Meditation: Looking to Breathe

I’ve had an interest in meditation, going now and then to classes and lectures in the hopes of developing a good new habit. I wanted to counterbalance over thinking. And I hoped to learn to better handle the stresses of work and home life. As long as I can remember I’ve suffered from intense bouts of insomnia, either not falling asleep, or now not sleeping past 4 or 5 am. I’m still hoping meditation can help.

Since I’ve been in New York I’ve been to the Shambhala Center of New York and to the Tibet House–both in Chelsea–several times. By far my favorite speaker was Sharon Salzberg who co-founded the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, MA with Jack Kornfeld and Joseph Goldstein 33 years ago.. She was so capable of bridging the gap between the East/West experience. She knows how to translate practices that come from aboard to the western mind and culture.

Also, around the corner from my job is an outpost of a major Zen center, the Zen Fire Lotus Temple on State Street. This is where I went on the first anniversary of September 11 when I need a serious, quiet place to be. It is so serious that I’m a little intimidated to try it out for a regular, weekly experience.

Now I’m looking for a good place for a weekly or bi-weekly/monthly mediation support system. Also I might want to try a good weekend retreat that’s not too severe. I’m not ready yet for seven days of silence or 5am to 10pm sittting or a male/female separation–especially if Craig were to go with me.

I’m interested in finding out more about the New York Insight Mediation Center, which I think is an arm of the Barre, MA group. And in Thich Nhat Hanh’s U.S. based center Blue Cliff Monastery, in Pine Bush, New York.

One thing that is bothering me, is, at least on the web sites, it appears that all the western/U.S. born teachers are white. I’m sure that’s not 100% the case, but I’m very aware of my needs to not be embedded in white, upper-middle class culture, solely. I know this is as much of a class issue as it is a race and culture issue. It’s something I want to look more into before finding a class or retreat where I’d feel comfortable.

Cancer, Part 2 (Hair and Things)

In rereading my first cancer post, and talking with some friends about it, I realized I left out some key details about this experience.

1. My best friend, of 30 years!, Drew Pisarra, who I meet at Eastern Junior High when I was in seventh grade and he was in eighth, told me recently that he remembers how we met: I was crying under a tree and he came over to speak with me. He said I was crying because of having cancer. I don’t remember this or any version of meeting Drew for the first time. I do remember that two or three key friends were essential to my mental well-being as a teenager with cancer.

I remember when, after a week of testing to find the cause of a shadow on my lungs seen on a routine check up x-ray, the doctors told me 1. that I had Hodgkin’s Disease, 2. we needed to start MOPP chemotherapy immediately 3. that this cocktail of drugs would cause me to lose my hair. That’s when I cried. Not cancer, but the anxiety of going to Junior High–wanting to fit in, to look pretty–coupled with the fear and sadness of having to go with cancer hair: that’s what broke me down.

We had recently moved to Silver Spring, Maryland from Washington D.C. We moved often due to my Pop’s job as a roving Professor of Social Psychology, practically ever four years. Thus fitting in within a new school was especially important to me. With a last name like mine, it was doubly hard to restart each time.

I’m proud of a solution I came up with. I told my teachers and follow students, at each new school, at each year’s beginning, that my last name, Gross, was pronounced like “moss” or “boss”. To emphasize the pronunciation, I added a symbol of a house’s roof over the “o” to cement this way of saying gross. Before doing this I asked for my grandpa Carl Gross’ blessing, so he wouldn’t think I was besmirching his good name. [When my father was a child, gross just meant 144 or a “gross” of pencils or paper. Hence the name of this blog.]

2. My friends Drew Pisarra, and Margaret Wilson (now Brothman, I think), watched over me like guardian angels. Although the doctors told my teachers about my condition, I’m not sure how many students knew or how 13 or 14 year-olds would handle such a situation. Although I was fitted for an expensive wig, the decision to wear bandannas might have made it more difficult to tell. I tried to pass as a healthy person, but, I was very very skinny and although one couldn’t see the classic cancer hair under my scarf, an adult might have been able to tell.

My biggest fear was that someone would, to tease me, pull off my bandanna. I lived in fear of this exposure. I think Margaret often stood behind me to protect me–or at least that’s how I remember it. And boys did try–maybe just to be silly or playful or, I guess, mean. I’m not sure. I don’t remember. But you can imagine this situation made me rather shy, which is not my basic nature.

The key moments during my treatment:

1. The week of tests to figure out why after a routine check I had anemia and an odd chest x-ray, was almost as bad as six months of chemo. The tests included putting a tube up my nose and down my throat to do a biopsy in the hopes of avoiding surgery. They had to do a surgical biopsy anyway. There was also a bone-marrow test, which I wouldn’t wish on a most disliked person. They pull the marrow from your hip bone near your back. It’s incredible scary because you can’t see what they are doing and there was–at least at that time–no way to completely anesthetize the region. Oddly the fear of pain is more painful than the pain itself. I remember the anticipation of these tests being almost worst that the tests themselves. I starred at the clock ticking down to the start time.

