Andrew Carlton Kekoa Taber passed away on July 12, 2012, after living with a rare form of cancer for nearly 7 1/2 years. I prefer that the words on his blog remain his own, but if you'd like more information, please visit www.caringbridge.org/visit/andrewtaber.- With love, Kim Conniff Taber (his wife)
One day, for no discernable reason, I felt an urge for amethyst, a common but very sought-after mineral. The purple hue of its quartz-based crystals is formed by traces of iron in its matrix, and vast deposits of amethyst line the volcanic underbelly of the Earth, particularly in Brazil and Uruguay.
What I felt wasn’t just a want. It was a need; an obsession as strong, I imagine, as a food craving is for pregnant women. I was a rock hound as a child. I wanted to be a mineralogist when I grew up, but the infatuation faded with time, and while I have never lost my appreciation for crystals, I have not collected them for decades.
As a child, my collection was limited to my budget: saved-up allowance money that bought simple, tumble-polished stones, plus a few bigger specimens gifted to me on birthdays or Christmas.
Now, however, I was on a quest for a real chunk of rock. An amethyst geode like I’d always ogled in store windows but never had the means to buy: tall and heavy; a polished face composed of an outer border of agate caving into a center filled with large, deep-violet crystal points.
In Paris, to make such a purchase, there is really but one address: Minerales Do Brasil, in the city’s 8th arrondissement. The neighborhood is posh. The boutique is not. In fact, from the street, it is all but invisible. There is a small display window on Boulevard Malesherbes, but it is just a façade. The unmarked way in is around the corner, behind a heavy door at 86 rue de Miromesnil. If you get this far, you find yourself in a courtyard, but then need to navigate a passageway to a second courtyard to find a small — and again unmarked — wood-panel door that finally brings you to your destination.
The store’s labyrinthine location would seem a death knell for business, but there is never a shortage of customers milling slowly about the cramped aisles, scrutinizing a vast selection of rough stones, polished crystals and, to my delight, a whole room given over to amethyst geodes.
I examined each one, but kept coming back to the same, a beautiful, slender-shaped geode that was puzzlingly affordable. The sales woman explained that the price was reduced because it had fallen, cracked horizontally and had been pieced back together. The fissure was visible, but barely. It was scarred… just like me. So I bought it.
To me, crystal formations are nature’s perfect bouquet. If you stop to contemplate how they come about, a crystal’s existence is mind-boggling. Precise, geometric lattices, stacked, repeated and built — slowly and methodically — over millions of years. Water infusions, mineral additions, gas compressions that add brilliant color and hue.
The veins of the Earth’s crust are filled with crystals, and what fascinates me most is that these miracles of physics “just are.” By that I mean that they are perfect examples of altruism. Almost everything else in life has the ulterior motive of survival or procreation. The beauty and scent of a flower favors its pollination. A peacock’s intricate fan favors finding a mate. Crystal formations, on the other hand, seem to me a selfless act of creation. They are beauty that exists simply for beauty’s sake.
As a cancer patient, I have spent a lot of time pursuing meditative techniques that lead to “The Center Within,” also the title of one of my favorite books. It is that place of peace that resides only in the present moment and steers us away from attachment and toward acceptance. I can — and should — fight for my life. I can do chemotherapy, I can cry and pray for my health. But if I am attached to the outcome, if I am unable to move with the inevitable tides of life, I will suffer.
I want to be able to accept that life — like a crystal — “just is.” It has its beauty and its fissures. It is complex and miraculous in its creation. It is built, it erodes and it ends. It is like the mandalas of Tibetan Buddhism: the remarkable sand designs created over days or weeks by monks, one grain at a time. The result is a masterpiece of concentration. But once finished, tradition calls for the ritual destruction of the mandala, swept back to the pile of sand and dust from which it began, a reminder of the impermanence of all things.
Last fall, my wife had a sudden craving for a rose quartz ring. She was never a rock hound like me. She just has a favorite jewelry store on Ile Saint Louis in central Paris and she wanted — she needed — her next purchase to be something with rose quartz.
At the time we were in a disappointing spiral of negative in-vitro pregnancy attempts spanning some three years and were preparing a new and perhaps last try.
My wife bought her ring and much later we learned that in the lingo of lithotherapy (the study of the healing qualities of crystals) rose quartz is the stone most associated with matters of the heart, love and, especially, fertility.
Twins — to my wife’s elation and my fear-filled hope — are due in August.
This too, I must remind myself, “just is.” And it is beautiful.
