sleep a lot. But sometimes the pain breaks through, and that’s when she grimaces and moans. That’s what freaks me out….I can’t stand to see her hurting.

Yet whenever she’s lucid, Julie says she wants to keep fighting. We’re still waiting to hear something from the M. D. Anderson Cancer Center, but all of her Carbondale doctors have pretty much shut down all hope for a miracle. They say the cancer is spreading so fast, there’s no way she could survive.

But I don’t think they’ve ever come across anybody like Julie Ann Marie Jones Newell. As sick as she is, whenever she’s lucid, she’s still as feisty and sassy as she is on her healthiest day. She’s been shooin’ hospice coordinators out of her room since she got here. She even tore into a doctor who brusquely advised her to just accept the fact that she’s gonna die and get it over with. Julie stopped short of telling him to kiss her too-sweet chocolate butt, but she vowed she’d see him next year, and the year after, and the year after.

Now my dear brother-in-law Ron is faced with the most grim, heart-wrenching task any mate has to tackle. He KNOWS she wants to keep fighting, so he’s determined to do whatever it takes to help her. He has rejected all hospice recommendations, too. He’s still clinging to hope that the M. D. Anderson folk will call and tell them to “come on down!” Ron says he’s in it for the long haul, and that he wants her to be at home, where she can still get medical help if something goes wrong. If she’s in hospice, you can’t call 911. Ron can’t bear the thought of letting her die that way.

But I don’t want to watch her writhe and scream with pain, and that may happen if she goes home tomorrow. The closest home hospice program is in Marion, Illinois, about an hour from Cairo, and there’s no way they could give us round-the-clock support from 60 miles away.
So, it looks like Julie will get her wish, to keep fighting and doing whatever it takes to stay alive. It looks like girlfriend does NOT want to go gentle into that good night. She’s going to rage, rage, rage.

Basically she just won’t back down from the Grim Reaper. She’s stood toe to toe with that sickle-bearing bastard, and actually sent him packing, so many times that she’s just not afraid of him. Through all of her health problems, accidents, and major crises, Julie has snarled, “Bring it ON, fella.”

While I was driving to the hospital the other day, a Tom Petty song summed up everything beautifully. It captures the essence of who Julie is and what’s happening to her now. When I think of that song, it makes me smile, and it helps me feel richly blessed that she’s my big sister, and that she’s passed on her strength to me. I wish Julie knew that all of the love and kindness and generosity and sweetness she has ladled out will never die. I wish she knew it’s okay to rest now.

Que sera, sera. So, with overwhelming gratitude to Tom Petty for providing the soundtrack for my sister’s journey, and with a heart bursting with love and joy, let me share these lyrics with you.

Well I won’t back down, no I won’t back down.
You can stand me up at the gates of Hell
But I won’t back down.

Gonna stand my ground, won’t be turned around
And I’ll keep this world from draggin’ me down
Gonna stand my ground, and I won’t back down.

Hey baby, there ain’t no easy way out.
Hey I will stand my ground,
And I won’t back down.

Well I know what’s right, I got just one life
In a world that keeps on pushin’ me around
But I’ll stand my ground and I won’t back down.

Hey baby there ain’t no easy way out.
Hey I will stand my ground,
And I won’t back down
No, I won’t back down.

Friday, October 5, 2007

"Superiorly Strong...."

We’ve been teasing Julie about her blood sugar peaks and valleys this past week. As we lean over her bed and kiss her pretty face, we’ve been telling her she’s just too sweet for her own good. But when you think about it, is there really any way to be too sweet?

Now, saccharine is another thing. Or smarmy. And then there’s the category of people I like to call “Splendas”…technologically-engineered sweet. You can always spot them. The sweetness and light never really quite makes it to their eyes. Their generosity always comes with a catch. The friendly trill in their voices could just as easily be coming from a v-chip implanted in the base of their skull.

TRULY sweet people fall into an exalted category. My closest friends have proven this
to me over the past few days. First, I’ve known my friend Ron since we both interned at the Washington Post in 1984. Ron got me my first full-time job at a newspaper, by recommending me to the managing editor of the St. Petersburg Times following our summer at the Post.

I still can’t comprehend what he saw in me that made that made him put his fledgling career rep on the line by recommending me--a college dropout who had spent most of the Post internship cringing with fear and insecurity. But Ron was one of just 2 people I clung to that summer, because of his hilarious sense of humor, and because we were both from the Midwest….Illinois for me, Indiana for him. (Heartland is in the HIZ-ouse, y’all!!!)

