By Merrill Joan Gerber


It happens innocently at first—you intend to make a phone call to your daughter, you pick up the phone and there’s no dial tone. Hmm. Did you leave another phone off-hook?  Better check.

No dial tone there…or there. Wonder why the phone is out. Probably some local outage that will be corrected shortly.  Instead of the phone call, you’ll send an e mail to your daughter.

But wait, the computer says “no internet connection.” What’s this?  You call down the hall to your husband, who is at his computer.  “Are you on line?”

“Funny,” he says. “No, I can’t get on line.”

“What about the TV?” We both go into the kitchen and turn on the TV.  Nothing!

Nothing! Better call the cable company.  Okay, I know how to do it, I know the number by heart (and why would that be?  This has happened before.) I use my cell phone, which has limited minutes (very limited).

After you listen to the message, give your phone number associated with your account, hear it read back to you, say Yes, this is my number, the automated voice says that most problems can be corrected by rebooting your modem. “Do you want instructions as to how to do this?” “No! I do not!  Representative!” I cry, helplessly, into the non-human tape recording keeping me from a human being.  “Tell us in a few words what your problem might be, such as ‘I can’t use my phone.’”  “Representative!!” I cry again.

In time a human being gets on the phone, a person from another, distant country, whose language does not resemble mine. “We do not see an outage in your area,” the person says. “The outage is in my house!” I say, “that is definitely in my area.”

Further words are exchanged; I cannot understand this person. I make it as clear as I can: “We have no phone, no internet and no TV.  We can’t call out, we can’t do our work!  We can’t send an e mail.”

He determines that a service call may be in order, three days from now.

“Three days! That’s unacceptable. We are paralyzed here.”

“I can possibly offer you an appointment tomorrow night between 6 and 7 PM.”

“Tomorrow night!”

I am informed there’s no sooner appointment. Tough luck. Life is hard. Technicians are busy with broken equipment city-wide.  I lose my cool. I say, “I pay $250 a month to your company—I require better service than this.”

The foreign voice is firm…tomorrow night and someone over the age of eighteen must be home when our technician arrives there.” (My God! We are nearly sixty years over the age of eighteen, I think.)

I tell my husband our fate. All the rest of today and all tomorrow, unplugged.

We take it in, we try to control our panic. Perhaps I can take my Kindle to Starbucks or to the library or to Kaiser to send my daughter an e mail.  Let us not fall to pieces over this.  We have things to do in our house—don’t we?  I can sort my underwear drawer.

My husband can do…well, whatever he usually does when not playing FreeCell on his computer. Let us handle this logically.

The day moves on. We can still light the stove and fry some eggs for lunch. I can wash the dishes. The afternoon looms.  My husband brings into the kitchen a book!

We are going to be forced to read books! I also have a book I was thinking of reading…for years.  I get my reading glasses and open to the first page.

Somehow, we count the hours. We feel oppressed, cut off from life, deeply uneasy, deeply threatened. When I check “wireless settings” on my computer, I see a list of the names of neighbors all around me, with various titles like “Williams Residence,” “Maggie 22,” “Hot Dog”—all of these lucky people plugged in and happily oblivious to this vacuum of silence we face.

As we approach 6 PM of the next day, my heart quickens. I watch out the window as for a lover.  Where is he? Is he coming? And if so, when!  When!

At 6:30 the beloved image of the cable truck pulls up to the house. Relief is almost here.  A large and imposing man, laden with belts and other things around his waist, rings the bell, shakes hands with my husband, asks to be taken around to the back of the house.  Then back in the house, he unplugs a cable from my TV and tests it in a black machine.  “Totally dead,” he says. “I need to get up a pole but it’s not in your yard.  It’s two houses down the street.”  He clanks out the door, his equipment swinging and disappears.  Is he leaving?  Oh no, don’t let him leave.

But he is back in five minutes. No one is home but a young girl at that house with the precious pole in the yard. She says her parents won’t be home for a while.  “If they get home, here’s my card, call me, I’ll be in the area for another hour and I’ll come back.”

He gets into his truck and drives away. I stand in our front yard and watch for a car to come  home to the now most desired of houses with poles.  And a car comes!  Parks in the driveway!  The parents are home.  I pull out my cell phone and call the cable guy.  The phone rings and rings: “Sorry, the voice mailbox for Mr. so and so is filled and can take no more messages.”

