It’s not death, it’s the dying.

Still Life Pharmacy

Still Life Pharmacy

In what may be the unkindest cut of all, having cancer doesn’t give you a pass on all the other ailments of (in my case) middle age: GERD, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, joint pain… I am dying of cancer but I want to be as comfortable as possible until then and I don’t want a heart attack or a stroke to put a cramp in my style while I’m waiting for the cancer to kill me. Put all this together and it spells lots of medicine.

To the left here you can see some of what I take every day. Unlike the United States, where patients receive their pills in a little vialwith a label on it that, among other information, tells you how to take them, here in Jerusalem we get our medicine in boxes of bubble packs. There is no label on the box, especially when it’s something you take on a regular basis.

Now, I’m all in favor of taking responsibility for my health, but today I had a very scary experience. I came up face-to-face with the decline of my intellect and the dependence on others that is approaching as I move steadily toward the end of my life. It was a little thing, maybe, but incredibly significant to me and I took it hard.

The medicines for the coming month were all in front of me on the table and so was the partitioned case for me to put out my week’s meds. A looked at the case and I looked at the boxes and bubble packs and… suddenly went blank. Which one is in the morning and which is at night? Is this the one I take two of or is it the half-tablet? Wasn’t there something that isn’t every day or was that only because of the tests? What do I do with all this?

I started to cry. Not so much because of this moment of confusion, but because I was looking my future in the eye. The future of being unable to care for myself. The future of losing control of everything (maybe even my sphincters). The future of someone else deciding what I would take for pain and what I would eat and when I would have a wash and what books I would listen to – because I would either be unable to do it for myself or – even worse – would be deemed by others to be unable.

I was looking at the end of my life, not in three decades or more, but in just a couple of years. (I like to say I have two to five years left, but I pulled that number out of the air.) The end of my life.

Yes, yes, we are all going to die, and no one knows when. Take that as read. I get it. Yes, a rocket could fall on me or a car could hit me or my computer could electrocute me. I get it. But that is all very unlikely. It is not only likely but quite certain (barring an act of God, which by their nature are very rare) that I will die of metastatic disease and I will die of it very soon.

This might be one reason that chemo brain upsets me so much. I can manage the actual deficits with the little tricks and methods I spent my nursing career teaching patients. But it is almost a dramatic foreshadowing of what awaits me just a little ways down the road.

I’m fine with dying. I have very strong beliefs and death doesn’t frighten me. I’m even looking forward to “seeing” some dearly loved people who have died before me. But that whole “dying” thing – the weeks (months?) before death? No. Do not want.

I find myself with a new understanding of Dylan Thomas’s famous poem. Maybe the rage is not at “the good night”, death, but at “the dying of the light” – the decline of one’s faculties.

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay, 
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Mamilla Cemetery

A little sight-seeing today.

Mamilla Cemetery is located just west of the Old City of Jerusalem. The space has been the site of places of worship, shrines and cemeteries since the Byzantine period (IV to VI centuries) and early Islamic period. Thousands of Christians were buried there in the pre-Islamic period, and a church stood on the site. It has been an Islamic cemetery at least since the Rashidun Caliphate (VII century), except during the Crusader period. In 1927 the Supreme Muslim Council, which was the high authority for the Muslim community under the British mandate, decreed an end to burials at Mamilla and declared it a historic site.

When the cemetery came under Israeli control in 1948, it was declared an abandoned property and as such came under the authority of the Guardianship of Absentee Property. By 1967, both vandalism and official building schemes had brought much of the cemetery to a derelict condition. There is still a great deal of controversy surrounding Israeli actions and plans with regard to the site.

I went through a corner of Mamilla Cemetery on a walk with my friend S this week, and took a few pictures with my telephone.

Mamilla Cemetery seen from the street. Note the one completely restored tomb among the many ruins.

Marker in Hebrew and Arabic, reading:
State of Israel
Protected Site
Keep this place clean.
Please do not introduce animals or alcoholic beverages.

A shrine (I believe) in the cemetery grounds. There are a number of Sufi shrines here, as well as the tombs of other mystics, emirs, muftis, and Jerusalem notables, as it was the largest Muslim cemetery in the area.

The door to the shrine.

The inside of the structure, taken with flash between the bars of the window. The presence of plastic jugs and bags of cement seem to indicate that it is under repair and renovation.

Along came a spider…

It’s that late night – early morning time, 3:45 to be exact. I wake up, as middle-aged ladies often do, to handle urgent business. I reach over my head to turn on the light, and my gaze follows the beam to see this.

Compare to the light bulb for an idea of the size.

This, my friends, is the Israeli Black Tarantula, Chaetopelma olivaceum previously known as C. gracile. I don’t know why the name was changed. I don’t care, either.

Now, before we go any further, here are a couple of facts about C. olivaceum. First, and perhaps most salient to our purposes, most tarantulas around the world are not toxic to humans. Not so our furry little friend here. The Israeli Black Tarantula is indeed toxic to humans. The other interesting fact is that they have been known to jump. They are, as a friend dubbed them, ninja tarantulas.

Okay then. Now that those little bits of information have sunk in, take another look at the photo. The lamp is fixed to the headboard of my bed. The headboard is where my pillows are. The pillows I put my head on. I had been sleeping with a poisonous, jumping, ninja tarantula an arm’s length from my face.

Yay Middle East!

Right. Now that we have that out of the way, let’s take a closer look at my little visitor, shall we? The salient fact of this part of our discussion is that I am nothing if not a child of my times. What is the first thing I did after leaping out of bed? I reached for my iPhone because, as we all know, pics or it didn’t happen. Yes, I even messed around with flash and ambient lighting to get the best possible shot. Let us draw the cloak of charity over all that, shall we?

