Nancy’s obituary (Arizona Republic and East Valley Tribune 2/8/2016)

After a long and valiant struggle with mesothelioma, Nancy Lee McFadden RN died at her home near Apache Junction on Friday, January 29th, 2016, aged 65.

A graduate of Mesa Community College, Nancy spent her entire nursing career at Desert Samaritan Hospital, later Banner Desert, in Mesa. In her 33 years at the hospital, she was a highly regarded staff member, initially on the med/surg floor, where she rose to position of director, and subsequently in labor & delivery and endoscopy.

Nancy was born in Baltimore, Maryland, and grew up in Hartville, Ohio. Her father, John William McFadden, was a family physician, and her mother, Dorothy Lee Satterfield, was a teacher. Nancy and her first husband, Rodney Whittaker, moved to central Arizona in the early ’70s.

A compulsive reader, Nancy consumed volumes of sci fi before moving on to mysteries. She enjoyed travel, and ventured to England many times in search of information about her beloved Tudor monarchs.

The closest she came to a religious conviction was her commitment to animal welfare. She was a strong exponent of a vegetarian and vegan diet, and was devoted to a succession of feline and canine companions.

Nancy was diagnosed with mesothelioma four years ago, and fought bravely against the cancer. She retired shortly after being diagnosed in March 2012, and the same month married her longtime partner Andrew Means. She also leaves three younger sisters, Susan, Barbara, Kristin and families, her stepmother Randa, stepson Kieron, nephews Michael, John, Evan, Colin and Kye and niece Molly.

* * * * * *

Dealing With Death

Dealing with the death of those close to you is no more easily measured, I’ve discovered, than any other emotional milestone. When I look back on the dearly departed in my own life, I realize that I react differently to each passing, and that my feelings aren’t necessarily weighted by how I felt about them in life.

The death that hangs heaviest on me is that of one of our dogs, who died a year and a half ago from liver cancer. The interval from diagnosis to euthanasia was so short – less than a week – that his end was a great shock. He had always been such an inspiration, shrugging off injuries and illness with a wag of his stumpy tail and always ready for a game or a walk. The Valley Fever that shriveled one of his front legs hardly seemed to slow him down, and when a hind leg was immobilized by a ruptured cruciate ligament, he got around on two legs, until surgery, with nary a complaint. If he can deal with that, I thought during travails of my own, then who am I to complain?

His example stays with me, while I feel less strongly about the deaths of other pets. Even the memory of my parents doesn’t evoke quite the same sadness. Yet that’s no reflection of my devotion to any of them. The difference is that their time was not cut short quite so drastically. My parents lived long lives, curtailed by illnesses that sapped their ability to go on. Similarly with most of our pets. So there was a sense of completion, that they had traveled as far as they could go.

Emotional response to death, as I see it then, is not proportional to what has been lost. There is no immutable equation. One death does not equal a given number of tears or a set period of mourning. At times I’ve felt guilty about the unfairness of that. No doubt there are numerous widows, widowers, bereft parents and children who know well the unpredictable aftermath of loss. How we deal with it is, as Wordsworth put it in a related context, “too deep for tears.”

* * * * * *

Blood Brothers Of A Kind

One thing you may not read in obituaries of Native American political activist Russell Means, who died today, is that he had a ready sense of humor.

Sharing the same last name as him, I was long intrigued by the thought that in some distant way we were related. Of course it was highly unlikely. I was born and brought up in England, where my ancestors had lived for generations.

Still, when news of Russell Means and his kin filtered across the Atlantic in 1973, my relatives and I had to wonder. We did have records of an ancestor who emigrated to Wisconsin in the mid 19th century. Could there possibly be an Oglala/Lakota branch of the family?

Through 1973 we followed bulletins of the Native American confrontations at Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota with more than a passing interest. In my youthful imagination, I have to admit, I even visualized myself trekking into Russell’s encampment with fresh supplies and perhaps reinforcements from the Means’ band across the water.

Years later, having moved to Arizona, I bought Russell’s autobiography and learned how he got his last name. As so often was the case, an Indian boarding school had adapted things to make them conform. In this case, one of Russell’s forebears had had his name changed to ‘Means’ from ‘Mean To His Horses’, which in turn was a mistranslation of ‘Trains His Horses Well’. I had to concede that I had no ancestors with that handle. So much for the English connection.

Still, my speculation was good for a laugh between us when Russell signed my copy at a book signing. “To Andrew Means,” he wrote, “Thanks for being part of the Means World!”

That sentence has stayed with me. A bureaucratic name change had made me feel a bond with a man and a cause and a culture. Russell was a controversial and combative figure who was both criticized and praised. Still, he helped shape my view of life. Thanks, Russell, for being part of my world!