Minerales Do Brasil
86 rue Miromesnil
75 008 Paris
Web Site : http://www.midobras.com
Galerie Kara (jewelry store on Ile Saint Louis)
90 rue Saint Louis en Ile
75 004 Paris
Tel : (33-1) 46 34 20 80
“The Center Within” by Rev. Gyomay M. Kubose, click here for web link to publisher.
For 20 years, Georges Peltier worked on making the most remarkable map of Paris. Started in 1920 and finished in 1940, and representing 30,000 man hours of research and sketching, the Plan de Paris au Vol d’Oiseau (Map of Paris from a Bird’s-Eye View) is exactly that. You imagine yourself a bird as your eye swoops into the intricate 3D-perspective of the map. The city comes alive in the map’s depth and detail. You can almost feel your feet on the streets.
In 1997, the Paris library system condensed the map and used it to promote the location of its branches throughout the city. We lived in Paris at the time, for about a year and a half, right out of college. When we returned to the United States at the end of that year, the map came with me. And when we began to plan a move back to Paris in 2002, I wore that map ragged, spending hours retracing my favorite footsteps in the city.
For my birthday in 2003, my wife found the full-size version of the map. It is one of the best gifts I have ever received. A majestic 1.86 meters by 1.40 meters in dimension, it has hung on our living room wall ever since.
But I had a shock the last time I looked at the map. It was very much like the experience people often describe of looking in a mirror, feeling like they are in the prime of their lives, and realizing that, no, they have, in fact, grown old.
For me, studying the map the other day, I realized that I am sick. I knew this, of course. But since the beginning of my illness in 2005, I held the disease at arm’s length. I made it abstract. I did the treatments that were required, and whatever pain or suffering I had was linked primarily to secondary effects and the challenges of recovery. I didn’t really feel the disease. What I felt was an energy in my core, a force of life that made it hard for me to fathom that this could potentially lead to my death.
Now, over the past few months, I have been face-to-face with the disease. I feel it. And when I last looked at the map, I saw what I have become. The streets I once trailblazed in search of the apartment we would buy are still there on the map, eloquently drawn and just as beautiful. But my presence on them has grown ghostly.
I have a lot of mental pins poked in the map. Places I’d like to write about, friends I’d like to visit. I don’t know if I’ll get the chance — I may soon need to leave France to try a new treatment — and my movements over the past month have been primarily limited to hospital and home.
So my map, for now, is my only access to Paris. When I look at it, I always seem to go to the same place: rue Tiquetonne, a tiny vein of a street attached to rue Montorgueil in the 2nd arrondissement. Rue Montorgueil, particularly the stretch between rue Etienne Marcel and rue Reamur, burst through a period of gentrification in the late 1990s and is now a teeming pedestrian street of cafes and markets. A Parisian bastion of shabby-chic.
It’s a busy place, particularly on weekends, but the little tributary streets like rue Tiquetonne offer an instant calm, largely spared the tourist crunch.
I had the most exceptional of days on this street a few years ago; I am smiling now as I think about it. Let me set the scene: It was a Sunday near Easter and my wife, 3-year-old daughter and I had just had brunch at Le Loup Blanc, a bistro on rue Tiquetonne. We emerged into a crystalline midday. Crisp, windless air. Warm rays of sunshine illuminated the cobbled mosaic of the street. A little boy in his Sunday best said, “Papa, elle n’a pas de ballon!” and ran over to our daughter and gave her his balloon. I walked the street slowly, hand-in-hand with my wife as our daughter shrieked and laughed ahead of us, trying to catch the balloon before it touched the ground. I felt the perfection of the moment. Something in my mind told me to remember this. Things might get harder, but be sure to remember this. I have never forgotten.
And when my daughter tossed her balloon in the air and succeeded in catching it firmly in her hands, she turned and ran to me. I can see her now, jumping into my arms, and I have but one desire: To freeze that frame. Please, roll the credits. C’est bon. C’est bon comme ça.
I sat in our apartment’s living room in a state of stupor. A woman had just left, and with her went all the air in the room. I felt asphyxiated and paralyzed, except for my hands and knees, which shook and had gone cold. What the woman had said to me was this : that she knew — categorically — the cause of my illness. Our bed, you see, was tucked under the rafters of a converted loft space upstairs and an exposed beam on the ceiling was inconveniently — and possibly fatally — positioned just above my abdomen, the location of my disease. And because we lived across the street from Père Lachaise cemetery, we could either permanently shutter the living room windows with red curtains or, preferably, we should move.