I am a Franciscan in my spirituality and in principle I praise the Creator for all of creation because “He saw that it was good”. I have to assume that in the larger scheme of things poisonous, jumping, ninja tarantulas have their place. Their place, however, is not inside my house. There being no man around to do the cardboard-and-shoebox thing, I went nuclear.

That is, I got out the Raid. Auntie Wiki lists the creatures that Raid will “kill dead” and ninja tarantulas are not among them. So I got out the cockroach-strength (lasts for up to six months!) can from under the kitchen sink, opened every door and window in the house, and took careful aim from about a meter away. I sprayed and sprayed and sprayed.

An ex-tarantula

I had expected that good ol’ C. olivaceum would scuttle out of the line of fire, but instead she slowly stalked down the wall. I followed her with the spray. I felt like a commando. Half a can later, victory was mine. You were a worthy opponent, Taran. I honor you.

Of course then I had to go stand outside for a long time because the air was no longer breathable in my house, but small price to pay.

It’s my blog, and…

…I’ll blather if I want to.

I had the head CT today. It went well, considering how anxious I am. The doctor was older than me (and still working!), very kind. He smiled and calmed me and smiled and even made me laugh. He was also a champ at starting the IV. My veins are pretty much shot after eight years of chemotherapy, exams and treatments, but he managed to get the needle into a pretty small vein and only had to jiggle it a little. Didn’t hurt…

A hematoma is born.

…until the end of the exam when they flushed the IV. Then the vein blew. That hurt. I yelped, and the doctor and technician came in quickly. This is what they found. It’s not dreadful, just kind of sore. It will reabsorb in a couple of days. I left with a CD of the scan images, and the results will be sent to me by email within five days.

I took advantage of my astronomically high ANC (absolute neutrophil count) of 800 (normal is at least 1500) and used the excursion to the imaging center as an excuse for a walk. And in this Age of Internet, what’s a walk without pictures?

As I walked out the front door of the center, I was greeted with nothing less than a hearse from one of the burial societies parked in front. The writing says “Burial Society of the Yemenite Community” and, sadly, parts of some of the letters are worn off. I didn’t notice any mourners around, and it’s entirely possible that the driver lives in one of the apartments in the building behind it. Still, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry or make my last Act of Contrition.

I decided to walk the long way, so I cut through the city center. “Cut through” is not entirely accurate. I walked in the opposite direction from my house so I could take full advantage by making a big loop. I miss walking outside!

In one of the side streets I came across a restaurant that really embodies the very strange nature of this city that I love. The name of the restaurant is Mifgash HaSheikh or “The Sheikh’s Meeting Place”, and in letters larger than the name, the sign proclaims that it is open 24/6  (24 hours a day except for Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath) and that the food is kosher. Restaurant guides categorize it as “Jerusalemite fast food”. Does it get any stranger?

Beautiful lace



Here is a very nice example of Cantu lace. It was donated to the organization I work for by the lacemaker, who spent one year in designing and working the pattern, which is a representation of our coat of arms.

Unfortunately, this iPhone photo doesn’t do it justice. (First try at posting from my phone. Please let me know if anything is wonky.)

Jerusalem is a strange place.

Jerusalem is a very strange place. This is on one of the two main streets in downtown, a couple of blocks west of the Old City. It is not a fashionable area or a center for business or shopping. People generally pass along here on their way to someplace else.


But where else can you grab a bite at the Mexicano Baguet and then have a few beers at the Putin Pub?

Bread in the streets

Oh! God! That bread should be so dear,

And flesh and blood so cheap!  

(Thomas Hood in The Song of the Shirt)

Sack of bread (and trash) tied outside a rubbish bin.

There is a Jewish tradition that it is virtually a sin to throw away bread. Many people in Israel, at least here in Jerusalem, are very careful about putting leftover bread out in public instead of throwing it away.  There is good reason to believe that the underlying reason has to do with providing for the community’s poor, but no one I’ve asked has ever been able to find me a definitive source for this. Some people say they leave bread out “for the poor”, and others “to feed the birds”. I imagine that there are quite a few people who put their leftover bread outside because “that’s what we do”.

Josa Bivin talks about the custom in her article “Lechem – Bread” on the En Gedi Resource Center site. She writes:

The importance of sharing one’s bread with the poor has remained in the Jewish consciousness until today. Instead of dumping their bread along with the rest of their garbage into the garbage carts parked along the streets, they save the bread in plastic sacks and hang it from the metal projections on the sides of the carts. That way, the bread is potentially available to the poor.

She goes on to say that once she saw “a young, poorly dressed man” take some bread that had been left out this way. I’ve never seen anyone take it, and a person would have to be in desperate straits indeed to dig the bread out of the trash bag I saw on my street this afternoon.

If you really wanted to feed the poor, wouldn’t it be more straightforward to use the day-old bread for toast or croutons or bread pudding? Then you could give the money you save by not buying bread the next day to the local soup kitchen that provides nourishing meals free of charge to anyone who needs them.

Even if someone is desperate enough to dig a piece of bread out of that rubbish, what is the cost to their dignity? What does it say about a society that puts food for the poor in a bag tied to the rubbish bin? Not only is the poor person who has to feed himself or his family debased, but so is the giver. There is no dignity in this transaction for anyone.

At least it doesn’t go completely to waste.

Jumping right in

Starting my first blog in the latter half of my sixth decade. I want to post something before I lose my nerve, so please don’t expect much just at first.

Growing things give me joy. I come to gardening late in life, having grown up in a home with books instead of plants. I’m learning by killing things essentially, but nature is wonderfully forgiving. This is a hibiscus that I have in a big pot outside my kitchen door.

OK, so nothing substantive here yet, but that will come. Thanks for taking a look.