In the 23 years since that summer, Ron and I have remained good friends. That’s mostly ‘cause, though we’re both seasoned professionals, our psychological age is still firmly entrenched in 1984. And Ron never forgets my birthday! It absolutely astounds me every year to get a card or an e-mail or a message from him during the first week of October…I mean, this man travels all around the world re-designing newspapers, for God’s sake. How does he manage to remember my birthday? (Especially since I think he was born in June….but it could be November. I mean who has TIME to keep track of that stuff???)

This year, Ron had just gotten back from a month in India, two weeks in Nairobi, and a week in Manchester, England. He was jet-lagged and battling a cold, bronchitis, and a few other bugs thrown in for good measure, but I got my birthday greeting from Ron. In fact, he’s been reading my blog regularly, and sending me all kinds of lovely feedback on it, so he knew I was back in the States dealing with my sister’s crisis. Ron sent me prayers, hugs and love along with the birthday greeting voicemail.

Now that’s sweet.

Last night, my friend Faith, who’s struggling with her own mother’s transition, patiently talked me through my fear and anguish that Julie would die on my birthday. (I know, it’s all about me, right?) Faith is in San Diego agonizing over her mother’s failing health in Cleveland. She’s headed back this weekend, and she says it feels like her heart is just going to explode. But after talking me off the ledge of hysteria, Faith insisted that I call her whenever I need to talk.

How sweet is THAT?

And today, I was sitting in the hospital chapel hyperventilating and dry-heaving sobs when I decided I needed to talk to my friend Veronica. Veronica is an editor on sabbatical in Chicago, with an almost three-year old angel baby girl named August, a hard-headed Sagittarius with a grin that could melt butter, and a husband, and all the life stuff that goes along with those things. In fact, today Veronica and August were heading to the zoo with Veronica’s cousin Sydney and Sydney’s daughter, for their regularly scheduled play date.

While I gasped and spluttered into the phone, Veronica’s soothing voice calmed me down. She was solid as a rock, and said all the right things. She even handed the phone to her cousin Sydney, who practices meditation and got me to calm down long enough to stay centered on my breathing. Then Veronica told me to remember that I should not be afraid to let that soul wrenching grief out, because that was the only way I’d be able to move through this experience.

with the sweet, already!

But the sweetest thing I’ve seen today, besides my sister’s smooth, round face and bright, unfocused eyes, is the e-mail I got from my friend Joyce in North Carolina, or “North Cackalacky” as she calls it. Joyce has a Carolina accent so strong you expect Andy Griffith stroll up whenever you’re talking to her. I met her in the summer of 1994, when she was interning at the Detroit Free Press. Thirteen 13 years later, I’m a godmother to her fabulously cute and brilliant 6-year-old boy, Ty.

Joyce knows the past four years have been absolute PURGATORY for me, and she’s given me unfailing emotional support, even when I’ve been so self-absorbed I didn’t stay in touch. She tracks me down, and keeps tracking me down even when I don’t answer her calls. She sends Ty’s drawings, and his latest school pictures. Whenever I’m in Raleigh, I’m treated like family in her beautiful home.

Here’s what a crappy friend I’ve been to Joyce….she spent the past few years struggling to have a baby brother or sister for Ty, and finally gave birth to a beautiful, big-eyed cherub named Talia in September of 2006. Whom I’ve only seen in pictures. I’ve somehow managed to always have an excuse about why I couldn’t get down to Raleigh. That stinks.

Joyce sent me an e-mail today full of love and prayers and support. And she called me “superiorly strong.” Somehow the term feels right. I’ve earned a PhD in grief survival, and Julie was my strength coach throughout. She’s still fighting just as hard as she can.

And she’s doing it rather superiorly, if I do say so myself. She’s spent most of today sleeping, and I really hope she’s been having sweet dreams.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Happy Birthday To Me....

I’m writing this from the 3rd floor waiting room at Carbondale Memorial Hospital. God, I’ve been here so many times, I almost know every nook, cranny and vending machine of this place. I totally recognize the nurses and phlebotomists and meal cart ladies who wind their way through these corridors. I can easily find my way around the maze between the emergency room and the patient floors. It feels like home.

I am 46 years old today. This morning at around 7:30 AM, after four days of trying to manage Julie’s care at home, we had to bundle her up and send her 40 miles away to Carbondale Memorial. There IS no hospital in my hometown of Cairo; hasn’t been one since the late 80’s. Clearly, this situation had to have aggravated my sister’s many health care problems, to say the least. But that’s another story that I don’t have the strength to tackle right now.