* * * * * *

Sayings Say It All, Even When They’re Nonsense

My favorite memory of Star Trek may well be the “Darmok” episode featuring Captain Picard of the starship Enterprise trying to communicate with an alien called Dathon who talked only in metaphors or similes or sayings of one sort or another.

I can’t even remember the details — just that Jean-Luc had to decipher verbal images that made no literal sense, and eventually did so, thus forging contact with a hitherto unintelligible entity.

In doing so, the good captain illustrated one of the delights of language. A native speaker can talk in riddles that make perfect sense to a native listener and, at the same time, might leave many a new student of the language mystified and perplexed.

For a native speaker though, it may not even matter that a saying or a word has been botched. We know what is meant, whether it’s a malapropism or a misquotation. In fact, such mistakes make our exchanges that much more colorful — especially the vocal kind.

One example that deserves a place in linguistic history emanates from an Arizona judge who, embroiled in career setbacks some years ago, announced to the media that he had a bitter pill to carry. Of course, his plight was generally understood — just as surely as it would have been had he complained of a heavy load to swallow.

Just to show that such pronouncements are not confined to the more rough and ready Western  states, I was recently in conversation with a lady in Boston, Massachusetts, who — sympathizing with an exasperating medical situation — agreed that there were too many cooks in the pot.

There certainly are times when placing a few cooks in a simmering cauldron might be a very appealing idea. A few celebrity chefs spring to mind.

But of course there was no need to dwell on this interpretation of her chosen image. We both knew exactly what she meant, and revision was not required. As she might have said, we had found ourselves between a rock and the deep blue sea. A hard place to be, as only the devil knows.

* * * * * *

* * * * * *

Dealing With the Unexpected 

It is an extraordinary thing to have your life suddenly turned upside down.

In our case it happened with a phone call. One evening my significant other came into my home office and said: “I got the result of the CAT scan. I have cancer. I have mesothelioma.”

In that moment, everything changed. Our plans for the future. Our priorities in the present. Perhaps even our perspective on our 30 years together.

Suddenly nothing mattered more than dealing with this prognosis. This word I could hardly pronounce, that I was not even aware of a few days previously, began to envelop our world. In an unsettling parallel to her medical condition, the very name and notion of mesothelioma invaded daily routine.

Telling friends and relatives was distressing in itself. Bank balances? Credit card debts? Vacation time? Work projects? Forget it. All of it now rendered insignificant. Everything focused on deciding on the best course for treatment.

And when that resulted in a decision to opt for surgery at the International Mesothelioma Program in Boston, then there was a string of logistics to consider. Flights. Accommodation. Housesitter. What to pack. Preparations for surgery. The vagaries of insurance coverage.

My wife is a planner by instinct. She’s the one who, for years, would go to sleep each night scheming about bathroom remodeling and such. Me? I’d just hit the sack and lights out. Now I suspect we both have “mesothelioma” in our minds as we drift off, like it or not.

So we wait during “the phony war” between prognosis and surgery, going over things to do, diverting our thoughts and conversations whenever we can towards non-medical topics.

And, obedient to doctor’s advice, we take a walk every day – something our dogs and I have been trying to get my wife to do for years without much success. In fairness, she’s racked up the miles at work. Still, who’d have thought it would have taken this to get her out on the road?

 * * * * * *

The Day I Got My Braces 

Dogs are the first sign that the outside world notices something different about me. There’s the usual greeting as I come into the kitchen from the garage. But sniffing around my face tells them I’ve changed. There’s a new part of me, with a new smell.

I give them a broad smile. See, boys. Dental braces. Don’t know how they smell to you. Sure feel strange to me though.

It’s less than an hour since I left the orthodontist’s office, and I’m not sure whether it’s my brain or my teeth feeling the pressure more. Here I am, a semi senior adult, tackling a cross bite and crooked front teeth after years of functioning with them relatively normally.

I run my tongue over the metal in the roof of my mouth and press my lower lip against wired brackets. What have I done to myself? Will this be worth the estimated 12 to 14 months of treatment? After all, I put it off long enough.

For years I didn’t even realize my dental flaws were treatable. I’d had braces as a teenager, but all those dagger-like wires had failed to do the job. No doubt techniques were more primitive back then.

Orthodontics remained a closed book to me. If the subject came up in conversation, I even referred to practitioners of the craft as ornithologists – jokingly I should add. (Warped sense of humor: currently no treatment available.)

Encouraged by dental hygienists during many a regular check-up, I at last made up my mind to face up, so to speak, to the situation.

So here I am on my first day as metal mouth, my mind full of considerations I thought I’d left far behind in childhood. How can I get the floss under those wires without driving myself crazy? How can I keep brackets shiny when I can’t even see half of them? And most important of all of course, how am I going to eat?