I didn’t react when she was still there. I had welcomed her into our home, I had invited her and I was incapable of processing the violence of what she had said. My psyche seemed to be trying to temper the message, to take it with a grain of salt. I think I may have even thanked her before she left.
But now I was being consumed by anger. And though I felt frozen in place, my thoughts chased after her. They tore down the stairs, pursued her on the street and shouted : How dare you?
The woman, I’m sure, would say that she was just doing her job. She is an expert in Feng Shui, the millennial Chinese art of balancing energies to harmonize the architecture and organization of a given space. The woman was a friend of a friend. She is apparently well known on the Paris design scene and when our friend suggested we contact her, I figured it couldn’t hurt.
I have always been receptive to alternative approaches to healing. I dillydallied around yoga for years before I fell ill. And when I was diagnosed in 2005 I embraced healing arts — yoga, meditation, qigong, homeopathy, acupuncture — with a dedication that I now recognize was close to desperation. It took me a long time to begin to accept the cliché — but ultimately true — wisdom that what matters most is the journey, not the destination. My destination was to be well again. I wanted to sign a deal with the Universe : if I meditated for X length of time, if I perfected such and such yoga technique, I would win my health back.
There are, of course, no deals to be made. And the teachers that I have had have never promised me anything. They have guided me to moments of stillness and quiet centeredness. Moments that — no matter how fleeting — have offered a temporary but startlingly clear intuition. The world is suddenly self-evident. And in that moment, everything is okay.
It is ironic, then, that the only person to paint things in black-and-white (life-and-death) came from Feng Shui, the tenets of which I respect but consider superficial to the work and transformative effort required of meditation. Feng Shui, for me, boils down to decorative common sense. What I wanted from this woman’s advice was a new direction to point our couch. Not the equivalent of a spiritual eviction notice from our home.
In illness, our apartment had become my sanctuary. I practiced yoga there, I healed there. I lay on the floor and cried there. And almost every day — and especially after every chemotherapy treatment — I crossed the street and walked in Père Lachaise. The traffic and crowds of the city suffocated my post-treatment brain, but in Père Lachaise — the largest green space in Paris — I found solitude, air and rejuvenation along its cobbled, tree-shaded paths. Yes, it is a cemetery, but as my homeopathic doctor says, Père Lachaise is a place of history. A place of poetry.
About a week after the woman’s visit, I went to a consultation with a nutritionist in the 14th arrondissement of Paris. He had been, in fact, recommended to me by the Feng Shui woman and I had made the appointment before she came to our apartment. I decided to keep the appointment because in the vulnerability of illness I didn’t have the strength to completely disregard what she had said.
What she had done was unconscionable and irresponsible. I wanted to dismiss it as inconsequential bull***. But what if what she said — even just a little bit of it — was true?
And so I went, wary but willingly to meet her nutritionist, a doctor she had longwindedly lauded as a sort of Messiah of cancer care.
He was an older man of Eastern European descent (Hungarian, I think, judging by his accent) and though he lived on the top floor of his building, his apartment felt like a cavern. It was dark and crammed with loose-leaf piles of paper. Bizarre pencil drawings of geometric shapes and elongated, skeletal forms hung on the walls. The apartment, and he himself, oozed a mustiness, as if he hadn’t been outside in a very long time.
I listened to him but I took no notes — I felt no confidence in or affinity for his theories. But I couldn’t help but smile and I was happy that I had come.
Because across the street from this man’s apartment building — this man that the Feng Shui woman so obviously admired — was the green canopy of trees and quiet solitude of Montparnasse Cemetery.
Last week I awoke in the middle of the night to the soft sound of wheezing. I was jostled from a dream where I was very far away. I don’t remember the details, but it was one of those dreams where coming back to consciousness is momentarily disorienting. I sat blinking in the darkness. My hands touched my throat. Was this my breath? And then I remembered : the wheezing sound was, in fact, my dinner.
For the past 10 days I’d been eating primarily in my sleep. The evolution of my disease has been a creeping constriction of my digestive track. And considering that the average length of the small intestine is already a labyrinthine 22 feet, you can imagine the discomfort if a knot were to get tied somewhere in the middle.
And so, to give my whole eating apparatus a rest, a small pump machine doles out — with a rhythmic, soft push and wheeze — drop after drop of a white nutrient-rich liquid meal through a big-vein catheter implanted in my chest. This means of nourishment is hopefully temporary, and I am grateful that it exists. I am particularly grateful that it can be administered at home. I feel like a hybrid experiment : plugged in at night; unplugged and ready to roll with a full tank 12 hours later.
