Thursday, August 23, 2007

The Approximate Size of my Favorite Tumor

Sherman Alexie is my very favorite Native American writer. Actually, he's the only Native American writer with whom I have enough familiarity to even discuss. But still, he's good. Oh, he's so good. In the summer of 1994, I was overwhelmed with life changes and when I wasn't working at the studio, I spent a lot of time in the old main library in midtown on Peabody Avenue.

Growing up, our family lived within walking distance of a branch library. When I saw "walking distance," you must understand I mean 1968 walking distance, when families still left the house after dinner, together and on foot. We walked lots of places, but the almost-mile down the block, around the corner-left on Tutwiler and straight down the hill to the Randolph was one of our favorite destinations. We'd haul a Radio Flyer red metal wagon behind us, sometime with a few of us kids in it, sometimes not. We made the trip at least once a week and always brought the wagon home, stuffed to the rails with books.

I truly cannot remember a time in my life when I could not read. With two older sisters who were both early and natural readers, I take it for granted that I just started reading one day the same way I one started breathing or eating or walking. I remember getting my own library card, back when they were still hand-written on thin yellow cardboard by the lady librarian with the glasses held around her neck with a silver bead chain. Because I was only four at the time, she was reluctant to let me have the card. A stipulation was that the applicant had to be able to sign the card, and at the time I still wrote upside-down and backwards. One of our neighbors was a student library worker though, and, as he was also our babysitter, he had firsthand knowledge that I could indeed read well enough to have my own card.

I've always loved libraries, and in June of 1994, the main library was a place of great comfort for me. I would linger for hours, wandering through the aisles browsing. I had the leisure time to look and investigate books with interesting covers or titles. It was during this time I discovered Sherman Alexie and his collections of poetry and short stories.

Alexie is a Coeur d'Alene/Spokane Native, and writes the most painfully and powerfully beautiful prose. He writes mostly of the gritty realism of life on the rez, of the cultural divide that still exists between us and them, of social and educational inequities, of alcoholism, despair and poverty. Alexie takes these difficult themes and using his wry, spare humor crafts something wonderful and graceful out of them. In other, less loving hands, his stories would end up suitable for films by Quentin Tarantino or Ridley Scott. I would give a lot to write half as well as this man. Sherman Alexie writes better grocery lists than anything I'll ever dream up.

After reading Alexie's 1993 collection, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, I wrote him a card telling him how much I enjoyed the book. He was kind enough to write me a quick card back. In 2004, when he spoke at Rhodes College, I packed up Dear Daughter and dragged her along to the lecture. It wasn't exactly the very best atmosphere for a third grader, but if she's going to learn some of the more difficult truths about life, I'd much prefer she learn them in my company, and from the mouth of someone who actually cares about this world.

Anyway, we met the author after the lecture, and he said he remembered my letter. It was a nice thing for him to say. He signed our book. We talked awhile about things we like.

I borrowed the title for this post from the name of one of Alexie's very best short stories. It's the tale of a man, dying of cancer, whose wife leaves him because he refuses to take his illness seriously. In the end she returns because, as she puts it, "someone needs to help you die the right way. And we both know that dying ain't something you ever done before."

Mom came home from the hospital today. She'll go for a PET scan Monday, and another evaluation by her oncologist and the neurosurgeon later next week. After these appointments, she'll decide about further treatment. The approximate size of my favorite tumor is nearly four centimeters. That's the size of my thumb, or the cone of my computer speakers, or the screen on my cell phone, your average pluot. It's located in her frontal lobe, where it can't possibly be doing her any good. We don't know what's going to happen in the next few weeks. This ain't something we've ever done before.

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