I’ve sat in so damn many of these hospital waiting rooms crying my eyes out, or pacing, or curled in the fetal position. I’d cried because I was afraid I would lose Julie. And when I wasn’t crying, I was holding my breath waiting for the surgeon to come out and give it to us straight. Usually, it was something fairly routine…at least for Julie. Adhesions from old abdominal surgeries, a torn rotator cuff, knee surgery….I’ve forgotten how many surgeries and on what parts of her body they took place.

Most of the time, the surgeons would come out and tell us that Julie made it through the surgery fairly well, considering everything else that was wrong with her. And it usually only took her a month or so to bounce back. But this last time, they opened her up and decided there was nothing else they could do.

While in those waiting rooms, I was also groveling, pleading, bargaining, begging God to keep Julie alive. She is my touchstone, and owns half my heart. She is the heart and soul of the Jones family. She was my “adjunct mother” growing up, and any kindness, generosity, affection and friendliness I possess I learned straight from her. Julie is the wind beneath my wings.

But she’s also struggling, desperately, tragically. And we can’t keep taking care of her at home, because her blood sugar fluctuates so wildly, she spends half the time nearly comatose. She’d beg and plead for ice and water, so we’d give it to her and watch her slurp it like a camel. And then she’d spent half the night wretching it right back up. When we told the home health nurse about it, he said we should only give her ice chips…and not many of those.

One of the first things emergency room staff said when Julie got to Carbondale Memorial was that she was terribly dehydrated. DUH!! And after a couple of home feedings, we also started suspecting that the milky glop we’re pumping through her chest port was elevating her blood sugar. But when my brother-in-law Ron suggested laying off for one night, the home health care nurse told him, “Well, it’s the only way she’ll get nutrition.” Naturally, the thought of starving his soulmate did not appeal to Ron.

But it turns out that nutrition almost killed her. NOW what are we supposed to do?

Hospital staffers insist Julie should be in a hospice program. There is no home hospice care available in Cairo--forget about a specialized hospice care facility. Besides, both Julie and my brother-in-law Ron don’t want to go there, not just yet. In fact, they’ve sent her records to the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Texas, and they’re praying for a miracle.

I’ve already received my miracle. Back in all those waiting rooms I’ve sat in through all those years, I was also sternly warning God NOT to take her from me until I was emotionally able to deal with it. If she had passed 20 years ago, I wouldn’t have had the strength to achieve my goals as a journalist. I just know my heart would have given out. If Julie had died 10 years ago, I would have been so devastated, I probably would have lapsed into a crippling depression that would have taken me out of the game literally and figuratively. If she had died 2 years ago, when she was diagnosed with Stage 3 colon cancer, it would have broken my heart so terribly, I could not have tackled the challenges I’ve confronted in the past 4 months alone.

But today, I’m 46 years old. Hell, I’m staring 50 dead in the eye. I am a seriously grown-assed woman. I can handle whatever comes, just as long as Julie gets some pain-free peace.

However, if she passes on my birthday, I will kill her.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Labor of Love.....

Finally, I’ve found a good reason to have jet-lag! It’s 2:30 AM, and I just helped my sister Julie throw up. There’s a tube in her nose that leads down to her stomach and sucks out all the bile, but sometimes it backs up and makes her nauseous. So my sister Marilyn, my brother-in-law Ron and I take turns doing puke patrol duty.

Julie’s a tough cookie. She is refusing to give in. She wants her records sent to the Mayo Clinic and to MD Anderson Cancer Center. Says she ain’t going out like no punk. Hey, if anybody can stick her foot up the Grim Reaper’s ass, it’s Julie. She’s already done it about 50 times in her life.

The good news is she’s not exactly on hospice care, ‘cause every night at 6, she gets a big old bag of milky glop, injected with her insulin and protein, to keep her nourished. It drips into tubing that flows into a port in her chest. Takes about 12 hours to empty out, and then you have to flush out the port with saline, and then shoot her up with some heparin, to thin her blood. My sister Marilyn says that if it was hospice care, they probably wouldn’t be feeding her. And she’d be on powerful painkillers, like Demerol or morphine. So far, she tried liquid oxycontin, but it gave her hallucinations and violent muscle cramps. We flushed that out of her system and now she’s coping with vicodin.

Julie is so tiny. Her arms and legs are like a Barbie doll’s. Her face is still just as round and smooth and beautiful as ever, though. Her skin is so clear and soft. And her hair is growing back in; it’s like a cloudy white buzz cut. I’ve always believed her hair would come back in fluffy and softer than it was before all the chemo. She’ll look like Fred Sanford…a really pretty, tiny Fred Sanford.

There’s not much else to say, except that I’ve finally figured out the meaning of life. The goal is to live a life that’s so full of love, you will be assured that someone will be there to hold your head and help you barf at the end of it. For Julie, it’s my pleasure.