Lisa Reisman

5 Months 10 Years 2 hours

2015 Santa Fe Writers Project Award Winner

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"Those in search of another treacly cancer memoir need not even glance at this... Reisman's unflinching and moving tale puts to rest the image of patient as warrior. By linking her own ordeal to the triathlon she took on to mark her 10 year anniversaryshe reveals the true nature of cancer survival — not as a triumph of epic valor, but as a feat of endurance, forbearance and true grit."

—Lisa Sanders, MD, New York Times columnist and fellow cancer survivor

The fragility and preciousness of health at an uncertain time in our world

(I posted this on Facebook a few days ago.)

I found the zinnias and marigolds pictured below on my deck this morning. My mother left them there.

Exactly 18 years ago at this time, I was lying unconscious in my Upper West Side apartment. It was a Monday. I had been there since suffering a massive seizure sometime early Saturday.

Later today, I'll call and thank my stepmother, as I have every year since, for finding me on the floor of my bedroom early that afternoon. Thank you, I'll say, for doing what you did; as she well knows, I likely wouldn't have made it much longer. And she'll say, as she does every year, that she's just glad I'm healthy and doing well.*

But right now, if I may, I'd like to acknowledge Phyllis Bennett Kennedy, a woman I met at a reading in West Virginia last July. She had just experienced that bolt of terror on learning that something deadly was growing inside her--like me, a glioblastoma multiforme, the most aggressively malignant form of brain cancer--the kind of news to which nothing compares.

Just as I did, I imagine, 18 years ago, she appeared pale and a bit destabilized. But she also had a determined look about her which I loved.

Over the past year, Phyllis, along with Miggy Lynn and NoOne Fights Alone and Shauna Pendleton, among many others, have eloquently reminded me that, in a world that's seemingly off its axis, it's so easy to forget the fragility, the preciousness, of health, and how quickly it can be stripped away, and how nothing is assured, except keeping going, or trying to.

So may I offer my thanks to them, and to my mom for the flowers, and to everyone else for reading this.

*Update: I called my stepmother at 6 pm. She said the same thing. She also said, as she does each year, that there's no need to call each year. And then I said, as I do each year, that I'm going to keep calling her each year because I can never thank her enough.

Halloween, the Sin Sisters Band, and Me

The Sin Sisters Band, which I’ve “managed” for the last four years—I insert quotes because its members cannot be managed—has thrown a Halloween Party each of the last two years. This year will be no different.

I love this event for a host of reasons. For one, this is one party where everyone really cuts loose; it’s our party, after all, we produce it, so no one is saying when or which songs or how long or what to wear. Which allows for band members to be dressed like this.

The inaugural Halloween Party, in 2013, celebrated the Sin Sisters 25 years together; they met at Sacred Heart Academy, an all-girls Catholic school in Hamden, the story goes. 

We decked out the place with skeletons and broomsticks and pumpkins and other spooky-looking paraphernalia, as well as pictures of the Sin Sisters through the years. (The three Sin Sisters are wonderfully adept at interior decoration. Two of the three are also pack rats.)

It was wild. At one point in the spacious event facility where it was held, you couldn’t move. That’s how thick with people it was. There was shouting and laughter and tears and a lot of dancing. A lot. It was fun. It was magical. We believed it could not be topped.

We were mistaken. Which brings me to the another reason for my love of the annual party. The sheer creativity of the costumes. Feel your jaw drop as you check this out.

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When the robot in the middle walked in—by the time this photo was snapped, he had separated himself from his robot outerwear and was boogie-ing on the dance floor—the crowd parted like the Red Sea. Everyone was awestruck, including Sin Sister Kathy (left), who’s dressed up as Miss Read and Sin Sister Patti, as Miss Demeanor. That’s why we give out prizes. It injects a little incentive for the Sinsisterheads to go all out.

Last year was a particularly memorable Halloween party for me. My little sister’s health had been declining for months so I was conflicted about attending; it seemed wrong to be joyously dancing when she was suffering.

Then again, there was no need to be at her bedside that night; she was heavily sedated and, what's more, had an aide attending her. And I was the band’s manager, or manager of the unmanageable, and I was tasked with collecting tickets at the door.

It wasn’t a job that could easily be outsourced: it involved not just taking tickets and giving change but ensuring no miscreant stole in through the bar. Someone else might not be so gung-ho at preventing this almost certain eventuality. To be perfectly honest, I was nervous about trusting anyone else to do it.

So I went. And, lucky for me, my mother agreed to go as well. Here we are posing while taking a break from collecting tickets.