2. Around month three of chemo, I became very disheartened and tired of being sick, tired of the sickness caused by the chemo. [After going to the hospital to receive an infusion of drugs, I was dog sick for a day or two, just vomiting and, in general, knocked out. Leaving the hospital, I’d think about all the tasty things I could eat when I felt less nauseous, such as mac+cheese or a yummy burger.] I remember crying as I sat there getting the drugs. The doctor thought something physically hurt me, but I just said that I was tried of the situation.

3. Near the end of the chemo I was out in California visiting with my Mom who had just returned to the United States after living abroad (Alaska, Zambia, Kenya, Australia) for ten years. She was staying with her husband Art, who was also very sick, at a good friends in southern CA. While I stayed with them, I continued with my treatment. The doctor in CA also wanted to take a bone marrow test. Proudly I was able to talk him out of it–basically by directly asking What the (damn!) purpose of the test was–I guess he didn’t have a good enough reason because it didn’t happen.

4. After six months of chemo and a round of radiation therapy to knock out the last bits of Hodgkin’s, I was declared in remission. But I kept wearing the bandannas, even though my hair was growing back. My Dad suggested I get a haircut–as I had created a sort of ponytail out of long wisps of hair and they needed to be cut off. I was loath to do so, because then I’d have to go without my protective, colorful pieces of cloth. But Dad prevailed and I had a haircut. The cut resulted in  a look probably was akin to Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby or Jean Seberg in Breathless, but for me, I felt exposed and almost bald. My Pops wanted me to go to school the next day, and I was scared.

Sweetly, my teachers, recognized what this haircut meant: I was on the mend and had survived. I especially remember how my terrific art teacher Mr. Klopp was so happy to see me and was very complimentary, which made me shy, but also very happy.

Cancer

My niece Suzy J. just sent out an email that she and some of her classmates are fund raising for the American Cancer Society via the Relay For Life. Here is her fund raising page for anyone who would like to support her efforts: http://bit.ly/RDwTx

I would support this cause just because it’s so cool that a 15-year-old is thinking of something besides lip gloss and whatever else goes through teenage minds. But I’m especially moved to help as I suffered from Hodgkin’s Disease when I was around Suzy’s age, when I was 13.

I’ve been thinking for a while that I would like to do something for people stricken with cancer, especially for teenagers. I’d like to tell kids going through chemo: “Hey, look I survived. Yes it sure wasn’t fun going through MOPP chemo. Yes the worst part was losing my hair in Junior High School. Yes it sucked beyond belief. Yes I worried everyday that someone might pull off the bandannas I wore each day. But I also meet people who became my best friends for life–BFfL”  [The bandannas were colorful. I was fitted for a wig, but couldn’t stand it. And I wouldn’t wear one.]

Luckily the doctors of Washington D.C.’s Children’s Hospital were beyond fantastic, and very wise. The hospital had a meeting with all my teachers so everyone was aware of my condition. And more importantly my Dad was a knight-in-shining-armor.

If you ever have a problem, any problem in the world whether it be a parking ticket, or let’s say, cancer, you will want Alan E. Gross at your side. And he was, day and night. He, who has a PhD in Social Psychology (and in Business, just for kicks, I guess), is able to disarm just about anyone with his ingenious mixture of acting like a Fool–with a capitol F, as in a Shakespearean Fool and small f, like a damn fool–and like a Rabid Junk-yard Dog who Will Not Go Away until he gets what he wants. And he usually does.

He often used his PhD title of Dr. to glean information, knowing hospital folks would not think “What Kinda Doctor is Mr./Dr. Gross”. He’s clever like that. [My Dad received a national award for his work as a post 9.11 Volunteer Coordinator. See more about the award and his bio here: http://www.ojp.gov/ovc/ncvrw/2006/2006bios_3.htm.)

Pops now works as a mediator and teaches mediation for Safe Horizon. I’ve often asked him to let me do a documentary on his life because I’d win an Oscar! as he is such an amazing subject. His idea of a hobby is to drive a New York taxi. He has had a taxi license for as long as I can remember, and has many of his old, expired licenses framed on his wall.

As you can tell, my story has a happy ending, as I survived a brush with cancer at an early age with flying colors. I was deeply influenced by this experience because at an  impressionable and sensitive time in my life I was forced to be an outsider–to be very aware of myself and others who might be in pain. I think having cancer carved out a deep well of empathy into my psyche. Empathy is not a bad quality to have, even at such a high price.  Surviving a life-threatening disease gives deep and true meaning to the saying: “if it doesn’t kill you, it’ll make you stronger.”