Manhattan Tales: Changing Perceptions
Published: Feb 27, 2014 4:04 pm
Much to my surprise, I’m finishing up this Manhattan Tale from a uniquely Manhattan Tale vantage point.
I’m sitting in the 11th floor of Mt. Sinai Hospital in the day room, with an IV in each arm, looking east over East Harlem. A week ago, I swam a mile without difficulty in a pool beneath Rockefeller Center. Two weeks ago, my wife and I celebrated our 40th wedding anniversary with family and friends at a lower Manhattan restaurant.
Life is full of unpredictable change.
This room is providing me with a stunning view of the above-ground infrastructure of Manhattan. In the distance, I can see the Triborough’s giant suspension bridge and a huge arched railroad bridge called the Hellgate that carries intercity trains from north of the city into Queens and on to the Pennsylvania Railroad station.
Just a block away, I can see commuter trains racing along railroad tracks along Park Avenue that bring hundreds of thousands of commuters each day into Grand Central Terminal. Adjacent to the hospital, across Madison Avenue, I can see a myriad of low-rise tenement buildings. I can also see dozens of New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) high-rise apartment buildings. NYCHA houses over 600,000 people in the city; probably 10 percent of the units are in my view.
In the far distance, I can see a few buildings in Queens and Long Island. In the morning, if I can get up early enough, I can watch the sun rise as a fiery orange-red ball behind the bridges.
On Sunday morning, I walked over to the west side of the floor where I could see hundreds of tiny figures running along the Park Drive in Central Park, participating in one of the many races sponsored in the park by the New York Road Runners Club.
These are wonderful distractions from my latest admission to the hospital.
I’ll be here at Mt. Sinai for five or six days. My last clinical trial wasn’t able to keep my myeloma under control. Consistent with Darwinian theory, the fittest myeloma cells are surviving my various treatments, and my myeloma is getting harder and harder to treat.
So now I’m receiving the sixth treatment modality since I was diagnosed with multiple myeloma four years ago. My current treatment is a true cocktail of chemicals: “DCEP.” DCEP stands for dexamethasone (Decadron), cyclophosphamide (Cytoxan), etoposide (VP-16), and cisplatin. With any luck, this cocktail will rid my blood of myeloma cells for a few months.
Meanwhile my family, my medical team, and I will mull over my treatment options, which now include an allogeneic (donor) stem cell transplant. One of my sisters is a “perfect match,” which reduces the risk of graft-versus-host disease and other complications substantially. Her cells will be harvested in a few weeks, and then frozen in the event an allogeneic transplant is the way we opt to go.
All of us in the myeloma family know similar ups and downs of the disease.
For example, when I started this column last week, I was feeling terrific. I was swimming as much as a mile a few times a week. My wife, eldest son, and daughter-in-law had hiked over the snow in Fort Tryon Park in the northern tip of Manhattan, and I had started writing a column on an entirely different subject.
These latest episodes made me once again aware of one of the more unusual side effects of having multiple myeloma I’m experiencing: My response to art and natural beauty has intensified tremendously. During the last few months in particular, I have noticed any number of objects, both outdoors and in museums, that have left me gasping at their eerie beauty.
Although this intense and exciting response had also occurred a few times in the summer in Central Park and in art museums, it seems to be happening with growing frequency.
Two recent instances occurred in a museum while I was looking at two metalpoint drawings by Leonardo da Vinci. On one of the many dark, cold, and rainy days in Manhattan this past December, my wife and I visited The Morgan Library and Museum, one of the jewels in Manhattan’s treasure trove of small museums. The Museum was exhibiting, in a room darkened to protect the rare drawings from bright lights, da Vinci drawings from the Biblioteca Reale, a library in Turin.
One of the two drawings that left me breathless was the “Head of a Young Woman,” a study da Vinci prepared for two famous oil paintings – one in Paris, one in London – called “The Virgin of the Rocks.” The eyes of the young woman look out at the viewer some 500 years after the drawing was sketched with a clarity that uncannily simulates a real person. Her very soul seems to have been captured on paper.
Another even smaller da Vinci drawing in the exhibit that had a similar impact on me was what appeared to be a quick sketch of a dragonfly. Though I remember being fascinated by the rainbow shimmer of dragonfly wings as a child, da Vinci’s ability to capture their gossamer quality with what appeared to be quick ink drawing on paper astounded me.
When I described this drawing to a friend, he mentioned that perhaps an artist looks with a child’s eyes. The child sees with wonder what we as adults tend to filter out in order to get on our way to more important things.
That reminded me of an incident years ago. At the start of a hike up a mountain south of Seattle, I saw a father waiting as his two young children had stopped to stare at a colony of ants running back and forth at their disturbed lair. I observed the father, who was waiting very patiently, and finally said to him “It’s not how far you go, it’s how much you see.”
We learn as adults that if we want to get to the top of the mountain, we can’t stop and look at the ants. Or stop to look too closely at the flowers, the undergrowth, or very many of the views to the right and left or underfoot. We have to screen them out and focus on the steps ahead of us to get to the top.
This winter, however, I have not only slowed to look at the birds and shrubs that surround the lake I walked by each day I traveled to Mt. Sinai. I have also been almost mesmerized by the mini-visions that I have been encountering of the bare branches of trees in Central Park.
As I’ve trudged along the snowy paths in recent weeks to my treatments, I try to stop and look up from my feet and gaze out at the trees. On the days after a snowstorm, the silver branches are outlined, as if by an artist of da Vinci’s caliber, in different shades of silver, black, and white. The branches of the trees that are barren of leaves highlight the trees’ different shapes and the patterns of the limbs and branches.
Some trees have space to spread their vast thick arms over the snow in a symmetrical fashion; others that are set close to one another in a group are completely asymmetrical, fighting with one another for sunlight and room to grow. My favorite ones have vast, bushy branches, reaching up to the sky in an oval.
Perhaps on a warmer day in the spring I will bring a sketchpad and paper and see if I can capture any of this myself.
I don’t know if my enhanced aesthetic sense is a product of one of the many chemicals I’m ingesting these days. Perhaps it is because all of us who have taken chemotherapy know that it affects our minds as well as our plasma cells.
On the other hand, my enhanced state of consciousness may perhaps simply be a product of the general slowing down and looking more closely that accompanies my general unsteadiness these days.
I do remember a professor of English I had in college who told us that his goal was to get us to read books slowly. I think that is good advice for art and nature appreciation as well.
Urban retirement living, notwithstanding the traffic, bicyclists, joggers, and hurrying youth that one has to dodge on the streets and sidewalks, has its special delights.
My newfound aesthetic perspective is adding to my appreciation of it. I’ve told many friends that retirement in Manhattan for me is a bit like being a child in a candy store, as there are endless numbers of places of refuge for the tourist, the music lover, or the museum visitor in me.
However, I also recognize that some of those pleasures can also be found in looking at a tree, or the sky on a clear night as it darkens from a light velvet blue to a rich navy hue, and experiencing a glimmer of the wonder of it all.
And tonight it comes from looking out at Manhattan from the perspective of a high-rise hospital day room.
I’ll take these gifts where I find them. They seem to be all around me.