We are doomed.

(Does any reader want to waste more of his time than he has already spent on this? Everyone knows the dance, everyone has heard the music of this dance, “Frustration Rag” it is called.)

We go to bed at night without the evening news. We can’t even find our portable radio. Not interested, anyway.

In the morning, repeating the call to the cable company (I won’t recount the deadly nature of it again) we are told a tech can come out today between 1 and 5 PM. “We are desperate here,” I remind the person in the foreign country. “We are sorry for the inconvenience.”  The voice is either from  India or the Philippines or the deep South…I decide.  Why don’t they hire someone in California, who talks like me?

By now I have knocked on the door and met the man who lives in the house with a pole. He’s very sympathetic, he has in the past been hit by this blight.  He generously writes a note for me to give to the cable guy, allowing access into his back yard and to the pole. (He will keep his dog locked in the house today.)

Again, after 1 pm, I begin to watch the road, watch for the truck to appear…And suddenly, at 1:30—how lucky is that?—a cable truck pulls up across the street.

No one gets out. The man inside is busy. Doing paperwork, or checking his I Phone, or finishing his lunch…but he’s there.  After twenty minutes, I ask my husband if I should go out to his truck and tap on his door, tell him he’s at the right house.  But no, we will simply wait. And then, oh my God, can this be happening, he revs up his motor and drives away.  He disappears!  He’s gone!

I use my cell phone to call the cable company. “He was here, and he never rang our doorbell. He’s vanished.” “Let me check, Madam, can you hold?” “I’m using up all my cell phone minutes, how long do I have to hold?”

The phone goes dead, anyway. We are now reaching the end of the third day.  I slump in my chair.  My husband is reading an enormous book, the history of the Civil Rights Era.  He has the gift of patience and application. Unlike me.

And when we least expect it, there’s a knock on the door. Outside is yet another cable truck, and at the door is a handsome, young, cheerful tech…who shakes my hand and tells me he is Leonardo.  He has lovely tattoos on his hands and arms, and in his ears are white disks, the kind that extend the earlobes.  I don’t mind.  I love this boy.  My husband and I accompany him down the street to the house with the pole.  We go in the side gate, as instructed. No one is home, but we are allowed to be here.  And there at the far end of the yard is the magical pole that holds the answer to our yearnings.  Bravely, this young tall man begins to climb the pole…up and up, higher and higher, shaking palm fronds from a neighboring tree out of his way.  For me he is risking his life.  He is doing something up there with tools.  My husband and I stand in this neighbor’s yard and wonder at  the challenges of having a life like this young man has.

He calls down: “Squirrel chewed up the wires. I’ll get it, don’t worry.”

We go home and wait for him to return to our house. He’s smiling.  “Turn on the TV,” he says, and we do, and there it is, big as life, a commercial for a heartburn drug.  Oh, thank you so much!  So very much.  This young man isn’t from a foreign country, he’s a local boy, with elegant tattoos that seem to be of flowers and lace. One never knows who will become meaningful in one’s life and will always be remembered.

After dinner, we turn on the TV for our fix, for news of the world, of the coming election, of Trump vs Hillary. But no, there is no news of that.  There is instead a horror happening, in two places, far from each other, in Minnesota and Louisiana, in both instances a white policeman has shot and killed a black man. One man was stopped for a broken taillight, and one man was selling CDs outside of a convenience store. Within minutes, each man was shot dead.

Without warning we are shown the video taken by the girlfriend of the man in the car with a broken taillight. She is filming the policeman even as he is shooting off the arm of her boyfriend.

Her four year old daughter is in the back seat. The woman is saying “yes sir, yes sir” to the cop, and begging him not to shoot her boyfriend again. He is slumped over and slowly bleeding to death.  His girlfriend assures the cop, “I’ll keep my hands up, sir” and then she finally screams in the horror of what she has just witnessed while her little girl, behind her, says “I’m here with you, Mommy.”

My husband and I now have TV access to horror. And more to come, more! Hours later, at a peaceful rally about “Black Lives Matter” in Dallas, a sniper shoots and kills five policeman from the top of a tall building. He injures six more.  The injured are taken to Parkland Hospital.

Does this recall the days of the shooting of President Kennedy? A sniper in a tall building? A wild ride to Parkland Hospital.