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And lucky for us, it was just the distraction we needed to take our minds--at least for a few hours--off my little sister.  

So there you have another reason that I love this event—and this band. Being around them—hearing their lively, make-you-dance-like-nobody’s-watching music—just makes everything seem alright.

A remembrance of the shepherdess of North Guilford

Ellen Rusconi-Black with her beloved--and amazing--border collies

Ellen Rusconi-Black with her beloved--and amazing--border collies

Here's a version of a piece I wrote for my local paper about, bar none, the most upbeat, optimistic person I've ever known. Just being around her made everything in the world seem right. She died last month at 58. It was way too soon. 

Not far from the stall Ellen Rusconi-Black and her husband Bill set up at the Dudley Farm farmer’s market on Saturday mornings stands the barn at Dudley Farm, once considered the epicenter of North Guilford.

If there were a person who personified North Guilford in all its rich history, saltbox pragmatism, and old-fashioned ingenuity, Ellen Rusconi-Black, who died in late April after a brief illness at the age of 58, would be on the short list.

Take her work with border collies. The woman who delightedly called shepherding “the oldest profession known (considered moral, legal, and acceptable)” got her first dog in 1997 on the condition that she train her to compete in sheepdog trials, which have been called the most difficult test of human-dog communication ever devised.

As much as she thrilled to the challenge of the trials, she also reveled in the balanced dance of dog and sheep, choreographed by the trainer, that she practiced and refined each day on the farm.

“They live to work,” she said last spring with her usual exuberance, holding a shepherd’s crook in her hand as she regarded a dozen sheep grazing in the emerald-green fields of Dragonfly Farm that has been in her family since 1835. “The way they linger at my side, looking up at me, waiting for their next assignment, I just love that.”

That led to the business she started with her husband Bill, “Up, Up, and Away,” using her border collies to prevent Canada geese from despoiling athletic fields, ponds, and corporate grounds.

For her, deploying the dogs to scatter the geese, which are at once a protected species and a rank nuisance, was a matter of common sense—and a wonder. “It’s so neat,” she said. “The dogs can stalk the geese because they carry themselves like coyotes, which are the geese’s natural predators. The birds fly away to an area where they feel no pressure and no harm. Everyone wins.”  

That this process often consumed hours is all the more extraordinary, considering that the thriving “Up, Up, and Away” and her work as trainer and handler were only sidelines to her main occupation: as an investigator for non-profit organizations enabling the independence of adults with mental and physical handicaps.

On top of that she wrote grants to support other nonprofit organizations and dozens of articles with headlines like “Skunk Deodorant Formula,” “This Really Happened!” and “Some Days” for wildlife magazines. She also traveled to fairs and festivals to demonstrate her shepherding skills.

In what spare time she had, she knitted sweaters, mittens, gloves, and hats from the wool of the sheep her dogs herded. Some warmed her and Bill through the winter. Others she sold down the road at the Dudley Farm farmer’s market on Saturday mornings.

It is perhaps coincidental that next Sunday there will be a brunch to raise funds for renovating the barn at Dudley Farm, building by building. And that among other items, a tea cosy knitted by Black will be part of the silent auction.

Or perhaps it’s no coincidence at all. Ellen Rusconi-Black might not have been the epicenter of North Guilford, but by her life, her work and, above all, her character, she enlivened, deepened, and perpetuated its identity.

25 Miles and a Minute of Silence at the 5/17 Boston Brain Tumor Ride

At the start of the 25-mile route... 

At the start of the 25-mile route... 

During the ceremony that followed Sunday's Boston Brain Tumor Ride, Committee Chair Steven Branfman asked the crowd to pause for a minute of silence. A full minute, he said, to contemplate why we were all there. So, as cowbells clanged the last cyclists in on a gorgeous sun-dappled day, I thought about the inspiring people I've met, in person and virtually, in the last three months, like Karin Mallory and her dad and Lindsay Newberry and Noonefights a Lone and Fran Cissna Butler, to name a few. For so long I felt ashamed of having had brain cancer, but they have made me feel proud for having endured it.

Though I was wearing a T shirt that crassly showed an image of my book cover, I realized my story was just one of many and the only difference was that I had the luxury of time to get it all down. I felt intensely lucky for that, and lucky, too, to have survived intact, lucky to be able to take on the 25-mile course, and to feel that blissful exhaustion that followed. So thanks, Donna Doherty, for indirectly making this happen, and to the Massachusetts Brain Tumor Society for a pretty great day.