The frustration, of course, is that eating this way is a tether. I’m literally tethered to tubes and an I.V. pole. But I’m also tethered to a schedule. I have to be home when the nurse comes at seven in the evening. I am confined to home until she returns in the morning.
I am not yet debilitated by my illness. And when I can — no matter how short the stretch of good days I have before me — I like to get away. In France this is relatively easy. Drive an hour-and-a-half from Paris and your new surroundings are the iodine air and D-Day beaches of the Normandy coast or, if you go south, a chateau in the Loire. When we lived in New York City, the same time investment in driving put us in… New Jersey.
I was very pleased, therefore, to learn that there is a way to spend a leisurely day in Normandy, the chateaux of the Loire and 150 other historical French sites — and still be home in plenty of time for an evening I.V. feed.
Less than an hour from Paris in a suburb close to Versailles is France Miniature, an odd but ingenious theme park cut in the shape of France and presenting some 150 1/30 scale models of almost every notable historical site and monument in the country.
A well-marked path guides visitors through the park and starts with a little Savoyard village that, while intricate in detail, veers a little too far toward kitsch. When I visited, someone had tipped the little cow figurines and a sort of Sound of Musak played over speakers ad nauseam.
But as the visit continues, you quickly come to appreciate the effort — and wonder at the obsessive compulsiveness — necessary to build these miniature re-creations. The bay of Saint Tropez is splayed out in faithful realism. Every door, roof tile and window seems to have been studied and reproduced with exact precision. The same can be said for the Roman arena in Arles, the Sanctuary of Lourdes, the chateaux of the Loire and, of course, the main monuments of Paris. Even more remarkable is the fact that the park’s five hectares of land is mapped in the exact shape of France and includes nearly every aspect of everyday life. Over 60,000 figurines populate the scenes. There are 20,000 miniature trees; a car-packed autoroute in the direction of Marseille, and three miles of railway tracks traveled by 19 model trains.
At 1/30 scale, the size of some of the exhibits remains daunting. The Eiffel Tower, for example, is still 33 feet tall and the Chateau de Versailles and its gardens are a masterpiece as impressive — in their own way — as the original.
Most memorable, at least for me, is the model of the 81,000-seat Stade de France (France Stadium), the real one having been completed in 1998 to host the World Cup of soccer, won by France that same year.
The model stadium is not just a reproduction of its architecture. It is filled, to the rafters, with thousands of figurine fans. There is a rapt energy. All these hopeful people, focused on the playing field and the goal, expectant, waiting for something to happen.
Open daily from mid-April through August. Consult web site for off-season hours and ticket prices.
The writing of the last post to this blog was a race between myself and the hospital. I knew they were going to call, but I was anxious to finish writing — to accomplish something — before the phone rang. I won the race, but just barely. The hospital called and announced what I already felt : bad blood. My latest blood test was, as usual, anemic, but this time really low, the worst since this all began in 2005. I had felt the bottom-feeding fatigue settling in over the past few days and I was, in truth, relieved to check into the hospital for a night of re-hydration and transfusion.
It was important to me to finish writing because I find it a little incredulous that I still can. For a long time I have been afraid to write. I was sure that the chemotherapy had scrambled my brain. I assumed that the chronic fatigue, the confusion and general fogginess of illness had stripped me of any ability I may have once had.
I’ve recently begun re-reading some of my old writing clips from before my illness, and I have been taken aback by a lot of them. There’s a lot of hyperbole, a lot of flowery phrases and un-tempered enthusiasm. I was trying really hard, and unfortunately you can tell. Still, some of it I think is endearing, and I miss that person. I realized that I wrote as I was : young, a little naïve, eager to succeed.
I suppose I still write as I am, but that person is of course very different : slower, more measured, consciously economic of breath and space. Sadder but wiser.
Through the endeavor of this blog I’ve had the happy realization that my voice is still there. And regardless of illness — and in many ways because of it — I still have something to say.
Which brings me to what I want to say in this brief, blanket post : thank you. I have been very touched by the comments left on this blog. And more so, I have been amazed that the insights offered have echoed so exactly my intentions for this project. It is gratifying to see that people seem to “get it.” It helps me to put a frame around my illness, to believe in my suspicion that I can make some sense out of — and find some calm in — the chaos.
In the summer of 2004, and for the next six years, we lived in a loft apartment in the 20th arrondissement of Paris. It was our first purchase of property anywhere and we were very proud. Not that there was anything particularly extravagant about the building itself. It was book-ended on both sides by apartment buildings sculpted in pierre de taille — elegant facades made from large blocks of homogenous stone, tailored, perfected and then etched above the doorway with the year of construction and the name of the architect. Our building was more modest : a five-floor facade covered in simple white plaster and built, most-likely, around the beginning of the 20th century (the only name or date I ever saw on the entranceway was in graffiti).