In those days, when we were young, we had no TV. We had a one year old daughter. We didn’t want a TV in the house.  Then Presidentl Kennedy was assassinated. We went to a friend’s house to watch the funeral procession.  The friend asked us if we weren’t someday going to get a TV.  My husband joked, “I guess we better, to watch all future assassinations.”  A sardonic joke, perhaps, but we did buy a TV, and we were in front of it when Martin Luther King was killed, and also when Robert Kennedy was shot in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.

Tonight we sit dulled and in shock in front of the TV we so badly wanted to have restored to us. The pain of the world pours out of the screen and buries us in terror and fear and outrage and helplessness.  In recent days Americans have been forced to watch these events again and again, the carnage, the bloody killings, the humans who were spared but fell next to those who were killed– and within days, the names and faces of the dead appear on our screen, we learn of their plans to marry or of their pregnant mourning wives. We are told of their services to their country, their good hearts.  One or another, picked off by a madman in a dance hall, picked off by a sniper on a roof, or murdered by an enraged and terrified policeman.

Plugged in again, here we are, lost at sea, at risk and heartsick.







A Day at the Beach

By Merrill Joan Gerber


I once took a poetry class with a poet who published poems about Superman, Wonder Woman, Dixie cups, skate keys, Good N’Plenty candies, Blackjack gum—all things that live in our memories and still create a shiver of pleasure when we think of them. He advised us to name every poem “A Day at the Beach” in order not to give away the heart of the experience, the meaning of the poem, the shape of the poem—all of which remained to be revealed by the elements, the words, the journey on which the poem was devised to take us.

Recently I had an experience I want to call “A Day at the Beach”–a trip to my chosen medical facility where I had scheduled four appointments in one day with doctors and trained medical personnel, all highly paid, all of whom had access to my body or, as my Buddhist friend calls it, “my meat suit.”

At 8 AM I began at the Mammogram Super bowl–the drill well-known by nearly every woman in the civilized world: Enter the dressing room: remove your shirt or blouse, put on the gown open at the front, then sit and wait with other women in the small waiting room wondering which of us is destined to be the “one in eight” who will have breast cancer. (I already know. I am the one in eight.  I have already been treated for breast cancer with two surgeries, a year of chemo, and radiation.)

Even now, years hence, I cannot calmly manage to have my mammogram, without feeling panic. I am this month five years out from the day of my first surgery, the magic five years that some suggest means you have got away with your life. But it’s not the case, it’s never the case with cancer, every three months I still have a blood test for cancer markers and for abnormal readings in other organs, every three months I see my oncologist who examines my breasts and every year the mammogram is still required.

Today, I endure the crushing of my breast and a half. I ask the tech if, since I have had cancer, I might get a radiologist to tell me results of this mammogram before I leave and not have to wait the required ten days for a letter to arrive. She says no radiologist has yet come in, but why don’t I stop back later. Later?  I tell her that my next appointment is with a knee surgeon to verify if I am a candidate for knee replacement surgery, and my appointment after that is with my oncologist, “Dr. B.” “Oh,” the tech says, “she is my oncologist, too.”  “You have had breast cancer?” “Mine is colon cancer.” “She’s a wonderful doctor,” I volunteer.  “Yes, she’s amazing,” the tech answers.  “The best!”  I go into the dressing room, discard my hospital gown get dressed, and find, in the waiting room my patient husband, doing a crossword puzzle but willing to rush with me to my next appointment.

The knee surgeon is an hour and a half late. My husband and I sit in the examining room where there are brochures on hip replacement, knee replacement, and various size purple gloves.  After the first half hour, I wander out in the hall. No nurse is around.  After the second half hour, I go out to find someone, some nurse, and I’m told the doctor is really backed up.  I inform her that I have an appointment in twenty minutes with my oncologist which I can’t miss. “You may have to reschedule with the surgeon,” she says to me, and I tell her I refuse to do that!  I explain how difficult it was for me to schedule these four appointments at which I have to appear today!  It was almost a feat of magic.

After fifteen more minutes in the room, in which I have begun to open cabinet drawers and count syringes, I rush out into the hall and nearly crash into a man who says to me, “I’ll be right in!” “Are you the knee surgeon?” He admits that he is. He isn’t what I expected. He’s quite short and he is smiling.

