The hardest question

Self-portrait, Hotel Serrano, San Francisco

Wednesday morning I parked at the VA Hospital in Denver, and made my way inside carrying a cardboard box holding two tall and healthy tomato plants, the last of my indoor “farm.” Those plants elicited smiles as I wended my way through the crowded corridors.

I carried the tomato plants down a back hallway to an oncology consult room labeled “Dr. Catherine Klein,” set the plants down, pulled out my iPad and opened a book.

A few minutes later, I heard Dr. Klein’s delighted voice.

“Look who’s here!”

She gave me a hug and ushered me into her consult room. I gave her the box with tomato plants and she exclaimed at how beautiful they were. We oohed and aahed over them like new babies for a bit, and then she asked,

“How are you?”

I hate that question. I know people ask it out of concern and a genuine desire to know. But I never know how to answer it. It’s not simple, and I don’t want to give a whole dissertation on the subject.

“I’m good,” I said.

“You look great,” she responded. “How are you?”

I sighed, and my eyes filled; I blinked away the tears. “I am good. Not every moment. I have good days and not-so-good ones. By and large though, I’m happy.”

We talked a bit more, and then parted.

Molly at my hotel

I thought about Dr. Klein’s question on and off for the rest of that day, and again yesterday as I flew to San Francisco to  spend Mother’s Day weekend with Molly and her sweetie, Mark. I felt guilty about not giving a more thoughtful and complete answer.

How am I?

I am happy a lot of the time. Yesterday I had a wonderful afternoon walking San Francisco with Molly. She gave me a tour of her office and the little park nearby where she takes Diesel, her sweet part-Lab, on work-breaks.

We walked the route she takes through Chinatown, North Beach, and then up the steep slopes of Telegraph Hill on her way to and from work. It was a gorgeous day; San Francisco is perhaps my favorite city in the world; the view from their apartment is breathtaking; the Anna’s hummgbirds zipped around us on the deck, and the resident flock of parrots screamed into a nearby tree. I was happy.

The house where my great-grandparents, William Austin Cannon and Jennie Vennerstrom Cannon lived for a time in the Berkeley hills.

And today, another beautiful day, Molly and Mark drove me across the Bay Bridge to Berkeley to explore the town where my mom grew up. We headed through the UC-Berkeley campus, past the Football Stadium where my parents went on dates, and up into the neighborhood in the hills where my great-grandparents, William Austin Cannon and Jennie Vennerstrom Cannon lived. We found their house, a pre-1906 earthquake wood-frame Victorian. (It’s embiggened now, but still familiar.)

We wandered the narrow and winding streets downhill; we walked by the Oxford Street house where my mother grew up, a Mission-style bungalow (now, of course, much enlarged) that was a magic place to me growing up. We decided on the spur of the moment to see if we could get a table for lunch at Chez Panisse, Alice Walker’s restaurant, the birthplace for today’s locavore food movement.

Field greens salad with sauteed goat cheese and herbs at Chez Panisse

We ate a fabulous lunch of fresh, local food presented in beautiful and delicious ways by an attentive staff. The setting–an early 20th century Craftsman house expanded in lovely ways–was warm and inviting. (Still, I hope I won’t be offending the culinary gods when I confess I had no idea you could spend that much on lunch for three….)

In between those two happy days, I cried myself to sleep last night.

Because last September I was in San Francisco–with Richard. We walked all the way from the Marina District where our motel was to Molly and Mark’s place on Telegraph Hill. We held hands and laughed and hung out Caffe Roma in North Beach, our favorite coffee place.

This one's for you, Richard Cabe: Iris blooming in the garden below my mother's childhood home, Berkeley

We knew it was his last big trip; we knew he had terminal brain cancer. We knew the moments were precious and we enjoyed them thoroughly; we didn’t know he’d be dead less than two months later.

How am I?

Mostly I’m happy. But sometimes I feel like I’ve survived a hurricane of horrendous force, and I’m still picking up the pieces of me and my life.

That’s grief. It’ll be part of my life for a good long while, I expect. Because it’s an integral part of the process, just the way death is an integral part of life.

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