But the real-estate agent used the magic word in his description of the apartment : atypique. Unlike a cosy apartment — which can only mean “shoebox” — an atypical apartment can mean many things. In Parisian house-hunting lingo, the word often hints at originality. Something worth a visit. And indeed it was. One of three apartments on the fifth and top floor, ours pushed into the rafters, creating an angled, under-the-eaves second floor well suited for a master bedroom and office. Downstairs was a second bedroom and a large, sunny living room that looked onto a canopy of tall trees bordering the western edge of Père Lachaise cemetery.
After renovations and moving in, I became obsessed with the history of our apartment. Now that I was a homeowner, I wanted to know the genealogy of our home — who had come before, how long had they stayed, and whether, perhaps, they had been happy here.
I didn’t really know where to begin my research. The answers, however — all of them — came to me in the person of Edith Amiot, via the elevator from the first floor.
Madame Amiot was the first to respond to the house-warming invitations we had left in the mailboxes of our new neighbors. She was 84-years-old, very spry, and very determined to see our downstairs bedroom. She stood in the bedroom’s doorway and wrung her hands. “This used to be my room,” she said.
Mme. Amiot didn’t stay long that night. But I barely remember the other guests. All I remember is sitting with her and listening as she told me the outline of her life. She was born in 1920 in the industrial Norman port city of Le Havre. Her parents moved to Paris when she was just 11 months old and rented an apartment — this one — in the 20th arrondissement. She lived here for the next 71 years, through different iterations of family composition (first with her mother, father and brother; then with her husband and her own son, Claude, born in 1952 and who attended the same maternelle school as our daughter, some 50 years prior).
We became friends. And when I learned I was sick I cherished even more my time with Mme. Amiot. I understood that as a homeowner I didn’t really own anything. And in the vulnerability of illness, I realized that my time living in this apartment might be short — just a fraction of the seven-plus decades Mme. Amiot had lived here.
Over the next few years, I occasionally took Mme. Amiot to lunch. And when our daughter was born, she and I were often invited to Mme. Amiot’s apartment for an after-school snack. We talked most often about the weather and neighborhood life. But we also talked about her. I loved hearing what the arc of a full life sounded like. And I wondered if I would be granted the time to have the same.
She told me of the Occupation; how the building shook when a squadron of German tanks rumbled past. She spoke of the paranoia of rationing during the War and remembered desperate lines at the butcher when someone spread the false rumor that a side of beef had arrived in the neighborhood. She reminded me that her family bathed using the kitchen sink. There was no in-house plumbing, and any coal for heating — or food for eating — had to be hefted up the five flights of stairs. But she also spoke of beautiful sunsets behind the Sacré Coeur church, visible from the window of the apartment’s downstairs bedroom. She smiled while telling me about trying on the dresses made by her mother, a seamstress, and the content, 53-year marriage to her husband, a stoic, kind man who had been a prisoner of war for five years.
I learned that he died in 2001 and that Mme. Amiot was convinced that the decline in his health was precipitated by what was essentially a forced eviction from their — now our — apartment. In 1992 a developer bought the building, renovated the whole lot of 15 apartments and parceled them out to new buyers. Priced out of the top floor, Mr. and Mme. Amiot begrudgingly scaled down, buying on the first floor.
It was just a four-floor shift, but the differences were colossal. Instead of an airy view onto Père Lachaise, they now had a traffic-stained street and hot-yeast blasts from the kitchen of the street-level Pizza Hut franchise. But Mme. Amiot always seemed — and I think she was — happy.
Her apartment had a treasure trove of framed pictures. She loaned some to me, so I could study the past-to-present evolution of our apartment. I returned them all and — I don’t know why — I never in those years thought to take her picture. I recently sent her son an e-mail, hoping to fill a long gap in communication. I asked about his mother, but I haven’t heard back from him yet. I fear that she may be gone. And if that’s the case, I regret that I missed her end. That I didn’t say goodbye.
The last time I was in Mme. Amiot’s apartment, I saw a calendar tacked to the kitchen wall. Marked in shaky writing on the box for November 11 was “anniversaire de la petite Taber.”
I was already fascinated by, and a little envious of, Mme. Amiot’s story. And I was very proud to see our daughter’s birthday written into her calendar — proud that I had become a part of this long and very full life.