One minute later he comes into the examining room and asks me what level of pain I am in. “None,” I tell him. “I’m sitting down.”  He glances at my knees, asks me to bend them forward and back and then to wiggle my ankles up and down.  He tells me he has looked at my ex-rays, my knee bones are grinding like razorblades upon one another and I am a definite candidate for knee replacement.  He states, “I want you to know knee surgery has the most painful recovery there is from any surgery. And there is a four to five month waiting list. Think it over and let me know.” He adds. “I know you have an appointment with another doctor now.  I believe you can make it if you hurry.”

As my husband and I rush across the hospital grounds toward the Oncology department, as I am imagining my knee being sawed off and a metal prosthesis being stuck into my thigh bone, I hear my name being called. The tech from the mammogram department is running after me, flapping an envelope in her hand. I gasp with alarm as she approaches me, calling, “I knew you were having an appointment in Oncology. I have the report from the radiologist.”  She hands me the envelope and I hear her saying “Don’t worry, it’s good.”  I figure out what she must mean and begin to cry.  We hug each other.  We both are crying in this remarkable moment.

Weak with gratitude, I thank her and proceed into the “Oncology” door to see my beloved oncologist, a woman who glows with some kind of radiant light, ability, without guarantees, to reassure her patients that they are going to live.

She and I go over my recent lab tests, my blood work is okay, my liver is okay, my kidneys are okay…but let’s see, my cancer markers have gone up a second time. “Don’t worry,” she says.  “I’ll put in an order for another CEA test, in a month, and we’ll see what it says.” We both know that if these cancer markers go up a third time, I will be having CT scans of bones and lungs and brain to look for possible cancer sites. She examines my breasts. I glance down: they are what they are now.  I am lucky to have what’s left of them. “You have a good report card,” she says. “Try to enjoy your life.”

Off I go off to the last appointment of the day—it’s a field of vision test after which detailed photographs will be taken of my optic nerves which my optometrist has told me are asymmetrical and may be indicators of glaucoma.  I rest my chin on a little cup (newly wiped with smelly alcohol) and I’m told by the male tech to push a button when a see a flash of light anywhere on the black screen.  I push and push, sometimes I push when there is no light, and I don’t push when there is a light.  My neck hurts at this strange angle where I am positioned. I am so very tired.  I push and push the button till I finally ask the tech to tell me when this will be over.  It’s not over.  He’s a big tall guy with a grim expression.  Next he has to take photographs of my optic nerves. “Look at this light, don’t move your head.” Then he has to test the thickness of my cornea. Then he has to numb my eyes and take a pressure reading.

I’m burning to ask him what he sees so far. And suddenly I do.  It’s forbidden, but I’m old enough to be his mother.  I ask him if so far he thinks I have glaucoma. (My mother had glaucoma, she went blind in one eye.)  Of course he says he can’t tell me.  “But I’m a grown up, and these are my eyes.  If you know something about them, I’m entitled to know, don’t you think?”  He thinks, I can tell, that I should shut up. “I know you know the answer to my question.” He’s immovable. “But when will I know the results?” “It will take a full week for your doctor to get them.”  “A week?  When you know right now?” “You’re all done,” the man says. “You may leave.  Don’t rub your eyes; they will be numb for some time.”  He has the same first name as the knee surgeon.

My poor tired husband is waiting in the downstairs lobby, sitting by the player piano that doles out its dull, monotonal tunes.

I feel as if we are like tri-athletes that have run three, no four, races in this one day. A ridiculous challenge, simply to get it all done at once, not to have to drive these 24 miles more than once for my appointments. What stress, what exhaustion, And certain results still lie ahead!

On the way home, we pass the Yum Yum Donut shop. My husband slows down and asks me, “Would you like me to get you some donuts?”

“I would love a donut,” I tell him, “but let’s pass in the interest of health.”

Not eating a donut, I am sure, will prevent our falling prey to cancer, glaucoma, knee surgery and even death.

As we drive on the freeway, the sun disappears suddenly and we find ourselves under a black cloud. Thunder roars!  Lightning flashes!  Rain beats on the windshield so hard we are nearly blinded.

My husband is trying to steer us to safety. Suddenly the sun comes out again, brilliant and blindingly.  Who knows what all this means? At home, exhausted, we fall straight into bed and sleep till midnight.  The day has been a long poem, a mystery, an adventure– or merely a day at the beach.