In first experiments, with soup and bread, I score well with the former while the latter leaves wedges of dough in places I can’t quite locate. Cautiously I probe. Where once a casual nudge would dislodge such debris, now my delicate tongue grazes against the small rough nugget of a bracket. I contemplate a twelve-month liquid diet, augmented by bowls of gruel a la Oliver Twist.

The effect on daily routine spills over into other concerns. It’s going to take a day or two for me to digest the idea that it’s my teeth that have been re-wired, not my whole body. I can still exercise. The dogs still need walking. There’s no reason why my fingers should stop tapping on this computer keyboard. And, with a bit of practice, I may not need to adopt a vow of silence for the foreseeable future.

Admittedly I’m having trouble with ‘s’ sounds. I come up with an arbitrary vocal exercise. I try saying: existentialists emphasize essential expressions. At first I sound a little like a Sean Connery who’s been shaken and stirred one too many times. With some jaw jutting though I make myself understood – to myself anyway. I’m not sure about the dogs, and fortunately there are no existentialists within earshot.

People overcome far bigger challenges than this, I know. And the kids I saw at the ornithologist’s – sorry, make that orthodontist’s – office seemed to be dealing with their treatments with admirable calmness and resolve. Of course, they do have their whole lives ahead of them to enjoy the benefits.

But I have reason to look forward too. There’s the prospect of an even-teethed smile in a year or so, for the first time in decades. Even the bi-monthly check-ups will be something to anticipate. There will be dental improvements, hopefully, and in the event of having to wait around in the office, a small arcade of video games plus free popsicles and beverages. Now that I think about it, it could take years off me.

* * * * * *

A Bit Of Quiet

All things are quite silent as I step beyond my front door on this Christmas morning. Perhaps I should say most things rather than all. For bird song seems particularly clear, standing out against the rustle of breeze-buffeted leaves in an aural version of bas relief

Something’s missing from the usual morning experience. The background drone of commuter traffic. No trucks, no motorcycles, no aircraft. None of the engine noises that are etched into the psyche of so much contemporary life. No revving to get away from the stop signs. No flight paths tagged across the wild blue yonder. The atmosphere is pristine, and the stillness seems unreal. It’s as if there’s something in the substance of what’s around me that is usually hidden.

A mere hundred years ago this must have been the norm for many people. There were of course industrial areas and traffic magnets where the din rarely ceased. But far more of humankind must have been able to at least start their day brought to life by personal sensations rather than impressions imposed.

Perhaps this era will be short lived, and receiving one’s daily quota of noise will not be compulsory in a post combustion-engine world. Or maybe our descendants will enjoy silence courtesy of implants. We already have headphones and ear inserts that give us options such as noise reduction and high decibel music. Is it only a matter of time before we’re all encased in our own little worlds of sound or silence? If so, it’ll be just like old times. We’ll wake up and hear exactly what we want to hear.

* * * * * *

A Desert Dweller Contemplates Fall 

In the Sonoran Desert of Arizona, autumnal color is rare. A cottonwood here and there in the canyons, and tamarisk in riparian threads. That’s about it. In the land of the saguaros, the big blaze of glory — if it comes at all — comes in the spring, first with the flowers and then the palo verde and ironwood blossom.

An hour or so’s drive beyond the desert however, it’s a different story. North of metropolitan Phoenix, for example, heading up towards Payson and the Mogollon Rim, there are pockets of dazzling color.

In mid November, Sunflower on the Beeline Highway is an oasis of yellow, gold and occasional red. Take the turn to Sycamore Canyon and you’ll find a road lined with Arizona sycamores, their yellow leaves and white trunks glowing in the sun. The Arizona Trail crosses the road here, and thereabouts the ground is carpeted in crackly browns.

Backtrack to Sunflower and detour past ranches, where horses graze among the dappled shadows of foliage backlit like stained glass in a church window.

Years ago the road through the canyon was the main highway to Payson and stopping to admire leaves risked death by tractor trailer. The traffic has been diverted now though, and the road barricaded in parts. You could probably lie in the middle of the road without much fear of death — that is unless you were trampled by a passing cow.

At one time there was access to cottonwoods in the national forest on the other side of the Beeline. But currently the area is closed for vegetation to be replenished, according to a sign, so the show has to be admired from afar for the time being.

For a desert dweller, a trip to such a crucible of seasonal change can be a compelling pilgrimage. A saunter in surroundings so different from the city and suburban scapes down below. Leaves admired against the brilliant sky. Leaves picked up gingerly so as not to damage their three pronged perfection. And finally leaves brought home and displayed as a reminder of those places, not so far away, where autumn rules so briefly but with such majesty.


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