Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Brain Anchor

It’s not until I’m on 95, driving out to visit my dad, that I realize what to do with the fur hat tied by ropes to a cinder block in the trunk of my car, a “brain anchor” used as a prop by a friend in a surrealism creative writing class. My father not only introduced me to the world of surrealism when I was a child, he currently inhabits one of his own.

I’d called him the day before to ask his permission to write about him because, I tell him, there’s nothing else right now I can imagine writing about. Still, I feel like a vulture scavenging for blood. “Oh, of course you can,” he says, surprising me as he always does with his generosity. “I would be honored.” And then he suggests I write an even longer article for a national magazine, because people love to read about other people’s dying parents.  

“But, Dad!” I say horrified. “You’re not dying!”  

“I’ve had another home invasion,” he tells me. “It’s time to stop driving. I’m deteriorating, Valley,” he says. 

“What kind of home invasion?” I ask, but I already know. After suffering a series of micro strokes two years ago he began to undergo a string of MRI’s and psychiatric evaluations which have turned up the words inconclusive, abnormal and dementia.  

 Perhaps I’m biased, but I prefer my dad’s definition of his shifting mental state to anything I’ve found online. His first extended hallucination he described as a “cosmic, horrific supernatural freak show of southern holiness.” A tall man with lobster claws for hands and his very short 300 pound wife, who, together looked like a period and an exclamation point, were the leaders of the pack. “They were hungry and fat and wanted peanut butter sandwiches,” he told me. “I thought I was going to be killed, maybe eaten.” Between trying to beat them away with pillows and making them peanut butter sandwiches, my father called my stepmother and begged her to call the sheriff. She’d assured him it wasn’t real and asked him to hang on until she got home. “I know they’re hallucinations,” he tells me. “But the real question is, are they still there when I’m gone?”

             When I sob to a friend on the phone, the gravity of the situation finally hitting home, she says, “It’s like watching a redwood fall in the forest.” And she’s right. My dad has always been fit and tall and handsome but I think it’s the largesse of his imagination she’s referring to. Growing up, he always kept an open house, an open mind and a tendency to regard the lines between reality, dreams, poetry, fiction and fact more like suggestions than absolutes. As a child, he opened up for me the world of story. Now, at 63, his mind is writing a whole new chapter.

The characters that populate his imagination visit his waking life as well. Civil War soldiers ride up to him on horse back; furry white animals streak the yard; pterodactyls soar through the house. But it’s the confusion, the memory loss and the fat illiterate family of rednecks, the home invaders, with whom he’s had to make his peace. “I’m much more welcoming to them now,” he tells me. “Which makes them go away faster. The lesson here is that no evil can stand up to humor!” 

When I pull into my dad’s driveway he’s bright eyed, holding a riotous fistful of purple irises from his garden. I drive him around to do the things he can no longer do by himself and when we’re done, because I don’t know what else, other than my time, I can give him, I pull the brain anchor out of my trunk. “It’s perfect!” he says and shows me a sculpture in the front yard made of bits of metal and discarded scraps of wood. “I call it stacking,” he says. And he explains to me his new art form, one that takes on different shapes and unexpected dimensions, becoming more bizarre and more beautiful each day.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Breast Invasion

Breasts are magical. They have the power to transform girls into women, babies into children, and men into…well, everyone with breasts has their own version of that. My own arrived suddenly, like extra terrestrial twins on a pleasure cruise forced to make a crash landing when their ship went down. I woke up one morning with a brand new atmosphere and gravitational pull. I still occasionally check for moons, rings or anything else that will allow me to apply for separate status in our solar system. Compared to my chest, poor little Pluto never stood a chance.

My extra endowment is not without its ups and downs. I have never had to wonder what it felt like to be a twiggy model with the figure of a 12 year old boy, which is a plus, but I did have to visit a special garment store where I was introduced to womanhood by a hunchbacked old lady with a measuring tape. That “bra”—or what my husband refers to more accurately as my “over-the-shoulder-boulder-holder” was reminiscent of a medieval torture device, if torture devices had more straps and levers. When it accidentally caught fire on a ranch in Colorado I did not mourn its lost. My back, however, did. I’m still amazed Victoria’s Secret doesn’t employ a team of engineers working around the clock to solve the world’s large breast crisis once and for all.

I finally saw the twin’s true virtue when I used them to feed my son, but since he has no memory of nursing, he recently asked if we could give it another go. “Get your own!” my husband yelled which may well be my son’s quest one day. But since he is a confirmed only child, and my chest is in retirement from its service as a food bank, I have started to think about them differently once again. Especially when a tender, sore spot in the one on the left struck the fear of God--and breast cancer—into a place right next to my heart. 

To avoid the dreaded mammogram, I choose an alternative route, scheduling my first ever breast exam with certified clinical thermographer, Eleina Espigh, owner of Virginia Clinical Thermography in Glen Allen. Former executive director of the Virginia Osteopathic Medical Association, Espigh co-located her private practice with a massage therapist three years ago and entering a room more like a spa than a sterile, white lab immediately puts me at ease. Espigh answers all of my questions, explaining that thermography is a noninvasive diagnostic technique used to monitor changes in skin surface temperature. “People are becoming more aware of the dangers of exposure to radiation inherent in a mammogram, and seeking out thermography as a safer alternative,” she says. And though she also uses thermography to effectively diagnose pain, fractures and other injuries to the body, the larger percentage of her patients seek out thermography to detect breast cancer in its earliest stages.

After I fill out the paperwork and Espigh explains that today’s exam will establish a baseline to be followed by regular checkups, she asks me to take off my shirt and raise my hands above my head. “Your breasts are quite large,” she says, “but there are worse problems to have.” We laugh, and as she takes pictures from the front, back and side, she points out dark orange streaks on the computer screen that match the tender spots on my chest. I have fibrocystic tissue, she tells me, a common condition that may be treated by simple dietary changes. A board certified thermalogist will interpret the images and confirm what Espigh tells me in a detailed report that I’ll receive later that week, but for the moment, I thank her and my lucky stars, that for the time being I don’t have to adapt to any new alien invasions. The ones I’ve already had are enough for this lifetime.

To schedule a thermography appointment, visit, call 804-454-4540 or visit the Virginia Thermography Clinic at Good Foods Grocery in Gayton Shopping Center the last Saturday of every month.